To drink or not to drink

I am a moderate drinker. Marci and I enjoy a glass of wine with supper from time to time, but we don’t do it a lot; we maybe buy one or two bottles a month. There’s a bottle of single malt Scotch in the cupboard above the stove; I like single malt, but one bottle usually lasts me six or eight months. I enjoy a glass of beer from time to time, but I recently gave up buying beer for home consumption because its one of the most calorie-intensive ways of drinking alcohol, and I need to lose weight.

I served for seven years as a missionary in the Diocese of the Arctic (1984-91). I didn’t do a statistical analysis, but it wasn’t hard to see that levels of alcoholism were many times higher in the settlements in the Northwest Territories than they had been anywhere else I had ever lived. I once calculated that in one of the communities in which I served, 90% of the funerals were alcohol-related. Most families had at least one alcoholic in them; many had several.

I want to be clear that I loved working in the Diocese of the Arctic. In many ways, I was more free to do ministry in the way I thought God had called me in that diocese than anywhere else I have ever served before or since. I loved travelling on the land, I loved the people (especially the elders), and I thank God for all I learned there. So I do not want to paint a picture of those communities that is dark or negative. Like all communities, they faced specific challenges. Alcohol abuse was a big one.

So our bishop asked us to make a commitment to him: whatever our personal views on the subject, we would not drink alcohol within the borders of the diocese, except at Holy Communion. I have to admit that I did not keep this commitment 100%, but I think that in the seven years I lived there, I might have broken it maybe three or four times at the most, and those were occasions when we decided to have a glass of wine at home.

I did not think it was an unreasonable commitment, given the level of addiction in the communities. Paul has a lot to say in Romans about not putting a stumbling block in the path of a brother or sister. I can take alcohol or leave it, and I can drink one or two glasses and then stop. Addicts can’t do that; the nature of their disease prevents it. If my actions cause them to fall into temptation, how am I loving my neighbour as myself? You can find Paul’s discussion of this in Romans 14.

I have not thought about this for a long time, but today I read an excellent article in ‘Christianity Today’, written by a person who has decided to abstain for the very reasons we abstained in the Diocese of the Arctic. It is not a rant; it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Here’s an excerpt:

In the past few years, though, my beliefs have changed—or been changed. My husband and I joined a Christian order among the poor, inspired by the likes of Shane Claiborne, who seek the face of Christ among the most marginalized of society. Our first shock when we moved into our low-income apartment in a Midwestern inner city was the amount of substance abuse that surrounded us. I heard the sounds every day: the Patsy Cline blaring next door, the off-key singing, the shouting matches, the cackling, the doors banging, the bodies crashing to the floor in a stupor. I would go to get my mail and find a man blocking the stairs, passed out and unresponsive at 11 in the morning.

We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.

And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.

After a year of living among them, I gradually just . . . stopped. I dreaded going to the liquor store, imagining the faces I would see there. I saw my neighbors get off the bus with a 12-pack in each hand, and I was less likely to get a beer the next time I was out. Eventually, I realized I could abstain from alcohol entirely, that it could even be a spiritual discipline for me—a way to pray and identify with my literal neighbors, who could not stop.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:17 that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” meaning that refusing any created good doesn’t secure a right standing before God—and enjoying a created good doesn’t hinder it either. And yet I was starting to take very seriously what Paul wrote a few short verses later: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (v. 21, esv). In my neighborhood, it was becoming clear: righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit were tied to breaking the chains of my neighbors’ addictions. Since so many were caught in the cycle of stumbling and picking themselves up again, it became good for me to not drink, as a way to stand with the brothers and sisters I was learning to love.

Read the rest here. Please do.

Oh, and D.L. Mayfield’s blog goes straight on my blogroll.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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