Called to Be Servants, Not Judges

Recently, I got an email from Jim Meacham, retired Air Force master sergeant who served 41 years.

Now at 81 years old, he’s well into his second wind volunteering for the River Region Chaplain Service in Montgomery, Alabama. He and 14 other volunteer chaplains serve nearly 500 police officers and about 250 sheriff deputies, along with about 450 officers in fire and rescue.

Initially, Jim ran into the same difficulty most new chaplains have — serving people of different religions. As a public-safety chaplain, he must follow the same rules I do as a hospice chaplain. We cannot proselytize.

As chaplains, we are tasked to serve all persons while respecting their different beliefs. That includes everyone: Christians, atheists, Islamists, Jews or any other ideology.

“Why would that be a problem?” you ask. Because we both came from Baptist traditions where proselytizing was part of our beliefs. However, in Jim’s role as a chaplain, it means that he doesn’t pray for an officer, and I as a chaplain don’t pray for a patient, unless our prayers are specifically requested.

We follow this rule because, as Jim likes to say, “Chaplains are servants, not judges." Nevertheless, well-meaning evangelical folks will still push us to use our position to tell dying people, “Jesus is your only hope.”

We resist their well-meaning advice and hold fast to the rule of no proselytizing for two reasons. First, we’d be fired for violating the rule. But more importantly: A chaplain’s job is spiritual, not religious.

“What’s the difference?” you ask.

Spirituality is that sense of awe and wonder we all have about the creation that surrounds us. It’s about who we are, how we hope, how we pray and how we love. Spirituality is that piece of ourselves that attracts us to something outside ourselves. It is that basic appetite or search engine we have that seeks our creator.

Religion is one of the destinations to which spirituality often can take us. Destinations can be different for all of us. Spirituality may bring a person to Christianity, but it might also bring a person to Buddhism or Judaism.

Personally, I’m not ashamed to say it here, loud and clear, that my spiritual search leads me to the God that Jesus came to reveal. My faith is something I recommend to everyone who asks me about the hope I carry within me.

Since Christianity is our chosen religion, Jim and I worship with those who believe as we do. But as chaplains, we seek a more ambitious dialogue with those we serve. We seek a discourse that includes all those people who are made in the image of God.

It is the same kind of cross-cultural dialogue I hope you will explore.

I urge you not to limit yourself to those who only worship a god that’s only created in your image. If you do, you’re going to miss God in a lot of places. Besides, if you really believe your religion to be relevant, then you’ll want to test it out among people who believe differently.

Years ago, Jim had a mentor who taught that "if we carry ourselves as God would have us, and let him guide us, we'll be OK." Jim says he still finds that advice to be true.

Recently, a small stroke reduced Jim’s duty calls, but in the end, he remains, as do I, a chaplain that serves people. We see ourselves not as some kind of apostle or Elmer Gantry evangelist, but someone who is gently nudging, not judging, people toward a relationship with their benevolent creator.

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