If our prayers were hooked up to a polygraph during certain seasons of our lives, we’d be revealed as liars.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of my children sat down next to Matthew McConaughey on a flight from San Antonio to L.A. There they were, a regular gal and the Hollywood heartthrob, inches away.
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.
Kent and I slept through the same sermons every Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Shamrock, Texas. Our butts bruised their way down many a ski slope together. We hunted turkeys by day and raccoons by night. And we bragged about how many girls we'd kissed (though I'm pretty sure we both grossly inflated the numbers). His older brother dated my older sister, and, especially in middle school, we both greatly delighted in being as obnoxious as possible when we were around them. Kent was a little guy but a force to reckoned with on the football field or basketball court. He was smart, likable, an overall good kid and great friend. I was unloading a truck at the feed store in town when my mom pulled up one day in late December to tell me that, on his birthday, Kent had put a gun to his head and pulled shut the door to life. Were I to outlive Methuselah, it would still seem like yesterday. It’s one of those moments welded into my memory. Shock and fear and anger and guilt and emotions I didn’t even know were in me—they all came cascading out. A few days later, I, but a teenager, helped bear his teenage casket out of the church, into a world that blinked at us with a potpourri of festive lights that seemed a blasphemy of joy in the vortex of our grief.
Almost a decade later, the parsonage phone rang way too early one Saturday morning. I knew the instant Dale began to speak that whatever he said next would be wounded words. A police officer had knocked on the door of the family's country home earlier that morning. Dale and Roxie's twenty year old son had fallen asleep at the wheel, hit a guardrail, and been thrown from his pickup. Snow and ice blanketed the town on the day we laid Dewayne’s body to rest. It was December 26. And the day before, as I and my fellow mourners at St. Paul Lutheran church pretended to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, every happy hymn, every joyful carol, was dragged from our lips like a dirge, and the sanctuary liquefied into one vast sea of tears.
I think, for most people, Christmas is the best of times and the worst of times. When I was a boy, I was unacquainted with the cruel nonchalance with which evil disregards the festival calendar. I knew nothing of tear-laden birthday parties and pill-popping Christmases. I sat on Santa’s lap and told him what I wanted under the tree. My family was all together on that happy morning. We all had colorful wrapping paper strewn about our feet when it was all over, new toys to play with, a feast to consume. Christmas was the best of times. And for those sweet boyhood memories, I am everlastingly grateful.
But I know now the darker side of Christmas, the gloom beneath the glitter, a side many of you reading this know all too well. Every December I think of the family of Kent, and the family of Dewayne, and the what-might-have-been memories that must rise to the surface every time the tree goes up and carols flood the airwaves. And though the grief is of a different kind, I think of all the families of broken marriages, of which mine is a part. The Hallmark scene of eager children waking their mom and dad early on Christmas morning to open the gifts isn’t possible when dad is living hours away, and mom’s newest boyfriend doesn’t appreciate some kid jumping in bed with them, especially when he’s nursing a hangover.
Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road. No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn. When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth? On rough hay littered with cow crap? Where’d they get light? Warm water? Cloths to clean up the blood? It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night. The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene. This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.
And yet it was. Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the shit of this world, God was born.
That’s a Christmas story I like, for it’s one I can identify with. More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, shitty stories of Christmases that seem anything but joyful. For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.
For Christmas is not about presents. It’s not even about family and friends. It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our griefs, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find in our griefs and sorrows him. There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry. How fitting is that? God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death. You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it.
All I want for Christmas is a God like that.
If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. From now to the end of 2014, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, are on sale for an additional 25% off through CreateSpace. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or herefor The Infant Priest. When you check out, enter this code, YLECQSWE, for the discount. Thank you!