For some college students, the only thing more frightening and uncertain than starting college is graduating. Especially if they don’t know what they’re doing after the big day, or if they’re still waiting to hear from graduate school or job applications, the future can seem uncertain and unsettling.
When I was the United Methodist campus minister at William and Mary, each year I would write a final letter of blessing and encouragement to students preparing to leave campus for the wider world. Many expressed gratitude for a prayer I included in the note. The prayer wasn’t mine but that of Thomas Merton, a 20th century Catholic monk, who prayed,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 1956)
To be a person of faith even while stepping out into an unknown future on an unfamiliar path: that was my prayer for those students setting out from William and Mary.
It’s a prayer I could have prayed at the beginning of the adventure of parenthood. On the day my oldest was born I looked in wonder at him and said in all honesty and humility, “Son you’ve to be good because your mother and I have absolutely no idea what to do with you.”
And after 42 years of active ministry, I’m having to figure out this new and unfamiliar path called retirement. Thomas Merton’s prayer still rings true in this season of life, too.
The prayer could also have been prayed by Solomon as he began the new and unfamiliar duties and responsibilities as King of Israel. Today’s scripture tells us that Solomon’s father King David has died after ruling for forty years. Early in Solomon’s reign, so the story goes, God comes to him in a dream and asks Solomon what God can give him as he begins to rule the kingdom. He could have asked for anything, but Solomon asks for wisdom to rule well as he prays, “Give your servant…an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” In the story God is pleased with Solomon’s prayer, and grants him a wise and discerning mind, and encourages the young king always to walk in God’s ways and pay attention to God’s good counsel. And so tradition holds that Solomon’s wisdom is associated with biblical books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
After our reading today, the story is told of Solomon acting wisely and discerning between good and evil. Two women are brought before him, each claiming that a baby belongs to her. Obviously this is before DNA and blood tests and both women seem equally committed mothers, so how to decide which is the right woman? Solomon calls for a sword and offers to cut the child in half and give each woman a portion; one woman agrees. But the other cries out in grief and despair not to do such a thing, but give the child to the other woman and spare his life. When she makes that offer, Solomon knows she is the true mother and gives her son back to her. Wisdom has been given; Solomon’s prayer has been answered.
In later years Solomon won’t always act so nobly or wisely. He’ll be drawn from God’s ways to the world’s ways, pursuing wealth at all cost. He’ll marry 700 wives because he can, or as part of political alliances with other rulers. And if they’re not enough to satisfy his needs he’ll also have 300 concubines or sex workers ready at his beck and call; he’ll oppress his people and force them to work on building projects without pay, much less a minimum or a living wage; and when he dies he’ll leave his self-absorbed, self-centered son who’s gotten everything he’s wanted a kingdom on the edge of civil war to take it over the edge. If only Solomon sought the heart of God and a wise discerning mind all his days, not just his first.
Every day we receive is a new day full of possibility and uncertainty. The Lord Jesus said that the great commandment is to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that Christ has set us free and we shouldn’t fall back into any kind of slavery to the ways of the world or it’s values, or to our own selfish desires and emotions and attitudes than can bind us in chains. The 5th century African bishop Augustine said we Christians are to love God and do what we will. So how do we gain a heart of wisdom to discern good and evil when we have such broad guidelines and markers for life’s map? The challenge is to be wise enough to know how to live most freely and fully for God, and to be about our Father’s business, just like the Lord Jesus, from his growing up until his death on a cross.
When my dad died years ago, my mom took the opportunity when making his funeral arrangements, to make her own. I called it her Lay Away plan. She didn’t need it for many years; her biggest challenge was replacing her planned pallbearers. They kept becoming too weak to serve, or just up and died on her. But her plan was a great gift to me when the time finally arrived for her departure into God’s new life. She’d thought of everything, including listing her favorite scripture lessons, which we used finally for her service of Death and Resurrection. One of the texts was from the book of Proverbs, a collection of wise sayings and teachings often associated with Solomon, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (KJV). Another translation puts it, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Never rely on what you think you know. Remember the Lord in everything you do, and he will show you the right way” (GNB).
The blessed good news is that in Christ we’ve been given a faithful guide for the right way. Remember how the 12 year old Jesus is described as growing in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and others. And you may remember that in 1 Corinthians Paul describes Christ as the wisdom of God and the power of God. In Christ’s life we are shown, in the flesh, what a wise life looks like: it’s marked by mercy and kindness, compassion and forgiveness and humility; we see the wisdom of caring for the weak and forgotten and those who are broken and in need of healing. As Paul says, there is no law against such things; it surely is a wise way to walk. I’m convinced that as we pray and listen for God and gather in worship with others also seeking God’s good way, and as we serve those Christ served and loved, we won’t spend ourselves and our days chasing after the wind or things that in the end do not satisfy; we will find a life that really is life.
When Mother Teresa visited the United States the first time, she’d already spent a lifetime serving the poorest of the poor in India. But in our land of prosperity and plenty she marveled that she’d never seen a more malnourished people. Like Solomon we can have anything our heart desires, but oftentimes our houses full of stuff and our calendars full of busyness leave us empty and unsatisfied. But as we ask for wisdom, Christ still gives it. As he did long ago he offers the bread of life that truly feeds our deepest hungers and offers a better way. That way seems odd and even off putting in a world where forgiveness seems weak and the powerful seem in charge and apologies are never made for anything. But the way of Jesus, the wisdom and power of God, leads to our heart’s truest and deepest desires, thanks be to God.