A Theology of Hangovers




      I'm writing this while nursing a hangover.

      I better explain.

      At our church's staff meeting this week, we were discussing how God gets our attention: how information translates into revelation, and we finally cry out, "I get it!" Susan, my assistant, made a stunning remark: "There is a little revelation in every hangover." Susan knows this personally – she celebrated 7 years sobriety recently; and she knows it vocationally – she's been at the helm of our church's recovery ministries the past 3 years.

      There is a little revelation in every hangover. There awaits every spending spree a bill to pay. There lies the back end of every wild party a mess to clean up. Built into every session of internet porn is a bitter aftertaste. Mixed in, at no extra charge, to every 12-pack of beer and every 26er of Vodka and every line of coke is a whirligig that spins you around and around and around until sky and earth and sea churn molten in your belly.

      And when you hold the bill, or stoop to pick up the garbage, or turn off the computer, or step off the whirligig, a small revelation bursts on your awareness. It may come in the form of grief, or longing, or resolve. It may come in the form of burning anger or harrowing sadness or piercing clarity. But at that moment, if only for a moment, you realize, This isn't working. I can't keep doing this. Enough is enough.

      That moment, alas, can come and go a dozen times, a hundred, before you ever actually do anything about it. But one day the weight of it nearly crushes you. All the little revelations accumulate into a truth so big, so inescapable, you must and you will obey it at all costs.

      Are you nursing a bit of a hangover? It might not be alcohol-induced. Maybe's it's gossip-induced. Anger-induced. Pride-induced. Maybe it's from coveting, or envying, or self-pity. I'm using – you've figured this out by now – hangover in a very broad sense. I mean the downside of the upside, the sickening aftermath of what seemed like a good idea at the time, the unpleasant consequences of what was fun while it lasted.

      I write this while nursing a hangover. Mine? It's induced by a habit I picked up way back and haven't broken yet: to hear criticism, and think the worse. To hear someone's unhappy, and conclude everyone is. To hear a single complaint, and add a chorus line. To race to worst case scenario on the strength of a mere shadow or rumor.

      It's never got me anywhere. It's never proven to be the case. It takes a lot of energy. It saps my strength to actually deal with the problem.

      But there's a little bit of revelation in every hangover, and I'm about done with this.

      How's your hangover coming along?

You’ll Never be Replaced but….







I’ve been thinking a lot about my upcoming sabbatical starting February 1. I’ve been thinking about how the staff and church where I pastor will fare without me. And I’ve been trying to do as Paul advises in Romans 12:3 – to not think of myself more highly than I ought, but rather to judge myself soberly. Paul’s Greek word for soberly can be rendered sanely. Have a sane, not a crazy cockeyed, view of yourself, he’s saying. Look clear-eyed at who you are, with neither hubris nor false modesty. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know your limits. Know your place.

     So I said to myself, self, you are not irreplaceable.

     And self, or Spirit, or somesuch, answered back: No, you are irreplaceable. You’re just not indispensable.

     I’d never before considered the difference between those two things, irreplaceability and indispensability. I always thought they were the same thing.

     They’re not. Everyone is, by definition, irreplaceable. There’s no one quite like you, or me. If I died or quit, I couldn’t be replaced. There are just not enough short bald motorcycle-riding, scuba-diving, loud-mouthed 51-year old pastor-writers with 3 children and a wife of 26 years named Cheryl available to step into the role.

     What a relief.

     But none of us is indispensable. Everyone, by the unbending laws of nature, will one day not be here, yet the world will still turn, tides will still ebb and flow, bad movies will still be made, and somewhere, someday, McDonald’s will serve its trillionth hamburger (they’re now around 250 billion).

    And all this without you.

    If I died or quit, the church could easily find someone to take my role, better than me in some ways, horrifically, tragically inadequate in others (it’s hard to imagine, for instance, anyone doing a better impersonation of a Scottish highlander).

     This little distinction helps me. We are all irreplaceable – which, to some measure, is good news: do we ever want another Idi Amin? If your dog died, and you got another, would you want every last quality of the last one replicated in the next one? If your spouse… well, you get where I’m going. We’re all irreplaceable.

     But we’re not a one of us indispensable – which, by all measures, is good news: do you want the business or ministry or family that you are part of now to cease to exist, or to fall to pieces, when you’re not here?

     So for five and a half months starting in February, I’ll have to miss my church, and they me, and realize that there’s no fitting substitute for any of us.

     No one will replace you.

     No one will replace me.

     And for those same 5 months, we’ll all do just fine.


Struggling into Wakefulness

I had a funny idea (it happens every so often): to preach a sermon series called Against the dwarfs (as a sequel to our church’s current series, Against the gods). It would be 7 sermons that take the dominant trait of each of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy, Bashful, Doc – and explore how that trait represents something amiss in our culture: our slavish dependence on the pharmaceutical-medical complex (Doc), or our chronic apathy (Sleepy), or our media-induced and substance-enhanced false cheer (Happy), or our over-consumption of over-refined foods that deprives us of natural antigens (Sneezy), or our destructive gullibility (Dopey), and so on.

       I’m only half kidding.

       The Against the gods series has given me fresh eyes to see how our culture warps or counterfeits God’s good gifts. The world, Paul says, tries to “squeeze us into its mould” (Romans 12:2; J.B. Philips version). Preaching about the gods – Mammon, Eros, Bacchus, and the like – has sharpened my discernment of that. I can see with greater clarity the many jarring misalignments between the Kingdom and the world.

       I am not by nature a finger-pointer. I don’t find demons under every stone. I don’t walk around in scornful disapproval of all I see. But I do have a growing sense that we are being half-seduced, half-bludgeoned into agreement with beliefs and practices that wither the life Jesus came to give us.

       Let’s resolve otherwise.

       A friend of mine recently drew my attention to Luke 9:32, part of the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. J.B. Philips (again) renders it well: “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep and it was as they struggled into wakefulness that they saw the glory of Jesus.”

       It was as they struggled into wakefulness that they saw the glory of Jesus.

       That is a good measure how awake you are: how clearly you see the glory of Jesus. Does his glory – who he is and what he’s done – shine brighter and brighter in your eyes? Or are you having trouble seeing? We used to sing a hymn with this potent line, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

       If you’re finding the opposite – that the earth gets brighter as Jesus fades – then struggle into wakefulness.

The Voices in Your Head

Cheryl and I watched The Beaver recently, a strange piece of movie-making starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster (who directed it). It did poorly in theaters and is certainly not flying off shelves in DVD format. Gibson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance, though his current persona non grata status in Hollywood rules out any such recognition. And anyway, it’s an odd tale, at points straining credibility: a domestic drama by turns goofy and tragic. In places, it is dark as a Hamlet, and in others as preposterous as a Marx Brothers slapstick.

            The story: Walter Black (Mel Gibson) has been in a two-year depression so deep that he’s lost all bearings. He sits and stares. His exasperated wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), gives him the boot, to the dismay of their younger son and the approval of their older one. Walter plans to drink himself into a stupor and then end it all. But on his course to oblivion, he discovers in a dumpsterThe Beaver – a toothy whiskered hand puppet with coal-black eyes and fake mangy fur. Fitted onto his left hand, The Beaver takes on a life of its own. It begins talking to Walter in an Aussie accent, scolding, consoling, cajoling. Suddenly, Walter is back, and then some: ideal father, romantic husband, brilliant corporate executive, overnight media sensation. Only, it’s not really Walter: the sad little man is still curled up deep inside himself, terrified and bewildered. It’s The Beaver, who speaks for Walter and to him.

            Well, 2 hours of this gets a bit much.

            But all through, I kept thinking of David’s thrice-repeated refrain in Psalms 42 and 43:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God (42:5,11; 43:5).

David is talking to David. David’s God-soaked self is talking to David’s God-starved self. The man who can’t get out of bed is being chided and coaxed, prodded and wooed, welcomed and challenged, by the man who can advance troops and scale walls (Psalm 18:29). The man who’s met God exhorts the man who’s lost him. The man who knows he’s loved whispers to the man who feels abandoned.

            I do this. I don’t resort to hand puppets for it, but I let that part of me who is intimate with God speak to that part of me who is estranged from him. If I don’t, I stumble into darkness. If I hand the bullhorn to that part of me that is doubtful, confused, self-pitying, blaming (you get the idea), I am in big trouble before noon. But if I put the microphone at the lips of that part of me that is trusting, clear-minded, confident, responsible, we do just fine.

            Admit it: we all have voices in our head.

            Which one do you let do the talking?