Photo by Eric Tompkins on Unspash
Ministers, when’s the last time you frequented your local dive bar?
April 12, 2023
*First, a disclaimer. The below reflection deals with a setting that could be problematic for some. Please consider it a mere suggestion to locate a space that welcomes you wholly.
I pull out the chair on the high-top table, and my companion does the same. We begin exchanging standard pleasantries, playing catch-up as we sit down. It’s been a few months since we made this happen. This is common when you’re both clergy and serve in adjacent towns. The demand of the steeple puts one in a bubble, and it’s harder to pop than you might think. The last time we met we fed the stereotype of pastors inhabiting their “second office” at a house of roasted beans.
As we settle in, there’s a pause in our conversation, and with her eyes glancing, she tells me, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
Today we’re not meeting in a coffee shop. We’re not hitting up a Panera Bread, nor was it my invitation to sit under the alluring and comfortable fins of the goddess of Seattle, Starbucks, or the drip-king of New England, Lord Dunkin.
No, on this early Tuesday afternoon, we are sitting somewhere I feel I can let my hair and layers of suffocating semblance down. A spot oozing with austere simplicity. A setting built for a bawdy existence, filled with the backdrop of mindless chatter that could easily be mistaken for confessions, where the ceiling catches genuine prayers, and utterances resemble that of speaking in tongues stick to humming and buzzing walls as the hours dip into the night. Here, a combined chorus croons, sharing a hoped-for relief and reprieve from tomorrow’s problems. If Rod Serling was lending his voice at this moment, his reveal might go something like this: “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop, your local Dive Bar.”
Those chasing some judgment-free sanctuary can find it between dingy neon lights and polished taps. Teetotalists, socialites, the lonely, scenesters, hipsters, blue and white-collar workers, the elephant and the donkey, regulars, and the stranger; God’s image marking them as sure as they have tabs needing to be settled. All are welcome, and all will be served.
My colleague and I have come to such an institution looking for the same, and I can’t think of a better place for two ministers to meet.
Here at the dive, I’m exposed to a rare equality. My presence alone passes as my infinite value. I’m just Justin, and being him is enough.
You might ask yourself, what makes a dive bar a dive bar? Let us first determine what it is not. A dive bar isn’t the preferred choice of beer nerds and snobs. Forget debates distinguishing which porter is the smoothest or which coast grows the best hops. You’ll have little luck finding a group of folks in the back trying to recreate an elixir from an 18th-century German monastery. There are no monks at the dive bar. This isn’t a microbrewery. Instead, you’ll find saintly patrons congregating around their favorite watering hole where their coins of the realm can be stretched. There typically is a fair amount of diversity present, more than you might encounter during Sunday morning worship. So be prepared to spot a pair of hands with painted black fingernails inches from a set caked with dirt and grime courtesy of a long day’s work at the nearby tire shop. A good dive draws a mix of people to go along with their mixed decor and cocktails.
Why go to such a place, you ask? Allow me to enlighten you.
Such taverns of ill repute have and continue to offer much more than choice libations. Sure, I like an establishment whose cooler is two or three degrees below the health department’s recommended setting, resulting in my first sip being a test of fortitude to determine whether I have any sensitive teeth in my head. What else? How about a bartender with a little relational flair tucked away for a bit of witty banter when provoked? Or at least one possessing a steady hand for pouring a respectable pint of Guinness. Fan of fried items paired with a decent burger or sandwich? If not, I’m unsure if I, or our Lord Jesus, can help you. Prefer musical offerings ranging from Waylon Jennings to Depeche Mode instead of multiple flatscreen TVs? The dive bar’s jukebox has you covered. Or maybe like me, you have a penchant for sitting under low lighting. I believe entering and exiting a dive should feel like entering and exiting a cave. I want my center shaken during those trespasses. I want to walk out into the late afternoon and be taken back by the sun’s brightness. Like in the book of Joshua, time should stand still in a dive.
But there’s more to it than that, so let me elaborate.
On top of ambiance preferences and fried mozzarella sticks, a dive bar provides agency of choice. You can remain seated and lean into an intimate discussion. Or you can stand jostling, anticipating the spark of connection. There’s permission given to cherish being in public with no requirement to interact with others. You can mingle with folks or choose to ignore those beside you. You can be present yet exist somewhere else. It’s the opposite of “Cheers”; not everyone needs to know your name. There’s beauty in this for a person who does a fair amount of required engagement and talking most days. I’ve discovered grace in a space where I can utter less than 20 words in a couple of hours. I can absorb what’s around me, and that’s enough.
But of all the things I mentioned, none is more sincerely true than admitting this is one place where I feel I can be the most authentically me.
I can be irreverent, insecure, and a walking mess of emotions. I can be quiet. I can sing too loud when a good tune comes on. I can show up with my problems or caddie along a bag of celebrations behind me. I can be me here when, in most other places, I’m expected to be someone else. How can this not be sacred? To be received with communal hospitality. Where those shouldered around me couldn’t care less about my eschatological view or what atonement theory I think is better. Here at the dive, I’m exposed to a rare equality. My presence alone passes as my infinite value. I’m just Justin, and being him is enough.
Fellow barfly and ragamuffin priest Brennan Manning once said, “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”[i]
I continue to learn this lesson in those dive bars I’ve visited. Maybe Manning did too.
Justin Cox is senior pastor, Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Connecticut. He received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology.