Archive for the category “Vocation”

The Altar with a Diesel Engine

Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to run into a burning building, but they did anyway. Courageous souls, these country folk. A bolt of lightning fell from heaven and lit up the steeple of their sanctuary. But even as the flames danced above their heads, in they ran. Farmers lifted pews. Women scooped up hymnals. Children grabbed what they could. Finally, a group of men hefted the altar and, amidst a fiery rain of embers and through clouds of smoke, they rushed it outside. As the bonfire raged into the night, and board upon board dissolved into ash, the band of believers stood in that red Oklahoma dirt around an altar that no longer had a church.

By the time a young pastor named Chad Bird, fresh from the seminary, arrived to serve these believers, that fiery night was part of the local lore. The new church they had built in town had long housed the pews and hymnals and altar from their former sanctuary. The acrid smell of smoke had dissipated. The altar bore fresh paint. I stood before that selfsame altar, Sunday after Sunday, to offer prayers, to serve the Supper, to declare Christ’s word, to fulfill my vocation. But, for some reason, in the back of my mind, this altar always seemed to whisper to me that it had once stood under a roof of stars, in the dirt. It had been an altar without a church.

Time like an ever flowing stream has washed me downriver since those years I stood before that altar in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. But it’s as fresh in my mind as if I ministered before it yesterday. And, these many years later, I think now I realize why it whispered its story to me. Why I couldn’t forget that it had once stood in the dirt. Why it had stars for a roof. I think perhaps the Lord who governs my life with an unseen hand, was ever so gently reminding me even then that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.

dieselengineEvery morning I arise, get dressed, and go to work as a priest who serves at an altar without a church. And whether you realize or not, you do, too. You might say that I lead a double life. I am what people see, and I am what they do not see. They see a man dressed in black shorts and a red shirt who pulls up at their place of business in an International truck pulling a 53’ trailer full of freight. They see me climb down from the tractor, use my pallet jack to move their merchandise onto the dock, visit with them while I’m working, get their signature, and wish them a good day as I climb back into the truck to move on down the road.

That is what they see. What they don’t see is a priest dressed in the white robes of the righteousness of Christ who pulls up at their place of business in an altar with a diesel engine. They don’t see me climb down from that altar and engage in a liturgy of labor in which I am but Christ’s hands and feet and mouth. They don’t see my work as an unsung hymn, my pallet jack as a sacred tool, my unloading as a sacrifice upon the altar of love. They don’t see that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.

And it is the same with you and your own double life—the life people see, the life unseen to all but God. What does your altar look like? A desk with a computer on it? A cash register with customers lining up to make their purchase? A dental chair with an open-mouthed patient staring up at you? A changing table with wet wipes and diapers on it? Where you labor in your vocation, where you serve as a baptized priest of Christ, where you are the hands and feet and mouth of our Lord to serve your neighbor in love—there is your altar, there is the place where the liturgy of daily life and the sacrifice of love is enacted.

The gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation which the Lord Jesus gives you from the altars in your churches, those gifts bear fruit outside the walls of the sanctuary. Christ goes homeward with you. You have died with him, risen with him, bear him within your own body, even as he bears you within his. You are a priest in him who is our great high priest. Sacred work you do, because it is Christ who does it in and through you. He serves the world via your hands and feet. Your altar may be a truck, a tractor, a classroom, a baby bed, a hospital bed. From that altar of your vocation Jesus serves the world whom he loves.

I thank God that I once stood before that altar at St. Paul’s. And I thank God for the story behind it, that it once stood in dirt, beneath the stars, as a reminder to me that not every priest serves in a sanctuary, and not every altar sits within a church.

Everything I Needed to Know About Vocation I Learned at the Lord’s Supper

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)

familyaltarrailTherefore, 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.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my 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.

You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com.  I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

Post Navigation