I want to tell you about the party at Hooters.
Actually, I want to talk about being christian.
Wait, maybe we should start with smoke breaks.
goin’ for a smoke?
We’ve all seen it: a cluster of people having a smoke while huddled together near the front entrance of their work place. Wedding receptions typically give birth to rotating clusters of smokers who straggle out to the parking lot for a puff. A Canadian version of this occurs each winter outside hockey arenas where parents shiver and shuffle together in the cold, smoke and steam rising from their faces, cigarettes glowing between their fingers.
I am fascinated by the smoke break sub-culture and the relationships that happen while smokers hover together. Complete strangers from different places, backgrounds and interests find ways to gather in inconvenient places for a common purpose. They literally and figuratively stand at the edge of society.
But I’ve noticed that smokers easily engage each other with good natured smiles and casual small talk, united together by a tiny combustible cylinder of shredded tobacco. The camaraderie is real but there is something more important happening during smoke breaks … acceptance.
I’m sure a smoke break isn’t a heavenly experience but smokers seem to find it worthwhile, not just because of their habit but because it is friendly and safe. Whatever else is happening in the world, this is one place where there are no castes or pretences. In a culture that literally pushes them aside, smokers make a place where each can belong. A nico-team.
So I think my point is obvious – all christians should start smoking.¹
we’re all sinners, except I’m not
What I mean is, christians should mix easily with anyone and everyone – like smokers on a smoke-break. Christians should be secure enough to find common ground with others rather than so insecure as to look for differences.
If you have ever traveled in the American bible-belt you will understand how religion can dominate culture. In many southern states christian advertising, music, and businesses are everywhere while mini and mega-churches dot prime tracts of real estate. Why, you can’t swing a bible case from the local christian book store without hitting a street preacher…
I’ve often wondered how it would feel to be a non-christian there. Do the christians understand how off-putting their view of the world can be when it’s shouted and flaunted? How must it feel for unbelievers to be subjected to church people who only want to invite them, correct them, measure them? How icky must it be to explain why you don’t go to church, to be shunned because you drink beer, or to have to listen to worship music at work? Think about it – we christians sure are against a lot of stuff.
At the same time, many church people still feel good about themselves: songs sung, sermons preached, offerings taken, programs planned. A soul saved here, backslider rescued there, sinner witnessed to somewhere else. Yet very little actually changes or gets better.
Too often we are taught that the world is sinful and dirty and so we remain offended and slightly aloof from it. The result is a sallow, ‘us versus them’ faith instead of a loving, gracious faith.
then there’s Jesus
During the last few years evangelicals have been especially cranky as they’ve felt their cultural influence draining away.² There are many examples but perhaps you have seen some of those televangelists and pastors, predicting doom, demanding their rights, and praying fervently for God’s help …
… while completely ignoring their neighbours and their own accountability. They remind me of the over-the-top priests of Baal who amused the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 18. All their red-faced chanting, shouting, and praying simply didn’t live up to anything truly meaningful.
One of the issues that regularly got Jesus into trouble was the kind of people he enjoyed spending time with. Sinners. He hung out with tax collectors, terrorists, prostitutes, foreigners, labourers, lepers, Pharisees, women, commoners. He even went where they were: in the fields, along the road, on the seashore, in their homes. The religious types captured it nicely with their complaint: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Actually, yes. Yes he did.
Me? Before the Hooters party I had always been a nice guy who was proud of my humility. But honestly, I had never gone out of my way to be with people outside my own comfortable limits. In other words, I only accepted others on my own terms. I didn’t smoke break.
no road map
There was no thought to where I was headed after I resigned from the church where I had been ministering. I loved the people and it was a healthy situation most pastors would envy, but I was feeling increasingly unsettled. God was twisting my soul and pushing me somewhere else, though I didn’t know where. I didn’t have a plan but I knew I had to be obedient to the madness God was planting inside me.
There were bills to pay so I grabbed a job in a furniture warehouse. Yeah – long days of lugging, carting, lifting, and even sweating! It wasn’t long before the other workers discovered that I was ‘a real minister’ and almost immediately I was christened with the nickname Father-Bri. Some found my previous life amusing, some needed to belittle it, most didn’t care.
When the Christmas season rolled around some of them arranged an extra, unofficial Christmas party for a select group of employees. A party that would be more ‘fun’ than the company party. Surprisingly, touchingly, Father-Bri was invited. I okayed it with my wife and confirmed I would be there. Two weeks from now. Saturday night. 8 o’clock. At Hooters.
When the night came I arrived at Hooters shortly after my usual bedtime, and soon surrendered recklessly to the sinful pleasure of deep fried dill pickles. Co-workers gathered in, some with their significant others, and we talked and laughed and watched MMA on the monitors that hung all around us.
Some of them loved to eat, most of them loved to drink. One co-worker’s girlfriend was a sad, quiet person who stared at the floor, spoke in whispers, and left early. I still wonder how she is. Another guest who sat across from me was outgoing and chatty and had already been drinking since late morning. One girl assumed we were all going to a strip club afterward and, without thought, offered that her friend was a dancer who would give me a free lap dance as a favour.
My heart broke that night, more than once, as I sat with my new friends. In all my years I had never spent a night at a bar with co-workers, partly because I’m an introvert but mostly because I was a christian. Yeah, that’s really why.
Yet that evening was also one of the highlights of my christian life – it confirmed for me that people don’t want or need preachy religion, just friendship and acceptance. They were people: they had families, interests, loves, struggles, fears just like I did.
That Hooter’s party was like standing outside for a smoke break – each of us simply needed acceptance. I learned that acceptance is not something you say, it’s something you do together.
Why did Father Bri get invited to the Hooters Christmas party? Probably because I was safe: I liked my co-workers, cared about them, and they knew it. But I was also moved by the open acceptance they gave back to me and the opportunity to share my faith and who I was.
When I left Hooters that night I felt invigorated: my soul was singing and my heart was full because I felt God’s purpose and pleasure. I was realizing the calling to join Jesus outside of the lines, preachments, and pretences.
If you’re a christian, can you continue to live in a separate, pristine world where you’ve learned to be safe and disparaging? Maybe that’s why your faith feels offside, old, stagnant.
Perhaps you could begin by unconditionally accepting each person you meet and searching for the image of God in them. It is in the uncomfortable, surprising places that you find God’s pleasure and potential.
Jesus is our example and you’ll never meet anybody he doesn’t want to be with.
~ ~ ~
… for uptight, humourless non-smokers: I do not advocate smoking, this is simply a device I’m using to make a larger point.
… for uptight, humourless smokers: I am not a militant anti-smoker, this is simply a device I’m using to make a larger point.
… for uptight, humourless people: I am not serious about the above disclaimers, they are simply page-filler for the purpose of filling the page.
² Scot McNight does an excellent job of detailing the current evangelical predicament in this newsletter.