Drinking with the Dead: Country Music and the Communion of Saints

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 Imagea 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.

ChristAloneCoverIf you enjoyed this reflection, please take a moment to check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

InfantPriestfrontcoverThe poems and hymns in my book, The Infant Priest, give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Here there is praise of the crucified and risen Christ, dark lamentation of a penitent wrestling with despair, meditations upon the life of our Lord, thanksgiving for family, and much more. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com.  Thank you!

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9 thoughts on “Drinking with the Dead: Country Music and the Communion of Saints

  1. I didn’t know that about Luke Bryan…so sad. A very poignant post…and I have many deposits in heaven which makes me long to go. Recently, three weeks ago, my niece went to heaven, and the only thing that gives me peace is that she is with the Lord and our family. I praise God for his blessed hope!

  2. Chad, in case you are unfamiliar there is a similar reflection by Berthold Von Schenk (1895 — 1974), the prayer book For All the Saints, volume IV. I think Von Schenk was an LCMS pastor, who served in the NYC area, especially in Hoboken, NJ. This quote is from his book The Presence, recently republished by ALPB:

    When we are bereft of dear ones, it is a tremendous shock. For a time we are stunned. Not everyone can feel at once their continuing companionship. We should not for that reason despair. An adjustment must take place in our lives, reaching deep into our habits, emotions and thoughts. Some souls may make this adjustment quickly. For most of us it comes slowly and hard; many an hour is filled with loneliness and agonizing doubt.
    By ourselves we can never make this adjustment. We must come to a sense of the continuing presence of our loved ones, and we can do this if we realize the presence of our Living Lord. As we seek and find our Risen Lord we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints area part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the Altar. At the Communion we are linked with Heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the Altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the Altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping. The Altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord. It must, therefore, also be the trysting place where we meet our loved ones, for they are with the Lord. How pathetic it is to see men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else. How hopeless they look. Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up the nave to the very Altar itself, and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar. Our human nature needs more than the assurance that some day and in some way we shall again meet our loved ones “in heaven.” That is all gloriously true. But how does that help us now?
    When we, then, view death in the light of the Communion of Saints and Holy Communion, there is no helpless bereavement. My loved one has just left me and has gone on a long journey. But I am in touch with her. I know that there is a place where we can meet. It is at the Altar. How it thrills me when I hear the words of the Liturgy, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven,” for I know that she is there with that company of Heaven, the Communion of Saints, with the Lord. The nearer I come to my Lord in Holy Communion, the nearer I come to the saints, to my own loved ones. I am a member of the Body of Christ, I am a living cell in that spiritual organism, partaking of the life of the other cells, and sharing in the Body of Christ Himself.
    There is nothing fanciful or unreal about this. Indeed, it is the most real thing in my life. Of course, I miss my loved one. I should miss if she took a long holiday trip. But now, since she is what some people call dead, she is closer to me than ever. Of course, I miss her physical presence bitterly. I miss her voice and the sound of approaching footsteps. But I have not lost her. And when my sense of loss becomes too great, I can always go to our meeting place at the Attar where I receive the Body and Blood of my Lord that preserves my body and soul just as it has preserved her unto everlasting life. Do learn to love the Altar as the meeting place with your beloved who have passed within the veil. Here again the Sacrament is the heart of our religion. The Blessed Sacrament links us not merely to Bethlehem and Calvary, but to the whole world beyond the grave as well, for at the Altar the infinite is shrined in the finite; Heaven stoops down to earth; and the seen and the unseen meet.
    “Oh, God the King of Saints; we praise and magnify Thy Holy Name for all Thy servants, who have finished their course in Thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs, for all Thy other righteous servants; and we beseech Thee that, encouraged by their example, Strengthened by their fellowship, we may attain unto everlasting life, through the merits of Thy Son’ Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

  3. Pam Knepper on said:

    Chad, thank you so much for these wonderful and inspiring words. I suddenly lost my only sibling, my brother, a little over a year ago. He was only 42. It was the most painful thing I have ever and am still having to go thru. One day he was there, the next he wasn’t. No time to say good-bye. No time for that last embrace. Just gone. Since that horrible day in September, I have many times reached out to call him, and remember I can’t. I have yearned to talk to him one last time, and can’t. I reach out to hug him and hug the air. The ONLY thing that has gotten me and my parents thru this incredible loss is our faith in Jesus Christ and knowing that one day we all will be reunited in heaven with all the saints.

  4. Jean Luburich on said:

    He really can hit the nail on the head

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. Outstanding. Thanks.

  6. “Not everyone can feel at once their continuing companionship. We should not for that reason despair. An adjustment must take place in our lives, reaching deep into our habits, emotions and thoughts. Some souls may make this adjustment quickly. For most of us it comes slowly and hard; many an hour is filled with loneliness and agonizing doubt.”
    Does it ever come? It seems like life is unreal and God is further away than ever.

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