Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. 

I was finishing my morning run not long ago when two young men on bicycles stopped beside me. They wore starched white shirts with dark neckties dangling over the handlebars of their carefully balanced bicycles.

I instantly recognized the cherub expressions that hinted at the church that calls these youthful boys Elders.

“How are you?” asked the taller one.

“Fine,” I said with a puff of huff.

After muddling through a few more salutatory comments, they asked if I’d be willing to read through their literature.

I smiled. I could relate to their ecclesiastical bravado. I practiced the same spiritual swagger in my younger pastoring days while conducting “community surveys.”

A deacon and I knocked on neighborhood doors and posed a loaded question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

We were much like timeshare salesmen, following a veritable flowchart of canned responses. If the resident wasn’t sure of their eternal destination, we’d ask them, “Would you like to be sure?”

The narrative was designed to inspire the dazed respondent to recite a prayer, much like a theological swearing-in ceremony, that promised celestial assurance to all prayers holding full privileges thereof.

Now all these years later, I was cornered on the receiving end of the sort of pious entrapment I’d once presented. I knew if I told them to get lost, they’d hear that as proof of my heartless faith. If I showed listening interest, I’d unduly encourage them.

I felt caught between my desire to be gracious and their need to add another convert, so I redirected the conversation toward artificial chit-chat. “Where are from?” “How long will you be in Sacramento?”

They didn’t flinch.

“Can we come to your house to study the Bible?” asked the one from Australia.

With jogging sweat still pouring off my forehead, I opted for the direct approach.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not buying what you’re selling. Perhaps we should just agree that we’re all content to keep our individual faiths and pick another subject.”

The young man’s partner fired their most well-heeled question.

“If we could show you another way, would you pray that God would show you its relevance?” He spoke as though he possessed the lucky number in our game of mystical roulette.

I paused for a moment as I pondered one of life’s biggest challenges, the search for truth and meaning.

As a chaplain, I often meet folks who’ve given up on God because of their distaste for the organized religion offered by door-to-door disciples. I tell people that they should look for God everywhere they are. God doesn’t limit his revelation to neck-tied cyclists, nor is he required to live in pocket-protected shirts.

God is always present in our search. But God becomes most active as we allow him to search for us.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart,” prays the psalmist. “Try me and know my thoughts.”

The psalmist wasn’t praying to find God because God isn’t lost. The psalmist knew that presenting your heart to God is the ultimate act of vulnerability and, therefore, growth and discovery.

If religious people or institutions have put you off, I encourage you not to give up your quest for the holy or your pursuit of faith and truth. Heed the words found in the modern Message translation of the Bible, James 1:5: “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it.”

Or if you prefer, a paraphrase of the X-files tagline, “Your truth is out there.” Ask, seek and you will find.

Column update

Last week I explained that I’m returning to Honduras in March to help the Chispa Project start another children’s library. I asked for volunteers and donations for the project.

I’m happy to announce that we have five of the 10 volunteers we need (chaplainproject.org/volunteertrip.) We’ve also achieved 60 percent of the financial goal.

You can still help by donating online at chispaproject.org/thechaplain or write a check to “Chispa Project” and send to: Chispa Project, C/O Norris Burkes, P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.