I’ll have a G&T, hold the G

top_invisibleOne of my favorite things about Friday afternoon is sitting in my chair and watching a little TV while our dinner cooks in the oven.  More often than not, a Gin and Tonic helps complete the picture.  I’ve liked them since college and when I’m out and can’t find good beer, a nice G&T is my default drink.

This past Friday however I knew that this custom was not an option.  That’s because last week saw the start of Lent and once again I have chosen to give up alcohol. And so as it drew past five o’clock I found myself wishing I could head to the cupboard where we keep the booze.  Since I couldn’t I decided to try the next best thing.  I filled a glass with ice and cut a nice thick slice of lime which I squeezed in.  I cracked open a fresh bottle of Seagram’s  tonic and slowly filled the glass.

It tasted, well, like tonic and lime.  But there was something else beyond just the tartness on my tongue or the effervescence that tickled my upper lip as I drank it.  Even though there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in it I could still feel myself relax.  Satisfied, I took my drink into the living room and kicked back in front of the TV.  And suddenly all was right with the world.

This phenomenon got me to wondering about the complex nature of our habits and B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950dependencies.  I’ve studied enough psychology to know something of operant conditioning.  In fact, BF Skinner is a fellow alum of Hamilton College. Therefore I understand that we can become almost as addicted to the stimuli associated with the high as to the high itself.  For example people who are trying to quit smoking can find it comforting to hold an unlit cigarette.  But it was something else altogether to experience it for myself.

All this got me to thinking about our habits and how much power they can have over our lives.  What happened in my case was not so much about the alcohol as it was that I was accustomed to having a specific kind of drink on a specific day at a specific time.  Such insight can be valuable if you are also following some kind of Lenten fast or otherwise trying to change your life.

It’s hard enough to make real changes in our lives.  It gets even harder if we are trying to not only forego a vice but also habits that are so often associated with them.  Learning to recognize if there are any particular circumstances associated with the problem is the best place to start.

Sometimes it is as simple as changing those circumstances.  If you are trying to stop eating candy but you are in the habit of grabbing some every time you walk by the cabinet where it is always kept, the first thing you should do is move the candy to somewhere less accessible.  Or you can do what I did and find something to substitute for the problem substance but that will allow you continue to observe the ritual associated with it.

That’s all for now… I think I hear that bottle of Tonic calling my name.  Five days down, thirty five to go.

No Bourbon, No Scotch, No Beeeeeer- The Redux

Lent is almost upon us. Now Lent is a 40 day long season during which many Christians no beergive up pleasurable things like junk food or sweets. I usually observe Lent in this way too often by giving up something like deep fried food.  Two years ago, I pushed myself and gave up alcohol.

After reflecting on all the questions raised about clergy and addiction raised by the Heather Cook/Tom Palermo tragedy, I have again decided to take a break from booze.  Starting Wednesday its no booze till Easter.  Thankfully, I will get a break on Sundays which are not counted as part of Lent.  Even so, I know it won’t always be easy.

As you probably have guessed by now, I love beer.  It’s a regular part of my life.  By giving it up I want to make sure the role it plays is not unhealthy or out of balance.  This is important because although I do not believe I have a problem with alcohol I do realize that I am more likely to want a drink in times of stress.   By going without it, I hope to gain insight into this drive and at the same time, develop other and healthier methods of coping that don’t require a bottle opener.

Now those of you who know their Bible  might be wondering if I am acting like those religious leaders that Jesus condemned in Matthew 6:1 when he said,  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  It’s a legitimate question.  Believe me when I say that I am not sharing this so you will think I am holy.  Just ask my wife, I’m anything but.

Instead, I am sharing this with you so that Christians, and in particular, Episcopalians, will keep talking about the role alcohol plays in our lives and in our church.  This is especially important for the clergy.  Our vocation is not easy.  And all too often we wind up choosing unhealthy ways of coping with the stress.  Yet because we feel pressure to live up to the impossible standards that are set for us (or that set for ourselves), we usually try to hide our inevitable failures.  The result is that far too many deacons, priests and bishops don’t actually know the freedom in Jesus that we proclaim to others but instead live as prisoners of our addictions and denial.  This is incredibly destructive not only for our own lives and families but for our parishes and for the Church as a whole.

And so now as we continue to sift through the very public and heartbreakingly tragic consequences of one such failure, I want to share the next forty days of questions and challenge with you.  It may not make much difference to anyone but me.  But maybe, just maybe, if we commit to sharing honestly with one another about the place alcohol plays in our lives we might be able to prevent the next tragedy from happening.

More  than ever I welcome your questions, experiences and support.

Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. Alcohol, the Episcopal Church and the death of Thomas Palermo.

Since December 27th, 2014 the Episcopal Church has been in embroiled in grief, controversy, and questions about the clergy, addiction, responsibility and the place of alcohol in our denomination.

Heather Cook’s arrest photo

In short this tragic situation involves Bishop Heather Cook, the recently consecrated Suffragan (assisting) Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland.  On December 27th, 2014 Cook struck and killed Thomas Palermo, a cyclist.  She then fled the scene only to return about 30 minutes later.  When the dust settled, it was found that Cook was drunk, blowing a 2.2 BAL (which is almost 3 times the legal limit) and was also texting when she hit Palermo.

As awful as these revelations were they were just the beginning.

It turns out that in 2010 when working as diocesan staff in the neighboring Diocese of Easton, Cook was also arrested for DUI, this time blowing a 2.7.  When pulled over it was found that she had vomited on herself, had bottles of whiskey and wine in the car as well as pot and pipe.  Cook went to rehab and was given probation before judgment meaning that her record was expunged once she completed  her probation.  Most recently it was reported that she was inebriated at a dinner the night before her consecration as Bishop.

In addition to the many criminal charges now facing here, the Diocese has  called for her resignation and a formal investigation by the Episcopal Church has begun that could bring its own charges and trial.  A complete timeline and other information can be found here and here.

Thomas Palermo with one of his children

Her prior problems have raised a multitude of questions and criticism regarding the process by which she was vetted and why her 2010 DUI was not publically disclosed during the process leading to her election.  There is a great deal of debate about where responsibility lies and you can read a number of essays and op-eds on the matter.  It is not my intent to rehash them here.  However, if you wish to make a donation to help fund the education of Thomas Palermo’s two children, you can do so here.

church and boozeAs you might imagine this tragedy has also ignited a discussion in the Church about the role that alcohol plays, not just among addicted clergy, but in our culture.  The Episcopal Church has a rather boozy reputation.  It is a commonly repeated joke that, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth.”  It is not uncommon to find wine, sherry or beer served at parish events and sometimes, even at Vestry meetings. Here at St. Tim’s we brew beer in the basement to serve at parish events.   Indeed, my whole “Priest in a Bar” shtick is made possible only because of my denomination’s alcohol-tolerant attitude.

Yet now many are questioning whether or not it has gone too far.  And they do not simply mean the lost life of Thomas Palermo or the ruined career of Heather Cook.  People are now wondering what impact the prevalence of alcohol might have on enabling addiction among members and clergy alike and also whether or not it creates a hostile atmosphere for people in recovery.

It has prompted a response from The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies (made up of priests, deacons and lay people).   In it she calls for both a re-examination of the process by which our bishops are elected and also our polices on alcohol and other drugs.

A more unusual response comes from Bishop Scott Barker of Nebraska who has publically declared that he will not drink during the coming General Convention.  (General Convention is the triennial gathering of the whole Episcopal Church.  Each diocese sends a deputation made of clergy and laity elected by its own membership to take part in the deliberations and governance of the parent denomination.)  Looking at the comments when this has been shared on Facebook it seems that many are agreeing with him in questioning the place alcohol has in our Church life.

All of this is particular importance to me, not simply because I am an Episcopalian who engages in beer-based ministry, but also because at present I am involved with bodies directly affect by this tragedy and ensuing debate.  First, I serve on the Standing Committee which is currently in the midst of designing and defining the search process for our next Bishop.  This task has been made all the more sensitive given the questions raised about the reliability and transparency of how bishops get vetted and elected.  Moreover, I am a Deputy to this year’s General Convention where no doubt there will be much discussion about bishops, booze and their role in our Church.

Yet to me the real issue is not actually alcohol in and of itself.  It is a larger question of how we as a Church sometimes enable destructive behavior.  Let’s face it, it is hard to confront people about their serious problems.  It is even harder to continually hold someone accountable in order to actually deal with them.  And so we, especially those of us in leadership, tend to gloss over problems like addiction, depression, anger management and other pervasive issues that can affect health and performance of individuals and organizations.

As a result, many bishops and priests simply pass on problem clergy and staff without fully disclosing their issues.  Many times we do so in order to rid ourselves of having any further responsibility for them.  It is far easier to just pass them along than it is to openly deal with the real issues, not to mention the conflict and potential lawsuits that would ensue from fully disclosing them.  As we know this kind of complicity can have devastating consequences for our people as well as for the Church and its credibility.

But in the case of Heather Cook and people like her, the problem is even more insidious.  When it comes to bright and talented leaders we tend to minimize and even gloss over their issues.  Why?  Because we like them.  And so we want to believe them when they tell us they have it under control.  We don’t want to risk losing the energy and talent they bring should we actually did deeper.

In the case of Heather Cook everyone, and I do mean everyone, with knowledge of her 2010 DUI seemed to want to see it as a “one time event.”  Why?  Because by all accounts she was great priest.  Even the judge who sentenced her bought into this reasoning.  The prospect of digging deeper must have made too many people uncomfortable and so she was able to continue to lie and convince everyone that she had her problems under control.  More than our denomination’s acceptance of alcohol, it is our difficulty with confrontation and accountability that is truly responsible for the death of Thomas Palermo.

That said is still important for us continue to ask questions about the role that alcohol and addiction might play in our culture and structures.  We must make sure that people who are struggling with addiction can still find refuge in our pews and feel secure at our social events.  We also need to become more aware of the dynamics that addiction can create.  Just like in a family system there are some parishes and even some dioceses that work to enable their alcoholic priest or bishop.  We need more training and more awareness.  We need more sensitivity and greater courage to confront the problems addiction can cause.  We need to keep talking, listening and praying.  And above all we need to examine our own hearts and confront our own complicity with and capacity for addiction.

As more news emerges and I reflect further, I expect to write more on this in the weeks to come.  As always I welcome your thoughts on how the Church should deal with this tragedy and how we can work towards becoming healthier and more like the one whom we claim to follow.

Saint Brigid Revisited

One of my most consistently viewed posts concerns a poem attributed to Saint Brigid of Kildare.  In honor of her recently celebrated feast day (February 1) I wanted to revisit this remarkable woman and her famous poem.

Kildare 081

A statue of Brigid at her sacred well in Kildare

Brigid of Kildare (451-525) is second only to Patrick in terms of both reverence and popularity.   In the town of Kildare there are a number of pubs (again to on one’s surprise) which certainly try to emphasize an association with Brigid.

She was famed for her generosity and her caring nature.  There are also several beery miracles attributed to her.  One tells of how she managed to make one blessed barrel of beer last so that it managed to supply the thirsty members of 18 churches from Maundy Thursday all the way through the Easter season (53 days in all).     That’s one magic keg!

A second and more colorful story tells that in order to meet the needs of the thirsty lepers she was caring for she transformed their dirty bathwater into wonderful beer.  A history states the following, “For when the lepers she nursed implored her for beer, and there was none to be had, she changed the water, which was used for the bath, into an excellent beer, by the sheer strength of her blessing and dealt it out to the thirsty in plenty.” There is a related story in which she transformed her own bath water into beer for a visiting delegation of clergy.

But her best known association with beer comes from a poem in which she envisions heaven as being a place of infinite hospitality and pleasure in which people join with saints and even God tippling throughout eternity.  There are a number of different versions but my favorite is below:

I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.
I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing.
                          If they wanted I’d put at their disposal vats of suffering                                                     White cups of love I’d give them with a heart and a half.                                                         Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer to every man.                                                                           I’d make heaven a cheerful spot,                                                                                        Because the happy heart is true.                                                                                  I’d make men happy for their own sakes.                                                                               I should like Jesus to be there too.                                                                I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.                                                 I’d give a special welcome to the women,                                                                                   the three Marys of great renown.                                                                                  I’d sit with the men, the women of God,                                                                                   There by the great lake of beer                                                                                       We’d be drinking good health forever,                                          And every drop would be a prayer.

It is important to understand that for Brigid heaven is not simply a celestial kegger.  Indeed, you cannot overlook the “vats of suffering” and “white cups of love” which refer to the acts of asceticism undertaken by Irish monks and nuns and White Martyrdom (voluntary exile) that was embraced by tens of thousands spiritual women and men over the centuries.  The point was to purify themselves and draw closer to God.  It is also important to note that while the poem certainly reflects Brigid’s theology, it was almost certainly written long after Brigid lived.

Yet none of this has diminished its appeal or staying power.  It has also inspired art.   Here it is as envisioned by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS.

MMBEE150

In it you can see not only the Lake of Beer, Jesus, the Three Marys and Brigid herself (shown holding her cross), but also many icons of Celtic Christianity, including a high cross, round tower, and famous saints like Kevin, Brendan, Colmcille (Columba) and Patrick.  You can buy it from Trinity Stores.

In the end, even though the stories and the attribution of the poem may be apocryphal, there is no denying that this great woman also had a great love of beer.  So although her feast day has past, please join me in hoisting a glass in honor of Brigid.  Slainte!