Friday, September 22, 2023

Sacrament of the Ordinary

Listen to me read this post:

A fiery orange sunrise with silhouettes of trees along the bottom and lower corners of the frame

              Three riders rode silently through the silent, black night, even their eyes darkened except in the passing illuminations when the clouds exposed the moon.  When they heard the crunch of gravel beneath the horses’ hooves, they smiled to themselves, knowing that at last they had reached the dry riverbed which marked the last leg of their journey.

              Suddenly the horses started and reared, spooked by some invisible danger.  Before the riders could quiet them again, a Voice sliced through the darkness:  “Halt, riders.  Gather stones from this riverbed, and I assure you, when morning breaks you will be both sad and glad.”

              Stunned into silence, after a moment the riders shrugged and broke into nervous laughter.  “We’ve nothing to lose,” said their leader.  As one man in the pale moonlight, they stooped, and each chose a handful of stones to toss into a pocket.  Their horses calmed, they remounted and rode on until morning.

              When they stopped to water their horses and swallow their meager breakfast, one of them remembered the stones.  He emptied his pocket and gasped in amazement.  Seeing him, the other two followed suit and stared in wonder.  The handfuls of river rocks they had gathered in the night had been transformed into rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls.

              As the Voice had foretold, as morning broke they were both sad and glad:  glad they had obeyed the strange command, but weeping with sorrow that they had not filled pockets and saddlebags to overflowing with all they could carry.*


              The unexceptional pebbles of our daily existence are the raw material Providence chooses for the altar on which to offer ourselves back to God as a living sacrifice.  It is not the poverty of our offering but the glory of His acceptance which transforms them into something beautiful and enduring.  Obedience in our ordinary duties becomes the outward and visible sign – the sacrament, if you will – of the inward and spiritual grace of His love abiding in those who obey.

              The consecrated heart discovers this transforming grace of God in every place and activity He assigns.  The commonest thing – from data entry to dishes to preparing lesson plans to changing diapers – takes on the very glory of heaven when done as unto the Lord. 

Some reading this may protest, “But I have POTS (or fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, Long COVID, autoimmune disease, MS) and all I can do is lie on the couch. I can’t even read or watch screens much right now. How am I supposed to work as unto the Lord? I can’t work at all.”

I have been there too. I am so thankful you are here. I recorded a reading of this post largely for you. From my experience of life and Scripture, I can say this: if my portion for the day is to rest a sick body, do physical therapy, swallow pills, and navigate all that is involved in accessing medical care, even that can be offered to the Lord as worship. If all I can do is receive care from others, alone in a dark room and largely deprived of sensory stimuli, I can offer my suffering to the Lord and trust Him to receive it. I can pray when able and offer my silence and listening to Him when unable. I can seek from the Lord a cheerful and grateful heart toward my helpers. I can lean all my weight on the everlasting arms of God and glorify Him by resting in His grace.

No matter the life circumstance, even in prison if it comes to that: as I keep the windows of my soul open toward Jerusalem all day long, inviting the wind of His Spirit to blow through me, the humblest duties become means to receive His grace.

              What is this sacramental life?  For one thing, it is more easily described than defined.  As a child, I had an African violet in my bedroom window.  I never lost my amazement that, no matter how I turned it in the morning, by the time I came home from school it had tilted itself toward the sunlight coming through the window.  When we returned to the United States from the mission field, I would laugh at my nine year-old dog Steinway.  After 3 years of separation under my parents’ care, he didn’t want to lose me again, I suppose, so he followed me around the house all day long.  Even when we were in the same room and I was in plain view, he followed me with his eyes.  The Ebony Dog who succeeded him would do the same thing. His whole being was oriented toward me. The sacramental life is like that:  practicing the discipline of fixing my eyes on Jesus, no matter what, until it becomes habit; continually adjusting my attitude and actions in the changing circumstances of life so that the direction of my gaze remains constant in the midst of it all.


              Granted, this truth is easier to write than to live.  The world, both without and within the church, opposes it, the flesh shuns it, and the devil thwarts it.  Contemporary Christless society believes work is what we do to earn money in order to be able to spend the rest of our time doing as we please.  On the contrary, the Scriptures teach that it is in our work as well as our rest that we fulfill God’s design for us.  Adam was given the task of cultivating the garden in the day of his creation, not as punishment for eating the forbidden fruit.  It is only the toilsome frustration of work now which results from sin.  Even in the church, we tend to glorify “full-time Christian service” (which being interpreted is paid employment in gospel ministry) as somehow more holy than other vocations, but the Scriptures teach that we are to do all things to the glory of God (Col 3:17).  Was Jesus less holy and obedient to His Father in His first thirty years of submission to His parents, learning Joseph’s carpentry trade, and supporting his widowed mother and siblings as was His responsibility as the oldest son, than he was in His three years of public ministry?  Was the apostle Paul following Christ at a distance during the days he spent making tents so that he would not place a burden on the churches to support him?  Yet in our elevation of professional Christian ministry (especially missions) above all other careers, is this not what we imply?

              Our own flesh, the self-life, plays right into this idea.  After all, it’s far more glamorous to write a book for the Christian bestseller list than to write a letter to a shut-in cut off from other Christian fellowship, or a note to tuck in a child’s lunchbox.  It’s much more gratifying to the ego to cook a meal for a roomful of grateful, hungry people at the local homeless shelter than for a kitchen of grumbling teenagers who seem only to complain.  It may be more motivating to build a house for Habitat for Humanity than to keep up with the home repairs on a honey-do list.  It’s often easier to travel half a world away to preach Christ to those you will never see again than it is faithfully to live out the gospel and speak when God opens doors among your usual acquaintances, who may make life uncomfortable for you if they don’t agree. 

The rewards for public ministry are also public; we have our compensation in the applause of the watching crowd.  The rewards for a life lived in quiet obedience carried out before the face of God are primarily between the soul and her Lord, although such a life cannot help but bear fruit in the character and outward life as well, as we become what we behold (2 Cor. 3:18).  Does that make them less precious?  Hardly.  What can be sweeter than going about my day in the constant companionship of my Best-Beloved?  Jesus promised exactly that treasure to those who abide in Him by keeping His commandments:  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. . . .  Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 14:23; 15:9-11, NASB1995).

              Finally, the devil is all too happy to support this notion of work as something that keeps us from doing “real ministry” and drains the joy from life.  If believed, this idea may produce a sloppily done or entirely neglected duty, all for the sake of “ministry.”  On the other hand, as Lazarus’ sister Martha illustrates, we may be easily distracted by work as an end in itself so that we miss God’s still, small voice speaking to us through it.  The thorns which choked the growth of the seed in the parable of the soils, after all, are the cares and worries of the world.   Either error, forsaking duty for ministry or losing sight of God in the busyness of work, comes from the enemy and distorts the truth.


              “But how can I expect to hear a still, small voice in a carpool of noisy pre-schoolers shouting?” or perhaps “. . . when the only beauty in my work is the fake ivy peeking over from the next cubicle?”  I never said it was easy, but I assure you: insofar as you gather the pebbles of the ordinary and offer them to God, you will be both sad and glad.  More importantly than my lone opinion, the testimony of the Christians of the past assures you of the same truth.

              Brother Lawrence wrote of it as the “practice of the presence of God” in his book by that name.  Though a monk, his duties differed little from those of the average housewife (excepting the carpool of screaming kids).  He learned the art of constant conversation with God even as he scrubbed pots and worked in the garden, and it transformed his attitude and relationships.  This can begin simply, with a hymnal over the sink, a recording of sacred music or Scripture playing in the car, prayer reminders where one will see them often, or Scripture memory cards next to the computer for those inevitable delays while the program opens or document saves.  Whatever reminds us to look back to Jesus when we lose our focus will help us on this journey.

              Martin Luther wrote, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ in one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all the works are measured before God by faith alone. . . .  Indeed, the menial housework of a manservant or maidservant is often more acceptable to God than all the fastings and other works of a monk or priest, because the monk or priest lacks faith” (quoted in Os Guinness, The Call, 34).

              Elisabeth Leseur, a housewife in upper-class French society in the late nineteenth century, began to follow Christ as the rather unexpected consequence of her husband’s attempts to persuade her to abandon the trappings of her childhood religion and join him in militant atheism.  When the Lord opened her eyes to the folly of the arguments before her, He drew her into a personal relationship with Himself for the first time, as her previous religion had been merely formal with no sincerity.  How did she respond to this turn of events?  She began her own self-study program of the New Testament and the lives of Christians from history and sought to live out the life and love of Christ with her husband and the friends her social station required her to entertain.  She lived out 1 Peter 3, despite continual ridicule from family and friends and increasingly poor health, which prevented her from leaving her home at all in the last years of her life.  She sought to conduct her life in keeping with resolutions such as the following:

To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love.  To try always to understand everything and everyone.  Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make Him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one’s intelligence, to enlarge one’s soul. . . ; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference. . . .  To learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of love for souls and deep knowledge of them:  how to touch their hurts without making them smart and to dress their wounds without reopening them; . . . to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear (Robin Maas, “A Marriage Saved in Heaven:  Elisabeth Leseur’s Life of Love,”

Her life motto became, “Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world.”  After her death, the crowds of people touched by her charitable works and correspondence, reading her journal, and her life itself became the means of her husband’s conversion.  He later entered vocational Christian ministry and labored to keep her memory alive and honored.

              The more well-known Christian teacher Oswald Chambers writes frequently of the “drudgery of discipleship” in his devotional classic My Utmost for His Highest.  For example, in the September 11 entry, he notes, “The things that Jesus did were of the most menial and commonplace order, and this is an indication that it takes all God’s power in me to do the most commonplace things in His way.  Can I use a towel as He did?  Towels and dishes and sandals, all the ordinary sordid things of our lives, reveal more quickly than anything what we are made of.  It takes God Almighty Incarnate in us to do the meanest duty as it ought to be done.”  Again, in the October 21 entry, he writes, “We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus.  It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not.  We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.”  No, nor in five lifetimes, it sometime seems.

              Finally, Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth-century English writer on mysticism and the spiritual life, summarizes these truths.  She writes, “A spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the center, where we are anchored in God:  a life soaked through and through by a sense of God’s reality and claim and self-given to the great movement of God’s will.”  Furthermore, “Some people appear to think that the ‘spiritual life’ is a peculiar condition mainly supported by cream ices and corrected by powders.  But the solid norm of the spiritual life should be like that of the natural life:  a matter of porridge, bread and butter, and a cut off the joint.  The extremes of joy, discipline, vision, are not in our hands, but in the Hand of God.  The demand for temperance of soul, for an acknowledgment of the sacred character of the normal, is based on that fact – the central Christian fact – of the humble entrance of God into our common human life.  The supernatural can and does seek and find us, in and through our daily normal experience:  the invisible in the visible” (The Soul’s Delight, 11 and 45).


              The invisible in the visible, the pearl latent in the grain of sand, the diamond in the lump of coal, God’s grace conveyed to the human heart in the ordinary duties at hand in each day. . .  Anything done for the glory of God, in dependence on His Spirit, in obedience to the commands of Christ, may be lifted to our Lord as a sacrifice of praise. To quote Lilias Trotter, "Meeting His wishes is all that matters."

               May He strengthen us to learn the discipline of offering each moment and task in faith to Him, to be transformed by His glory into the means for His grace to take fuller possession of our hearts through the sacrament of the ordinary.

* My version of a story John Baldwin told my church youth group in the summer of 1990 (although some details have no doubt altered in my memory); I have found the story used as illustration various places but not succeeded in tracing the source. If you know, please let me know so I can attribute it correctly.



  1. Thank-you. This has encouraged my weary, worn down heart to keep bringing my whole self to Him. Please keep going with your posts. You are making a huge difference to us xx

    1. You are most welcome, friend. I'm grateful the Lord is using these thoughts to help you. Thank you for the encouragement. xoxo


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