Snake Pit

A positive message shouldn’t slither

By Norris Burkes
April 2021

People don’t always get my sense of humor. Unfortunately, my years as a hospital chaplain infected me with a touch of gallows humor, an ironic wit handy for hopeless situations.

Nevertheless, 10 years ago, I took that humor on a 90-day deployment to Panama with the Red Horse Squadron from Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas.

Red Horse is the Air Force version of the Navy Seabees (Construction Battalion). Both are trained to bulldoze the ground in warzones while defending the same ground with M16 rifles.

We were in Panama as part of Operation New Horizon to build schools, clinics and playgrounds. The endeavor gave our airmen experience to build a barebones base in a battle zone.

From Panama City, our crew drove the Pan American Highway to our campsite. The road stretches from Alaska to Argentina and is interrupted only by a 60-mile swath of swamp called the Darién Gap. We made camp in that gap.

Once settled, Col. Darren Daniels assembled us for a briefing. In the trees above, howler monkeys, sloths and iguanas eyed the proceedings with territorial suspicion.

Daniels gave us a sober warning that we would be working among dangerous paramilitary groups and drug traffickers.
“If anyone gets hurt,” he told us, “we are a long way from help.”

I’d been to Iraq the previous year, so I wasn’t too worried. Until, that is, Daniels mentioned the fer-de-lance viper.
I took a jumbo breath of swamp air and expelled an uneasy laugh.

Afterward, I retreated to the chapel tent to do an internet search. Apparently, the fer-de-lance causes more human deaths than any other American reptile. Surprisingly, the next few days, my gallows humor was inflated with sobering viper facts.

I asked an airman constructing our showers if he knew the fer-de-lance injects 105 milligrams of venom in one bite.
His eyes widened. “Kind of a waste,” I added, “because it only takes 50 milligrams to kill you.”

At lunch that day, I asked the food services guy if he knew it was fer-de-lance birthing season.

He responded by throwing a heap of potatoes on my plate. “The mamas drop about 60 babies at once,” I said. “The little guys can climb tent walls.”

Each factoid brought the nervous chuckles I was looking for—until I took a lunchtime seat with Col. Daniels and his staff and shared my new knowledge.

Daniels picked up a biscuit and pointed it my direction. “Didn’t we bring you here to boost morale?” he asked.

The table went quiet, so he graciously softened his tone. “I’m just thinking the chaplain should be sharing good news, not scaring the hell out of us.”

He said it all with a chortle, but we both knew the Shakespearean axiom, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”

My commander was right. His squadron would go on to build outposts in Afghanistan. Not all would come home whole. My job was to expose them to a faith that would build them up as they built our humanitarian project.

Spreading fear, even in jest, wasn’t the best way for me to share hope. Neither is it the best way we can share our faith.

Yet there are Christians who think they should use fear to encourage people to take a step toward God.

Fear doesn’t work. People have enough hell in their lives without us presenting an angry God who’ll make them suffer an apocalyptic hell.

Sharing our faith is the act of exposing people to hope, not to fear or hate.

The Apostle Paul said it best in his second letter to Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (1:7).

I encourage you not to share your fear, not to share your hate. Share your hope.

In the Darién Gap a few weeks later, a Panamanian soldier killed a fer-de-lance outside my chapel tent. It was a fitting end for one of those slithering things that has been interfering in God’s work since creation.

Norris Burkes can be reached at 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

Stay up-to-date with our always 100% local newsletter!

* indicates required
Type of Newsletter
Share via
Copy link