Editor's note: This column is excerpted from Norris Burkes' upcoming book, “Lessons of Forgiveness From a Warzone.”
When a reader left me a voicemail suggesting that I wasn't worthy of my chaplain title, I shrugged. That's OK, I thought, I've heard that before.
One of those occasions happened during the infamous “toilet week” of my 1999 Saudi Arabia deployment. I call it that because it's the same week my deploy- ment supervisor told me that I didn't make the major's promotion list.
“You'll be reconsidered next year,” promised Col. Mike Bradshaw. “But trust me,” he added in his signature truism, “it's really a one-chance-mistake-Air Force. You won't remain active duty.”
For the next few weeks my mind wasn't in the game. I felt like I was a terminally ill patient who'd been told to get his affairs in order.
Then, one morning as I entered the men's room stall, I completely lost it — my hat, that is. I'd forgotten how I'd stored my hat in the traditional military manner, tucked into my belt line at the small of my back. I thought that “some careless fool” ditched his hat in my toilet.
Then I noticed that this fool's hat had a Christian cross on it. The fool was me.
Looking at my hat with the Christian cross affixed, I wondered if God was telling me that my chaplain career was in the toilet. If so, was the military my only path of ministry? Or were there other venues? I didn't know that answer, but I was smart enough to move my hat to the clinic's bio-waste bag.
Being hatless is a no-no on a military installation, but I had no choice but to go to the chapel office and ask our office manager for a new hat. I knew that confessing my shortcomings to a subordinate would be humbling, but most are professional enough to hide their smirks. Not this guy.
As I unfolded my story, he folded himself in half in laughter.
He then demanded I give him “one good reason” why he should issue me a new hat.
I said that there might be a few bad officers who are full of it, but doesn't it take a good officer to admit it?
Hearing my logic, he fell, hysterically beating the floor with his fist. “I give up, Chaplain,” he declared. “You got your new hat.”
The Bible says in James 5:16, “Make this your common practice: confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.”
I confessed my mistake — my sin — and got a new hat. But better than that, I got a new ministry.
You see, despite my sinking feeling that my career had been flushed, I had a creatively hysterical moment in which I sent an email about my hat-full to dozens of friends. One of them was a newspaper editor who thought it was riotously funny.
In October 2001, the editor invited me to begin writing this column, Spirituality in Everyday Life. Now after writing nearly 650 syndicated columns about my life, as both a hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard lieutenant colonel chaplain, I can only say, “Trust me, Chaplain Bradshaw, God was never finished with me.”
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” You can call him at 321-549-2500, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website thechaplain.net or write him at P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.