Out Of Order

Sometimes, ‘helpful’ words must be earned

By Norris Burkes
May 2023

Have you ever been tempted to respond to unwanted advice with the line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn?”

I’m sure you have. It’s a common response when we are victims of hit-and-run advice. It’s a way of telling opinionated busybodies they haven’t earned the right to be relevant in our lives.

I was on the damning end of such a response one afternoon some years back as I began my first job in hospital chaplaincy.

A nurse in our hospital’s surgical unit motioned me into the nurse’s station.

Wanting to help her new chaplain, she pointed toward a patient’s room at the end of the hall. “I think she could use a visit from you.”

Grateful for the referral, I asked the nurse to tell me more.

The nurse whispered, “Our patient’s waiting for her tests to come back.”

“Maybe I should wait for the tests before I visit,” I said.

Her words were tight as she shook her head. “Our patient knows she has cancer, but she doesn’t know how bad it is. She won’t be alive this time next year.”

We both looked at our shoes before she dismissed me with her repeated warning. “Be careful, chaplain, she doesn’t know anything yet.”

A moment later, I walked into the darkened room to find a vibrant young woman just awakened from a nap.

“Are you the doctor?” she asked.

“No. I’m the chaplain,” I said.

“God is good,” she said.

“God is good all the time!” I responded, giving the expected rejoinder of her religious tradition.

For a few minutes, we exchanged more platitudes of faith, but soon she admitted her disappointment. “I was hoping you were the doctor bringing my test results.”

“I understand,” I told her. “Waiting is hard.”

She nodded in agreement while wiping the trace of a tear.

I listened as she told the story of her sudden cancer diagnosis. “I know things are going to be all right. I know God will heal me.”

“Tell me why you think that is?” I gently asked.

“Well,” she said, her voice trailed. For a moment it seemed as if she was studying my hospital ID for my qualification to question God.

“You got to have faith, right?”

I must have responded with some kind of “yes-but” answer because she started pleading.

“I have so much yet to do,” she said.

I decided to press a bit. Hoping to challenge her to see what was happening.

“What if you get bad news?”

“Like what?” she asked.

I paused. She knew what I meant.

And she knew I knew.

“You need to leave,” she commanded.


“Leave!” she said. “I thought chaplains were supposed to cheer people up, not bring them down.”

She was wrong about chaplains cheering people up. We aren’t cheerleaders.

But she was right, too. I tried to write myself into her spiritual script without earning the right to be relevant.

It’s easy to make declarations to people, pronouncing what they should do, predicting where or why they will fail.

However, as I learned that day, our knowledge doesn’t always entitle us to tell them. If we hope to have any consequence in the lives of those we love, we must step only where invited.

Otherwise, they will surely never “give a damn.”

Norris is helping establish libraries at elementary schools in Honduras. His next trip is June 17–24 with an emphasis for educators and librarians. Details at chispaproject.org/volunteertrip.

Norris Burkes can be reached at comment@thechaplain.net. Previous columns can be found and shared at InsideSacramento.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.

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