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Not Misusing Intoxicants

A year ago, inspired not only by my Zen practice but also by wanting to better understand a friend, I made the commitment not to use alcohol for one year. Now, alcohol has never been a large part of my life, but I have enjoyed both a professional and personal connoisseur’s attitude to wines, including selling wines and teaching wine-pairing classes. So, while it was not a huge sacrifice, it was a significant shift in my life. Kind of like giving up chocolate for Lent.

In my Zen practice at the time I was challenged by my sensei to visualize what it would be like to interpret the precept we were working with literally, which happened to be the precept against misusing intoxicants. This meant more than just alcohol (I have never used any other more illicit substances), but also anything that is used to distract someone from reality. In my life, this meant re-evaluating my use of the internet, of watching television, and even taking a look at how often I delve into my science fiction novels.

I also entered into this yearlong practice to better understand the life-experience of several friends who are in AA and AlAnon. For these friends, I noticed the way that abstaining from alcohol in church and seminary social situations set them apart, and I wanted to understand the life of our faith from their perspective.

Last night, I broke my fast by having a glass of wine after dinner… and not even a good one. Though I had an excellent Red Zinfandel picked out for the occasion, I instead had a glass of Lambrusco… in honor of that being the wine that my wife and I most often had back when we were soldiers together, and just friends. It was what they sold on post… and we were young. We keep it around for sentimental reasons.

The practice of abstaining has been interesting in many different ways. First, I am not a literal kind of person, and so making a unilateral literal commitment has been a stretch for me. It has given me an appreciation for the spiritual discipline necessary for monastic vows, but also for how spiritually fulfilling living up to vows one has taken can be. Through this practice, I think I have come to understand my friends who walk a monastic life better, and to wonder if there is not a place for monasticism within Unitarian Universalism.

It was also interesting to see the role alcohol plays in congregational life. When I was a Southern Baptist, alcohol was kept outside of the church, but in Unitarian Universalism it is often a part of our social gatherings, if an understated one. The alcohol present at our church events is almost always wine, it is almost always served in clear plastic solo cups, and almost everyone has no more than two glasses at the event. Designated drivers are chosen. I was amazed at how responsibly wine has been used at congregation and district functions. Retreats can be a different experience, however… but no one is driving.

I have decided to continue indefinitely my practice of not using alcohol at church. While this sometimes does set me apart at the event, that is perhaps a good thing for a minister. It makes a statement of good boundaries for me to have a cup of hot tea in my hands while mingling with congregation members… but this is my choice and not one that would necessarily work for others.

The most disturbing realization from this past year regarding alcohol and congregational life is how easily we can forget that there are those in our midst who cannot or should not have alcohol, and how we sometimes are not sensitive to them. Here are a couple of anecdotes to explain what I mean:

Once, at an event outside of my church, when I stated that I would like something other than alcohol, I was sent to the “children’s” table to get a soda.

When requesting something other than alcohol, I have occasionally had someone assume that I was an alcoholic. Some people will blatantly ask, but others simply make the assumption. One person carried that belief about me for several months, and their vision of who I am formed around that assumption. Several months later, when they asked if I was still “attending meetings” we had a slightly embarrassing but rather enlightening discussion.

On several occasions, the only alternative to alcohol that was offered was caffeinated coffee, which at 9pm is probably even less appropriate than alcohol, at least for my sleep patterns. I have taken to carrying a couple of bags of herbal tea in my jacket, as most places I can find hot water.

At an event hosted by one of my friends who is in AA, I was aware of the consternation among several guests that alcohol was not being served. The same was true of another organization that chose someone in AlAnon to organize their social functions, and unexpectedly found wine no longer being offered at them. That group learned to bring their own wine, and pay attention to the issue in who they nominate for that position in the future.

How we as a society use alcohol is a subject that is not often discussed, and yet for this past year it has been at the forefront of my experience. At least three times per week my commitment not to use alcohol would come up, more than I would have believed before. Each time, I would be compelled by questioning eyes to explain, no, I’m not a recovering alcoholic, I have just made a commitment to abstain for a year for religious reasons. I found that the issue came up in my experiences with fellow seminarians and ministers more than anywhere else. I would visit someone and have to explain why I brought a bottle of sparkling grape juice and not the expected bottle of wine, or why I turned down the offer of a beer after helping someone move, or why I was drinking hot tea instead of merlot at the church reception.

I now understand why my friends in AA and AlAnon sometimes avoid such gatherings. I had an answer to the question of why I was not drinking that was, if weird, acceptable. For someone who is a recovering alcoholic the question “So what are you, a recovering drunk? “(actual question someone asked me) is more than a little intrusive and unwelcoming. It must be frustrating for your recovery from alcohol to be the defining characteristic in how people view you. Add to that the need to stay away from the temptation inherent in an event where alcohol is being served, and it is amazing we see these friends at church socials at all.

As we continue as a faith to look at how we are welcoming people from many different backgrounds and experiences, let us also look at the role that alcohol plays in our congregational lives, to insure we develop practices that welcome and include those who can not partake of alcohol, as well as those who can. Practices that include them, not separate them… practices that affirm them, not question them… practices that call us to take a look at all of the ways we all distract ourselves from the reality around us.

Yours in faith,


9 Thoughts on “Not Misusing Intoxicants

  1. Great post, David! There is an interesting element, too, in the defensiveness that comes out from some, whether it’s about alcohol or meat. I’m neither alcohol-abstinent nor a vegetarian, but I have observed in others this defensiveness … that by one person making a decision to abstain, they feel that their non-abstention is being attacked. Strange, how sensitive we are to perceived slight …

  2. Oh, I think that I ran into that even more than someone who is a recovering alcoholic does… because of the “religious” motivation for my abstention.

    Every once in awhile someone would ask me why I was not drinking, I would tell them, and then they would launch into a (sometimes long) discussion of how they “didn’t really drink that much” or how they were planning on stopping drinking at some point, or only imbibed at social occasions.

    In the beginning, this was often with the conservative ministers at the Chaplain School, but I found the same trend occurred in congregational life as well. I was not intending to imply any judgement, but such judgement was often perceived anyway… and it does point to the possibility that there may be a reason for this sensitivity on the issue.

    Thank you!

    Yours in Faith,


  3. A very well-written post. Something to think about in attempts to be welcoming.

  4. There’s also the issue of alcohol at gatherings where children and teens are present — I remember a kerfuffle at M/L (Meadville Lombard) when a teenage child of a student was drinking beer, with his parent’s permission, at a public event. That was fascinating.

    I like a glass of wine with dinner or socially, but feel no need for it at church functions, for many of the reasons you describe above. I think church functions are a good opportunity to explore why alcohol seems to be considered so “necessary” to social settings in our society.

  5. It seems to me it’s just rude to question why another adult isn’t drinking, but people do it all the time when I don’t drink. It makes me think that peer pressure with alcohol doesn’t go away!

    I like the idea of providing adult-types of alternative beverages too, and not sending people to the kids’ table for something with caffeine.

  6. I never felt this more then when we moved to the south. When I tell people that I don’t drink they either get mad, defiant, or think there must be something wrong with me. It has been an ongoing conversation with friends. Everyone I know drinks to some degree and that I don’t often sets me apart. I never thought I would feel peer pressure in my 30’s!

    I don’t drink because alcoholism runs in my family and I am not willing to go down that road.

  7. David (not blog author) on Thursday April 17, 2008 at 14:28 +0000 said:

    Your struggle is a common one as people of faith awaken to life’s deep questions. Just saying “no” isn’t enough without saying “yes” to what follows abstinence.

    Go sit through some AA or Alanon meetings until you get a framework out of which to respond to inquiries with a sense of comfort. Often those who seem most interested in your behavior changes are those who are facing the same issues and see you as challenging their elaborate web of denial.

    The whole culture, according to some observers, is addicted on many levels. The Big Book of AA reminds those of us who recover through their insights that the booze is a symptom of something deeper. And that the preactice of 12 Steps brings us into the presence of “a power greater than ourselves who can restore us to sanity.”

    For many, that’s great news. It has been for me since 1970. Many seminaries teach it and rest will awaken to it when the time is right.

    Best to you!

  8. David,

    I want to thank you for your comments. I have attended some AA meetings, and we even had them meeting at our church in Galveston for awhile. One of my mentors there had spent years as a minister working with AA groups. They were quite formative…

    Yours in Faith,


  9. Pingback: Church Life, Alcohol, and Me | Celestial Lands

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