God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other[i].
Sound familiar? These are the earliest form of the Serenity prayer, most-often attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s or 40s, perhaps inspired through his work in collaboration with other civic leaders of the time, such as long-time YWCE official Winnifred Crane Wygal[ii]. A variation is championed by Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups as a model prayer of humility and desire for real change in the lives of the individual and the world, and it is second perhaps only to the Lord’s Prayer in terms of usage and familiarity.
In times of transition and change, it makes sense to ask God for guidance, and certainly for wisdom as we seek to figure things all out. To do so means that we acknowledge there is a higher power and we remember that we cannot do everything on our own. It also serves as our affirmation that we do not have to try to do so, for we have a guide and guardian, a companion on our journey in the one who loves us and calls us and claims us.
Our text this morning drops us in the midst of such a prayer. A bit of context to orient us:
The books known as First and Second Kings were once a single structure, the last book in a saga that included Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. It received its final shape in the early period of the Babylonian exile. Its intended audience would have included the leaders who were deported to Babylon, the poor who were left behind in Jerusalem, and the Jews who had taken refuge in Egypt[iii].
The story of Solomon provides identity for the people of God once again. It provides a meaning to life to replace what has been lost in defeat and exile, beginning with the story of a new king in the midst of a dream, with God appearing before him and asking what he wants.
Can you imagine if God showed up and asked you to name one thing you wanted? What would you answer? The image of God as almost a fairy godmother or genie in a lamp is generally not a favorable one to embrace theologically, but here, in the context of a dream, it opens the door to the enormity of possibilities that come from the involvement of the Almighty. The sky truly appears to be the limit for Solomon. It is interesting to note that the surrounding chapters, and indeed the totality of the story of Solomon, often present power struggles and conflicting personality traits within the king, who more often than not gives into the darker side of power and pride during his kingship. But here, even if just for a moment, we glimpse a humble leader who prayerfully asks for something as profound and meaningful as that classic Serenity Prayer that would follow centuries later.
In many Bibles, Solomon’s prayer is subtitled as a “prayer for wisdom,” with language that reveals the breadth and depth of such a request. In verse 9 he asks for an “understanding mind[iv],” which can also be translated or understood as a “discerning heart[v],” or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “a God-listening heart[vi].” This reminds us that wisdom can be measured in many different ways. It is distinct from just being “smart” or having a high IQ; it reflects a soundness of judgment based on knowledge and experience. In the context of prayer, wisdom is God-centered, involving a vision that comes not internally but externally from the Divine. A few weeks ago, one of our own members noted in a meeting that wisdom is about “taking a step back and having the ability to ‘breathe from your heart.’” That, for me, is a perfect encapsulation of this dream moment, and the desire expressed by Solomon.
In his prayer, Solomon is asking for his will and perception of the world to be in line with God’s. He is seeking a new vision for the people of God at a new time in their history:
Solomon does not need a rod and staff like Moses, because the Jews are not in captivity. Nor does he need military resources like his father David. The challenges before Solomon will be mostly administrative as he attempts to bring together tribes from the north and south under one united governing establishment[vii].
And so he seeks God’s guidance and insights. If he had known the Irish poet of the 8th century, he might have broken out into the song played so beautifully by our bells and which we will sing later in the service: “Be Thou My Vision.”
Whether in song or in the Serenity prayer, or even joining Solomon himself, these are big prayers to pray. To seek wisdom and vision from God is a humble act of faith that releases a wave of unknowns as we dare to loosen our tight grips on the things we know and allow ourselves to be shaped by God in perhaps surprising ways. It means paying attention to things that we do without thinking, such as our very breath, and bringing an increased awareness of our own rhythms. It may feel unnatural at first, but once we get the hang of it, we often find that our breath deepens and we have a stronger connection to God and to one another. There, we find the same treasure as described in Proverbs, a book of wisdom sayings often attributed to Solomon himself, and we will become more faithful in our walk with our Lord.
Today, we are beginning some of that work as a community as we launch a Visioning process that will take the better part of the next year. Our hope is to have a collaborative, shared vision for the future of Heritage Presbyterian Church that all who are a part of our community – whether you have been a member since the early years or have just walked in our door – might be inspired by as we go about following Christ together here in Acworth.
It is a method of discernment that takes time, and will happen in several ways. In just a few moments, you will be given a short, four-question initial survey about your perceptions of our church. I hope that all of you will participate. Even if this is your first time, we would love to hear your thoughts and first impressions. We also want the thoughts of our children – Merry Willis and Barbara Jessee will meet them at the door by the PRAYground in just a few moments to spend more active time with these questions in the Choir Room. If you complete the survey this morning, you are welcome to place it in the offering plate as one of your gifts to God today. You can also bring it with you to our tailgate lunch and place it in a basket in the Fellowship Hall, or return it to the church office. During the tailgate, you can add other thoughts on these questions to larger papers at the entrance, and these questions along with more information about our process will also be sent in an e-mail newsletter tomorrow, with a link to an online survey with the same questions so that all may participate.
So, why take time for this today in the midst of worship? It’s more than just because you are all sitting here and hopefully paying attention. We are beginning here because we want to follow in the steps of Solomon’s dream-prayer, and to remind ourselves that before anything else, our hopes and dreams for our congregation are about our relationship with God. We are not just putting forth our own set of objectives and strategies; we are seeking wisdom from God. We are asking the Holy Spirit to infuse our work and help God’s vision be our vision for the future. This is the only way I know to truly and faithfully follow Christ – by remembering that he is the one leading us!
This is meant to be a time of prayer and reflection, both for our congregation and for us as individuals. I hope it will also inspire you to reflect on the places in your life where you desire God’s wisdom. What are you discerning right now, and how might you invite Christ to be an intentional companion with you in that journey? What things do you need to let go of a bit and allow the Spirit to help you see them in new ways, through God’s eyes? When we sing together, could “be thou my vision” be your prayer today?
As we begin this time of visioning, hear these words from Thomas Blair:
Wisdom has to do with whom we entrust ourselves to; who we know can fill our empty buckets; whom we most believe, trust, and confide in. If we do not know what resources we have, we cannot use them to make happen what we want to happen. If we do not know what we want to happen, then we will not even know what to wish for in the first place. Wisdom arrives when the soul discerns its destiny, when life aligns in sync with the soul[viii].
Friends, may we humbly enter a time of prayer and reflection, breathing in the spirit of God and seeking wisdom with understanding, God-listening hearts . . .
Shared in worship on September 9, this initial survey is also available online:
- If you could name one thing that is most important to you regarding your involvement with HPC what would it be?
- The things that concern me most about HPC are:
- Where do you hope God will lead HPC in the next 3 years?
- Other reflections about our church/congregation.
Follow the link above to submit your responses online, or return them to the church office (firstname.lastname@example.org). Additional paper copies are available in the Narthex, and can be returned in the offering plate on September 16.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
September 9, 2018
[i] Fred Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” July/August 2008 article in Yale Alumni Magazine, http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2008_07/serenity.html , accessed 9/6/2018.
[ii] For further discussion of authorship, see also https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/us/11prayer.html.
[iii] Heather Murray Elkins, “Homiletical Perspective: 1 Kings 3:5-12,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[iv] New Revised Standard Version.
[v] New International Version. The King James Version uses “an understanding heart.”
[vi] The Message (a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson).
[vii] John L. Thomas, Jr, “Theological Perspective: 1 Kings 3:5-12,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[viii] Thomas W. Blair, “Pastoral Perspective: 1 Kings 3:5-12,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).