Disclaimer: My hope in telling this story is not to stoke controversy. Christian freedom exists for the sake of love, not for the sake of freedom itself. The issue of alcohol is one in which many believers will come down on different sides, and that is OK. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:5). I currently work for an organization that asks all of us to abstain from alcohol, and I do so willingly for the sake of the gospel. This story, however, tells how my first beer was among my Muslim friends, also for the sake of the gospel (and while with a different org). Theologically, I am bound by my conscience to thread the needle as I am convinced the Scriptures do: alcohol consumption can be done to the glory of God, but drunkenness is a sin. If it can be done for the sake of love and with a heart of gratitude, then it is good. If it becomes a master over us, it should be cut off. Believers, even within the same church, should have different practices based on these principles and their own consciences and struggles. My current abstention still gives me opportunity to talk about gospel love and freedom, just as my first partaking did. How exactly did having a beer lead to gospel conversation with my Muslim friends? Read on and you will see.
It was late winter/early spring in 2008. I was a few months into my gap year away from college and working in the Middle East. My friendship with *Hama, whom I met in the music shops of the bazaar, was going deeper. We had hung out a number of times, in the bazaar, in the tea houses, and in the old public bathhouse – a cultural remnant in that part of the Middle East passed down from the Turks who themselves passed it down from the Byzantines, who in turn got it from the Romans.
Hama and his circle of friends were not the kind of crowd I would have anticipated clicking with, myself a not particularly musical college kid who grew up a Baptist in Melanesia. They, on the other hand, were jaded wedding musicians. Wedding musicians, because their work consisted primarily in providing live music at local weddings, where local tradition demanded traditional melodies set to a techno beat by which the wedding guests could perform their hours of circular line dancing. Jaded, because Islam teaches that their work is unclean and forbidden. The mullahs (religious teachers) were not happy about the music itself, the way unmarried men and women held hands while dancing, and the way in which the continuation of this local culture put the people’s tradition in tension with Islam at every single wedding. Given their reputation as sinners and drinkers, the wedding musicians were regularly denounced publicly by the mullahs in their Friday sermons, while these same teachers secretly approached them after hours to find out how they could contact loose women to sleep with. Surprise, self-righteousness and a system of works salvation always breed secret sin. Hama and his friends had a front-and-center view of this. So they were jaded, jaded by Islam and the hypocrisy of its leaders and jaded by their destiny to be themselves bad Muslims just so that they could provide for their families. Yet what was to be done about it?
I initially didn’t think that Hama was very interested in spiritual things. He often railed against religious people, which left me unsure of how to share about my faith in Jesus. I had also received training that perhaps over-emphasized the need to earn the right to speak, which meant I felt I had to spend a long time demonstrating that I was different before I should verbally share the gospel. I later understood the importance of leading with the gospel in my relationships, but at this point I was struggling to know when and how to speak with Hama about Jesus, and hoping and praying for a good opening. And listening, so much listening. Hama had a lot of processing to do after having returned to his homeland a year before after six years as a refugee in the UK.
I remember the day the invitation came. Hama and his friends were going on a picnic in the mountains. They were going to bring the sunflower seeds and the fruit and the other essentials – and they wanted me to come and specifically to have a beer with them. Up to this point I had dodged this issue as most of our time was spent in contexts where tea was the beverage. And while ungodly amounts of sugar were used in the tea and it was strong, even addictive, I had been able to partake. But alcohol was a different matter. By this point I had theologically arrived at the point where I believed that alcohol was permissible for some, but I was going to play it safe. Why take the risk? Why play with fire? That was where I hoped to stay. Before actually living in the Middle East, I had always thought that a life of ministry to Muslims meant abstaining from alcohol forever for the sake of witness. And I was ready to do that. Yet as I mulled on Hama’s invitation, I started to become conflicted.
Many of the normal, working people of our city drank alcohol, in spite of being Muslims. In fact, the majority of the men that I knew were social drinkers. The only ones who seemed to religiously abstain were the mullahs and their devotees – the pharisees of the society, the whitewashed tombs, the self-righteous hypocrites. Who was I supposed to identify with? Would Jesus have a beer with the jaded wedding musicians? What am I supposed to do with the wedding at Cana and the fact that Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners? I committed it to prayer and chewed on it. What about my Christian friends in Melanesia whose churches make this a hard and fast line for Christians? Nevertheless, as I prayed and thought it over I felt that I should take Hama up on his invitation, that I should attempt to honor him and his friends by accepting their hospitality, even when it came to a beer, for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of love. Perhaps this could be a small way to demonstrate that they were not too far gone for God to still care about them. The savior had not come for the righteous, but for the sinners. I had become convinced that Jesus would indeed share a beer with the jaded Muslim wedding musicians.
So I went with Hama and his friends on their picnic in the mountains. I had my first beer ever while surrounded by Muslims in a country with a reputation for terrorism and Islamic extremism. Providence is not without a sense of irony. I choked it down and lamented the taste, but I didn’t regret the decision. As it turned out, beer would be the very thing that led to breakthrough in talking to Hama about Jesus.
Several weeks later I was sitting with Hama in some kind of a restaurant-bingo hall. We were eating salty chickpea soup and losing consecutive matches of bingo, when Hama held up his beer for us to look at.
“You know, the mullahs say that it’s not just the act of drinking this, it’s the substance itself that is unclean… What do you think about this? I’ve been watching the way you live, and you’re different from my friends in the UK and my friends here. You seem to be very religious, but in a different way. What do you think about alcohol being unclean?”
Here was my opening to share with Hama, the first time he had asked an open-ended question like this about my faith.
“Well, Jesus in the Injil (NT) teaches that it’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, it’s what comes out of him. It’s not all this external stuff like food and drink and clothing and beards that are the problem, it’s the evil desires in our hearts that come out of us in evil words and actions. True religion is about the heart, not about all these externals.”
That was it. That was all I got to share. One of Hama’s friends came and interrupted us and I didn’t have an opportunity to revisit the topic that evening. But the next time we saw each other, two weeks later, Hama leaned over to me, wearing a more serious expression than was typical for him.
“Bro, I’ve been thinking for the past two weeks about what you said that night. About true cleanness and uncleanness. I want to know – can you teach me and my family the Bible? Would you want to do that?”
I tried to keep the surprised joy and excitement in my heart from exploding onto my face.
“Sure, um, I can do that.” Play it cool, man, play it cool. When I remembered that I’m pretty bad at hiding my excitement, I made an exit to the bathroom where I could be by myself, shout for joy, and praise God. One small nugget of truth, one small idea of scripture (about alcohol no less), that’s all it took for the Holy Spirit to move in my friend’s heart.
When Hama dropped me off that night I ran inside to get him a New Testament in his language. He gladly accepted it and we agreed to discuss it the next time we met. Somehow, in the strange providence of God, He had used something I had never expected, beer, to be the breakthrough for studying the Bible with Hama. Hama later came to faith. We went on to use the presence of alcohol at mountain picnics and evening garden gatherings to be a regular springboard for evangelism with his friends. Jesus was faithful to work in Hama in the slow process of sanctification. Years later he came under conviction that alcohol had too much mastery in his life, and he gave it up entirely.
Hama now lives in another country, and I live in a different city. But I still bring up what Jesus teaches about true cleanness and uncleanness whenever the subject of alcohol comes up among my Muslim friends – many of whom are eager to learn whether I drink or not. And now that I am under an agreement and don’t drink, I still get to proclaim gospel truth to them when I explain why I don’t: If God gives us a clean heart through faith in Jesus, then all foods are clean for us, and we are free to partake or not to partake for the sake of love.
The gospel is utterly different from man-made religion. Instead of working to cleanse ourselves of sin and shame, God gives us a new heart, which transforms everything. We proclaim this message with words and we strive to model this with our actions and our choices. And that’s why my first beer was among my Muslim friends.