While my wife Patty was on the elliptical trainer working out next to a friend, she was lamenting both the length of time it takes and the cost that is incurred by seminarians training to become Lutheran pastors. (We have a unique interest in this process as our son is a current student at a Lutheran seminary.) Without missing a beat her friend responded, “But, Patty, he is training for a sacred trust.”
A sacred trust.
At first I was delighted to hear that story. It was a wonder to think there are people who still consider ordained ministry a sacred trust. But then it also gave me pause. Isn’t all our work a sacred trust? Haven’t we all been asked to offer ourselves, in whatever way we can and whatever place we find ourselves, for the betterment of this world, the advancement of the kingdom?
In this reading, Richard Foster invites us to consider what sacramental living looks like in our everyday, workaday world. He reminds us that our work, all of it, is a sacred trust.
Writer, Lutheran pastor, and Renovaré Ministry Team member
But the religious dimension is the beginning, not the end. We are to take this life and incorporate it into all we are and all we do. We bring it into daily life: into our homes, into our work, into our relationships with children and spouse and friends and neighbors and, yes, even enemies. Here we come to the most fundamental arena for the Incarnational Tradition: the arena of everyday life. It is the place, par excellence, in which we make visible and manifest the invisible realm of the spirit.
To move into this sacramental way of living, we must take deep into our heart and mind Paul’s words, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
The most basic place of our sacramental living is in our marriages and homes and families. Here we live together in well-reasoned love for everyone around us. Here we experience “the sacrament of the present moment,” to use the phrase of Jean Pierre de Caussade. We miss the point of this way of life if we are off conducting prayer meetings and other churchly enterprises when the duty of the present moment is to be home, playing with our children or caring for other domestic responsibilities. C. S. Lewis wisely observed, ‘The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.”
Work is another everyday place—perhaps the most substantive place—for incarnational living. By “work” I am referring not merely to our job; I am referring to what we do to produce good in our world. I am referring to our vocatio, our vocation or calling.
Now, I really must bear down on this point of our work as the place for living sacramentally. While some have a special calling to pastoral or priestly work in order to equip the people of God, the calling or vocation for most of us is smack in the midst of the workaday world. And even here we often miss the point of a sacramental life. One business leader piously announced, “I instruct my secretary to set aside one noon hour a week when, instead of going out to some power lunch, I close the door on the dog-eat-dog world of business, open my Bible, and spend time alone with my Lord.” Now, this may well be a wise practice, but it is not yet sacramental living. The real issue is how we live and act and react in the midst of the dog-eat-dog world of power lunches and business dealings and board meetings. Or the dog-eat-dog world of restaurant managers and servers, of contractors and subcontractors, of middle management and office staff. Or the dog-eat-dog world of law and education and entrepreneurship. This is where people desperately need to see the reality of God made visible and manifest.
And this is where we learn to do our work as Jesus would do our work if he were in our place. Now, in understanding how this works, we need to underscore Jesus among us in his office as resurrected and exalted Lord, free from all the localizations of time and space, geography and history, gender and race, nationality and vocation. For he is in our place. He continually moves among us as our ever-present Teacher. He is, you see, the Lord of all vocations, and he really can teach us how to fulfill our calling. If you are a dentist, Jesus can teach you to do dentistry as he would do it if he were you. The same is true if you are a court stenographer, a computer programmer, a research scientist, a janitor, or the CEO of a multinational corporation. It is just as true if the thing you do to produce good in the world is raise a family or paint pictures or create stained-glass windows or peel potatoes. Whoever, whatever, wherever—he will teach you. Learn from him.
The third place—in addition to home and work—that we learn to live sacramentally is in society at large. Here we are to bring the reality of God to bear upon cultural, political, and institutional life. The theologians call this “the cultural mandate,” a teaching that is deeply rooted in the creation narrative, where God gives the human pair stewardship authority to care for and manage the earth (Gen. 1-3). And so we do. We work to lift our culture, not just through the commonsense moral standards of decency and honesty, but through art and literature and drama, justice and beauty and shalom. We nurture’ “the good, the true, the beautiful” throughout society—through the person-centered caring of the schools we run, through the beauty of the parks we build, through the entrepreneurial empowerment we offer the poor, through the imaginative and redeeming literature we write, through the ecological sensitivity we bring to land use and development, and so much more.
Family, work, society—these comprise the arena of everyday life. Now, it is of utmost importance that we keep a constant and intimate link between the specifically religious dimension and the arena of everyday life. This connection, incidentally, is seen in many of the “sacramental” passages in our New Testament—passages that carry this double reference to both the religious dimension and everyday life. In the sixth chapter of John, for example, where Jesus gives an extended teaching on “eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood,” we immediately see both the reference to Communion and the call to our continual feeding on his life. As Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). The same thing can be seen in Jesus’ discourse on “living water” with the woman at the well, where baptism stands in the background of his teaching on the sustaining life that he gives to all who trust in him.”
Martin Luther profoundly linked the religious sphere with common life when, in writing about baptism, he said, “For as long as we live we are continually doing that which baptism signifies, that is, we die and rise again…. That which baptism signifies should swallow up your whole life, body and soul, and give it forth again at the last day, clad in the robe of glory and immortality. We are therefore never without the sign of baptism nor without the thing it signifies.” This bridge is also seen in the Reformation principle of “the priesthood of all believers.” To be sure, this principle teaches us that “the plow boy and the milk maid” can do priestly work. But even more profoundly it teaches us that the plow boy in his plowing and the milk maid in her milking are in fact doing priestly work.
Have I given enough substance for you to grasp the concept of the Incarnational Tradition? I could say more, but my guess is that you have the sanctified imagination to take the central insight of this sacramental way of living and contextualize it into the many situations you face day in and day out.
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Excerpt taken from Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster (pp. 263-266). Published by HarperOne (1998) and used here with permission.