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?

“Exclusively Normative Activity”

Several years ago I was with a colleague at a party and asked if I could get him 0515ee2ca88543194691633a4c155ac8a8de29-wmanything from the bar.  He declined, stating that he didn’t drink.  I asked him, “Why?”  He paused for a moment then said, “Because I don’t like myself when I do.”

“Because I don’t like myself when I do.”  What an honest answer to a rather direct and inappropriately personal question.  To this day I’m not exactly sure why I asked it.  It could have easily been construed as a dick move.  Fortunately my friend was able to set this aside and still give a forthright answer.

This past summer, while attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church his words came back to me.  After Thomas Palermo was tragically killed by a car driven by a very drunk Episcopal bishop, we spent a lot of time examining the relationship between alcohol and the Church. The special task force that was assembled put forth several resolutions, some of which went a bit too far in limiting what are often very positive and creative connections between the two.  But out of all the heartfelt and painful stories, all the expressions of grief, guilt and outrage, one phrase leapt out at me, namely that a big part of the problem was that drinking is an “exclusively normative activity.”

Exclusively normative activity?  What in the heck did that mean?  At first all I heard was jargon that I really didn’t understand.  That changed few nights later when most of the clergy attended their seminary alumni dinners.

The next day as I listened to various folks recount their evening what really caught my attention was not the fact that there was a lot of booze.  After all these are alumni gatherings and as such are not just celebratory reunions… they are also fundraisers.  Alcohol was an indispensable part of the asking equation.

Instead what caught my attention was how hard it was to find a non-alcoholic alternative.  One person said they had to get up and ask for a glass of water since there was only wine on each table in addition to the open bar.  At my gathering there were soft drinks at the bar and pitchers of water on the table, but even so, it was pretty clear that you were supposed to drink booze.

Then it hit me. Drinking on such occasions is not only accepted, it is expected.  And therein lies the problem.  If you choose not to drink, well then there must be something wrong with you.  You are marginalized and made to feel like an outsider.  In other words, drinking is exclusively normative.

In that moment I finally understood why I had so brashly asked my friend about tee-totaling.  It was a party but he wasn’t drinking.  And so, rather than just accepting his answer as totally valid, I made the operative assumption that there must be something wrong with him.

The problem is that I am hardly alone in my unconscious attitude.  If the Church is ever going to be the sanctuary it is supposed to be, we have to systematically become aware of, challenge, and dismantle the assumption that drinking is the only normal choice.  We have to get past the point where when we see someone who isn’t drinking we automatically wonder why they aren’t.

Recognizing and redressing this problem doesn’t mean we must therefore demonize booze.  But especially in the Church, we have to do better.  The Episcopal Church is founded on the principle of “Via Media.”  We must continue our commitment.  We must find a way to create some middle ground where everyone can feel comfortable and  regardless of whether you are imbibing or abstaining, no one stops to wonder what is wrong with you.

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!”

“…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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Whoah oh. We’re halfway there!

halfway-218 fast days left and counting.  That’s more than halfway through my forty day long fast.  I suppose that actually counting the days could be construed as a sign of desperation.  It’s true that at times (like last Wednesday night when my computer completely crashed requiring a full system restore) I have really had to struggle not to go and pour a double bourbon.  Or this past Saturday, at a wonderful Irish Dinner and Concert at church, I really wanted to celebrate a great night by cracking one open and drinking with the parishioners who worked so hard to make it possible.

Of course these are not the only occasions when I have faced temptation.  I have even once or twice really found myself thinking “Well what’s the big deal? You could break the fast and have a beer or two and no one would have to be the wiser.”  I have even thought that if I stumbled it would make for something more colorful to write about.  But I knew as soon as I thought it that this was a pretty desperate and pathetic justification to reach for.  And so I have held on.  I have walked away from the beer fridge or the liquor cabinet and I have made it through.

I realize that there is still a while to go.  But I am gaining confidence and it is getting easier.  More often than not I get through the night without even thinking about grabbing a beer.  It’s been interesting, that’s for sure.  I’ve had to find alternative beverages besides water- seltzer or tonic with lime seems to be my new drink of choice.  Beyond that, I am still processing my experience to see what more meaningful insights this forty days in the desert of temperance may yield.

But for me the good news is that the end is definitely in sight.  In less than three weeks it will all be over and I will be able to have a drink whenever I like once again.  No doubt that reentry period will pose challenges of its own, but I’ll deal with that in April.  Until then, I find hope in knowing that I am more than halfway there.