When a couple of favorite Bible passages came up on the lectionary recently I remembered a book I'd read in the last couple of months. (The lectionary is a sequence or list of Scriptures to be read in church services during the year.)
From Isaiah 55 we heard, "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."
The gospel lesson was from Matthew 14 where Jesus feeds 5,000 with two fish and five loaves. Of course these passages are open to infinite interpretations or we preachers would be out of work in a hurry. Yet this time through. I was reminded of those people who have come "hungry" to church and are turned away.
James G. Johnson wrote "Crossing the Bar (Home by Another Way)" about his life as a Montana bar tender. He didn't start out to be a bartender. He's an ordained Lutheran pastor who was prevented from parish preaching after he and his present wife had an affair. Both left their former spouses, married each other and opened a bar.
When his customers hear of his experience many ask, "How did you lose your faith?" He tells them he hasn't lost his faith. He has been through shame and the need for forgiveness. Many of the people who come to bars are also no stranger to shame, or feelings of rejection. More than a few have been shoved out of the church either directly, or through the behavior of members who let them know they're not welcome.
Not having a place to go, not having a place to belong, not feeling good about yourself does not take spiritual hunger away. I realized some time back that telling a person he or she is needy doesn't make that need disappear. People often frequent bars for the same reason others go to church. They want a place to be known and to belong. Along with our need for food, and shelter, we need to be in community.
As a Christian pastor, it is hard for me to learn that bars are often more accepting of people and provide community better than churches do. Many of Johnson's customers are eager to find Immanuel, "God with us."
Johnson writes, "Whether you are part of the Christian church and striving to carry out God's mission in the world, or you are on the ‘outside' and want to know more about God's love and peace, you will be miles ahead if you acknowledge the vast difference between how outsiders view the church and how the church views itself."
As people get to know the Johnsons better and trust them more, they are open to participation in some sort of worship. Even if we're not outside of the church we do know that building trust is a process. It is helpful to think seriously about the meaning of God's promise in Isaiah to feed those who are hungry and to remember that, as people opened themselves to Jesus' words in Matthew, that their needs were met.
While some go regularly to both churches and bars, most people are on one side or another of the divide. Johnson's book has reminded me that when we look below the surface differences, we humans are much more alike than different.
The Rev. Dorothy Price Knudson is retired from active ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but still preaches regularly and Congregational and Presbyterian churches in Eastern Oregon Presbytery. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.