While I was deployed in Iraq, General Order No. 1 forbade the consumption of alcohol.
Having been raised in Baptist Sunday school, the rule wasn’t a hardship for me. In fact, my Sunday school teacher taught us the wine Jesus miraculously produced from water was, in reality, the most excellent kind of grape juice.
It’s hard to repeat the teaching now with a straight face, but it made sense to me then because I loved Welch’s juices and jam.
However, there was one exception to the General Order No. 1: Chaplains were permitted to use wine in Communion.
Catholic priests use wine regularly, but because Protestant congregants vary in imbibing traditions — from teetotaling Southern Baptists to stein-grabbing Lutherans — a Protestant chaplain usually will compromise by filling a few of the cups in the Communion tray with white wine.
We use white wine so congregants can distinguish the difference between the wine and the purple grape juice.
This compromise isn’t a written rule. Some Protestant chaplains are from churches that frown on such a compromise. Though I was trained in the frowning tradition, I try to respect the varied customs of Protestant congregants.
So, on my first Sunday as the senior chaplain in charge of the chapel in the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq, I ordered my chaplain assistant to fill five Communion cups with wine.
I gave adequate notice to the parishioners, and our Communion was uneventful.
Unfortunately, uneventful wasn’t the description used by the night shift chaplain serving his small congregation of hospital staff.
My newly arrived chaplain assistant, who likely was suffering from serious jet lag, had inadvertently filled the entire Communion tray with purple wine.
Truthfully, in a military community deprived of alcohol for six months, this likely wouldn’t have been an issue. Except the nightshift chaplain — like my father — was a staunch Baptist teetotaler.
After a particularly rousing sermon, the chaplain raised the cup toward the congregation and pronounced as most chaplains do: “This is the blood of Christ spilled for you. Take it and drink it all.”
Guzzling the entire 1/2-ounce cup, the chaplain coughed and asked the congregation in a raspy voice, “Is there something wrong with the juice?”
A chorus of bemused parish-
ioners declared, “It’s wine, chaplain. It’s wine.”
Needless to say, the chaplain had some prayerful words waiting for me and my sleepwalking assistant.
“This is only the second time in my life that I’ve had wine,” he confessed. Apparently, a few of his roguish high school friends tricked him into tasting it 20 years ago.
As I listened to him, a trace smile formed in my heart. While I profusely apologized, I also joked that I missed the seminary class that taught us how to turn wine in Welch’s.
He wasn’t amused.
The last time I’d seen a look like his on a Baptist face was when my mother drank some of the spiked punch at the graduation party of my church friend Wendy Sommers. Wendy had some roguish brothers.
For me, the incident reminds me how we always will have a little of our own culture and traditions blended into our faith. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but we also need to know when it’s time to change, discard culture and make a leap of faith.
“But chaplain,” you declare, “God never changes. Why should we? After all, doesn’t the Bible declare that ‘God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow?’ ”
True, God does remain the same, but his children still are growing up.