Spirituality: In search of disorganized religion

By Norris Burkes

Florida Today

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

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As a chaplain in the Air National Guard, I meet a lot of nuns.

Actually, the correct spelling is "Nones" because I'm not talking about the kind who wear habits, — albeit their habits will cause quite a stir in future political contests.

"Nones" are the ever-increasing number of people in this country who report having no religious preference — "none." Religious surveys indicate that "none" membership is just behind the Catholics and the Baptists.

My favorite euphemism for the "Nones" is DTS. DTS are the folks who "Decline to State" when surveyors ask their religious preference. I can't say I blame them. Many of them likely grew up with hellfire and damnation preaching. They might honestly say that they "have a right to refuse to answer the question on the grounds it might incinerate me."

Most of the Nones I meet in the military tell me that they don't believe in "organized religion." If I'm in a joking mood with them, I will often tell them, "No problem, I'm hoping to start a 'disorganized religion.' Would you be interested in joining?"

I've actually given a lot of thought on just how I would start this new "Disorganized Church." I could borrow some traditions from all the world faiths.

For instance, I'd take the Ten Commandments from the Jewish faith, but I might not be able to keep them in their original order. I'd bow toward the east like the Muslims, but I might lean more toward Minot, N.D. Like Christians, we'd look for a Second Coming of the Messiah, but we'd hit the snooze button to wait for the second trumpet.

As a former hospital chaplain, I've met several potential members for my disorganized church, but I still remember one patient in particular who asked me to pray for him after he'd undergone surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. With his survival questionable, I strained to listen as he whispered his request: "Teach me to pray."

That simple request combined the most rewarding element of my job with the most tragic element. While it was eternally rewarding to me that this man would ask me to teach him to pray, it was far more tragic that he needed to make this intimate request of me, a stranger.

The most tragic part of being a chaplain is not the human suffering I see — it is watching people struggle through that suffering with a connection to nothing — they are Nones without a faith community. That is why I am determined to remain part of a faith community.

Sometimes I hear folks say that faith communities aren't worth the effort as they find too many hypocrites there. I tell them these are the only places in the world where people gather to acknowledge that they are not perfect. In fact, they celebrate that they are far less than perfect.

I like to explain it this way: If you visit a community service club, the members will naturally brag about being part of the best club in the world. In a faith community, you should find a group of people who take comfort in assembling under the banner that "no one is perfect."

Indeed, I've always sought a faith community in much the same way one might look for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting — some place where I can introduce myself by saying," Hi, I'm Norris. Like all of you, I'm fairly messed up."

When I hear them say, "Hi, Norris!" I know I'm home.

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and the 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 or email him at ask@thechaplain.net or visit his website at www.thechaplain.net. Write him at P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, Calif., 95759.

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