Most Wednesday nights at our local pub are pretty slow. I know because I spent a year sitting with a handful of friends doing pub theology there each Wednesday night. But a couple of weeks ago, there were more than 100 people who came to be part of a conversation on rainy Wednesday night. They gathered to share an experience, to find out what happens when we move our church conversations beyond the walls of the church and dare to offer up our deepest questions in a public place.
I was privileged to get to sit with Dr. Walter Brueggeman and our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Breidenthal. Together, we pondered “the self” – who are we? And wrestled with the question “who is God” – how can we understand the idea of the Trinity in the world around us? And what is the church and how is the Holy Spirit reshaping the church anew? We asked how the words that we profess in the creeds and in Scripture make a difference to real life problems of poverty, violence, and illness. We laughed, we argued, we heard words of great wisdom – or at least some of us did! The thing about hosting a conversation in a bar is that everyone else doesn’t stop talking just because a scholar or a bishop has something to say.
And so something else happened, something that points to the reason for hosting this conversation in a loud, noisy, much too crowded bar in our neighborhood. People began just talking at their tables. And people talked afterwards and people who were just trying to have dinner and a drink found themselves mixed up with a group of Christians willing to come out on a cold, rainy night to talk about God in a bar. And they asked questions too – and maybe in some imperfect way we created a space for conversation, for asking questions, for more than one answer – a space beyond dualities of thinking, for seeking truth in all it’s complexity.
It was not perfect, in so many ways there was something contrived about it all. It left a few experts to answer the questions instead of hearing the wisdom of the people gathered. Its purpose was to create a video that could be shared and so there was an explicit performance quality to it all. But it was a move beyond the safe comfort of our sanctuaries into the world, into our every day lives. It was a step towards saying the church that is God’s people, must always turn itself out into uncomfortable situations. It was a way of witnessing and being vulnerable to the world. Our showing up in that public place to ask questions proved that we are still seeking answers. That as a community, we acknowledge we need each other and all the voices and people who aren’t in our churches to figure out what God is doing. And God is there, knitting us together, and pushing us out, making us uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel.
What happens when a priest, a scholar and a bishop walk into a bar? Maybe the bar becomes the church, people gathered in God’s name on a journey that is fraught with challenge and discontent and yet is beautiful and messy and perhaps even a glimpse of the kingdom.
What happens? Well, in all honesty it depends on who you ask. If you weren’t there – you will have to check out the video when it comes out! In the meantime, I encourage you to just try walking into your own local establishment and hosting a conversation about what questions are on the hearts and minds of the people in your community.