These days I feel like the circuit-riding preacher of the Old West, riding his horse across the dusty plains to deliver sermons in multiple parish settings.
In my circuit, I work as a part-time chaplain in two different hospitals. I serve as a citizen airman in the Air National Guard. And I send this spirituality column to 35 newspapers around the country, (hence the horse-riding metaphor).
While each role involves distinct interactions, there is one interaction common to all. It's that moment when I suddenly stumble upon someone using colorful language.
It doesn't matter whether I'm greeting readers at a book signing, sitting at the nurse's station or walking the flight line, it's always interesting to watch people change their demeanor around me. Like a speeder who comes upon a roadside police cruiser, people tend to flip with moral gyrations when they see me.
For example, they may nick themselves on a tool and suddenly make mid-sentence vocabulary changes. "*&$#!" They shout. Then, upon seeing me, they say, "Uh, I mean 'Dang.' That hurt! Sorry, chaplain."
I'm amused because they'll make these whiplash changes on the pretense of offending my decency. Yet the crazy thing is, these are the same people who come to my office with confessions that are much worse than their verbal sins.
I know their efforts to clean up their verbiage is their way of showing me respect, but I've often wondered whether their sudden reversal in language is more about their contrived image of what they think God demands of them.
In other words, do they see God as a rogue cop holding the Ten Commandments in one hand and a six-shooter in the other saying, "If you don't do right, I'll blow a hole clean through ya"? Nice image.
When people experience an abrupt conversion just because I've entered the room, I want to tell them, "Don't change for me. Change for yourself."
I want to ask them, "Does it really matter that I've discovered you aren't the person you think I think you should be?" Or perhaps, more to the point, "What would you risk to become the person you're pretending to be on my behalf?"
Truth be known, I, too, can make some quick reversals in the presence of the right people. In the hospital cafeteria, I pass up the French fries in the presence of our dietitian. I can adjust my posture when the commander walks by. And I even find an extra dose of piety when I give a presentation to an audience of readers.
The problem with making these changes in the presence of influential people is that we have disfigured ourselves into something that doesn't remotely resemble who God has made us to be.
It seems to me, the thing that really matters is for us to represent our own God-given image, not the flattering image we imagine others want us to be.
At the end of the day, you have to make changes for yourself, not for others. If your sudden conversion experience is all about changing for others, the changes only last as long as the presence of the influential person.
And changes that are not made for ourselves cause us to resemble the convert who was thrown out of a frontier saloon and into the arms of the passing circuit preacher.
Observed the barkeeper to the preacher, "Isn't this man one of your converts?"
"He surely must be," replied the old preacher, "because he certainly doesn't appear to be one of God's." (And hopefully that'll be my last Western metaphor for a few years.)
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author. He is an Air National Guard chaplain. Leave comments at (843) 608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.
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