One of Helen Beth’s nephews from Maine spent a week with us recently, and somewhere along the line we got to talking about books. It may have been while we were talking about hiking, because he told me I must read Lost On a Mountain in Maine, about a boy, Donn Fendler, who gets – you guessed it – lost while on a hiking trip in Maine. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state, and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, and he decides to go by himself back down a trail to meet his father, who’s on his way up. It gets extremely foggy and he loses his way. Soon hundreds of people, loggers, forest rangers, the National Guard, are looking for him, but to no avail.
Donn keeps walking, over sharp rocks, in and through streams, crawling through underbrush, finding long-deserted cabins. He has close encounters with a chipmunk, deer, and a couple of bears. He drinks from the streams and eats only wild strawberries he comes across. Early on his shoes are torn apart, such that he makes his way barefoot most of the time. He endures almost continual swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies. He is scraped and bruised from falling. Finally, on the ninth day he comes out at an occupied cabin and is rescued.
It’s quite a story. And he says this in the Foreward, “What I have learned from that adventure…has been a guide throughout my life. It has strengthened my faith in God and in prayer.” Consistently in recounting his story he makes note that he prayed every morning and every night. He never seemed to doubt that he would be alright, even after over a week alone in the woods and having walked probably sixty miles or more. The closing words of his story are, “When I was back in bed, I remembered God. I hadn’t thanked Him for all He had done for me. So I just closed by eyes and said my prayers and thanked God for kind people and for His help back there in the wilderness and for a good Mommy and a good Dad.”
At one point he fell while in one of the streams and just managed to make it to a sandbar before he drowned. Multiple times he was bleeding from the insect bites and the cuts he sustained. One day he fell asleep during the daytime and got sunburned. One day he fell into a deep hole and was barely able to crawl out. After a few days most of those searching for him gave up, because they were convinced he had fallen into a crevice in the rocks and died. And he thanked God for the help God gave him? What help?
Just finding his way out, no doubt, but, he believed God helped him? With all that he went through? He came out minus part of a toe. But he thanked God for God’s help.
So is it ok to ask God for help when we’re in a difficult situation? What about when we’re running low on funds; do we ask God to somehow bring us money? When the doctor gives us a diagnosis we don’t like, do we ask God for a better outcome?
Today we have an unusual story from the book of First Kings. I suspect that by now you roll your eyes when you hear me talk about an unusual Bible story, because I know I make that claim a fair bit. The fact is, the Bible is chock full of unusual stories. But today’s is unusual, even in comparison to other Bible stories. It says God comes to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” That’s unusual. There are plenty of stories of people asking God for something. Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom. Moses wants to get out of going to Egypt. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, prays, “let this cup pass from me.” But in today’s story, it is God who says, tell me what you want.
That’s a heck of an offer, isn’t it? I’ve never run into anyone who has claimed to have had such a dream. If you have, I’d love to hear about it. So let’s suppose God did say that to us. What would we ask for? Let’s think carefully. To win the big lottery? Good health? Good lives for our children and grandchildren? Or can we ask for all the above?
Do you remember what Solomon asks for? He is early on in his reign as king of Israel. So should he ask that his reign be peaceful, free from internal and external threats and conflict? Should he ask that he might reign for many years? That Israel be prosperous and everybody living well? All of the above?
Remember the story of Jesus and the fig tree? It’s an unusual story. Jesus is walking by a fig tree, but it doesn’t have any figs on it. Jesus says, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” and the tree withers immediately. Told you it was an unusual story. (He should have just stopped at the next convenience store and bought some Fig Newtons – which are named after a town in Massachusetts, according to Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory.) Anyway, the disciples see it, are amazed, and ask how he made the tree wither so fast. He responds with an example about throwing a mountain into the sea and concludes, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
Really? That’s how it works? “In prayer with faith”? “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”? That’s from Jesus also. He goes on to say, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!” It sounds so simple, so easy!
So is it? I suspect all of us would agree that God gives us blessings. Certainly all of us could compile a long list of good things that have come our way in life, for which we might give God at least some credit, acknowledging that we have not deserved all the good which has come our way. And maybe some of those good things have been items we have asked for in our prayer life. Every night at the monastery I’ve visited the last service closes with the words, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” That’s a rather modest request, isn’t it?
While I think we generally believe that God gives us blessings, I doubt that many of us would say that God gives us whatever we ask for. Speaking of the monks, I’ve reported before that when they get to Psalm 137 they simply stop before they get to the verse which says, talking about Israel’s enemies, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Just not the Psalmist’s finest moment, in my humble opinion. Just not the kind of thing we should be including in our list of requests to God.
Likewise, it seems to me that there’s something off base about asking God to help us win the lottery, or to grant our favorite sports team victory, or to make our children perfect. That last one never has worked, has it? So where does that leave us? Does God just hand out blessings randomly? Do we get certain blessings if we ask God nicely? Or do we have to wait for God to say, tell me what you want?
Solomon has only one item on his list to ask of God. He begins by talking about what God did for his father David, then admits that there is much he does not know and that he is tasked with being king over a large number of people. Finally he says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” How interesting. He asks for wisdom. And God says yes. God says, how interesting that you didn’t ask for “long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies.” So God agrees to give him “a wise and discerning mind.”
I believe that God gives us blessings. I believe God wants us to live good, healthy, fulfilling lives. And I believe that in ways that are best left mostly to mystery, God helps us along the way. But I don’t think God is the great cosmic genie who grants us wishes. I also don’t believe that God grants us long life, or riches, or good health, if we believe in Jesus and are good.
So, just for me, the bottom line comes down to two things when it comes to God’s blessings. First, I would say that God wants to bless everyone. I think God always wants what is best for all creation. Every Sunday we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Not in our part of the earth. Not in our lives or in our church. On earth. For all of us. Maybe sometimes even God can’t make it happen, but I believe God wants all of us to be blessed.
Second, what we ask and pray for matters. God is pleased, impressed even, that Solomon asks
for wisdom to govern and not for wealth and long life and such. When Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you” and so on, he concludes by saying that God wants to give us “good things.” Curses upon those we don’t like may seem like a good thing to us, but maybe not so much to God. Even wealth is not always a good thing. We’ve heard the stories of big lottery winners who end up broke in a few years. Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it, applies when it comes to asking God for blessings.
In the end, the good news is that, as we can all attest, God gives us blessings. Amen.