From Pastor to Bastard: At the Bottom of Every Bottle a Saint Speaks
10 May 2012Written by Matt Debenedictis
“Just let loose,” the head pastor (him) said to the assistant pastor (me). The words fell down much like a decree from a sovereign lawmaker; a pastor’s words thrust themselves onto their staff with an oracle of power. They are to be followed to the letter and with little question – well, questions can be encouraged as they lead to discussions, and those lengthy devices lead to good sermons.
Pastors need people for this very reason. Without people they are merely presenting book pitches to an audience every week. Over a year into building a church that worked locally and could be admired nationally, my fatigue had become fully visible and undeniable. I was the party girl left curbside at 3am, skin stained with mascara. There was no denying my decaying state. It was time to laugh or just enjoy the inevitable crash.
In the middle of a staff retreat, within a corner of the rusty Christian flag admiring Midwest, my only to-do list was to relax, have some fun, and just let the stress melt away. I chose to let it drip out my pours through liquor sweats.
The night began with a full staff dinner: the pastors, the paid, the volunteers – all the people that make a church a real breathing device. I had a rhythmic method to my drinking, much like the rhythm method used to avoid getting pregnant and, much like it, the end result was guaranteed unpredictability. Green domestic bottles were chased by redheaded sluts – the cheap then the sweetness. I lost count of my rounds somewhere after the third. By this time the fun was being moved back to the hotel, but not before a stop to get snacks and more aged Holy Spirit in a bottle.
I put my drink-consuming method to bed as I buddied up with my own oversized bottle of whiskey. I resided in a chair watching everyone smile, laugh, and joke in our half-priced, half off the highway hotel. I sized everyone up as if a massive fight in the park was about to happen, and I would need to know who would have my back and who’s back I would need to stab. These were the type of fevered thoughts that careen through a mind when liquor, anger, and a need to sleep have settled in for the long haul. I conjoined with my chair to create a slumping machine. Cartoon drunk had settled in for most of the staff, causing an eruption into a game of “I Never”.
Secrets were revealed as everyone (aside from the senior pastor) drank and raised their hands exposing both the ridiculous and the dark that nestled within their lives. One couple discovered an STD might be in play, others found out friends would sell their shame for the laugh of the guilty raised hand and quick shot that follows. I made all my questions sultry, or at least the drunk me believed he did, out of a hope that one of the blushing, tipsy interns would let me slide in for a sinless fuck.
I slept alone that night, in an incubated curl around the toilet. I counted out my vomits laughing with each one like I had won an award and was waiting for someone to ask me if I was going to go to Disneyland. I was told I yelled out “23″ at the tile and the cancer-colored wallpaper. An imaginary cheer applauded me as my face slid off the bowl into the vomit that never quite made it to its intended destination. I was the Michael Jordan of godly puking, a five-day hangover as my medal.
On the retreat I met one of the most revered and talked-about ministers that has ever lived. We shook hands and my brain couldn’t find the switch to the end the roller coaster. When can I relax again, I thought. Everything was turning serious, and who wants serious when you just saw everyone be themselves for the first time in a year.
“A pastor is a leader by bringing God’s voice to his people,” someone said.
“You’ll know God’s voice when you hear it.”
“In God’s voice is our comfort.”
“Stop asking questions, and you’ll hear Him.” Every pastor I ever met told me that.
Each time someone one else uttered about the whispers of the mighty above, I could only cringe, wondering if there was an escape hatch waiting for me before we came back south to Atlanta. The only voice I ever heard was in my own inflection, somehow always backing the emotions of the moment. The same voice that told me God was real and to devote my life before a driver’s license to pastoral service was the same that crept in quietly one day, whispering, “You’re a bastard and its time to say goodbye.”
I’ve toured the country speaking on more pulpits than I can every truly understand but when I stare into the eyes of hindsight, and though I’ve lost memory of every Bible verse I every preached on, there’s one thing I can say: There’s a saint that stares back at the bottom of every bottle, not ordained and holy only in the attempts to improve. This voice knows you best and it’s best not to ignore it.