There comes a time, every week, when the world rests upon our tongues.The throne of the Almighty and the wheat fields of Texas are there. The manger of Bethlehem and the warming rays of the sun are, too. So is the flesh of the Passover lamb, raindrops from heaven, a John Deere tractor, and the God who says I Am Who I Am.
The worth of a congregation is determined by statistics. A church with 25 people in the pews is not as important to Christ’s kingdom as a church with 2500. It’s simple arithmetic, really. The more worshipers, the more worth. The larger the church, the larger accolades it deserves.
I can experience almost every aspect of church from the comfort of my own bed. I can prop up my pillow, open my laptop, and enter my very own cyber sanctuary. The music of beautiful hymns can reverberate through my computer. I can read the Bible myself or listen to an audio recording of a trained professional narrate the Scriptures for me. Preachers from across the spectrum of Christianity can squeeze their pulpits within my computer screen.
This is the story of how a small, country church astounded the experts on church growth by becoming a megachurch overnight. Without even trying.
There are two Thursdays every year which out-Sunday just about every Sunday in the church year. The first is Maundy Thursday, when our Lord prepared a supper in which he is both host and meal. The second is this Thursday, which will be forty days from Easter. It is the Thursday when Jesus ascended into heaven.
If the lead is going to be flying, I want the thickest flak jacket money can buy. If missiles are on the way, I want to climb into the deepest bunker man can dig. Spare no expense, leave nothing to chance. In life-and-death moments, the last thing we need is a veneer of protection that’s as fatal as it is flimsy.
This past fall, Willie Nelson’s hair braids were sold at auction for $37,000. A tissue into which Scarlett Johansson blew her nose on the Tonight Show fetched $5,300 on eBay. And X-rays of Marilyn Monroe’s chest—just the X-rays, mind you—once brought in a whopping $45,000. If you’re lucky enough to be the proud owner of any item once worn or used by a celebrity—and the more intimate the better—then you’re sitting on a mountain of cash. People crave this stuff; and they’re certainly willing to open wide their wallets to add it to their collection. I don’t know about you, but I like to think that I’m above all that celebrity worship nonsense. But I like to deceive myself about a whole host of other things, too. My home is right outside San Antonio, TX, not far from the stomping grounds of George Strait. I guarantee you that if I ran into George and he invited me over for a BBQ at his place, then I’d be a name-dropping, Facebook-boasting, Twitter-bragging fool for the next three months. Everybody I know—and probably total strangers—would get to hear all about how George and I drank a cold Shiner Bock together late one evening on his back porch in the Texas Hill Country.
What is that magnetism that pulls us toward celebrities? Why do people stand in mile-long lines, worm their way into throngs of people, or pay big money simply for the chance to rub shoulders with the famous? No doubt the motivations vary from individual to individual, but I would suggest that at the core of these motivations is the desire for intimacy with one we deem greater than ourselves. Such closeness, such confidentiality, one might even say such communion with a person exalted by fame or fortune makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s like we share a little in what they have. While we’re with them, we’re more “them” than “us.” Our identity, however briefly, migrates into the sphere of their identity. I am no longer just Chad; I am a guest, one might even say, a friend at George Strait’s table.
The Good Picture Behind the Warped Image
Many of the basic human desires that God formed within us have, like bent arrows, gone in directions the Creator never intended them to go. Hunger becomes gluttony, thirst becomes drunkenness, love becomes lust, worship becomes idolatry. Nevertheless, if we look behind the warped image that man has revised we find the good that God has devised. And that good is indicative of the gifts God gives, the people He has made us to be, and the image in us He wants to restore.
In the case of celebrity worship, behind the almost idolatrous fascination that some fans have with a person of fame, we discover a desire that, in and of itself, is not sinful. It is the desire to connect with one who is greater than we are. We feel small but they make us feel big; we feel unimportant, but our connection with them makes us feel like we matter, we have purpose. To be singled out by them, to take a seat at their table, invests our lives with a sense of worth and transcendence.
That hunger to connect with one who is greater than we are will be satisfied only in the one who created that hunger within us in the first place. We may look for it in people of power or fame or fortune, but they will all fail us because, in truth, they are pilgrims traveling the same road we are. The stars of Hollywood and Nashville are searching for the same goal. Like we are, they too are restless until they rest in the one who finally and perfectly completes them.
The reason we so easily miss the God who is greater than we are is because that great God comes in such an unexpectedly tiny, humdrum package. We are staring up at the stars while the star is pointing down to the no-account town of Bethlehem, to a baby that looks like every other baby. We are looking up for a big and awesome God while the little and humble God is looking up as well—only He looking up at us from down below, wanting us to turn our eyes downward. None of us are really near-sighted or far-sighted, we are all up-sighted. Our eyes scan the heavens for the great one while we’re blind to the great one humbly hiding within arms reach.
But I’m not just talking about Christmas and how easy it is to miss God since He comes into our world as a baby. He remains in our world, He remains active in our lives, as a down-below-divinity. You won’t find Him in heaven’s version of Hollywood glitz and glamour. You won’t find Him riding in limos and hounded by paparazzi. If you’re searching for a God with razzle-dazzle, who’ll knock your socks off with His cool awesomeness, then you’re in for a lifetime of deceptive disappointments. In this world, God is hidden in His opposite. He is cloaked in the simple, the down-to-earth, the seemingly boring and unawesome stuff of this world.
The Old Rugged Table
One place we find not only God, but intimacy with this one greater than ourselves, is at a table. The thing is, the table is kind of like that manger in Bethlehem or the old rugged cross. To the eye, there’s nothing attractive or awe-inspiring about it. In fact, on the surface it’s downright disappointing. A little bread, a sip of wine. Why, even when you invite your friends over, you might have bread on the table and wine in glasses, but along with them you serve ribeyes and baked potatoes and steamed vegetables with pecan pie for dessert. Not God. The great and powerful king of all creation puts bread and wine on His table. That’s all you get.
No, that seems like it’s all you get, but it’s not. Like in that rough and simple manger lay God hidden as a common newborn; like on that bloody and gruesome cross hung God hidden as a common criminal; so in this inconspicuous and everyday meal is God hidden in common food. In that bread He has placed His Son, Jesus, so that when you eat that bread you take the body of Jesus into you. When you sip the wine, you take His blood into you. The Lord almighty is swaddled in bread and wine, the old rugged cross becomes a table. And here, while eating and drinking, you receive intimacy with God above and beyond anything imaginable. He and you merge as one. You take Him into you even as He takes you into Himself.
The Meal That Tells Me Who I Am
This is a closeness, a confidentiality, a communion that does infinitely more than a friendship with George Strait could do for me. It does more than make me feel better about myself. This meal of God, with God, consuming God, establishes my identity. Much as the act of marriage means that a man and woman are now one flesh, so this meal means that I am now one flesh with God. I am bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh. My identity as Chad has been subsumed into His identity so that I can no longer understand myself except in connection with Him. I am a son of our Father. I am the brother of Jesus. I am part of the bride of Christ. And all these are not mere figures of speech but statements of reality. This is who I am, this is who you are, in God through Jesus Christ.
There’s no need to stand in mile-long lines, worm your way into throngs of people, or pay big money to achieve intimacy with one greater than you. Simply take and eat the body of Christ; take and drink the blood of Jesus. Here is the costliest treasure on earth given to you free of charge. It cost Jesus His life, but that life He gives to you gratis. And with that life, comes all that God is and all that you need.
Looking down at Jesus’ humble table, at His humdrum food, I see that as His guest I will be more than an admirer, closer than a friend. Since I will consume Him, it will be no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And that life in and of Christ gives me infinitely more than worth and transcendence; it gives me peace and wholeness and joy of such enduring quality that it spills over from this life into the life to come.
On my mother's Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I've expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma's cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I'm about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience. The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.
Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living
Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.
Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk
Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:
Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)
We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)
Therefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.
In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.
The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.
I could sing darn near every word of every Hank Williams’ song years before I ever heard of a certain foreigner named Bach. Like it was yesterday, I can still see my mom walking through our front door with my first, very own 45 in her hand: “The Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers. Yes, my mom’s love of Elvis Presley, and our Sunday morning Baptist hymn-singing added a splash of diversity to my musical diet, but the staples remained Hank, Johnny, Patsy, and George. To borrow a line from Barbara Mandrell, “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.” Over the years, I’ve sampled just about every musical genre. When I was a prof in Fort Wayne, I sat straight-backed through Bach Cantatas at the seminary chapel and slouched in a smoky, hole-in-the-wall bar soaking in the Blues. In college I had a brief love-affair with CCM, rocked through a Petra concert, and piously shunned all that “pagan, secular stuff.” These days, push any of my radio preset buttons and you might hear Beethoven, Brad Paisley, or Pitbull. But my first love is, and will no doubt remain, those earthy songs about mommas and trains, cheatin’ hearts and neon lights.
It may be too lowbred or crude for some people’s tastes, but that in-your-face honesty of country music is irresistible to me. Especially in songs about shattered lives and broken promises, you’ll find no sugar-coating of suffering, but stark lyrics oozing with pain and regret. The young man who, to relive memories of better times, drives the truck of his brother who never returned from the war ("I Drive Your Truck"). The dad who parks a few houses down from the house, the wife, the kids, and the dog that used to be his, before another man came along and stole them all away ("Who's that Man"). And more recently, a song by Gary Allan that tells of a man in the middle of a church, where the “walking wounded tell their stories.” As he began to tell his own, “a man started talking how the devil and the bottle was ruining [his] life.” But he stands up and cuts that man off with this litany of denial:
It ain't the whiskey. It ain't the cigarettes. It ain't the stuff I smoke. It's all these things I can't forget. It ain't the hard times. It ain't the all nights. It ain't that easy. It ain't the whiskey that's killin' me.
This chorus digs below the surface to reveal that beneath our chosen self-medications, be they alcohol or drugs or overeating or smoking or bed-hopping, you’ll unearth the real killer. And “it ain’t the whiskey.”
It’s all these things I can’t forget. What’s that thing you can’t forget? For me, especially this time of year, it’s a Thanksgiving a few years back. The beautiful autumn colors of Cincinnati had already been defaced by winter’s browning paintbrush. The handful of folks who knew me in that city were busy with their own lives and families, watching fumbles and touchdowns with bellies stuffed with turkey. My young son and daughter were a thousand miles away, living with my soon-to-be-ex wife. The demons were having a heyday, turning the inside of my head into a kitchen where they cooked up a stew choked full of regret and shame and lust and vengeance and hatred—a dish of despair served on my one-plate Thanksgiving table. And let me tell you, I ate it. In fact, I shoveled it in. Then I washed it down with a glass of whiskey, then another, then plenty more, till the bottle was as empty as the tragic farce my life had become. But it ain’t the whiskey that was killing me. It was all those things I couldn’t forget.
What do you turn to, when your sole mission is to dull the pain and silence the screams within? Yes, there’s the beer or the whiskey or the vodka or whatever poison your palate prefers. There’s the marijuana or the meth or the cocaine that can temporarily transform your pain-racked life into something bearable or temporarily ecstatic. Or, you can skulk around the meat markets to find willing partner after willing partner to get naked with and pound away at each other’s bodies, until the passing, orgasmic pleasure gives way to lasting, depressing pain. There’s a list a mile long of these pseudo-sacraments for the sinner, but they all offer the same thing: a god without divinity, giving medicine without healing, to sufferers without hope. It ain’t the whiskey that’s the problem. Nor is it the whiskey that’s the solution.
The down-and-out, heartbroken man in that Gary Allan song, goes on to sing:
So what do you got for this empty spot inside of me? The deep dark hole where love used to be. Before she ripped it out and ran into the arms of someone else. Y'all sit in this room and you talk like you got some kind of remedy. Well I hear what you're telling me, But I've got all the proof I need.
What have you got for this empty spot inside of me? I’ve got lots of fine-sounding words that I could pour inside that deep, dark hole where love used to be. I’ve got all those pseudo-sacraments whereby you can attempt to swallow or smoke or snort or screw your way out of that pit. But words and self-medications ain’t gonna cut it. If there’s an emptiness within you, left there by a love-gone-wrong, a life-gone-dead, a career-gone-south, there’s only one thing that can fill it, fill it to the max, and fill it with peace. And that thing is not a thing. Nor it is a belief or philosophy or religion or meditation technique. It is a person.
What have you got for this empty spot inside of me? I got nothing, but let me tell you who does. God does. And not some divinity who’ll cheerlead you from the sidelines as you get your life back on the straight and narrow. This God is a man, a healer, who makes house calls, or bar calls, or whorehouse calls, or wherever you might be. He comes to you, as you are, wherever you are. The highest honor ever bestowed upon him was when his fiercest enemies branded him a “friend of sinners.” That he is, for nobody’s so lost that he can’t find them. Nobody’s so vile or perverted or hateful that he won't wrap his arms around them. Nobody’s so depressed or lonely or heartbroken that he can’t love them back to life. You got a deep, dark hole in your life? He’s vast enough to fill life’s biggest chasm, radiant enough to enlighten the darkest pit, patient enough to smother the hottest fires of anger. Jesus is the only true sacrament, the wine of whose love produces a sober intoxication of lasting peace no bottle under heaven can give.
“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.