Best to practice the ‘smiling tradition’
By Norris Burkes
In 2009, I was senior chaplain responsible for Sunday worship services at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.
One Sunday, a few hours before our 10 a.m. service, I watched my sleepwalking chaplain assistant, Sgt. Peoples, fuss with chapel arrangements as if preparing for a pope.
He adorned the altar with properly colored cloths. He arranged the folding chairs, loaded with Bibles. Pouring the communion cups was his last job.
“How many cups should I prepare, Sir?”
“Really?” he said.
“I need you to fill 20 cups with purple grape juice but set aside five cups with white wine in the center of the communion tray.”
We’d seen fewer than 15 congregants on the previous two Sundays. He probably didn’t want me to have any illusions of grandeur.
“Where’s your faith, Sergeant?”
“Don’t that kinda go against General Order No. 1?” He accented his question with a chuckle, but knew the order prohibiting alcohol in a war zone made allowances for religious services.
“We are out of white wine,” he said. “Is it OK to grab some rosé from the priest?”
I said sure.
The combo of wine and juice on the tray is a chaplain practice that helps accommodate congregants who range from teetotaling Southern Baptists to stein-grabbing Lutherans.
It was our third service in the war zone and it went off without a hitch.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for Chaplain Johnson, who ran the evening service. He frowned upon accommodations involving alcohol.
Johnson was from something I call the “frowning tradition.” He seemed more comfortable leading parishioners in “shalt nots” than “thou shalts.” He promoted his church covenant, admonishing chapel attendees to “abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks.”
He reminded me of my sixth grade Sunday schoolteacher who asserted that Jesus never turned water into wine. “Actually,” she said, “Jesus transformed the bad wine into the most excellent version of Welch’s 100% grape juice.”
Since Johnson was scheduled to leave the following week, I decided not to impose the blended communion policy on the conservative chaplain.
However, I did order Peoples to clean and refill the communion trays as a parting favor to Johnson. But God had other plans.
When Johnson entered our office that evening for the change-of-shift report, he looked past me and smiled, pleased to see the communion trays filled with grape juice ready for his 8 p.m. service.
The next morning, Peoples and I arrived for our report, and we found Johnson upset. He’d strewn the unwashed communion trays across the desk and proceeded to give us hell, or his version of it.
He recounted how he preached a rousing swan song and raised a communion cup to cue the imbibing. He pronounced, as most Baptist clergy do, “This cup represents the blood of Christ spilled for you. Take it and drink it all.”
Then he threw back the half-ounce like a shot glass and coughed out a raspy question, “Is there something wrong with this juice?”
Hearing his version of the service, I hid my smile. I imagined parishioners licking their lips and responding in chorus, “It’s wine, chaplain. It’s real wine.”
My sleepy assistant had inadvertently filled every communion cup with Catholic rosé.
With the broadest of frowns, Johnson declared, “Today was only the second time in my life that I’ve had wine.” Apparently, he was tricked into drinking once in high school.
As I watched him pack up, a smile formed in my mischievous heart. I apologized and asked to be forgiven for my sergeant’s error.
“I’m so sorry, but I missed the seminary class where we learned how to turn wine into Welch’s juice,” I said.
He wasn’t amused. But his smile returned the next week when he was given his ticket home.
As it did for most of us who practiced the “smiling tradition.”
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.