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Sermons

Prayerfully

March 14, 2004

Bible Reading

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands towards heaven, and said:

"O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below--you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised, and with your hand you have fulfilled it--as it is today.

"Now Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father the promises you made to him when you said, 'You shall never fail to have a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons are careful in all they do to walk before me as you have done.' And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true.

"But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open towards this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays towards this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive."

(2 Kings 8:22-30)

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

(Mark 11:15-26)

Reading from Swedenborg

I realized that prayers accomplish nothing at all when they are offered only to beg forgiveness for our evils and we then imagine, "Once I have begged, my sins are put away." But sins are not put away unless there is repentance from the heart, together with some slight torment and grief, and thus a recognition of our own uncleanness--during which, and after which, prayers are effective.

This I realized to be true, and that otherwise prayers, sacraments, and other rituals accomplish nothing. Or rather, they strengthen us in our evil ways, since they lull our conscience with the thought that our sins are put away through begging, and that we have made use of the means of salvation--and thus we return to our former uncleanness. (Spiritual Experiences #3677)

Prayer, regarded in itself, is talking with God, and some internal view at the same time of the matters of the prayer. To this there answers something like an inflow into the perception or the thought of the mind, so that there is a certain opening of our inner parts toward God. But this happens in different ways according to our state of mind, and according to the essence of what we are praying about. If we pray from love and faith, and only for heavenly and spiritual things, then there comes forth in prayer something like a revelation, which is manifested in our feelings when we are praying, as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy. (Arcana Coelestia #2535)

Sermon

The basis for the operation of the human brain is electrical energy that can manifest within a fairly wide range of frequencies. When the frequency falls below a certain number of millivolts on the electro-encephalogram, we drift into a light sleep that is usually full of dreams. At lower frequencies, we experience a deeper, dreamless sleep. Lower still, and we fall into a coma, which is the goal of most anesthesiologists.

Studies have shown, however, that it is possible to lower the frequency of brain activity below the threshold of consciousness while retaining a conscious awareness of our surroundings. This is called a "hypnagogic state." It is when we can feel the dreams begin, but we can still feel the pillow under our head. We also experience this state in the morning. Have you ever woken up from a dream just enough to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock and find that the dream continues? There are those who have managed to remain conscious in even lower levels of brain activity to the point of being in surgery, aware of the whole process, but never feeling a thing! Granted, this level of perception is probably a little advanced for most of us. Still, a little skill in this area would be very useful in our experience of silent prayer.

I attended a lot of different churches as I was growing up, and they all incorporated silence as part of their liturgy. I can remember being asked to bow my head in prayer; but being a child, I never quite caught on to what I should be doing with that time. Watching everyone else pray was always more interesting than closing my eyes and being silent and praying myself. As I got older, I began to realize that sometimes (sometimes, mind you!) what the minister was saying during these prayers was kind of nice, so maybe I would close my eyes and listen to the words from time to time. I now recognize that even though that was a major step forward in my prayer life, it still wasn't praying.

Prayer, as it turns out, doesn't just happen automatically when we bow our heads and think about God. The kind of prayer that really nourishes us spiritually is a learned skill that incorporates the deliberate pursuit of inner silence, with a conscious awareness of the presence of the Divine. True prayer is not an activity as much as it is a state of being.

This state of being is wonderfully and appropriately illustrated in the Bible in the image of the Temple. After years and years of transporting the Ark of the Covenant from sanctuary to sanctuary, a permanent building was finally built in Jerusalem under the leadership of Solomon. The Temple was to serve as a fixed sanctuary built specifically for the purpose of acknowledging God and the essential role that God played in the life of the kingdom.

When we as individuals commit ourselves to making worship a regular part of our lives, we are likewise building a Temple. It is an internal Temple: a place where we may return in order to reconnect with the Divine. It is Solomon who builds the Temple in the biblical narrative. And it is our inner Solomon who builds our Temple as well, since Solomon corresponds to that part of us that genuinely loves doing what is good and true. It is this love in us that gives rise to our commitment to worship and to pray.

If only the Temple could be as permanent and independent as we believe it to be! As we read further along in the story, however, we find that the Temple is destroyed, ransacked, usurped, and rebuilt quite a few times. By the time Jesus visits the Temple hundreds of years after Solomon, it had ceased to be a sacred place of public worship, and had become a glorified marketplace.

Our own inner Temple--that is, our prayer life--has to withstand countless invasions by the busyness and frantic pace our life can adopt, far too easily sometimes; and unfortunately, we allow it to be destroyed, ransacked, and usurped. We often find ourselves in the position of having to rebuild our commitment to worship and pray, and having to guard that time against invasions from the more mundane aspects of our life. Yet for the sake of our growth as human beings, it is the activities of our Temple that must advise the activities of our marketplace, and not vice versa.

When we enter into our Temple, we are called upon to listen for the influence of the Lord. However, when we think about prayer, we often think in terms of what we say to God. In other words, when called upon to pray, we are prone to do all the talking! There was a minister in a clergy group I was participating in who loved to lead the prayer at every meeting; but when all the heads were bowed, he would start talking a mile a minute, using every cliché in the prayer book. I remember hoping he would stop talking so I could pray!

You see, prayer is a state that calls for silence, too. I'm not talking about external silence, because we can pray in room full of noisy people if we choose to. What we need is inner silence, as free from physical brain activity as possible. I was amazed several years ago, leading a group that was exploring meditation, at how many people when asked to clear their mind of all thought said that they couldn't do it. They had to have an idea in their head at all times--kind of like people who need to keep their hands occupied continuously. When the busyness of our daily lives intrudes upon the time we spend in our Temple, the listening side of prayer can easily be overlooked.

Of course, there are different ways to pray. "Busy prayer" is that in which we do all the talking. Responsive prayer is that in which we spend at least as much time listening for God as we do in addressing God. Swedenborg felt that prayer needs to change us somehow. In his Spiritual Diary, #3677, he relates that ritualistic or formulaic (external) prayer is not effective in the remission of our sins. And responsive prayer changes us in a way that "busy prayer" does not.

To the degree that we seek inner silence, and to the degree that we are focused on heavenly matters and not material matters, God fills our Temple with the Divine Presence. God helps us to see and feel the potential for real beauty in our lives. God instills within us a sense of clarity, so that we may perceive the deeper reasons for all our circumstances. God inspires us with the knowledge that everything is going to be okay. Such is the power of the Divine Spirit that it can reestablish in us a sense of the sacred whenever we need to feel it.

When next you enter into prayer, make a deliberate effort to locate within your consciousness a quiet place, a sacred place, a place that no outside chaos can disturb. This is your inner Temple. You may find that thoughts of your life outside of worship are entering your mind. Acknowledge them, and set them aside for a more appropriate time. This time will be for you and you alone.

There are many things that we could pray for. There are many people for whom we could ask God's love and support. There are many things that we could say to God; but for the moment let us simply listen in silence for what God has to offer us.

And as we pray, let us promise to return to this Temple from time to time. Let us make a commitment to center ourselves in prayer on a regular basis. And each time we pray, each time we seek this silent peace, may we re-enter our worldly lives better equipped to practice God's love in all that we do, making our whole life an expression of the Divine that shines in each and every one of us. Amen.

Prayer

Divine Spirit, in this time of prayer, instead of speaking, we leave a space of silence, open our inner ears, and listen for your voice speaking to us . . . .

Rev. Eric Hoffman