Practicing the Presence of GodDecember 12, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Third Sunday in Advent
Practicing the presence of God. The phrase is neither original nor new, but comes from Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk in Paris.1 Lawrence was evidently about as incompetent a novice as the Abby had ever encountered. In his youth a soldier and footman, he was converted at eighteen and entered the monastery in order to spend his life communing with God, taking the name Brother Lawrence. He arrived with no skills other than a desire to pray. Because monastic life is a rhythm of both prayer and work, the Abbot had to find a place for him. Because he had no other trade or craft, Lawrence was assigned to the garden for routine labor of digging, weeding, watering, and the like. But he was a disaster, stomping on plants, destroying almost everything he touched. Of his own admission he was "a great awkward fellow who broke everything."2 Having no aptitude for gardening, they moved him to the kitchen, but with equal ill-success. It is reported that some monks brought him rabbits they had trapped in the forest, asking him to prepare a stew. Lawrence did, but failed to realize that he was to skin the animals before putting them in the pot. It was his last effort at cooking. They put him to work scrubbing pots and pans which he did cheerfully and with loving devotion. Lawrence seemed to have but one gift: he practiced the presence of God in all that he did, and in such a way that all around him also knew themselves to be in God’s presence as well. Whenever he found himself in a mess such as the one in the kitchen, his only excuse was a simple complaint: "You see Lord," he would pray, "what a mess I make when you leave me to myself." Soon his fellow monks began coming to him to ask for his prayers and to consult him on questions about their own lives and faith. One by one, the fellow monks and priests learned that here was a man with a gift and skill more special than any they possessed. By his life’s end, they had chosen him as their spiritual leader. Brother Lawrence went from being the dunce of the Abby to its Abbot, because of his remarkable ability to practice the presence of God.
As we move into the third week of advent, and closer to the celebration of God’s entry into human life in Jesus of Nazareth, we hear the Apostle Paul remind us that like Brother Lawrence, we are to practice the presence of God. "Rejoice, " says Paul, "always...." In its original context, this is an extraordinary command.3 The Thessalonians were experiencing persecution, and were under great pressure to abandon the gospel and return to their former way of life. Paul’s point is simple. They are objects of God’s love, a people in whom God is at work. Through them God is making the gospel known to others. They are to rejoice, regardless of the circumstance. In doing so, God will be known to those around them.
In this season, which places so much emphasis upon the coming of God, we can rejoice that it is not just a future expectation, but one that is real now. You and I can know the presence of God in our lives here and now. We can experience God’s presence to us, in worship, in the lessons as they are read to us, in music, in bread and wine, in opportunities to serve one another, in our conversations and sharing one another’s lives, and in caring for those who have yet to know God’s presence. That is mission at its very best: mediating God’s presence through word and through action, whether it is serving a dinner to older adults this afternoon, or to the homeless on a Thursday evening, whether visiting someone during these holidays who is not able to get out and about, or sharing the excitement of your faith to another who finds this season a time of darkness rather than light, a time of depression rather than joy. This is Christian mission: bearing the the transforming presence of Christ to others. Rejoice, and do so always, for in fact, you bear Christ as you practice his presence.
Pray without ceasing. Have you ever taken time to consider what that really means? Paul is not suggesting that you and I should give up our daily routines of work, of personal life, of interaction with friends and colleagues, and instead, spend every moment of our lives on our knees reciting prayers. Not even monks live that way. Rather, Paul is pressing us to take up Brother Lawrence’s lifestyle, to see every moment as a conversation with God, to understand every breath as a moment when God is filling us afresh with his life-giving spirit, to see every action, at work, home or play as God at work in and through us. Such a perspective will give us pause, in some circumstances, cause us to abandon some conversations and leave behind behaviors others accept and consider normal, simply because they are neither worthy of God or of a people in whom God dwells. Praying without ceasing translates what we do here on Sundays into the day-to-day events of our lives, sanctifying the routine, blessing the common, bearing God in such a way that all our relationships express His presence. Pray without ceasing. It is the essence of that prayer Chuck uses so regularly: "that we may pray as easily as we breath and that every breath will be a prayer." Practicing the presence of God.
Give thanks in all circumstances. Here, I have learned much from Judaism and its prayer form known as brokoths, a prayer built on the Hebrew word "baruk" which means "blest." Every Jewish prayer begins "Baruk-a-tah" (Blest art Thou), "Adonoi, Elohaynu (Lord, God), "Malek ha-olam" (King of the universe), and then goes on to list the occasion for giving thanks. Though I’ve told the story before, it bears repeating, especially today.
When I was in seminary, the question of prayer was up for grabs. It was, of course, as secular a time as we have ever known in this country, the Vietnam war was still raging, we had just come through the turbulence of the sixties, science was king, psychiatrists the high priests of the culture -- there was no personal problem which could not be resolved by therapy or the proper drug, and sin was simply a bad hangover from a more repressed generation. About the only good book available on prayer in those days was the one George Buttrick had written when here. I was taking a course on worship, both personal and corporate, in which a visiting Rabbi had come to explain Jewish prayer practice. He told us that an orthodox Jew was to offer at least one hundred such brokoths each day, blessing God for all God’s goodness. There was a silence in the room while we students pondered the "one hundred times a day," particularly in light of how little time we spent in formal devotion and prayer; the best most of us did in those days was make it to thirty minutes of chapel four times a week. "One hundred times a day?" came the question from one of the bolder among us -- bolder or less reverent, I’m not sure which. Probably both! The Rabbi paused, smiled and said "Certainly. If we cannot find at least one hundred things each day to thank God for, what kind of ingrates are we?" He proceeded to tell us about the prayer upon waking, the prayer upon putting one’s feet upon the ground, the prayer upon walking; the how many hundreds of things we simply take for granted each day, at least, until we are deprived of them. Give thanks in all circumstances: that the glass is half-full rather than empty, that the dawn comes after the darkness, that in the darkness we are not alone, that God knows us by name, no matter how poorly we may know or understand ourselves at the moment, that God treasures us as his very own even when we cannot treasure ourselves. Rejoice, always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. These are the first steps to practicing the presence of God.
Then Paul issues two warnings: Do not quench the Spirit nor despise the words of prophets. The prophets he is talking about here are not those seers of the Old Testament, but rather, those in the faith community whose job it was to preach. In the New Testament, what we call preaching is called prophecy. It is, after all, speaking for God. And, the question which lies behind all of this is how do you know if the preacher’s words or something taking place within the community is truly the work of the Spirit and not something else? How do you know that the preacher’s words are indeed more than his or her own? Paul gives us three standards by which to make such determination.
Test everything. Don’t swallow it whole. Chew on it. Meditate on it. Try it yourself. See if it holds up to the test of being worthy of God. If it holds up, hold onto it: hold on to what is good. Don’t let go of it. Continue to pursue it. When something breaks in to disrupt or destroy, ask why you give it such attention, why you dwell on it, why you give it such power in your life. Consider the hours of time you give to dwelling on things that are negative. The next time you start down that slippery slope, headed into the quagmire that always is awash in "Oh ain’t it awful" thinking -- you know what I mean -- try blessing God for something good in your life, and then think on that. Pursue it, get on with it. This is not simply a pious version of the "psychology of positive thinking," Rather, you and I have power to give our lives to good or to ill. Paul says "hold onto what is good."
Abstain from every form of evil." It is possible to abstain from evil. But to do so we must acknowledge it. This is the power that lies behind our corporate prayer of confession. This is the genius to the twelve-step movement. It forces its members to acknowledge the evil that has a grip on them and the capacity to destroy them. Once acknowledged, it relies upon the power of God to enable them to embrace and hold onto the good.
Test everything, hold onto the good, resist evil, and the God of peace will make you holy. This is the promise with which Paul ends today’s lesson: The God of peace makes us holy in such moments so that our spirit, soul and body will be sound on the day of our Lord’s coming. Now Paul is not talking here about us as being three different people or having three different parts. Rather, he is using words that describe our differing relationships. For instance, I am a son, a husband and a father. When Paul speaks of your spirit, it is his way of talking about your relationship with God as God’s child, as a spiritual creature.4 When he speaks of your soul, it is that sense of yourself that is bigger than simply your body or your mind.5 When he uses the word "body," he is referring to the portion of yourself by which you relate to others. As we practice the presence of God, our relationship with God, with ourselves and with one another, everything about us, will be kept and found sound on the day of our Lord’s coming. Practicing God’s presence, the God of peace blesses us with his power and presence and drives the evil from the center so that it can be filled with God. The God of peace works in and through our breathing, our praying, our rejoicing, our giving thanks, our testing the Spirit and prophetic words, and keeps the promise to make us holy. And like all things, the more we practice the more proficient we become. It is not that we are making it happen. It is simply that we are opening the door for God to make an advent into our lives. The more we open the door, the more God comes. The more doors of our lives we open, the more of our life God takes captive. The more of us God occupies, the more we become like him and find ourselves able to share and mediate His presence to others.
Shut the door, and you will find yourself, with Brother Lawrence, exclaiming, "You see what happens to me when you leave me to myself." The truth, of course, is that God never leaves us to ourselves. We do that for ourselves. The good news is that even if we have kept the doors of our lives tightly locked, God still stands there awaiting entry. And the moment we open ourselves to His presence, God sweeps in to drive out all that is not fit in his presence, until that day when we are fully his.
Let us pray. Give us courage, O Lord, to open the door of our lives to you. Come in power and peace and make us fully your own. Amen.
- He was born Nicholas Herman of Lorraine.
- M. Beaufort, "Brother Lawrence," The Practice of the Presence of God, (Mount Vernon, NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1963), p. 3.
- The word itself is one of Paul’s favorites. He uses it some twenty-one times in his letters to churches -- seven times in his letter to the church just north of Thessalonica, in Philippi. But in the letter to the Thessalonians he uses it only once.
- See footnote on 1 Thessalonians 5:23, NRSV, Oxford Annotated Bible, page 295 NT.
- The Hebrew word for soul is "nephish," which can also be translated "person" or "self." The Greek word is psyche ("sookay"). It is also interesting to note that this is the only verse in all of Paul’s writing where he used the word "soul."
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