Talbot School of Theology professors Rick Langer and Joanne J. Jung are authors of the new book The Call to Follow: Hearing Jesus in a Culture Obsessed with Leadership. Join Good Book Blog on a series of four posts written by Langer and Jung on the call to follow. Below is the fourth post in the series. Read the first post, “A Book on Followership, Really?,”, the second post, “Was Jesus a Follower?” and the third post, “When the Following Gets Tough.”
In our previous posts we have talked about what following really means and why it really matters. But sometimes, a worked example is worth a thousand words. So, consider the story of Nicholas Herman.
Herman was born in eastern France in 1611. He grew up in poverty, so as a young man he chose to become a soldier to earn his food and shelter. Unfortunately, his leg was wounded in battle and he had to get a job as a footman, opening carriage doors and waiting on tables. At age 40, he had a deep, spiritual experience and decided to join a monastery — not as a monk, but simply as a lay brother assigned to the kitchen. He describes his duties on one particular day as follows:
“Recently I went to Burgundy to buy the wine provisions for the society which I have joined. This was a very unwelcome task for me. I have no natural business ability and, being lame, I cannot get around the boat except by rolling myself over the casks.”
It is a sad story. Not only is his job rather boring, he is ill-suited to it because of his injured leg. Performing his duties is not only dull but also humiliating — requiring him to roll himself over the casks to get where he needed to go. But surprisingly enough, he is undaunted by the experience:
“Nonetheless, this matter gave me no uneasiness, nor did the purchase of wine. I told the Lord that it was His business that I was about. Afterwards, I found the whole thing well performed.
And so it is the same in the kitchen (a place to which I have a great natural aversion). I have accustomed myself to doing everything there for the love of God. On all occasions, with prayer, I have found [my work] easy during the fifteen years in which I have been employed here…”
Clearly, Nicholas was a man who managed to find God in the kitchen. Scraps of his journals and letters, along with records of a handful of conversations he had with other members of the monastery, were assembled into a short book by one of the monks shortly after his death. Nicholas Herman is better known to us today by the name he took upon entering the service of the monastery: Lawrence of the Resurrection, or, as he was commonly called, Brother Lawrence. The book of his compiled thoughts is called The Practice of the Presence of God — a devotional work that has inspired millions of believers over the four centuries since it was written. A search of the GoodReads website found it has been published in 551 different editions and translations. Clearly Brother Lawrence has spoken to a profound human need: finding meaning in the kitchens of ordinary life.
The work of Brother Lawrence is a wonderful example of faithful following. But even so, there is something in my heart that resists wholeheartedly embracing his example. It is not that Brother Lawrence fails to inspire me — he does. The problem is that I (Rick) usually think of him as a “master of the spiritual life.” I don’t think of him as a role model of a faithful cook. The fact is, I don’t want to think of him as a faithful cook because I don’t want to think of myself as a faithful cook. Who wants to be “just a cook” or “just a teacher” or “just a landscaper?” I’d much rather be a “master of the spiritual life.”
But God actually called him to be a cook. He wasn’t even called to be a famous cook. He was “just a cook.” He never wrote a book — it was written and compiled by others. Brother Lawrence himself lived and died in his kitchen. Later generations might elect him to the Devotional Authors Hall of Fame, but that was never on his mind at the time — he was just doing the dishes.
Thomas Merton, a modern-day monastic and devotional author, offers helpful insight into the conflicted attitudes of those of us who find ourselves working in a less than inspiring job:
“The value of our activity depends almost entirely on the humility to accept ourselves as we are. The reason why we do things so badly is that we are not content to do what we can. We insist on doing what is not asked of us, because we want to taste the success that belongs to somebody else.
We never discover what it is like to make a success of our own work, because we do not want to undertake any work that is merely proportionate to our power.
Who is willing to be satisfied with a job that expresses all his limitations? He will accept such work only as “means of livelihood” while he waits to discover his “true vocation.” The world is full of unsuccessful businessmen who still secretly believe they were meant to be artists or writers or actors in the movies .”
It is hard for many of us to accept that God might give us an “ordinary” calling, and even harder to admit that such a thing might be proportional to our powers and appropriately express our limitations. Another force is often at work as well. We often feel guilty about our ordinary life. An ordinary life can be so easy and natural and comfortable that it doesn’t seem quite right.
Many of us, myself included, have a deep sense that we should aspire to something grand, demanding, challenging or inspiring. It is not that I want to be martyred, but I do want to be “radical.” I want to be completely sold out for Jesus. I’m inspired by the famous quote: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat,” but at the same time it makes me cringe. I fear that I will rank among the poor and average souls who live in a gray twilight devoid of both victory and defeat. Strangely enough, I feel guilty before God even though the quote comes from Teddy Roosevelt. I assume that God would never call me to an ordinary life, and that since my life seems pretty ordinary, I must have missed God’s calling.
It is at this point that Brother Lawrence is such a good corrective. He sanctified his kitchen and his kitchen sanctified him because he intentionally made Jesus present in everything he did. It was exactly because he embraced his ordinary calling as a genuinely divine calling that he was able to live his life so completely for the sake of Jesus. He was completely sold out for Jesus, so strangely enough, it didn’t really matter what he did. All that mattered was who he did it for. And at the end of the day, in the strangest of places, he found the most meaningful of lives.
Listen to Scott Rae and Sean McDowell interview author Rick Langer about The Call to Follow on the Think Biblically podcast.