Jeremiah 31: 31-34
I was in a church that felt like it could have been around since in the Middle Ages some place in Europe. A gorgeous stained glass window picturing a woman warrior saint stood above me, sunlight streaming through. I sat on a prayer stool on the red cobble-stone floor. The ceilings vaulted up forever above me, ornate stone carvings of bible stories wrapping around me. I was sweating, though, because I wasn’t in a moody English country cathedral, but a Philadelphia church at the end of a scorching July. I didn’t care. I had my notebook open to capture my heart’s desires, my assignment for 20 blessed minutes alone to pray and think while on a blissful retreat during my sabbatical time. “What do you desire?” was my one writing and prayer prompt. I was to make a list. Without judging myself or trying to make sense of anything or prioritizing. Just a list of my heart’s desires.
In our culture, most of us aren’t taught to value our desires as spiritual wisdom. It’s strange, really. We come from a tradition of incarnation, a tradition where we are taught that God came into the world to live with and inside humanity. We come from a tradition going back to our text today from the prophet Jeremiah that also whispers of this God inside of us, a living script upon our hearts to guide us in right relationship with each other and ourselves. And yet we aren’t taught to trust the desires that come from our bodies, our hearts, our very beings by much of the modern church. Well, unless we can satisfy those desires with a purchase of some kind, thanks to the church of capitalism.
But that’s not the kind of desire our scripture calls us into or the church ancients and elders draw us towards. Jeremiah lived in desperate times where there was actually probably very little available to buy, let alone anything as frivolous as retail therapy. As one scholar contextualizes our reading from today,
“Jeremiah lived through the demise of his civilization when the Babylonians invaded Judah, assaulted Jerusalem, and reduced the temple to rubble, exiling, or killing the royal family, priests, prophets, and majority of the population… In Judah in 586 BCE, broken families would have been ravaged by grief and loss; those left behind would have had to scramble to find surviving relatives and a place to sleep if their homes had been destroyed. Produce and food animals were either destroyed or taken. Every object of value was plundered. Anyone with any authority or skill to help rebuild the society was dead or gone.”
If that weren’t enough, many feared their collective sins as a people had caused God to abandon them and let their enemies plunder them. Into this horror, the prophet Jeremiah speaks a radical Word: God is still there. “I will make a new covenant with you,” he speaks from God. And God through Jeremiah continues tenderly to remind the people of when he took their ancestors’ hands in their time of desperate chaos fleeing another oppressive, war-making power. But God doesn’t stop there. She promises Herself to them not just in the abstract, but to make a home inside their hearts for herself so they will never fear She will leave them again.
Just as God always has, God dwells in our hearts too. Listening to our desires is one of the ways we listen to this God who rests inside of us.
“When we know our deepest desires, we know something important not only about ourselves, but also about God, as our deepest desires come from and point to that same God,” says spiritual director Elizabeth Liebert paraphrasing the wisdom of the founder of the Jesuit monks, Ignatius of Loyola.
It was an Ignatian exercise of tracking desire that I was practicing as I sat in that church in Philadelphia listening to the silence. This morning, we are in our own beautiful church and I ask that you join me in this exercise. We’re going to settle into some time to listen to the God who has written on our hearts by listening to our desires. Now, I just want to clarify that desire is a window onto God that is sometimes a little marred with finger prints and mess. In other words, some desires lead us deeply towards the Divine within us, and some are momentary impulses. Often our desires might feel in conflict with each other. The point of this exercise is just to give ourselves some much needed societal permission to listen to our desires without judgment. Just to let them speak and don’t try to make any sense of them. It’s only after we have listened without judgment that we can look more carefully at what has emerged and start to figure out the deepest layers of desire that are true to ourselves and the Divine.
So, please take out the orangey-pink folded piece of paper in your bulletin and find yourself a writing implement and perhaps a hymnal to use as a table. Leave the paper folded. The printed side of it has instructions for this spiritual practice you can take home with you and reference later – but it will just be confusing if you read it now. Put everything else down and make yourself comfortable. If you want to get up and go sit on the floor some place in the room here, that’s fine too.
And now, just take a moment to settle into yourself. Notice if you body is holding tension anywhere and find a way to release what you can by shifting around as needed. Breathe and notice your breathing without trying to change it. See if you give your mind permission to stop judging and planning or whatever its favorite busy habits might be. And now write down this question: “What do I want, right this minute?”
I recommend you respond not in prose, but in the form of a list of “I want” statements. Keep it simple. We are going to spend about 5 minutes with just this question, “What do I want, right this minute?”
Now, will you pray with me before you respond? Holy One, written onto our hearts from the beginning, help us to listen for you in ourselves. Help us to listen to our desires without judgment or hesitation, but with kindness and care.
Now pause. Take a look back at your list and notice if there is one that feels most full of energy or alive for you. Sit with that desire, holding it in gentleness. As yourself, “What desire is underneath this desire? What desire is even more basic than this one?” Jot down anything that surfaces in these next few minutes of silence.
As you go through your week this week, keep this paper with you. Come back to that desire that feels most alive. Sit again with the question, “What desire is underneath this desire? What desire is even more basic than this one?” Keep peeling back the layers without judgment but just with curiosity for what your heart is revealing about God within you.
This exercise was a large part of my prayer practice over my sabbatical. Through the flurry of wants and needs that surfaced each time I did this exercise, what emerged was a primary piece of my identity that needed my love and my time. As a pastor, I am first and foremost not a teacher or a preacher or an organizational systems builder or a fundraiser or a communicator or a care-giver. I desire to be a student of the Divine. If I am not first God’s student, I cannot be any of the rest with sustainability or integrity.
I give thanks to the God who makes a home in my heart. I give thanks to the God who is nestled in each of your hearts. I try each time we meet to be a student of that God. May we trust the promise, the covenant, the God of our ancestors made to be there always. Amen.
 Liebert, Elizabeth. The Way of Discernment . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.