My living room stairs, where I had sat in a total state of despair just a few days ago, has now become the perfect perch from which to draw some comfort. Because the door which faces these stairs now bears the most beautiful holiday wreath I have ever owned. With its life-size fruit and flowers, as well as its large ornaments, one cannot help but pause to appreciate its elegance as one passes by.
I’ll confess: it was a splurge. But I figured I’d take good care of it and use it for several years to come.
I’ll also confess: it was supposed be an outside decoration, but I screwed up the measurements and my glorious purchase cannot fit between the storm door and the front door without getting crushed.
When I first took the wreath out of its box and discovered this fact, I felt like a complete moron. What a rookie mistake for a veteran homeowner to make. Worse yet, I knew that it would probably cost a fortune to ship the wreath back. That, and a considerable amount of time trying to post it at the peak of the holiday season.
I thought about giving it to someone else who might need some cheering up (there was no shortage of people around me like that at the time). But I couldn’t shake that feeling that, no, this wreath was meant to stay with me. And that it was supposed to hang right there, at the foot of the stairs, where I would see it frequently.
Maybe that’s because I’ve been trying a certain form of prayer lately that focuses on becoming quiet before God—merely to enjoy His presence if I can. My attempts to slow down and become aware of my Maker have highlighted just how busy my brain is. How willful a creature I am, choosing to jump into my day rather than relinquish my agenda for even five minutes so that I might receive some of the divine love I am always longing for but have trouble attaining.
The few times I have managed to drift into a state of relative stillness I have felt one of two things, neither of them good. Either I feel alone in that inner chamber of my soul, a party of one whom no one wants to visit. Or I feel accompanied by an all too familiar sense of evil, a voice that condemns me for this motive or that action. A presence that leaves me drained and despairing—like it owns me and always will.
And so I have to wonder whether my strategically placed, luxuriantly appointed wreath bears some kind of message. A redemptive message, one that says: you were so ready to nail yourself to the wall for this expensive mistake, but instead, something good will come of it.
Now, is this wishful thinking? Someone flailing about in prayer who wants to believe Somebody Up There loves her? And—more than that—stands nearer to her than she could possibly imagine?
These are fair—and urgent—questions that I ask, as I travel up and down my stairs, eyeing my wreath like a bush that will spontaneously burn or a statue that will weep in compassion. If God does decide to speak through this small but abundant symbol, will I catch its meaning?
As I move to and fro, yearning after discernment, King Solomon comes to mind. Specifically, the beginning of his reign, when he has only recently inherited the monarchy from his father David. Quite remarkably, God appears to him in a dream one night and extends to him a stunningly open-handed offer: “Ask what I shall give you” (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon wastes no time responding, explaining that he feels vastly unqualified for the job before him: “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in…” (1 King 3:7).
In the Hebrew Bible, the two verbs for “go” (bo) and “come” (ya-TZAH) are often paired together to create a wide range of meanings. In the most literal sense, they can describe physical movements, such as individuals moving about in places of worship (Ex 28:35; Ezek 46:8) or on a battlefield (2 Chr 23:7). This pairing of go/come can also be used more poetically, to describe living out the length of one’s days (“The Lord will guard your going out and coming in…forever.” [Ps 121:8, NAS])
In Solomon’s mouth, however, I think the “going” and “coming” he is talking about may issue from a deep part of his soul where he, too, feels alone and insecure. After all, his father has left legendary shoes for him to fill, and Israel has grown to be a “great people who cannot be numbered or counted for multitude [1 Ki 3:8 NAS]).” To my mind, he knows he cannot simply be a replica of his famous father. He has to forge his own path, difficult as that may prove because of his lack of experience.
And so Solomon, the self-professed child-king (3:7), who doesn’t yet know how to take the proper measure of things politically, gives God an exceptional answer. He asks God for a “listening heart,” (lev shoMEah) so that he can tell the difference between good and evil and dispense justice for the chosen people (3:9). Notably, it is the only place in the entire Hebrew Bible where a person asks for this exact thing, this “listening” or “hearing” heart.
Pleased with the rare request, God enumerates the type of blessings a sovereign in Solomon’s seat would more likely have asked for: long life, riches, the death of his enemies—perks vitally important to kingly power. Using some exceptional language himself, God reassures the dreamer that he will be abundantly rewarded for his unique attitude of heart:
“Behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you. And I have also given you what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there will not be any among the kings like you all your days. And if you walk in My ways, keeping My statutes and commandments, as your father David walked, then I will prolong your days.”
(1 Ki. 3:12-14 NAS)
Two things leap out at me here. First, God speaks in the past tense (“I have given you”) rather than in the present or future. Is this merely the head-spinning speech of an extra-temporal Creator addressing His time-bound creature? Are we to understand that if God had not already imbued Solomon with wisdom he would not have known to ask for a listening heart in the first place?
Second, only two of the three kingly benefits are retroactively conferred – riches and honor (the latter of which, I suppose, is established by the defeat of ones’ enemies). Long life comes only by “walking in My ways, keeping My statutes and commandments, as your father David walked (7:14).”
If I sit really still, listening to this nighttime exchange between God and Solomon, I hear a haunting vulnerability coming from both sides. Yes, Solomon is admitting that above all else—above any earthly resource that might put him ahead of the game—he needs God to take him by the hand and lead him on. And, yes, by ante-ing up the provisions that Solomon both did and did not ask for, God is showing Solomon that He is willing to take a chance on him too, when it is entirely possible for the novice ruler to depart from the ways of his father.
Interestingly, one finds that God and Solomon’s reciprocal bond to each other runs like a golden thread through Solomon’s life story. When Bathsheba gives birth to him in 2 Samuel 12:24, 25, the text specifies that “the Lord loved him”—a fact the prophet Nathan’s affirms by conferring the name Jedediah upon the newborn. And at the beginning of the chapter that occupies us now, Solomon is said to have “loved the Lord” in return, because he “walked in the statutes of his father David,” (1 Ki 3:3).
What are we to make of all this? All these mutual pledges of love and commitment? What I wouldn’t give to ask Solomon: what was it like, hearing the voice of your Creator promise to bless you and keep you? Was it something you replayed in your head, day after day, especially when times got hard or confusing?
And what I would ask God, if I could get brave and quiet enough would be: are You still taking requests for listening hearts?
Because I believe Solomon was onto something. I think he realized that when it came to his life’s calling, he never, ever wanted to grow up. He wanted his relationship with God to be characterized by extreme, childlike dependence. He knew that if he were left to his own devices, he could so easily misapply his gifts and talents, no matter how divine their origins.(Tragically, this is exactly what happens at the end of Solomon’s life when his many foreign wives lure him away from exclusive worship of the Lord [1 Kings 11:4]).
Basically, Solomon just wanted to listen and cooperate with God. Not figure everything out ahead of time. Not try to control the future by preparing for every contingency (as if any human ever could, even the wisest).
Jesus put it this way: “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3 ESV).
Maybe one of the reasons I am having so much trouble with this new form of prayer is because I’m approaching it too much like a grownup. As I sit in silence, one ear is cocked to hear the criticism I expect for my mistakes, because that comprises about 95% of what I am already saying to myself. I’m bracing for impact, as any sensible adult would do.
The rest of me finds it so hard to believe that my Maker would simply enjoy—even deeply desire— being with me, that I give up trying. I quickly shift to things I’m supposed to be doing to justify my existence before Him. I go over to-do lists. Send up prayers for other people. Anything but crawl in His lap and rest my head against His shoulder. Exhale and let all the tension run out of my body as I lean against Him. And like a small child…just be.
Friends, it takes a ton of courage to allow your most unlovely-feeling self to be held by the One whom you need like none other. The One you need to take you out and lead you in. The only One who can convert your mistakes into messages, your blunders into banners, proclaiming His love over you.
I could be wrong, but so what? I’d rather risk a childish romp into the new year than a dour procession. We’ve had enough darkness and death as it is. Let us strike out in fledgling faith, trusting that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand, as close as a decoration on your door, saying:
This is what My love for you looks like. Gorgeous. Generous. Something upon which to feast your weary soul. Taste and see that My love is good. Especially to those who don’t think I am near or regard them with anything but distaste. How wrong you are, My darling. How deaf and blind, My dear. Be at peace, and know My pleasure in you is real, and My commitment to you ironclad. I want to take chances on you. Will you take chances on Me?
Yes, Lord. Give us listening hearts, to hear where we should go and come, following You in 2021.
And, please, turn our places of despair into perches of comfort, that our faith may grow stronger when we grow weak and falter.
We need You now more than ever, Lord. Usher us into Your kingdom of heaven, for the way is still hard and uncertain.
See us through every moment we sit still and wait for You.
Make us brave.