“There is no judgment. We’re all just trying to let Jesus change us.” – Russ Taff

Cheered by Billboard as “the single most electrifying voice in Christian music,” Grammy-winning legend Russ Taff (http://russtaff.com) joins hosts Mark Lowry and Andrew Greer to share his story of alcoholism in this sobering Dinner Conversations table talk.


Mark: Russ Taff is our guest today, and I’ve known Russ since 1988, when I joined the vocal band, but I knew of Russ long before that. I remember going to hear him in Roanoke when he was with the Imperials, and I was in college at Lynchburg, and I thought, oh man, what a voice, what a great man. He is one of the true friends. I mean if he is your friend, he will go to battle for you. He’s a good guy.

Andrew: And I think that loyalty in his friendship comes from a place of a lot of hardship for Russ. Began with his journey through alcoholism, that he speaks about so eloquently, and is very articulate about how, if the church was able to provide a true place of sanctuary, a place where we can really confess to each other that we wouldn’t even potentially need recovery programs, so it’s a fascinating conversation to me.

Mark: It is. And we’ve got one seat open, and it’s yours. Let’s join the conversation.

Russ Taff – Liquor and Legalism

Russ: My dad was an alcoholic before he became a Christian, and he was saved in a Pentecostal church. He was a welder, and he got some slag in his eye, that metal that, you know, white hot, that sparks, and it got into his eye. He went to the doctor, almost lost his eye, and they gave him some pretty powerful pain meds. He really liked the pain pills, really liked ’em.

Mark: I really like ’em too. I’ll be honest with ya.

Russ: No, no, yeah.

Mark: When I broke my leg, Lord have mercy, thank God for morphine drips and pain pills, but, you know, like we’ve lost Norman and others.

Russ: And you can’t stand there in the pulpit loaded.

Mark: No, no, no, no.

Andrew: Is that how it was?

Russ: Yeah. It got—

Andrew: Or how it became?

Russ: And then when the, when the pain pills ran out, my dad disappeared.

Mark: Was he going to look for more pills?

Russ: No, he would buy a big bottle of vodka. Dad carried a lot of pain. It started a pattern of about every six months. That man loved Jesus, and such a communicator, and he felt like God was calling him to preach, and so Dad started pastoring.

Mark: Do you think preaching became an addiction too?

Russ: Yeah.

Andrew: And fed into the other addictions?

Russ: Because when he was preaching, he felt like he was really serving Jesus. And he had not a clue what grace was.

Andrew: So that was legalism on himself. If I’m preaching, that was the only time he probably felt safe with God.

 “If I’m preaching, that was the only time he probably felt safe with God.” – Andrew Greer

Russ: And like God likes me right now.

Mark: And then he transferred that to you, right?

Russ: Oh, yeah, yeah. So when I was seven, he didn’t show up to church. And Mom sent me home to look for him, because it was getting close to preaching time. And I got to the back of the room, and he was sprawled out on the bed, and just drunk out of his mind, and I’d never seen anybody drunk, you know? And I thought something horrible had happened. And then the cover-up started. You know, we can’t let anybody know. One of my little friends — I was 9 — I had told him that Mom and Dad had an argument, and that was betrayal to them because you don’t tell anybody what goes on in the family. You don’t tell anybody, so she would, when I got home, she was waiting for me. I had spent the night with my friend, and she just blew, took her shoes off, and just started throwing at me, grabbed books and just screaming at me, “You don’t tell anybody what goes on in this family,” and came over and like started punching me with her fists, just punching me.

Andrew: This is your mother.

Russ: Yeah, and then she started kicking me, and I wound up just in a ball in the corner, and her just kicking the crap out me, screaming, “You don’t tell anybody what goes on in this family.” So, you grow up just in chaos. I mean, you… And every day you didn’t know what you were waking up to, and after awhile, it’s survival. It’s not anything but just flat-out survival. How can I get through another day?

“And every day you didn’t know what you were waking up to, and after awhile, it’s survival. It’s not anything but just flat-out survival.” – Russ Taff

Andrew: Did anyone ever sit down with you or come up behind you and say, “How you doing, Russ? How are you feeling?”

Russ: No, no.

Mark: So no one from the church reached out to you at all?

Russ: Oh no.

Mark: Oh wow. Isn’t that sad that the church didn’t do that for you? If the church didn’t gossip, I think that’s why God says that slanderers will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We always use the big sins. Well hey, gossip. You share your inner most secrets, and they share them? That is a catastrophe. We wouldn’t even need AA if the church did what they’re supposed to do.

Russ: Absolutely, absolutely.

Mark: ‘Cause AA really is the Church.

Russ: Yes.

William Bryan Bell, M.D. | Psychiatrist

Dr. Bell: How can the church be a better support system, one, an understanding that even though we may define your problem as depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, there are normal fight-or-flight mechanisms. There are still spiritual battles that are a part of that. The church plays a powerful role as burden carriers. If I know that you are walking with me through my experience that I don’t fully understand ’cause my brain and my emotions are going berserk inside me, your presence not condemning me is a strong comfort. It’s part of carrying one another’s burdens, but again understanding the problem at the root as a spiritual problem that has very powerful genetic, psychological attributes that are beyond. I’ve done this for 29 years. I still don’t fully understand what drives what’s going on inside. I can’t differentiate, is that physical, is that psychological? It’s both, but more powerfully, there’s a spiritual aspect that trumps, that is more powerful. So understanding that in the church makes carrying burdens, what we’re called to do, more of what we do and support one another.

If I know that you are walking with me through my experience that I don’t fully understand ’cause my brain and my emotions are going berserk inside me, your presence not condemning me is a strong comfort.

Mark: Don’t you think it would help people also if the pastors would show their scars rather than their trophies? I think you help people by showing, here’s what I deal with.

Dr. Bell: Sure. Helping us to be free to identify, this is how God is redeeming me.

Mark: That’s what I think happens in my world, is then once you get on TV, once you get on the stage, people look up to you like you got some key to the kingdom.

Dr. Bell: Sure.

Mark: And I tell ’em, look, the only difference between me and you is I got the microphone. We’re all in the same boat. We’re a pack of freaks trying to find our way home, and our big brother has come for us. And I believe that with all my heart. I really do believe Jesus is the answer, but I’m still trying to figure out all the questions.

Dr. Bell: Lots of questions.

Project Beautiful – Rescuing Beautiful Lives from Human Trafficking

Project Beautiful Sponsorship Message:

Mark: Dinner Conversations is presented by Project Beautiful, which helps bring young people home from a life of sex trafficking, but before they get into it. This is incredible, and there were five young ladies who were really saved in 2015.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s right. April 2015, Nepal was ravaged by an earthquake, and so these five young ladies, Doma, Fersong, Mia, Tika, and Saig, all found themselves in a place of destitution and loneliness because their village, which was already impoverished, was unable to recover from the trauma of that earthquake, and so they were simply looking for a way to survive, to provide for themselves. So they were looking across the border for some opportunities, and a trafficker presented them under the guise of this amazing employment opportunity in some of the bordering countries. And so the trafficker asked them to meet them, which we hear this is common, at the border so that he could then take them across the border.

Mark: Or she.

Andrew: Or she, that’s right.

Mark: A lot of women are doing it too.

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Andrew: If we don’t help, who will? Project Beautiful, because every life is beautiful and worth fighting for.

Russ Taff | Church Legalism’s Impact on Family

Andrew: OK, passed-out pastor daddy from drinking, how does that shape your view and perspective of God? You obviously are already thinking about God. You’re in your church background.

Russ: I loved Jesus. I loved Jesus.

Mark: Even then, back then?

Russ: I would go down to that church. It started when I was 12, and I would just kneel at the altar, and I just started talking to Jesus and telling Him how scared I was and I didn’t know what to do. But, you know, the face of your dad is the face of God, and I knew God wouldn’t like that. What was done is not right. And then you attach God to that. And it’s confusing as hell.

Mark: How did you live through that?

Russ: Well, something would happen when I would sing. And I would feel the Holy Spirit, because you know you grow up Pentecostal and you—

Mark: I felt it too when you sang.

Russ: Well, but.

Mark: Everybody felt it when you sang.

Russ: But it was.

Andrew: And we didn’t feel it growing up in a Baptist church.

Mark: No, we didn’t.

Russ: But Dad got jealous of me, and Mom would use me as a weapon, and she would say, “At least somebody’s in this house trying to serve Jesus.” And so he would take his anger and rage out on me, so after I would feel the Holy Spirit, and I would feel Him when I sang, but I knew I’d pay for it, and so there was just this yin and yang and yin and yang, and God loves me, God hates me. God loves me, God hates me. But the gospel that they presented and the Jesus they presented was so, He judged you, and it was like sinners in the hand of an angry God. And you’re dangling over hell, hanging on by a thread, and He could let you go at any minute.

”…it was like sinners in the hand of an angry God. And you’re dangling over hell, hanging on by a thread, and He could let you go at any minute.” – Russ Taff

Mark: You said to me one time, you said, “If your Jesus is a condemning Jesus, you need to fire Him. You have the wrong one.”

Russ: And find one that loves you.

Mark: “And find one that loves you, ’cause that’s the right one.”

Russ: Yeah, my AA sponsor told me that years ago, and I thought it was sacrilegious. I thought like, well you’re blaspheming God.

Mark: Yeah, I thought the same thing when you said that. But then I started thinking that, you know, He said, “I’ll stick closer to you than a brother.” I thought my brother wouldn’t wake me up in the night reminding me of everything I’ve done wrong. So I must have the wrong Jesus, and I went by a waterfall on Center Hill Lake, and wrote a letter to the one I had been serving, and said, “You are fired. You’re Jesus with a little j, and you are now fired. I’m going with the real one, the one that rose from the dead, the one that loves me, will be with me, and is encouraging me and applauding me.”

Russ Taff, Mark Lowry and Andrew Greer with Ron Block and Buddy Greene singing “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand”

Russ: 2, 3, 4.

Time is filled with swift transition,
Naught of earth unmoved can stand,
So build your hopes on things eternal,
And hold to God’s unchanging hand. 

Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

When your journey here is ended,
If to God you have been true,
Fair and bright your home in glory,
Your enraptured soul will view.

So hold to God’s unchanging hand,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand,
Build your hopes on things eternal,
And hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Sissy Goff, M.Ed., LPC-MHSP | Daystar Counseling Ministries

Andrew: You know, a lot of times, especially in ministry, families that are part, whether their father is a pastor, their mother is a minister, whatever, what I’ve discovered is that oftentimes the children don’t feel like they have a place to go when the family’s broken, when there’s traumatic circumstances inside their family, their parents’ relationship. Do you experience that, have you experienced that, children of ministers, and the tension there? What have you experienced in that realm?

Sissy: Yes, I think the tension and the sense that they do have to hide whatever’s going on, and so it feels like they can get lost easily, because there’s this image they’re trying to portray, and sometimes I think the parents inadvertently add to it. I don’t think that’s their heart at all, but there is this sense of, they come in and have to sit in the front, and have to engage in a way, and they’re being watched in a way that for kids, it doesn’t give them the freedom, even, probably particularly through adolescence, when so much of their time is about individuating, pushing against their parents, and they don’t have the freedom to do that, because they are being watched in this way, and they can either swing towards, you know, what we would always typically think of a rebellious pastor’s kid that pushes back anyway, or a child who is maybe typically the oldest and has more of the built-in need to please and perform, and so they go underground with it in a way that I think can be really damaging.

Andrew: In trying to keep up with that pressure, do they, I mean it seems like human nature so we find our vices to deal with whatever it is that we’re having, whatever we feel like we’re having to mantle, or some perception we’re having to keep up. It seems like, at least in my life, I saw how that resulted in addictive behavior, compulsive behavior. Where do you see addiction, you know, begin? Like that’s a curious thing to me. It seems like we deal with addiction and recovery as adults.

Sissy: Right.

Andrew: But it’s gotta start somewhere sooner, right?

Sissy: Right, right, and the tricky thing is when we’re dealing with it as adults, we’re typically naming it, and we’re wanting to work through it, and so for, I mean I would say it starts young. In a lot of different ways, and maybe our personalities — we could talk about the Enneagram — but our personalities kind of drive us one direction or the other. I mean, Gerald May talks about how we all have some kind of addiction. That just gets reinforced and reinforced through adolescence, because typically they’re not looking at it, and not even looking at what’s driving me to it, and so until they will do that, until we will do that, we can’t get to a place of health, which is why I’m so glad that more kids probably than ever before are seeking counseling, are talking to people, trying to process their emotions, and more parents are helping them get there.

Project Beautiful – Rescuing Beautiful Lives from Human Trafficking

Dinner Conversations Sponsorship Message:

Andrew: Dinner Conversations is presented by Project Beautiful.

Mark: And Project Beautiful has saved over 12,000 lives from sex trafficking around the world, and what I love about Project Beautiful is that they intercept them before they get into it, and you’ve gotta go to their website and see how it’s done.

Andrew: If you go to projectbeautiful.org/dinnerconversations, you can find out how to partner with us in bringing home vulnerable lives today.

Mark: If we don’t help, who will? Project Beautiful, because every life is beautiful and worth fighting for.

Russ Taff | Road into Addiction & Finding Your Support

Mark: When did the alcoholism for you come in to play? How did that happen?

Russ: With the Imperials. They had been away from Elvis for two years.

Mark: Elvis Presley, just to be clear. For all the millennials that may be watching. This was a singer in the ‘70s. And you joined them, and then what, was that a good experience?

Russ: For a little bit. I built this image of this young man that was humble, which I was. But I was terrified, and so this image gets all the love, gets all the praise, but standing behind that image, you’re an Auschwitz survivor, and you’re starving to death. Because that love doesn’t get to you.

Mark: I remember you telling me, after some concerts, how you would just go do a concert, then go drink yourself to sleep. Is that right?

Russ: Mm-hmm.

Mark: What was that process like?

Andrew: How did you get there?

Mark: How did you get there?

Russ: It was one Friday, and again I never drank, but Tori and her brother and our sister-in-law, they would have like wine with dinner. They lived on the fifth floor in the Village. There were three Heinekens in the refrigerator. I thought, well, I’ll just, I’m hot. I’ll just have one of these. Tori drinks ’em sometimes. And I drank it, and I started feeling something. And so I drank another one. And within 30 minutes, I had drank all three of ’em, and Mark, I thought a miracle was happening. All the pain went away. And I remember praying, saying, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you. It doesn’t hurt anymore. And the chaos is at a distance.” When things would start getting real painful, a lot of these memories would come up, and I remember being in therapy, and every time they would start talking about family, I would just wig out. I don’t wanna go there, don’t wanna talk about it. I’m acting like it didn’t happen, but it’s tearing me up inside, because growing up that way, it rewires your brain. I mean, it, you know, circuits connect to this circuits.

Mark: Did alcohol kind of align the chaos?

Russ: Yes.

Mark: Did it kind of like, everything felt like it made sense now.

Russ: And it’s okay, you know. The fear is gone, and then after two years, before that, it turned on me. I mean, it had me in its clutches.

Mark: Did Tori see it?

Andrew: Did you become scared of it at that point, or did you recognize it?

Russ: You’re scared of it, but you have used it for a crutch so long, you’re scared to let it go ’cause you don’t know what’s gonna happen.

Andrew: Old friend, yeah.

Russ: You know, it may just, your brain may blow up. And the whole time I was crying out, “Help me, God. Somebody help me. I don’t know what to do with all of this pain. I don’t know what to do with it.”

“Help me, God. Somebody help me. I don’t know what to do with all of this pain. I don’t know what to do with it.” – Russ Taff

Andrew: Uh huh, and this is the one thing.

Russ: And this anger and this rage, and you’re singing about Jesus, and people are coming to Christ, and you go back to the hotel, and there’s chaos in your head.

Andrew: I mean, did that produce this kind of tension that—

Mark: The hypocrisy?

Andrew: Did you feel, yeah, what did you feel of that?

Russ: It split my personality. It split it.

Andrew: Which goes back to the one that was loved and the one that’s not.

Mark: People don’t understand that you can be an alcoholic and be madly in love with Jesus.

Russ: Absolutely.

Andrew: How do you, in your own mental and emotional processes, work through that feeling that I think sometimes is projected on us of the dualism? Like Mark has told me before, “Russ is one of the most Christ-like men I’ve ever known,” and at the same time knowing that the weaknesses that we carry, that seeming dualism. How do you, just in your world internally, how do you process that? Because the world and the church is telling us we should look and act, and certain things are taboo. But we’re having to survive. We have to confess on a daily basis.

Because the world and the church is telling us we should look and act, and certain things are taboo. But we’re having to survive. We have to confess on a daily basis. – Andrew Greer

Mark: If you tell on yourself, you’ve told on yourself. There’s no secrets with you. You know, I think that’s what I’ve seen you do. When you tell all your secrets, nobody can hold it against you, right?

Russ: Yeah, yeah.

Mark: And you don’t have that far to fall when you’ve already climbed down the ladder. If you have a secret, I wouldn’t have a clue what it is ’cause you’ve told me stuff about yourself that you did not need to tell me, but you did.

Russ: But I knew that you would hold it for me.

Mark: To the grave.

Russ: And I have always wanted to be that for you too.

Mark: And you have been.

Russ: There is no judgment, you know. We’re all just people trying to figure this out. And trying to let Jesus change us.

There is no judgment, you know. We’re all just people trying to figure this out. And trying to let Jesus change us. – Russ Taff

Mark: If you need to judge somebody, grab a mirror.

Russ: There you go, there you go.

Andrew: Well, and the acceptance of others, right? The open acceptance of others, when we literally confess everything, and they accept us as we are, that quiets our internal voices, doesn’t it some?

Russ: Oh yeah.

Andrew: Internal judgment because we have all these inside voices. I think that’s what I was thinking about earlier is, how do you quiet the inside voices? But as I’m listening to you, this is part of it — confessing to others.

Mark: Tell ’em to shut up.

Andrew: And them receiving us exactly as we are.

Russ: When you find a few people in your life like Mark that you feel completely safe with, that’s all you need, you know. But with somebody that you trust so much and that you can tell your story to and you’re not judged, you know.

Andrew: Not even seen differently, right?

Russ: Yeah.

Andrew: Not even viewed differently.

Russ: Because they know your love for Jesus, because they have that love for Jesus, and they know the weakness, because they’ve experienced both, you know. And so these days, if you haven’t been broken in some way, I really don’t have any time to sit and talk to you.

Andrew: Are there times you still feel— We were talking about this earlier, and I have addiction and recovery background, and there are times I feel safer as a person and as an individual and as a spiritual person in my recovery meeting, still, even years of recovery, than I do in the—

Russ: ‘Cause I’m not judged. They understand me.

Andrew: And you can talk, right?

Russ: And you talk about it because they know what you’re thinking. They know what you’re going through.

Mark: They’ve been there.

Russ: They know why your head is in this spot.

Andrew: And we’re all confessing.

Russ: Absolutely, and in that confession, the Holy Spirit’s opening doors, opening doors, opening doors, of all of these cubicles that’s in your head that you put there to survive, just to survive.

Mark: Chains fall off when you confess.

Russ: Yes.

Andrew: It’s literal freedom.

Finding a Sanctuary of Confession

Andrew: We were talking about this. Mark and you and I were talking about how we don’t know how to confess. Are there practical things we can do as the church, like the broader church, you know? Not just this congregation or this congregation. To really encourage people to confess? I mean, you were saying we wouldn’t even need counselors, right?

Sissy: Yeah. Larry Crabb says that, that if the body of Christ was doing what we’re called to do, we wouldn’t need counselors because we would love each other in a way that brings healing.

If the body of Christ was doing what we’re called to do, we wouldn’t need counselors because we would love each other in a way that brings healing. – Larry Crabb

Andrew: How do you do that?

Sissy: Yeah, no, exactly. And I don’t, I mean, I think as much as we can create safe spaces, I think that’s the thing, and what we were talking about—

Andrew: Sanctuary.

Sissy: Yeah, yeah, a sanctuary where people feel like they’re free to talk about what’s really going on in deeper places, and I think we’ve got a problem in that social media is pulling the opposite of that. For us as adults.

Andrew: Because we’re just putting perception.

Sissy: Yes, I think it’s becoming less safe because it becomes so image oriented that, then if everybody else looks like their life’s so amazing, I sure can’t talk about how hard mine is.

Glimpses of Grace

Andrew: Where did you get your glimpses of grace?

Russ: When did the grace movement really hit?

Mark: Well, I know for me, it was Chuck Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, and Henri Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved, those two books.

Russ: Yeah, and then it just exploded, I mean, where all of us started getting like, oh my God, oh my God.

Mark: He likes us. He not only loves us, He likes us. Isn’t that a revelation?

Russ: That changed my world.

Mark: ‘Cause it’s the love of God will constrain you. The fear of God will get your attention, but it will never constrain you. Because I’ve done some of my best sinning when I was fearful of God.

Russ: Right.

Mark: But when you fall in love with Him, like Vestal Goodman used to say, “I just don’t wanna hurt His feelings.”

Russ: But, you know, it’s like these last 10 years, I feel like I finally crossed over, and I’m living in the positive. And I’m not trying to repair the past because it’s been repaired. When something like this happens, I know what to do now, you know, and when the old tapes start playing in your head or, you know, the devil trying to make you feel guilty for something you did 20 years ago.

Mark: What do you do?

Russ: What do I do?

Mark: Yeah. What tools do you use?

Russ: I laugh.

Mark: You laugh at it?

Russ: I laugh at it, and I remind myself, He separates as far as the east from the west. He has no clue what you’re even talking about.

Mark: Yes.

Russ: That’s my dad.

Andrew: Why bring it up?

Russ: That’s my dad.

Mark: And He will not wallow with you in your past or worry with you about your future because He’s only in the present, I believe.

Russ: Yes, yes.

Mark: Living in the present is hard to do. Didn’t you have an inkling that it could be true?

Russ: Yes.

Mark: There’s something in you that kept you running after Jesus even when everything was telling you in your world He hates you.

Russ: Absolutely.

Mark: But you knew.

Russ: Yeah.

Mark: Something deep down, you just know, He’s crazy about you somehow, I think.

Russ: That He loves us so much that He repairs those tiny little cracks, you know, and maybe the vessel’s not broken all the way, but there’s cracks, there’s cracks, there’s cracks. And you’re frayed, but He comes and He begins to heal, first that little crack, and that little crack, and that little crack, and now, I didn’t know He loved me that much. That He would come in and heal those deep, deep things that just tears our lives apart, but He loves us so much, and He never stops, He never gives up, you know? He’s right back there the next day, you know? “Are you willing to listen to me now?” Yes, sir. I had to beat my head against the wall four times, you know, but I’m ready now. I’ll do it your way. But Mark.

Mark: Oh how I love Jesus. Oh how I love Jesus. Sing with me. Oh how I love Jesus because He first loved me.

Russ: That is great.

Mark: Well, your dream came true.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s right! Right here.

Mark: He said, “Please, it’d be great for me to get to sing with Russ Taff.” I said, “OK. My Lord, I sing with him all the time.”

Mark: To learn more about Dinner Conversations, go to dinner-conversations.com.

Andrew: And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel. That’ll allow you to get a new episode every week. Like us or don’t like us, and leave a comment, good or constructively criticism.

Mark: And if it’s really, really, really mean criticism, we can delete you.

Season One title sponsor, Project Beautiful … a passionate community committed to saving lives from the terrors of human trafficking. Learn more about how you can partner with Mark, Andrew and Project Beautiful to help bring innocent lives home by visiting:

Project Beautiful: https://www.projectbeautiful.org/dinnerconversations

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