Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes

Not long ago, I posed a routine question to a doubtful hospital patient.

“Do you have any kind of spirituality, religion or philosophy that gives you guidance in life?”

I know it’s a mouthful, but the question will often rattle a person’s spiritual doors long enough for me to find if there is one that’s unlocked.

Occasionally, patients will scratch their heads, perplexed at the breadth of the question and say, “No, I’m not really spiritual. I’m just a Baptist.”

This guy, however, was sharper than that.

“No,” he said, “but I wish I did.”

“Can you say more about that?” I asked. My guess was that his answer could be a step toward rediscovering the faith he might already possess.

Yes, in fact, he would say more.

He was a firefighter and he’d seen too much tragedy to believe in God.

“People tell me, ‘It’s all part of God’s plan,’ but I don’t buy that.”

I nodded sympathetically. As a chaplain, I’d seen enough children die to share his contempt for that platitude.

“It’s a phrase people use when they don’t know what to say,” I said.

He seemed to agree, but he had another surprise for me.

“I still talk to God,” he admitted. “I never pray for myself, just for family and friends. I only hope God hears me.”

I pulled back at that one. He seemed to be trying to navigate some complicated angles.

“Sounds like you’re a ‘believing unbeliever.'” I said.

His quizzical look confirmed that I’d caught him off guard.

It was my turn to “say more.”

“You want to believe, but you feel like your doubts are incongruent with your belief.”

“Do you think that I’m just hedging my bets?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “Your reservations give me the impression that you are intellectually honest about your faith.”

His smile suggested he’d finally found a minister who understood.

I understood because there are days when I am this man. There are days I struggle to be that spot-on believer people expect a minister to be.

Frankly, my doubts used to worry me a bit, but as I’ve aged I’ve come to see those doubts as an honest wrestling match, the kind of struggle that sharpens my wit, keeps my mind open and builds my spiritual strength.

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While many of you can relate, there are likely a few of you who are tossing the yellow penalty flag.

“Doesn’t the Bible warn against doubt?” you ask. Yes, but those warnings address our failure to trust God, not the honest doubt that emerges from our humanity.

So I asked the patient, “Will you allow me a story?”

He gave me the nod, and I shared the biblical story of the distraught father who brought his son to Jesus for healing. In what sounded like a doubtful moment, the man said, “If you can do anything … help us.”

“‘If you can’?” mimicked Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

When I compared this patient with the father who brought his son and his doubts to Jesus, I saw a clear strategy for dealing with doubt.

First, we can begin with what we already have and claim that faith as our starting place. A friend of mine likes to say, “Show up at the starting line and God will meet you there.”

By showing up, we often find the faith necessary to finish the race.

Second, we should admit our doubts. This is where I like to say, “Don’t talk about God behind of his back.” We can express our doubts to his face. Say them aloud and investigate them. God is not afraid or put off by our misgivings.

Finally, it’s entirely possible to simultaneously express faith and doubt. Just because we have faith doesn’t mean we aren’t scared. Scared only tells us that we are approaching real life.

“‘Help me in my unbelief’ is a prayer worth adopting.” I told the patient. “I think you will be amazed at how this honesty may refresh your faith.”

The old firefighter shifted his weight in his chair, leaning forward and nodding at my story. It was plain to see that he still held a spark of belief. The flames of his faith might yet be rekindled.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.