When I'm out in public, or playing golf, I usually do not make a big issue out of the fact that I am a retired pastor and an active chaplain. I never know what to expect. Sometimes people who are unchurched and actually non-religious suddenly switch demeanors, clean up their acts in my presence, and show me some respect. Others, known to be religious, too often suddenly freeze up and refuse to allow me into their conversations. Obviously, they are afraid that I have noticed that they are not as religious in public as they are in church and don't want me to bring it out into the open.
The truth of the matter is that I like people to be authentic, to actually be what they are whether in church or not. It isn't a matter of language; I believe I have heard just about all the bad language available through my contacts as a chaplain. And, God never called me to be a judge over anyone else; He called me to be a friend and to provide whatever help and assistance available to me. However, I do have to admit that if my presence helps some people "clean up their act," I don't have any reason to complain.
What pleases me the most is when I am able to help someone. If that help is something tangible, it's easy to identify, take care of, and move on; but sometimes help is not tangible. And, sometimes it happens when you least expect it.
Some time ago when I was pastoring a church in the Kansas City area, I was visiting one of my church members in the obstetric ward who had just had a beautiful baby. I had completed my visit and was heading toward the exit when I spied a woman coming down the hall looking at me very intently. Now, I have to be honest and tell you that after years of visiting and working in hospital settings I can normally spot a doctor a long way off. It was obvious that this woman was a doctor and that she had her eye on me. My first thought was, "Have I done something wrong?" My second thought was, "Where's the exit?"
This woman doctor came straight up to me, looked me in the face, and declared, "You're Rev. Box, aren't you?"
"Yes," I replied, "but I'm pretty sure that I don't know you."
Then she told me a story out of my past. It seems that when I was a very young pastor thinking that I knew almost everything while actually knowing very little, I had filled the pulpit at one of our neighboring churches while its pastor was away. Afterward, I met with several young people to talk about their journeys.
I still don't remember exactly what I said, but I know that one of the girls was at a very familiar crossroad. She was just finishing high school and had to decide what path she was going to take. Her parents wanted her to go to college, but she loved the "wild side" of life and had begun running with a group that liked alcohol and drugs and believed education was not needed. Her life was actually paused, waiting for the light at the crossroad to tell here which way to go.
She then told me, "Your conversation with me that night changed my entire life, and I began to see more clearly which way I should go. You can see that I chose the pathway leading to a successful career in obstetrics, and today I am well known in my field. I have been looking for you these many years just to thank you for what you did for me that day. I'm glad I finally found you."
You may imagine what that "thank you" did for me some 25 years after the event. I was flabbergasted and not ashamed of the tears that welled up in my eyes. I thanked her and praised her both for her decision and for being a great doctor.
I think about that story whenever I'm out on the golf course having a very difficult time just getting the ball off tee (which is all too often). There usually are three other golfers watching to see what I am going to do. I think, "Maybe my witness right now will affect someone else's life." I know that I have been affected by what others have done, especially one guy whose name I don't know who claimed a 7 handicap but was actually already 7 over par with 12 holes yet to play while cursing, throwing his clubs, claiming he was just getting old, and finally claiming a "gimme" whenever he was within 10 feet of the pin.
You never know what is going to happen on the golf course or along life's pathway. Make sure you are doing the things to help people, not tear them down.
• • •
Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the Fire Department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.