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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 13, 2002

Choice lies at core of faith

By Norris Burkes

My daughter has chosen to attend a Christian college. 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.

From the time she was 2 and her mama gave her a choice of what flavor oatmeal she would eat, my daughter always has liked to feel she was doing the choosing — not unlike a 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. The patient was being a "little difficult."

"I can handle difficult," I said.

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 ..."

"Get out!"

"I'm sorry. Did I ... ?"

"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.

This month I celebrate nearly 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 defend our freedom to choose, including freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Sometimes I made certain that soldiers had a New Testament as they stepped on a plane taking 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.

God is not threatened by our freedom of choice. And whether people choose to be "under God" or not, he always will be too big to be described in a phrase and too big to be edited out by a phrase. God does not need pledges of support.

He is not weakened by rejection. In his image, he made us to choose.

Norris Burkes works as a hospital chaplain in Sacramento, Calif. This column first appeared in the newspaper Florida Today.

Expressions of Faith is a column written individually by pastors, lay workers and other leaders of faith. If you want to contribute, e-mail faith@honoluluadvertiser.com or call 525-8036.