SO, A MISSIONARY WALKS INTO A BAR……
Last night my wife and I spent two hours in a bar in La Paz, Mexico where we live. Strange place for a missionary, pastor, and mission executive, — or is it? In the background a live jazz band played its music, but it was not overpowering; it did not disrupt normal conversation.
The event was a fundraiser for a reef and mangrove cleanup project. Once a month the sponsoring group organizes big trash collections on the beaches, in the mangroves, and underwater on the reefs. Kayaks, Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPS), SCUBA and power boats are the vehicles and tools used to accomplish the task. The money raised last night will provide a stipend to marine biology university students who do public speaking in the area grade schools to help the children learn to love and appreciate the ocean from an early age.
It is no secret that I am a mission executive, a devout churchgoer and a follower of Jesus. The subject of my work came up several times during the evening’s conversations and my friends have scoped me out on Facebook so they know who I am and what I do. Facebook is a wonderful tool if properly used; to paraphrase Jesus, “out of the abundance of the heart one posts on FB.”
Should I go to a bar? What if someone sees me there? Will this ruin my testimony? These questions scrolled through my mind for a couple of days prior to the event. I came to the conclusion that not only did I need to go to the bar, I wanted to go. I wanted to be with my friends–and make new ones. I wanted to be identified with their cause. I wanted them to know that I like what they like.* I wanted them to discover that the frequently held stereotype of “Christians” might not be true for Jesus followers. I discovered that any anxiety I may have felt was a vestigial remnant from my cultural upbringing and a latent predisposition towards negativism prevalent among some evangelicals whose favorite word often seems to be “No.”
This particular bar, La Perla Negra (Black Pearl) is tastefully decorated, not a seedy dive; and it is the kind of place I envision as a Jesus hangout. Honestly, I suspect Jesus would be much more comfortable in this bar than he would be in many traditional churches where program has replaced relationship and where competitive preaching is the draw. As I sat in the bar I wished Jesus had been there with us, joining in the laughter, telling hilarious jokes and sharing life-changing stories. I don’t know that Jesus would have had a beer or not since wine seems to be more his thing. I imagined him enthralling us with his stories and challenging us to grow while sipping a glass of wine. I imagined the bar owner being a bit nervous about having the world’s most famous vintner and the actual creator of the fermentation process in his establishment. I could imagine Jesus speaking to event organizers and thanking them for their work in cleaning up the mess that has been made of the beautiful world he created. Since the customers in the bar were not part of the religious right, nor church professionals, I think Jesus would have been very gentle with them. Jesus seemed to have reserved his anger for the religious conservatives of his day, the traditionalists, the haughty literalists, the detailists, the arguing theologians, those who used the Scriptures for manipulative purposes – people just like many of us. I wonder with whom Jesus would be angry today.
Should I have gone to the bar? What if someone saw me? What if my going offends someone? My guess is that the only people who would be offended would be those who have been taught to be offended by this type of thing. No one can use the Bible to build a case against spending a pleasant evening in a decent place with new friends. Since I am not tempted towards animism, I was not concerned about the physical space of the bar. Might my going to a bar cause a “weaker brother to stumble”? Maybe – – that is a possibility, assuming he truly is a weaker brother and not an evangelical manipulator or a professional weaker brother dictating the behavior of others via his weakness of choice. Had the bar been decorated with an image of Gaia and my contribution gone to buy incense to burn for her, I would not have gone. That could cause a legitimate weaker brother to stumble as he would have seen an apparent act of worship, which is the point the passage in the Bible is speaking about – not a religiously neutral activity. The weaker brother argument, while biblically valid, has been highly misused. Some church leaders have used it to selectively manipulate and control people in regard to specific activities, but they have failed to use it uniformly. Should I use a computer since computers are the main source of pornography? Should I go into a donut shop since many of my friends are obese and diabetic and my eating a donut might tempt them? Am I sinning by going into a Best Buy when most Americans are tempted towards greed and sinfully view hyperpossesionism as a blessing from God? Am I sinning by using an iPhone since Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist? We mustn’t use the weaker brother argument as a catch all to govern any behavior which makes others uncomfortable. We mustn’t be led by American evangelical traditions if they are training and inducing people to live in perpetual weakness.
Because I am aware of the potential discomfort my going to a bar might create among the more conservative American-style Christians, I went to the bar protected by the presence of my wife. I also contacted a missionary coworker to let him know where we were going to be and I texted him at 9 PM when we got home to let him know that the event was over. Sin is generally done in secret. Secrecy breeds suspicion and fear and breaks trust. I want to be totally open about the fact that I went to a bar. Jesus certainly had no qualms about boldly going into places which gave the legalists cause for attacking him. What’s more, he had his questionable acts recorded in God’s Word for all of eternity. Do you think that maybe he was trying to tell us something?
It was a wonderful evening, and I’ll do it again in a heartbeat.
* The first thing God says about humanity in the Bible is that “It is not good for man to be alone.” Bars are a human attempt to facilitate togetherness. Drinking is an activity done in bars but is not their main attraction. The fact that someone is in a bar is proof positive that they are searching for something. If it is alcohol they are after they are more likely to go to a liquor store, a convenience store or a grocery store where it is far cheaper and faster to obtain it. Living like I do in an alcohol ravaged city, I’m not downplaying the horrific problems caused by drunkenness and alcoholism, but I can’t help but wonder if it might not be time for Jesus followers to redeem bars and transform them into useful places in which to share the good news of what Jesus has done for us? I look forward to the day when people go to church for the same reason they go to a bar – to spend time with people. In a bar alcohol is the tool used to break down inhibitions and facilitate relationships. In the community of Jesus followers it is reconciliation and forgiveness that allow true relationships.