My new year began with what is probably the most unusual experience I have ever had in ministry, either as a lay person or as a freshly minted fellowshipped minister. It started a few days ago in the pizza place up the block. Justin, the owner and a fun and engaging young man, has done a lot to help me feel at home here in this little town of 400 souls.
"Pastor Jeff," he started, "would you be interested in blessing the first beer of the New Year at the American Legion?" I found myself agreeing immediately and he began making phone calls to confirm the event. Back at home, I wondered about my decision. Does blessing a bar condone alcoholism and all of its related maladies? What would my temperance leading predecessors think? Would my participation sully the general attitude among townsfolk toward ministers and the church?
After a little consideration, I decided to go through with my commitment. One reason is that the American Legion is one of the few things holding this battered and broken town together, and any opportunity to support them helps Smithton survive as a community. In a town where virtually all other businesses long since died, the bars are booming. I certainly couldn't expect many other invitations from them to ply my trade. And, for a congregation struggling to survive with only a handful of active members, I reasoned that if I can't get locals to come to the church, then I would bring the church to them.
So, I wrote a short blessing, and headed over at 11:00 p.m. Justin met me at the door and began shepherding me around the club, introducing me to everyone. Any reservations I might have had about attending quickly vaporized. One man asked me repeatedly to bless his wife in the coming year. One woman had just survived a brain aneurysm and was anxious for a sign from God about how she should devote the remainder of her freshly minted lease on life. A couple had just lost their 19-year-old handicapped son, who had lived bedridden for most of his life. Another woman asked for advice on how to get her husband to let her take her two children to Sunday School. And, of course, being a veteran's organization, a number of people wanted to honor loved ones past and present who had served.
What had begun as a bit of a lark now became quite probably my most intense ministerial experience to date. As the countdown finished and the champagne toast was completed, the chapter president introduced me and handed over the microphone. I began by offering everyone the chance to speak aloud the names of people important to them during the past year, and voices spoke out several dozen names. I honored their memory and asked the bartender to pour a beer. Lifting it, I said:
May the spirits consumed here in the coming year empower our spirits:
To fan the flames of friendship and community;
To relax our worried minds and troubled hearts; and
To promote only happiness and joy in our lives.
I then blessed all present and wished everyone a Happy New Year. I stayed for another hour or so, talking and taking pictures. The unanimous consensus was that having the blessing was a good idea, with people actually taking some pride at possibly inventing a tradition to be continued in future years.
So, the next time someone tells you that religion is passe, or that we have outgrown the need for churches, don't believe them. The need out there for what we offer is massive. And I certainly hope in the coming year to do everything I can to meet this need head on.