Anaheim SDA Church
Mid-week Pastor’s Update
February 23rd, 2022
“Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” Proverbs 20:1
Early last week, I had an evening free in my schedule, so I proposed to my wife that we go somewhere for dinner. “Where would you like to go?” She asked. “Well, I’d be good with El Torito, with Chili’s, or with the Argentinean restaurant up on Tustin Ave. in Orange…”. “I’ve heard of a couple other Argentinean restaurants nearby, we could try one of those” she responded. “Great”, I said “Text me the address, and the time to meet you & the kids, and I’ll see you there.” She did so, and I set my GPS to that address at the proper time.
As I pulled close, I didn’t see any Argentinean restaurant, but rather a… strip mall with a liquor store? I pulled into the parking lot to check my GPS, thinking “perhaps it’s a ‘street’ vs. ‘avenue’ thing, or a ‘north’ vs. ‘south’ on the street name… but as I was trying to review my phone, my wife & kids pulled up in the parking space next to me, smiling & waving.
“This can’t be right,” I said, “Are we at the wrong place?” “No, it’s here: look! That sign says ’empanadas’ right there.” Sure enough, written vertically on the pole supporting the liquor sign was the undeniable sign. “It must be in the liquor store” Jime said. “It can’t be!” I retorted. But as she went to the entrance, she said “Yeah, I see tables & chairs in the back half.” As she and the kids went in, I had a weird moment of eeriness come over me: ‘Am I about to go in a liquor store?’ I thought. I’d been in plenty of grocery and convenience stores, of course, which sell wine & beer, but nothing like this: with neon signs in the windors, and shelves of colorful bottles displayed on shelves of mirrors that went to the roof! I surreptitiously glanced back and forth to make sure no-one was watching me (church members or otherwise :-p ), and slinked in.
Sure enough: in the back half of the liquor store, there was a second business: a window to order food at, that had Argentinean candies and souvenirs, and a menu above to read from. Several tables with tablecloths and chairs were arranged in front of it. Behind it, a nice little lady was smiling, chatting with Jimena about Argentina, and discussing the hot food that could be ordered.
After we ordered our food, the woman tore off the receipt and handed it to us, saying “You pay at the cashier up front”, and so, man! I had to stand in line with people buying liquor to pay for our food! I was appreciative that the cashier didn’t look at me funny, or ask why I was in a liquor store in a suit (although, come to think of it, I’m sure plenty of business people come straight after work to ‘get their fix’.)
The rest of the meal turned out to be uneventful and quite tasty: the husband came out from the kitchen in the back and, along with his wife, talked with us friendlily for several minutes about their homeland. They said they’d moved to the U.S. about fifteen years ago, and that they had been in their current location there for about 3½ years. They also showed us a bit of the new money that’s been printed down in Argentina, more recently than the last time we visited. We parted afterward with friendly ‘ciao’s, and promises to come back sometime (or better, order the food for delivery, I thought).
So that was a unique moment for me. Upon driving home, I was reflecting: what was making me so uncomfortable going in there? Obviously, liquor stores are places of bad repute, and of course a number of bad or violent evenings for folk begin at such places. But it was kind of remarkable how ‘normal’ it felt inside. Like so many things in life, you had the good right next to the bad (I even saw they had bottles of Martinellis in there for purchase! I picked one up and put it on the table to show Jime as a joke).
As I continued reflecting, I wondered whether Jesus, were he here currently, would visit liquor stores and bars and the like, and I concluded that, fairly likely, he would! As he said at Levi the tax collector’s house, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. (Luke 5:31)
Speaking of which, that brought me to something else I noticed while we were eating there. The whole time we were there eating and chatting with that Argentinean couple, there was a pretty steady stream of clientele coming in and making liquor & beer purchases up front. There were women, of course, but I’d say probably 80% men, plenty of them young & healthy looking. I thought about how many stand-up men we see at church on a given Sabbath, and it’s probably about the same number that came in during that 40-minute or so period we were there that evening: meaning that, if you extrapolate it out through the night hours and seven days a week, far more people (predominantly men) are visiting that little liquor store than our visiting our churches. Obviously I shouldn’t stereotype: not all those men are ‘off the wagon’ or non-church attenders, but I couldn’t help feeling some melancholy over “where are our men in society? Far more here at the liquor store than in our churches.” And I thought about how liquor is an escape: of how many people use liquor (and stronger drugs) to ‘medicate themselves’ to deal with life, their histories, regrets, etc.
I had a great longing to talk to those people: to ask them what their life consisted of, and what brought them to the liquor store that evening. Though I kind of wanted to, I didn’t approach any of them: how many people would like to talk to a guy in a tie at or in front of a liquor store asking about life? But I wondered what Jesus would do in that situation.
Sometimes I get asked by young adults if they should travel in certain circles, or go to certain parties. Some of them say “I had this circle of friends back before I converted, shall I still hang out with them, or should I stop?” And my answer usually consists of something like this: “If you are sure you can be a positive influence on that group, then go ahead and go: if you’re concerned that the group will be a negative influence on you, then you’d better not.” Jesus could go into any situation in his day, because He knew His radiant holiness would undoubtedly be a good influence on them. But with us, we need to be careful and discerning. Even the Apostle Paul warns us: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful, lest you fall!” (1st Corinthians 10:12) So we should never haphazardly enter into dangerous situations. But he goes on to give us the positive advice in verse 13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man. But God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” So this means that, while we do not approach temptation intentionally, we can have confidence to endure and/or escape tempting situations in the power & space that God gives us.
<sigh> I wonder if you’d join with me in praying for how we can reach hurting people in society who are trying to ‘fill the void’ through alcohol or other means. We know that God’s love, His vision, His salvation, and the fulfillment that He brings are the solutions to all the social problems people experience, but many times people don’t want the ‘cure’ when they can have the supposed ‘medicine’ that numbs the symptoms for a time. (Never mind that it hurts the brain, liver, and relationships in life in the meantime).
I don’t know whether I will ever visit that liquor store again: I kind of doubt it, I only went that first time because I had no idea of the situation in which that little Argentinean café was oriented. But it was an experience that gave me much to reflect on. I certainly hope Jesus can reach those people: let’s resolve to be available to anyone who shows the slightest inkling of interest: after all, Jesus says “No-one can come to me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44).
I pray you and your families have a blessed week and beyond. Hope to see you at church this Sabbath (and I’m glad I didn’t see any of you at the liquor store! 😛 )
Pr. Mark Tatum