Vail Daily column: Theology on tap | VailDaily.com
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Vail Daily column: Theology on tap

Jack Van Ens

Want to grease life’s skids so you slide into heaven? Drink beer.

Quaffing a pint, the 16th century Augustinian monk Martin Luther believed that beer tasted heavenly. “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep,” declared Luther. “Whoever sleeps long does not sin; and, whoever does not sin enters heaven!”

Luther preached sermons against drunkards who swilled beer. Admiration distilled from sipping bock beer, however, deterred him from practicing abstinence. Luther bellied up to the bar at the Black Eagle Tavern after supper at home in Wittenberg, Germany. As he drank beer, Luther engaged in vigorous debate about biblical teaching. He dubbed these conversations “Theological Table-Talk.”

Drunk with fresh insight about God’s desire for his life, Luther tried to cleanse the decadent Roman Catholic Church of bad theology. He humbly confessed that God reformed His Church while Luther drank beer.

Today, Christians practice Luther’s “theology on tap,” bringing Christianity into the marketplace. Participants hold the Bible in one hand and mugs of their favorite brew in the other.

Once-hailed as the “Furniture Capital of the World,” now my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, takes pride in its new moniker — Beer City USA. Churches use beer to intoxicate non-churched neighbors with Christ’s spirit.

Inebriated with spiritual ardor for introducing Jesus to non-churched residents of Grand Rapids, Matt Wiechel loves craft beers and Christ. He brews a Bible study dubbed Bibles and Beers. It “came out of a brainstorming session we had a few years ago when we were going through some Healthy Church exercises (pro-growth parish strategies),” recounts beer-drinking Wiechel, a member of suburban Princeton Christian Reformed Church. “I personally enjoy craft brews and figured that it would be fun to put them together.”

Grand Rapids teems with breweries where down-in-the dumps residents hang-out during dreary winters. Choosing a pub, Wiechel gathers people who taste life and don’t want it going flat. Bibles and Beers bring people together. “I think having a bit less formal setting and tying it in with shared interest,” testifies Martin Luther-sounding-Wiechel, “makes it an easier place to invite someone.”

Ironic, isn’t it, how God’s intersection with craft beers is regarded as effective Christian witness? It’s been tested and proven A-OK in the past.

Doing ministry for a decade in the in the Vail Valley, I heard Vail’s founders talk about worshipping in a bar. In the early days, locals and tourists filled a town pub after skiing. They drank and sang and laughed till 5 a.m. Then the bartender halted this perpetual happy hour. He cleaned mugs and straightened out the bar for early-morning Mass. Before ski lifts opened, Roman Catholics, followed by Lutherans, used the bar for Sunday worship.

They re-enacted Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana. He turned barrels of water into wine. The marriage host voted No. 1 Christ’s vintage because of its body and flavor. (John 2:1-11).

History records how Christians adapted secular custom to sacred Christmas use in northern Europe. Short days and long nights wore them down. Winter’s chill frosted outlooks. Pagans spread evergreens in home. Some imbibe at a Wassail bowl. Craftsmen fashioned huge bowls set in town squares and filled them with tangy spiced mead or mulled wine. Invited to drink, poor residents responded by dancing and singing — activities that dispelled wintry, soulless feelings.

The Christian Church used this forerunner of Bibles and Beers strategy to introduce Christmas. They capitalized on winter solstice celebrations. When days started getting longer, Christians threw parties commemorating Jesus’ birth. They decorated homes and churches with evergreens. Moderately eating and drinking, they remembered Christ in a manger. Christians lit yule logs, encircling them with lusty singing and spirited dancing.

Roman Catholic St. Gregory the Great’s playbook was that of Bible and Beers. In the late sixth century, he urged believers to meld Christian meaning with pagan custom. Although Christians destroyed idols, they didn’t raze buildings where heathen tribes erected altars to their gods. Christians converted these edifices into worship centers. They celebrated Christmas, using the winter solstice’s cycle to mark Christ’s advent. Scripture records no exact day for Jesus’ birth. Why not hook it to the winter festivities that already permeated pagan culture?

The Rev. Amy Piatt, senior pastor at the First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, plays a variation on St. Gregory’s witness strategy. She found parishioners sung hymns as if they were dirges — slowly and without heart. Then she advertised Beer and Hymns. It snapped the faithful out of their doldrums and attracted non-churched neighbors to holiday services.

Drinking beer makes old-guard Christians more amiable and less-resistant to change, says Pastor Piatt. During a Nov. 3, 2013, National Public Radio interview, Piatt hoisted the spiritual brew of beer and the Bible. “(Worship’s) probably, in the very near future, not going to be at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning wearing your best shoes and tie or dress.”

Mixing froth with faith makes worship “something different. And what that is, we are still finding out. We’re still learning together. But it’s still holy. God is still there, and that’s what’s most important” says Piatt.

Join her in toasting this theology on tap.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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