Skills and Gills

It was, and perhaps still is, the most perfect prayer I have ever heard. And it came out of the mouth of a six year-old boy. His mother told me about it soon after it happened. They were at a local swimming pool and her son was standing at the deep end, his toes curled over the edge. Still unsure of himself in the water, he stood there for what seemed to her like a very long time. Hesitating. Meditating. Palpitating. And just when it seemed that he was going to back away from the edge, he looked up to the sky, put his hands together, and said: "O Lord, give me skills or GIVE ME GILLS!" And he jumped.

Give me skills or give me gills. That pretty much covers all the bases, doesn't it? O Lord, give me what I need to overcome what I'm facing; but if you won't do that, give me what I need to endure it. Give me skills or give me gills.

I have kept that prayer handy over these years, and it's surprising how often I have used it. But maybe it shouldn't be. In his book Hustling God, Craig Barnes, now the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote this about the Christian life: "...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."[i] Barnes is reminding us that God has a habit of tossing us into the "deep end" of life. O Lord, give me skills or give me gills.

Our reading from Second Kings finds Solomon in way over his head. His father is dead. He is now the head of his family. He is grieving. He is afraid. He is carrying a heavy load. He's no longer swimming in the safety of the shallow end of his childhood. With one swift toss, Solomon is headed into the deep end of adulthood.

And what a deep end it was! It isn't just the loss of his father that Solomon is forced to confront. It is who his father was. His father was David, the great king of Israel, the slayer of Goliath, the liberator from the Philistines, the original Raider of the Lost Ark, the unifier of the tribes, the master musician and wordsmith, 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; but he was now the head of the kingdom as well. Ready or not. And it was clear that Solomon was not ready.

But he should have been, right? I mean, for years, Solomon had known that this day would come. His whole life was a preparation for the day that he would become king. And yet when the day does come, Solomon seems totally unprepared for it.

The author of our story is kind to Solomon when he writes, "Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places." That is some kind of caveat! The second half of that sentence certainly seems to bring into question the first half. 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 until he becomes king. David then 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 author is trying to tell us as gently as possible is that while Solomon tried to follow in his father's footsteps, it was clear that he was very definitely NOT his father. He was, in fact, a mess. He was in way over his head.

But the good thing, the saving grace, if you will, was that Solomon knew it. And when confronted with it, he 'fesses up to it. An even better thing is that even when he has forgotten or just abandoned the way to God, God finds the way to him. God finds Solomon in Gibeon, where he has gone once again to make some more sacrifices and to burn some more incense, even though he knew better.

There is a perfectly logical reason why Solomon would be so devoted to worshipping in the high places, a reason that has nothing to do with his faith or the lack thereof. By doing so, Solomon buys himself some time. It would take quite a while to offer 1000 burnt sacrifices. Days, I would guess. Maybe even weeks. At the very least, it was time-consuming enough that it required him to camp out for a night. And as long as Solomon is worshipping in the high places, he doesn't have to get about the difficult task of being the king, of following in his father's footsteps. He doesn't have to make the leap into the great unknown. He can stay in the safe, shallow end of his life.

It's the perfect disguise, really. His people see what he's doing as an act of deep devotion, when, in reality, he's doing it all out of fear. It looks to all the kingdom that Solomon is constantly running to God for help, when it's really the opposite: he's constantly running away. But lucky for him, even Solomon can't run in his sleep. And that's where the Lord finds him.

The Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him what he wants. Because it's a dream and because there's no one else listening in or looking on, Solomon is able to unburden his heart to God.  

6You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And 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. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.

Solomon was saying, in effect: I'm not 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. Then Solomon tells God what he wants:

9Give 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'm facing; but if you won't do that, give me what I need to endure it. In other words, O Lord, give me skills or give me gills. And the Lord gives Solomon both!

11Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word...13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.

The rest, as they say, is history. It came to pass just as the Lord had said. And King Solomon is still known today for his wisdom, for his "understanding mind," which is, I think, something of a shame. For unless you know how Solomon acquired that wisdom, you might think he was born with it. We know differently. It was a gift. The only thing Solomon knew was that he didn't know anything about being king. And come to find out, that was the only thing he needed to know.

If Barnes is right and God IS constantly leading us into places where we are in way over our heads, then this story about Solomon is an important one. It means we can relax. Or if not relax, then it means we can at least stop pretending that we have everything under control. It means we can stop wasting time and energy on our own high places, our own personal Gibeons, pretending to be something--or someone--we're not.

It means we might as well stop running away from God because God is going to find us anyway. It means that when we realize all that we cannot do, we are in a perfect position to discover all that God can do. It means that if we cannot avoid the challenge set before us, if we're headed into the deep end sooner or later, one way or another, we should ask God for what we need to overcome it or what we need to endure it. We should boldly pray for skills or for gills, confident that God will always give us one or the other.

And sometimes, like Solomon, we may even get both. But however the answer comes, God always comes with it. And that, as Solomon discovered that night in Gibeon, is the very best news of all.

Let us pray. O Lord, how often we find ourselves in over our heads! When our toes are curled over the edge of the deep unknown, give us the faith to jump, confident that you will either give us the skills we need to overcome what we're facing or the gills we need to endure it. Either way, we trust that you will be with us. And that will be more than enough. Amen.

[i] M. Craig Barnes, Hustling God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 99.