Unshackling the American Church: The Sacramental


My son and I took the thirty mile drive out east to the Amish area of Adams County. Our kitchen table is giving up the ghost and our original set of chairs is now down to two, with two replacements that themselves need replacing. I wanted to see a man about a table. Not some cheap piece of Chinese fiberboard held together by staples and glue, but one built by a man who cared about the wood he selected and the way the lathed spindles felt in his hands. A man whose shop sign read “Wood Craftsman.”

The store itself was not fancy—is anything Amish fancy?—nor was the design of the furniture. But in running my own hands along the same lines that craftsman’s took, I heard the wood singing.

We don’t have the money now to buy that careful, beautiful table. Can’t afford at this moment the chairs that will someday hold our friends and neighbors as we sit around eating the meal I prepare for them. But I liked the man who made that furniture and he’ll get my future business because he understands the nature of what he offers another man.

Down the road was the organic farm. Not too many organic farms in our area, even among the Amish. The young man who ran the place was happy to talk with someone who grasped what he attempted. You could hear the worry in his voice, though. How many other people understood? Who else would come and buy? This was food the way God intended it to be. Food whose cost in dirty hands and sweat made it all the more sweet to eat. One plant mattered because there were so few, so the care taken to preserve what little was in the ground showed in every future bite. This was food that demanded as much care in creating a meal of it as the nurture this young man gave to it.

Walking back to our truck, a flash of red from overhead proved to be a summer tanager alighting on a phone line. My son and I talked for several minutes about that little crimson singer highlighted against the cloudless cerulean sky. Scarlet TanagerThe sun at just the proper angle, the tanager’s feathers glowed in the rays as it warbled. I made sure to ask my son if God was pleased by that little bird He’d made. He gave me a “yes” and together we watched the summer tanager until it darted into the gently swaying oaks.

Later that evening back near our pond, I spotted the summer’s cousin, the scarlet tanager, with its black wings and vibrant red hue, a red that puts the summer’s palette to shame. With the tops of the trees yellow in the setting sun, I glanced back to catch the iridescence of an indigo bunting flitting through the walnut trees, and I thanked God for the birds He created that bless us with their beauty and song.

The Enemy’s work is to oppose God. How does he best accomplish that task? By destroying meaning.

You can’t read God’s prescription for the construction of the Tabernacle and the making of the priestly garments in Exodus without noting a few choice descriptions:

You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth.
—Exodus 25:17 ESV

You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it.
—Exodus 25:31 ESV

You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold.
—Exodus 28:22 ESV

Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them.
—Exodus 26:1 ESV

And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. “And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked.”
—Exodus 28:2-6 ESV

The gold used to make the tabernacle wasn’t just gold. It was pure gold.

The lampstand’s construction wasn’t from this bit and that. It was in one piece.

The garments made for Aaron weren’t just clothes. They were glorious, beautiful, and holy.

And the linen that compromised them wasn’t just linen. It was fine linen.

Most of all, the creators of those items weren’t just workers. They were skilled workers.

While it may be true that to the pure all things are pure, I wonder how many of us in the Church today still understand that the sacred has an enduring quality. That which is cheap and meaningless will not endure, but those things that are consecrated and sacred before God are not forgotten in this life or the life to come. The sacred is costly. To make the Tabernacle cost the Hebrews. They surrendered up their gold, jewels and yarns. But more than that, their artisans surrendered up their time and skills to craft something precious. Gold is easy to refine. Pure gold is not.

Yes, the craftsman’s work honors God. If the Reformation taught us nothing more, we should should remember that all the Reformers understood that craft is blessed by God; therefore our work is sacred when it harbors meaning within it.

But this is not a call to buy that Bang & Olafsen audio system instead of the Emerson. If life is nothing more than consuming and buying, then we have fallen for the greatest of the Enemy’s lies; we have cheapened what it means to be alive.

The American Church’s wholesale abandonment of that which is sacred and infused with meaning for that which is cheap has taken a terrible toll. Our attempts to prove culturally relevant have shown that we value what is cheap over what has meaning, rather than going the opposite way of the world.

  • The pastor downloads his sermon off the Internet. Cost to him? Nothing.
  • The worship leader thinks about the morning’s music the night before. Cost to him? Nothing.
  • Communion that Sunday consists of some mass-produced wafers out of a plastic bag and a gallon of grape juice from Dollar General. The cost…?

Does it matter? Yes, it does—it matters more than we can know this side of Eternity.

So much of what we do as a Church in this country is devoid of meaning. We’ve allowed the Enemy to strip out so many simple and sacred aspects of life that we didn’t notice they’d gone missing one by one until it was too late. Our wholesale chasing after the culture rather than being the counterculture that holds onto meaning and sacrament left the unsaved scratching their heads as to what we really offered. If it were possible, some might contend that we who are the representatives of Christ have treated our the Lord as if he’s just some cool guy who lavishes meaning by giving us what we want. We’ve taken our own lazy lust for the cheap and cheapened our birthright as Sons of the Living God. No wonder the world looks elsewhere for meaning! If we as the Church can’t be trusted to lift up the name of Jesus, what then is truly sacred?

No thankfulness exists for the cheap. The sacred though, commands our thanks. When we receive a costly gift and understand its cost, how can we not be grateful? The heart of the Christian should incline toward thanks because only the Christian understands the depth of the cost Christ paid for our sin. Yet our wholesale abandonment of meaning in other aspects of life makes it all too easy for us to do the same with Christ’s atoning work. Our thankfulness shifts to become the pitiful cry of “So Jesus, what have you done for me lately?” And all meaning in life suffers in that wake.

The sparrow falls to the ground and God knows it because He created it. We, on the other hand, pass by without caring. What is another bird to us? Or another tree? Or for that sake, another person? We Christians may stand against abortion, but why is it that all other aspects of life hold so little value to us that we can overlook them so easily? Our picking and choosing looks more like picking and choosing than a consistent worldview that understands meaning in light of the whole Gospel.

As believers in Jesus Christ, we are a priesthood. As a priesthood, we are charged with conserving that which is sacred. But our focus has been so narrow in that regard that we’ve let the bulwarks fall without thinking and let the enemy saunter up to our gates to assault the very heart of the fortress. Tree, bird, horse, man, Christ? Who cares, right? The latest iPod’s come out!

But redemption offers us true change:

  • Opening our homes to our neighbors has meaning.
  • Slowing down to catch the sunrise has meaning.
  • Listening to our elders tell the stories of our families has meaning.
  • Caring for a dying parent when it is so easy to let someone else do it for us has meaning.
  • Taking the time to listen has meaning.
  • Making something with our hands when it can be bought at WalMart for less has meaning.
  • Wondering at the splendor of a scarlet tanager has meaning.
  • Passing onto another generation the God-soaked sacredness of so many aspects of life has meaning.
  • Making a homecooked meal from the plants we harvested and the animals we raised has meaning.
  • Creating objects of beauty has meaning.

But most of all, being thankful as we experience God and worship Him in every fragment of our day has meaning. How did we in America let the Enemy so easily rob us of the sacramental?


Other posts in the “Unshackling the American Church” series:

16 thoughts on “Unshackling the American Church: The Sacramental

  1. Francisco

    By not reading the Scriptures and applying them to our lives. We have lots of people who read their Bibles and go away unchanged or read because we “have to”. There are others who apply the wrong scriptures to life (ever heard of “God helps those who help themselves?). They could even take flights to Calcuta and spend their lives in humanitary work without proclaiming the gospel.
    I don’t know if that answers your question but let us not make mistake to believe that there is a secular life and a sacred life. Though I know you are not into that. People who usually commit that mistake think that the “sacred” belong to the particular imagery they can find at their church and wonder at awe with what they see inside (I can tell much of these as I was several years in the RCC). However as you have defined we see the sacred in our everyday life. The lives of children and the careful stewardship of natural resources are things that we are supposed to care for.
    Thanks for this piece of wisdom Dan. I always enjoy visiting Cerulean (except the technical stuff that makes my head spin) :S

  2. Don Fields

    I really appreciate these thought-provoking posts. I too have become disheartened by the lack of neighborliness and community, not only in the apartment complex in which I live, but also in the church I help to pastor. I am definitely yearning for more. Thanks!

    • Don,

      Thanks for writing!

      Sometimes the breakthrough is our own willingness to be seen as weird because we’re the friendly one when no one else is. We never gave up when we were out in Silicon Valley. It was hard work sometimes, but we kept on going because we knew it was what God wanted. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in your complex.

  3. Wow, it’s good to see my brother, Don, reading Dan Edelen. And it’s even better that I agree with his comment!

    Thanks, Dan, for the outstanding post. I love living in the country (and still across the street from the church I pastor!) and waking to the singing of the songbirds … and being able to see a sky-full of stars at night while listening to the frogs singing down at the pond. I love it that my six year old boy (I don’t advise this for every six year old) mows the lawn with me. I love it that we grow roses and perennials, and that on Monday my children helped me plant our sweet corn for the third time this spring (thanks to the moles!!)

    This is not only the way things used to be … this is the way things were meant to be! I will be tracking back to this one!

    • Ken,

      I’ve never been able to understand Christians who walk on by and show no wonder. I always loved the Proverbs that go “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand….” because they show the majesty and mystery of God and His ways. God’s reply to Job at the end of that book is another instance when God piles on the wonder to such extent that Job has to throw his hand over his mouth and repent.

      Keep on delighting in the little things.

  4. Diane Roberts

    Another excellent post Dan and right on!
    By the way, tell the Amish organic guy to come out here to Los Angeles, buy a plot of land on the west side and when his crop is ripe he will be mobbed. Within 15 minutes his entire crop will be sold. I’m not sure if it’s good though, that we have more “upscale” health food markets and gyms than evangelical churches in our cities and towns here in S. Cal. Perhaps if we can even it out?

    • Diane,

      Actually the organic guy wasn’t Amish!

      I know what you’re saying about the situation with organic in CA. However, one check of how much an acre costs here versus an acre there, and you’ll know why the OH guy stays in OH!

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  6. How did we in America let the Enemy so easily rob us of the sacramental?

    Simple – like Harold Bloom said in The American Religion; we’re all Gnostics at heart. Ideas, ideals, and “what’s going on in my heart” are of more worth than what’s physically in front of us.

    People heap up piles of stuff, but it’s more about the effect of buying and having than about the stuff itself.

    People get hung up over whether or not you hold the right ideas (theology, politics, etc) more than how the person is doing.

    People live as isolated atoms, even in families, rather than in real community. (RE: the lady mentioned in the last reply thread who thought Californians more “tolerant” – I suppose ignoring you is the ultimate form of “tolerance”!)

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  8. Mike Oliver

    Any Christian should know that God created us to be in a relationship with Him and paid a terrible price (more terrible than we can imagine) to give us the opportunity to have that relationship restored after we were seperated by sin. Coming to know Him later in life, I can clearly see that He also went to some trouble to show me my situation and my options. I wouldn’t say that He forced me to opt for Him but the choices He presented were something on the order of would you like a nice piece of strawberry rhubarb pie (made one yesterday) or would you prefer a mud pie? One thought that makes this all the more amazing to me is that in addition to all that He suffered on my account and the trouble He went to that I might see the truth is that HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS GETTING. As with Peter on the beach being restored “Peter do you love (agape) me?” “Lord you know that I love(pheleo) you.”, Agape was standing right in front of him and still beyond his understanding or grasp but not beyond his desire. May the desire to know Agape grow in each of us every day.

  9. Dan, I don’t know if you are still checking this post, but I wanted to thank you, as usual, this was a wonderful post, and left me thinking about many aspects of my life.

    As regards sermon prep — one of the reasons that I still write my sermons out in long-hand while sitting at the kitchen table, overlooking my bird feeders, is because there is an organic feel that I can’t get at a keyboard. I do eventually transfer them to the PC, but only after I have worked on them via a legal pad and pencil. Sounds silly, I know…. But there you have it…

  10. This whole post was ringing a bell. Then I got to your list toward the end, and figured out where that bell was coming from. When I interviewed Rich Mullins several years ago, he said:

    A lot of people think you can’t be a Christian and an existentialist. I don’t think you can be a Christian any other way.

    God has created so much, and we’re missing it !!

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