Cheap Talk

Careful what you say, someone’s listening

By Norris Burkes
December 2023

After 30 years as a hospital and military chaplain, I returned to the pastorate last year. Now I’m rediscovering things I missed.

I missed preaching, potlucks and the fun I share with parishioners. I don’t miss the pressure clergy feel to recruit new parishioners. I was never much good at that.

In the Air Force I had ample opportunities to “troll for souls.” Each base chaplain is assigned workplaces they must routinely visit. My assigned areas were the hospital and security police station.

One day during a visit to the police station, I was warmly welcomed by a parishioner who worked as the desk sergeant. We sat in his cubicle and talked about office issues.

A few minutes into our conversation, the sergeant’s boss called him away.

While he was gone, I remained in the cubicle, hidden from several officers who entered the squad room. Assuming they had an empty office, they began to talk.

Their “talk” quickly turned to the graphic nature of their dating life. As they told can-you-top-this stories, one officer claimed his leading role as a “ladies man.”

His stories centered on his prowess with several women inside his Ford Taurus. Of course, when they saw the desk sergeant reenter the room, they went silent and retreated to the break room.

“Do you want to have a little fun?” I whispered to my friend.

He gave me a nod, so I filled him in on the conversation I’d overheard. Then I asked him to introduce me to the officers assembled around the doughnut box.

The sergeant and I entered the break room wearing matching grins. Each officer gave me a hearty greeting.

I recognized the distinctive voice of the Taurus officer and sensed his unspoken question, “How long have you been here chaplain?”

That’s when my friend and I began our recruitment drive. “The chaplain thinks some of you might want to join him for chapel service.”

Even with the police officers’ sixth sense, they didn’t understand they were in the crosshairs of a practical joke. Their answers focused on excuses.

“I’m Catholic,” one said.

“My wife’s out of town,” said the other.

“I don’t have a car,” said a third.

And with that divinely ordained cue, it was bombs away.

“Well, I understand that one of you has a nice big car you can use for church carpool.”

They exchanged puzzled looks, but the eyes of the boastful cop widened in fear. He knew we had him in target lock.

“Yeah, I was sitting behind your supervisor’s cubicle when you all walked into the office,” I said. “You couldn’t see me, but I could sure hear you. Which one of you has that Ford Taurus?”

Suddenly, the guy telling the car stories doubled over in embarrassment and left the room.

Pointing to the doughnut box, I said, “You know, I think it might have been Jesus who mentioned that it’s not the things that go into a man’s mouth that defile a man, but it’s what comes out of the mouth that really messes him up.” (Matthew 15:11, paraphrased.)

For a moment, the officer fancied himself as Casanova. In the next moments, the exposure of his words melted him into shame.

In an effort to recruit friends, this officer tried to be a different person to everyone he met. On his patrol beat, he was the protector for his community. To his friends he was the conqueror. To his chaplain, he was a shy boy ashamed of what he said.

Recruiting friends and followers at the expense of who you are can get awfully expensive for one’s integrity. It’s much easier to be the same person to everyone we meet. This makes it less likely we’ll forget who we are.

My pastor gig starts at 10:30 Sunday morning. Care to join us?

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, X and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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