I Kings 2, 10-12; 3:3-14
Have you seen the television commercial in which a man is granted one wish by a genie. His response is, “I want a million bucks.” He expects a fortune but when he looks out the window all he sees are thousands of deer! Be careful about you what you ask for and how you ask.
In today’s reading, Solomon has the offer of a lifetime. His father David has just died and he is successor to the throne. He has a lot to live up to as son of the empire builder and soldier king. God comes to him in a dream and asks Solomon to name his heart’s desire. God is giving him a blank check, no limits, no restrictions.
If God or a genie in a bottle gave you one great wish, how would you respond? What sort of things would you ask for? In other words, what do you really want out of life? What’s really important to you?
Solomon confesses his weakness, lack of experience, and worry that he will fail as ruler. He doesn’t think he’s up to the job. The task is simply too great. He may have dreamed about becoming king, but now that he’s ascended to the throne, he’s having second thoughts. He needs grace and he needs wisdom, and so Solomon asks for his heart’s desire – “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this great people?”
Other commentators use the word “wisdom” to describe Solomon’s request. He asks for a heart of wisdom, and wisdom opens the door to everything else – national security, wealth, marriage, and a good and joyful life.
Every so often I run out of milk and on my way back from the beach I stop at Tedeschi’s. Virtually every time I show up, the person ahead of me is purchasing a roll of lottery tickets. When the stakes get high, in the tens and hundreds of millions, there’s a line up at the cash register. Many people think that winning the lottery will solve all their problems. But, studies suggest that the majority of big time lottery winners experience great elation at first, and often then squander their money or fall into the same problems they had before they won. Some even file for bankruptcy a few years later.
Other studies suggest that personal happiness is related to financial well-being, but only up to a point. Across the board, $75,000 for a family seems to be the average income for happiness; in Alabama, it’s $67,000 and in Massachusetts, its $90,000. According to the study described in the Wall Street Journal:
“It turns out there is a specific dollar number, or income plateau, after which more money has no measurable effect on day-to-day contentment.
The magic income: $75,000 a year. As people earn more money, their day-to-day happiness rises. Until you hit $75,000. After that, it is just more stuff, with no gain in happiness.”
Security, housing, and a decent diet are important, but money doesn’t buy happiness. The issue is: for what shall we ask in life? Every day, we make decisions about what’s important, about how we shall live our lives, and about what we sacrifice and what we hold onto. In religious language, this is a question of what is our ultimate concern or heart’s desire. What practically speaking is our “god” or object of worship?
For many people, their “god” is consumerism or security or power. But, studies on income and happiness suggest that generosity – giving money to worthy causes and helping people in need – is one of the greatest indicators of economic and personal happiness. People who volunteer, practice kindness to strangers, care for grandchildren and children, and are generous in supporting others are happier by far than those who focus only on their self-interest.
The issue is for what shall we ask, and how are our values reflected in everyday life and in our short-term and long-term decisions. Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Solomon and Socrates would affirm that having a clear sense of our values builds character and brings happiness, and gives us a sense of direction for our lives.
But, how do we find an understanding mind or a wise heart? God’s wisdom is everywhere. God whispers to us, gently in sighs too deep for words, all the time guiding us toward what’s best for us and others. And, we like Solomon, need to listen. I would suggest a couple paths, grounded in the traditions of Christian spiritual formation.
First, the examen, or examination of conscience, popularized in the Jesuit Roman Catholic tradition. As you prepare for bed, spend time looking back on your day, discerning what brought you closer or further from God in the course of the day. What decisions brought joy, what decisions brought pain? What made you feel near God’s heart; when did you act as if God doesn’t exist? Ask for God’s guidance for the day ahead, and let God inspire you in your sleeping and your first waking thoughts.
Second, ask God for wisdom in directing your life throughout the day. Many of us love the hymn, “In the Garden.” “And he walks with me and he talks with me and tells me I am his own.” Jesus is that near to us; right beside us, ready to help. Even in small things, we can turn to a higher wisdom for guidance to keep us on the path. Whenever you have choices, ask for God’s wisdom.
David and Solomon both fell short of God’s calling and so will we but grace abounds, and amid our fallibility we can find our path. That’s the point of the Ephesians passage. In the midst of a challenging time, the author tells advises us to wake up.
After a serious health crisis – cancer or heart disease or the illness of a child, friend, or spouse – many us vow to quit “messing around and focus on the important things in life.” Seize the day. Don’t waste your life. The time is short, each moment is holy. Live as gracefully as possible, attentive to beauty, love, and joy. The time is short, let your light shine and your actions reveal Christ to the world.
The author of Ephesians says, “focus on God’s vision, don’t sweat the small stuff, trust Jesus.” And that’s our calling, too, to open to God’s wisdom and then go through life with a song in your heart, and you will bless everyone you meet, make each encounter healing and just, and find joy in each fleeting moment.