Desire is not a topic many of us are comfortable with in Christian circles and yet it is a strong and recurrent theme in life and our sacred literature: desire for human partnership and union; the human desire for communion with the divine; and the desire to be our best and truest selves. (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Genesis 24:34-38, 43-49, 58-62; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:14-25; and Matthew 11:15-30) Well at least that is where my thoughts take me this week in response to our readings.
It is wonderful to be reminded of the love story of Isaac and Rebekah for they are our forebears in faith and desire as well as strategy played its part in this union that was the outworking of the foundational promise of God to Abraham and Sarah. The original covenant between God and God’s people was not written on dry parchment in legalistic language but rather written in the stars and human flesh. And our psalm continues this imagery of a wedding union that is for the benefit of the kingdom but is also filled with desire, surrender and fruitful progeny.
Human desire for union and fruitfulness is not necessarily a distraction from God’s purposes but one expression of it. To be bound to another in love, support and need can be both the satisfaction of one of our deepest yearnings and also a source of creation – not only the baring of children but the provision of hospitality and creativity that feeds and enlivens our world.
The desire for human union can become a distraction from the rest of our God given purposes when it is frustrated or given an exclusive priority in our lives. We should not mistake the desire for human union and love for the yearning for union with the divine. It is too much to ask of another human and too little to ask of life.
Most of us also desire to be our fullest and best selves – to fulfil our sense of potential as loving, expressive, purposeful people. And most of us find this desire to be fraught. St Paul identifies the struggle that many of us have to realise our desire to be whom and what we most fully are called to be. The desire to be good and do good is not, he laments, the same as actually being good. This is not just a moral dilemma but the struggle of human growth and development.
Paul describes this as a war between the spirit and the flesh (which can lead us to an unhealthy relationship with our bodies and other people’s bodies – thinking them bad or unimportant). More helpful and probably accurate is understanding this to be a struggle between the values of the Living God and the aspirations and priorities of the worldly system. We might see this as a competition between desiring the fruits of the presence of Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control) and feeling the need to pursue success in the eyes of our mainstream culture where we feel the pressure to always be more and better in the acquisition of wealth, health, knowledge, achievements of every kind. (It is a little like our story last week of the two wolves engaged in a terrible battle – who wins? The one you feed or attend to.)
Many of us are torn between our desire to be who we discern we are called to be, our true selves, and the desire for rules and measurable models of how to be so that we can achieve something and convince ourselves and others that we have achieved something. Jesus however is not fooled but such judgements or achievements. Indeed his life and teachings upset all conventional aspirations and understandings.
The gospel story of Jesus pointing out the moralistic and unimaginative judgements of the people who declare John the Baptist had a demon because he didn’t eat or drink as others did and then the same people called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard for enjoying fellowship with others, especially the marginal and dubious others. This is not simply a social complaint that you can’t please some people!! (although it is worth remembering that you cannot indeed please all people.) It also says that those who focus on such superficialities have no wisdom in their judgement indeed their motives are to tear down and dismiss the prophets in their midst. Jesus then describes the consequences of judgment rather wisdom.
For most of us our desire to live a good life is not only about the desire to fit in and achieve moral goodness and success in the eyes of our neighbours and even ourselves. For many of us there is this disturbing yearning to live the particular life of purpose that we feel is God’s desire for us. It is hard to discern and then when we think we know what is being asked of us it is at times hard to do and be.
Jesus says “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me ... for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” At first read it is confusing to hear words such as ease and yoke and burden linked with the demands we feel of living the life of service and purpose that we believe is ours.
This all made more sense after I moved down to live in the tall forests of the great Southern where the early foresters used to cut the giant trees by hand and drag them out of the forests with bullock drawn wagons. I met an old son of a bullock driver who said that the best teams had handmade yokes for each bullock and because the wood was shaped and smoothed to fit their particular neck they were more comfortable and it was less of a strain to pull the heavy load. Often of course the two lead bullocks were harnessed together and shared the work.
When I was first in training for the priesthood I was taught by my parish priest to remember this verse as I place the stole around my neck and it is a moment of centring to remember that this is the work that I am called to and that there is a goodness of fit between the work and myself.
This goodness of fit is what many of us long for. The sense that we are in the right place doing what our lives are meant to be about. This ease is not necessarily lacking in effort or sacrifice but there can be an ease of spirit when we are in the right place at the right time. When we find this we need not look to others for approval or praise but can live in the humble knowledge that our life has purpose. For many of us this is not a once only discernment but is called for season by season.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, help us to find our hearts desire with you.