We were blessed to go on a European river cruise (pre-pandemic), but it quickly became a little awkward. At every lunch and dinner, I was declining glasses of wine which flowed freely at every table.
“Really!?!?! You don’t want white or red?” the waiters asked in disbelief. Those sharing our tables responded similarly, almost as if to shame me and compel me to join them in drinking.
Once, after touring a quaint, little village in France, our tour guide surprised us with a wine tasting stop at a wine shop. While the others went inside, my wife and I hung around outside. The guide asked why we weren’t going in, and I explained we didn’t drink. “Oh,” she said. “They have non-alcoholic wine that’s quite good.”
So, we ventured inside, where we ran into our ship’s tour director. He asked what we were interested in, and I told him of our exchange with the guide. He looked at me sadly and silently for a moment. Then he said, “I just want to cry.” Of course, maybe he was just thinking about his commission, but I don’t think so.
Yes, there’s family history, so my abstaining is partly personal. My dad, my dad’s dad, and my dad’s dad’s dad were all alcoholics—with the family drama and trauma which goes along with it. My mom’s dad and some of his sons struggled with drinking, too.
Yes, there’s also a professional history. I spent three years as a chaplain at a substance abuse in-patient treatment center. It’s impossible to unsee the horrific impact of alcohol upon these families. It’s also impossible to not marvel at changed lives that came about down the road of recovery—one of the most meaningful seasons of my ministry life.
No, there’s no biblical mandate I can find which says Christians should abstain from alcohol. Sure, you could take a Nazarite vow, but . . . . And, no, I do not think Jesus turned water into grape-flavored water. It was wine.
What I’m observing, however, is that there is a new generation of drinking clergy who have converted, along with their traditionally non-drinking congregations, into making alcohol a significant part of their lifestyles. Some of these ministers seem to have pride in their drinking. “I’m a full-Bible Christian,” one observed while looking down his nose at me, meaning my status was lesser. Other clergy I’ve observed:
- Preach entire sermons to justify drinking.
- Meet regularly with peers to “close the bar.”
- Welcome new ministers of their staff with “stock the home bar” parties, so the new person will have the perfect bottle to follow each difficult church encounter.
- Take trips where they can over-indulge away from church members’ eyes.
- Exclude from their circle of peers those who abstain.
There are many, probably most, who can drink without a problem and without getting into trouble. But America has a drinking problem, and clergy are no different from the general population in our proclivity to become problem drinkers, if not full-blown alcoholics. With one out of eight American adults being an alcoholic, it just seems to me that drinking is just too big of a risk.
This is Dry January. It’s a movement that started in the UK ten years ago, and it’s picking up momentum in the USA. It’s the attempt to go through the entire first month of the year without drinking any alcohol. Google it. See the benefits. Find the helpful hints on how to conquer any yearnings you have.
If you are a pastor who drinks, perhaps it would be a good idea to try a Dry January. See if you find you crave a drink every night. See if others compliment you on improvements in your attitudes or performances. See if drinking has become too important in your life.
Oh, and back to the cruise. I came up with a response that ended the shocked reactions and the pushes for me to join others in a drink. I simply said, “I’ve been sober now for 63 years.” The first time, my wife started to explain that that’s how old I was, but I squeezed her leg under the table. The table didn’t need to know the full story. It was the truth, and it hopefully encouraged a healthy lifestyle.
“Good for you, sir!” the waiter replied. Maybe it’d be good for you, too.