Solomon built a beautiful temple to the Lord, a place where the Lord could reside with the people, where the people could come and pray, and sacrifices could be made, all that was necessary to maintain a good relationship with God.
The bible reading we heard just now was from the story of the dedication of the temple. We didn’t get the whole story, only the beginning and a section from the middle.
Solomon stands in front of the altar and prays to God, asking God to hear the prayers of the people, and he sets out the agreement, the covenant between God and the people, and tells God about all the circumstances in which God should listen to the prayers of the people. He asks God to hear the cry of the people
- when they turn back to God after drifting away;
- when they know they have done wrong and come and confess their sins;
- when there is injustice to be put right;
- when there is famine or plague or trouble of any kind;
- when they need help to accomplish their goals.
And the section we had was asking God to listen to gentiles, foreigners, who heard of God and turned to God for help.
It’s worth reading the whole section and reflecting on it. It tells us a lot about prayer.
Prayer isn’t one thing. A lot of people think that prayer is giving God your spiritual shopping list, of all the people you want God to look after or make well. That’s only a little part of it!
I have been involved with prayer guiding longer than I’ve been ordained, and while I was still a curate, I took it further and trained as a spiritual director, so I have people who come and talk to me about their prayer life and what God is doing in their lives. It is a real privilege to help people grow in prayer – it is one of the most satisfying aspects of ministry.
A woman came to see me once when we were prayer guiding. I asked her how she prayed. And she told me: I pray for this one and that one, and this situation and that situation. So prayer for her was all about intercession. She was a good Methodist, so I suggested she used her bible for prayer, and showed her how she could do that, and suggested a couple of passages she could start with. She enjoyed that and got a lot out of it. She came back next time and said that one line kept coming back her. It was “be still and know that I am God” from Psalm 46. I told her that if God was giving her that verse, then she should concentrate on that, so she spent the next week with that one verse. When she came back, she said to me, “I don’t know how to say this, but I will have to tell you! I haven’t wanted to pray for this one and that one, and this situation and that situation. I have just wanted to sit in silence with God!” She was quite shocked at herself, but I was delighted. That is prayer. That was 14 years ago, and she has gone on growing in prayer. I see her occasionally. Sometimes, she uses pictures to enter into God’s presence. Sometimes, she engages with the Bible to help her pray. She has an ongoing conversation with God, and has become really good at listening to God’s promptings. Sometimes, she feels moved to phone someone she hasn’t talked to for a while, and then she finds that they were in a bad place and really needed someone to talk to. It is such a privilege to accompany someone like that.
A few years ago, we went to Russia on pilgrimage and spent a week in Divyevo, learning about St Seraphim, who was a younger contemporary of John Wesley. Wesley was about 50 years old when Seraphim was born in 1754. Seraphim was a great pray-er. He was a monk at Sarov, and spent long periods in the forest as a hermit, praying. When he was praying in his cell at the monastery, he would light loads of candles for the people who had asked for prayer, and miraculous healings took place.
When he was in the forest, Seraphim used to meet the Mother of God. She told him to build a monastery for women, so Seraphim did so – it was an extraordinary thing to do in the late 18th century. Then the Mother of God told Seraphim to tell the nuns to dig a ditch round the monastery, so the nuns did that. Then the Mother of God told Seraphim to walk round the perimeter ditch every evening and pray. So they did that. And they still do it! Though the walk is paved now and is called the Kanavka Walk, because kanavka is the Russian words for ditch. I have seen the nuns coming out in the dusk after vespers and their evening meal and they go round the walk in silence saying the Jesus Prayer. I did it myself a few times. It’s about a mile long, and it can take 15 minutes, or it can take as long as you like. You go round in silence, holding your prayer rope and say the Jesus Prayer. It is a very powerful way of praying.
I took this on board and when I came here I did prayer walks round the parish. I have never yet got round the whole perimeter of the parish in one go, but I would love to do that one day. Mostly, these days, I pray as I am walking about to go somewhere. I pray the Jesus Prayer as I go, which is a wonderful prayer. The Orthodox believe it contains the whole of prayer and the whole of theology. I have printed the Jesus Prayer on the notice sheet for you. There are different versions. At is simplest it is “Lord, have mercy”, but it can be “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You can use it as a prayer of confession, as a prayer of praise and as a prayer of intercession. I go round the streets saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on the people who live in this street,” “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on this business and help it flourish,” “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on that child kicking a ball.”
In the passage from 1 Kings, Solomon talks about prayer as invoking God’s name. The Jesus Prayer is about praying in the name of Christ.
Solomon asked God to listen to the prayers of the people. God does listen. It’s not like a penny in a slot. God doesn’t deliver the chocolate bar just because we pray. Part of prayer is discovering God’s will for us and for those we love.
Prayer is the most amazing adventure. Things happen when we pray. Enter into a conversation with God. Talk to God like you talk to people you love. Tell God about the things that trouble you. Tell God about the things that bring you joy. It will change your life, subtly and slowly, but things will change. Try it!