Cemeteries have an uncanny ability to zip the lips of the optimist. And the younger the deceased, the more mute the optimist becomes.
When I need to pray the most is usually when my tongue tucks its tail and runs away. I’m left wordless. Rather than a prayer warrior, I feel like a prayer deserter.
Someone was once asked to pen a six-word novel.
They wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Many, including me, could have written those sad, six words.
I remember two things about Ms. Sally: she wore a hat to church every Sunday and the grownups were always whispering serious things about her.
In a couple of days, many pastors and priests will stand at the altar holding up a grey thumb, like hitchhikers waiting to ride shotgun with Jesus. It’s Ash Wednesday, A sea of smudged foreheads. Kids smearing black all over themselves, mom and dad, and the back of the pew. All in all, it’s the dirtiest day in the church year.
Over a million people are buried there in unmarked graves. Only one, the first child in New York City who died of AIDS, rests in an isolated plot. All others are interred in long trenches. Cheap, pine coffins are stacked three high, two across for adults; five high, twenty across, for infants.
If I were granted three wishes, one of them would not be to know what the future holds. You can keep your crystal balls. I have enough trouble wrestling with today’s demons without knowing what crosses await me tomorrow. As the wise rabbi said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And some days are so sufficiently evil that tomorrow looms like the open jaws of hell.
“What would you like to eat for your last meal?” That question, at some point, is posed to the criminal awaiting execution. Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, chose two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. John Wayne Gacy, a serial murderer and rapist, selected shrimp, a bucket of KFC chicken, fries, and strawberries. The ticking clock may have run out of ticks before these men digested all they consumed, but the food was served anyway. All the condemned get to choose their omega meal. What would you want? Not just if you were on death row, but if somehow you knew that tomorrow would be the final day of your earthly journey, what would you like on your plate? A sweet dessert? A thick, juicy steak? Some variety of comfort food?
Given such a choice, and given the finality of this feast, I’m afraid my imagination might just go into the what-if overdrive.
What if my lips, which have tasted the kiss of one I was forbidden to kiss, could taste food that consumed those sins until not a tiny morsel of immorality remained?
What if my tongue, which has spit out words in hate, feasted on rumor, and lapped up a million lies, could banquet on food and drink that cleanses my palate of even the deepest verbal stain?
What if my teeth, which have chewed up reputations, bitten into the backs of friends and foes, masticated plans of revenge, could chomp down on a divine delicacy that makes my blood-stained teeth as pure and white as light from above?
What if my throat, down which I have gulped words I should have spoken to defend others, could swallow a meal that swallows death and hell itself?
What if my stomach, indeed my whole body, could digest and be permeated with a feast so rich in celestial love, that rather than me transforming the food into my body, that food transformed me into the body of God himself?
What if. But there is no what if. There is the real meal, the real deal, the feast of feasts. There is a supper that belongs to the Lord. And to that supper he invites all who hunger and thirst for him.
I am lord of all I eat. I lord it over meat, potatoes, pecan pie. I make those foods serve my body, transforming them into me. But it is not so with the meal of Jesus. It is not my supper but the Lord’s supper. Of this meal he is Lord. He feeds me his body. He gives me his blood to drink. When I do, what I eat is Lord of me. His body transforms my body into his body. I am a member of the body of Christ. His blood transforms my blood into his blood. I pulse through the veins of the body of Christ. The Lord I eat, the Lord I drink, devours in me all this is opposed to life, to holiness, to immortality. I am made to be as he is, even as he has become as I am.
What’s more, if this meal is my last meal, it will not be my last meal. For if I am in Christ, even though I die, yet shall I live. The day my body dies I will be with Jesus in paradise. There I will dine at the feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.
So, I ask you again: what would you want for your last meal?
It was a call that would haunt him to his dying day. He listened, speechless; hung up the phone, speechless; and walked away, words still failing him. He didn't know where he was going. He just went. And when he finally stopped, he stood on the edge of a familiar pier, watching the western sun slowly immerse itself into a watery horizon. Why, why, why? Was this part of God's plan? How could it be? Aswirl in unanswerable questions, he sat there, at that place where, so many times before, he'd sat with the one with whom he would never sit again in this life. He put a beer to his lips and drank, regretting loss and remembering life, on this lonely pier. So goes the story in a song, ''Drink a Beer,'' recently released by country superstar, Luke Bryan. It's a far cry from his typical girl-chasing, bar hopping, tailgate-partying kind of hit. But this one is more personal, almost autobiographical, sung by an artist who hides a mountain of past grief behind his country boy smile. For when he was nineteen, days before his move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Luke suffered the loss of his only brother, whose life was cut short in a car accident. And years later, right after he finally made it big, and performed in the Grand Ole Opry, his only sister died suddenly at her home. Luke Bryan may sing plenty of party songs, but his life has been anything but a party.
Someday we'll all be the singer in Luke's song. Maybe you already have. The details vary, of course, but we too struggle to repair the heart broken by the tragic death of someone we love. We're dazed, angry, speechless. Unanswerable questions scream for answers. We wish like mad we could reach over and touch our spouse or parent or sibling or close friend just one more time. But all that remains are memories.
We have our own “pier,” where we sit and remember our way back to better days, before the thief called death stole our beloved away. Maybe that pier is a café table, or a park bench, or a bed that has grown far too spacious now. It's more than a place of remembrance though, for that “pier” somehow seems to bear within itself fragments of the one we've lost, almost like a faint aroma that only we have the capacity to smell. For that reason, at that place we feel closer to the person. There remembrance is more vivid.
As psychologically or emotionally helpful as such “piers” may be, the stubborn fact remains that the deceased is absent. She is not in the bed where you used to make love. He is not on the pier where you drank beer together. There is no intersection of worlds, where the afterlife and the present-life overlap. You may raise your beer to toast an absent friend with whom a lifetime of memories were made, but you’re not really drinking with the dead. You may even speak aloud to the person you’ve lost, but her voice does not respond or blend with your own. Your chosen pier may be a spot of surreal remembrance, but it is not a place of real presence. Believe it or not, however, such a place does exist.
Once a week I have supper at a place where I drink with the dead. There is no beer, but there’s plenty of wine. My grandfathers and grandmother are there, a high school classmate at whose funeral I was a pallbearer, a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer in 2006. They join me, and I them, around a table. We sing together. We pray together. We may be in different worlds, but here their world and my world overlap, pulled together by the Lord who rules over the past, the present, and the future. The dead really are present, because they really are not dead. In fact, they are more alive now than they ever were before they died.
Once a week I walk up to an altar that is far better than any pier. The God of heaven and earth, of the living and the dead, is enthroned thereon. He transforms it into a table, prepares a feast, and serves as host of the supper that we call the “Lord’s.” And he brings guests with him. Accompanying Jesus are my grandparents and friends and all those who, through death, transitioned from life with Christ here to a better life with Christ there. Where he is, there are they. Our prayers mix and mingle, as they pray for me, and I pray with them, for all those in need of the Lord’s grace and favor. Jesus feeds me there, and satisfies my thirst, putting into my dying body his living body, pouring into my mortal veins his immortal blood.
In this world, death will inevitably come calling for those we love. Bereft of their presence with us, we’ll visit our “piers” and relive, in memory, all those times we shared. We will await a grand reunion in heaven, where, with our Lord, we will be united once more in a life of happiness that will never be cut short. But between now and then, around an altar, around the Lord, around the supper that bears his name, we and our loved ones already reunite, for we are everlastingly united as members of the body of Jesus, who has conquered death and made us alive in him.
Sit on your piers, and remember the dead, if you wish. But more importantly, kneel at the altar, and commune with the dead, who are very much alive in our living and life-giving Lord.