That Story About My Bible

I was talking to a friend the other day about the challenges of blogging every day. I told her that sometimes, I am unsure what I ought to write about.

“But you have lots of stories,” she said.

“Oh, sure,” I said. “But not all stories are worth telling, and I don’t want to just tell a story to tell it. It sort of has to mean something.”

“Well,” she said. “I wish you would tell that story about the Bible.”

“Which story from the Bible?”

“No,” she said. “Not from the Bible. That story about your Bible. You know, the one on your desk.”


The Bible on my desk is nothing to look at. If you were looking for a generic idea of what a Bible should look like, it would look like this one. It’s black leather, with gilt edges and a black ribbon to mark your place, and in gold script in the lower right-hand corner, has a name embossed that is not mine.

This Bible is nothing special on its own, but it is very important to me. Thoreau said the value of a things lies in what of we have to give up to obtain it. By that measure, it is one of the more valuable things I own – not from what I gave up, but what was given up for it to come into my possession.

It’s the King James Version – a no longer fashionable version first published in 1611, with archaic language that uses thee and thou as pronouns. In my experience, two kinds of people still use the King James Version. The first is people who grew up using it, who find the language comfortable and soothing, who relish the poetic notes as the language of devotion. The second is people who desire a scripture that is fixed in time, an immutable authority that does not change.

I am the first sort of person. Matt was the second.

He first came in my office perhaps nine years ago, just off the bus from Virginia, where his marriage had ended because of his chemical addiction. He had an ex-wife and a daughter, neither of who would talk to him, and he had been raised by a grandmother, now dead. She had given him the Bible he carried everywhere, with his name embossed in gilt on the front.

Matt would come to the church I was at in those days and lead us in hymns he knew, which were the most strict sort, involving lots of blood atonement and proclamations of our unworthiness. He believed in a wrathful, powerful God in a way I have never believed in anything. He could cite obscure scriptures to “prove” his points, and when he was sober – which came and went – he was a kind and gentle soul.

He would go away (several times) for a while in rehab, and he would write me letters filled with Biblical citations and affirmations of his complete recovery when he was released. Sadly, his aspirations always exceeded his abilities, for Matt never lasted more than a month outside of rehab before he was using again.

One day he walked into my office. He looked like hell, and had his Bible in his hand.

“Preacher, this is my Bible. My granny gave it to me when I got saved at a revival when I was a teenager. I don’t want to lose it – will you hold onto it for me?”

Of course I would.

Matt began a steady descent after that day. I wonder sometimes if the responsibility of keeping track of his one prized possession hadn’t been good for him. I don’t know – I just know that after that, he spiraled down quickly.

One day he came in, relatively sober, and asked if I still had his Bible. I told him I did, and asked if he wanted it back.

“Not yet,” he said. “You keep it for me until I am ready for it.”

That was the last time I saw Matt. He disappeared, and I later learned he had died one night in a storm, drowning in a drainage ditch while high on paint fumes.

Matt didn’t make it, but I still have his Bible. It sits on my desk, and I will pick it up most days and thumb through it – sometimes looking for comfort, but other times when I need to be reminded of truths I know, but am prone to forget.

The page at the front of the Bible where marriages are to be recorded has Matt and his wife’s names written in, but her name marked through and obliterated, serves to remind me that things don’t always go like we wish they would. The underlined verses about the wrath of God and the power of God (but never about the love of God) remind me that people like Matt, who in this life was powerless but loving, needed a God who was what he wasn’t. The embossed cover with his name on it, a gift from his Granny, reminds me that as broken and discarded as Matt was when I knew him, he was once loved and prized by his family, and that all of us have a back story – none of us are the worst thing other people know about us.

But mostly, this old Bible reminds me that you don’t always win. When I read from it, I am reminded that no one ever wanted to be sober as much as Matt, and that just wanting it is never enough.

But I really wish it was.

The Decision

George was 57 – just 7 years and change older than I am now – but he looked 70. He smelled of urine, he slept outside, and hadn’t showered in months. He shuffled when he walked, and a naturally small man, he was a popular victim when it came to street violence. When we first met, he had been mugged three times in the previous four months.

It hadn’t always been that way. George had been the dairy manager at a grocery store in a Raleigh suburb. He lived in a middle class brick house, in a subdivision. His wife was a school teacher. He had one daughter, who had gone to a good state university.

The house was no longer his. Neither was the wife. And the daughter had a restraining order against him and he had been trespassed from the bank where she now worked.

George liked to drink. And for years, he made it work. He would have a hard day at work and come home and drink a few, to take the edge off. Eventually he had to drink in order to go to work, too. Then he started drinking during lunch.

He wasn’t a bad drunk. He just got silly, and then sleepy. He got fired when his boss found him passed out in the dairy cooler. His wife got a divorce shortly after that. He was too drunk to fight, or to show up for court. He lost everything.

He had been on the street for 5 years when I met him, drunk as a lord. We hit it off well, and eventually, he decided to quit after having a heart attack. He went into a rehab facility where he stayed sober for 100 days, and then he went into a halfway house facility, where he got another 100 days, and then he went into a private apartment where he got less than 10 days. He didn’t have the money to pay the rent the next month, having drank it, and was back on the street.

I saw variations of that story play out over and over for more than a decade. I watched people – good, hardworking people, lose everything they had because of alcohol.

I didn’t grow up around alcohol, but not for religious reasons – it was because once Dad began drinking, he didn’t have an off switch. So he drank his last drink when I was 4. His half-brother lost everything because of drinking – wife, kids, stole from his mother and my dad, and as a result was exiled from the family for years and years.

I later learned my mom’s side of the family had people with similar stories. People who drank to forget trauma, who drank to manage pain, who drank and drank until it cost them everything.

I drank my first beer when I was 15. We stole it from the store I was working at that summer, and drank it hot behind the carwash. It wasn’t very good, but the cheers, the social approval, the back slapping – that felt amazing.

In the Marines, I drank a lot, because it was a social lubricant. Cheers, the social approval, the back slapping. My girlfriend Heather was an alcoholic, trying to cover the pain of being Queer in a world not ready for that.

I drank when I was a Financial Advisor, because I hated my life, often having to down a pint of vodka in the parking garage in order to stomach going into the office.

And when I became a pastor, I learned some folks drank as a way to signify that they weren’t some hellfire and damnation fundamentalist. “Hey, I’m not like those conservative jerks that called you a sinner: I drink single malt scotch!”.

The 12 years or so that I worked with people experiencing homelessness was the time in my life I knew the most alcoholics, but honestly, a good portion of them were social workers, pastors, and medical folks who just didn’t have other tools for dealing with what they felt.

And because the only people in the world who did know what you felt were the people you worked with, you could grab a drink after work, and then you get the chemicals from drinking and the chemicals from the social interaction, and you didn’t have to feel what you felt anymore.

One day not long after George lost his apartment I noticed that was what I was doing, and so I quit drinking after work with my peers and started looking for healthier ways to deal with what I felt.

Because that’s the thing: Abusing chemicals (whatever the chemical it is) is a way to hit pause on what you are feeling. And then you hit pause the next time you feel it. And then one day, you hit pause earlier than you did last time. Until one day, you haven’t felt that thing in a long time.

As an aside, this is one of the things that makes sobriety for an addict so hard – because suddenly, you don’t have your coping tool any more, and the last time you had to feel what you are feeling was whatever age you began using.

I’m not some religious wacko that believes there is no such thing as responsible usage of alcohol. Honestly, I love a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but since Renee can’t drink because of her medications, I often would have a bottle go bad before I would finish it. Or else I would finish it all at one setting, which worried me more. So I quit drinking at home.

Eventually I went from being a person who was worried about drinking too much to being a person who just doesn’t drink.

I didn’t “need” to quit – it just made my life easier to quit. And it greatly reduces the number of ways I can screw up my life and financial future.

And because I don’t “need” to quit, but chose to, I can choose not to. Like last month a friend I was staying with offered me a glass of wine, and I had one while unwinding with them. It was maybe my second drink in two years.

I’m not telling you what you should do – Lord knows I am powerless over the pull of caffeine on my brain in the morning, but then again, I don’t know anyone who lost their house because they drank too much coffee. If your life is working for you and the people who love you, then rock on.

So, why AM I telling you all this? Partly because I’m big on admitting when something scares me, as a way of reducing its power over me. And honestly? Losing everything I own because of addiction scares the hell out of me.

But also, because I have lots of people in the so-called helping professions that read my stuff. And if that’s you, maybe you have noticed that the beer after work can easily become the six pack after work, or the glass of wine before dinner can become the bottle of wine every night. Maybe you tried “Dry January” and had a dry 4 days instead. Maybe you drunk text your friends at 3AM and then spend the next week apologizing for what you said.

Maybe you drink as a way of hitting pause. And maybe you’ve thought about not doing that any more.

I just wanted you to know that it’s OK to do that. To drink a Diet Coke at the bar instead of the mixed drink. To not have friends you can only tolerate when you are doing shots. To really feel the things you feel.

It’s OK to stop, if you want to.