In 1907, when young Adolf was sipping a cup of coffee outside a corner shop in Vienna, he wasn’t plotting how he could murder six million Jews. He was pondering his next watercolor painting, dreaming about becoming an artist.
She was dressing when his letter arrived. It was twenty minutes till nine. It was the day of her wedding. And it was the day, the hour, and the minute that were to cast a pall over the remainder of her life. For the man to whom she had given her heart, and dared to trust, had defrauded her, and abandoned her before the altar. Shattered and humiliated, she had every clock in her home frozen at 8:40 a.m. Her daily attire became the yellowed, tattered wedding dress of her ruined youth. And the cake, that sweet, edible emblem of joy, remained uneaten, sitting crisscrossed by cobwebs atop the kitchen table. She is Miss Havisham, one of the most eccentric of Charles Dickens' characters in Great Expectations. And she is a model worshiper in the religion of regret. For her devotion is to a past that will not allow her to live fully in the present, much less to delight in a future. For in Miss Havisham’s religion, hope is the unforgivable sin.
Those of you who have been so blessed as to avoid sinking into a quagmire like the one in which she found herself, might think I exaggerate when I call regret a religion. But I beg to differ. I was a faithful member of this morbid cult for a few years, and I assure you that it so envelops a person's existence that calling it anything short of a religion underestimates the devotion it demands.
As with so many things, regret can begin as something natural, even beneficial, as you struggle to recover from a wound in your past. But over time, regret can devolve from a sadness to a sickness. It was as if I buried myself in the sands of that time of self-inflicted pain and all that marched on into the future was a shadow of my former self. Outwardly alive but inwardly deceased. For the rest of the world, time ticked on, but the hands on the clocks in my head and heart were all handcuffed to that moment.
The odd thing is that, as depressing as this captivity to regret is, we who have suffered through it tend to deify it. It becomes our lord, a god who demands, and usually gets, our all. It is a baptism of ice, which freezes us to the past. Our sacraments are scab-picking and wound-licking, our sacred text the story of our life’s undoing. We read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the bible of our betrayal. Our hearts blather out doleful songs of lament, the refrain of which is always, “If only, if only, if only….”
But the whole time that lament is sung, there is another song, full of enlivening music, that also chants, “If only….” It goes something like this: “If only you would come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And, “If only you would remove that funereal wedding dress, I would deck you out in robes of joy, for I would clothe you with my righteousness and life.” And, “Trash that cobwebbed cake and, here, ‘Take, eat, this is my body, given for you; take, drink, this is my blood, shed for you, that in me you might have peace and love and more hope than you ever dreamt of.’” It is the voice of Jesus calling, not worlds but inches away, ever present in the midst of your grief, never giving up on you, ceaselessly beckoning you to life again.
The religion of regret is a religion of falsehood, for its ultimate claim is that there is no more hope in this life. But Jesus is hope embodied, the flesh-and-blood hope of a God who raises the dead. And if he can enliven even a corpse, he can certainly raise you from the grave in which you have entombed yourself under the sands of regret. But he does more than make you alive. He is your life. In him you live and move and have your being. In him you become heaven’s child, one who bears the divine image. And your clocks tick on, unfrozen from the past, counting the days and hours and minutes until you have finally passed through this life of trials, and enter into your Father’s house, where happiness truly knows no end.
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.