I often make the claim that if I hadn’t become a chaplain, I’d have been a safety officer. That’s because when I’m on any kind of volunteer work project, I’m the guy who steadies the ladder, makes certain the lunch produce is washed correctly and then checks the perimeter for bad guys.
The irony is that my interest in this subject comes from the tragedies I’ve witnessed in my chaplain career. In death’s aftermath, I’ve offered comfort to those whose loved ones were accidentally struck, shot, suffocated, burned, poisoned, fallen or electrocuted.
From those tragic encounters, I’ve developed a preoccupation with safety that my children say has cost them some freedoms. I’ve always made them wear hats in the sun, helmets on the bike trail and seatbelts in the car. For safety’s sake, I’ve made them chew slowly, run quickly and sleep adequately.
They learned pretty well, but never did I realize just how much their training might come back to benefit me.
In 2011, my wife and I flew to Denver to spend a few days with our daughter, Sara. We had no agenda. Just a little rest and relaxation.
Following our late-night arrival, we were ushered into our accommodations, a garage conversion with an open-flame furnace. Playing the fastidious safety inspector, I checked to make sure that Sara had vented the heater properly through a nearby window. She had. Then, I tested the smoke and CO2 detector. Everything worked properly.
Becky and I said our goodnights and settled in for a cozy winter sleep, snug under blankets, basking in a glowing heat.
About 2 a.m., we were jolted from bliss with a high-pitched alarm. I saw no smoke, so I focused my squinting eyes on the CO2 detector. Carbon dioxide levels were pushing high enough to send us singing in the celestial choir with Jesus himself.
We immediately turned off the heater, opened all the windows and retreated to the living room, shutting the garage door behind us. After 20 minutes, levels returned to normal and we re-retired to bed—sans heater but with a double scoop of blankets.
If you’re anticipating my point here, you’re probably looking for me to quote the Christian scripture that says, “It is appointed unto a man once to die and after that the judgment.”
Those familiar with this scripture know that it’s often used following stories such as these to admonish people to go full throttle, seize the day and live every day as if it were their last.
There’s likely some wisdom in that direction, but honestly, I don’t want to live every day like it’s my last.
There are days that I want to be regular. I need days that start with a decent breakfast, eight hours of a rewarding job and a drive home with takeout pizza to watch a mindless episode of “Survivor” with my wife.
Nothing wrong with that. We all need some routine days where we find a setting to hold those that we love, exhale gratitude for the life we are granted and refuel to meet the next day’s challenge.
Perhaps today wasn’t your best day. If today was only average, then I say be content that you had no close calls with death to throw you in an existential funk. You don’t need to always be prompting yourself with the morbid thought that this day might be your last.
But more than anything, I say, “Stay safe. There will likely be a tomorrow.”
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.