Why Can’t My Life Be Like Theirs?
I learned at an early age as an only child born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that drinking and fighting was a normal way to live. At the age of six, my parents separated due to the verbal and physical abuse in our home. At the age of nine my parents were divorced. I was raised by my devout Catholic mom and occasionally visited my atheist dad on weekends and holidays. Growing up in a broken home was sad and difficult, especially when all my friends had brothers, sisters and both parents living together. I often thought, “Why can’t my life be like theirs?” In my teen years I learned to drink, fight and experiment with all sorts of drugs.
Shortly after graduating high school I joined the Navy. In basic training, I was made Catholic Religious Petty Officer for my company due to the information given on my entrance survey which included being an altar boy. At the very first meeting everyone was talking about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or someone else I had never heard of before. People and places of the Bible were foreign to me since I never read the Book. Someone asked me what I thought about the evening’s topic of discussion and I stated that I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was laughed out of that meeting and never returned. During my early days in the Navy I came in contact with Christians for the first time and they gave me the creeps. When someone asked if I was going to heaven when I die, my reply would be, “I think so. I’ve been christened, confirmed and have a cross around my neck.” What I learned in church was that, worst case, I would do purgatory before going to heaven. Several times I let Bible Thumpers pray for me in hopes they would just finish talking and go away.
Upon reporting on board my first ship I felt a great sense of emptiness; I fell in with the wrong crowd, which is what I had been doing all my life, and tried to fill the great void in my heart. My life spiraled out of control with excessive drinking to the point of occasionally not remembering how I got back to the ship. Making matters worse, I took various drugs, including hallucinogenic, with a couple episodes thinking I permanently damaged my brain. Thoughts of suicide to end the madness entered my mind, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The Navy sent me to a military shrink, who sternly informed me that I would be discharged from the Navy if I didn’t accept help in my abuse of alcohol and drugs. I agreed to receive help, but don’t recall ever going to any treatments.
A couple Christian engineers I worked with, named Jim and Steve, were making many of us on the ship uncomfortable with their Bible talk. I persecuted these Jesus freaks with more vigor than anyone else on the ship, calling them names and staring them down at every opportunity. I was a modern day Saul of Tarsus.
Working in the pit or the hole, as we affectionately called the boiler and engine rooms, was very hot and dirty work with extra long hours. This is where I learned to be mean and hateful and cuss and fight more than ever in my life. Our motto was “get tough or die.” If anyone learned of your birth date, that fateful day would include getting spanked with a metal dustpan while your fellow boiler technicians held you down. When we had an issue with another “hole-snipe” we settled it behind the boiler; like going behind the woodshed. Since fighting was against Navy regulations, black eyes and fat lips were easily dismissed–”I fell down a ladder or stairwell.”
Eventually, my life hit bottom at a shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. I got caught up in a street fight one night with some foreigners, one of which was yielding a knife. My shipmate and I could have been killed, but I found a beer bottle in the gutter near to where we stood, broke it to make a jagged weapon and held off the attackers. In about the same week, a head-on car crash made me think about where my life was headed. The world was crashing down around me. During these troubling times, Jim and Steve were catching me alone and asking if they could share some stories from their little green books. As long as no one was around to see me listening, I let them read scriptures from their pocket size testaments. I continued harassing Jim and Steve in front of my friends, but in private I cautiously acted differently, like Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.
I was intrigued to hear stories concerning a blind man receiving sight and a lame man from birth being able to walk only through faith in the name of Jesus Christ. Somehow, I put myself in those stories though at the time I didn’t understand why. From what I knew, I could see and walk fine, just as I was.
One day, Steve asked if I would like his Gideon New Testament; I shrugged and accepted. While reading my new book with aid from helps in the front (subjects like depressed, discouraged, and defeated) I felt all of these emotions and thought, Why didn’t someone tell me about these things before? The words were like fireworks going off as I read this miraculous book, soaking it up like a sponge. Amazingly, I was receiving answers to all of my problems. As it is written in Hebrews 4:12:
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
I reluctantly approached my coolest friend, Mac, with the News. My party buddy, who I shared my most intimate secrets with, said, “That stuff is fine for you, but I’m not interested. Keep it to yourself.” Days later, my best friend in the entire world died in a tragic, freak accident. I wondered where my young friend now was and suddenly felt life was no longer secure. Death now entered my psyche.
Up to this point I was still hardened to the core by life’s circumstances. You could have beaten me to an inch of death and I would not have shed a tear. In fact, when I got in a fight I would tell my opponent, “You better kill me, or I’m going to kill you.” I had no fear of anyone. To make the point, I remember a time I got in an argument with my supervisor; he was the biggest, strongest man on the ship. I worked out daily with weights, many times in the dreadful heat of the boiler room, but Petty Officer First Class Marshall worked out with every pound of weight stacked up on the Nautilus machine. During our dispute, he lost control and attempted to choke me to death. A couple engineers pulled him away and I fell to the ground gasping for air. The sailors told him he nearly had me dead. When I pulled in enough breath to speak, I exclaimed, “He’s not going to kill anyone. Is that all you got?”
I began desiring to quit drinking, smoking and all the other sinful habits I was hooked to, but didn’t yet have sufficient will power to overcome them. I repeatedly tried to stop, only falling back into the torturous rut. I began telling my friends I’d rather stay on the ship than go out partying. I was finding time alone to read my little book of help.
One night while lying in my bunk, I could hear Jim and Steve nearby talking about sinners going to hell or something. I was terribly convicted in my heart and became extremely disturbed. I flung my bunk curtain open and snapped, “Why don’t you guys be quiet? People are trying to sleep; it’s 2 o’clock in the morning!”
They said, “We’ll keep it down, Petty Officer Butler.” As they continued to share God’s Word, now in a whisper, I caught myself bending my ear to hear what they were saying.
I told myself, Look at you! You know you want what they have. They are the only ones on the entire ship who are happy all the time, no matter what the circumstance. Moments later, I sincerely prayed for the first time in my life. “God, if you’re real, do to me what you’ve done to them.” The peace of God overwhelmed me as I sensed something like oil flow from my head down to my feet, making me feel clean, white as snow for the first time in my life and I began to weep. This was MY moment, when God opened my eyes and the mystery of Christ, the Hope of Glory, was revealed even to me. As it is written:
Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.
In the morning I told Jim and Steve what happened and they shouted, “Hallelujah; you’ve been saved!”
My closest partying comrades weren’t so enthused and told me, “Surely you overdosed on drugs and need to see the ship’s doctor right away.”
I said, “I found Jesus; He is what I have been looking for all my life.”
My old buddies said, “No! You’ve become one of them!” They tried hard to persuade me back out drinking with them, saying I was just going through a phase and would give it up sooner or later anyway. But, as it is written:
I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
They really got fired up when I decided to destroy my entire collection of hard rock music, breaking one cassette tape at a time and throwing them in a trash can. They begged me to give them, sell them the tapes, but I told them if they weren’t good for me, they weren’t good for them. II Corinthians 5:17 states,
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.
I began listening to Dallas Holm, Amy Grant and Maranatha Music to the chagrin of all my shipmates. I was walking a new walk and talking a new talk. Like the converted Paul, the persecutor was now persecuted and considering it a privilege.
Steve would tell you I was the least likely sailor to get saved on our ship and fervently prayed for me until it happened. My conversion was something that could not go unnoticed and there was a great revival on the USS Fort Snelling as many came to accept Jesus as their personal savior. I testified to everyone on the ship, anywhere and at any time. It was like fire shut up in my bones. I feared no one; to God be ALL the glory.
I soon joined a church, was baptized and later became a Bible teacher and prayer leader. I shared Jesus with my mom and she got saved. I ended up doing a combined 22 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve. I have a wonderful wife of 28 years; our three children and six grandchildren are rooted in the Truth. Jim and Steve are to this day the brothers I never had growing up. More than 30 years later I am a living example of the promise found in Isaiah 55:11:
. . . so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
I wouldn’t trade the life I now live for anything and thank God for every situation I went through to get to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is my unworthy privilege to work with the Gideons, giving back to God through such a wonderful organization of dedicated men and women (Auxiliary).
I ask for anyone reading this, please say a prayer for my dad to give his heart to Jesus Christ before his life is over.
GOD loves YOU!