As a teenager, I often told my high school ROTC instructors that I aspired for a dual Air Force career—first as a flight navigator and second as a chaplain.
“Strange combination,” they’d say. “Why is that?”
“Simple. As a navigator, I can tell people exactly where they should go. (Pause for effect.) As a chaplain, I can direct them toward a more heavenly heading.”
Unfortunately, I thoroughly bombed the Air Force pre-qualifying test for navigator. Fortunately, with a bit of grace, I graduated from seminary and became a chaplain.
Still, I occasionally forget that I failed navigation. Such was a moment recently when my wife and I met a family day hiking into Hidden Falls Regional Park in Auburn.
When our paths crossed on the lookout deck above the falls, my attention immediately went to their medium-sized labradoodle, a furball of cuteness they introduced as Chewy.
Poor Chewy was towing an exhausted family of three children, a mom and a grandmother. I noticed the group posing for the obligatory waterfall picture, so I volunteered to snap the photo.
Afterward I stroked Chewy while the kids took long draws from their water bottles, their mom wondering aloud what route to take back to their car.
Should they return through the tree-lined creek trail or would they elect for the faster return up the sunbaked gravel road?
Without being asked, I advised Chewy’s companions that the gravel road would be faster, but I preferred the cooler creek road. They were tired, and this was Chewy’s first hike, so they heard “faster.”
The woman studied the road. One direction crossed a bridge, and the other headed up a steep hill and out of sight.
“Which way toward the parking lot?” she asked.
I pointed up the hill. Becky seconded my motion.
Just before they set off, I made a promise. “If we don’t see you in the parking lot, we’ll send a search party.” They responded from the distance with soft chuckles.
Ten minutes later, we were still at the lookout point when I caught the eye of a passing ranger.
I pointed up the hill, Chewy and company long out of sight. “Does that road lead to the parking lot?” I asked him.
“Nope. Not at all. That’s a 9-mile hike into backcountry.”
“Ruh-roh. I just sent a family with limited water on an endless hike.”
My unsolicited advice was not too unlike the instructions people will sometimes impose on others concerning faith. They preach certitudes proclaiming their road is the only detour around a fiery damnation.
As a chaplain who’s definitely not a navigator, I can tell you that pushing people into a particular brand of faith rarely ends well. Even if you see the convert through the baptistry waters, they’ll often backslide because it was never really their choice to begin with.
The best approach in sharing your faith is to first wait until someone is truly seeking your advice. Then I suggest helping folks explore their options, not dictating your ultimatum. Look for ways to journey with them, seeking the answers together.
This strategy echoes the advice of Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
When someone seeks your wisdom about faith or any other path, I suggest you consider the attitude conveyed in phrases like “May I share my experience?” “The best advice I ever received was….” “Can we explore your questions together until we find what you are looking for?”
As a chaplain, I’ve discovered there is frequently little value in the navigator approach, telling people where to go and how to get there.
As for Chewy’s party of five, the ranger jumped into his pickup and drove up the hill. Ten minutes later the family came clopping back toward us.
“Let’s get out of here,” my wife said. “I don’t want to have to explain my husband.”
Without hesitation, I grabbed my daypack and scrambled down the path toward the car.
I know good advice when I hear it.
Join my wife and me on a trip to Honduras, March 8–15, 2020. We will be taking 16 readers with us to help support the Chispa Project, a nonprofit working to create school libraries and spark a passion for learning. For more information, visit chispaproject.org, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 608-9715.
Norris Burkes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.