Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved wandering around in empty places. I think one of the reasons I love them is that they never feel empty to me. There is a spaciousness, a reverence, the presence of peace. I have a good memory of going to school over on Conner Street with my Grandma Libbert, who taught first grade there for 30 years. The day after school let out for the summer, Grandma and I would go over so she could take down the decorations on the bulletin boards, box up supplies and books she wanted to take home for the summer, and just generally made sure the classroom was clean and tidy, so when she came back in the fall, everything would be ready to start again. I loved walking through the darkened hallways, hearing the echo of my footsteps along the way. The lights stayed off as we took things down and straightened things up. We sometimes talked but mostly not, and there was a sense of peace, a special awareness of “greater beingness” that couldn’t be found when that space was full of voices and busyness.
A few years later I went with my friend Dee Dee and her mom to their church in the middle of the week when no one was there. Mrs. Byard was the church secretary, and she needed to mimeograph the bulletins and prepare things people would need for Sunday worship. It was a small church but lovely, with lots of natural wood and the pews arranged in a semi-circle, similar to what we have here at Noblesville Friends. It was such a treat to be in that empty, quiet, reverent space, just the three of us. We spoke in quiet voices. It was like worship was always going on there, whether there were people there or not, and that day, we were just lucky enough to come in and be a part of it.
And even though it might seem unlikely in our loud and fast-paced world, I believe there is worship going on all the time, deep within us, in the sanctuary of our hearts. We often don’t get quiet enough to listen and rest there. But that connection we have with God—with “that of God” in us—is never gone, never severed, never not functioning. We rarely turn that way, unless there’s a problem or a struggle—and then our emotions are so churned up we’re often praying for what we think we need instead of thanking God for all we truly have. But when we can settle our minds and quiet our bodies—if only for a short time, like we do here on Sunday mornings in our quiet time—we can feel a sense of ease washing over us. We can feel our spirits lift. Our minds find rest. Worship is happening. We’re just finally quiet enough to notice.
We are living through a time—and chances are this has been true for quite a while—where everything is loud and fast. Our minds are used to constant stimulation. We have television, radio, social media, online offerings of all kinds. We can watch movies anywhere, get news anytime, talk to people—even face to face—on all sorts of devices–even our watches!—whenever we choose. We never need to be quiet at all. In fact I was in a group recently where people were talking about how their televisions are always on at home because they just can’t stand the quiet.
But if we never give ourselves the opportunity to find that quiet, empty space in our hearts, how will we know—really experience—the goodness and realness of God’s presence, the warm indestructible, all-embracing nature of God’s Love?
Our Old Testament reading today is from the book of Jeremiah, a major prophet and priest who lived during a time of upheaval following the death of King Josiah. Jeremiah lived through the decline and ultimately the end of the kingdom of Judah and he witnessed the heartbreaking destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Much of Jeremiah’s prophecies were directed to the children of Israel in exile; he warned them to turn away from idols, to find the quiet, to open their hearts to the one true God. He preached repentance and went to great lengths to try to get people to listen. The verse we heard this morning is from Jeremiah 31, about mid-way through the book, where after some hard news about how upset God has been with Israel’s forgetfulness, God offers words of hope, promising there will be a new covenant in which God will restore the goodness of their relationship, and peace and harmony will return. Verse 31 gets to the heart of the matter:
The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
This love I have for you is not conditional, God says through Jeremiah. It’s not about whether you’ve worshipped false idols or watched too much TV or lusted after your neighbor’s wife. The love I have for you is an everlasting love. And what’s more—I know there’s a place in you that returns my love, deep in your heart. You know me—the Father and Mother of all that is. We are part of each other. I know this because I myself have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
The sanctuary of the heart is the place within each of us where “that of God” dwells eternally in peace and joy. I love picturing it as a center of quiet, a place of ease, a beautiful calm oasis of the soul where we can go anytime we choose and be restored to harmony, beauty, the perfect calm of God. It’s within us, right now. Worship is going on there. We Quakers talk a lot about “that of God in everyone” and we do our best to see through the surface distractions of personality and discover the good heart, the listening soul within. In my experience, when we discover “that of God” in each other it often feels more like a warm presence, more like love, than anything we see with our eyes or hear with our ears.
But we may not spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get to know “that of God” in ourselves. When we sit in the quiet here together—even if it is just 10 minutes or so—we are listening and waiting for some movement of God’s presence within us. As we turn toward this inner sanctuary, we are also turning away from outward things. We gradually let go of the noises and sights, the thoughts and distractions that keep us tied to the outside world. As we turn inward, it may help to picture some kind of path in your mind’s eye—the way that leads to that quiet place within. Your path will be unique because this is your own inward space you’re seeking—but it might be a spiral staircase or a path lined with stones. Mine looks like a little dirt path that leads me to a cozy and well-lit cave. It’s a lovely little homey place, full of warm light—I think I may have borrowed the image from Rabbit’s den in Winnie-the-Pooh—and as I wait there for God, I prepare for our visit. I sweep the floor and put a kettle on for tea. It’s peaceful. It’s welcoming. And full of reverence and gladness. I think worship goes on there all the time, whether my mind and heart are present or not.
Your inner sanctuary of the heart might look completely different. Perhaps it’s a clearing in a forest. Or a cove along a beach. Or perhaps it’s a beloved place from your childhood, where you always felt loved and safe and at rest. It’s worth taking some time to imagine what that quiet space you share with God looks like. You can spruce it up any way you like, add some color to the walls or bake something that fills the whole space with a delicious and welcoming scent, just like you might do for company you just can’t wait to see.
In the morning spiritual retreat we had recently, we talked about Rex Ambler’s book, Light to Live By, in which he explores what Early Friends meant when they talked about their experiences of the Light of Christ. Near the end of the book, he offers a process readers can follow that helps them hear and begin to recognize the guiding of the Light in their own lives. The process involves quiet, and waiting, and asking, and listening. None of those things are likely to happen if we don’t make the time—intentionally, on purpose—to welcome and wait on God.
In your bulletin today you’ll see a little exercise that popped into my head on the way to that morning retreat—and I’ll tell you about it now, and you can do it yourself in a quiet moment at home later if you like. (And here is a link to the exercise if you’d like to try it on your own.) The entire sheet of paper represents God and all God’s qualities and the little almost-closed circle in the center, the one with the arrows around it, are our own personal, daily lives. The arrows represent the swirl of details and work projects and relationships and news stories we all get so caught up in. The first part of the exercise involves writing the qualities of God in the spaces along the edge of the paper—and we may all list different qualities and that’s fine, because this is your sanctuary you’re exploring. If you notice in those qualities something you pray for a lot—for example, with me, I noticed the word understanding was something I prayed for often—underline it. If there’s a quality that stands out to you as one that is especially true about God, one quality more important than the rest, circle it.
You can also write in what some of those arrows represent for you, if you like. But here’s the important part. See this gap, between 9 and 12 on the circle? That’s the doorway to our sanctuary. That is always open, no matter how much is going on in our minds and in our lives. We are always in touch with the qualities and the very presence of God—in fact, we’re floating in God; we live, move, and have our being in God—and all it takes to remember that is a moment of quiet and a little faith, and hope.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans—the source of our New Testament reading—he is writing to a diverse community comprised of many Jews who felt Jesus was the true Messiah as well as Gentiles who were believers themselves. As part of an effort to lessen the tensions and ease the divisions between them, Paul offers a beautiful, theological, and deeply spiritual vision of what it means for all to be loved by Christ.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”
He goes on to say, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And, he adds, “…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul takes us right out of the small self-involved circles of our lives and whisks us into that vast, open, reverent space of the reality of God’s eternal presence, the limitless, everlasting love God told us about through Jeremiah. Paul introduces us plainly to the living knowledge that worships God forever in the sanctuary of our hearts. We are all united in that love, and nothing we see or experience in the outer world–no division, no judgment, no action, no event, no person can ever end it. Thank God!
In closing, I offer this poem from Joyce Rupp, from her book Fragments of Your Ancient Name:
“You tap at the window of my heart.
You knock at the door of my busyness.
You call out in my night dreams.
You whisper in my haphazard prayer.
You beckon. You invite. You entice.
You woo. You holler. You insist:
‘Come! Come into my waiting embrace.
Rest your turmoil in my easy silence.
Put aside your heavy bag of burdens.
Accept the simple peace I offer you.”
- OT Jeremiah 31: 3
- NT Romans 8: 35-39
- Ambler, Rex. Light to Live By: An Exploration in Quaker Spirituality. https://pendlehill.org/product/light-to-live-by/
- Rupp, Joyce. Fragments of Your Ancient Name. https://www.avemariapress.com/products/fragments-of-your-ancient-name