A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 20, 2012
Selection from Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
In the popular At Home in Mitford religious novel series, by Jan Karon, the main character, Episcopal rector Father Tim, goes into the church sanctuary one morning to pray. Father Tim is startled by a strange man kneeling in a pew who utters such a desperate cry that the rector’s heart is shaken. “If you’re up there, prove it!” the man shouts. “Show me! If you’re God, you can prove it!” In the man’s voice is a combination of anger and despair. “I’ll never ask you this again,” the man says coldly, and then with a fury . . . he shouts again, “Are…you…up… there?”
Father Tim slides into the pew across the aisle and kneels on the worn cushion. “You may be asking the wrong question,” he says, quietly. “I believe the question you may want to ask is not, ‘Are you up there?’ but, ‘Are you down here?’”
“What kind of joke is that?” the man replies.
“It isn’t a joke,” Father Tim assures him. “God wouldn’t be God if he were only up there. In fact, another name for [God] is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”1
Many of our day are not unfamiliar with the anger and despair characterized in the desperate stranger in Karon’s novel. The problems, demands, and stresses of life can get to be too much. There is widespread burnout. Hence, there is a desire on the part of many to be in God’s presence; to have union with the Sacred; to return to the Creator and Source of life.
A few years ago, a movement began in some churches that is called “centered prayer,” a 20-minute spiritual exercise that aims at disciplined silence. Centered prayer is an attempt to regain spiritual balance in a demanding world. It is a form of prayer that depends on emptying the mind of all thoughts. In the emptiness, adherents seek peace and connection with God. Those who practice the disciplined silence contend that “It puts you in touch with that part of you where God dwells.”2
Though he didn’t name it as such, 17th century French monk, Brother Lawrence, would have been recognized as an expert on centered prayer. Following his death, the sayings and thoughts of Brother Lawrence were put together in a book that has become a Christian classic that is titled The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence is remembered as one who developed the habit of continual conversation with God. The saintly monk was assigned to work in the monastery kitchen (peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans), a job that he did not like. In fact, he had a natural aversion to. “But since he had determined to do everything for the love of God, he went prayerfully to his tasks, and for some fifteen years ‘found great ease in doing things’ there.” One theme runs through all of his writings: “that love for God is everything, and that out of that love should proceed a continual internal awareness of God and conversation with [God].” Brother Lawrence said, “I applied myself to practicing the presence of God (hence the title of the book), whom I always considered to be so close to me that [God] could be found in the depths of my heart.” “[God] is closer to us than we think.” “[God] is at the depth and center of your soul.” “To practice the presence of God is to take pleasure in and become accustomed to [God’s] Divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly in our hearts with [God] at all times, and at every moment, especially in times of temptation, pain, spiritual dryness. . .”3 Such are the words of Brother Lawrence.
One of the primary points of the scripture reading from Acts is that God is nearer to us than we can possibly imagine. The Apostle Paul, in his sermon to the Athenians, seeks to impress upon all the profound closeness of God to all of us. Paul’s sermon was a reaction to the numerous idols that filled the city of Athens. The people of Athens were “very religious,” it is said. The Athenians were groping for knowledge of the Divine. But they were seeking or searching after a God they did not know. They, like men and women have forever done, were trying to make God in their own image. There was even one idol that bore the inscription “To an Unknown God.” In reality it is in God that “we live and move and have our being,” Paul preached. God is the very breath within us.
Poet Alfred (Lord) Tenneyson phrased it this way:
“Speak to Him . . . for he hears,
And spirit with spirit can meet—
Closer is he than breathing,
And nearer than hands and feet.”
God is no farther away than the bowing of our heads in prayer, the raising of our voices in song, the gathering with others for public worship, or the taking of the bread and cup of Table Fellowship. As that beloved psalm puts it, we couldn’t get away from God, no matter how hard we might try.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
The answer, of course, is nowhere.
In Jesus we see a perfect example of one who constantly practiced the presence of God in his life. Marcus Borg refers to Jesus as a “spirit person”; one who was in intimate fellowship with the Spirit of life.
But, practically speaking, what does practicing the presence of God mean? We’re not brother Lawrence or Jesus, are we? Well, it probably means different things to different people. For me it means feeling a sense of the Sacred within the world of Nature.
For me it means compassionate living–being loving, respectful, and considerate of others.
Practicing the presence of God could mean feeling a sense of God’s presence while reading the pages of scripture or some spiritual book, such as the poetry of Mary Oliver.
Practicing the presence of God for some may mean regular prayer, meditation, or conversation with God, as practiced by Brother Lawrence. The Christian “prays in all places, not with many words, but in secret, in the depth of his soul,” Brother Lawrence said.4
And practicing the presence of God could mean going about our service to others with enthusiasm, doing it, as the Apostle says, as though we were doing it for God for himself (Ephesians 6:7).
As one writer observes in a past issue of Alive Now devotional guide, “God shows up, the eternal Mystery shows up, when we are performing the routine and mundane acts of serving faithfully,”5 even if that service, as it was for Brother Lawrence, is peeling potatoes or washing the dishes.
Pop singer Joan Osborne sings a song that says, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?” What if God might actually be in the pew right beside us, or in the chair beside our desk at work, or in the doctor’s office waiting room, or in the stranger we pass on the street? To start thinking that way could bring about a profound change in our lives and in our world.
Well, returning to where we began, perhaps you are today anxious, troubled, stressed, feel pulled in many directions, uncertain, or even close to burnout. Setting aside some time for silence, mediation, spiritual reading, communing with the Sacred in Nature, or for centered prayer may just be what the doctor ordered. There is no magical secret to uncover. There are no manuals that we have to read. We need not look for God in faraway places, as does the character in Jan Karon’s novel, or in mysterious writings, or new religions. God—the Sacred—is all around us, indeed, within us. I guess a lot hinges on how each of us interprets the Sacred, doesn’t it?
We need only, like Brother Lawrence did, turn our thoughts and affections inward to that place where God—the Sacred—dwells, deep in the human heart and soul, and be serious about practicing the presence of God—the Sacred—in our lives. Amen.
1Jan Karon, At Home in Mitford, p. 182. 2The Tennessean, 15 March 1998. 3The Practice of the Presence of God, pp. 18, 20, 92, 89, 126, 125. 4Ibid, p. 155. 5Grace Imathiu, Alive Now, March/April 2005.