Bad Breaths

Pastor’s dental hygiene isn’t an act of God

By Norris Burkes
April 2024

Preaching to a sparse crowd, pastors often begin by quoting Matthew 18:20. They remove the verse from its context to passively express disappointment in the low turnout.

They say, “This reminds me of what Jesus said. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’”

During my years as a hospital chaplain, I paraphrased this verse to convey my frustration at yet another staff meeting.
“Wherever there are two or more chaplains gathered in his name, there will be a chaplain staff meeting.”

At least our staff meetings at Sutter Medical Center could be interesting.

They were led by our spiritual care supervisor, Lisa Nordlander, who supervised one secretary, three chaplains and six chaplain interns.

One day, she sent a message: “All hands on deck for a joint meeting of staff and interns.”

We assembled in a conference room where I’d like to think we looked like Jedi knights waiting for divine wisdom from Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But this day, things took an unusual turn. Lisa tossed white plastic bags on the table and asked her chaplains to each take one. We spilled the contents onto the table. Toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, tongue brush, dental floss.

OK. The supervisor’s husband was a dentist. But given her professional demeanor, product endorsement wasn’t her point.

“This is a friendly reminder,” she said among the giggles, “that good dental hygiene is a part of good spiritual hygiene.”

Yes, when it comes to spiritual care, oral cleanliness is next to godliness.

Lisa continued her teachable moment. “We work in close quarters,” she said, struggling to smother her smile.

“Chaplains often whisper to nursing staff and lean close in their patient visits. These patients may be sensitive to certain odors, so please make sure you are well acquainted with these products.”

We all searched the faces around the table, wondering which chaplain inspired the toothbrushes.

Was it our Catholic priest who drank too much coffee?

Was it me, who loved cafeteria onion rings?

Was it the new intern snacking on tuna crackers?

We had a laugh over Lisa’s artful presentation. But I couldn’t help but think about another gathering, The Last Supper, when Jesus predicted one of his disciples (Judas) would betray him.

Like the disciples who muttered, “Is it I, Lord?” we chaplains blew into our cupped hands, taking a quick whiff and wondering, “Is it me, Lisa?”

There are times in our exchanges with people when we become pretty sure something stinks. On those occasions, what’s our first reaction? Do we lean close to friends and examine their smell? Or do we check our own breath?

We’re not perfect. We won’t always smell perfect. But imperfection gives us two choices.

We can deny it and make others suffer. Or we can celebrate that we are all in the same boat. We’re all human and we all have the potential to, well, stink.

The spirit we breathe may not always be the freshest one.

It’s something to keep in mind as we strive for improvement. Take a hard look at yourself. Check your spirit. Examine your intentions. Question your motives.

Ask yourself, “Am I the one who has caused the problem?” Or “Am I the one who holds the solution?” These must be the first questions we ask when we smell something’s not quite right.

Which leads me to another paraphrase of Matthew 18:20. “Wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there will always be imperfections.”

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veteran’s groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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