Written by Rachel Greiman, Writer & Photographer
This series was inspired by the book Anything written by Jennie Allen. Please follow me as I struggle with life’s difficult questions and walk down the path to find my “anything”!
When you first meet Duncan, you might describe him as gruff. He’s one of those quiet guys and definitely isn’t smiley. But give him a couple minutes, because once he warms up, you’ll find a tender heart and a deep love for people. Especially people who can be hard to love. He is someone who lives his life so others can succeed. He is no stranger to shame, but also a friend to grace.
Most “anything” prayers are about taking something on, starting a new task or following God to a new opportunity. But Duncan’s was about giving something up.
Rachel Greiman: Did you ever pray a prayer like “anything”?
Duncan Shaw: My wife and I, 15 years ago, started praying and feeling like God was calling us to do something else with our lives. Something more, something deeper. We started praying, “God, take out anything in our lives that is keeping us from doing whatever you want us to do.” We wanted him to uproot any weeds that were keeping us from serving Him. And that’s one of those prayers that you need to be careful about praying.
DS: As a couple, we prayed a similar prayer. But alone, I prayed, “God, I will do anything you want. As long as you let me keep drinking. I’ll do anything BUT stop drinking.” In hindsight, you realize why things happen. God answered that prayer by saying, “I’ll take your drinking. I’ll take your job. I’ll take your house. I’ll take everything so that you have nothing else to rely on except for me.”
RG: And what did life look like for you guys then?
DS: We were barely scraping by. Two years into the marriage, she didn’t realize how much I was drinking. I would tell her I stopped and had a beer, but it would actually mean that I drove around drinking a quart of malt liquor. That continued for another two years. I knew there was an issue, but I didn’t want to look at it.
RG: So what made you finally look at it?
DS: I got caught for embezzling cash from my job. Fortunately, they didn’t prosecute. They could have. But I got fired. I went home and had to explain it all to my wife.
RG: What was that explanation like?
DS: To my wife, I had had an affair, it just wasn’t with another person, it was with a bottle. I had lied, cheated, kept secrets. I gave part of myself to alcohol that should have gone to my wife and family.
RG: This is when the turning point happened?
DS: Yep, this is when it snowballed. I lost everything and we couldn’t afford anything. At the time, we went to a small church. My wife and I ran the Children’s Ministry. I wanted to get up in front of the congregation and tell them. I didn’t care if people judged me. There was a huge relief to it. I wanted everything out in the open. No more secrets.
RG: 15 years ago, you lost everything, had a radical transformation…but how did you keep afloat?
DS: People came alongside us. They said, “Yes, you have a drinking problem. And?” I always thought that if people knew my secret, if they knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t like me. But within four months, a man in our congregation gave me a construction job and I knew nothing about construction. I worked for him for two and a half years. Having that faith community around us made all the difference in the world.
RG: Where did the strength for long-term sobriety come from?
DS: I firmly believe that any addiction is an outward symptom of an internal disease. Everybody struggles, but there is something about addicts that is different. I was an extreme introvert and I never felt like I measured up in any way. Alcohol and some other drugs allowed me to step outside my own self-doubt and become somebody that could talk to people, somebody that acted and felt confident. It was a coping mechanism that stopped working. When it stopped working, addiction began. It wasn’t security anymore, it was everything. I couldn’t admit it because it would be showing everybody and myself that I was always what I thought I was: worthless.
When I realized that I wanted to stay sober and deal with the underlying problem, which was my huge feeling of inadequacy, I learned why I felt that way. Not when or how it started, but why.
RG: So how did you get to the Mission?
DS: We uprooted our three kids and moved to Colorado in 2001. I went to school to finish my bachelor’s degree and then got a counseling degree. Everyone has always told me I was a good listener. When everything cleared up with my addiction, I wanted to go get trained to do what God had already gifted me to do. I got an internship at the Farm. I didn’t want to work with addicts. I thought it was too close to home. I quickly learned what a huge benefit I had. I could hear the lies they were telling themselves very quickly.
RG: You’ve now worked there for seven years. Do you think your past evokes respect from the guys in the program?
DS: I think it does. One of the biggest reasons I’m here is to be able to show these guys that you can do it. You can have a life free of addictions. I have a happy, normal life because I understand this thing called grace and this thing called love. It’s not a life of misery, just trying to make it through one day at a time, like the life of an addict.
RG: You prayed the “anything” prayer and God took away the one thing you didn’t want to give up and has given you a life where you pour into others. What has been the most difficult thing about that?
DS: The most difficult thing is that we constantly deal with failure. God has put [my wife and I] in a position where we constantly deal with people who are struggling and failing in life. The hardest thing is that God gives you a desire to help these people, but you’re around failure and negativity all the time. Sometimes I get to a point where I ask, “Does anyone have a happy life?”
RG: So where is the joy in it?
DS: As depressing as it may sound, I am more fulfilled now than I have ever been in my life. I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do. As dark and as dreary as it can be, there are happy endings. One of the first guys I ever counseled at the Farm is still doing very well. He is the son of a pastor of our church. It still hits me because I see his mom at church once a month. I saw her last week, and she came up and said, “By the way, I don’t know if I tell you this enough, but thank you for giving me my son back.” Those are the times that make me remember why I’m doing this.
Duncan’s story, to the casual reader, is presumably about shame. But to me, it’s about redemption. Rather than seeing it through the lens of judgment, he invited me to share my own struggles. He is the kind of man that creates safe places for confession and healing. He has adopted his church’s motto of, “Me too.”
You struggle? You have secrets? “Me too.”
Duncan’s story shows that if we walk in obedience, God can redeem every part of our stories for His glory. I would love to hear your stories about God’s redeeming love.