The stress of helping the stranded

In the early 1980s, I was the very young pastor of First Baptist Church in Brentwood, Calif.

"How young?" you ask. Let's just say, several parishioners took pleasure in reminding me that they had grandchildren older than me.

With the age disparity, I was often desperate to recruit and befriend younger members. So, I hope you can understand how I saw a recruitment opportunity in the stranded motorist I stopped to help late one Saturday night.

When I offered my help, he told me he had a flat tire, but no jack. With cell phones not yet common, he was relying on his "Prayer Phone" and I found it easy to present myself as the answer to his prayers.

As I pulled my floor jack from my car, I knew my motives weren't entirely pure. My effort felt opportunistic, less than the Good Samaritan I envisioned myself to be.

Before I beat myself up too much, let me say, I was sincere in most of my outreach efforts. Our church made honest efforts to help people improve their lives. I had revived the town's interfaith alliance and we reached out to kids with summer programs.

Still, at the end of day I was sometimes left with a nagging feeling that my motives were less than stellar. No matter how many stranded motorists I helped or homeless people we fed, it was easy to see people as a means to a bigger church.

To wit, I saw the motorist not as someone who was painfully separated from his support system and stranded by life's inequities, but as someone who could help me, Norris Burkes. I saw him as someone who needed my church, my religion and my beliefs.

Of course, I wasn't this self-aware as I conducted this narcissistic "road service." I was only 27. You shouldn't be too surprised to know that as quickly as I stowed the tire iron, I handed him a church business card.

"We'd sure love to have you in our worship service tomorrow," I said. The implication was if he liked the road service, he was obliged to the worship service.

He told me it sounded real nice, but insisted he couldn't possibly attend.

'Why?" I asked.

He reciprocated my invite by handing me his card. I groaned in recognition of its flaming logo.

"Because," he said, "I'm the pastor of the First United Methodist Church."

With that, he hopped in his car and drove off, his screeching tires pelting my Sunday loafers with roadside pebbles.

The whole thing left me to ponder a few questions. Should I only help people if my motives are pure? Should I only help those people I deem deserving?

No, I think at the end of the day, we have to set aside our own mixed motives and just simply help people because it's the right think to do.

Maybe more important, we should set aside the judgments we make about the motives of those we help. We do this because our faith calls us to host the hapless, house the homeless and help the hopeless.

Alas, we are even called to help the "holier than thou" preachers like myself. We do this not because they deserve it or because they might be of use to us someday, but because our faith demands it.

We help them because they are us.

Jesus knew this truth when he said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He is a board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain for both the Sacramento VA Hospital and the Air National Guard.

You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to ask@thechaplain.net, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.

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