William B. Miller: The TNB InterviewBy J.M. Blaine
December 04, 2014
Do you really live next door to Bette Midler?
Well, kinda. She owns some ranch land here and it backs up to my house. I think Bette grew up in Oahu and she’s dedicated to not letting the land get overdeveloped. She leases it to a local rancher so I guess it might be more accurate to say I live next door to some cows on Bette Midler’s land. But I’d love to have a beer with her sometime.
So how does a priest get assigned to Hawaii?
By the grace of God. Here I am, Lord, send me.
A book about God and beer drinking. Tell us the back story on that one.
I was looking for a universal metaphor, especially to those who aren’t connected or open to expressions of faith. Well, wherever you go in this world, there’s a local brew. Virtually every city on the planet has an “Irish Pub” and some of my fondest bonding experiences have occurred over a local beer. Last summer I enjoyed a STAR beer in Ghana with a wonderful and wise Anglican Bishop who was engaged in all kinds of powerful outreach ministries. A few years ago a Buddhist monk in Tibet invited me out for a beer and ice cream. I assumed he’d want a local brew, a Lhasa Beer, but the rage in Tibet at that time was…Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was incredible sitting in a small bar and ice cream parlor—great combination—in Tibet, sharing faith stories with a young Buddhist monk. Beer is a universal language; people meet and connect over beer.
So how did the book come together?
I was at Padre’s, the bar I co-own down in Marfa, Texas, just doing what owners do: wash dishes, pick up cigarette butts, clean tables—and while I was out front sweeping, this kid pedals up on his bike with a CD between his teeth. Says his name is Max Lewis, he’s 13 and he plays the blues. Wants to perform at Padre’s. So we made it happen and long story short, Max was great, his mom had a speaker’s bureau, we connected over a beer and she introduced me to a literary agent. God moves in all sorts of mysterious ways, Jamie. All we have to is pay attention.
And be willing to sweep and pick up cigarette butts.
Yep, that helps too.
Why are some religious people so against drinking?
We can abuse a whole host of God’s gifts: drink, food, work, sex, even religion. But that’s our problem, not God’s. True religion is less “against” anything, and more “for” everything. Sin is not enjoying God’s good gifts—it’s taking them for granted. We come from a whole host of beverage aficionados in the faith tradition. Scripture affirms the good life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Jesus’ first miracle turning water into wine—180 gallons! How’s that for abundance? Also note that Jesus used Purification jars to hold the wine—again, obscuring the boundary between the sacred and profane. Also, I like that one where Paul tells Timothy to enjoy a little wine every night. Because church is composed of people who will drive us to drink. And many historians believe it was St. Patrick who invented the distilling process for whiskey.
I grew up in the Deep South, same region and faith background as you. Was there a turning point somewhere in there?
I came up in a very uptight and strict religion but I had the privilege of living across the street from Hank and Mary Bartos, good Texas Catholics. Hank and Mary weren’t people of extravagant means but they knew how to enjoy life with exuberance—whether it was a bowling alley or bingo at the Knights of Columbus Hall or floating down a river on an inner tube with a six pack of Pearl Beer. Just good people. And incredibly influential to me.
I had a second family like that, the Shermans. Frank Sherman was an Air Force Chaplain, a big jolly guy who loved his spirits, no doubt. But they were good to me and they were the only church people I knew whose religion was more celebration than drudgery.
Here in Hawaii, if you have a child you are really close to, or have helped raise, you are considered the “hanai” parent. It’s a sacred role here. Rosemary and Hank were really good “hanai” parents to me. They opened up a whole world my conservative fundamentalist upbringing would have missed out on. Sounds like yours did too.
Tell us about your church in Kauaʻi.
My congregation here at St. Michael’s celebrates its “Celtic” identity and also our Hawaiian culture and context. We even have a Hula Ministry.
People from the mainland usually react that way. Hula is simply a dance that tells a story. One of the most famous is a song that tells the story of the rich young ruler.
The parable from the Bible?
That’s right. So the choir does the song and our dancers tell the story. We also have a Taiko drumming ministry started by a young Japanese woman who is one of the best taiko drummers in Hawaii. The chalice we drink wine from every Sunday was a gift from Queen Emma in 1883 to “the first Anglican Church on Kaua’i.” Our Hawaii connections run deep here. Culture is celebrated. I’ve been blessed to learn and grow so much from the diversity of congregations I’ve served: St. James in Austin, TX was a historically African-American parish that continued to value that aspect of its identity, but also grew to become multicultural. That’s where I started my first church-based jazz festival. I’ve now founded three of them, all going strong. The one here on Kaua’i attracts over 1,000 people each year, from all over the world.
Before we go, bless us with a few Father Bill beer suggestions.
Well, if you want a beer that feels like Holy Communion, try one of the Trappist Ales. Chimay from the Scourmont Abbey is my favorite, mostly because of my trip there and visit with the Abbott.
Chimay’s slogan is great: Beer brewed with art is drunk with wisdom.
Indeed. I also had a Westvleteren from Saint Sixus recently that was delicious. Let’s see…from Houston, St. Arnold Brewery is making some really great beers. And Maui Brewing makes a Bikini Blonde Lager which is quite fine. Abita from down in our neck of the woods makes some excellent beers as well.
So sum up the beer drinker’s guide to God for us, Padre. What’s it all about?
I want to encourage people, to give them the freedom to be themselves, enjoy life and the Creator’s good gifts. Like all good gifts, moderation and balance in every aspect of life. Really though, it’s not about the beer. If we sit down together, I could care less if it’s Guinness or root beer—that’s not the most important thing. It’s about the connection. It is about savoring all God’s gifts, enjoying God’s mission entrusted to us, and valuing each other. The more we appreciate, the more likely we are to share. And that’s really the essence of faith.
WILLIAM B. MILLER is an Episcopal priest and the rector at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Kauaʻi, Hawaii. He is also a co-owner of Padre’s Bar, a live music venue/watering hole in Marfa, Texas. God and strong drink are two of his favorite things. Father Bill currently resides in Kauai with his dog, Nawiliwili Nelson.
(whispering) I’m no fan of hops but that dude sounds cool.
My 12 year old niece decided this summer that she wanted to go to church. Her birth father is atheist and my sister-in-law is agnostic. So I’ve been taking her on a tour of local churches. We’ll have to swing by the Episcopalian and check it out.
Some day maybe you and I will sit down over a beer and chat a spell. Make mine a root beer please.