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Friday, March 28, 2014

Beer for Lent

    “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Romans 14:5-6 (NIV)

Like many Christians throughout the centuries, Chris Schryer is observing Lent.
    The way he’s observing it, though, is pretty unique.
    Lent, as most people know, is a 40-day period of repentance and prayer that precedes Easter. During Lent, many Christians make a special effort to spend more time praying, worshipping, serving, and studying Scripture. Most give up something they enjoy: certain foods, TV, unnecessary purchases, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, and so forth.
    Chris Schryer is certainly giving up something: all solid food. Despite being the main cook for his wife and two children, for 40 days Chris will only drink water, tea, coffee, and fruit juices. Oh, and something else.
    Beer.
    In fact, beer is the primary thing keeping Chris upright. At breakfast and lunch, he drinks a 341 ml bottle of a thick, high-calorie German lager called dopplebock, brewed especially for his fast. At dinner, he drinks a 650 ml bottle. Each afternoon he drinks a beer that he reviews for a website that he runs. That’s it. Chris figures he gets around 2,000 calories a day from the beer. And, no, he says - he isn’t drunk.
    Before you make jokes, he’s apparently sincere about the spiritual aspects of his fast. He’s a devout Anglican, and had the beer blessed by his church’s priest before Lent began. In interviews he’s spoken eloquently about the point of Lent, and described how his beer diet has him more centered and has helped him spend more time in prayer, worship, service, and study of Scripture. He also describes the difficulty of saying “no” to his appetite: “Every meal time there’s a challenge.” He sounds like a man on a spiritual journey.
    Having grown up in a Bible Belt church culture that definitely favored the non-use of alcohol, and sometimes insisted on it, I have to admit that Chris’ unusual Lenten observance seems more than a little odd to me. I’m used to an expression of the faith that dictates you should never drink alcohol; one that mandates that you only drink alcohol, even for just a few weeks, is pretty far outside my range of experience.
    And I suppose that’s the point I’m making. Being outside my range of experience isn’t the same thing as being wrong. While we’d all agree that there are some mapped-out boundaries to the faith, beyond which there be heresy, it’s hard to make the case that the clearly-delineated boundaries are many. And it’s harder still to make the case that my experience should be normative for setting those boundaries.
    We’d like to think so, sometimes. If it’s not what I drink, it’s how I vote. Or if it’s not how I vote, it’s what I wear to church. Or if it’s not what I wear, it’s the kinds of songs I like to sing, or the Bible translation I use, or my opinion on the issue of the day, or my interpretation of a text of Scripture. And so my opinions, my experience of the faith, my practices and rituals - in short, me - becomes the assumed standard of a valid, true, and orthodox faith. Where God has left the boundaries vague, or left them off entirely, I do him the favor of sharpening them up. If I can’t imagine a valid faith expressed through a diet of beer during Lent, it must not exist. If I can’t imagine a valid faith in which Lent is observed (or not observed), it isn’t possible. If I can’t imagine a genuine, true faith in which a person can sing those songs, or hold that doctrinal belief, or use that translation of the Bible, then it can’t happen.
    Slowly but surely, I narrow it down until the only valid expression of faith in Jesus looks suspiciously like my own.
    Paul, however, talked about “disputable matters.” Matters open for discussion. Matters in which there is plenty of opinion, but no Divine mandate. The way we deal with those matters, he says, is to drill down to a deeper level of Christian experience, one in which we talk less about what’s “correct” and more about what’s good. We should be consistent with our own consciences, he says, and do what we do (or don’t do what we don’t do) to honor the Lord. And then we cut the sister or brother whose faith looks a little different some slack, and assume he or she is trying to please the Lord just as much as we are.
    Here’s the thing about “disputable matters”; they don’t come with a big, bright label advertising them as such. Depending on the convictions of a person’s conscience, disputable matters for one person might not be disputable at all for another. Sometimes a big issue for one believer is not even on the radar of another. Navigating that requires some sensitivity, love, and grace.      
    It requires us to understand that the faiths of two different believers don’t have to be identical.  Unity does not demand uniformity. In fact, the diversity and multi-faceted nature of the gospel should be expected to create a diverse, multi-faceted church. That’s only threatening if we’re invested in making sure that everyone else’s faith looks just like ours. Instead, we can relax a little, and recognize that believers might legitimately come to different conclusions about a particular Scripture, doctrine, or practice and still be equally interested in pleasing the Lord - and believe that God will clear up the misconceptions of good-hearted people.   
    So I’m thankful for Chris Schryer’s unusual, unconventional observance of Lent. And for other, more conventional observances. And for those whose conviction that repentance and seeking the Lord is a year-round process makes it difficult for them to see the point of Lent at all. May we be sisters and brothers. And may we look forward to the day when we raise a mug together in the Kingdom of God.

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