According to Johnny Cash, he’s been “everywhere man,” including “Chaska.” For most people that name won’t register at all, but for me—well that’s the Minnesota town of my childhood. We moved away when I was eight. Since then I’ve only heard it mentioned twice in popular culture. Once it was on the lips of the man-in-black himself: Johnny Cash. The second time was in the Coen brothers film ‘Fargo.’ It turns out that ‘Hooker #1’ (as named in the credits) mentions that she’s from Chaska. I’m sure the local Chamber of Commerce loved that mention.
And now I’ve bumped into another mention. I recently read the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and found out that Cheryl and I both lived our early years—even overlapping—in Chaska. It was at the Lutheran church there that I was baptized. It was in my home and at that church that I was first given the good-goods of Jesus; goods for me and for all. Yet in that same town and in those same years Cheryl Strayed did not receive the same.
But the book isn’t primarily about that town or her early years there. It's a memoir of her broken life: her missing father, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death, her affairs, her own divorce, more affairs, her drug use, and an abortion. And it's about how at age 26 she decided to backpack the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,659-mile-long foot-trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through the mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington.
I didn’t care for the 2014 movie based on the book because of the particular themes it highlighted, but the book grew on me. I found in it a young stray I’d like to have met; I found the author before she had the time and the help from Hollywood to gild her guilt or varnish her despair.
With amazing and unnerving transparency the author talks about the mess of her young life. When it comes to moral failings she has a way of naming them but then glossing them over, or simply changing the subject. For example, Strayed describes some of her preparations for hiking the the PCT:
I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.
Whoa. Wait a second. Since you brought it up, can we skip the jerky and dehydrated tuna flakes distractions and talk a bit more about the abortion?
Making matters more disturbing, there was a healthy dose of I-can’t-regret-but-can-only-celebrate-the-dark-episodes-that-make-me-what-I-am-today spread throughout the book and particularly at the book’s end.
But again, the book presented a different side as well: the unvarnished despair.
Strayed wrote about the days leading up to her mother’s death:
I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who’d not given me any religious education... [N]ow she was dying and I didn’t even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then faltered.
She wrote of her wanderings in the wilderness:
I felt right in my pushing [along the trail], as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.
Cheryl Stayed—that young stray—was fully broken and in need of comfort and cleansing.
Beware the lament, dear reader. For while the law can and does decimate the false idols, false hopes, and false worship in our lives it does not bring with it the good-goods of Jesus.
In Cheryl’s case the law worked to dash the false, though understandable, idol she had fashioned out of her mother’s presence and love. Yet on the heels of this lament, without the good-goods of Jesus bringing comfort and cleansing, she appears to have filled her life with a host of new idols, new hopes, and new places of worship.
Her story reminded me of Jesus’ warning from Matthew 12:43-45a:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.
Beware the seven other spirits more evil than the first.
And beware the lament, dear readers, that is not soothed with the good-goods of Jesus. For without the good-goods of Jesus, one false idol may be driven out. Yet it may well return with seven others ready to take up residence, and the last state of that person will be worse than the first.
But our Lord gives you to those who do lament. And the good news about you is that He has put the good-goods of Jesus—which is the Gospel—on your lips for the ears, minds, hearts, and lives of these mourners. We once were strays but have now been comforted, cleansed, and brought home as dear children to the dear Father through the death and resurrection of Jesus. May we now tread the highways, byways, PCTs, and the many other paths our neighbors walk prepared to share the same good-goods of Jesus with every stray who laments—every stray Our Father labors to bring in out of wild-despair and into His home, His comfort, and His family.