Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

Do you ever wonder what people think about you? I do and, most especially, I wonder what my readers think of me.

So recently, I flew to Lakeland, Fla., where I uncovered some readers who’d made some surprising conclusions about me based solely on my column mugshot.

For instance, I was speaking to a Rotary Club about the Chispa Project (chispaproject.org) when a friendly bald man observed, “You have a lot more hair than your picture shows.”

Thank you, I guess. Honestly, I wish I had more.

At the Lakeland Unitarian Church, one woman craned her neck to observe that I seemed taller than suggested by my column portrait.

Really? I thought. She deduced this from a thumbnail photo?

Following her, another woman gathered her gumption to tell me, “You aren’t as fat as you seem in the newspaper.”

For the record, I’m 185 pounds, standing 6 feet, 1 inch. Add an extra half inch if all my hair is mussed by the wind.

As I was testing my microphone at Auburndale Methodist, two men approached me. The first one inquired if I was a “good speaker, not boring.” While the other quite impatiently demanded that I start my presentation early, before our meal was finished.

Answered in the order asked, “Yes” and “No.”

After I concluded my Auburndale talk, reader-turned-listener comments shifted away from superficiality.

“I appreciate your humility,” said one gentleman.

However, while I signed books at a later Kiwanis Club meeting, another reader said in seeming contradiction to the first, “This is like meeting a rock star.”

I’m not making any of this up. They really said these things. But over the course of a few days, I began to realize that my “celeb” status didn’t really matter to my audience.

What mattered to people wasn’t my height, hair or eloquence. Above the trivial observations, the thing that mattered most to them was how well I listened.

So, in between breakfast with the Kiwanis, Rotarian meet-and-and greets and church potlucks, I listened.

I listened as a man and wife spoke of their son returning from a combat deployment in Iraq only to lose him to a cancer likely caused by his exposure to the burn pit (the open-air combustion of trash in military deployment sites).

One man put a lot of trust in me as he unloaded his helplessness in dealing with his wife’s third cancer treatment.

Another man told me of his failing marriage while another expressed his powerlessness to find effective treatment for a schizophrenic son.

The whole thing got me thinking about the manner in which Jesus rolled into his community speaking gigs.

He was certainly a crowd favorite wherever he spoke. On a hillside, he outlined some very coherent thoughts in his Sermon on the Mount. He was the banquet speaker for a hungry crowd of 5,000.

But where he really wowed the crowd were the moments he listened to individuals. For example, he shielded a woman about to be stoned for adultery. He befriended a polygamous woman shunned by a gossipy town. He spoke forgiveness to a follower who denied him.

You don’t have to wonder what people thought about a guy like that. Jesus heard the pain in their lives. He didn’t use his personal comparison to bring his pain into their story. He didn’t dismiss their pain or discount it. He listened and made it a part of his own pain.

Given a choice between being a better speaker or a better listener, I’m thinking I want to be more like the Jesus, the listener guy. How about you?

Reach Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net; PO Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759; or leave a voicemail at 843-608-9715.