The Sacrament of Action

I believe in coffee. I believe that, when made with care, it tastes marvelous. I believe its aroma is cause for joy. I believe it assists me in the often-arduous process of waking up in the morning (and staying that way in the afternoon!). Because I believe in coffee, I engage in numerous mundane tasks in order to make it real in the physical world.

My notion of coffee on a metaphysical level might be powerful enough to create a mental image of its flavor, aroma, and effect – but nothing more. At some point, my coffee beliefs have to press through into the physical world if I want to feel the steam on my face and the bracing hot blackness on my lips. I must take authentic action.

I rinse out the dregs of yesterday’s brew (with warm water in order to simultaneously preheat the pot). I toss the spent filter and grounds, and install a new filter in the drip compartment. I fill the chamber with cold water (because cold water contains more oxygen, which enhances the flavor). I open the cupboard and take out the coffee grinder and beans. I put in the right amount of beans, plug in the grinder, hold down its “roof”, and start grinding. About twenty seconds later I firmly tap the side, and then the bottom of the grinder a few times with the heel of my palm (I have found this to be the best way to get any rogue bits of ground coffee down off of the roof before removing it). I remove the roof of the grinder, pour the fresh grounds into the clean filter, close the compartment, set the pot in its place, and push the “on” button.

I can assure you that none of those actions have any intrinsic meaning for me. It is all about the coffee – it’s all about bringing coffee into my physical reality. At 6:00AM the abstract notion of coffee will not do for my wife and me – we want tangible stuff. So, I happily engage in my bleary-eyed routine because of the hope set before me…

Is there any intrinsic meaning in reading a few chapters of Scripture in the morning? How about telling a friend the story of God's invasion into my life? Contemplative prayer? Perhaps tithing?

Maybe there is. If so, it seems like a rather pallid reality to me. For me, the real meaning of such actions is anchored in the reality of my beliefs. These are the more or less mundane acts (among many others) by which I press what is in my mind, spirit, and heart into what can be known by my hands, ears, mouth, eyes, and nose. That is what I think of as sacramental action.

A sacrament is defined as: “A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace…”* Baptism and Communion are “official” Sacraments. Jesus knew how important it is for humans to experience and express metaphysical things physically. He gifted us with bread and wine to taste, and water to feel in order to give his message to our bodies – not just our minds.

The life of faith is all about sacramental action. It is all about seeking ways to press the unseen into the seen. And this almost always calls for discipline, simply because moving from one modality to another is usually difficult. In the life of faith, discipline is not an end in itself; it is the force that propels us from the realm of ideas and insights into the world of action. At least, it is the piece we offer into the process; God is always the underlying and overarching force in any meaningful action.

It is good advice to “Wake up and smell the coffee.” But it’s nothing more than that until somebody actually makes the coffee!

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:17 (NIV)

“Faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.” James 2:26 (Phillips)

* The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


The Best Treadmill I Ever Bought Was A Dog
Scott Burnett

Ten minutes into our walk we are pushing to the top of the second hill. It is less of an effort for my companion than it is for me. He has a lower center of gravity, and four points of contact with the earth. He pulls forward, keeping the leash and the muscles of my left arm taut. He is not trying to yank free; he is simply anxious to get on to wherever we’re going. At least, this is how I choose to see it.

At the gate to the pipeline trail there is a zinc-painted post. Around its base grows an unmowable tuft of scrub grass. For my dog, it is an olfactory NPR – one of his favorite stations along the way for sniffing out the day’s news. He plunges in nose-first, then looks up smiling, ears perked as if he’s heard the familiar chime of a wave file: “You’ve got mail…” Pee-mail, that is. He lifts his leg and replies to all.

I say, “C’mon!” and we’re on our way again. As far as I can tell, Boomer gives no thought to the mechanics of his gait. I, on the other hand, am trying to remember to keep my ankles square with my hips, and to leverage from my thighs in order to save wear and tear on my knees. Boomer darts to the left, making a lateral lunge for another exceedingly interesting mound of grass. I let out some slack from the leash, and continue walking. By now he knows the rhythm of my stride, and how long he has before the tug hits his collar, so he works quickly. Squirt-squirt. He’s just initialed an important document that is completely invisible to me. “Come!” and he’s back at my side, pulling ahead as if to imply that it was I who’d been sidetracked.

The gravel crunches underfoot like granola for breakfast. These walks have been good food for me: body, soul, and mind. Regular exercise does not come easily to me, but Boomer has reintroduced a long missing ingredient into the mix. Play. He makes me want to walk, and he gives me a reason to go even when I don’t feel like it. He is a spring-loaded, stinky-kissing, let’s-go-eyed, black-brindled reason to strap on my sneakers, don my fedora, and dive into the drizzly night. Gorgeous, pastoral summer days are very rare in our neck of the woods, so a commitment to consistent outdoor exercise is bound to be tested often.

But today is one of those rare perfect days that would make the whole world move to Seattle if word were to get out. Behind us are the Cascade Mountains, in front of us the Olympics. The manmade, flat-sided peaks of the cities are also visible, flashing reflected sunshine our direction. Close by, there are amply pastured horses, and beautifully landscaped estates. The dragonflies are back. The sun is hot, the breeze is cool, and the air is full of fragrances. Cut grass, manure, and a hundred varieties of flower converge upon my woefully sub-canine sniffer. I can only imagine the stories Boomer is reading on the wind.

Squirt-squirt. Boomer, to his way of thinking, now owns another strategic clump of grass along the trail. It seems like a good way of thinking to me. In fact, from this vantage point, my soul is inclined to lay claim to two mountain ranges, thousands of verdant acres, a salmon stream, and this well-kept trail running straight through the middle of it all.