Dad pushed the bottle in my small face. The bottle opening nearly covered my nose and the smell was enough to make me gag.
"Do you smell that, Jenny? Why would anyone want to drink anything that smells like urine? Drinking this stuff makes people act crazy. I’ve never seen it do anyone any good. It only does harm and it tastes bad. It has never made sense to me why people do it."
Why indeed. Dad returned the whiskey bottle to the side of the road and we continued our walk hand in hand. I was seven and the southern seed of snobbery toward drinkers had been planted.
I was raised to be a fourth-generation teetotaler, a common thing to be in our small Baptist church in rural Alabama. Drinking was closely associated with smokers, jocks drinking in the woods, popular kids, snobs, my drunk uncle who was locked up periodically, and rude, ignorant people. Nobody I wanted to be.
I regularly heard preachers condemn drinking directly and closely associate it with much worse things-- things that happen after dark and piss God off. It was never said directly, but you kind of got the idea that drinking a beer was like opening a portal into your naked soul for the devil pipe his minions in.
When I became a Christian as a teenager, I took that idea to heart. Drinking was foreign and I sure wasn’t going to take any chances. For those of you who may not understand, hang-ups about alcohol deeply ingrained and a subtle part of the culture. It isn’t that people don’t do it, it’s just that it means something different to a lot of people. For me, a lot of people that I love.
I never said anything to people around me who chose to drink. I just never did, and like my father, a man who I respected then and still respect, I never made much sense of it. That was on top of the church taboo. My raising was that it was stupid, and my religion said that it was sinful. That pretty much had it covered.
Still, I grew in my faith a little and studied scripture on my own. Drinking is not condemned in the Bible. Paul even says to take a little wine for your stomach. Jesus’ first miracle was making wine from water. It is pretty clear. What was a clean-cut college freshman who believed in the infallibility of scripture to think?
I became sophisticated. I decided that drinking was ok but if I did it, it would cause people to perceive me as a hypocrite and therefore damage the gospel message of love in their eyes. When you’re a freshman you are the flesh representation of all you believe. Taking that tact also kept me from doing something I was uncomfortable with because I was a bizarre kind of snob, but I wouldn’t admit that.
I was put to the test when I spent the next summer in Europe on a school trip. It was a little old lady in Tours, France who offered me a glass of a 200-year-old bottle of white wine she had stored in her basement for most of her life.
The wine was so old the brown label was flaking off in pieces so that I couldn’t tell exactly what vintage it was. She was drinking it because she only had a few months to live. She placed a wineglass in front of me like a precious offering and stabbed the cork. My God. In a split second I cringed, and to my shame discovered that much of my cultural conditioning to not drink alcohol was still there.
It came down to choosing between what had learned spiritually, and living the way I was raised to live. Understand that I had taken pride as a teenager that I had never consumed a drop of alcohol under any circumstances. At that point, I wasn’t so far away from that. Oh, the years of brainwashing. It was a very real conflict for me, even though it was clear that the right thing to do in light of this woman’s generosity and tragedy was drink and smile.
I was such a little tightass, but for me the conflict suddenly got bigger. In that moment, I knew I could listen to either the Bible or listen to the teachers in the Southern Baptist church. My stomach was in knots and I knew that drinking wasn’t the only issue where I’d find conflict between the two. I hated that. I was dealing with a sense of betrayal. The glass of wine was still there.
I had to make a decision in that moment about whether I would drink or not. It couldn’t be just that glass for me. I can’t tell you why. I was afraid to think about how many more times I would have to discover holes in my background. Could I accept being wrong or would I stick to what I thought I knew? Should I be kind or follow the rules to the letter?
The Lord or the Pharisees? The Lord or my Daddy? I made my decision.
When I drank the wine it was bitter. It was too dry for me to appreciate at the time, but it was excellent. It tasted a lot like communion.