Chaplain Norris Burkes: Do you know who I am? |

Chaplain Norris Burkes: Do you know who I am?

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.
Wade Spees

I’m Chaplain Norris Burkes and I will be writing a new monthly column for The Union. The column will tell stories about people and events that illustrate my tagline: “Spirituality in Everyday Life.”

While I am new to your newspaper, my observations are well-aged. I began writing in 2001 when a Florida editor sought a spiritual response to 9/11. Six months later, Gannett News Service syndicated the column into a few dozen papers, in Sacramento area, Vacaville, and Salinas, so as the TV announcer says, “You are now joining a program already in progress.” (You can catch up on columns at my website,

In the meantime, you may want to know that I have a BA in Journalism and another BA in Religion. I have a Master’s of Divinity and a Master’s of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing.

I moved to Lake of the Pines last year from Elk Grove, but have also lived in Texas, Florida and Turkey. In those places I have served as a Baptist pastor, a Protestant Air Force chaplain, and an interfaith hospital chaplain.

Jesus – that guy in the Bible I mentioned, didn’t believe in questionnaires. He believed in ‘Keep It Simple.’ If you love God, you have to love your neighbor as yourself.

Ten years ago, I left my position as a pediatric chaplain to expand my freelance writing and deploy with the California Air National Guard. I retired early from the Air Force in 2015 and now work for a local hospice group.

Yet even as I describe myself, I’m aware that, like you, I’m a contradiction of my parts. For instance, my parts – white male, educated and ordained Southern Baptist – might describe Jerry Falwell, short the jowls, of course.

Yet that still doesn’t describe me. Religiously speaking, I consider myself a Liberal Evangelical. I use the word “evangelical” because I believe the Bible is my guide for living, but I don’t insist that it be the authority for others – Freedom of Religion must include freedom from religion.

My reading shelf tips on both ends. I read books from the liberal Christian author Anne Lamott as well as books by C.S. Lewis. But recently, I’ve read nerdy books about the history of flight, cancer, the Internet, malaria, the flu epidemic of 1917 and the invention of the wireless.

Athletically, I’ve completed two marathons while simultaneously learning to play golf. I’m mesmerized by football, the Tour de France and the X Games. However, baseball and poker anesthetize me.

Finally, when it comes to patriotism, I’ve been a citizen-soldier. I’ve sworn to defend our flag, but like most soldiers, I’ll defend your right to burn it or even take a knee.

Does knowing what a columnist believes (or any person) really tell you much? We may think it does since we tend to approach our relationships with spiritual questionnaires, hoping to get a match.

We get stuck by adding qualifiers to our relationships such as religion, politics, race and sexual orientation. We get wrapped up in the inconsequential by demanding to know someone’s favorite rock bands or whether they wear boxers or briefs or go commando.

Jesus – that guy in the Bible I mentioned, didn’t believe in questionnaires. He believed in ‘Keep It Simple.’ If you love God, you have to love your neighbor as yourself. In a situation much like the stories I’ll be telling, I saw that truth reinforced in a patient’s father whom I met on our pediatric ward at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento.

When he began describing his beliefs in a miraculous healing for his daughter, I felt awkward realizing we didn’t quite agree on a certain biblical interpretation.

Sensing my uneasiness, the man threw his long hair over his tattoo-covered shoulder and said something like, “Chaplain, I don’t talk with you because of your opinion. I talk with you because I can tell you care.”

That shut me up. That said it all. Love your neighbor as yourself. Care. Simple. This is the kind of story that I’ll be sharing each week as it illustrates not religion, but the spirituality I see in everyday life.

As you read these stories, some of you will likely be puzzled by them, judging them based on what you interpret as my politics or religion. I may infuriate a few on the left who abhor my evangelical roots. I may exasperate those on the right by making room at the table for people of all religions and even no religions.

But at the end of each column, I hope you will find the truth that I want carved on my tombstone: “Few readers ever cared how much he knew, because they saw how much he cared.”

Catch up with Norris’ columns at Voicemail at 843-608-9715 or email or @chaplain. Snail mail occasionally checked at 10566 Combie Rd Suite 6643 Auburn, CA.

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