Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy) (copy) (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. 

With more than 35 years in full-time ministry, I’ve performed scores of weddings. In the initial planning stages, the groom will often raise the awkward question about my fees.

For me, this moment is about as tricky as asking a waitress to decide her own tip. I sometimes try to defuse the monetary strain with a joke. Like, “Pay me whatever you think she’s worth, sir.” Boo-hiss. A real Grandpa joke, I know.

However, it’s never my fee discussions that generate the most discomfort; it’s the fashion in which the gift is presented to me.

In 1986, a groom paid me $35 to perform my first wedding. I should have framed the check, but I deposited it instead. The bank promptly returned it, charging me an insufficient funds fee of $15.

Talk about an uncomfortable moment. I had to tell the poor groom that the check he wrote on his new joint account was rubber and he needed to cough up the cash to cover it, plus fees.

In another case, the groom sent me to the bride’s dressing room to collect my check. My knock brought a not-fully clothed woman to the door. As I averted my gaze, the bride wrote the check against the door jam. She paused only long enough to repeat the awkward question, “How much do you charge?”

When another groom arrived late with a keg of beer in his pickup bed, I rushed him into the dressing room to give last minute instructions.

At the appointed time, I opened the sanctuary door a sliver to see my wedding coordinator giving me the high sign to begin.

I motioned the men to follow me out toward the altar. With my hand on the door knob, the groom reached over my shoulder and closed the door.

With one hand holding the door shut, he presented me with a $100 bill, adding the salutation, “Here ya go, bud!”

With our decorum shattered, he rushed our party into the ceremony, me still holding a crumpled C-note.

Occasionally, I will perform a ceremony gratis.

Some years back, a VA nurse sent me to visit an Army veteran in his 50s. He was small in stature and weak in the face. Sitting beside him, a slight, pale woman held his hand under the bed cover.

“Your nurse tells me you want to get married,” I said.

The couple locked their starry eyes, nodding in affirmation.

“When?” I asked.

“Now would be good,” he said.

“Why now?” I asked.

“I’m dying,” said the patient. “Lung cancer.”

His response was brutally honest. Silence flooded the room.

The bride cleared her throat, draining the last of the discomfort. “Today seems like the right time.”

I gave a hard swallow and looked at my watch. “Now is good.”

By late afternoon, I stood again before the couple with a dozen staff members as witnesses. The bedridden groom wore a rose on his chest. The bride managed to freshen her look with a little makeup and a discounted bouquet from the hospital gift shop.

A few minutes into the ceremony, I asked the couple to repeat after me their promise to stay together “in sickness and in health … till death do us part.”

Without hesitation, they echoed the traditional vows. Suddenly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“How much do we owe you?” The new bride asked.

I smiled. “What’s he worth to you?”

Priceless.

“No charge,” I said.

Promising one’s love is always risky, but this couple seemed to appreciate that truth. They knew what sickness and health meant. And a few months later, she learned what it meant to be parted by death.

At the end of the day, they’d stood “before God and this company” to declare their eternal love with his literal dying breath. Somehow, I think they understood the cost better than most.

Write Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715.