You call that work?

Out for Philly Beer Week with the Hammer of Glory

Out for Philly Beer Week with the Hammer of Glory

I sometimes get asked this question outright.  More often I receive skeptical glances that make it all too clear when someone doesn’t believe that going to a bar, beer festival or concert could possibly count as work.  I know that some of my parishioners, including members of my vestry (governing board) have real questions about my occasional work as priest in a bar.  Heck, my own wife sometimes gives me the “I think you’re full of it” look when I am heading out for Beer Week in my clericals and try to explain that it’s work.  In short, people are amazed at what they perceive to be my audacity.  And to be perfectly honest, I have sometimes wondered about it myself.

But after lots of recent reflection I am convinced that it is legitimately work.  Here’s why.  First, there is no reason why work and fun have to be mutually exclusive.  I generally enjoy my work. Heck sometimes I actually enjoy finding creative ways to balance the Diocesan budget… it’s not just satisfying to find a way to make it all balance… it’s actually fun to figure out how to fix the excel formula.  Now I understand if this revelation causes you to question my sanity or unsubscribe from this blog, but no one would ever say that crunching numbers isn’t work.

But there are more specific and compelling reasons why being a Priest in a Bar is legitimate ministry.  Although I usually drink (I am going into bars after all) which is not something that would be permitted for most other professions, when I wear the collar people are responding to me first and foremost as a priest.   That means I need  to respond to them appropriately and professionally.

This is sometimes easier said than done.  First, I need to keep careful track of my alcohol intake.  And let me tell you, when I am faced with fantastic tap line ups, it requires a lot of self control.  I can’t just relax the way one would normally would do when sitting down over a drink.

But being a priest in traditionally un-priestly places also means I run into a whole range of responses.  I have greeted with smiles and looks of disbelief.  I have been waved at and flipped off.  I have had total strangers come and pour out their fear or grief while others try hard not to make eye contact.  I have engaged in great philosophical discussions and debates.  I have been groped and insulted and I have been asked countless times, “Are you a real priest?”  The bottom line is that I need to stay on my toes.

And in the end that is the real reason why it is really work when I go out in the collar.  I am not going out for myself alone.  Instead I am choosing to become a symbol of something much bigger and more important.  The collar represents both God and the Church and in these times there are all kinds of mixed feelings about both.  And so when I wear it, especially in non-traditional settings I need to be ready for anything.

time clockWhen I wear the collar my time is not truly my own.  It means that sometimes I have to leave a conversation with friends in order to talk to a stranger.  I have to be willing to set aside what I want to do so that I can listen to them. And, not surprisingly, it means I need to stay coherent.

I tell you these things not to complain or even elicit sympathy.  I love what I do and I do it by choice.  There are lots of other, more conventional things, I could do to exercise my ministry but when all is said and done there is nothing I would rather do.

And so I have come to understand that if I truly want to off the clock and relax then I have to start by taking off the uniform because so long as I wear it out, the reality is that I am on duty, even if it’s in a bar.


“Hey Father! Can you hear my confession?”

“Hey Father! Can you hear my confession?” That’s what he said as I walked past his house party along the race course.  I can still picture the look of shock in his eyes when I turned back and without missing a beat said, “Of course.”  I think I took even more delight when his buddy pushed him towards me and chortled, “Tell him what you did last night!”  Not surprisingly the young man ultimately declined to tell me about whatever he got up to the night before that sunny afternoon, but we did have a pleasant conversation which ended with him shaking my hand and wishing me a good day.

Bike Race 2013 (2)This was just one of the dozens of encounters I had while mingling with the crowds gathered for the Bike Race which I initially posted about here.  As you may have already surmised I was not out in civilian clothes.  Other things I heard or saw included “Hey Father, can you marry me today?” and “Hey Father, do you want a beer?” and the inevitable, “Are you a real priest?”

I also was greeted by name by many parishioners, neighbors and friends.  I was waved at, stared at and given a shirt that reads, “The Bike Race.  They Ride.  We Drink.”   Many times I was flashed the peace sign and once, given the finger.

But although my feet hurt and I hot and sweaty by the end of it all, it was an amazing and productive day.  In five hours I walked a few miles and in the process met strangers, joked with friends, caught up with lapsed parishioners, visited someone struggling with the death of their spouse and with a young man who’s cancer has gone into remission.  I was invited in to eat by total strangers.  I prayed with people who were desperate to find work and others who were going through a divorce and even listen to someone who was struggling with feeling suicidal.  I also got to visit with one of the newest additions to our parish, a 5 day old baby and his family.

Bike Race 2013 (4)It may not be anything they prepared me for at seminary, but it sure beats a day of emails and committee reports hands down.

A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walk into a Crowded Bar…

So again, it sounds like a joke right?  I can imagine that some might feel that their clergyBeer Week event 2013 (1) could drive them to drink, but this was different… on a beautiful Saturday afternoon more than 60 people filled the upstairs room at Fergie’s to come and listen to what these three  clergy had to say about beer and how it fit into a spiritual world.

What makes this number significant was not just the fact that it was the capacity for the room, it is also very close to the average Sunday attendance in The Episcopal Church.

Beer Week event 2013 (59)So what does it say when about as many people are willing to come to a bar to listen to clergy talk about beer as will come to church on a Sunday?   They came from all over the Philadelphia area, some travelling for as much as an hour.  A few even came from DC.

Also of note was the fact that we had many folks from the beer industry including Suzanne Woods from Allagash, Doug Marchakitus from Manayunk, Patrick and Tracy Mullin from Sly Fox and Luke Bowen from Evil Genius.

For them to take time during the 12 hour work days that are the reality of Beer Week is a significant statement.  During those few moments when they can break away from their grueling schedules they either try to rest or drop in at an event that is boasting a rock star from the beer world or a really rare beers. Although the draft selection was wonderful we could not claim such a draw.  But, they came anyway.  One told me that when he was looking over the list of dozens of events scheduled for that afternoon and came across ours, he knew right away that there was nowhere else he’d rather be.

But on to the event itself.  After a brief introduction Bryan started us off with an explanation of his Pub Theology model and how it is helping to redefine what it means Beer Week event 2013 (52)to be a church and how we go about connecting with the community.

Eli was next and took the crowd through references to beer and brewing in the Talmud, including passages from a Rabbi who was himself a brewer.

I tackled some of the theological and cultural assumptions that lead to the divide that has arisen between beer and G-D. Beer Week event 2013 (45)

But it was the Q&A that followed that proved to be the highlight of the day.  For more than a hour we were asked about matters both theological and practical such as, “How does hosting this at your congregation affect members who might be struggling with addiction?”  “What are the implications for pot or other drugs?” and “How can I sell this idea to my church board?”

After the formal Q&A wrapped up we mingled with the Beer Week event 2013 (70)crowd for more questions and conversation.  As you can see from the pics, everyone was in good spirits and the mood was joyful.

In the weeks and days that led up to the event the worries gnawed at confidence.  What if the we have hecklers?  What if we fall flat?  Or worst of all, what if no one shows up?  But thanks be to G-D the day exceeded our wildest expectations.  Because on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, when there were lots of other wonderful things to do, a packed barroom showed us that the world is full of people who love G-D and love good beer and are thirsting for a way to connect the two.

Beer Week event 2013 (20)My thanks to Eli, Bryan for helping me concoct this notion, to Fergie for offering the space without a moment’s hesitation, to Luke and Evil Genius for the beer, to all the good people from St Tim’s who came out to support it and to everyone who encouraged us along the way- we couldn’t have done it without you.

Here’s to doing it again next year!

A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walk into a Bar…

rabbi-priest-minister-finalAs you may have read in this previous post, I have been working on my first truly public beer and faith event as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week.  Working with friends and fellow clergy, Rabbi Eli Freedman and Rev. Bryan Berghoef, we will be talking about different ways in which we see confluence where so many others see schism and, more importantly, how we create opportunity where others choose to see threat.

The event will be upstairs at Fergie’s Pub.  After some introductory remarks we plan for each of us to spend about 10-15 minutes talking about how we came to see beer, not just as something to enjoy but as something that can enhance our spiritual lives.  We will then take questions and encourage discussion.  The event is very laid back so if you can’t be there spot at 3 pm please do still come.

Thanks to publican and philanthropist extraordinaire Fergus Carey for hosting us!

Details on the event are as follows                                                                          Where: Fergie’s Pub   1214 Sansom Street, Philadelphia                                      When:   June 8th,  3 pm till 5 or later if the discussion is still going

We hope to see you there and I will be reporting on how it all went next week.

Jesus at the Bike Race

bike raceFor those of us who live in Roxborough/Manayunk the first Sunday of June is either the greatest or the worst day of the year.  It is the day of the Bike Race, when our streets are shut down and packed with crowds, many of whom are 20 something’s who gather en masse for a weekend binge.

Anyway, below is the sermon I preached on the subject yesterday.  I will be sharing my reflections from being out at the race in a post in the near future.

A few years ago I ventured to the old Khyber Pass bar to see one of my favorite bands.  After I settled myself at the bar I was surprised to see a one of our parishioners coming towards me.  (I know that it is shocking to learn that the people who go to this church might sometime go to bars!) Anyway, after a hug and an introduction to her boyfriend, she said, “It seems that you see me more in bars than in church.” with a kind of sheepish laugh.  Although her statement wasn’t entirely accurate, I started to wonder what she was really saying.  The implication seemed to be that because she went to bars more frequently than she went to church that she had something to apologize for, or even be ashamed of. 

But as infrequently as I actually get out to bars, I have discovered something extraordinary, namely that bars are full of who are looking for G-D.  Now I can guess what you might be thinking… if they are really looking for G-D then maybe they should stop hanging around bars so much and get back to church, right?

If it were only that simple.  So many of the people I meet in bars are indeed really thirsting to find a real connection to G-D, but for a variety of reasons, are just not comfortable coming to church in order to meet that need.  This is not a 21st century problem.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 7:1-10) we see that Jesus clearly recognized that there will always be people who long for what G-D has to offer but for a variety of reasons feel shut out of the religious establishment. 

This insight was the bedrock of his ministry.  Unlike most religious leaders Jesus didn’t spent all day at the temple or in the synagogues.  He didn’t sequester himself away reading and discussing the scriptures and the law.  What Jesus did was unique for his ministry took place primarily outside the holy and sacred places and instead took place out in the ordinary world.  In other words, Jesus too the Gospel out to the people. 

While this in itself was important, Jesus took it a giant step further.  He wasn’t content to spend his time with just the decent, ordinary, good temple going folks.  If he had, the Pharisees would have been far more tolerant of him.  No, Jesus spent time with…. those people.  You know the kind I mean, the dirty, the sleazy, the kind of folks we probably wouldn’t want in our homes or our church. 

In doing so Jesus not only defied social conventions, he was defying sacred law and tradition.  For in Jesus’ time, the law taught that there were some people, who by virtue of their profession, their lifestyle, their parentage or their diseases and disabilities simply were not welcome in the Temple.  Yet Jesus freely ignored all that.  As a result, while he alienated many of the religious leaders, he also managed to attract tax-collectors, prostitutes, the crippled and the poor.                                                                                

The Centurion knew this and so dared to hope that Jesus might be willing to help him too.  The problem was that even though he was a good man, who did whatever he could to help the people, he was still part of the hated Roman army, and so ritually unclean.  Even though he was desperate, he assumed that his mere presence would cause offense and so did not dare to approach directly.   Even when Jesus agrees to come the Centurion cannot shake the notion that he is still unworthy of Jesus’ presence. 

But Jesus doesn’t keep his distance.  Jesus comes to the Centurion because he is in need and he is earnestly seeking G-D.  And it doesn’t matter to Jesus that he is ritually unclean or that he is part of the army that has conquered and occupied his country.  Jesus is willing to bend all the rules and go to where  the Centurion is in order to share G-D’s love with him. 

This Gospel gets to the very heart of what Jesus’ ministry was about- making G-D accessible to all people, regardless of whether they were worthy or pure- breaking down the barriers and refusing to be constrained by the old traditions and models.  And that has huge implication for how we understand and carry out our ministry today. 

The primary reason the Church exists is to bring people into relationship with G-D.  Even though all of us who are gathered here today definitely have room to grow in our faith, we at least have some understanding of who G-D is and what that means for our lives.  But right now, as we speak there are tens of thousands of people filling the streets just outside our walls.   And I would venture to guess that a whole lot of them don’t darken the door of any church.  But that doesn’t mean are aren’t still looking for meaning and purpose in their lives or even that they would like to have a closer relationship with G-D. 

So why aren’t they here?  Some would argue that the traditional music and worship fail to attract them.  In my experience it’s not a matter of offering modern music or projecting everything up on a screen or even by having the service as a smart phone app.  If all it took was that kind of gimmick, I can guarantee you that Jesus would have done it first.  He would have instituted some new and revolutionary type of temple service or so cool and hip way of reading the Torah that really connected with the young people of his day.  No, if we are going to get to the root of the problem we must accept the fact that sharing the Gospel is not just a matter of repackaging the same old product. 

Nor is it just a matter of being friendly.   If it were this church would be packed every Sunday.  To your credit on a number of occasions I have seen you truly model Jesus’ willingness to accept and welcome people like the residents of Ivy Ridge Home (a personal care home for people with serious mental illness) or guys who are usually seen hanging around outside DeLeo’s (a place that really puts the “D” in divebar), people who definitely don’t fit into the traditional image of what is expected in terms of dress or decorum.  And while this is much more critical to our success as evangelists than just trying to reinvent the services I fear it that even our welcoming culture is not enough. 

The bottom line is that no matter how contemporary or hip our worship, no matter how warm a welcome we extend, the real problem is that many of them just can’t bring themselves to come in the door.  Yet we continue to avoid the inevitable conclusion, that if we want to help people connect with G-D, it is not enough to simply welcome them in. We have to go out to where they are.

This reality could not be made clearer than it is this very day.  For more than a decade I have heard people complain about the Bike Race.  Having seen the hordes of underage drunks, the parking nightmares and the tens of thousands of red cups that litter our streets when it is all done, I have to say that I completely understand.  But, we are not here just as neighbors or as a civic association.  We are gathered here for a higher purpose.  If we were really to emulate Jesus, rather than ducking and covering on the way to church and then hurrying back home, we might find a different approach. 

Instead of huddling together inside and lamenting what all those partiers are doing to our neighborhood, we might instead choose to take a more radical step.  What would it look like if, on Bike Race day we canceled worship here and took it out where the crowds might be able to clearly see and even join in? 

Bike Race 2It would probably feel awkward.  It might even be a little intimidating.  But if Jesus wasn’t scared of soldiers or lepers or prostitutes- why should we be scared by a reggae band or by some guys playing beer pong?  Sometimes it is the scariest looking people that are also most indeed of what G-D has to offer.  Like the Centurion they are longing for it, but may not feel worthy to come under G-D’s roof.  And so in order to help them hear the Gospel it is up to us to take up Jesus’ standard and march boldly out beyond our walls.

Think about it.  If Jesus came to Roxborough/Manayunk today, where do you think he would go?  To Saint Timothy’s in order to enjoy or air conditioning and to hear this fine sermon or to sit and drink coffee with us afterwards?  I don’t think so.  Jesus would be at the bike race.  I can just see him down on the wall or along Manayunk Avenue, mingling with the crowds.  Talking with people who haven’t set foot inside a church in years, if they ever did at all.  Listening to them.  Accepting them.  Forgiving them.  Loving them just as they are. 

May we all learn from our Lord’s example.  May G-D give us the courage to faithfully model our ministry after our Savior’s.   AMEN