We cannot rush through sorrow. Walking through pain and loss and grief is like walking through water—slow, hard, and exhausting. It takes time. And it takes a toll on us. We feel trapped in confusion, surrounded by chaos.
Out of the depths have we cried unto Thee, O Lord. Out of the morgue, the hospital, the cemetery baptized with a thousand tears. Out of the rubble of our shattered lives, our dead children, our bitter grief and lacerated hearts.
Someone was once asked to pen a six-word novel.
They wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Many, including me, could have written those sad, six words.
Frank was a one-eyed dwarf who was raised by an abusive alcoholic father in a small coal-mining town where the unemployment rate was 18%. His wife of seven years left him the day before Christmas in 2008 after he lost his janitorial job at the local high school for smoking pot during his breaks.
She’s cooking breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around. No need to. More times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking like something the cat drug in.
We say it to the family who’s standing in a sea of twisted metal and broken dreams that a tornado spit out. We say it to the man who lost his job, can’t find work, and is on the verge of losing his home. We say it to the cancer patient, the pregnant teen, and our sons and daughters as they leave for war.
We carry our heavy silence from the last night's fight after the kids were tucked into bed. We carry the bladed words ripping through the one we swore to love and cherish. We carry the silence of a marriage in its death throes. We carry it to church.
We go into hiding for various reasons. We’re running from something or someone. For some, it’s a husband's fist. Others an outstanding warrant or tyrannical parents. Some of us are just trying to stay alive to see another sunrise. We know that if we stay, death by another's hand, or our own, will likely come. Whatever the reason, when we run, we nurture at least a spark of hope that, one day, we’ll be free from what pursues us.
Christianity is easily twisted into spiritualized etiquette. We learn how properly to eat at the Lord’s table. We learn how respectfully to address him. We learn how politely to carry on a conversation with him.
I don't remember her name. I can no longer hear her voice. I barely recall what she looked like. But this woman, though limping herself, carried me through six of the hardest miles of my life.
In my family room is a tree that whispers to me a secret story about Christmas. It is arrayed with colorful lights, festooned with shiny ornaments. But no matter how bright and beautiful we decorate it, the tree whispers to me its darker, secret story.
When he stepped out of his church on Christmas Day, 2011, Dan Chambers had no idea that he had just preached his final sermon at that congregation. All he knew was that he needed a vacation. He and his family were heading south, to the Texas hill country outside San Antonio. There they’d unwrap presents with family, get a little R&R, and drive back to Illinois in a week or two. That was the plan—the plan that never came to be.
My first Sunday School teacher was a pale, squat, balding man who retold dusty old Bible stories with a nasally voice and a moralistic heart. The more he taught me to be good, the more I wanted to be bad. So I’d hide from him. Under tables, behind curtains, inside closets. Sometimes he’d find me, sometimes not.
There are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce.
My Secret Struggle with Atheism: Seeking Answers to the Wrong Questions
Over the years I’ve heard churchgoers say something like, “I don’t know how those atheists make it through tough times without God in their lives.” And I’m always tempted to respond, “Oh yeah? Well, it’s been in the toughest times of my life that I’ve wished God didn’t exist.” If the fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” (Ps 14:1), then the sufferer says in his heart, “My God, my God, who have You forsaken me? Why have You forgotten me? Why have You rejected me?” (Ps 22:1; 42:9; 43:2). Why did You let my baby die? Why did You let my husband get cancer? Why did You take away my ability to walk? Why did You bring her into my life, make me drunk with joy for the first time in years, knowing full well in less than a year she’d come home one night, say she doesn’t love me anymore, and toss me aside like a piece of garbage? My God, my God, what good is Your existence if You do nothing to alleviate my pain, if You sit on Your hands while my life is falling apart? I wish there were no God, because at least then I could simply say, “Shit happens” then try to move on. But now I’m stuck trying to reconcile the existence of a God who supposedly loves me with the fact that I’m lonely and hurting and near the brink of despair and feel like God couldn’t care less.
That’s what I mean when I say that I’ve struggled with atheism. And still do. The suffering me becomes the questioning me who becomes the doubting me who becoming the unbelieving me. My prayer become the twisted version of the well-known biblical prayer for, contrary to reason and sanity itself, I pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou me not to believe.”
My hindsight is not 20/20, for when I look back on the most trying times of my life, the vision is still a bit fuzzy. But, that being said, I can at least see more clearly now than I did then. I can see that I was a major league player in the blame game, that instead of taking responsibility for my own actions, I laid my guilt on an innocent God. I can see that, during my second divorce, it wasn’t an uncaring Lord who threw me away but an uncaring woman. And I can see that I was demanding answers from heaven that, even if I had them, would never satisfy. Beneath my raw and bleeding verbal attacks on God, there pulsed a desire not for answers but for love, for comfort, for even a sip of hope in my desert of despair. It wasn’t so much that I wished God didn’t exist; I wished that the God who does exist would be the kind of God I thought I wanted Him to be.
There are questions we pose to God, especially when we’re angry or hurt or despairing, that God will never answer. There is a side to Him that is, and will always remain, hidden from us, unknown and unknowable to us. And, as hard as this is to accept, it is actually better this way. For us to try and understand the hidden part of God would be like a blind man setting out to map every inch of the world.
But there is another side to God that He has made known to us; there are questions that He has answered and will continue to answer. When we cry, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Christ answers, “My child, My child, I will never leave you, I will never forsake you,” (Deut 31:6). “You may not feel me there but I am as close to you as the breath you breathe, nearer to you than the blood in your veins. I feel your body shake as you sob; I taste your tears. Lo, I am with you always, even to the brink of despair. Even when you plummet into the pit of unbelief, I am with you. When you are faithless, I will be faithful to you, for I cannot deny myself. When your hold on hope can’t last; when you’re haunted by your past; when you’re shunned as an outcast, I will hold you fast.”
The side of God that He has made known to us is Jesus. He is the one and only revelation of the Father, the one and only revelation that we need. He doesn’t answer all our questions but He joins us in all our sufferings. And He joins us to His own sufferings. He grafts us into the tree of His flesh, that the sap of His grace may flow into us and make us what He is. He recreates us to be bone of His bone so that when His bones rise from the grave after being crucified, we too might rise in His bones to newness of life.
Most importantly, He never gives up on us. We may kick and scream and cuss and fight but, when it’s all over, He hasn’t moved an inch away from us. He is not a fair weather God. He is not a God who leaves the wounded behind. He is the Good Samaritan Savior, who dismounts, bathes and tends to our wounds, and carries us to the inn.
In the toughest times of my life I have wished that God didn’t exist. I’ve wished that I could simply become an atheist, as if that would make things better. But even in those weakest times of faith, I had a Savior whose faith in His Father atoned for my lack of faith. When I would gladly have sunk into the ocean of hopelessness, He grabbed me in His arms and swam me back to shore.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” But God says in His heart, “There is no fool that I don’t still love—yes, Chad, and yes, dear reader, even you.”
We love rags-to-riches stories.
Andrew Carnegie went to sleep as a child just to forget his hunger, but grew up to be the richest man in the world.
J. K. Rowling spent seven years scraping by before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone skyrocketed her into fame and fortune.
The lesson is simple: keep looking up, keep moving up until you reach the top. That’s the only way you’re going to make something of yourself. Our icons are the famous, the beautiful, the intelligent, the wealthy. "Everyone strives after that which is above him, after honor, power, wealth, knowledge, a life of ease, and whatever is lofty and great,” as Luther once wrote.*
Everybody wants to look up. Nobody wants to look down.
Nobody, that is, except God.
The Lord only looks down. That’s the single direction his eyes point. And what is unique about him is that the farther away from him someone is—the deeper they have sunk into oppression or grief or despair or rebellion—the more clearly he sees them.
An Eight-Month-Old Teacher
As God is prone to do, He sometimes shows us who He is through people whom we would never think of as teachers, much less imitators of God. One such teacher is the eight-month-old son of one of my friends, Michael Dennis. Michael shared this story on his Facebook wall the other day.
Today, my son was my teacher. I visited a church this morning, because my wife was hired to play violin for a Christmas service. I was holding Peter somewhat towards the back of the church, amidst a crowd. A lady walked in, apparently homeless, her face disfigured with sores. I found myself hoping she wouldn’t ask me for money or come too close. She sat down alone. The next thing I knew, Peter was staring at her, then smiling and reaching his arms out to her, as if to hug her. His attention didn’t leave her until she looked up and smiled. It suddenly hit me that his response to this woman was a picture of Advent, of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely, and to change the cold hearts of the self-righteous Pharisees like me.
Peter has not yet learned what his father and all of us grownups know: that if you look down, if you stretch out your hands toward those who are disfigured and poor and hurting and lonely and have nothing to offer you, you’re doing it all wrong. Look to the pretty woman a few pews over who’s wearing the diamond ring and the fur coat. Stretch out your tiny arms toward the CEO in the Armani suit. Reach for people who are above you, who can repay you, give you upward mobility in life, share with you in their success. Peter has not yet learned that if you’re going to do well for yourself in this life, there are certain kinds of people you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Peter has not yet learned these things, and I pray that he never will.
When I grow young, I want to be just like Peter, whose outstretched arms and grace-filled gaze speak more eloquently of God than any learned theologian ever could. He is an imitator of our Lord Jesus, who is the image of our Father above, who has eyes only for those who are below. As Michael realized, his son’s response to this woman was a picture of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely. As the mother of Jesus sang, “God has looked on the humble estate of His servant,” (Luke 1:48). Or as one of the psalms says, “He looks far down on the heavens and the earth…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” (113:6-7).
Our Lord has His ways of moving us farther below through trials and tribulations so He can see us better. “In fact,” Luther reminds us, “sometimes He even lets us fall into sin, in order that He may look into the depths even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show Himself a true Creator, and thereby make Himself known and worthy of love and praise,” (AE 21:301). When we pray, “Out of the depths have I cried unto You, O Lord,” we are right where He wants us to be (Ps 130:1).
Why? Because in those depths we hear a voice above us, beneath us, to our left and to our right, that says, “Lo, I am with you always and everywhere, but especially here. I was born in the darkness of the night that you might know that I am with you in the blackest days, in the midnight of your suffering. I was pursued by a murderous king that you might know that I am with you when your enemies hound you. I was hated and despised and rejected that you might know that I am with you when all turn their backs on you. I touched the leper so that you might know that no matter how polluted you think you are, I will embrace and hold and kiss you. I died that you might know that, even in your last hour, as you take your final breath, I am with you, will take you from this life to a better life, and will raise you up on the last day.”
God looks down, only looks down, always looks down. This is not only good news; it is the best news imaginable. Jesus left His riches to wear our rags, in order to clothe us with the riches of His grace, His forgiveness, His life, yes, even Himself. Like young Peter, the Babe of Bethlehem stretches out His arms, all the way to the cross, to embrace us with His love.
*Commentary on the Magnificat (AE: 21:300)
When your life has come to a disastrous halt, part of you feels mocked by a world that keeps on moving. You’re sitting alone at home, grieving the loss of someone you love, while down the street a family parties it up on their daughter’s wedding day. While you’re getting ready for yet another dead-end job interview, your neighbors get in their cars and drive to work every morning. And as irrational at it seems, you can’t help but think, “Don’t they know, don’t they care, what I’m going through?” In such times of darkness, even the sunrise seems a slap in the face. Give me a night, or an eclipse, or at least a cloudy day. How can the planet keep on spinning when my life has slammed into a brick wall? That’s bad enough. What’s worse is when people kick us where it hurts, grind our face in the dirt, and go on with their lives as if they’ve done nothing wrong, while we’re left writhing in our own blood. The happier and more successful they become, the more the knife twists that they’ve planted in our backs. It happens all the time in divorces. It happens at school. It happens in the workplace and, yes, in the church. And deeper are the wounds when they’re inflicted by those we trusted, even loved, and whom we thought loved us.
Joseph could tell you all about this. His father had sent him to check on his brothers and the flocks they were shepherding. But inside the hearts of these brother-shepherds the wolf of jealousy howled and growled. “Joseph, our father’s pet. Joseph, and his coat of many colors. Joseph, and his despicable dreams of all of us one day bowing down to him. Let’s give this dreamer a taste of reality.” So there lay Joseph, naked, bruised, crying for mercy, at the bottom of the pit into which his own family had tossed him like a piece of garbage.
And what did the brothers do? They sat down to eat a meal. While the echoes of their brother’s cries from within the earth sounded forth? Yes. While their own flesh and blood lay bleeding in the bottom of a pit? Yes. For Joseph, it was like a twisted version of Psalm 23, in which Thou didst prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, but it was my enemies who ate, indeed, who devoured my life, while I tasted only tears. This teenager, beloved of his father, chosen by God, on that day learned in the school of suffering just how callous people can be, including members of our own family.
What Joseph did not know, what he could not have known at the time, was that this was merely the beginning of the strange work of God in his life. From this time forward, and for many years to come, all evidence would point to the fact that the Lord had abandoned Joseph. Being thrown in the pit was but one of the many smoking guns that the prosecutor could bring forth as evidence in the court of Joseph’s heart that God was no longer active in his life, no longer loved him, no longer was with him, no longer cared one iota for him.
We’ve all had our Joseph-like days, or months, or even years. Some of you reading this are going through it right now. While you’re in a deep, dark pit the world above you goes on its merry way, enjoys its meals, has its parties, maybe even mocks your sufferings or says that you’re getting what you deserve. Not only do you feel the absence of God; it may seem to you that heaven has become your enemy.
As odd as this may sound, the one that you think has become your enemy is the only one in creation who knows perfectly how you feel. Because the very God you think has forsaken you is the person who once felt forsaken by God. When Jesus, the Son of the Father, was in the deepest, darkest throes of His own suffering, He gave voice to the ultimate cry of the human heart, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest,” (Psalm 22:1-2). Like Joseph lay in the pit while his brothers ate their meal; like you’re in your own pit while the world goes on as if nothing happened; so Jesus hung on His cross while the soldiers gambled beneath Him, His closest friends fled in fear, His enemies mocked Him, and His heavenly Father forsook Him. The Son of God dove headfirst into the pit of human suffering, lay bloody and bruised with us as we hit bottom, and joins His voice of lament to ours as we bewail our grief and loss.
But you do not only have a God who can sympathize with you, who is bound up with you in the midst of your sufferings; you have the same God as Joseph, the God who will lift you out of the pit, out of the prison, out of the gutter. He is the one who wiped the graveyard dust from His feet on a Sunday morning, who made that evidence of mortality the smoking gun of death’s demise. You have a resurrection God, who will not rest until you rest in life and hope once more. He raised Joseph from the pit, from the Egyptian jail, to newness of life. He raised Jacob from the sorrow of Sheol to joy in life once more when he was told Joseph was alive in Egypt. He is an Good Friday God, to be sure, a God whose strange work involves putting to death that in us which is contrary to Him. But He is also an Easter God, whose loving work is sustaining us, healing us, raising us up.
The life of Joseph is understood only within the life of Jesus. And your life is no different. Joseph and you and me, we’re all part of a larger story, the story of the God who became one of us, became intimately acquainted with our griefs and sorrows and losses, redeemed us to be His own by the most cruel death imaginable, then raised up on the third day to a life that will not, and cannot, end. Our lives—full of ups and downs, gains and losses, births and funerals—are hidden within the life of Christ, who suffers with us, rises with us, and goes to hell and back to make sure we make it to heaven with Him.
The highway was a spectacular sheet of ice. I was the seventeen-year-old behind the wheel. And I had pretty much everything in life figured out. I was that good.
Here’s what you do. First, you put weight in the back of the truck. So early that morning I loaded several bales of alfalfa hay in the bed of my Ford. Bingo. That’d do the trick. Next, when you’re driving on ice, you take your sweet time. So I did, crawling along the shiny sheet of asphalt like grandma on a Sunday drive. Next, if you must hit the brakes, you just tap them. Don’t lock them down or you’ll find yourself on winter’s version of a slip-and-slide.
See, I knew what to do: weigh the truck down, drive slow, tap brakes. Simple. It may have been a nasty day in the Texas panhandle, but I was in control of the situation.
And then there came this hill. The hill with a menacing 45 degree curve at the bottom. The hill I had no choice but to slow down for. So ever so lightly I tapped my brakes. And, in a heartbeat, my drive to school became a carnival ride. Down the hill I went, the Ford suddenly an automotive ballerina, spinning round and round. I blacked out or freaked out or both. The next thing I remember was blinking at my driver’s side window, for I all saw were frozen blades of grass, and out of the passenger’s window only a grayish morning sky. There I lay, my truck on its side, in the ditch, after I’d done everything right. I was seventeen years old. And I was learning a very important lesson about the illusion of control.
I escaped unscathed that day, though my Ford was pretty beat up. But that was one of many lessons I’ve learned about control and its illusory appeal. In some of my other lessons, things didn’t end nearly so well. They didn’t kill me, but I stumbled away with injuries to the heart and soul from which I will never completely recover. And given what I know about myself, perhaps that’s best. Like Jacob, maybe I need to limp. Like Paul, maybe I need a thorn in the flesh. Some of us need scars, inward as well as outward, as a constant reminder that we are not in control.
It’s one thing for your life to spin out of control when you’re flagrantly breaking every law God ever made, but what about when you’re really trying to do God’s will? The day I wrecked my truck, I followed all the right steps. Then came the icy hill and my illusion of control was shattered. And so it goes in life. You do everything you can think of to be a good wife, to make your husband happy, but he still prefers bars and blondes over evenings with you. You take your children to church and Sunday School; teach them good manners and a hard work ethic and chastity; warn them over and over about the dangers of drugs and alcohol; and still they end up sleeping with God knows who, snorting God knows what, and basically wrecking their lives. You hit the gym, eat right, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, still look pretty darn good in a swimsuit, then find out in your mid-40’s that you’ve got stage four cancer. You discover—as a spouse, a parent, a child of this world—that you were in control of nothing. It was all an illusion.
Some well-meaning friend will likely tell you, Don’t worry. God’s in control. Like that’s supposed to help. So, you’ll think, God is the one who orchestrated my husband’s infidelities? God is the one in control of my child who’s strung out on cocaine? God is the one who caused my cancer? The Lord is the sadist behind all this pain and disappointment and heartache and loss and grief? He’s in control? Well, now, isn’t that a relief, to know that heaven itself has made my life a living hell.
Know this: it’s not a matter of who’s in control in this life—you, God, some nameless power in the universe, or none of the above. Focus on control and you’ll end up with nothing but confusion and frustration and disappointment. It’s not about who’s in control in this life but whose you are in this life. It’s about the Christ who claims you as His own, who has promised to be with you every step of the way in a life that often spins seemingly out of control.
Jesus knows a thing or two about a life that’s full of more downs than ups, about a life punctuated by physical and emotional disasters, about friends who’d rather sleep than help Him in His greatest time of need, about the forked tongues of foes who parade around spreading slander, about family members who think He’s gone off the deep end, about pains of body and soul that just keep getting worse. He’s walked that walk. If anyone has been in your shoes, Jesus has.
But He’s not just able to sympathize with you, to tell you He knows how you feel. That’s fine and dandy, but you need more. And He gives you more. He says, “Listen, you can’t do this alone. I’m going to merge the two of us into one, so that whatever you suffer, I suffer; whoever trashtalks you, trashtalks me; whenever it feels like you’re freefalling into the yawning pits of a hellish depression from which you’ll never recover, I’ll be there to hold you and help you through it until you emerge from that pit into the light of hope once more. I’m not a halfass God. I’m in this with you, for you, in you totally. I sunk you into me in those baptismal waters. I found you in the font and you found me. I made you mine and me yours. Hell can rage all it wants, but it can’t pry you from my grasp. I’ve got your back and your front, your heart and your soul, all the way down to the inner core of your being. I am yours and you are mine. Nothing and no one can separate us.”
You see, everything good that belongs to Jesus belongs to you, and everything bad about you belongs to Jesus. Not just your sins and shortcomings, but your sufferings, your losses, your rebellious children, your cheating husband, your backstabbing brethren, your cancer, your everything. Forget control; you’ve got Christ. And He’s not about control but about saving you, loving you, holding you when your life spins out of control.
And that’s no illusion. That’s the real thing, the real promise, from the real Christ.
He hadn’t sinned one single time in a whopping 24 years. We were standing at the gas pumps, late one Saturday night, in my home town of Shamrock, when he informed me of this biographical detail. I was a teenager, fueling my pickup for a night on the town, when this stranger approached me and struck up a conversation. He was a preacher, in town to lead a revival at one of the gazillion churches that dotted our Bible Belt community. I suppose he was out doing his own kind of evangelizing that evening, and, for some reason, I had the look of a potential convert. I asked for clarification, and, he affirmed, straight-faced, vehemently confident, that it had been one score and four years that he had lived sin-free. To this day, looking back, I wish I’d have had a flash of inspiration, and hauled back and bloodied his nose right then and there, just to test his ability to withstand temptation.
I’ve never gone 24 days without sinning. Or 24 hours. Or 24 minutes, for that matter. And neither had that man, his claims notwithstanding. I don’t know whether he was a lunatic, or worse, a hypocrite, but he was certainly one more self-deluded spiritual type who looked at the law of God as a cow stares at a new gate-- seeing but not understanding. The Lord of the law makes things difficult for us, for He not only requires outward obedience but inward obedience. Indeed, He demands inward delight in His “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Not only must I refrain from murdering someone, even my worst enemy, but I must love him, put his interests ahead of my own, nurse him back to health if necessary, and rejoice in the life that is his. Not only must I not commit adultery, I must refrain from lusting after the body of any woman, not matter how tiny her bikini, no matter how my hormones rage, and simultaneously defend and uphold sexual purity and marital fidelity amongst all. With my mouth and my hands, in my heart and my mind, at work and home and school and church, and even in those thoughts that I alone entertain, there must be complete and uninterrupted love toward God and love towards my neighbor, a selfless devotion toward the good and an utter rejection of all that is bad.
That all being said, come to think of it, I’ve never gone 24 seconds without sinning.
But each person has his particular demon, or demons, that assault him most. Perhaps it’s pride, or lust, or selfishness for you. Maybe it takes the form of drugs or alcohol abuse, or a string of promiscuous liaisons. Maybe it’s your mouth, for gossip and slander are your bread and butter. Unless, like the preacher from my youth, you’re self-delusional, you know what lurks beneath. You know the beast within. And though you stab it with your steely knives, it keeps rising from the grave to attack you again.
Here’s the sobering truth: it’s a lifelong war. There will be no truce between the good desires and bad desires within you. Evil will wave no white flag. Don’t imagine you can arrest your demons, shackle them, put them behind bars, then spend the rest of your life in peaceful bliss. God calls you to combat, to warfare of the spirit, to holy violence against the demons within. I so often forget that. For the slothful soul within me is enamored with an easy, lazy Christianity, that says I'll just go ahead and cave to temptation, then Jesus will absolve me. But such an attitude, that supposes the Gospel is a permission slip to sin, is nothing more than a self-taught lie. God calls you to constant vigilance, for He knows that this life is a war zone. Unsheathe your knife, and kill the beast within over and over and over, for peace is completely attained only on the other side of the grave.
As you fight, cling also to this all-encompassing truth of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth has paid, in His own blood, for each and every failure on your part to live up to God’s law. He forgives you, and He will continue to forgive you, no matter what, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how flagrant your trespass. He is not a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of God. When the beast within overcomes you, He will wash you in the blood of the Lamb. When your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, indeed, when it doesn't exceed that of the porn star and meth cook, He will strip away the filthy rags of your own righteousness and clothe you in His own white, regal raiment. When sloth and lust and greed and addiction have their way with you; when, try as you might, you eventually give in to the allurements of the world and your own flesh; He stands there with a face full of love, saying, "Come to me, all you who stink and are stained and hate what you've done, and I will forgive you, wash you, feed you, let you sleep in my own bed, and I'll sit beside you as you dream of the reality that is no dream, namely, that you are my own dear child."
I stand forgiven. I stand armed. And these two truths stand in harmony, united by the Christ who dwells within me, both as Savior and Warrior.
I could sing darn near every word of every Hank Williams’ song years before I ever heard of a certain foreigner named Bach. Like it was yesterday, I can still see my mom walking through our front door with my first, very own 45 in her hand: “The Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers. Yes, my mom’s love of Elvis Presley, and our Sunday morning Baptist hymn-singing added a splash of diversity to my musical diet, but the staples remained Hank, Johnny, Patsy, and George. To borrow a line from Barbara Mandrell, “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” Over the years, I’ve sampled just about every musical genre. When I was a prof in Fort Wayne, I sat straight-backed through Bach Cantatas at the seminary chapel and slouched in a smoky, hole-in-the-wall bar soaking in the Blues. In college I had a brief love-affair with CCM, rocked through a Petra concert, and piously shunned all that “pagan, secular stuff.” These days, push any of my radio preset buttons and you might hear Beethoven, Brad Paisley, or Pitbull. But my first love is, and will no doubt remain, those earthy songs about mommas and trains, cheatin’ hearts and neon lights.
It may be too lowbred or crude for some people’s tastes, but that in-your-face honesty of country music is irresistible to me. Especially in songs about shattered lives and broken promises, you’ll find no sugar-coating of suffering, but stark lyrics oozing with pain and regret. The young man who, to relive memories of better times, drives the truck of his brother who never returned from the war ("I Drive Your Truck"). The dad who parks a few houses down from the house, the wife, the kids, and the dog that used to be his, before another man came along and stole them all away ("Who's that Man"). And more recently, a song by Gary Allan that tells of a man in the middle of a church, where the “walking wounded tell their stories.” As he began to tell his own, “a man started talking how the devil and the bottle was ruining [his] life.” But he stands up and cuts that man off with this litany of denial:
It ain't the whiskey. It ain't the cigarettes. It ain't the stuff I smoke. It's all these things I can't forget. It ain't the hard times. It ain't the all nights. It ain't that easy. It ain't the whiskey that's killin' me.
This chorus digs below the surface to reveal that beneath our chosen self-medications, be they alcohol or drugs or overeating or smoking or bed-hopping, you’ll unearth the real killer. And “it ain’t the whiskey.”
It’s all these things I can’t forget. What’s that thing you can’t forget? For me, especially this time of year, it’s a Thanksgiving a few years back. The beautiful autumn colors of Cincinnati had already been defaced by winter’s browning paintbrush. The handful of folks who knew me in that city were busy with their own lives and families, watching fumbles and touchdowns with bellies stuffed with turkey. My young son and daughter were a thousand miles away, living with my soon-to-be-ex wife. The demons were having a heyday, turning the inside of my head into a kitchen where they cooked up a stew choked full of regret and shame and lust and vengeance and hatred—a dish of despair served on my one-plate Thanksgiving table. And let me tell you, I ate it. In fact, I shoveled it in. Then I washed it down with a glass of whiskey, then another, then plenty more, till the bottle was as empty as the tragic farce my life had become. But it ain’t the whiskey that was killing me. It was all those things I couldn’t forget.
What do you turn to, when your sole mission is to dull the pain and silence the screams within? Yes, there’s the beer or the whiskey or the vodka or whatever poison your palate prefers. There’s the marijuana or the meth or the cocaine that can temporarily transform your pain-racked life into something bearable or temporarily ecstatic. Or, you can skulk around the meat markets to find willing partner after willing partner to get naked with and pound away at each other’s bodies, until the passing, orgasmic pleasure gives way to lasting, depressing pain. There’s a list a mile long of these pseudo-sacraments for the sinner, but they all offer the same thing: a god without divinity, giving medicine without healing, to sufferers without hope. It ain’t the whiskey that’s the problem. Nor is it the whiskey that’s the solution.
The down-and-out, heartbroken man in that Gary Allan song, goes on to sing:
So what do you got for this empty spot inside of me? The deep dark hole where love used to be. Before she ripped it out and ran into the arms of someone else. Y'all sit in this room and you talk like you got some kind of remedy. Well I hear what you're telling me, But I've got all the proof I need.
What have you got for this empty spot inside of me? I’ve got lots of fine-sounding words that I could pour inside that deep, dark hole where love used to be. I’ve got all those pseudo-sacraments whereby you can attempt to swallow or smoke or snort or screw your way out of that pit. But words and self-medications ain’t gonna cut it. If there’s an emptiness within you, left there by a love-gone-wrong, a life-gone-dead, a career-gone-south, there’s only one thing that can fill it, fill it to the max, and fill it with peace. And that thing is not a thing. Nor it is a belief or philosophy or religion or meditation technique. It is a person.
What have you got for this empty spot inside of me? I got nothing, but let me tell you who does. God does. And not some divinity who’ll cheerlead you from the sidelines as you get your life back on the straight and narrow. This God is a man, a healer, who makes house calls, or bar calls, or whorehouse calls, or wherever you might be. He comes to you, as you are, wherever you are. The highest honor ever bestowed upon him was when his fiercest enemies branded him a “friend of sinners.” That he is, for nobody’s so lost that he can’t find them. Nobody’s so vile or perverted or hateful that he won't wrap his arms around them. Nobody’s so depressed or lonely or heartbroken that he can’t love them back to life. You got a deep, dark hole in your life? He’s vast enough to fill life’s biggest chasm, radiant enough to enlighten the darkest pit, patient enough to smother the hottest fires of anger. Jesus is the only true sacrament, the wine of whose love produces a sober intoxication of lasting peace no bottle under heaven can give.