(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 14, 2015)
This week, in discussing and thinking about alcohol and marijuana, some deeper things were proved to me once again.
Honest discussion and even disagreement in the pursuit of truth is a good thing. It also creates a sense of community. And it can even be a spiritual experience, a place where God is present, where faith breaks in and touches the fabric of day to day life.
We need this! People are longing for faith to be relevant, and for God’s people to engage the way we live.
At Newberg Friends we want to be the kind of church that asks the difficult questions and is comfortable with people coming to different conclusions. Not because “anything goes” or because answers don’t matter…but because we are trying to follow Christ more faithfully. In our pursuit of God’s truth, we recognize no topic is off limits and no one person has it all figured out.
We need each other and our different perspectives, because selfishness and sin and our limited experiences can blind us to how God is leading. Historical mistakes done in the name of Jesus ought to give us a sense of humility about our ability to always get things right.
Facebook, of all things, became a place of rich dialogue this week, as I asked for people’s experiences and thoughts about alcohol and marijuana.
We did not all agree. But I learned things I didn’t know. I gained new perspective. Jennifer Perez wrote on my Facebook wall and said, “Are you just going to put up a link to your Facebook page on Sunday and sit back down? Because it’s the best church I’ve been to in a while.” You are welcome and invited to find me on Facebook and read! It will be worth your time.
So today, while I won’t be asking for feedback or thoughts here in the service, I want you to know that everything I say has been shaped by conversation with other people. I’m indebted to the 96 people who commented or sent me a private message. The ones I’m quoting today I’m leaving anonymous, because I didn’t have time to ask permission from them all about using their names. I hope today challenges you to choose obedience to Christ in regard to alcohol and marijuana. I hope the perspectives you hear today will help you make wise, healthy, and faithful choices.
For many decades, the default thinking and teaching of our church was that following Jesus meant not drinking any alcohol.
Underlying this default position was a very strong belief that there was no good to be found in alcohol.
Right here in this room, in the first session of our Yearly Meeting in 1893, Dr. Elias Jessup proposed this minute which was approved:
“We declare it to be our solemn conviction that the liquor traffic is wholly pernicious, repugnant to the moral sense, destructive to the peace and good order of society, the home, the church, and the body politic: and utterly antagonistic to all that is precious in life; that the proper Christian attitude toward it is relentless hostility.”
An edited version of this minute is printed on your worship sheet today. “Utterly antagonistic to all that is precious in life” leaves no room for anything good to be found in alcohol. And the “proper Christian attitude” is the default position: “relentless hostility.”
I believe we are more faithful to Christ when we choose “intentional thinking” over “default thinking”.
That doesn’t mean the end result has to be different; it simply means that part of making our faith our own is to pursue truth for ourselves. The point is the process. We want to consider everything and weigh it in light of the Holy Spirit, the bible, and community. We want to know what we believe and why we believe it.
For default thinking to work, two things would have to be true that I don’t think are true. If the only thing that mattered was the end result, default thinking might be an option. But Jesus destroyed that idea in the Sermon on the Mount and lots of other ways. Jesus pushed us to look beyond our outside actions to the motives and the desires of our hearts, and the only way we can do that is to think and be intentional, not just blindly accept external rules.
The other thing necessary for default thinking to work would be if people always believed what you told them to believe, and always did what you told them to do. Ha! Haha!! Not so much.
So we are left, I believe, with a more scary journey, one where we as a church community commit to open dialogue in the pursuit of truth. Where we call each other to the higher standard of letting the Holy Spirit challenge our motives and the desires of our heart. Where we wrestle and choose “intentional thinking” over “default thinking.”
Again, that doesn’t mean the end result has to change from the default position. In fact, we ought to give careful consideration and thought to what has been handed to us. Most default thinking began with careful thought and attention to Christ; it’s not that we ignore it, simply that we don’t assimilate it without thought. We may end up in exactly the same default position after our own search, but let’s do go on the search!
My own search for God’s leading and for truth in the bible causes me to question the belief underlying the 1893 statement.
Jesus ate and drank freely in situations where alcohol was present, so much so that he gained the reputation of being “a glutton and a drunkard” himself (Matthew 11:19). Would he do that if alcohol was wholly evil and “antagonistic to all that is precious in life?” Paul found medicinal value in alcohol when he told Timothy to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and frequent illnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:23)
These give us indications that Jesus and the biblical world view did not see alcohol as altogether evil. Listen to what God promises as a blessing in Deuteronomy 11:
“So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today-to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul- then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine, and olive oil.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14, emphasis mine)
Rain is God’s good blessing, and wine is actually named as one of the good things to come from it. Not only that, but one of the major religious festivals ancient Israel was told to celebrate was the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths. Deuteronomy 16:13 tells us it was a seven day celebration after the harvest was in and the wine was pressed, and that part of the joy of the celebration included alcohol.
The bible also in many places in the Old and New Testament recognizes the dangers of misuse of alcohol, how it can deceive us and mock us. It warns us in many cases against drunkenness. But I have a hard time finding biblical support for alcohol being “wholly pernicious”.
The biblical worldview begins in Genesis with God’s pronouncement of the goodness of creation.
When human sin and selfishness came in, the goodness was not erased but rather warped. This forces us to consider how God’s good creation can be misused, and how we need to guard ourselves against misuse and abuse of the good in the world. It’s easier, but less in line with the teaching of the bible, to write some things off as wholly evil and irredeemable. It can lead to problems.
One person in the Facebook discussion wrote:
“Does labeling some elements of creation as morally unclean help or hinder our relating justly to others? I can picture a table of Christians celebrating at a restaurant, each getting more calories than they need in a day and a half, from food harvested by exploited bodies, on a poisoned planet, ordered by corrupted politics— but feeling confident for having not ordered any booze.”
I think this is really key. If God’s goodness still permeates even our fallen world, as I believe, our primary pursuit is to live in alignment with God, to look for God at work anywhere and everywhere and join God!
On the other hand, if you believe our world is so broken and depraved that some things are absolutely evil, then you would have a different pursuit: find evil and eradicate it.
This carries over to the idea of truth. If all truth is God’s truth, we can boldly and joyfully entertain any thought and look for God’s leading and truth in it. If on the other hand some things are so warped that God can’t be found there, then we must separate ourselves and not be tainted by any kind of false or evil teaching.
This is at the heart of so many of our differences in Christian circles. Our conviction at Newberg Friends is that we want to be a community that celebrates and looks for God’s goodness in the world, without being naive about how creative humans are at warping God’s good gifts. We want to seek God’s truth anywhere and everywhere, respecting each others’ differences…not in a desire to be politically correct, but rather with the complete focus on pursuing Christ and putting Jesus at the center of our lives.
When “no alcohol” is the default, sometimes trouble arises.
One person in the Facebook discussion wrote,
“When we push alcohol away and generally identify it as an ‘evil’, we think we’re pointing our fingers at secular culture, but we’re really pointing our fingers at the men & women who identify in that culture. That act of judgement doesn’t feel Christ-like to me.”
“I was well into my adult years before I did not have a visceral and emotional response to people and situations where alcohol was being served and consumed.” She went on to say that getting past that judgment of others was “a break-through for me in my attitudes towards others. It’s freeing not to carry that baggage.”
In our culture, like the one Jesus lived in, hospitality and fellowship are often centered around food and drink, even alcoholic drink. Jesus himself risked being judged when he shared table fellowship with those seen as drunkards, damaging his own reputation in the community in order to extend open acceptance to all.
I believe it is a faithful interpretation of the bible to say that Jesus lived a gospel of hospitality and open table fellowship, where food and even alcohol played a part in communicating God’s unconditional love. It can be that way in certain situations today.
One man wrote, “I’ll always treasure my memories of ‘pub culture’ in the British Isles, with half a village gathered around the watering hole making music and just talking with each other.” A woman wrote, “My mindset shifted when living abroad. Wine was an offering of friendship and a warm welcome, a tangible way to extend hospitality to others. I use alcohol in this way with my family/friendships now.
As a part of the Facebook discussion, Jeff McDonough called me the “Nuance Superstar”–so I want to live up to the title here today.
I’m not saying, and I didn’t hear others saying, that you can’t offer hospitality without alcohol. I am saying that some people today responsibly use alcohol in moderation out of a desire to appreciate in it the goodness of God’s creation, and out of a desire to extend and experience hospitality in our culture.
Too often, from our default position of abstinence, we can miss the intentional thinking, the pursuit of truth that has shaped others to different conclusions. In our church today there are people who have come to an intentional position different from the one which sees alcohol as evil. Some believe that even with the dangers that come from misuse and abuse, there is still value and joy to be found in moderate and responsible use of alcohol.
I also wonder if we sometimes miss something else.
Alcohol in many cases is a symptom of deeper problems, not a cause. Isolation and loneliness, more and more research is showing, contribute to addiction and misuse of alcohol. Studies have shown rats which are isolated from other rats at key points in their lives (equivalent to adolescence in humans) show signs of becoming more quickly addicted to amphetamines or alcohol than do rats in community, and the addiction lasts longer and is more difficult to break.
“The isolated rats were much quicker to form a preference for the small, distinctive box in which they received amphetamine or alcohol than were the never-isolated control group. Nearly all the isolated rats showed a preference after just one exposure to either drug. The control rats only became conditioned after repeated exposures.” [Source]
If studies on rats aren’t convincing to you, maybe the experience of a person from our own church will.
I got a private message, and the first paragraph said she didn’t share it publicly because “too many Friends people are judgmental”. She went on to talk about why she sometimes drank.
“I like the social setting, especially being single and alone. Going home to an empty house after a long day at work is not always fun. I need to be with people – people who don’t judge me; people who greet me with smiles and share about their lives. People who are found in bars.”
After I asked some questions, she also said: “Loneliness is huge in my life, and having connection with people in the bar helps. My ‘church’ friends are all too busy… There’s no effort needed to get together with people in the bar – just show up.”
Rather than judge her use of alcohol, perhaps a better response for us as the church is to figure out how to make room in our lives for people like her, make room for people who are really struggling from loneliness and lack of connection.
Interestingly, the judging goes both ways.
One of the things I heard from several people who don’t drink is that they don’t want to be automatically blasted as judgmental. One wrote,
“Just because I don’t want any part of alcohol use does not mean that I consider it sinful or need to judge others. I do wish it were more socially acceptable to choose not to drink without being judged to be sanctimonious or judgmental of others.”
In many circles inside and outside the church, the “default thinking” has become that everyone should drink responsibly. I think that default thinking should be challenged as well. Someone wrote,
“It’s surprising to me how many people don’t even consider not drinking to be an option. Often when I tell people I don’t drink I see the gears start to turn as they try to figure out if I’m a recovering alcoholic or a religious fanatic, as those are the only two kinds of people they can imagine refusing a drink.”
In our pursuit of truth, in our pursuit of Christ, in our rejection of default thinking and pursuit of intentionality…we ought to consider healthy reasons to limit or not drink alcohol at all.
I loved reading the many good, practical ways people do this…it’s worth looking at my Facebook page. Here’s one response that covered a lot of ground:
Why I don’t drink: 1. It was never part of my environment growing up, and I didn’t know anyone who did drink. 2. In my world, Christians didn’t drink, out of respect for their own bodies and minds and in honor for the Holy Spirit living in them. 3. In my medical family we learned early of the harmful effects of alcohol on the body and especially the mind. 4. I have seen up close (among extended family) the effects of alcohol in the destruction of marriage, fetal alcohol syndrome, loss of life from drunk driving and the struggle for sobriety of an alcoholic. 5. I know my own lack of self-discipline. 6. It has never had any appeal for me. 7. I don’t want to support the industry. (See here for an example of why) 8. I don’t want to encourage anyone else to drink for whom it might become an overpowering problem.
My goal today is to ask you not to do anything by default.
I want to encourage each of us be intentional about pursuing God’s direction for how to deal with alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. “What will be your reasons for use or non-use of alcohol or marijuana?” Make an action plan and know why you have chosen what you will choose.
I know it’s shocking to see that question on the screen, especially marijuana. But we have to think about this. In 16 days, it will be legal to grow and possess marijuana in Oregon. More and more, the default will move to acceptance. We must be intentional. We ought to consider God’s leading, the health effects on ourselves, the effects on our relationships, and the effects on our wider society.
I confess a lot of ignorance when it comes to marijuana. I learned this week that studies confirm marijuana damages developing brains in adolescents, and that heavy use at any age may negatively affect the brain. I also learned that despite my skepticism beforehand, there are some health benefits to marijuana, when it is ingested in a different way than smoking it. A friend I’ve had for decades, someone whose walk with Jesus I deeply trust, wrote privately to tell me that after trying every other medication a doctor prescribed, edible marijuana was the only thing that got her through chemotherapy.
I also learned of the incredible racial inequity there is in regard to arrests for marijuana use. Virtually identical percentages of whites and blacks use marijuana. In fact in the 18-25 age group, whites use more than blacks.
But the arrest rates are grossly unjust.
While I personally still struggle with recreational use of marijuana, perhaps legalization removes a great racial injustice. As many others wrote, perhaps well-regulated medical use of marijuana may have benefit.
Paul’s words in Corinthians come to mind.
“I have the right to do anything”…but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”…but I will not be mastered by anything. (I Corinthians 6:12) Which leads to the next question I propose:
“If you do choose to use, what limits or boundaries will you put in place?”
In Ephesians 5:18, Paul says: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit…” It’s one of several places that place a boundary on the use of alcohol: avoid drunkenness.
Both negatively impact the development of adolescent brains, causing damage that doesn’t get fixed with time. That’s why both are illegal for those under 21. Nearly 88,000 people die each year from alcohol related causes, making it the 3rd highest preventable cause of death. Too much alcohol causes damage to the liver. Alcohol and marijuana impair judgment.
One of the biggest things that weighs on me today is the pain I heard, much of it sent to me in private messages as this Facebook discussion was going on. I feel a sense of responsibility to these ones who trusted me with their stories and their pain, a responsibility to loudly and clearly share how much pain the misuse of alcohol and other drugs can cause.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are real, and dangerous, and they can destroy relationships and lives. Listen to people from our church share:
“I grew up with an alcoholic father… He was not a bad man but alcohol changed him and his ability to relate to people. When he was not drinking, he was my friend and my hero. When he drank, he was sad and pathetic and scary.”
“My mom continued to drink. Her alcoholic boyfriend followed her from California and mooched off of her for years. Alcohol poisoning finally got him one Saturday morning, leaving me to clean up his parts off the floor and furniture. It is not pleasant to see what happens when someone implodes all of their organs. My mom died [two years ago]. She had colon cancer (common in alcoholics), and her liver was so extended, an artery burst during the operation. Two weeks later, all of her organs finally shut down. They were so damaged, she was just unable to come through the trauma. She had lied to her doctors, denied an alcohol problem, and drank up until a week before her operation. Very bad choices led to her demise at 70.”
“I lost my father and my relationship with my mother to addiction. Its not really in direct answer to your question, but I think its important to remember that you don’t have to drink to have your life negatively affected by addiction. Addiction happens in whole families and communities, and many people play a role.”
And then there are countless stories of the damage not from abuse or alcoholism, but from misuse. Our ability to be in denial is huge. We can justify our actions, because they don’t seem as bad as others we’ve seen.
Another private message I received reminds us that we may not be as responsible with our use as we think.
This person was reading the discussion on my page as a personal friend of some people who were posting about their responsible use of alcohol, yet as a friend had seen damage in relationships because of overuse of alcohol and drunkenness. She/he wrestled with what to do about the incongruity they saw between what was said and what had been observed. This person didn’t want to be seen as judgmental, but was concerned about her/his friend’s alcohol use. What can be done?
My last question is aimed directly at this.
We are pursuing health and truth here-that’s the goal. Toward that end, would you be willing to ask this question to two or three people who know you well…maybe a friend, or your spouse, or your children?
“Is there anything about my use of alcohol or other substances that worries you or causes concern?”
Be brave and ask! People don’t want to be judgmental. It’s difficult to say something to someone when we have a concern. Yet experience tells us that we are often blind to our own struggles, that we overestimate our abilities.
97% of people surveyed identified themselves as average or above average as a leader. Umm, that’s impossible by definition; everybody can’t be above average. 64% think they are “good or excellent drivers”, but believe only 29% of their close friends are “good or excellent drivers”. We have blind spots! Let’s ask others to help us see true selves, for our own health and for the health of people around us!
There is good help out there if you’re willing to put your best effort behind getting healthy. Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, treatment centers…if you know you need help, or if those you love say you need help, go get it. Ask one of our staff or someone you trust to get you connected to the right place.
I’ll close with these wise words from a woman in our congregation:
“The bottom line for me in all of this is understanding our genuine, under-lying motivation for taking a hit, shot, nap, jog … what are we reaching for? Is there a hole we are trying to fill to be whole? Because I’ve come to believe wholeness comes only from one source through the one who willingly, in love, put nail holes in his hands to save us from ourselves.”