At our house, we’re still chewing our way through the leftover candy from Halloween. Maybe that’s why I’m in the mood for a ghost story. I thought of a novel I read a little over a year ago by Steve Earle. If you follow Americana music, you already know Steve Earle from his prolific and poignant songwriting. Since his songs are often narrative in form, it’s not too surprising that he would eventually get around to writing a full-blown novel. But, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is not just a novel. It’s also a ghost story.
It is 1963 and Doc Ebersole’s life has been wrecked by addiction. He’s lost his medical license and lives in a rented room on the wrong side of San Antonio. But that isn’t his biggest problem. His biggest problem is that he is haunted both figuratively and literally. He is haunted by regret from past failures. He is also haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams.
The iconic singer was once both friend and patient. Rumor has it that Doc gave Hank Williams the final dose of morphine that ended his life. Now that Doc has his own morphine habit to support, he is also the recipient of annoying visitations. The angry ghost of Hank Williams shows up at the most inopportune times to heckle him and to remind him that redemption can be insufferable work.
After one of Hank’s visits, Doc is reminded of his classic song, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. He muses about the difference between being lonely and the much more tragic condition of being lonesome.
“Lonely,” Doc finally decided, is just “a temporary condition … like when you’re far away from home and you miss the people you love and it seems like you’re never going to see them again. But you then you do and you’re not lonely anymore.”
“Lonesome is a whole other thing. It’s incurable. It’s a hole in your heart you could drive a semi truck through and nothing can fill it up because you dug it yourself.”
Maybe Hank Williams’ classic song is so sad because it touches on an undeniable truth: It’s one thing to feel alone because someone left you. It’s “a whole other thing” to feel alone because you were the one who did the leaving.
The Gospel story of sin and redemption takes this difference into account. The human condition is not just loneliness. It is not only that God feels distant to us. It is also living with the vague awareness that beginning with Adam and Eve on down to our own most recent foibles, we push God away.
The Christian doctrine of sin simply says that we are not just lonely. We’re lonesome. All of us are sitting at the bottom of deep, dark hole we have dug ourselves. It’s more than a temporary condition. It’s incurable. It is a hole we can’t fill.
The Christian doctrine of redemption simply says that God’s gracious response – incarnation, cross, resurrection – is appropriate to the severity of our condition. In Christ, we discover God sitting with us in the dank, darkness of a hole we have dug ourselves. In Christ, we see God suffering for us, bearing our burden and sharing with us the hard work of redemption.
Maybe Steve Earle had something of this in mind when he wrote this song …