Solomon the Prayer Ninja

Sermon on 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-45 (and Ephesians 6:10-20) — Preached on August 27, 2012

A few years ago, I started following the blog of Jon Acuff who blogs at a self-created site, “Stuff Christians Like.”  If you have never read anything of his before, I urge you to check it out.  It started out as a Christian satire site — Jon is a Christian and has learned over the years to cleverly poke fun at things that Christians do that might seem weird or different to those who do not consider themselves Christian.  Those of you who know me — you know that this is right up my alley.  In 2008, Jon wrote a post that reminds me a bit of Solomon in the passage today.  See — I believe, using Mr. Acuff’s words here, that Solomon was a prayer ninja.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Solomon is a prayer ninja.  Allow me to explain:

In Jon’s blog, he describes the subtle ways to discover prayer ninjas among groups of people.  As you know, a ninja is traditionally known for being stealthy and hiding in plain sight — and a prayer ninja is no different.  Prayer ninjas are the people who are really, really good at praying aloud in front of people and knowing exactly what to say.  They use common language — not all that seminary jargon — and they use their normal voice rather than changing it to sound more important or more dramatic.  Prayer ninjas are humble and wise and you will find them everywhere, if you only take the time to look.  All this to say, Solomon is a prayer ninja.

This scripture today from first Kings is just part of a huge prayer that Solomon offers to God as a dedication of sorts for the completed temple.  For a little background knowledge, this temple was originally going to be built by King David, Solomon’s father.

You remember King David, right?

Anointed as a youth, fought Goliath, wrote a lot of psalms David.

Well see, David, while a great King and loyal to God was not without his own mistakes.  After marrying another man’s wife and having her husband killed on the front lines — God wasn’t too keen on having David built God’s temple.  While God still promised that great things would come from David’s family tree — God passed the torch of building the temple to David’s son, Solomon.

Which, in my humble opinion, wasn’t a bad choice on God’s part.

Solomon had proven himself to be a pretty wise-guy.  Wait — not a wise guy like 3 stooges kind of wise-guy — but a very wise man who was determined to be faithful to the God of Israel – Solomon was given the task of building the temple.  Now, this was a big deal.  Like, a really big deal.  Up until this time, the ark of the covenant (which was a huge structure that reminded the Israelites of the covenant between God and h Abraham) had been stored in temporary tents.  So this temple was a sign of stability.  Of a permanent place of worship for a wandering people.  It was a big deal.

So, when the temple is finally finished after 7 years — Solomon gives this great speech to the people of Israel.  Then our passage for today comes in — he places himself before the altar of the Lord and in front of all the people present spreads his arms high and wide and starts his prayer ninja prayer.  Today, I want to highlight a few great things that Solomon does in this prayer:

Solomon starts with a thanksgiving, which reminds the people and God of the covenant that was promised.  The covenant between his father, David, and God which was being carried out through Solomon’s building of the temple.

This is our first clue that Solomon is a prayer ninja.

Solomon recognizes that all of the hard work, turmoil and sacrifice that the Israelites have made over the years has not been in vain.  I’m sure that sometimes it must have felt like they were doing all of this work for nothing.  At least at some points.  I imagine that the Israelites weren’t too happy to get up early every single morning to piece together a temple that they couldn’t see the whole blueprint for.

In fact, they probably didn’t know how long this whole temple was going to take to build, so there wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be around to see the completion.  And what or who were they working for?

The Israelites didn’t have the best track record with the God of Israel.  They were often found complaining, grumbling, building idols of other gods and the like — until someone ended up pointing out the error of their ways and starting them anew.

Solomon knows this history.  He knows that the people are tired and weary and need some hope and direction.

Especially hope in the God of Israel.

So his prayer addresses the people and God — Solomon reminds the people of the reason for their hard work.  This temple is a sign to the people that the God of Israel is present with them.

I think sometimes we fall into a similar predicament – at least, I know I do.  I often identify with the plights of the Israelites in the old testament.  I want to see the blue print.  No, no I’m not actually building anything concrete — but in my own life.  And I would venture to say that some of you might have had similar questions about your own direction in life.  Allow me to share an example — especially since this is theological education Sunday.

Almost 2 years ago now, I was once again contemplating what my calling in life was supposed to be.  I had a full-time teaching position, a nice apartment, a yappy dog — I was definitely comfortable.  I had transferred my membership from here at United to First Pres of Arlington Heights near where I lived and was involved with the youth and other bible studies there.  Comfortable.

But then things started to happen.  Little things.  I never had one of those moments where there was a white light surrounding me and I felt all the warm fuzzies inside tell me to attend seminary and become a pastor.

Nope.  If only it were so easy.

There was no manual for this.

No manual for quitting a full time job in a semi-recovering economy to attend a full-time 3 year seminary education program.

No blue prints to prove that when I left one job behind to become a student again that I was absolutely doing the right thing.

No definitive voice from God in my ear telling me that this was the calling I had been looking for … nope.  Nope.

None of that.

But there was prayer.  Not by me, mind you.  I’m the Israelite in this story, remember?  I’m definitely not prayer ninja Solomon — not that I didn’t pray, but that I was so confused and stressed out — I was unable to articulate my own prayers and listen attentively for direction.

But I had those prayer people in my life.  People who would chat and pray with me — reminding me of the promises that God had made in my life.  Of God’s presence.  Much like the temple was a sign of God’s presence to these Israelites, these people were representations of God’s presence in my own life.  For those people, I am still grateful and will continue to be.

So back to Solomon the prayer ninja.  Another kind of awesome thing that Solomon does in this dedication prayer is honor the mystery and uncontainable nature of God.  In verse 27, Solomon says, “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you?”  Now, this might seem a little out of the ordinary here.  Solomon is asking how can God possibly live on earth?  Wait a second.  Didn’t they just spend 7 years building a temple for God to live in?  Didn’t Solomon just start out his prayer reminding the Israelites that their work was not in vain?  If God’s not able to live in the temple — then what’s the point of building it?

And again, I will say — Solomon is a prayer ninja.

He’s a very wise man.

Solomon knew that the wondrous, awesome power of the Almighty would not be able to be contained within a structure built my human hands.  It just wasn’t and still isn’t possible.  The Hebrew word for “live” in this verse is the word “yeshev” which is often translated as dwell.  In the Hebrew text — God never yeshev’s in a human structure — God only visits, or tents in those places.  Even in the temple that is built in this passage, this is true.

The temple is a symbol of the presence of God — a place where God visits and can be with God’s people — but God is not contained and limited to the 4 walls of the temple.

Solomon’s acknowledgement of this in his prayer has a powerful meaning for us today as well.  We too, have symbols of God’s presence with us.  Some of these are personal — a cross, a keychain, a special Bible that was given to us by a mentor.  These things remind us of God’s presence with us — they do not necessarily contain God within the plastic of the keychain — but they serve as reminders and we are able to feel God’s presence when we see or feel these special objects.

Some of our symbols are communal — the baptismal font, the beautiful cross that is up here every week , and even this building itself.  This building is a representation of God’s presence with us.  God is present here.  But God is not contained within these walls.  God is also present in so many other places of worship this morning, in the field outside, and God is present with those who decided sleeping in was the best choice for them this morning.  God is not contained and limited to the walls here at United — God is so much bigger than that.  And when we remember that this building is not God —- we are free to experience God’s presence anytime.  Not just for an hour on Sunday mornings when we are in this building — but we are free to experience God with our neighbors, with our loved ones — we are then able to experience God with our friends and with our enemies, in both the light places of life and the dark ones.

One last part of Solomon’s prayer that I would like to highlight with you, but definitely not the least of importance, comes towards the end of our passage today.  Solomon prays that the immigrant, who comes from afar because of God’s reputation — that their prayers should be heard by God as well.

Whoa.

Now, this is big news.

Back in Solomon’s time — immigrants and visitors from other nations and cultures were not really welcomed with open arms.  Cities were built with walls around them in order to protect themselves from outside invasions and attacks.  In those days, there would have been lookouts and guards in order to keep themselves safe.  The Israelites were supposed to be a group of people who were set apart for God — kept holy.

This seems to not mix well — “well then, are we supposed to be separate from people of other nations, or are we supposed to welcome them” – I think this is what the Israelites might have been thinking in their heads as Solomon was praying this part of the prayer – “make up your mind!”

Looking at this part of the story through the lens of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Pam read earlier — I think we can piece together what Solomon might have had in mind at this part of his prayer ninja prayer.

In the Ephesians passage, Paul uses military terminology for armor to describe what we, as Christians, are supposed to use and wear as followers of Christ.  While this terminology is difficult for me, someone who has never fought in a biblical war, to understand — I can appreciate the transformation from armor of destruction to armor of love that Paul demonstrates in this passage.  And definitely something that prayer ninja Solomon would have been interested in wearing.  Instead of a belt holding weapons, Paul challenges us to a belt of Truth.  Rather than a breastplate of metal — one of justice.  We should have a shield of faith and a helmet of salvation – and finally our weapon of choice should be the sword of the spirit, or God’s word.  Not a sword that pierces and harms people —- but one of love, justice and mercy that comes from the spirit of God and the word of God.  In verse 12, Paul even says, “we aren’t fighting against human enemies…”  While he was talking to the people of Ephesus — I can hear the truth ringing from these words for both the Israelites in Solomon’s day and for us in 2012.  The battles that we have in this world are not with human enemies — but rather with spirits of evil.  We are not to fight and battle and kill our sisters and brothers on this planet — but rather work together against the evils of hate, bigotry, and oppression in our world.  We are allowed to disagree with the details that our brothers’ and sisters’ support — but the bigger picture of love and unity in this world need to have the ultimate victory.

See, a prayer ninja like Solomon isn’t just a person who comes up with the fancy words, or is long-winded — but a true prayer ninja both affirms and challenges the people who are listening.  A true prayer ninja knows that with prayer comes action — actions of love and compassion with the people and the earth around us.

In the closing song today, “The Summons” one of the most profound verses, for me, is the 4th one:

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?

Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?

Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,

through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

This was part of Solomon’s prayer in today’s passage.  Calling out the Israelites back then, and calling out to us now — whether we can see the blue print or not — quelling that fear inside us and changing our ways in the world.  Using the faith that we have found in God — through symbols and through God’s people to reshape our world around us into a loving and compassionate world that reflects God’s love for all people: immigrant and domestic.  We don’t all need to be prayer ninjas like Solomon — God knows that I’m not —- but rather we are called to listen to each other:  in prayer, in conversation and challenge each other to better the world around us.  Just as God called the Israelites to be a holy people, we too are called to be holy in this world and invite others to share in that holiness with us.  May it be so.  Amen.

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to the class of 2012: celebrations and hesitations

it has always struck me how odd the moments are when inspiration and deep thinking meld together to form blog posts in my head.  here i am, on a random, ridiculously foggy monday night.  11:21 p.m…. i haven’t blogged in weeks (possibly months at this point) and yet here’s a heart overflowing and fingers ready to type….

change

courtesy of google images

Transitions are something that we all become familiar with at some point in our lives.  Usually this begins around the time we graduate from high school and find that our friends are going off to college, or off to jobs, or off to the military — off to start their life anew.  A time of celebration and hesitation.  There are graduations.  And there are weddings.  And there are friends moving away.  And there are new friends.  And there is change.  Lots and lots of change.

You see, while we celebrate milestones in life — we also hesitate to do so.  In the same instance we are celebrating a milestone such as completing a 3-year graduate degree of all things divine — we mourn the loss of our current normalcy.  Our friends we’ve made will no longer be across the hall or down the stairwell — they’ll be across the city or on the other side of the world.  The singing that we’ve heard through the vent of our bathroom and the cat therapy that we’ve attempted to seek across the hall no longer exist.  We long to celebrate …. and yet, we hesitate.

I’ve been through enough graduations, my own and otherwise, in my lifetime that you might think these transitions become easier to handle … but they don’t.  A vulnerable heart doesn’t heal quickly from change.  I hope you forgive me, Class of 2012, when I long to celebrate with you and for you but the hesitation happens.

To this year’s class of 2012 at McCormick — I hope these words might express the gratitude that I feel towards each of you, even in the moments when I will hesitate to say them.  Our overlapping paths have taught me so much in this one school year — you have challenged, affirmed, pushed, pulled, accepted, laughed, cried, screamed, cooked, baked, hugged, homeletic-high-fived, preached, whispered, prayed, read, and understood.  And I needed that.  McCormick needed that.  The world continues to need that.  All of that.

I hope you keep giving, and if I know you all like I think I know you — the world is in for the gentle treat of a rude awakening from each of you and all of you.

courtesy of Peter Shin

So while hesitations will come.  For me.  For you.  For all of us. Celebrations will continue.  Lives will continue.  Changes will happen and hope will appear.

Thank you Class of 2012.  Now, go knock the world’s socks off.

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holy saturday is a mud pile.

Today is Holy Saturday.

For Christians, it is a day that we often forget exists and struggle to know what to do with it.

In terms of emotional clarity — Holy Saturday is a mud pile.  The other days of Holy Week are laid out much clearer for us.  On Palm Sunday we rejoice, on Maundy Thursday we ponder, remember and start to feel the sliminess of betrayal, on Good Friday we question and grieve with Jesus as he takes his last breath, and on Easter Sunday we rejoice with a thousand hallelujahs at what God has done.

But what happens to Saturday?

It feels like limbo.  Caught between the heavy grief of Friday and the overwhelming joy of Sunday.  What are we do to?  Do we continue to grieve?  Honor the day with silence?  Or do we look forward to the future?  Expect miracles and believe them to be so?

Perhaps this turmoil in my mind surrounding Holy Saturday is a metaphor for something bigger.  Perhaps we are a people living in Holy Saturday.  Living in limbo between a world that is broken, longing for justice and the hope of ultimate redemption and reconciliation.

On this Holy Saturday — what will we do?  Perhaps we shall stand in solidarity with the innocent who are killed, hurt and wronged … those like Jesus?  Allowing ourselves and others a hope of Easter while still honoring and recognizing the agonizing pain of Good Friday.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, fitting for the occasion:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. ~Henri Nouwen

On this Holy Saturday, may we be this friend, this advocate for others — honoring those who have been wronged, and standing alongside their struggle.  May we practice a ministry of presence, not always solving or curing but sharing in the pains of life.  May we find the balance of hope and remembrance before the dawn of a new creation.  Amen.

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McGuest McBlog McCormick McMission!

Did you decipher the code in the title??

Check out my latest guest post for McCormick Seminary’s The CURE Blog!  I’m disclosing some of our mission trip secrets from our trip to New Orleans in January!

mission trip

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a wolf in my clothing..

If you’re friends with me on facebook or follow me on twitter then you might have noticed this picture in your newsfeed lately:

Originally, I posted it with the caption, “This happened today.  Best day ever!”  Reflecting back on that post (as good bloggers do) — I realized that the caption has the possibility of being misinterpreted and I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air a bit.  Here are a few of the possibilities that I thought might have run through your mind as you noticed the picture, either now or in your feed on social media:

Local Publicity Stunt:  In this scenario, you probably rolled your eyes, and perhaps a smirk escaped your lips when you noticed the picture.  Knowing my personality and social media addiction, you might have clicked the “like” button and continued to scroll down the page, assuming that the picture would soon end up as a profile picture — and thus was most likely the reason for taking said picture in the first place.

The “That girl is crazy” mindset:  This differs just a bit from the above scenario when you decided that a 28-year-old bought a fad hat when the winter hasn’t been cold and spring is nearly upon us — thus, “this girl is crazy.”

Disapproving of Indulgence:  In this scenario — you might have assumed that this part-time-working, full-time-seminary-student-who-is constantly-referring-to-the-face-that-she-has-no-money-but-obviously-had-enough-to-buy-a-fake-fur-hat-that-she’ll-only-wear-once — was totally flaunting my frivolous-ness all over the internet with this picture. You might have scoffed, or rolled those eyes, or sighed, or even got a little perturbed at the whole thing.

See — the thing is:  I’ve been guilty of assuming pictures, facebook stati, and even other real life conversations into one of these categories.  Assuming the worst, and judging without knowing the person or the story behind it.  It’s not a pleasant thing, this judgment.

You know why?

Because the story is the best part.  The story draws you in and makes you actually think about the situation — and you might even have a change of heart…

The story for this one is simple — but it might soften your heart a little if you dare to read it:

Just after Christmas, I was inspired by my cousins to buy a furry animal hat that went along with theirs.  After much seaching online and debating — I finally settled upon the cutest and most Stephanie-like selection:  a grey wolf hat.  Ordered it January 3.  Got the shipping confirmation on January 6.

And then I waited….

…and waited….

….and waited….

After numerous e-mails with the company — it seemed that my precious cargo was lost in transit and they ended up sending another one.  By this time it had been about 2 months since the original order —- 2 months of anticipation that I might see that little grey package in the lobby of the 1400 building upon returning from class … and everyday disappointment when it, alas, was no where to be found.  2 months of difficult classes, papers, mission trips, and reading, reading, oh the endless reading of this semester!  2 months of the honeymoon of the first semester of seminary ending and realization of the academic and emotional roller coaster that I just noticed I was on ….

2 months can be a long time….

See — when this wolf hat showed up on my kitchen counter yesterday — it was more than a package of fake fur and polyester …. it was a break in the monotony.  It was a glimmer of hope in a tunnel of doubt — and it was, dare I say it — a symbol of hope for redemption.

I realize this is a lot to place on one little package.  and I promise you it is nothing but a symbol of all these things.  But it’s what I needed at that moment, to remind me that in the ups and downs, joys and stresses in life — there is always room for a bit of fun and hope.

I’ve found mine for the moment — where do you find yours?

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claiming my ashes

I’m sure most of you have figured out that yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  It’s not really a secret.  Especially in a seminary.

So here at McCormick we had our usual community worship which included the imposition of ashes.  Now this isn’t my first time dealing with ashes, but nevertheless, this time was different.  It’s always different.  That’s one of the funny and amazing and mysterious things about the liturgical year — it repeats itself on end, and yet each season seems profoundly different from the last time around.

Our worship space at McCormick is really a classroom/conference room that is transformed for an hour each week to become a space for our community to gather together in prayer, confession, and the word.  This also means that our space does not have traditional pews, or even chairs that are placed in boxy rows.  Usually, like yesterday, there were 4 sections of chairs all facing towards the middle of the room.  In this configuration, it is impossible to not see the faces of most of the fellow worshippers.

This is where it becomes important for my story.

See, usually when I receive ashes … I walk up to the front of the sanctuary, receive the ashes, and then go sit in my pew watching everyone else receive ashes as well.  The configuration of this new space, however, didn’t allow me to see everyone receive the ashes, but rather allowed me a panoramic view of ashed people at every angle.

It caught me off guard.  Like a revelation of sorts.

It was scary.

and uncomfortable…

and I’m still not sure what to do with it…

The question that leapt into my mind at that moment is haunting me still.  See I saw all those people with ashes on their foreheads — and it symbolized many things, but to see people all together like that symbolized a group.  A group of people set apart for great things.  A group of people called to ministry.  A group of people reconnected with both the earth and God.  A group of people who are wise, caring, and full of grace.

The question?

Who am I to be a part of this group?
Who am I to call myself one of them?

See, naming and claiming myself to be a part of this particular group is more than finding a place where I fit and belong.  Oh no — it’s much bigger than that.  Claiming a space in this group means I am called to something higher than myself, something higher than the group — something that I can’t quite grasp and yet am overwhelmed with understanding.

So this Lenten season — these are my questions, my contemplations, and my prayers.  Discerning what it might be mean to claim a space in this group — a space that I ultimately believe has been already claimed for me by God, but a space that I have only just realized the beginning of the implications….

Here we go, Lent.  Let’s find our common place.

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book review {{close enough to hear God breathe}}

The story of the book, Close Enough to Hear God Breathe by Greg Paul is one of redemption.  Not necessarily the one time redemption that Christians commonly refer to in Christ, but a redemption that continues to happen throughout our lives.  Paul divides his book into five sections:  The Heart of the Matter, Creation, The Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.  His stories are centered around personal anecdotes from his life in ministry as well as from his personal life.  Stories of love, loss, and redemption — mostly in very tangible ways.  One quote that I did particularly like from his book is, “I want to ‘hear’ the story God is telling me—the Great Story of his passionate love for all humanity and all creation. Wisdom is being able also to find my own personal little story within that big one. I want my spirit to vibrate at the same frequency as the Spirit.”

The story that Greg Paul tells in this book is one that is very familiar with Christian books of substitution theologies and personal salvation.  There were some stories and ideas in the book that I could really connect with, and there were others that I could not reach past the theological statements of ‘everything happens for a reason’ to find their redemptive qualities.  Paul often speaks of his own family and people he encounters through his ministry to illustrate his stories.  Often, he offers up a problem, his old thought process, an enlightening personal redemption story, and then a new thought process.  While none of this is necessarily wrong, it becomes predictable and repetitive throughout the book.  Overall, I would give the book 2/5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising

 

 

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