Yesterday was such a beautiful day! Even while the snow was still slowly melting along the tree line in my backyard, I was out looking at the garden beds, making mental plans for spring cleaning and planting, likely just weeks away. I so easily slipped into the future, seeing the garden full of healthy and happy tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers with their big yellow blossoms, and more. As I walked around the perimeter of the house, I studied the still-sleeping rose bushes for signs of green, I made mental notes about what needed pruning, and I kept a inward checklist of things I wanted to look up for more info—like, should you top off lilac bushes, and is it a good thing to cut back last year’s clematis vines?
All of this beautiful world I was living in yesterday afternoon was actually not the world I saw around me at all, which had plenty of mud and dried brown leaves; for that brief and beautiful time, I was in the world of the future. I could see the blossoms and the growth; I was already planning for the trellises that would support the riotous and weighty growth of the vines and fruits. Such is the abundance of this life God gives us. When it blooms, it blooms!
Earlier this week I had my final appointment with the orthopedic surgeon who took care of my broken collarbone. As his assistant led me down the hallway, I realized that my last appointment was in the same exam room where I’d had my first one. There was something poetic about that, the bookends of my experience. It was touching to see how far I had come between July and February. On my first visit, I was in pain, anxious, resistant to any idea of surgery, afraid this broken bone could keep me from doing things I love to do—gardening, kayaking, enjoying a simple, active life. But here I was, healed, whole, restored to the strength and ease of my former self. The pain was gone. The weakness was gone, all was well, like the break had never happened. Across the course of this time spanned my effort and waiting and prayer and surgery and more prayer and limited but gradually increasing activity. It had been a long journey. And now, a full six months later, my current self—blossoming with strength and looking so forward to spring—sent a thought of love back to my hurting self, who then was uncertain about the future, not sure how much healing there would be, worried about what the future would hold.
It was an interesting way to think about life, a way to see our experiences as points on a journey that are somehow still accessible to us, even when we’ve moved on and learned and forged ahead. My now-healed self nodded back to my uncertain self and said, ‘See? It all worked out better than you expected.” I wonder how my self of today might receive similar encouragement from my self of tomorrow? How might we look at our lives differently if we knew the end of the story, if we were sure everything was going to turn out okay, that the world will get better, the virus will go away, people will heal, and civility and respect and progress and community once again will be hallmarks of our society?
Because as people of faith, as Quakers who know God, we do know the end of the story. And we know what God has promised and what God provides each and every day. And we know the goodness and wild, abundant growth—and healing, and learning that happens when give God room to work in our lives.
Our Old Testament reading today is a beautiful verse from Isaiah describing how the land will rejoice when God’s favor returns to his children:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
As you may remember from our study of Isaiah, the whole book is a back-and-forth between the burning of God’s anger, God’s upset at being forgotten, and God’s hope and promise for restored relationship with his children. God loves the people with an everlasting love, as Jeremiah says, and wants nothing more than true relationship with them; but people being what they are, they continually forgot and turned away and worse. The chapter from which we draw our verses today follows a much more difficult one that talks about God’s judgment on those who have turned away from him, promising a day of vengeance and thorns and nettles overgrowing all that man had worked to build.
But things turn toward grace, as they always do with God, and the promise is rekindled in time. The peoples’ hearts are warmed and begin to thaw, like spring returning to the land. And then the desert itself begins to blossom and beauty and joy return—because God has once again turned their way.
One of my favorite mystics is a simple monk named Brother Lawrence. And in the 16th century, he learned to do the thing that Mother Teresa later suggested—that we do small things with great love. When he was just a young man—and awkward young man at that, not good, as he said, for much of anything—he was serving as the footman to the town treasurer and, riding through the countryside one day in the dead of winter, he saw a bare tree and suddenly had a revelation of the love and goodness of God. Here is how the story appears in Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God:
“…in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the providence and power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul. That this view had perfectly set him loose from the world, and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased during the more than forty years he had lived since.”
In something as simple as a glance at a bare tree, Brother Lawrence was suddenly given a great and lasting gift: He saw clearly how God always works in love, bringing the goodness of growth, the measure of fullness and beauty and abundance over time. This epiphany gave him an understanding of God’s love that was so complete that it stayed with him all the rest of his life. He wanted more than anything else to stay connected to God in constant prayer, talking with God as you would your closest companion, doing with gratitude whatever God set before him in his day. He entered a monastery and served for decades in the kitchen; he said he could worship God among the pots and pans as well as anyone could worship in the greatest cathedrals in the world. His book was written by a young man who interviewed him, wanting to record the secret of his moment-by-moment intimate connection with God. Brother Lawrence insisted it was very simple, it was his one goal to do everything he did for the love of God, to love God as truly as he could, telling the writer, “It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
In other words, Brother Lawrence knew—without a shadow of a doubt—the end of the story. He knew experientially, as George Fox would say, that God is leading us all to a season of fullness, that we too will blossom with the love and truth and wisdom of God if we nurture our faith and trust God to make good on his promises to us, which God will and does do. Brother Lawrence felt such a sense of gratitude and love for God—that God cares so perfectly and tenderly for all creation—that he didn’t want to do anything for the whole remainder of his life but to return God’s love with his whole heart. This led him to live a life full of small things he did with great love, and that is why we are still turning toward his wisdom and devotion, four hundred years later. Throughout the span of all that time, God’s love in Brother Lawrence’s life continues to blossom for us.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is writing to early Christians in the busy, bustling port of Ephesus. It was a thriving seaport in Asia Minor and as such, a real melting pot of beliefs, traditions, and cultures. For this new little band of Christians to flourish and grow in such a rich and diverse area, they would need to remember what was distinctive and unique about their faith and seek out an ever-deepening relationship with the one true—and living–God. Paul tells them in his own words what God shows Brother Lawrence 1500 years later: That God has a plan and a loving and beautiful purpose and is unfolding everything—gradually, perfectly—in accord with that plan. You can already see the end of this story, Paul tells them, writing,
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven, and things on earth.”
We are all part of that good flowering, the blossoming in God’s fullness of time, Paul tells us. It’s an invitation to remember where we’re headed and who is leading us, come what may in our day to day circumstances.
If you have spent much of the last year discouraged, feeling worried, wondering whether—if and when—things will get better and not worse, you are not alone. We’ve talked before about our human tendency to scan for trouble, to look for threats, to focus on the things that upset and perhaps put us at risk. That happens without our even knowing it–it is part of our biological makeup—that amygdala in the center of our brains is programmed to be vigilant and trigger our fight or flight response to keep us safe. Researchers in recent years have also discovered that it is human nature to have what’s known as a “negativity bias,” which means that as a rule, we react more strongly to negative things than we do to positive ones, and we’re more likely to believe bad things than good.
This negativity bias can have a number of effects on our experience in the world. Because we react more strongly to slights or criticisms than we do to compliments, we might dwell on insults—stewing on them, really–a lot longer than we think about any good things that were said. This tendency toward negativity can cause us to feel—incorrectly—that whole days, or weeks, or a year—such as 2020, for example—was all bad. That becomes the story we tell about it. But in truth, there were good things that happened in 2020 as well—babies were born, people healed, we adapted to challenges, we discovered what matters, we looked forward to better times, we appreciated and checked in with and prayed for each other.
To counter our built-in negativity bias and calm our fight-or-flight response, it is helpful to have a long view, to know who we trust, whose promises we believe, to envision the end of the story. Brother Lawrence saw it. Paul told the Ephesians about it. We can remember that we are part of God’s blossoming in the fullness of time. The sap in the trees even now is stirring throughout our region, preparing to send nourishment so leaves will bud and grow. And following the leaves, flowers and fruit. In God’s abundant pattern of growth, blossoming in the fullness of time.
Along the way, as the light slowly returns and the good green growth becomes more and more evident, we can live gratefully each day, picking up a straw off the ground for the love of God. We can do our best to chat with God continually as we would an old friend who knows everything about us and loves us anyway.
Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith wrote the foreword to the 1895 edition of The Practice of the Presence of God, and I’d like to end with her words to us all. She writes,
“[Brother Lawrence’s] “practice” requires neither time, not talents, nor training. At any moment, in the midst of any occupation, under any circumstances, the soul that wants to know God can “practice the presence” and can come to the knowledge. The Lord Christ is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge, let the “seemings” be what they may; and we need but recognize this as a continual, ever-present fact, and the inexpressible sweetness to which Brother Lawrence attained will become ours.”
- OT Isaiah 35: 3-5
- NT Ephesians 1: 9-10
- Negativity bias: https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618#:~:text=Verywell%20%2F%20Brianna%20Gilmartin-,What%20Is%20the%20Negativity%20Bias%3F,feel%20the%20joy%20of%20praise.
- Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Practice_of_the_Presence_of_God/s1I4AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover