What’s wrong with a glass of wine on Christmas Eve? I am never much impressed with that sort of question when posed as an argument in debating whether Christians should abstain from alcohol or be free to drink in moderation.
I know of course that Jesus made water into wine, and that Paul told Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake. I know also that the question of abstaining from alcohol is not by itself a salvation issue. And I know at the same time the profound damage alcohol can cause both young and old who are attempting to serve the Lord.
I know because I’ve had a lot of experience with alcohol in my lifetime. Here are only a few examples:
When I was assigned to pastor my first church, a parishioner suggested I visit a man named Guy. I was surprised to find him in bed trembling and hallucinating from delirium tremens as he struggled to arrest his heavy drinking. For me it was a startling introduction to see the distant end of the road he had entered with the likely intention to drink moderately.
Later, when our family arrived at our second church appointment, I learned that my predecessor’s twenty-something son was still in the city, but out of reach during his drinking binges. We became friends and I learned that he was in his mid-teens when he plummeted swiftly into alcoholism.
I saw him only once after we moved away from that city. I was taking a course at the university 20 miles away and he took pains to look me up. He wanted me to know that finally the Salvation Army had helped him to shake the addiction. It was a gracious mercy but he later died in his thirties due to liver disease.
I remember a second young man, a believer and the elected song leader of the congregation, who had been introduced to alcohol while working on a road crew during his summer vacation from university. He was intellectually gifted, and a star basketball player. He became profoundly alcoholic within three months of his first drink.
I met this man again several years later. After a wrenching effort, he had finally won the battle over alcohol, received divine assistance, and was teaching Sunday School. I rejoiced with him, but was saddened that his mind and body had lingering damage from those misdirected years.
At a third church appointment I had close contact with two young people who were easy to love. I grieve even yet as I mention them. She was a quiet teenager, intelligent and shy, but friendly when I gained her trust. One drink at a party had unexpectedly started her on a steep downward slide and she eventually died much too young, wasted by alcohol and alone.
The young man of these two was tall and slender with the bloom of youth upon him. He later joined the army and fought in Vietnam. Forty years yet later, I learned that he was doing life in the penitentiary. His sister, whom I did not initially know, connected us, prompting a good letter exchange with him. He reminded me that when his father abandoned the large family, I became as a father to him.
He confessed that he had made many bad choices in life. I didn’t ask him what his crime was but it was serious enough to bring down a life sentence, and alcohol was a foremost contributor to his condition. His sister wrote me not long ago that he had died but had renounced his bitterness against his father and had died in faith.
The needs these parishioners and many others presented were enormous. To add to my ministerial training I sought understanding from every source imaginable, the Alcoholism Foundation and the Salvation Army to name two. I preached the gospel regularly but I also brought an expert on the science of alcohol and alcoholism to speak to our young people. I remember one person asking him how might one know in advance who was particularly susceptible to alcoholism. The expert’s answer? “You can’t know; it’s Russian roulette.” Half a century later one of those erstwhile young people wrote me that the church’s ministry had prompted her and friends to live morally upright lives.
What has brought all of this back to my mind at age 92? For one thing, a worldwide study reported in Lancet dated Friday, March 24, 2018. It states the following: alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women between the ages of 15 and 49. Alcohol was involved across the world in nearly one in ten deaths in 2016. That same year it was associated with 2.8 million deaths worldwide.
When I hear the argument for a glass of wine now and then I always hear it as disconnected from and perhaps even insensitive to a large segment of a world where alcohol damages and destroys by the thousands.
My doctor son, while doing emergency room service, commented to me that a remarkably high percentage of the profound trouble and social disorder he saw in inner city emergency rooms (violence, abuse, accidents, shootings, etc.) was related to alcohol, and that this stiffened his resolve not to drink. He later noted also that a shocking percentage of resources devoted to medical care revolve around alcohol.
My other son reminded me that across a career in publishing when alcohol seemed a part of every business luncheon he was sometimes asked why he didn’t drink. His simple answer, “I’ve taken a vow.” It was always enough with no further questions or comments and nothing taken from the pleasure of the occasion.
It didn’t seem enough to either son just to decide not to drink. They needed also to know how to navigate in situations where drinking seems to be expected.
In the light of all these memories, recent publications, and family experiences, I affirm the Bible’s wisdom when it says Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise (Proverbs 20:1). Other Christians may disagree, yet it seems to me a matter of wisdom to abstain — for oneself and as an example to family and friends of a serious and yes even Christian view of life.
Photo credit: Evan Wood (via flickr.com)