It was the morning after attending the 2nd Annual Philly Craft Beer Festival. As I knelt on the cold tile of the church floor and said these words (which come at the end of our confession of sin) I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony. There I was at 8:05 am, still slightly green around the gills from many hours of sampling craft beer the day before, and I was praying that God would inspire me and help me to lead a “sober” life. Did I really mean what I was praying for? How does one define a “sober” life? This got me to thinking about what it means to find an honest balance between one’s spirituality and one’s love of beer (or wine or scotch or whatever your drink of choice may be).
The answer is not nearly as poetic as the circumstances that inspired me to reflect upon it. Beer (or any alcoholic beverage) is the product of the fruits of the earth combined with human imagination, ingenuity and labor. As with any human creation it has the capacity to be abused. Even though it was made with the intention of enhancing life and of bringing joy, it can also has the potential to damage our bodies, our psyches, our relationships and even to maim or kill. Everyone, regardless of religious belief (or lack of the same), could therefore agree that abusing alcohol is a bad thing. So the problem lies in our definition… how do we distinguish between enjoyment and abuse?
Alcohol impairs judgment and the more one drinks the more impaired one’s judgment is going to get. Obviously if one gets to the point where one can no longer stand up, stay awake or remember what one did, then one has passed beyond the point of responsible enjoyment. And as all experienced drinkers know, the more you drink, the greater the likelihood that you will say or do something that you would not have said or done had you been sober.
Therefore, if you want to enjoy your beer as God intended, then you need to both know your limits and control your circumstances. Unfortunately, most of us only get to know our limits by exceeding them once or twice but only a fool (or an alcoholic) fails to take the hard lessons of pounding hangovers and doing the Technicolor yawn to heart. IOW, once you learn your limits, you must make sure you stay within them. However, even if your limits are untried, you can still control your circumstances. That means you can take steps in advance, when your judgment is still sound, to make sure that no injury (be it physical, emotional or relational) results from your indulgence.
Physical safety is rather obvious… don’t drink and drive (or pilot a boat/jet ski, etc)… for that matter don’t drink and operate un-motorized vehicles like bikes, skis or skateboards either. The latter point about damaging relationships is a little trickier to define, but still important. Basically what it means is that if you’re going to drink more than a couple, you are best off in the company of people you know and trust, particularly if they are people who can accept the fact that your are going to drink. Such people are more likely to be forgiving if you say or do something less than intelligent.
For the sake of illustration let’s look at my outing to the Craft Beer Fest. First, we worked very hard in advance to make sure we had vans and sober drivers. Thus the concerns for physical safety were taken care of. Second, I knew I was hanging out with fellow beer lovers. Many of them I knew well, though a few I was meeting only for the first or second time. However, even though they all knew I was a priest, and even though, in the case of some of them, I was actually their priest, none of them were expecting me to perform priestly functions like hearing confession or offering counseling that afternoon. And so for those few hours I was freed from the normal expectations of my vocation and allowed to be nothing more than one of fourteen beer-loving companions. And although my language got a little bluer than usual as the day wore on, no one thought less of me for it. Since my moral authority was not compromised, I was able to stand up at the altar and lead some of the very same people in worship the next day without any hesitation.
So was I a hypocrite to utter those words as part of the confession? I don’t think so, because although all indulgence creates the opportunity for sin, it is possible to occasionally enjoy beer in greater quantities without sinning. And so I will continue to pray that God helps me to live a life that is “godly, righteous and sober” while at the same time giving thanks for all the blessings of this life, including the rich and wonderful blessing beer!