he smells like mouthwash


Written by Justin Bowers

Justin felt called to ministry the summer before his senior year of high school on a trip serving in South Africa. He graduated from Geneva College with a degree in Student Ministry in 2001 and again from Bethel Seminary with a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership in 2010. He has spent the past ten years serving in several churches in youth, college, and worship ministry.

July 24, 2013

mouthwash, alcholic

Each Sunday he shows up.  He stumbles in, unkempt and a little noisy.  Typically his daughters come with him.  (They love our children’s ministry.)  He sits in the metal folding chairs in our little church plant startup meeting at our local VFW Bingo Hall.  Usually, he sits near the back, a little out of place but tears in his eyes during the entire teaching.  He is a walking picture of one man’s alcoholic struggles.

Monday he calls me.  Usually 2-4 times just on Monday.  Not for any particular reason, but more or less because he just wants someone to talk to.  Tuesday he might call once or twice.  By Wednesday it trickles off and we reconnect on Sunday.  Him, still a mess.  And me, not even sure where to begin other than with the cliches that won’t help his battle…

“Keep praying man.  God is faithful.”
“Don’t quit studying the Word.  Go after God.”
“We are praying with you brother.  We really are.”

But for him, the battle doesn’t end.  It doesn’t go away and he isn’t really getting any better.  And the reality is, I have no idea how to help.

He keeps showing up though.  He keeps walking in the door every Sunday morning and just past the smell of mouthwash is a broken heart who has found a place of belonging–a place where he doesn’t feel so alone at least for those couple hours of the morning.

The reality is my heart is the mess in this situation.

I get irritated by the phone calls.  Doesn’t he know 9 o’clock at night is my time with my wife?  Seriously, four calls in one day?  What does he want me to say when there’s nothing new he’s telling me?

I get irritated by my own lack of answers.  How do you help someone who cannot step out of the battle with addiction long enough to sober up and understand the depth of his problem?  I have never struggled in this way, so I don’t understand these issues, and I feel powerless to help.  And frankly, it ticks me off.

My heart is the mess in this situation.  

The gospel is clear about one thing when it comes to Jesus–he came near.  Ultimately, he was the solution to every addiction, sinful behavior, shame, broken heart, lost love, and more, but the solution was his own presence.  His nearness answered our distance.  He didn’t come to earth with a list of easy solutions, but rather a ministry of presence.

And so should we.

Nearness is way harder than solutions.  Nearness demands time.  Attentiveness.  Presence.  It demands that we live the gospel we read rather than read the gospel and simply think about how to live it.  Nearness means I move past the mouthwash on his breath and into the honesty of his broken heart and simply be a friend.

Maybe this is our call.  Maybe when we call ourselves a people of the Book it means we are a people who come near… a people who extend ourselves when we don’t want to, pick up the phone when the call comes again, endure the same awkward conversation for the 20th time, and ultimately, do it without the mess of our own hearts getting in the way.



  1. Shannon Rae

    Yes. I think the fact that your realize that you have no answers is his best answer! Thank you for your words!

  2. pastordt

    This is such a tough place to be, isn’t it? Such brokenness. And yet. . . I wonder how you can help him establish a few boundaries that might help direct him to health – as well as ‘coming near’ to his broken heart. Has he been to any kind of 12-step program? AA literally saved the lives of many people I know and care about. And yes, he does need someone to talk to, you’re right. And right now, you are that someone. But he also needs to talk with people who have been down this road, he needs a sponsor. Then, maybe you can be his pastor and his friend, and not his sole source of emotional support. Sometimes, gentle direction toward more intentionally focused help is the best thing we can do for anyone struggling with addiction. Many, many blessings as you continue to minister to this man (and everyone else in your community!)

  3. Sharon

    Oh man, Justin. This was sooo good – and so convicting, so challenging. This is the line that really got to me:

    “Nearness is way harder than solutions.”

    Yes, oh yes. Being close, near, lending an ear – these are where our *professed* faith meets the rubber-of-the-road of our *practiced* faith. It’s where Jesus wants us to be.

    Jesus, the One who loved the marginalized, welcomed the ostracized, and touched the untouchables.

    May He work in our “messy” hearts – and give us the strength to love others like He loves us.



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he smells like mouthwash

by Justin Bowers time to read: 3 min