Normally, when I visit my parents in the spring and fall, you’ll find me swinging on the front porch, barefoot, with a book in hand. Every so often, I’ll hear a car door slam at Honest Greg’s Sports Bar and will look up from my book to see if it looks like happy hour has started yet. When happy hour starts, the little parking lot might have four cars parked in it. Other than that, I just ignore the sleepy little “watering hole” that sits kitty-corner from my parents’ parsonage.
Today was the kind of day when the best ideas are born. I took my notebook and pen and sat in the swing, barefoot and enjoying the fact that the temperature is perfect and no mosquitoes seem to have hatched in this part of the state yet. Although it was somewhat cloudy, I had a couple of good hours of daylight left and some ideas in my head. But then, I noticed that something was different.
It was pretty hard to ignore the fifty motorcycles rumbling down the street. When they turned their caravan into the gravel parking lot at Honest Greg’s, curiosity won out. I closed my notebook, tucked my pen into its spine and tried to figure out how to watch without staring. And that’s when I noticed that the sign at Honest Greg’s doesn’t say Honest Greg’s anymore. Now, it says, “Billy’s Biker Bar” and has a 6-foot stuffed gorilla chained to it. (How did I miss seeing that earlier?!)
Soon after the bikers arrived, loud music started. Now, I don’t mean that they had the jukebox turned up on high. I mean, they had a live band set up in a tent in the back yard of the bar. And for hours we heard them play everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Eric Clapton to Jimmy Buffett. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that annoying to me. In fact, I was pretty tickled to hear my Dad (the preacher that barely let us listen to the radio when we were kids) singing along with a Fats Domino song.
As the evening shadows started to creep up onto the porch, I sat, fifty yards from the bar, staring at the neon beer signs and sensing the Spirit speaking to me….
The summer I was eighteen, I went temporarily insane. After spending all of my school years toeing the line and being “the responsible, mature one,” as soon as graduation was over, I just lost control. I spent six or eight months partying, hanging out with other not-so-bright people, and getting all sorts of stupidity out of my system. But after I came back to my senses, I didn’t step foot into a bar for more than a decade.
A few years ago, my older brother started singing lead in a Southern Rock/Blues band. They played bars, back porches, weddings, and festivals all around their local area. Well, my brother and I have had a very challenging relationship for a number of years. In an attempt to help heal that relationship and show him my love and support, I accepted an invitation to come hear his band play at a bar in downtown Winterville, NC. I, my brother’s girlfriend, and one of her girlfriends, got all dressed up and made up for a night on the town. I didn’t really know what to expect; I just knew that me being there was important to my brother. Even though I knew that a lot of church folks wouldn’t approve of my being there, I went. (The band let me introduce my big brother– look at the picture to see how embarrassed he was!)
I expected the place to be full of drunks, but by the end of the night, we had realized that there was also quite a bit of cocaine being passed around. We girls were being harassed and manhandled so badly that eventually, the band pulled in one of their friends to be our bodyguard. I found myself sitting at a table, sipping ginger ale, and almost crying over the darkness that I was seeing around me.
I came away from that weekend different than I had been before. I realized that I’d been hidden away in my safe, comfortable pew for so long that I’d forgotten what emptiness and desperation felt like. I’d put religious blinders on and become ignorant to what goes on outside the four walls of the church. But sitting in that bar in Winterville, I saw these people, stumbling in the darkness, lost, and looking for their way home—in the bottom of a bottle, in a line of cocaine, in a one night stand. And all I could think was: Oh, Jesus, how your heart must be broken! They don’t know that you love them!
Several years ago, I started feeling a strong urgency for The Church to prepare our churches for an influx of hurting people. How we, like Nehemiah, should pray and build our churches in such a way that they’ll be strong and safe to shelter those folks. I shared that urgency with a number of people from a couple of different churches, but I’m not sure that we all understood it then. But the more hurting people I see, the more I understand it.
It’s easy for church folks (me too) to get comfortable and forget that there are people around them that are crushed and dying. I’ve been on both sides of this—I’ve been the “comfy” Christian and I’ve been the one that’s crushed and dying. My prayer is that God will continue to push (SHOVE!) me out of my comfort zone and that He will keep opening my eyes to the wounded around me. I pray that The Church will become that haven and sanctuary for those that are hurting. It’s time for God’s people to accept the challenge to stop “playing Dressed Up Church” and start showing our scars so that the people around us will feel comfortable enough to come in and get healed.