Timothy Boggess describes it as the best, the most perfect prayer he ever heard:
It came out of the mouth of a six year-old boy.
His mother told me about it, soon after it happened.
The boy and his mother were at the local swimming pool,
and the son was standing at the deep end,
toes curled over the edge.
He was still unsure of himself in the water.
So he stood there, for what seemed like a very, very long time.
And just when it seemed that he was going to back away from the edge,
the boy looked up to the sky,
and he put his hands together,
and he said:
“O Lord, give me skills, or give me gills!”
And he jumped.[i]
There’s a prayer for you:
Give me skills, or give me gills. Pretty much covers all the bases:
Lord, give me what I need to overcome what I am facing;
but if you won’t do that, give me what I need to endure it.
Give me skills, or give me gills.
Boggess explained that he kept that prayer handy over the years,
and that he uses it all the time. Helps to keep him rooted, grounded.
We might say: helps keep his head on straight.
So that he understands who he is, and whose he is.
It also helps keep him focused on doing what he needs to do
even if he’s a bit scared
because sometimes we’re led to love even in scary situations.
In his book Hustling God, Craig Barnes,
now the president of Princeton Theological Seminary
tried to describe the life of faith this way:
“Your calling is not primarily to accomplish something,
but to serve God,
who will always lead you to places
where you are in way over your head.”[ii]
Our reading today from the book of Kings,
this ancient, epic of a book spanning from final days of King David
all the way down to his distant successor’s release
from imprisonment in Babylon some 400 years later,
our reading describes the start of Solomon’s reign
the last ruler of the great unified Kingdom of Israel and Judah
before it all fell apart during the reign of his son Rehoboam.
Solomon is in way over his head.
His father is dead.
He is now the head of his family.
He is grieving, and he is afraid.
It is such a heavy load he is carrying.
One could say, correctly, that he is no longer swimming
in the safety of the shallow end of his childhood.
With one swift toss, just like that,
Solomon is headed into the deep end of adulthood.
And any way you look at it, it is an impressive deep end.
It isn’t just the loss of a father that Solomon is forced to confront.
It is who his father was: David—the great King of Israel
the slayer of Goliath
the liberator of the Philistines
the original Raider of the Lost Ark
the unifier of the tribes,
the master musician and wordsmith
the one reported to be the “man after God’s own heart”.
So with David’s death, Solomon not only took his place at the head of his own family;
he was now head of the kingdom as well.
Ready or not. Time to dive in.
And it is clear that Solomon was not ready.
Some might say that he should have been ready.
For years, Solomon knew that this day would come.
His whole life was a preparation for the day that he would become king
and here it is.
And yet, when the day is finally here,
Solomon seems totally unprepared for it.
You see some hints of this in the beginning parts of our texts:
“Solomon loved the Lord,
walking in the statutes of his father David;
only, he sacrificed and offered incense in the high places.”
That might seem like an odd detail to us,
but the author is being kind to Solomon in describing his vacillation.
The ancient reader would have picked up on it immediately:
the second part of that sentence doesn’t quite fit:
Solomon loved the lord,
walking in the statutes of his father David;
only, well, he didn’t and he wasn’t….
We know this because, shortly before his death, David calls Solomon to his bedside
and tells him it won’t be long before he becomes the King.
And David gives his son some final words of advice.
Making sacrifices, and burning incense at the high places
was decidedly NOT on the list.
I think what the writer is trying to tell us,
in the polite, gentle way you do
when talking about Kings and Rulers and powerful people
is that while Solomon tried to follow in his father’s footsteps,
he was very definitely NOT his father.
He was, in fact, a mess.
He was in way over his head.
There are two things I really love about this story.
The first thing is that Solomon knew all of this.
That might be is saving grace, the self-awareness that Solomon had
trying to get things together.
David, on his deathbed, entrusts the kingdom to Solomon.
Solomon, perhaps still teary and fragile,
seeks out God’s favor and God’s leadership
through these acts of worship
the kind of worship that these people knew
sacrificing and offering incense.
True, later Solomon would build the temple
and would revolutionize Hebrew religion because of it
giving a more fixed, more permanent home
to the Ark of the Covenant
and centering the eyes of the faith on top of David’s mountain
But up to now there wasn’t any of that
and going up the hills and high places in search of God
meant meeting others doing the same thing
to Ba-al and Asherah and Astarte.
But it was searching for God, for Yahweh, for the God of his ancestors none the less.
He knew he was a bit of a mess. And so he sought out help.
That’s a really great thing,
and honestly, something important for us to attend to.
This powerful guy, who could just as easily been brazen and foolish and reckless
seeks out a better way, a more trustworthy way.
So that’s the first thing.
The other thing I really love is as deep and wide as scripture is itself:
this is a great example about how when we are lost
when we are hurting
when we are aimless
when we are in need,
God is there.
How God is relentless at finding us, at coming to us,
at offering us a way forward. Time and time again.
Over and over and over again, the searching, wondering, brooding Solomon
climbs hill after hill after hill to ponder and pray and search and figure things out.
And finally, Solomon climbs one of these hills to a high place, to Gibeon,
and there God finds the way to him.
The text says that the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream,
sets him down, and is blunt: What do you want, Solomon?
I’ve gained some experience now, as a parent,
setting down a brooding kid, and asking them what the story is.
Sometimes they just can’t stop once they get started!
I’ve had friends that have been waiting to speak to me
pacing back and forth, in fact, waiting for the moment of opportunity
and when sitting down and finally getting a chance
to look me in the eye,
just start talking and talking and talking.
Have you had that experience:
holding in something that you desperately need to talk about
and finally, once you can, you just can’t stop?
Listen to how the text describes Solomon’s answer:
You have shown great and steadfast love
to your servant my father David,
because he walked before you in faithfulness,
and in uprightness of heart towards you;
and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love,
and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king
in place of my father David,
although I am only a little child;
I do not know how to go out or come in.
And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen,
a great people,
so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.
It must have been such a relief to get that off his chest!
Finally, after seeking and searching and brooding and yearning
he can finally tell God what is really on his mind and in his heart:
he’s not ready
he’s not sure he’s up for it all, frankly
its such a huge, daunting task
such an awesome responsibility
so many depend on him
so many people, who can govern them?
What a defining moment, for Solomon, and for many of us.
Can you relate to what Solomon is feeling?
Have you ever had that moment where you just don’t think you can do it?
I know I have.
I still do, truth be told, every so often.
Its that moment where you’re on the edge of the deep end
and you know you need to dive right in and you’re not at all sure about it.
Solomon was saying, in effect: I’m not sure I’m up to this, God.
You put me in the place of my father, but I’m not my father.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’m scared to death.
And so Solomon tells God what he wants:
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people,
able to discern between good and evil;
for who can govern this your great people?’
It’s a prayer, really,
O Lord, give me what I need to overcome what I am facing;
but if you won’t do that, give me what I need to endure it.
O Lord, give me skills or give me gills.
I’m not really a fan of cliché, trite expressions of faith.
Too blessed to be stressed. Ok. Glad for that. Life is plenty stressful here.
What would Jesus do? Good question,
something we spend our whole lives working on.
So I wouldn’t put Give me Skills or Give me Gills on a bracelet
or try to sell it on a thousand different promotional items.
But it seems to me to be the very foundation of wisdom, this sentiment
this approach to life
turning in trust to God, to God
believing that, in God, we will have all we need.
I think Barnes is right:
God does lead us to difficult situations,
places where we are in way over our heads.
And that’s because life is like that, all the time:
the final exam
walking the corridor to the oncologist’s office
stepping up to deliver the speech
striking out with the game on the line
and your teammate’s faces turning sullen
speaking the truth in love
even when the powerful or the privileged
don’t want to hear it
getting to the school you’re going to work at
and knowing that the needs are so much greater
than you could possibly meet.
And we can do our homework and be prepared for it all
we can have the speech ready and practiced
or have studied all about that disease on webMD
or been in the batting cage three hours before every game
and still we know the moment still comes
and there we are, in way over our heads.
And God comes.
And God asks.
And God listens.
Solomon after unburdening his heart, asks for wisdom.
Not power. Not strength. Not riches. Not escape from responsibility.
Solomon asks for wisdom.
And because he does, he becomes known as the wisest of all Kings of Israel.
What is wisdom?
I think wisdom is resting in the knowledge that we cannot do it all by ourselves
and that we are not God, but that we belong to God
are loved by God
are cared for and gifted by God
who gives us what we need
to be God’s people all the days of our life.
That as we dive into the pool, to put our trust in God,
and to swim ahead with confidence.
It’s the ultimate source of our self-esteem, our self-confidence, our self-worth.
And its as true for kings and rulers as it is for everyday folk like you and me.
I think that’s something akin to what the the author of Ephesians
is getting at when he encourages us to look at how we live,
Don’t act like foolish people, he says
(thank you for that, Paul,)
But be like people who are wise.
And who are the people who are wise?
Keep in mind, this passage in Ephesians was written when they thought
the end of the ages was coming, and coming soon.
Many in that period used this weird phrase, “the days are evil”
to prepare of the apocalyptic end that was to come.
What do you do in that situation? Sounds pretty deep end of the pool to me?
Do you waste away, drinking yourself to oblivion?
Do you fret and goof off and just give up?
No! You turn to God.
Sing hymns. Read Psalms. Make melody to the Lord in your hearts
Giving thanks to God at all times, at all times, and for everything.
There is so much going on in the world, and in our lives, that can just make us
walk away from the pool and refuse to dive in.
Don’t do it.
God needs us to dive in, to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world of ours.
God knows its hard. God knows the waters are deep
but we follow a savior who walks on those waters
and who comforts us in the middle of the storm.
Come on in. The water is fine.
God is there for us. With Skills or with Gills.
May it be so.
[i] First part of this sermon adapted from and indebted to the sermon “Skills and Gills” by the Rev. Dr. Timothy Boggess, published at Day 1, http://day1.org/6757-skills_and_gills
[ii] M Craig Barnes, Hustling God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 99