It was a dark and stormy night.
OK, it wasn’t so stormy, but it was getting dark on this Saturday night in 1985, when I encountered a stranded motorist standing alongside his Volkswagen Beetle.
This was before the days of the cell phone. Motorists not near a pay phone depended on a “Prayer Phone.” And to this man with a flat tire, but no jack, I seemed to be the answer to his prayers.
Yet, as I pulled my floor jack from my car, I knew my motives for stopping weren’t entirely pure. At the time, I was the pastor of the First Southern Baptist church in Brentwood, Calif., and my stop seemed to present an opportunity to grow my church by at least one more that night.
Nearly every town has a First Southern Baptist Church. As a kid, each time we encountered one, my mother enjoyed mimicking a southern aristocratic drawl to morph the sound of “First” into “Worst,” thus humorously dubbing each church “the “Worst Southern Baptist Church.”
Joking aside, my roadside assistance seemed to display the elements of a “Worst Church” parishioner. I saw my church as a business that needed a commodity to survive. The commodity was people.
Before I beat myself up too much, let me say, I was sincere. Our church made honest efforts to help people improve their lives through faith. I worked the town’s interfaith alliance to bring faiths together, and we reached out to kids with summer programs.
Still, at the end of day, I had a nagging feeling that my motives were less than stellar. No matter how many stranded motorists I helped or homeless people we fed, I couldn’t help but see people as simply a means to a bigger church.
To wit, I saw this motorist, not as someone who was painfully separated from his support system and stranded by life’s inequities; he was only someone who could help me, Norris Burkes. I saw him as someone who needed my church, my religion and my beliefs.
Now, I wasn’t too aware of all this at the time I conducted this narcissistic “road service.” I was only 27. I wasn’t yet the wise sage you’ve come to know as Chaplain Norris. Cough. Cough. So, you shouldn’t be too surprised to know that as quickly as I stowed the tire iron, I handed him a 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 was insistent he couldn’t possibly attend. Why?” I asked.
He handed me his card. I recognized the flaming logo. “Because I’m the pastor of the First United Methodist Church.”
As his screeching tires pelted pebbles on my Sunday loafers, I couldn’t help but 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 set aside our motives and we set aside the judgments we make about the motives of those we might help. We set them aside, and we help the hapless. We help the homeless, and we help the hopeless. We even help the “holier-than-thou” preachers. Not because they deserve it or because they might be of use to us someday.
We help them because they are us. And maybe there’s even more to it than that. Jesus knew it 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.”