How Alan the Alcoholic Found God’s Love
Alcoholism is something to be afraid of. It can damage bodies. It can destroy relationships. It can literally kill. But even this fear can be overcome by love.
Alan (not his real name) was a classic, Texas good-ol’-boy. He fit the Texas stereotype, right down to the Ford pickup truck. A former NFL football player and a successful small businessman, he was exactly the kind of guy a pastor wanted in his church.
But Alan had a dark side, a dimension that brought him embarrassment and pain. It was a side he had managed to keep hidden from most people.
He Appeared To Have It All
Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, Alan did well enough at sports to play football at a major Texas college. He finished as a below average student but an above average football player.
In fact he was good enough to get drafted in the NFL. He had a fairly short career and when I asked him once how he decided it was time to leave football, he laughed at me. He explained that after three years of playing second string center on a sub-500 team, he reported to training camp that fourth summer and found a note telling him to report to the office. An assistant coach casually told him his services were no longer needed and gave him a severance check. He added with a very slight grin, “It was actually a very easy decision! “
Still in his mid-twenties, Alan started building custom homes with a college friend. He had squirreled away a bit of a nest egg, and he began acquiring some small businesses. Over time he accumulated an eclectic grouping of auto-related small businesses.
His shops were profitable and eventually Alan quit building houses and spent his time buying, selling and managing these small businesses. By the time I met him he was on his second marriage, but he had a comfortable and flexible lifestyle.
I enjoyed Alan. Even though we were 20 years apart and at different stages in life, we enjoyed each other’s company. And Alan was generous. He’d not only pick up a lunch check, he’d loan you tools, his truck, pretty much whatever he had. He was one of those that I could invite to donate to a special need—a few kids needing money for camp, a family struggling with a car repair. Casually he would ask how much was needed, and a day or two later there would be a check in the mail.
But while Alan was generous with his time and money, he was protective of his privacy. He could come off as aloof and distant. Some interpreted him as being proud, but I discovered that he was actually a very humble man. He had slimmed down after his NFL years and you would never guess he had once played professional football. He wasn’t ashamed of his football past; he simply didn’t live there.
An Early Morning Confession
About 6:30 one Monday morning my phone rang and it was Alan. He skipped the usual formalities and abruptly said “What are you doing this morning?” Before I could answer he asked if he could stop by my office. He hung up saying, “I’m heading there now. Take your time.”
When I rolled up, he was waiting in the parking lot. He crawled out of his Ford truck with a cup of coffee and a box of donuts. As we met at the outside door I sensed something was wrong. We entered my office and each tossed our jackets on a spare chair. We exchanged a few perfunctory sentences, and I pried a donut from the box. He set his coffee on the floor and put his head in his hands, scratching his grey temples. After a few seconds of pause, he pronounced, “There is something about me you don’t know.” He took a gulp of air. “There is something I need to tell you and very few people know what I’m about to tell you.” Then he added, “I don’t think anyone in the church knows.”
I‘m not sure where I learned this from, whether it was in a seminary counseling class or perhaps I just read it, but when I’m in a very grave conversation I stop whatever I’m casually doing and focus. Sometimes I even try to mirror their body language. So I set my half-eaten donut on the spare chair next to me and leaned forward with my head in my hands. He continued, “I’m…” and his voice caught a little bit, “an alcoholic. A bad one.”
He paused and took a deep breath seeming to be a bit relieved that a big secret was now no longer a secret. He looked up and added with a slight smile, “you’ve probably never even seen me drink a beer.”
Another thing I learned somewhere was to not show surprise when hearing a shocking confession. So I feigned a rather matter-of-fact visage as he continued, “I don’t drink often, but when I do I get drunk —and I’m not a happy drunk. I’m a mean drunk.”
As I ate donuts Alan spent the next ten minutes replaying what had happened that weekend. It wasn’t pretty.
The Weight of Humiliation and Shame
To understand Alan’s weekend one has to understand hunting in Texas. Deer hunting in Texas has relatively little to do with shooting deer, but it has everything to do with tradition, culture and relationships. It is a culture unto itself. Significant sums of money are expended in equipping an otherwise sane, erudite city dweller to kill deer, as though they were some kind of threat to life or limb.
One’s deer hunting relationships often involve a whole different set of friends than what people might normally hang with the rest of the year. And it is no surprise that a lot of drinking takes place at night around the customary campfire. Many a deer has survived to the next season because of a guy named Jack Daniels.
Alan had been a part of such a hunting group for over a decade. On opening weekend, after the first day’s hunt was over and the deer were cleaned, thick steaks were tossed on the grill, the Coleman cooler was opened and the drinking began. Alan slightly fought the invitation, but decided he could handle just one. Or two. Or three. Or six. For Alan a beer and a steak with friends around a campfire was a temptation right out of Eden.
As Alan drank, his normally quiet cover fell, and he became louder and louder. By his third beer he was regaling the campfire crowd with old football stories. Funny stories. Alan had a visual, picturesque vocabulary —rarely profane, but full of word pictures that made you both think and chuckle.
It was dark and he was drunk and after a while he had to step away to relieve himself. On the way back, with the light from the fire in his eyes, he stumbled and fell. He wasn’t hurt but there was laughter and one person offered an adolescent-like joke. Things quickly went downhill.
While alcohol dampened Alan’s thinking, it heightened his sensitivities. He didn’t like being laughed at, words were exchanged and a pleasant evening turned sour. It was late and everyone judged that it was a good time to quit, toss some water on the fire and go to sleep.
As the last of the beers were drained someone else made comment about him, and he exploded. He jumped up and started to attack the other man, the younger brother of an old college friend.
While Alan was not huge, he was big and even in his early fifties could be fearsome. He managed a few swings at his offender before the others wrestled him away. As most fights go, it was over in a flash. He was too drunk to do any damage and as they would say in Texas, “no blood, no foul.”
It obviously soured the weekend for everyone, and Alan woke up on Sunday sober but humiliated and ashamed. Before the others even got up he pitched his gear in his truck and headed back to Houston.
He wept all the way to Austin.
Desperate and Thirsty
Grateful for the privacy he cried and prayed for 60 miles. He stopped for gas and while he was filling up he noticed a church across the road about to begin their 8:30 service.
For reasons he said he couldn’t explain, he felt a great need to go to church. So he paid for his gas, crossed the road, parked his truck and climbed the concrete steps to the traditional white doors. The whole time he believed that there surely there would be someone in the lobby to turn him away telling him he wasn’t good enough to be in church.
He took a bulletin from a kind usher and squeezed into a back pew. The music began and he began to cry again. He couldn’t stop but as he explained to me, he really didn’t want to. In fact the cleansing tears seemed to outweigh the embarrassment, and he actually felt good.
At the appropriate spot in the service there was a traditional scripture reading. That morning it was from Psalm 63. He picked up a pew Bible and it fell open to the book of Psalms.
O God thou are my God. Early will I seek thee. My soul thirsts for thee, my soul hungers for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
And for the thirty or minutes he fixated on those first five verses. He kept reading them over and over. It was one of those rare moments when he felt like the Bible was speaking exactly, not nearly, but exactly to the condition of his soul!
Like the Psalmist he felt desperate and thirsty for God. He felt shame and embarrassment. He felt humiliated. He felt every negative feeling in the alphabet of emotions. But oddly as he cried, listened, and sang along slightly, he felt better.
At the end of the service, Alan stood up and walked out of the sanctuary, down the steps, and climbed into his truck. He then made the three-hour drive back to Houston without even turning on the radio. Somewhere around Bastrop he promised God that he would never ever drink again.
He called me the next morning and so he sat before me as a broken, embarrassed and tired man— tired of failing and ashamed that he had embarrassed himself and his Lord. With God he found mercy, and with me he found grace.
An early church leader said this so many centuries ago,
It is the property of men to fall, and to rise again as often as this may happen. We make promises not because we will always be able to keep them, but because we trust a God who is faithful enough to always help us get up again.
In a perfect world Alan would have quit drinking and never once had a desire for alcohol again. But in fact with Alan, as with so many, the temptation never went away completely. What Alan found that helped was not as much a swearing off of drinking, but a positive, forward movement toward God. To put it in a somewhat unmanly manner, he fell in love with God, for He found in God a God of compassion, love, and patience. He sought God and desired a relationship.
Love was greater than fear and the God of love he found in a small church west of Austin became the God to whom he ran to when faced with his failures and temptations, when his soul was thirsty and weary.