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FIRST-PERSON: ‘So you’re the preacher?’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–My interest in the game of pool goes back to my boyhood days in Nashville, when Dad — a Baptist pastor — sometimes took my three older brothers and me to Strike and Spare bowling lanes to play pool. Mostly, I watched. And mostly, I got hooked.

I remain a big fan of the game, so much so that I watch the competitive matches on TV whenever possible. While watching one such match, an ad told how to join a pool team in my own neighborhood: “Just go to the website … yada, yada, yada.”

How often does a pastor contemplate going into a pool hall not only to play the game but to build relationships with hurting people in order to be Christ to them? I know, not very often. And what pastor in his right mind would risk his “religious reputation” or his “associational ascendancy” to be seen in a sports bar? It shouldn’t matter, I thought; right or wrong, plenty of Baptist pastors and their flocks eat meals in restaurants that also serve liquor from a bar.

But it wasn’t that easy. I struggled and prayed. I reasoned that my bivocational pastorate was two hours by car from my home, so negative reflection on the church was quite unlikely. Still, it was a struggle. After weeks of prayer, God gave me overt permission. So, researching the Internet, I found a team to join and started playing.

I didn’t beat people over the head with my Bible. But I did beat them on the pool table, most times handily. In a few months I rose to a ranking of six, with seven being the highest. It’s amazing how winning respect on the pool table wins the right to share Jesus. In the last couple of years, three people have prayed in committing their lives to Christ. And one alcoholic is on the road to recovery.

“So you’re the preacher?” asked Barry, swaying from the effects of way too many beers.

“Yes,” I said calmly, not knowing how he knew my vocation as I had never met the man.

“Do you have time to talk to a backslidden Baptist?” he queried with tears in his eyes.

I agreed to give Barry a ride home. After all, he needed one, as he recounted the woes of losing his marriage, a lucrative job and his driver’s license to alcohol addiction.

After talking to each other, we talked to God. Barry held my hand. When he got out of the truck, he said, “I’ve never held a man’s hand. And no man has ever seen me cry. Don’t you dare tell anyone.” (So, here, Barry is not his real name. And the other names to be mentioned in this story have been changed to protect the guilty-turned-innocent.) Last time I checked, Barry had been sober for months, gotten back his driver’s license and was gainfully employed.

Then there was Lyle, a young, good-looking, personable kid. Great pool player — a six. While awaiting trial on his first offense of driving under the influence, he was arrested for a second such offense. I visited Lyle in jail. On the other side of the glass, he looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Intense interest replaced stark fear when I opened the Bible. He edged up on his chair and read it upside down as I read to him. Lyle prayed a prayer of repentance from sin and commitment to Christ. Freed in jail.

When Cindy walked into practice one Sunday afternoon, I saw a sea of loneliness in her eyes. She hugged several men as she made her way to a table. Weeks later, we were eventually introduced, but she didn’t know what I did for a living. I never mentioned it outright to anyone — at least not at first.

A phone call from a teammate sent me to the hospital to visit Cindy. She was vague about what her problem was, but thanked me for coming to see her. I related that I came to visit not because I had any affinity for her, but that Christ, through me, did. She began to cry when she understood that Jesus loved her, and that I was willing to share His love with her by relating the Gospel message. A few weeks later, Cindy admitted herself to a drug rehab program. She sent word for me to visit her, which I did. She, too, prayed to commit her life to Christ.

Then there’s Ken. I had met Ken in the ensuing weeks and had even played him a few games — casual stuff. Never mentioned my occupation. Just won his respect by beating him in pool. He later joined our team. One night he was spouting off-color comments when another teammate pulled him aside and told him I was a pastor.

“You’re a pastor?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I acknowledged.

Rum and Coke in one hand, pool cue in the other, tears rimmed Ken’s eyes and dripped down his face.

“I’ve been praying for God to send me someone to help me,” he said, revealing innermost thoughts in front of all within earshot.

“I’m so lonely. I cry myself to sleep every night.”

Within two weeks, Ken prayed the prayer of repentance and faith.

The pool night that followed, Ken walked in with his cue case in one hand and the biggest, black Bible in the other. Did you notice? The Bible replaced his beverage.

Ken bumped aside beer bottles with his big, black Bible, plopped it on the table and called, “Norm, come here. I got some questions.”

Ask any worthy pastor, and he’ll tell you what a blessing it is to minister in the usual venues of church, home and hospital. Thankfully, I know that blessing. However, there’ve been many times when I’ve left the pool hall with the same, overwhelming sense of God’s blessing and approval — like leaving church on a Sunday.

Does the lifestyle of those inside tempt me? Not at all. I’ve seen firsthand how Satan eventually swats barflies with the very same elixirs and enticements that drew them in the first place.

My gratifications are spiritual — sharing the Gospel, counseling people on personal matters and talking generally about spiritual matters. You’d be surprised at how many people in bars will initiate such conversations. I’ve had many. And to whom do you think these lost people will turn when crisis hits them? It’ll be me, because they all have my phone number.

Even more surprising is the amount of respect I receive. To hear my teammates hold their tongue. And to hear one of them holler, “Nice shot, Preach!” or “Way to go, Rev!” Priceless.

While it is fun to run the table and drop the 8-ball on a bank shot, there is a struggle of letting the game become more important than the Gospel and pool becoming more important than people. My competitive spirit wants to overshadow the spirit of Christ at times.

I’ve received virtually no discouragement on this ministry from other Christians. In fact, so many of my ministry mentors past and present tell me how fantastic it is that I’m “takin’ it to the streets.” There may be some believers who think a pastor doesn’t belong in a bar. Those are the ones I’d refer to the Apostle Paul, who became all things to all people in order to win a few.

See you on the street.
Norm Miller is a bivocational pastor and freelance writer in Richmond, Va.

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  • Norm Miller