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A Minister Walks Into A Bar

    At the risk of offending my ordination committee, in retrospect it seems that all I really needed to know about pastoral counseling I learned while working in a bar. Let me be clear to say from the outset that I intend to make no blanket recommendations for your own choice of institutions devoted to graduate study. But having done some hard time in one theological seminary after another, I will stipulate for the record that you are likely to meet just as many salty characters in any divinity school as you will in your average local watering hole. In my case, it simply turned out that the books I managed to crack open in my pastoral care and counseling classes always seemed a pallid and lifeless introduction to what our professors called “the human condition.” By contrast, there were the rancid smells that awaited me at 5 AM every day when I clocked in for another shift at the high-rollers cocktail lounge of a Rust Belt airport hotel. And let me tell you that the faint odor of Morning-After-In-a-Bar always seemed more than enough immersion in the human condition for my delicate stomach. Even to this day I still find it impossible to read the Genesis account of Adam and Eve being evicted from that lovely Garden without feeling for at least a few seconds like I am still hauling leaking trash bags to the moldering pile of a hotel dumpster. If you were to ask me, that is the unmistakable smell of regret and failure.

    Now of course, few of us possess the requisite gifts of imagination to anticipate a sour whiff of the Morning After while we pursue the pleasures of a Night Before. In my case, discovering that particular distinction largely came as a result of my father’s ability in sales and marketing. Having relocated our family from the East Side of Seattle to the Midwest around the time I was ready to continue my ministerial studies, my dad decided to give me a leg-up on the new local job market by chatting up the manager of the airport hotel in which we had taken refuge until the moving van would arrive. Yes, that hotel. But what my father never imagined until I came home from my first day at the new job he had arranged for me was that the hotel manager’s vision for what would constitute suitable employment for his firstborn son was perhaps far more expansive than anything Pops had imagined. And so it was that after an evening of shall we say, rather intense family consultation, my father and mother sent me back for a second day of duty in that hotel cocktail lounge.

All these years later, I’m now old enough to wonder how these otherwise proper and straight-laced Nazarene parents came to such a decision. All I really remember was their deep, prayerful conviction that perhaps none other than the Lord himself had taken advantage of our situation to place me in a position of potential influence in what had no doubt been a certifiable den of iniquity. Now I will admit to you that these were strange people, my parents, convinced as they always were that every so often God’s best idea for cleaning up Sin City might involve sticking a saint or two at the heart of where all the rough stuff is taking place. But off to work I went, with our family praying that I would not make as much of a mess of this new and exotic situation as I was capable of making. “Who knows?” asked my parents hopefully, “Perhaps you have been given God’s favor and blessing in these circumstances for just such a time as this.” If I had realized at that moment that they were quoting to me from the Old Testament story of a Jewish teenager who won a beauty pageant to become both Miss Persia as well as Queen Esther, well, that would have been even more awkward. I already had confidence issues, as they say. But as it was, I was about to spend the next several months sluicing spilled drinks and mashed martini olives out of those cocktail lounge carpets, so a deep and enduring sense of divine providence wasn’t always the first thing popping into my mind. Come to think of it, on many days that kind of disconnect between what you find yourself doing and what you had hoped to be experiencing by now may also describe where you live and work as well. Remember that whole Morning After and Night Beforething we talked about earlier? All I can now say at present is that maybe all of us will eventually need to come up with a new bumper sticker once we begin to figure out all of those really important connections that often do not come to light until well after the fact. So what should our new bumper stickers say? Perhaps only this:Grace (and not just that other stuff) Happens!

    As for me, many years ago I went off to work in a bar, and lo and behold, I came to feel pretty certain that God said, “It is good.” Maybe I should unpack that a little just in case you are tempted to walk away from this little story with some misimpression and confusion. So let me state for the record some of what became fairly obvious while I was working in a bar. For starters, none of the people that I met there ever seemed to feel and live better as a result of more alcohol. I guess you could say that if you’re having a hard time seeing your life straight before you walked into a bar, getting your Beer Goggles on probably is not going to be of much help. Neither did it seem that what I was witnessing around me in the cocktail lounge bore any resemblance to the imagery and messaging of those commercials all of us see on television. The Most Interesting Man in the World? I never did meet him while I was working in a bar. I did however become acquainted with quite a number of Really Boring Drunk Guys. The most interesting things they managed to do in my presence usually turned out to be rather unimaginative variations of highly embarrassing antics that always defied explanation the next day to their less-than-amused spouses, business partners, and administrative assistants. Being able to hang onto your money, your effectiveness at work, or your relationships with the people who are trying to love you is usually not going to be a winning proposition if you can’t even be trusted with your own car keys. I could tell you more, but all of these are things that most of us already know by intuition, if not by direct observation. And if there is one thing nobody enjoys in a bar, it has to be the voice of some smarty-pants announcing obvious truths.

    Although it was definitely not obvious at the time, I truly did come to think that God felt that my work in a bar was indeed tov, or good, as the Hebrew Creation account once put it. But the best explanation for how that is true has far more to do with what I learned there than anything I might have said. I simply remember with gratitude the co-workers and customers who eventually made a place for me in their heart as we became friends. And as our months together began to unfold, I found a place in my own heart for them as well, developing something of an honest love for the quirky characters that all of them seemed to be. So I grew to care for my boss, a single mom who loved eating frog legs and whose work wardrobe always seemed a tad more risqué than Jennifer Lopez, perhaps because she had learned along the way that doing so would pleasure all the high-testosterone CEO types who were her daily meal-ticket for survival. I also began to care for her boyfriend, the married Mob lawyer who flew into town every day just for lunch at the bar, perhaps because a few cocktails could anesthetize him just enough to forget that he was using his law degree to service the kind of ruthless people he might have wished to see rot in jail. When it finally came time for me to leave and return to my ministerial studies, he quite generously offered to pay my way for seminary at the Vatican with the understanding that I would in turn come back to serve as something of a private, in-house chaplain for the Mafia family he represented in court. Honestly, being offered that full-tuition, room-and-board Italian scholarship from the Mob may be the nicest compliment I have received in all these years of ministry. But in the end, I simply tried to thank my new friend and favorite Mafia attorney, telling him that the whole priestly celibacy thing would remain a deal-killer for me. In reply, he said something like forgetaboutit, but I never really have. For once your heart expands to accommodate a love for other people; it just never seems to return to its previous size. And once you find that you love them, your prayers are soon to follow.

    The truth is that my friends at the bar were initially quite wary of my presence, probably because they had more than enough prior experience with other Christians who had cultivated them as project relationships by building the kind of pseudo-friendships that were little more than naked attempts to manipulate others into gratitude and church attendance. In the early days, they were largely content to fire away at me with deeply wounded-sounding questions regarding God and the Church, as gleefully ready to verbally knock me around as a bunch of drunken kittens would be to pounce upon a ball of yarn. But over time their defensive shields were lowered, the deadbolts on their hearts clicked open, and their initial suspicions began to shift toward long, open-ended conversations and a deep sense of curiosity regarding my way of life as a person of faith. Frankly, that kind of very close attention to who I really was and how I would live on the days between Sundays scared the daylights out of me, for it was incredibly humbling to realize that my lifestyle was fast becoming a Third Testament that others were reading carefully to learn what could be known about Jesus. In fact, if they could have put into words what they were thinking about and hungering for, I’m pretty sure that most of the friends I met in the bar would have said something like this at the time: If you could really let me see Jesus working in you to accomplish the kinds of things that you say he will do, I would actually follow him.

    I guess you could say that is the catch. Plenty of folks seem perfectly willing to love Jesus. Often it is simply us that they cannot stand. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose to include us in his own work after he had risen from the grave. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he told his stunned disciples, breathing his Resurrection breath upon that scared bunch of cowards so that the Spirit that was inside of him could somehow get inside of them as well. Perhaps you remember the scene and the way he gave us a new assignment that is guaranteed to take us closer than we could have imagined to the kind of people only Jesus would love: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

    Isn’t that just like the Lord? After conquering Death and Hell, the risen Jesus has nothing better to do than to go around breathing on people. But wherever the Spirit of Jesus is received and welcomed, the peace and forgiveness of Jesus has also become available. So what are you going to do about that Church? Maybe it is finally time for all of us to really inhale.

Jeff Crosno