"All the Saints Adore Thee 04: Brother Lawrence"
by Tim Suttle
We’re finishing up our series, All the Saints Adore Thee this week.
- Before we get to our saint, I want you to look at this painting.
- Michelangelo was considered the greatest artist of his time.
- This is one of his most famous works, the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
- Anybody been there? This is the Creation of Adam.
This fascinates me. If you look carefully you’ll notice the figure of God is stretching out toward the man with exceptional intention.
- His head is in full profile, facing toward the man.
- His eyes fixed upon him.
- His arm is stretched out and his index finger is straight out, like he’s trying reach his phone charger that fell off the nightstand.
- Every muscle in his form is taut.
- Do you see the flow of the fabric?... God is in motion… moving toward Adam… propelled by the angels.
- (The angels here don’t look particularly fit… little chubby, but in Michelangelo’s day their form suggested swiftness and elegant power.)
- It is as if God is focused in raptured desire to reach out and close the gap between God and this man.
- There’s an eagerness, a generosity to God’s reaching, and God’s reach comes within an inch of the hand of the man.
Some scholars say it shouldn’t be called The Creation of Adam but rather The Endowment of Adam, because Adam already exists… he has life already.
- His eyes are open. He’s conscious.
- This isn’t the moment of creation… this is contact… or nearly so.
- It seems that Michelangelo meant to convey a kind of unrelenting determination on the part of God to reach out to and touch humankind.
- To be present with the person God has made.
PT: God is extending, reaching, stretching to touch the human, but God leaves a tiny space between them… a space, one might say, for Adam reach back… or not … God is fully present to the human, by great effort & will & love, and yet there is this space between them. God waits for Adam to make a move.
I want to suggest than in this space between those fingers, lies all the pain, suffering, and misery of human existence… all war, disease, heartbreak.
- Every fight you’ve ever had.
- Every broken relationship, shattered dream, or deep disappointment.
- And in this space lies all human potential for life, love, & happiness.
- You might be tempted to call this space sin… (part of it).
- But this space predates sin.
- I think the better name for this space would be longing.
- God’s longing to be in contact w/creation & enjoy fellowship w/his ppl.
- And man’s longing to know the creator, to touch back, to make contact.
- All human flourishing exists in that space, only as pure potential.
Adam’s posture is a little more difficult to interpret.
- His arm is only partially extended in kind of lazy-pose.
- His weight on his back shoulder.
- He seems passive… indifferent to the connection.
- His arm is resting on his knee, like he’s playing around.
- He doesn’t lean in… toward God.
- It’s almost like he’s not sure he wants the contact.
- Maybe he thinks God should have to close the distance.
- Maybe he lacks the strength, maybe he is weary and cannot reach out, although it appears all he needs to do is lift a finger.
Have you ever felt this way? …so weary & spent, so fearful and reticent that even lifting a figure toward God seems like an impossible task?
- Like God is so close and yet so far away.
- Like God has done all God can do, the rest is up to you, and you just don’t have it… you can’t close the gap?
- Well, the painting is in a sense, unresolved.
- The fingers never touch… the gap remains.
- It’s part of what makes the painting so incredible… the gap between the fingers… because it portrays the truth of the human condition.
If you know your art history you know that Michelangelo felt exactly that way.
- He spent 4 grueling years completing this fresco.
- It was tedious work… because Frescos were done in wet plaster.
- So the artists worked not only with paint, but with the plaster as well.
- It had to be perfect: not too wet, not too dry, mixed w/out impurities that might make it crack as it dried…
- He was painting w/inconsistent colors & dyes…
All of this was compounded by the fact that this fresco is on a ceiling. He produced it while lying flat on his back atop scaffolding almost 70 feet in the air.
- Paint & plaster dripped constantly onto his face, beard, mouth, & eyes.
- It was so taxing that his eyesight actually began to fail.
- It’s a wonder he didn’t paint every single figure with an angry frown.
PT: At one point, exhausted by his work, discouraged by the seemingly overwhelming enormity of the project, doubting whether he was really up to the task, he wrote in his journal a single line, “I am no painter.”
And yet for 500 years this painting reminds us of God’s desire to make contact… God’s hope to connect w/every human being, despite our indifference.
When the Apostle Paul addressed the Greek elites in Acts 17, he talked of a God who made the world & every unique race & culture, saying, (Acts 17:27),
- “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
- I wonder if we believe that… & if we experience it?
- God is not far from any one of us.
- You might say God is reaching out to us…
- And the question is: are we reaching back?
Which brings us to our Saint story for today: In 17th Century France there grew a boy called Nicolas Herman.
- Nicolas grew up a peasant in a world with little or no social mobility in 17th Century France.
- So he did what many young men did during his day: joined the army.
- He fought in the 30 Years War (in which 8 million people died).
- During the fighting he was badly injured.
- We don’t know exactly what the injury was, but we know that he had trouble walking for the rest of his life.
When he was 18 years old Nicholas had an encounter with Christ.
- These were the days before youth lock-ins or church camp.
- It didn’t take skits or evangelists to convert Nicholas to Christianity.
- What it took was a long, hard winter.
- A 17th Century peasant had no furnace, no insulation, no down coat.
- Most people only had one set of clothes, so if they got wet (which they did all the time), life could get difficult.
- At the age of 18 Nicolas was deflated.
- He was deeply dissatisfied, and chronically worried about himself.
- He did not know if he was saved, if God was real, if life had any hope.
One day in that harsh winter, he was looking at a tree.
- And the same truth struck him that struck the Psalmist so long before:
- That the secret of the life of a tree is that even in harsh seasons, it remains rooted in something deeper, and something other, than itself.
- It struck him that his soul was like that barren tree in winter.
He imagined it with all its green leaves in the middle of summer.
- He longed for that summer, and he realized that the way summer would restore that tree, God could and would restore his soul.
- And so Nicholas Herman reached back toward God… it was contact.
- He reached out to the outstretched hand of God, & there began one of the most profound & often repeated journeys w/God outside the Bible.
- You may know him as Brother Lawrence, & he wrote a spiritual classic still read to this day: The Practice of the Presence of God… anybody?
After Nicholas left the army he wound up at a monastery, apparently driven there by this intense curiosity about God.
- The monks welcomed the young man who was just waking up to something deeply spiritual within him.
- So, the peasant, turned soldier, became a monk and took the humble name: Brother Lawrence.
He joined a Carmelite Monastery in Paris (a little history on the Carmelites).
- They had been around since about the 12th century; and their calling card, was their focus on contemplation.
- You may have noticed that three of our saints this year had some sort of connection to the contemplative life.
- I’m just curious, what comes to mind when you hear the word contemplation? … what does it mean to you?
The Carmelites defined contemplation quite broadly. They thought the contemplative life consisted of 3 things: prayer, community, and service
- We’re tempted to think contemplation is about solitude, silence, and prayer, and that’s part of it.
- The Carmelites thought it was more a way of moving thru our lives.
- I once went on a pilgrimage to Albuquerque to see a Franciscan monk named Richard Rohr.
- He runs a little center called The Center for Action & Contemplation.
- He’s often asked, “Shouldn’t it be contemplation & action?”
- He always says that the operative word is “and.”
- As long as we have both prayer and action, we’ll be okay
- This is the Carmelite way.
So Nicolas Herman became Brother Lawrence of a small Carmelite Monastery,
- And for the next 30 years his life was lived mainly in the monastery kitchen… cooking meals and washing dishes.
- Later on when his war wounds limited his mobility, he took up repairing sandals.
- And really… that’s the story.
- There is no miracle, movement, battle, no painting on a chapel ceiling.
- Brother Lawrence lived his life a washer of dishes, & fixer of sandals.
Yet there was something about his life that was undeniably compelling, and it all hinged on something that Brother Lawrence carried into that kitchen:
- It was an image of a God who was stretching out to be with people.
- We’ve talked about this before.
- The central promise of the Bible is not ‘I will forgive you’ - although God offers scandalous forgiveness without strings attached.
- It is not the promise of life after death, though that’s thrown in as well.
- The most frequent & prominent promise from God in the Bible is:
- “I will be with you.”
Yet, in this space between our lives & the outstretched arm of God lives the deep longing of every single human soul.
- Dallas Willard (last week), he wrote often about this longing:
- “How lonely life is! Oh, we can get by in life with a God who does not speak. Many at least think they do so. But it is not much of a life, and it is certainly not the life God intends for us or the abundance of life Jesus came to make available.”
You might remember the story that Jacob had a twin brother Esau who was older than he was – he was the family heir.
- Jacob and his mother worked out a plan to deceive his father & betray his brother in order to get the family birthright…
- The plan worked except Esau then wanted to kill Jacob…
- So Jacob has to run away.
- And this left a big question…
- If he left his home, would God go with him?
- Because in the ancient world the gods were tied to the land.
- So if you left your home, you left those gods behind.
- If you went to a new place, you had to worship new gods.
So Jacob ran away from home & there’s this question of whether the God of Abraham & Isaac would go with him: Gen 28:10
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. 11He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
13And the LORD stood beside him; and said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed; in you and in your offspring. 15Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
So here is Jacob, the scrawny kid, running from his messed up family.
- His father is dying, his brother wants to kill him.
- He flees into the desert, walking as far as he could… completely alone.
- And finally exhausted he looked for a stone to use for a pillow.
- When he had found the right size, Jacob lay down to sleep, turning his cheek against the stone, still warm from the sun.
And he had a dream …about a ladder, and angels ascending and descending and all of the sudden the Lord was standing beside him.
- And the lord said to him, “I am with you…”
- Which is the first time that promise occurs in the Bible.
- And he has this dream about a ladder reaching to the heavens.
- And angels are going up & down the ladder.
- And then the Lord is beside him saying, “I am with you, and will watch over you wherever you go.”
Did any of you grow up singing, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder?”
- Did you notice Jacob doesn’t climb the ladder in the story?
- The song gets it wrong.
- It’s not a ladder Jacob uses to get out of here & go up there.
- It’s a ladder where up there is coming down here.
“When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it…. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’”(Genesis 28:16,17, NIV).
PT: This is a story about a God with a ladder. And the idea of this story is not that we have to do special things or go to special places to get to God, because this God has this ladder… Jacob was no place special. And the promise God made to Jacob in this no place special… was… “I am with you.”
Over & over in scriptures we see God trying to get this through to us. And over & over we end up reading it the wrong way.
- In Matthew, at the moment Jesus dies on the cross, it says the veil in the temple was torn, you’ve heard this right?
- I was raised saying this meant we now had access to God.
- What if the whole point was that now God has access to us?
- That God isn’t stuck behind some veil in a temple; God is on the loose
PT: What if the difference between those who experience the constant presence of God & those who don’t is AWARENESS. That’s it. All it takes to pray w/out ceasing is an awareness of God’s presence w/us every moment of every day, & then whatever we do becomes transformed.
You know the famous footprints in the sand poem? I’ve said before that I have a theological beef with it (if you love it, don’t get mad at me).
- It says that when hard times come there’s only 1 set of footprints.
- Where were you during those times, God?
- And God says, I was carrying you during those times.
- I think, theologically, that’s not quite right.
- You always have to walk… only you can live your life.
- God will not live it for you.
- The promise is not, “I will walk for you.”
- The promise is, “I will be with you.”
- There are always 2 sets of footprints in the sand.
- In fact, when we’re in crisis we’re usually more aware of it.
- It’s in our everyday lives we struggle to see God’s presence.
Well… Brother Lawrence… found a way … and he cultivated this awareness of God’s presence that permeated every aspect of a very ordinary life.
- In fact it’s the ordinariness of his life that makes him extraordinary.
- He washed pots & pans & mended sandals… his whole adult life!
- That’s all he ever did.
- What made it extraordinary was that he did it in the presence of God.
- So this ordinary life took on a deep sense of meaning.
- The Q for us is: What if that same kind of life is available to you & me?
- BBT says it this way: “What if God can drop a ladder absolutely anywhere, with no regard for the religious standards developed by those who have made it their business to know the way to God.”
- … stunning line: What if God can drop a ladder anywhere… how would that change your life…
It’s interesting Jacob names the place Bethel.
- Bet – the Hebrew for house
- El – short for the Hebrew name for God elohim… House of God
PT: Even the most ordinary place – no place special – can become the house of God & the only thing that changes is our AWARENESS, that God is in fact w/us.
Eventually, people began to notice the way Brother Lawrence lived.
- He did his work with such peace and joy in his everyday routine. Eventually other monks in the monastery started seeking him out to learn about what he was doing, and how they could get what he had.
- He became a great source spiritual guidance and wisdom.
- In our day we seek out heroes who are big achievers, the successful, those who build great buildings, win wars, or amass fortunes.
- Wise people throughout history sought ought people because of the quality of their being.
Soon the word spread and higher ups in the church began to take notice.
- In 1666 the archbishop sent the Vicar General to talk to Brother Lawrence to find out what the fuss was all about.
- Brother Lawrence wasn’t interested in fame or political power, so when the guy showed up, Brother Lawrence refused to meet w/him.
- This guy was second only to the pope.
- This dishwasher-slash-sandal-repairman, refused an audience with an emissary from the archbishop.
- He made him wait for days to ensure his motives were innocent.
- Finally he agreed to meet with him for four interviews.
- They were preserved word for word by a secretary.
- After Brother Lawrence died in 1691, they were compiled along with some letters into a book that became a Christian classic called:
- The Practice of the Presence of God.
PT: And a wounded war vet, dishwasher, shoe repairman sold more copies than JK Rowling, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King combined. And through a very brief literary work, he has become a deeply influential figure in the church for 400 years.
In the book we see how Brother Lawrence realized that these “no places in particular,” these unimportant tasks, these dirty dishes…
- This email, this cubicle, this job, this room…
- This bed, this workout, this friendship, this conversation…
- What if they all became a Beth-el, the house of God?
- In other words… what if God can drop a ladder anywhere?
- In the middle of your life or mine, no place in particular, no day in particular, no reason in particular…
- This is what happened to Brother Lawrence, & his life became a repository of infectious joy in seemingly mundane work.
Brother Lawrence decided to make his life an experiment in what he called a “habitual, silent, secret conversation of the soul with God.”
- For him, there would be nothing trivial in life because he would do everything as if it was done for God and in the full presence of God.
- He has this famous quote: "It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
- The smallest, most insignificant task becomes a holy moment when done in and for the presence of God.
- Brother Lawrence became a living example of what Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24 - “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
And so Brother Lawrence made his service a conversation with God who was always present. He said, "Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”
We have all sorts of spiritual practices that are useful for drawing us into an awareness of God’s presence.
- We light candles, burn incense, and sing songs.
- Brother Lawrence thought all you needed to do was fold your clothes & make your bed.
- It isn’t the practices themselves… it’s the presence of God.
- If you start to see everything you do as a holy practice before God, then everything you do becomes a prayer.
- A laundry basket becomes a holy altar.
- An casserole can become a Eucharist.
- A sink overflowing with dirty dishes can be washed with holy water.
- Any task done unto God, in service to God becomes a holy task
- A chance to reach back toward God & close the distance… contact!
PT: And this is not the path to a good life so much as it is the entire purpose of life as it is intended for us. Brother Lawrence discovered this, and lived into this with singular commitment.
Jacob & Esau had a blood feud going because Jacob has swindled Esau out of his father’s blessing… so that 1st meeting was a reckoning of sorts.
- The next day, they met and hugged & kissed & all was forgiven…
- Not because Jacob has learned his lesson or Esau was magnanimous, but because God had dropped a ladder.
- And when God drops a ladder into the world reconciliation happens.
- So after a whole long story of cheating and lying and violence, living as enemies and strangers, they again become brothers.
- And Jacob, touched by God’s presence, says to his former enemy,
- “When I saw your face, it was like seeing the face of God.” (Gen 33:10)
A life is available to you & me that is so permeated with the presence of God, that dirty dishes and mortal enemies alike are transformed by “God with us.”
- That we… like struggling trees in winter would find such comfort in God, that we cannot help but look upon our lives…
- … and see God’s purposes for all things, and all people.
Brother Lawrence remained obscure throughout his life.
- He never got voted Pope.
- Never got to be in charge of the monastery. Not even close.
- He stayed in the kitchen… & was the beating heart of the place.
- Everyday around him, and even people half a Millenia later, rivers of living water flowing from him calling us to know God as he did.
- One of his brothers wrote:
- “The good brother found God everywhere as much while he was repairing shoes as while he was praying with the community.”
Brother Lawrence wrote, “The most holy and necessary practice in our spiritual life is the presence of God. That means finding constant pleasure in His divine company, speaking humbly and lovingly with him in all seasons, at every moment, without limiting the conversation in any way…. We must work towards making every action, without exception, into a kind of brief conversation with God—not in any artificial way, but purely, simply.”
What would be different for you if this was your approach, your daily tasks as a conversation with God? Brother Lawrence said anyone can do this, “Think of God throughout the day, during every activity, even when you relax. He's always near. Don't leave him alone. Would you consider it rude to ignore a friend who's visiting you? So why abandon God and leave him alone? Don't forget God. Think of him often, adore him unceasingly, and live and die with him.”
This is the truth of God revealed in Christ - that God (while probably not an old Italian man with a grey beard)…
- …is a personal being that strains joyfully and desperately to reach out to you, to touch you, to be with you.
- God’s face is turned toward you in all you do..
- And all we have to do is lift a finger…
- And we can make anything we find ourselves doing, and opportunity to practice of the presence of God.
This is what I most want in my life, especially when I have days or weeks that feel like a French Winter in the 1600’s.
- When I’m staring at the barren tree that mirrors the condition of my soul.
- This is the life you most want, whether you are weary from your tasks, or just bored with another football season that really is not going to save your life.
- What if God can drop a ladder anywhere?
- What if God can reach right into to the middle of your everyday…
- Every day.
PT: My prayer is that our work, our neighborhoods, friendship and families, our giving and receiving, or working and resting would find us all… every one of us… reaching out toward the God whose face is turned to us, and who never stops reaching out his hand.
1. Do you ever feel God reaching out to you or sliding the ladder your way? Do you ignore it or do you think, that can't be God reaching out to me?!
2. How do you position or posture yourself to engage with God when he's reaching out?
3. What one mundane or ordinary task in your life feels void of God’s presence?
4. If the most common words spoken in the Scriptures are “I am with you”, then how does that change a current challenge in your life?
5. Where is the most difficult or uncomfortable place in your life where God is wanting to drop a ladder?
6. If the difference between experiencing the presence of God or not is just a matter of awareness, how can your awareness of Him be heightened?