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.

Waiting for the “Click”

During Lent and since I spent a lot of time reflecting on the role alcohol plays in my life. As part of this work I have done some basic research into what is considered healthy levels of alcohol consumption.  This should not be surprising.  So often when it comes to things like our health we turn to quantifiable measures.

What I found was a huge range of what qualifies as “excessive” when it comes to drinking.  It varies first and foremost by gender.  Across the board men can drink more than women and still stay within the “healthy” range.  But from there the variations spread out over such a range as to become confusing. For an idea check out this article that gives a thorough overview.  But ultimately, the measure depends upon who and where you ask.  Contrast this article from the UK to the CDC’s recommendations.  I suspect it also varies just as widely depending on when in history you were asking as well.

The point is that there is not universal agreement as to the numbers.  Indeed some have calling the CDC’s recommendations into question.  For example in New Zealand it is recommended that a man consume no more than 1-2 drinks per day with a cap of 14 drinks per week.  Moreover, they also recommend not drinking on 2 days per week.  At the more liberal end countries like Italy or the UK can allow for 3-4 drinks per day (although it varies depending on which source you consult).

While it is clear that everyone thinks there are limits on how much booze we drink before it becomes a problem it seems to me that there is a more compelling and important question to be asked here.  Just why do we drink?  If we are really going to understand drinking in the context of health then I think we need to take an equally candid look at why we drink.  So perhaps it is more helpful in making a true assessment to ask the question of why?  Here there is some literature but again it is widely varied and often focuses only on problematic reasons.  One of the more useful ones I found is here.

But in the end when it comes to assessing our relationship with alcohol many times “why” turns out to be the most important question we can ask ourselves.  Sometimes we drink for positive reasons- to celebrate, to compliment a meal, to enhance time with friends.  Other times we drink to cope with negative things like depression, anger, stress or anxiety.

Of course not all “negative” reasons for drinking are inherently unhealthy.  There is nothing wrong with having a scotch to unwind after a long meeting. But is that the only way you have of coping?  Why are you turning to that bottle?  Is it because you have no other way to manage the difficult feelings inside or is it a compliment to other mechanisms.  Is that drink taking the place of spiritual or emotional resources or is it simply one of many ways you have to help unwind and leave that meeting behind you for the night?

The point is that the “why” matters.  Those of us who drink have lots of different why’s.  And many times they are circumstantial.   When we come back from that stressful meeting we will not always choose to cope with it by having a drink. Maybe sometimes instead of the drink you might go a for a run to burn off the stress?  Or you might sip on that drink while venting to your spouse as well.   Indeed, having a variety of why’s and more importantly  a variety of ways of coping with the negative ones would seem to be indicate a healthier relationship with alcohol.   But when the reasons we drink becoming fewer and more consistent, it is then that we have to be especially vigilant.

catI can think of no more poignant example of an unhealthy “why” than the character of Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I saw this play years ago at McCarter Theater in Princeton and this scene left an indelible impression.  Indeed in those times when I have turned to alcohol to cope with stress or to otherwise help me quell some inner demon, I have replayed it in my own mind, wondering if I too am looking for that “click.”

              Brick: Somethin’ hasn’t happened yet.

             Big Daddy: What’s that?

             Brick: A click in my head.

             Big Daddy: Did you say “click”?

             Brick: Yes sir, the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.

             Big Daddy: Boy, sometimes you worry me.

            Brick: It’s like a switch, clickin’ off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the                   cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.

            Big Daddy: Boy, you’re, you’re a real alcoholic!

            Brick: That is the truth. Yes, sir, I am an alcoholic. So if you’d just excuse me…

            Big Daddy[grabbing him] No, I won’t excuse you.

            Brick: Now I’m waitin’ for that click and I don’t get it. Listen, I’m all alone. I’m                   talkin’ to no one where there’s absolute quiet.

            Big Daddy: You’ll hear plenty of that in the grave soon enough.

For the fully dramatic effect you can watch the scene here.

Why do we drink?  What are we looking for that drink to do for us?  As much as “how much” and “how often” these are also the questions we need to be asking ourselves as we assess our relationship with alcohol.  As much as I love beer the fact is I cannot drink as much as I might sometimes like and hope to remain healthy, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and relationally as well.  As a result I have to keep looking at my habits and asking that vital question, why?   Because if we are looking to booze to bring us peace, we might find temporary relief, but it cannot ever truly silence our inner demons.

If you have ever wondered about the health of your drinking habits do please check out the links in this post.  This story from NPR includes some links that offer assessment and tips for learning how to drink in more moderation.

It’s the Final Countdown!

Cue music.  Doo do do dooo, doo do do do doo…  

As I write this it’s less than 11 hours till I get to Europefinally break my Lenten fast. (Point of information:  Lent is officially over at the conclusion of the Great Vigil of Easter later tonight!)  It’s been a journey, that’s for sure.  There has been temptation and craving cropping up all along the way.  But as I approach the end of this forty days of exploration and discovery, I wanted to share with you the most unusual experience of this soon to be concluded fast.

Several weeks ago I was faced with a dilemma.  Our parish beer club had a meeting scheduled and none of the other members who might otherwise lead it in my stead was available.  The question before me was simple: cancel the meeting or try to lead a beer tasting without actually being able to drink any beer….

Since the whole point of this experiment was to push myself, I chose the latter.  And so I set out to lead a discussion on beers that might be considered “Misfit Toys.”  IOW when you think of Sierra or Stone you tend to think of very hop-forward beers.  Heck, SN even hops the heck out of their Bigfoot Barleywine.  But they also make some lagered beers that tend to fly under our collective radar.  And so that’s the kind of thing we drank… session beers from Southern Tier and Weyerbacher, American influenced Pale Ales from Belgium and the like.  Sometimes our conclusion was simply that the brewery ought to stick with what they got famous for and quit trying to branch out… Guinness Blond Lager??? Simply awful.  On the other hand we found a hidden gem… Weyerbacher’s Last Chance IPA was the winner of the night being not only an excellent beer, but a surprisingly sessionable one too from a brewery that is best known for beers ranging in the 9% plus ABV range.

But what was it like to pour and pass out round after round without actually being able to indulge?  Not as hard as you might think.  I even smelled each round to try to be able to participate in the discussion.  In some ways being in public made it easier….  I didn’t want to slip up n front of my friends and parishioners.   I don’t know if I could have restrained myself as easily had I been pouring and sniffing them alone at home.

The whole experience helped reinforce my confidence that I could be around beer and not be so tempted as to become uncomfortable.  But it was just one of many memorable and occasionally forgettable moments of this Lenten journey.  I look forward to sharing more about it with you next week.  But for now…. I mostly just look forward to ending it because “It’s the final countdown!”

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.