Beyond dependency, then beyond religion

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my sobriety and salvation, as those words tend to be defined in American culture. It’s been a long journey, and my eyes have been opened to many things in that quarter-century.

On Thursday, February 13th, 1992, I had my last alcoholic drink at a long-gone Redlands bar called Whiskey Creek. It was a Long Island Iced Tea, which they always made heavy on the Triple Sec. It was actually my fourth Long Island of the evening, and had been preceded by a couple of Jagers and a Corona.

Earlier in the evening I had celebrated my mother’s birthday, and now I was out with friends whom I had worked with a couple of years prior at an RV resort. Even though they were long-haired metal-heads and I was a jazz geek, somehow we had clicked very well and become solid friends. I was present at the hospital on the day Tim’s wife had their daughter. I spent Christmases and several birthdays with some of their families. And that night I had given Tim, his brothers Scott and Brian, and our friend Rob a ride to Whiskey Creek, as I did every couple of weeks.

Alcohol did a very interesting thing for me: it made me social, which I rarely was in a sober state. I had suffered from undiagnosed depression since the late 1970s, and as soon as it was legal for me to begin drinking, I started to explore my options there as a diversion from the sleeplessness and emptiness of life. The drinks loosened me up to the point that I would actually dance in public, do karaoke, and challenge complete strangers to bouts of foosball, none of which happened outside the comfort of a bar. The brothers dubbed me Todd From Hell because of that change in personality.

Just before we left Whiskey Creek that night, I was feeling no pain. Some of our friends were passing around a joint, which I had never tried in my life. I was so inebriated, I actually took a hit to see if it would sober me up. Didn’t work, of course, and that was the only time I ever gave it a shot.

I drove Tim, Scott, and Rob the couple of miles back to their place, forgetting one very important thing: Brian had come with us, too. I don’t know why he wasn’t with us when we left; maybe he hit the restroom and we didn’t notice. I dropped the guys off and drove the five miles to my house. That was probably the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done, and I regret it to this day.

The following afternoon I got a call from Scott. He told me that Brian had walked all the way home from the bar after we left him there. He had to get up and go to work the next morning. Brian was so tired from the long walk a few hours before, he crashed his motorcycle and shattered one of his legs. He spent months in casts and physical therapy, had to go on disability, and saw his entire life changed. Not because I drove drunk, but because I was so drunk I drove without even thinking about him. I still think that’s worse.

That phone call from Scott made me sit down and think about where my life was. I had no sort of loving relationship and was unhappily working at a children’s home, feeling like I had wasted four years of my life in college and was accomplishing nothing. I had majored in psychology, in some sort of pathetic, “Physician, heal thyself” maneuver that didn’t improve a thing. Some of my co-workers were just as bitter as I was, while others were kind-hearted and truly focused on the good works of the job. I tried to strike some balance between the two. Usually the bitterness won out.

One of my co-workers seemed to understand what I was going through. She kept gently prodding me towards coming to church with her sometime. I was skeptical. I grew up in a non-religious household and only ever went to church on weekends when I stayed with my Presbyterian grandmother. The most vocally Christian kid at my high school was a judgmental gun nut whom I couldn’t stand. Some other Christian kids I knew there were good friends of mine, but also outcasts who played D&D every weekend and watched hours of “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who”. I attended a few Campus Life meetings with them, although during those meetings I mostly focused on Kelly O’Leary’s preposterous cuteness. It took me weeks to figure out that Campus Life even had a Christian bent to it. Long story short, religion had never played any significant role in my life. But right then I was ready to give anything a try.

So, three days after my last drink ever, I showed up at a tiny little church in north San Bernardino, where my co-worker and her boyfriend welcomed me warmly. I don’t remember anything about the sermon, except that the pastor was funny, relaxed, and neither overbearing nor boring (I had expected one of those two extremes). I talked with some congregants afterwards and felt a sense of place. These folks didn’t care where I was coming from; they only cared that I was there and trying to find some answers.

I wish I could say that I had some profound religious epiphany that kept me away from the bottle from that day on, but I didn’t. I went home with a simple sense that there was more to life, and that I didn’t need to get soused in order to find something that felt positive. I kept thinking about Brian and the injury that I had essentially caused through my selfishness and weakness. That was motivation enough to never wind up in that kind of position again.

The best thing was that I was able to quit cold turkey. I never again had the inclination to take a drink, even when surrounded by other people who were drinking. Maybe that was God’s intervention, because I’ve certainly been too weak to change other aspects of my life. One way or another, now my alcohol purchases are only ingredients for boeuf Bourguignon, chicken crepes, or chili. I battle my waistline instead of my sanity.

I remained at that church for ten years. I played bass and saxophone in the worship band. We played a few concerts outside the church, opening for some fairly name artists. I took part in Bible studies. The pastor conducted the communion at our wedding ceremony. When we found out that our first son had spina bifida, the church took up an offering to help us fly to Nashville and undergo fetal surgery to stop the birth defect in its tracks.

I didn’t meet my wife at that church, but if I hadn’t been a Christian we would never have connected. Christie saw an internet posting about a concert that our band was going to perform, and she emailed me for more information. We communicated back and forth for a while before we ever actually met. She had come to Christ as a teenager and was attending a larger church in San Bernardino. Her faith was as important to her as mine had become to me, and it played a key role in our coming together. (It also helped that Christie had studied jazz under James Newton and Buddy Collette at UC Irvine, but...)

We left that church in 2002 under rather uncomfortable circumstances, some of which I regret and some of which I appreciate in hindsight. That departure started me down the long, bumpy road of discovering just what I value in life, and particularly in faith. Our church experiences since then have ranged from rewarding to mildly disappointing to soul-crushing letdowns. In the process, I’ve drawn closer to what Jesus actually taught as opposed to what many of His churches opt to teach. The differences are astonishing at times.

Despite all the ups and downs of my religious life, my faith has never wavered. I still believe passionately that there is a God who created everything, loves us all, and has laid out a plan for our lives, confusing and contradictory though it might be after centuries of human interference. Yet I frequently encounter Christians who just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that I can believe in God and live out the Gospel without driving to a particular building every Sunday morning.

I have to be clear: I actively hate much of what the church has become in the public eye. I despise televangelists who demand money for salvation while condemning everyone who doesn’t fit their particular mold. I can’t stand those who equate faith with a particular strain of secular politics, especially one whose policies directly contradict their own Scriptures. I have endured sermons where pastors whined about paying taxes; characterized all poor people as lazy; and engaged in paranoid rantings about foreigners coming to kill everyone in our “Christian nation”. And I have walked away from each one of them because Christ is not there, at least not as He’s delineated in those words attributed to Him in the Bible. If the Gospel is true, these churches must then be false. There is no other option.

After leaving my first church, we spent six more years at an Assembly of God just a few blocks from our home. The experience started off well and ended in more disappointment, this time because of an arrogant pastor who flat lied to the church board about my wife, kicked us unceremoniously off the missions committee we had worked hard to administer, and cut us off from many of our friends through manipulation and deceit. If there’s one person whose grave I will urinate upon someday, it’s that pastor. He has come to represent, in my heart, much of what’s wrong with the body of Christ today.

I will never return to another church building, except for someone’s wedding or funeral. I can no longer find God in any of them. I find God in working with the disabled athletes in my sports program, in my family, and in the group of friends we’ve built outside church walls over the years. We commune with the broken and hurting; we lift one another up; we feed each other physically and spiritually. And none of that needs be done in a place that’s more likely about money and agenda than service.

I am grateful to the Lord for my sobriety and my family. This is sufficient, and it buoys me every day that I walk the earth.