My father’s German parents, whom I scarcely knew, dwelt upon a pretty tree-lined street in the suburbs of Chicago for their entire existence, working steadily, attending a Lutheran church, holding silent their opinions and beliefs and ideas with measured stoicism. They also enjoyed a fully stocked bar in the basement of their Craftsman home.
I was mystified by my strong-willed grandmother, who with no more than an upward tilt of her clefted chin and a narrowing of her eyes held the power to subdue any given atmosphere. She had once been a beauty, and I could see it still in the rare moments when she laughed.
My grandfather ambled about, as peaceful as could be, always smiling comfortably while remaining consistent, methodical, and neat in his work. This too was mysterious to me as a child because underneath that pleasantness seemed to stretch a vast, wind-whipping prairie: unreachable.
Descending to the dark depths of their cellar by way of a steep and narrow staircase stirred feelings of both curiosity and claustrophobia in my young body. There were bottles upon bottles of wine and drink and beer perched in open shelving behind the bar itself. The space was tidy and smelled of sweet pipe smoke. My uncles would stoop, descending into these depths, and I heard laughter amidst the clink of ice. Although no one was drunk, they were different as they sipped: looser, more relaxed.
Grandpa, when he was not sipping coffee, held a drink in hand, quietly smiling while remaining gentle and calm. His glass was short, filled with ice, and colored with amber liquid. As he emerged from the basement, positioning himself comfortably into the striped lawn chair in their tended yard, he observed his grandchildren frolicking about. Those soft blue eyes took in the scene before him, before fading to a faraway place. Grandpa was a WWII veteran, had piloted a double-winger and was awarded a purple heart. (I learned these things as an adult, only after studying his obituary.)
In wartime, his sons were not yet born, still a twinkle in his eye. The first five years of his marriage he spent apart from his new bride, as he commandeered that double-winger. Shortly after he returned from war, my grandmother discovered that they would be a family of three. All went smoothly until days before her due date, when the baby stopped kicking. She delivered their lifeless firstborn: a son. My father and his three brothers had not a clue of this fact until they were grown men. The baby’s name, if he was ever given one, was never spoken. This says much, doesn’t it?
Although mild-mannered, I learned that my grandfather grew upset when questioned about his wartime experiences. So much so, in fact, that everyone stopped asking. His sufferings remained personal, and I imagine he took some horrific images to his grave.
Of course none of these events occurred in a vacuum. Hurts and choices and customs and world views always collide given time: swirling together and eventually spilling forth. The whole not dealing directly approach tends to spiral downward generationally, after the context for such behaviors is no longer clear. Too late. The patterns have now been normalized and fully adopted, even embraced.
What I wouldn’t give now to dig deeper and learn this person who was my grandfather. I am fairly certain ease and pleasure through lifelong drink involved more than family tradition and those formidable German roots.
It seems to me he drank to forget.
Do you know of anyone who drinks to remember?
Neither do I.
Fifteen years ago, before I consistently studied the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, I would have told you that drinking alcohol was a sin.
This was when my reasoning was based solely upon personal experience, with a couple of Bible verses added for good measure. There were a few hushed suicides tucked back a generation or two in my paternal family tree, and it terrified me. There was also a slim, yet clear trail of what I now recognize to be functioning alcoholics, and with the knowledge that these propensities often hold a genetic component, I decided early on to abstain. In fact, when my own children were quite young, I told them often of our familial history. I wanted them to understand the dangers, the addictions, the fault lines. I thought drinking was mainly a sin because I never witnessed it producing anything good or safe or meaningful.
Furthermore, two childhood experiences had deeply disturbed me, thumping a permanent and heavy weight upon my young heart.
One particular summer, on a visit to my grandparent’s Chicago home, I was introduced to two new cousins, not yet two years of age. They were busy toddlers, wanting to join in the fun, hyper and refusing to nap. Their parents grabbed a beer, pouring an inch or so into their bottles before swirling it with milk. They held it skyward and everybody roared, slapping their legs as the toddlers guzzled and grew sleepy.
If I close my eyes, I remember the tightness in my chest, the lonely feeling of despair, knowing, that while everyone around me laughed, this was all terribly wrong. I was draped in a cloak of guilt by association feeling quite powerless to stop such activity.
I was eight or so at the time, standing alone in the side yard near a tidy cluster of Hosta plants, lush and green, which were my grandmother’s pride and joy. Conversation swirled, drinks in hand while German sausage sizzled and bowls of sauerkraut and coleslaw and German potato salad were placed on the indoor kitchen table so as not to attract flies. The screen door opened and slammed shut again and again, as everyone helped themselves.
The liquor frightened me. It held an unfathomable power to change people, somehow swelling who they were, while diminishing who they were meant to be.
A few years later, one Sunday afternoon back home in New England, my brother and I were invited to our minister’s home for lunch following services. He had a bunch of children, and we were good friends with several of them. My brother and I had been welcomed to lunch before, seated at their immense English table, privy to the British tradition of heated dishes and utensils, a large roast surrounded by cooked carrots and brightly steamed peas plus baked potatoes, neatly divided on China plates, topped off with endless slices of hot, freshly baked bread. Our pastor’s wife donned an apron, smiling kindly, looking both wan and settled. She waited endlessly upon everyone, slowly serving dishes, and passing plates, adorned in her Sunday dress and warm slippers, a long braid dangling down her back.
This was all quite different from our familial Sunday lunches, in which my father would slice cheese, placing the wedges atop Stoned Wheat Thins, then pouring tomato juice into stout glasses before sprinkling oregano on the surface of the drink. It was delicious and staved off our hunger until our lunch was ready.
On this Sunday, once seated, our minister turned and asked us if our parents partook? I did not know what that meant, but my brother, a year-and-a-half younger than me, answered.
They sometimes have wine with dinner.
Minister nodded, looking at his wife, who reached into the top cupboard, pulling down three goblets.
He then leaned backward in his chair, opened a pantry, retrieving a wine bottle. The red liquid glugged as he poured three glasses: one for his wife, another for an adult guest at their table, and then one for himself.
After saying grace, everyone began to eat, fork properly overturned in hand, index finger applying pressure while neatly cutting the roast. The sturdy silverware clinked and my thick cloth napkin, tucked into the top of my dress, interfered with the view of my plate.
This was definitely not the simple meal I was accustomed to.
In the midst of chewing there came a knock on the kitchen door.
In a flash our minister’s children swiftly yet calmly reached for the wine goblets, concealing them under the table, as the guest stepped into the room.
What were they doing?
After a few minutes of conversation the visitor said goodbye, and the children placed the glasses tabletop and resumed eating.
Our minister’s blue eyes crinkled in a smile.
We wouldn’t want to offend, he said in that smart British accent.
This was clearly not my grandparent’s basement, but that familiar claustrophobic feeling rose again.
My other grandfather, who lived on Washington Street, had once upon a time enjoyed beer and cigarettes with the fellows. On the night he gave his life to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, those behaviors disappeared. Drinking and smoking ceased, quite literally, overnight. He became a brand-new man: a young, god-honoring husband and father who searched for a Bible-preaching church, and then served that congregation diligently, worshipping there for the rest of his life.
So by the time I was old enough to pay attention, I had front-row seats to these four grandparents of mine. I observed each one and discerned the steadfastness and surety of Christ anchored only in one. It was not too difficult to see.
My Grandpa on Washington Street, who was tethered to God, did not drink.
Why would I want to? That was the old me, he said, simply.
A few shook their heads. Legalistic, they murmured in hushed tones.
I did not know what legalistic meant. All I understood was that Grandpa drank hot tea with lemon, was fully present and unchanging, and checked off the pages of his Bible as he read them. He told bunches of stories and laughed, adored and protected his family, and was comfortable and generous and kind.
His basement served not as a bar, but as his home office. It was light, and although small, felt warm and open and inviting. When we visited, he called my brother and me downstairs in between his sales calls, allowing us to sort through his delightful promotional samples.
Take whatever you want! he cheered; a snug beanie perched upon his nearly bald head for warmth.
Nothing felt concealed, hidden, or dark. He was far from perfect and the first to admit it, but Jesus Christ had already forgiven and transformed Grandpa, who trusted in faith.
He lived freely, and it glistened, like sparkling sunshine dancing upon water.
Grandpa’s one sentence: Why would I want to? That was the old me, landed softly inside of me, planting a seed. Over time, it grew then blossomed.
Years later I returned to these words of Grandpa’s, plucking the flower, and inhaling its scent.
Decades unfold, and quite suddenly I am an adult, with two sons in college, two teenagers at home, and a husband traveling in his ministry work.
One Sunday, with Jon out of town, I am visiting a church.
The sermon proves topical: Christians and Alcohol.
I lean in.
The pastor cites Scripture after Scripture about the evils of drunkenness, pounding the pulpit for emphasis: drinking is a sin.
I am surprised not to be mentally high fiving him.
By this point in my life, I have been reading and studying my Bible from beginning to end and know from God’s Word that while drunkenness is clearly a sin (Galatians 5:19-22) (Proverbs 20:1) drinking itself is not, and can even be something to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 9:7) (Psalm 104:14-15). Jesus’ first miracle, in fact, was turning water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11).
So I sit there, scribbling notes, fingers flying to the concordance, looking up all of the drinking verses, aiming to gather the whole counsel of God.
I long to live in the shadow of Christ, humble and unswerving in obedience to God. It is hard for me to reconcile the idea of an ardent Christ-follower enjoying wine, drinking moderately for pleasure. But God’s Word is clear, never to be dismissed or replaced by my conflicting experiences and human opinion.
I know that the Bible is living and active and true.
Everything important comes back to cherishing God’s Word, doesn’t it?
Weeks after this sermon, the truth clicks.
The entire counsel of God and his Word.
Grandpa’s words rush back: Why would I want to? That was the old me.
Grandpa remembered who he had once been before his encounter with God. He stopped smoking and drinking cold turkey from a pure heart, not from a space of legalism or condemnation. Those were old patterns, his former coping strategies, and he had been changed. His heart belonged to Christ, and his about-face was a bright testimony. His choice not to drink did not save him, Christ did. He walked away from those hindrances.
Truth is far bigger than dutifully looking up each Bible verse regarding alcohol, or any other behavior. The real question is:
Am I obeying and glorifying God?
I have heard 1 Corinthians 10:31 used in a way to condone appetites of the flesh. Do whatever to the glory of God, carelessly used as an excuse to overeat, drink greedily, and smoke cigars.
Taken out of biblical context, it becomes grotesquely flippant to our Creator, and in my opinion, utterly lacking in the reverence due him.
Consider what Jesus himself said is the most important commandment of all: Mark 12: 30-31 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all of your mind and with all of your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than this.
If we are heeding Mark 12: 30-31, then our outward behaviors will reflect it. 1 Corinthians 10:31 will be attainable because we are no longer seeking loopholes, nor checking off those fearful and legalistic boxes. Instead, we offer God a heart of total surrender, bowing to our heavenly Father, overflowing with genuine love for our neighbor, and enjoying God’s good and gracious gifts.
Which is why some Christians may freely enjoy a glass of wine, while others, knowing their own histories and weaknesses and proclivities, are free to abstain.
As Christians, may we partake uniquely, always drinking deeply the entire counsel of God and his Word.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)