Recently a man told me that he returned to church after 35 years just to hear me preach. I’m not sure why he quit. Maybe it was because of money, sex, or just plain bad sermons, but he swore he’d never return. Well, it might surprise you that I almost made the same decision years ago.

During my high school days, there was a pretty and petite woman in my church who flashed a bright smile while pitching the hurtful and loaded question, “Have you received the gift of the Holy Spirit?”

Not unlike the fallacious question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” her question had no good answer. If I said, “Yes,” she’d pull out her religious yardstick to determine if my holy spirit measured up to hers.

If I said “No,” I confirmed in her mind that I wasn’t a very good Christian.

Worse yet, a “no” answer brought more questions such as, “Aren’t you interested in the filling of the Holy Ghost?” or “Don’t you want to be healed?” and finally, “Do you want to speak in tongues?” (Now, if you don’t know about “tongues,” you might want to read the short New Testament book of Acts. But likely you’ll still not know, and neither do I, really.)

However, judging by her ecclesiastical syntax, I believe she was referring to an ecstatic and unintelligible language spoken by thousands of people in charismatic churches. The language wasn’t the problem. The problem was that this was the Southern Baptist Church my dad pastored – not a charismatic church.

If you’ve ever been turned off by religion, you know that there are many people who will use this woman’s approach to fire their loaded questions into innocent bystanders with much the same insensitivity as the infamous drive-by shooters. These inquisitors reduce spirituality to some kind of test that only they can pass with questions such as: “Don’t you want the spirit in your life?” or “If you were to die tonight, did you know you’ll go to hell?”

How do you answer questions like that? My best answer was to use a quote from a more moderate pastor of her tradition. When asked whether these kinds of spirit-fillings were a requirement of faith, the Rev. Jack Taylor simply responded, “Somebody might, nobody must and I haven’t.”

However, this woman could never hear that answer. She thought, “Everybody must!” and she never abandoned her attempt to make me bilingual with her holy spirit. Honestly, I think she believed that the ecstatic language could cure everything from depression to my raging acne.

Fellow columnist Carolyn Hax may have suggested a good method for dealing with folks like this when she encouraged readers last week to regard people’s “nutritional label” and ask if they are worth the time. If not, she says, “Friends with a low decency content need to be treated as junk food.”

I think this is true in our efforts to find a spiritual community too. Some people and places are just gon’na be junk food, but there is quality out there when we look.

At the end of the day, spiritual junk food doesn’t “fill” you any more than this woman’s “holy” spirit. You only encounter God through a spiritual relationship. And like all relationships, you ask questions, you dialogue, you lose your temper, you laugh and you forgive.

In the meantime, if you are tempted to use this column to affirm that old assertion that “The church is filled with too many hypocrites!” I say give it another chance. I did. And you know what I found? There was plenty of room for one more.

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. You can call him at (321) 549-2500, E-mail him at [email protected], visit his website at or write him at P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.