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?

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.

“…a godly, righteous and sober life”

So now that we are deep in the midst of the penitential season of Lent I realized that several folks have asked me if I was again giving up alcohol. I am not, at least not this year. Instead this Lent I have chosen to focus not on giving up a pleasure but on using that spiritual energy and discipline to try and do something positive each day.
Yet last week as I knelt on the cold stone floor of the church and lead the people in confession this post (and the experience that inspired it) came to mind.
I hope you enjoy it!

So This Priest Walks Into a Bar...

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…

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Beer 101 or So this priest teaches a bunch of other priests and his bishop about the joy of craft brewing

photo (9)The room was full as I got up to talk about beer, God and the Church.  After similar events during Philly and DC Beer Week, this was all pretty normal.  It’s just that this time the crowd was not the usual array of beer geeks, spiritual seekers and assorted others that I am used to addressing.  Instead it was filled with Episcopal priests, deacons and yes, even our bishop.


Bishop Daniel sporting a very handsome Church Basement Brewery t-shirt.

We had gathered for our annual clergy conference and, as last year, I brought a sixtel of homebrew which the crowd enjoyed during the presentation.  Needless to say the focus of our conversation was a bit different.  Instead of starting with why beer and God are not at odds, this was more of an instructional session, explaining why a craft beer focused ministry can be meaningful and how to make it happen.

I won’t go into all the details of our discussion here.  Essentially I talked about how our beer club started, what we do, what resistance we met, what measures we take to ensure safety and legality and of course, the kind of wonderful opportunities that have opened to us because we were willing to put beer back in its rightful place… namely, as a wonderful part of God’s creation.  We even had two other priests share what they are doing with brewing their own beer and with pub based ministry.

But there is one particular point I want to share.  Namely, that in the end, it’s not really about beer at all.  That might seem an inconsistent if not sacrilegious claim, especially here.  But it’s true. Beer is just one expression of a larger cultural trend that the Church needs to understand and learn to incorporate.

The reason why craft beer is skyrocketing in popularity is because it is real.  It is creative, high quality and most importantly, authentic.  People got tired of mass produced, cheap and largely flavorless.  People were no longer satisfied with the same old beer.  They demanded something better and when they couldn’t buy it, they made it. This gave birth to an industry that has grown exponentially for decades.  It established a subculture that reflects the same values of other growing cultural trends such as the localvore, slow food and DIY movements.

WP_000025Craft beer is simply one expression of those real and more important values that the Church needs to reconnect with.   But it doesn’t have to be beer.  It could just as easily be organic gardening, cheese making or baking.  It could be knitting or canning or quilting.  It doesn’t really matter so long as it reflects those core values quality and authenticity.

If the Church can find a way to do foster these kinds of ministries and activities, it will not only strengthen fellowship between our members, more importantly it will create credible way for us to connect with the community outside our walls.

A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walk into a Crowded Bar…

So again, it sounds like a joke right?  I can imagine that some might feel that their clergyBeer Week event 2013 (1) could drive them to drink, but this was different… on a beautiful Saturday afternoon more than 60 people filled the upstairs room at Fergie’s to come and listen to what these three  clergy had to say about beer and how it fit into a spiritual world.

What makes this number significant was not just the fact that it was the capacity for the room, it is also very close to the average Sunday attendance in The Episcopal Church.

Beer Week event 2013 (59)So what does it say when about as many people are willing to come to a bar to listen to clergy talk about beer as will come to church on a Sunday?   They came from all over the Philadelphia area, some travelling for as much as an hour.  A few even came from DC.

Also of note was the fact that we had many folks from the beer industry including Suzanne Woods from Allagash, Doug Marchakitus from Manayunk, Patrick and Tracy Mullin from Sly Fox and Luke Bowen from Evil Genius.

For them to take time during the 12 hour work days that are the reality of Beer Week is a significant statement.  During those few moments when they can break away from their grueling schedules they either try to rest or drop in at an event that is boasting a rock star from the beer world or a really rare beers. Although the draft selection was wonderful we could not claim such a draw.  But, they came anyway.  One told me that when he was looking over the list of dozens of events scheduled for that afternoon and came across ours, he knew right away that there was nowhere else he’d rather be.

But on to the event itself.  After a brief introduction Bryan started us off with an explanation of his Pub Theology model and how it is helping to redefine what it means Beer Week event 2013 (52)to be a church and how we go about connecting with the community.

Eli was next and took the crowd through references to beer and brewing in the Talmud, including passages from a Rabbi who was himself a brewer.

I tackled some of the theological and cultural assumptions that lead to the divide that has arisen between beer and G-D. Beer Week event 2013 (45)

But it was the Q&A that followed that proved to be the highlight of the day.  For more than a hour we were asked about matters both theological and practical such as, “How does hosting this at your congregation affect members who might be struggling with addiction?”  “What are the implications for pot or other drugs?” and “How can I sell this idea to my church board?”

After the formal Q&A wrapped up we mingled with the Beer Week event 2013 (70)crowd for more questions and conversation.  As you can see from the pics, everyone was in good spirits and the mood was joyful.

In the weeks and days that led up to the event the worries gnawed at confidence.  What if the we have hecklers?  What if we fall flat?  Or worst of all, what if no one shows up?  But thanks be to G-D the day exceeded our wildest expectations.  Because on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, when there were lots of other wonderful things to do, a packed barroom showed us that the world is full of people who love G-D and love good beer and are thirsting for a way to connect the two.

Beer Week event 2013 (20)My thanks to Eli, Bryan for helping me concoct this notion, to Fergie for offering the space without a moment’s hesitation, to Luke and Evil Genius for the beer, to all the good people from St Tim’s who came out to support it and to everyone who encouraged us along the way- we couldn’t have done it without you.

Here’s to doing it again next year!

“…a godly, righteous and sober life”

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!