By Scott Keith –
“If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hands, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools––at your needle and thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure––and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing you handle everyday is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen…. All this is continually crying out to you: ‘Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in relations to you.’”
–Martin Luther, The Sermon on the Mount
I am always quite astounded when I encounter people who love their vocation and treat it as a true calling. I am even more delighted to find that, more often than not, those people are trade workers or manual laborers of some kind. Recently, I went on a river cruise with Viking River Cruises. We traveled to several exotic locations, ate incredible foods, made new friends, and saw many amazing sights. But what made the trip a pleasure was the crew of our ship, the Viking Skirnir. From the waiters and bartenders to the captain and engineers, this is a group of people who understand their vocations and love to serve others.
What made the difference was the feeling they gave that they actually cared about us. They knew that the tools of their trade were being used to serve their closest neighbors at the moment: we, the passengers. Now, I’m not sure how many of the crew were Christian, though I am certain some were. What I am certain of is that God was using these people through the workings of everyday life aboard a ship to serve my family and me. What a joy!
One of the things that I love about Lutheran theology is its connection to the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Regeneration comes to us when normal water, combined with God’s Word, is poured on us in Baptism. Forgiveness comes to us on the lips of another down-to-earth, flesh-and-blood sinner like us when he proclaims the words of absolution. Assurance and strengthening of faith are given to us through ordinary bread and wine that, when connected to Christ’s Words of forgiveness, become His real body and blood shed for us for the forgiveness of our sin. Further, God works His providential care for us through the common callings of those whom He places in our lives: real people working with real stuff for our good as God has planned.
In his new book on vocation, Working for our Neighbor, Gene E. Veith elaborates on this idea when he writes: “But for Luther, and Lutherans, work is to be pursued as an act of love. The whole economic order becomes a network of God’s providential action, as human beings––whether believers or nonbelievers, in every facet of the division of labor––love and serve one another, meeting one another’s needs, forming an interdependence that manifests itself in multiple levels of communities.”
Believers and nonbelievers alike, through God’s plan and providential care for we His children, contribute to these acts of love through their everyday work. This is why I can say that God used the people on the Viking Skirnir to serve my family with love, thus fulfilling their vocations and allowing us to enjoy some much-needed rest. What an amazing God we have! He makes all things and all people work for His good through the ordinary stuff of everyday life. Or as Veith says: “All in all, Luther’s theology shows the interconnections of faith, work, and economics not just theoretically, but practically, and discloses how the ordinary, seemingly secular activities of everyday life are essential dimensions of Christian spirituality.”
God does work through believer and nonbeliever alike. And yet, for we who are in Christ, we know the full story, the real tale, and the deeper magic. We know that all we have––our lives, justification, faith, forgiveness, sanctification, and every good gift––has been given to us on account of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. We know we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, which is given to us by the Holy Spirit through the preached Word, and that Christ alone is He who saves us. We know too that these realities serve to set us free from trying to work to please God. Rather, our labor freely serves out neighbor. This, I think, is what is meant in Ephesians 2:10 when Paul says: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We walk in our good works through the regular interactions we have in this world. What a joy and pleasure to know we are free from being uniquely good workers in order to please God and free to live our lives walking in the steps God has prepared beforehand. These steps are not too hard to figure out. Wake up, interact with your family, pour your spouse some coffee, get dressed, head to work, or fulfill your calling in the home, and engage in those “seemingly secular activities” that are all essential elements of your Christian life.
To the crew of the Viking Skirnir: for serving us in love for ten beautiful days, I say thank you. To my mother-in-law, Sue: for making it all possible, I say thank you. To my wife and daughter, Joy and Autumn: for being such good company along the way, I say thank you. Finally, to our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who on account of Christ and because of His love for His children uses these common sinners like me to serve me in love: I say thank you.
In the end, the “Vocation of Vacation” is not much different than any other vocation. As Luther said above, all of the gifts God has placed in our lives are continually crying out to you: “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in relations to you.” – Amen!