My daughter has chosen to attend a Christian college, and though I am proud of her choice, I must confess some surprise by one of her criteria.
“I want a school that has chapel, but I will not go to a school that forces me to go to chapel,” she announced. This from a girl who goes to three youth groups a week.
From the time she was 2 and her mama gave her a choice of what flavored oatmeal she would eat, my daughter has always liked to feel she was doing the choosing — not too unlike one particular man the nurses sent me to see one afternoon.
The request to see the man was from a nurse who was bored and thought the unit might do with some fireworks. Trust me. You don’t want to be around nurses when they get bored and go looking for mischief.
On this occasion, she sent me to a room where the patient was being a “little difficult.”
“I can handle difficult,” I said. I enjoy a people challenge.
I entered the room with my usual panache and said, “Hello, I’m chaplain Norris Burkes and I want to invite you to a lunch we are . . .”
“I’m sorry. Did I . . ?”
“I’m sorry I usually just . . .”
“Get out! Can’t you understand English?”
I understood. He liked choices, so I returned to the nursing station where I generously allowed the nurse to have her laugh.
Smart-aleck nurses. Are they poltergeists in disguise?
Of course, I don’t usually need a nurse’s help to get in trouble. I can usually get there unassisted.
I was once called to the family room just outside the emergency room to meet with some brothers as the doctors worked on their mother in cardiac arrest. The family room is where the ER staff puts you before they tell you really bad news.
Turning the corner out of the hallway into the open door of the family room, I held out my hand in my usual manner and introduced myself as the chaplain.
Both brothers must have weighed in at just more than 400 pounds, and my 175-pound frame was eclipsed in their intimidating presence.
One brother stood to meet me in the threshold of the room.
“Get out!” he ordered. “My mama ain’t gonna die!”
“I understand things are a bit scary now,” was my poor attempt to console.
“Get out!” he ordered as he brought his body menacingly close to mine.
“We don’t need you. My mama ain’t gonna die,” he repeated through clenched teeth, willing it to be so.
“OK,” I said, palms up in concession. “I don’t need to be here.”
I was about 50 feet down the hallway when the other brother rushed to catch me and begged me to return.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My brother didn’t mean it. He was scared. Please come back.”
I went back. She died.
Both brothers seemed to be victims of superstition. The first brother believed my presence brought death and the second one believed my presence might keep death at bay. Both brothers wanted to manipulate God — one by keeping him out and the other by forcing him in.
This Fourth of July, I celebrate almost 16 years of combined service to my country as an active-duty and reserve chaplain. In those years, I fulfilled my oath of office to uphold the constitution by defending our freedom to choose — that included freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
That meant sometimes I made sure soldiers had a New Testament as they stepped on the plane bringing them to foreign soil. But, sometimes it meant I made sure the self-described evangelist who wanted to flash Bible verses on their computer screen in an open office space was helped to see they weren’t helping.
Evangelism is sometimes mistaken to be something in which people are swayed with dramatic arguments. We can try all we want to influence people, but if they aren’t given the freedom from religion as well as the freedom of religion, we cannot expect any real change in the lives of those we seek to evangelize.
Perhaps the best way to be an evangelist (not a TV kind with greasy hair) is to let people respect the rights of others to choose their path, because we never know whether that path will take them to their spiritual awakening. It may not be our awakening, but it must be theirs.
When Adam and Eve sought to go their own way, God did not smite them dead. Leaving the garden was not a punishment. It was the path that awakened them to the fact God must be an intrinsic part of their lives. He let them have their freedom from him because that was the way he made them.
On this Independence Day weekend, take heart, America . God is not threatened by our freedom of choice. And whether people choose to be “under God” or not, he will always be too big to be described in a phrase and too big to be edited out by a phrase. To be God, he does not need pledges of support nor is he weakened by rejection. In his image, he made us to choose.