Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Drunk "In the Spirit"

Ephesians 5:15-18 (New International Version)

15 “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. 18Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the mind works? Memories of an old piece of my journey have come, uninvited and yet welcome, into the foreground of my conscious thought. I take that to mean that the story should now be told.

I’m not a teetotaler. There was a time in my life when alcohol and I had a symbiotic relationship. I consumed it and it was consuming me. That was long, long ago, in a life that’s been washed, as they say, in that “cleansing stream.” Nowadays I’m inclined to have my annual glass of zinfandel or a pint of the “bitters.” No more than that, just something “for the stomach,” as Holy Writ recommends.

I cut my Christian teeth in an American Baptist Church back in the late 60’s. One of the things I learned then, and in subsequent years, was that a certain amount of aberrant theology was acceptable, but the use of “demon rum” was anathema.

I recall, very vividly, the first communion I ever took. It was in an American Baptist church in Columbus, Ohio. The most striking thing I brought out of the experience was that there certain things one did that could potentially disqualify him or her from the prize. Strong drink was at the top of the list. Prior to the communion elements being passed out there was a required litany. Rather than confess our sins, which I’m sure were many, we had to confess that we hadn’t either smoked a cigarette or had a drink of alcohol since our last communion. I was, based on the litany, only half guilty. I’d quit smoking, thankfully, but there was that glass of wine or two I’d had that was nagging at my conscience. I honestly didn’t know what to do. In order to partake of the elements I would have to lie. In order to be truthful I would have to pass the elements. I decided to secretly confess my lie, and then partake.

It all seems so trivial to me now. But it wasn’t then. When religious authority has the power, whether overtly or covertly, to withhold a sacrament from a believer, it’s powerful stuff. So, it remained my “dirty little secret” for as long as I was an American Baptist.

It also seems so strange now, too. In order to partake of the forgiveness I needed I was required to read a litany in which I was verbally demonstrating that I’d done nothing at all that would make the “ritual” necessary. I mean, if I’d been so good, then why would the sacrifice of Jesus and the commemoration of that sacrifice even be necessary? I guess it’s very American in character, sort of like getting a loan from a bank. In order to get the money a person has to provide enough collateral to prove they really don’t need the money in the first place

Now my point in writing is not to create a controversy with the American Baptist Convention, its members, or the American banking system. What I’ve mentioned to this point is just a starting place for what I really want to write about.

I’ll now fast forward to the mid seventies. I was attending a large Charismatic church in downtown Kansas City. My role, like a lot of other would be “charmers,” was to be at the disposal of church leadership. Sometimes the role meant sitting, like overstuffed interns, on the platform, while some celebrity preacher revealed an aspect of truth no one in the world had ever heard. Sometimes we just ran errands. That was the way the movement was back in those days. It’s not that I felt dissatisfied with what I was doing. In fact, I felt in very good company, with men like Joshua (Moses’ “servant”), for example.

One of the interesting things about any religious movement is the risings and fallings of the “stars.” There are the notable ones, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart being the most recent cases. These “stars” usually have some charisma that causes folks to listen, and then follow. After a time, when their power and importance in the scheme of things becomes magnified beyond all sane proportion, they somehow feel that fleecing the flock or chasing painted ladies is alright. At least, that how it seems to happen as far as I’m concerned.

The man in question in my story was once a rising superstar. I’ve never known what his name was; only that he was once “a mighty man of God with a mighty anointing.” He was powerful enough, I was once told, that he could “charm the apples right off the wallpaper.”

But those days were long gone. I don’t know what caused the fall, but it was close to being cataclysmic. Maybe he’d fleeced someone in some flock; maybe he’d dallied once too often with a pretty painted thing. Whatever it was, he’d been shamed and defrocked, and now lived in a bottle.

It was during those times that the church was undergoing a huge building project, a youth center. In terms of funding close to seven figures were going to be needed to complete the construction. At about the mid point in the fund raising effort I got a call from church leadership, asking me if I would go to pick up a large sum of money from someone who wanted to do his part.

I agreed and set out to the downtown hotel where I was told I could find him. When I got to the address I was given I did a double take. It appeared to be a flop house. I sat outside for a few minutes and then drove around the block, thinking that I must have had the wrong address. I got back to the flop house about ten minutes later, realizing that I had not made a mistake. A climb up two flights of dark, dingy stairs with the smell of sneaky pete wafting through the air and a moment or two to catch my breath and I was there. Room twenty-two. As I approached the room to knock on the door I could hear the sound of Gospel music from inside the room, accompanied by glossolalia. On hearing this I thought to myself, “This is going to be one of those really interesting experiences.”

It was.

I knocked, he opened. It was “him,” the man who had once been so anointed that he was a superstar. As I entered the room I noticed two bottles of Jim Beam, one empty and one half full, sitting on the table in front of the flop house bed. He was indeed living in a bottle and was drunk. I told him why I was there and he acknowledged, then turned and whirled away toward a dresser that was sitting in the corner of the room. As he did he began to sing along with the Gospel melody that was playing on the radio. He stumbled a couple of times as he did, then opened the top drawer and pulled out a large wad of money. He looked at it for a moment, then made his way back to me. He was holding the money up, in ceremonial fashion as he did, praying “in the spirit.” “Haye beeto, meeta coubra mae ting see ta.” He kept repeating the “words” over and over as he did. Then, triumphantly, he handed me the money. “Sokay, kid,” he slurred, somehow seeing through the whiskey created fog that I needed to be reassured. “Igonnabealright…Juss need some time to get meself toggedah.” He was one of the most pitiful sights I’ve ever seen. I turned for a moment, then thought better of it and turned back, facing him. “I can’t take the money. You need help and this money can’t buy your problem away. You need to kill the stuff that’s killin’ you. You’ve got to really bring this stuff to Jesus, man. That’s your only hope. Giving this money won’t help a thing.” It was the best plea I could make, but I doubt that he really heard what I was saying. I tried handing it back to him, but he wouldn’t take it. Then, as I left, I tossed the wad of bills toward the bed.

I got back to the church and reported to the leadership what had happened. I honestly thought they would affirm what I did, but I was very wrong. They were furious. The money, they said, was needed to reach kids. They put it this way – “Sometimes the “wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just.” I tried pleading my case, but couldn’t get through. I felt that this man’s life was still worth redeeming. The leadership told me that, while my sentiments were commendable, this was really a matter of logistics, one lost, desperate soul compared to multitudes of young people who would benefit when the project was completed.

I don’t know for sure what happened to the former superstar after that. I’d be willing to bet that the church sent someone else down to the flop house to get the money. The project was completed, everyone rejoiced and that seemed to be the end of it.

There’s something about intoxication. There’s a dynamic that’s set loose once we imbibe. We can hide from reality; we can feel the rush of glory as it cascades through our inner being. And, we can feel strangely brilliant, immersed in a world of our own making. It’s all part of a paradoxical, toxic mixture.

Was that superstar’s life ever redeemed? Only God knows. If I had to judge by what I saw that night, a helpless man, “drunk in the spirit,” trying desperately to recapture the glory of a life that had passed him by, and alternately trying to hide the shame of life as it had become, I’d have to say I doubt it.

But there’s something else about those times that I’ve thought about off and on since. While one man was flailing away in desperation, others who should have cared were drunk with power, seeing the multitudes, seeing the glory of the crowd, the adulation above the need of one man.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, it’s all very intoxicating. It’s not at all unlike the intoxication of the corporate world and the board room, where grand results are so often more important than the lives of the people who roam the halls and cubicles, then go home to live, like the failed superstar, by crawling into a bottle.

As I think about it now I can’t help but believe that there are only a few differences between the two types of drunkenness. The first is that one reeks of fallenness and shame and the other has what appears to be the sweet fragrance of success. Second, one is socially unacceptable and the other is all too often seen as the standard of success. Third, in one the life and value of the individual is sublimated, offered casually on the altar of success, while the superstar is exalted in the other. Fourth, while one is ingested whole by the bottle in flop houses or some secluded corner of the world, the other is sipped giddily by the glass to the sound of “amens” and applause. And finally, the tragic reality is that, while failure magnifies one type of intoxication, success all too often obscures the other.

1 comment:

James Fletcher Baxter said...

Too often we treat of such experience as merely the result of some visitation of external authority - having its own way. Such helpless opinion only further verifies our faulty definition of who we really are; made in God's image, earth's Choicemaker.

Q: "What is man, that he could be pure? And he who is
born of a woman, that he could be righteous?" Job 15:14

A: "Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him shall He
teach in the way he chooses." Psalm 25:12