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.