As a medical student, I was invited to an annual conference for respiratory physicians to share the results of some research I had conducted. On one of the evenings we were treated to a splendid meal in the resort's restaurant. My wife and I were seated opposite an internationally respected professor of medicine. The conversation rambled from one subject to the next while awaiting the main course.
Upon observing our choice of non-alcoholic beverages, you can imagine where the topic inevitably drifted.
Although proud of my lifestyle choices, I dislike the feeling of being under the spotlight. I prefer congenial sharing rather than having to vigorously defend my choices. In this case, it was more like being under the microscope as I was made to feel rather small. The conversation went something like this:
"So, Rob, do you dislike the local wines?" "Well, actually, both my wife and I choose not to drink alcohol. In fact, I've never had a drink in my life." "Really? Is there some religious reason for that?" "Well, actually there is. I was raised in an alcohol-free home, as we are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which takes a strong stance against alcohol consumption. I also believe that there are some good social and health reasons for not drinking." By the expressions on his face, I could see that he was going to mount a full-frontal attack. With the friendliest sarcasm he could muster, he suggested that there were in fact some good health reasons to drink in moderation. Then he asked, "Is your denomination Christian?" "Yes, we are a Protestant organisation that had its beginnings in the north-eastern states of the USA in the early 1800s." "Upon what basis then does your religion suggest abstinence?" "All our teachings, including those on alcohol, are derived from biblical sources. The Bible has much to say about avoiding alcohol." "Like Jesus performing his miracle of turning water into wine?" "Well, I don't think that there is any reason to believe that the wine he made was alcoholic. Scholarly exegesis of Scripture suggests that there is a difference between wine, which is the pure juice of the grape, and strong drink, which is the fermented variety." Even my carefully planned use of the word exegesis didn't seem to impress, nor to deter the further onslaught of questions, sarcasm and criticism. "You have got to be kidding me! You're not serious are you? Have you ever been to a Jewish wedding? I have never seen such drinking as I have at Jewish weddings!" I hadn't been to a Jewish wedding, and I wasn't about to admit it. Instead, I suggested that there might be a difference between modern and ancient weddings in terms of alcohol use. Right at this point, our vegetarian meals arrived! But that's another story. The approach taken by this learned professor has sensitised me to an important issue with regards to promoting the Bible's liberating teachings on health. Although he differed with my choices, he failed to respect me. Regardless of the choices that others make, I can't denigrate the negative or disagreeable aspects of their lifestyle and believe that this is what it means to show them a better way. Respecting the choices of others does not mean that I would make those same choices for myself. I have come to recognise that respecting both the individual and their freedom of choice are keystones in sharing our teachings on stewardship.
And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But you must do this in a gentle and respectful way. 1 Peter 3:15, 16.
–Robert Granger is a university lecturer at the University of Tasmania and lives in Lindisfarne, Tasmania.