It was late. The young man was sitting on the edge of his cheap motor-inn bed, staring at the mildewed wallpaper. He was weeping.
There was a small orange bottle of pills on the nightstand. He kept glancing at them.
His was a long story, one you’ve probably heard a million-and-one times. He simply couldn’t get out of his malicious brain. He could not exit the dark place.
Ultimately, this wasn’t his fault. It never is, you see. That’s the unspoken lie we feed people about their mental health problems. “This is all your fault.” When the truth is, life thrusts itself upon you. Our circumstances are dished out to us like bowlfuls of cold gruel. Eat up.
But he was finished suffering. He was really going to do it this time. No chickening out. There was no point to living. Not anymore. Ergo: the pills.
He flipped on the blaring motel TV for distraction, and casually opened the nightstand drawer. He didn’t know why he was opening the drawer. Probably just stalling.
Then again, maybe he opened the drawer because on some level, he knew it would be there.
Yep. There it was.
A book in the drawer. Harbound. Crimson cover. The gilded symbol of a two-handled pitcher and a torch embossed on the cover.
All at once a memory came back. In his child-mind he could recall a white-haired gentleman visiting his second-grade classroom. The old man was passing out miniature pleather-bound books of the New Testament to students.
The old man had explained that his organization distributed these books to prisons, violence shelters, schools, EMTs, jails, military facilities, nursing homes, hospitals.
And, of course, motels.
The young man began to sob. He wiped his tears, then weighed the cumbersome book in his hand. Loose leaf notebook pages fell onto the floor. Lots of pages.
“What in the…?”
It wasn’t just one page. It wasn’t just two. It was more. Some pages were aged, yellowed with time. Others were new and crisp. Each slip contained messages written in different penmanship.
The first note read something like: “June, 1984; I was having a bad night, but I found this book and realized that I was loved.”
“I really wanted a drink today. But I decided to read a chapter from this book before I left for the liquor store. These words saved me.”
And another, written directly on the inside book cover. It went something like this:
“January, 1991; I couldn’t believe so many people have been in this same motel room feeling as hopeless as me. My husband has been abusing me for a long time, but today I left him. I came to this motel with my kids to hide and don’t know where I will go next. Pray for me.”
As the young man thumbed through the pages, wet polka dots appeared on the onion-skin paper. And he actually prayed for that woman.
Then he came across a printed page which read: “If discouraged or in trouble, read Psalm 126 and John 14.”
So he did. Then he read some more. He read that worn book until his eyes went blurry.
And I’ll tell you how that book got there.
The Gideons International was founded in 1899. America was a different place then. The horse and buckboard ruled the streets, and the electric lightbulb was under fire and condemnation from rural pulpits. William McKinley was president, and the “New York Times” had just coined the term “automobile.”
Meantime, in Janesville, Wisconsin, a couple of traveling businessmen got together, probably for breakfast, and had a simple idea for an organization. They started calling themselves Gideons.
Over the years, the organization would welcome into its ranks scores of men, ages 21 and older, lay persons only. No clergy.
They were men who, in their free time, dutifully hit the highways and byways to place simple hardbound books on hotel nightstands, ICU side tables, upon cellblock pillows, and into the pockets of soldiers who would die clutching their miniature books with bloodred hands.
“We pray over each Bible,” a Gideon once told me. “Because this could be the piece of paper that saves someone’s life.”
Currently, the Gideons distribute over 70 million Bibles annually in 200 countries and nations. On average, two Gideon Bibles are distributed every second in this world. In the time it’s taken you to read this far—if you’re still with me—a few hundred Gideon Bibles have already been dispensed.
Last count, it was estimated that the Gideons International has distributed over 2 billion Bibles since their meek beginnings in the sticks of southern Wisconsin.
Back at the motel, the young man retrieved a pen from the complimentary notepad on the nightstand. He wrote on a blank page. It doesn’t matter what the note said. What matters is that this ratty Bible was found decades later by someone I know. The closing words on the young man’s note were:
“Tonight I flushed my pills down the toilet, pray for me.”