Show me the way to the next whiskey bar (or not)

 

Well, here we are, one week into Lent.  For the past several years my Lenten fast has been alcohol related. I have alternatively abstained from beer and from alcohol altogether.  As I considered my options I started taking stock of my life.  What habits were starting to trouble me?  What might God be calling me to change?

The answer didn’t take long.  Whiskey (usually bourbon or rye) had become a nightly ritual.  Just a few years ago it was a very occasional indulgence.  Beer was my undisputed drink of choice.  But since our trip down the Bourbon Trail in 2015 that after-dinner whiskey cemented its place in my nightly routine.

Unfortunately, along with that habit came a gradual increase in my consumption of alcohol. Especially when the whiskey isn’t getting measured out by the bartender it became all too easy to pour a double. Add high-proof varieties into the mix (one of my favorites, Old Weller Antique clocks in at 107 proof on up into barrel-strength whiskeys which tip the scales in the 130’s), and suddenly that “one” glass has the alcohol equivalent of one and half all the way up to three regular 80 proof drinks.

Just to keep things simple, I extended the fast to include all hard liquor, otherwise I’d be tempted to start substituting G&T’s or Armagnac which would defeat the whole purpose.

One week into Lent, I pleased to report that I’m doing OK. It’s been interesting to notice that when I am heading into the living room after cleaning up from dinner, my eyes are drawn inexorably upwards towards the liquor cabinet. While I miss it, the absence of whiskey isn’t causing me any existential crisis. And, as I hoped, it has cut down on my alcohol consumption. While I might choose to have a nice quad or Imperial Stout after dinner, I am certainly not temped to go back for seconds.

Of course I still have five more weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time. But I’m not losing any sleep over it. What will be really interesting is how I re-integrate whiskey back into my life once Christ is Risen. But for now, that’s a question for another day and another post.

What about you?  Do you fast for Lent?  If so, what do you give up?  Have you ever fasted from alcohol?  How did it go for you?

Recovery Sunday

Several years ago a new family joined my parish.  They were engaged in worship, came back to coffee hour and were otherwise showing all the signs of settling in.  However I noticed that they never came up for communion.

Eventually I found the right moment to ask.  It was at that time that the husband told me that he was an alcoholic.  But, since we only offered wine (and not juice) he didn’t feel like he could fully participate.  This was a real eye opener for me.

While I’ve done a lot to try to help establish a healthy and balanced relationship with alcohol at church, since then I have been increasingly aware of the ways in which addiction affects the lives of my congregation.  Just two weeks ago after services I spent hours counseling parishioners about coping with their own addiction or those of a family member.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This past Sunday alone 9 people in Philadelphia died when they overdosed on heroin.   All around my neighborhood I see people with the telltale signs of “meth mouth.”   The real trouble is that for every person willing to talk about their problem there are many more who are silent.

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The shield of Recovery Ministries

Last year it was estimated that 40 million adults struggled with addiction to drugs or alcohol.  If you start to account for their immediate family that number grows geometrically.  The Church needs to respond.

Thankfully many denominations and individual congregations already are.  Within my own denomination there is Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church which offers support and resources.

Taking their lead, I am pleased to announce that St. Tim’s is holding its first Recovery Sunday on December 11th at both the 8 and 10:30 am services.

In worship we will offer prayers, encouragement and support for those affected by addiction.  After church several members will speak about their own struggles and recovery.  And we will have resources on hand to help you get more support once you leave.

I don’t know how many people will be helped but I do know that offering love, acceptance, hope and support is an essential expression of what it means to be a Christian.

If you are affected by addiction and need support and happen to be in the area, I sincerely hope you will join us.  You don’t need to talk about it.  You don’t need to stand up and introduce yourself.  You just need to come and be with us.  Sing with us.  Pray with us.  Let us pray for you.  Or just sit quietly.  Whatever works for you.  Just come be with us as we acknowledge the reality of addiction and celebrate the hope and possibility that can be found through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

I Rise to Offer an Amendment

“I rise to offer an amendment to resolution A158.”  Thus I began my plea to ensure that Amendment 2the Episcopal Church did not effectively ban Theology on Tap, Pub Theology, The Biblical Brew Off and other beer-centric programs that are so near and dear to my heart.

Let me explain how I found myself standing on a podium defending beer-based ministry in front of 1000 people. It started back in late December when now former Bishop Heather Cook struck and killed a bicyclist while drunk.  You can read more about the details and my thoughts here.

The result was a great deal of internal discussion. While there were many questions about complicity and failure in her election process, the more important issue centered around about the role that alcohol play in our common life as Episcopalians.

With General Convention on the horizon there was a bit of hyperbole and handwringing with some even calling for Convention to be alcohol free.  But in time the online fervor started to die down.  However a special legislative Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse was formed to ensure continued engagement.

This Committee produced two primary pieces of legislation.  The first had to do with acknowledging and repenting of our complicity in creating a culture that enables substance abuse and can be hostile to those in recovery.  The second focused on establishing policies and procedures meant to ensure that our parishes are safe and welcoming places for all people including those who are in recovery.  This was a very thorough piece of legislation that covered a whole range of circumstances.

The trouble was that it singled out “Theology on Tap” by name as a program that could not use reference to alcohol, bars, etc., in promotional material or advertising.  (Disclaimer: TOT is copyrighted and owned by the Roman Catholic Church.)  While this requirement would bring our related programs in line with other church activities, it would also effectively kill them.

This was the crux of my argument to strike “TOT” from the resolution.  Unlike a “wine and cheese party” which could easily be re-titled as a “garden party” or the like, there is no way to remove the association with alcohol from such beer/bar based programs. If the legislation remained unchanged it would have halted one of the most creative and effective means we have for reaching out to those who might otherwise feel alienated from the Church.

Amendment

Thankfully the amendment passed overwhelmingly, in part thanks to the support of many people from the Committee on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse in moving the amendment.  To ensure their support we added additional langue to the amendment in order to ensure that any such gathering have fellowship, conversation and evangelism as their primary purpose, as opposed to simply being drinking clubs.

I will share more about this collaboration and what I learned  in a coming installment.

Half Empty or Half Full?

It’s that classic question- half-empty or half-full?  Now that I am reaching the halfway half-empty-half-full-imagepoint of my Lenten alcohol fast it is a good time to stop and reflect.

On the plus side, most evenings I don’t even miss the beer.  It’s been long enough now that my habits have changed.  At suppertime I no longer have to stop myself from heading towards the basement stairs and the beer fridge that stands at the bottom of them.  As the night winds down I no longer find myself glancing up at the liquor cabinet on my way out of the kitchen.  Yes, in general this Lenten experiment in discipline has gone about as well as I could hope.

Of course it has not been without its struggle.  For example, after a five hour, highly charged governance meeting, I wanted nothing more than to have a bourbon in my hand when I collapsed into my living room chair.  The other instance when I found myself severely tempted occurred last weekend when I was out with friends celebrating a birthday.

After our initial plans fell through (thanks Erin Express for turning University city into a zoo where every restaurant had a 90 minute plus wait) we headed west to Dock Street.   While it was odd to be in a place dedicated to good beer (Man Full of Trouble Porter anyone?) I had no problems ordering and fetching the first round for my companions while sipping away on ice water.  Yet I still found that I had to consciously check myself, not in combatting the desire to order a pint of my own, but in resisting the urge to sample the beers my companions ordered.

This was not so much about the alcohol as it was about a different dynamic- something fundamentally social. One of the joys of going out with close friends is sharing what we order.  When the pizzas arrived we all shared a slice with anyone who wanted to try it and tried some of theirs in return.  It seems to me that such practice not only improves the meal by expanding our culinary horizon, it also strengthens the bonds of friendship.  As a result I had to actively resist the urge to ask for a sip of their Belgian Quad or Kolsch, not because I wanted the booze but because I wanted to know what it tasted like.  While it was a good learning experience, it wasn’t particularly fun.

So here I am at the halfway mark.  And while I know that twenty booze-free days (and nights) still lie ahead, I am not worried.  For I also know that with few exceptions it will only get easier as I go along.  And even when it’s hard, I know those times of trial and temptation create the greatest opportunity to learn.

Please keep those questions and supportive thoughts and prayers coming!

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.

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.

So was it worth it?

So my fast ended more than a week ago, giving me plenty of time to reflect.  And, as I have been able to ease back into my norm of being able to have a beer with dinner or on a sunny weekend afternoon, I have also been able to observe the very real contrast in my life with beer and without it.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  I lost about 5 pounds.  While this is a nice benefit, in fact it is not as much weight as I thought I might drop.  Why?  Well, this leads into some of the psychological observations.  Because unfortunately for me, I sublimated my cravings for beer into cravings for food, smoking my pipe and, on the plus side, into exercise.  Obviously the fact that I found myself constantly snacking is what got in the way of my more ambitious weight loss goals.  I also started smoking my pipe much more often.  Before my fast I would smoke perhaps only once a week.  During Lent this increased four or five fold.

On the  healthy side, I also added to my exercise routine, adding daily sets of pushups and sit ups.  In the case of food and smoking I was trying to fill a void that I would often try to fill with a drink.  In the case of the exercise, at least I found a positive way of finding a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I discovered something else when it came to power of association.  Often on Friday nights I would have a gin and tonic.  During Lent I found that a simple tonic and lime would often bring the same sense of relaxation and enjoyment.  Indeed, I found that many things in my life that I thought might have been affected by alcohol were in fact, not.  For example, I tend to fall asleep in my living room chair between 9:30 and 9:45.  I had assumed that having a beer or two was the culprit behind my dozing off.  But as I found out during my fast, apparently, I am just getting old since I still would doze off when dead sober.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that by the last week I actually was not missing it at all.  Whereas in the first couple of weeks every time I walked by my beer fridge or liquor cabinet I would find my eyes and mind drawn into thinking about a drink, by the end, I barely missed it or thought about it at all.  I was even in the habit of getting a glass of wine for my wife without having the slightest desire to have some myself.

Now that life is back to normal, I find that my fast is still having a beneficial effect.  I no longer have the same impulse to go and get a beer as my first action at the end of the work day.  Moreover, I find that I am satisfied with few beers and am better able to listen to my body when it comes time to stop.

So was it fun?  Hardly.  There were times, especially on weekends or at times of stress when I really struggled.  But was it worth it?   Most definitely.  If you are ever wondering if you are drinking too much or are coming to rely on alcohol to meet other emotional or spiritual needs, then I highly recommend an extended period of fasting.  It may well help you get some clarity when it comes to your favorite beverage.