My wife wishes I liked to drink. In particular, she wishes I enjoyed wine. I think she envisions summer evenings, watching the sunset, leisure conversation while we each nurse a glass and let time slow its pace, eventually disappearing over the horizon. But I have never cared for the taste of wine or any other alcoholic beverage. I don’t like coffee either, but that’s another story.
If you knew of our two childhoods, I’d be the logical drinker. Her family had strict views against alcohol consumption and we’ve been told her grandmother was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Alcohol wasn’t allowed in the house and I’m guessing even its mention would have been discouraged. On the other hand, my family were drinkers — drinking and cards, drinking and dancing, drinking and friends, drinking and being alone and drinking and drinking (though my mom didn’t drink much compared to the rest of the tribe).
Exactly who were the alcoholics in my family is debatable from my youthful perspective. Some my parents named, others I’m only guessing, like the cousin from California who’d call and talk to whoever would listen, for a long time, long distance, and that was expensive — really expensive. Mom had an uncle who lived across the river. He was in and out of treatment until he died relatively young. There was an older relative who lived about a dozen years after his spouse died, drinking alone in the big family home. I remember a great uncle stone cold drunk, laid out on a picnic table at a Memorial Day family reunion. Little ones giggled and poked. Were it not for his occasional snoring and the movement of his chest, we’d have given him up for dead.
There were great parties at my grandparents’ home with a full bar in the basement party room. I would be upstairs with my brother supposedly sleeping. Within days my grandmother would cover the wall with pictures of the event. We rarely knew many of those in attendance.
And yet, I never liked the taste of anything with alcohol. I can enjoy looking around a wine shop and on occasion, I’ll buy a bottle for Connie as a gift. I’m fascinated by the places wine is made, the varieties, the names and the labels. Then, when we’re out for an evening, Connie might encourage me to try a sip of her wine. She thinks she may have found one I’ll like. I sip. “It tastes like wine,” is my usual response.
A few years back, we went to Europe and spent time in the Barolo region of Italy, a famous wine country with hills and vineyards, castles and cathedrals, twisting roads and town plazas, great food and friendly people. I enjoyed the time, but not the wine. Sometimes I wonder if I stay away from it because of some fear that I could become an alcoholic. But then I try another taste and, no thanks. I just don’t like it.
There are times I wish I could enjoy drinking to be one of the gang, like happy hour overlooking Bellingham bay, at a ball game, holidays with gathered family and friends. If anything could push me to drink, it would be my concern over people thinking I’m not drinking because of some Christian conviction. Please — I spent my young adult years in that culture and it seemed to feed so much contrary to the way of Jesus.
In my early days I was the kind of Baptist for whom drinking was an absolute NO. There was an endless number of other taboos as well. I’ve spent most of my adult years as a Presbyterian. I learned quickly that many, if not most, Presbyterians drank, a few smoked and quite a few would swear — a big change from my Baptist days. In both church settings, the so-called blood of communion was watered-down grape juice. One church even noted it in the bulletin to quell the fears of any alcoholics in the crowd. Might have been a good caution based on my knowledge of some of the folks who attended.
This past year Connie and I have gone to the neighborhood Episcopal church more than anywhere else. I like it for a number of reasons. I love the old building, inside and out. I love homilies, in big part because they are short. There are no giant screens or dazzling PowerPoint presentations overwhelming the visual space. The people seem genuinely friendly and reasonably diverse for our community. It’s close to home and the theology seems to allow some refreshing space.
Then there is communion, or, more accurately, the Eucharist. I knew it was going to be different than my past experiences. First, it happens every week (and actually, more than once a week if you want). There is more ceremony; it is clearly a focal point of the gathering. And I like that.
Then there’s the matter of the shared cup. My initial thoughts tended toward communicable diseases and my impending death. But I like it. I can fantasize that we either live together or die together. A bit extreme, but doesn’t your mind wander in church?
And then there is the wine issue. This is the real stuff, not juice and not watered down. I can’t say that turning wine into a liturgical element has changed my sense of liking it. There has been no divine moment, no miracle in which my taste buds were resurrected.
To be honest, I still don’t like the taste, and I try to drink as little as I can while still feeling that I have participated. But actually, I like that I don’t like it. I like that sense of inching closer to the altar, of getting closer to the moment of tasting. There’s a bit of a jolt, as I am reminded, “I don’t like it, but it’s good.” Maybe it helps me sense the power of the moment. Maybe it’s being faithful beyond myc and comfort. Maybe it’s remembering that Jesus’ bloodletting wasn’t a sweet ceremony.
I highly doubt that my distaste for wine will change and I don’t care. In fact, I hope I don’t get so comfortable with the taste that it becomes boring. I want each sip to be bit of a wake up moment, a reminder that I am participating in something important, something truly holy and something different.
Maybe in the Eucharist — in the moment, in the wine, in the taste — I am gaining a new understanding of the term bittersweet. I may never like it, but my hope is that I will always love it.
May God have mercy on us all.