Hard-Living Outlaws and the Good Women Who Save Them: “Like Jesus Does”

The other night, I was turning the radio dial (actually now pushing the button) trying to find something worth listening to and I was drawn to some electronically-enhanced Vegas-style country singer telling a familiar tale —

Eric Church - Having a Beer On Stage - Capitol Records Street Party 2011 - Nashville, Tn by tncountryfan

I’m a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl,
I’m a back row sinner at a tent revival,
But she believes in me like she believes her Bible,
And loves me like Jesus does.
I’m a left-foot-leaning on a souped-up Chevy,
I’m a good old boy, drinking whiskey and rye on the levee,
But she carries me when my sins make me heavy,
And loves me like Jesus does.
All the crazy in my dreams, Both my broken wings,
Every single piece of everything I am, Yeah, she knows the man I ain’t,
She forgives me when I can’t,
The devil, man, no, he don’t stand a chance,
‘Cause she loves me like Jesus does.
I always thought she’d give up on me one day,
Wash her hands of me, leave me staring down some runway,
But I thank God each night, and twice on Sunday,
That she loves me like Jesus does.      (from “Like Jesus Does” by Eric Church)
          What is the “good news” here?  And is it really “Good News”?
          First, it is good that the singer acknowledges himself to be a sinner.  He is humble, it seems.  But has he been redeemed?  He says, “he is a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl”.  It seems he is lost in sin.  So where does he turn?   To Jesus?  Nope.  To the love of a good woman.  On the one hand, you have to admire that she loves him “like Jesus does”, but you also have to wonder what this means, if she believes in him [her man] “like she believes her Bible”.
          The woman’s faith is somehow strong enough to balance allegiance to God with loyalty to her “good old boy, drinking whiskey and rye on the levee.”  Her faith is strong enough even to carry him and the weight of his sins.  She believes, so he doesn’t have to.  Is this loving like Jesus does?
          Again, he admits his “craziness” and “brokenness” – essentially his need for forgiveness.  But who forgives him?  God?  Nope.  His little woman, of course, whose redemptive love is so powerful that even the devil himself doesn’t stand a chance.  All he can do is be grateful to God for her (perhaps saying a prayer on his way to the levee for more whiskey and rye).
          I must admit as much as I love classic country music, this theme of a hard-living outlaw saved by the love of a good woman is an archetype celebrated in song and even revered in life.  Take Johnny Cash and June Carter, for instance.  Until June came along, Johnny was on a sure road to destruction.  Even with her help, he lived on the outlaw edge, but with her by his side, it was if he were made complete, redeemed by her love.
           This false theology does an injustice both to God and humanity.  When we strip the story of Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross and hang it around the necks of even the best women, we commit idolatry.
            For the women, we are setting them up for abusive relationships where men can destroy themselves and those around them while the women are left behind to pray (and, of course, stand by his side).
             Men, then, are freed from the responsibility of faithful living and grow up never really growing up.
              Good news?  What do you think?
(photo above “Eric Church – Having a Beer On…” from tncountryfan)

The Death (and ultimate life) of Ivan Ilyich

In the eleventh post of Christmas, I truly give to you…

the death of ivan ilych

Leo Tolstoy’s short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is at times an excruciating book to read.  Ivan Ilyich’s callous social climbing, care-free lifestyle and heart-less unconcern for his family are difficult to bear.  When he becomes chronically ill, one almost cheers for his payback, but we are made to instead endure his unending complaints and cries for relief.  At one point in his suffering, he scolds his wife –

“For Christ’s sake let me die in peace!” he said.

She would have gone away, but just then their daughter came in and went up to say good morning. He looked at her as he had done at his wife, and in reply to her inquiry about his health said dryly that he would soon free them all of himself. They were both silent and after sitting with him for a while went away.

“Is it our fault?” Lisa said to her mother. “It’s as if we were to blame! I am sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?”

It seems nothing can be done to relieve Ivan Ilyich’s suffering (and insufferability) and it only grows steadily worse.  As the end draws near, he spends three full days simply calling out a monosyllabic cry, “Oh!”

He is lost – alone – in his struggle.  But just when it seems he will go to his grave suffering alone, his neglected son enters the room.  He becomes aware of his son’s presence.

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

“Yes, I am making them wretched,” he thought. “They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. “Besides, why speak? I must act,” he thought. with a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away…sorry for him…sorry for you too….” He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

In his deathbed confession – to his family, and to God – Ivan Ilyich finds the grace to die in peace.  The pain is still there, but he doesn’t focus on it.  He chooses instead to take the self-less path of gratitude for those who surround him, who care for him, who make it possible for him not to die alone.

As a pastor, I have seen many people at the verge of death and I’ve seen some as they died.  Some die peacefully.  Others resist.  It isn’t always the case that those who are right with God and others die a more peaceful death.  Sometimes the suffering is still agonizing.  But it makes a big difference when we can clear our slate by asking for and accepting Christ’s forgiveness and making the most of whatever time we have remaining.

I like the way one prayer I’ve said puts it,

Give us your grace, O God, to live as those prepared to die, that we may go forth to live so that, living or dying, we may always walk with you.

How about you?  Are you ready to die so you can fully live?

(image “The Death of Ivan Ilych” from  Dottie B., some rights reserved)

*****

– In the first post of Christmas, I truly gave to you…. “God is With Us (a Christmas Story based on Matthew 1.18-2.12)

– In the second post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “Assaulting a Felon with a Fruitcake.”

– In the third post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “Some of the Best Christmas Blog Posts for 2012

– In the fourth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you… “I Wonder as I Wander

– In the fifth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Be More Like a Child at Christmas (and beyond)

– In the sixth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Five Favorite Movies for the Christmas Season

– In the seventh post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “From India to Indiana: My New E-Pal

– In the eighth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “What Sam Found in His Backpack After Break (A Prompted Poem)

– In the ninth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “The Precise Dilemma: A Book Review

– In the tenth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Potentially Praiseworthy Poems Posted on WordPress

Assaulting a Felon with a Fruitcake

In the second post of Christmas, I truly give to you….

 fruitcake hat

Next to the story of Christ’s birth in the Bible and the story of Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, my third favorite Christmas story is one my cousin Tim told at our Christmas gathering this year.  In order to do it justice, I’m going to write up the dialogue that transpired as he tried to tell what happened.

Grandma (to Tim): You feeling okay?

Tim: I’m feeling fine.  Why do you ask?

Grandma: I thought you went to the hospital.

Tim: I didn’t go to the hospital.  Who told you that?

Grandma: I heard they called an ambulance to your house.

Tim:  That was for the burglar.  They took him to the hospital.

Me:  You were burglarized?

Tim:  Yeah, some guy broke in and took off with my watch, my billfold, my cell phone, my truck keys and some other stuff.

Aunt Sue:  Well, actually, he didn’t break in.  The door was open.

Tim:  Yeah, the door was open.

Me:  The door was open?  That’s not burglary.  That’s Christmas hospitality.

Tim:  Well, he did take my stuff.

Me:  Okay, that’s burglary, I guess.  Did he get away?

Tim:  No, I came running out of the house just as he was about to get in the truck.  He was out there talking to one of my neighbors.  I said, “Is this the ‘gentleman’ who just robbed me?”  Only I didn’t say “gentleman”.

{I can’t quite remember the flow of the story at this point.  I do know that the burglar, who was wearing Tim’s coat and shoes threw them on the ground, along with his wallet, keys and cell phone.  Rather than appeasing him, it only seemed to make Tim angrier.  I guess he did it in a threatening way.  Anyway, they are standing by the truck and Tim notices something on the hood.  He thinks it’s a billy-club.  Rather than waiting to see if the burglar reaches for it, he grabs it and squeezes it tightly.  It crumbles.}

Tim: ” What is this?”

Burglar: “Fruitcake.”

Tim:  “Fruitcake?  You stole somebody’s fruitcake.”  (continuing his story)  So anyway, I’m standing there and we’re squared off and I’m thinking.  “This guy’s got an athletic build.”

Molly (Tim’s daughter):  So let me get this right.  You were checking out his body?

Tim: You got to understand. Before you can fight somebody, you’ve got to size them up.  I’m thinking the guy’s got some strength.

{Ultimately, the guy takes off running.  Tim tells his neighbors to call the cops.  Then, he chases him down.  This wasn’t difficult to do because the burglar had taken Tim’s shoes off by then and Tim had put them on.  Tim caught the shoe-less bandit by a dumpster and proceeded to pound him into the pavement until the police arrived.

My uncle Geoff then read the brief blurb about the incident  from the newspaper where it said the guy  was being held on 4 charges and a $13,000 bond.  Tim was surprised it was set so low.  I think they took pity on the guy.

So here’s my take on this story.  I truly hope the guy is okay. I have to believe he is. He clearly is not a seasoned criminal or I think he would have made some better criminal-like decisions.

What I like about  the story (as a story) is how it serves as a complete antethesis to the classic novel (and now popular movie) Les Miserables.  When ex-convict Jean Valjean steals Bishop Myriel’s silverware and is caught, Valjean lies and says it was given to him.  When called upon to press charges, Bishop confirms the lie and offers him even more – costly candlesticks.   It’s an illustration of God’s abundant grace.  This grace inspires Valjean later to receive redemption.

Clearly, my cousin Tim is no Bishop Myriel.  And maybe I shouldn’t celebrate his sense of vigilante justice.  It’s just strike a human chord in me (and reminds of just how far the distance is between us and God).  As Lyle Lovett puts it in the song “God Will” –

Who keeps on trusting you
When you’ve been cheating
And spending your nights on the town
And who keeps on saying that he still wants you
When you’re through running around
And who keeps on loving you
When you’ve been lying
Saying things ain’t what they seem
God does
But I don’t
God will
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me

So who says he’ll forgive you
And says that he’ll miss you
And dream of your sweet memory
God does
But I don’t
God will
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me

(lyrics found at Cowboy Lyrics)

(image “Fruitcake hat” from Rochelle, just rochellesome rights reserved)

*****

– Introduction to – “The 12 Posts of Christmas

– In the first post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “God is With Us (a Christmas Story based on Matthew 1.18-2.12)

– In the third post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Some of the Best Christmas Blogs for 2012

– In the fourth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “I Wonder as I Wander

– In the fifth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Be More Like a Child at Christmas (and beyond)

– In the sixth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Five Favorite Movies for the Christmas Season

– In the seventh post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “From India to Indiana: My New E-Pal

– In the eighth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “What Sam Found in His Backpack After Break (A Prompted Poem)

– In the ninth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “The Precise Dilemma: A Book Review

– In the tenth post of Christmas, I truly gave to you – “Potentially Praiseworthy Poems Posted on WordPress