God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
I once gave my mom a plague with this prayer written on it. She received it saying “OH that’s the Alcoholics prayer isn’t it?”
Well, yes and no. It has been adapted and borrowed by Alcoholics Anonymous.
The original prayer goes like this: God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed; Courage to change the things which should be changed; and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
It is thought to be written by pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr…he is one of ours he comes from Evangelical Reformed tradition one of the stands of Christianity that merged to become the United Church of Christ in the 50’s. He was one of the most influential preachers of his time. Every now and then some controversy arises as to whether or not he actually composed the prayer but after listening to an interview with his daughter Elisabeth Sifton who wrote a book about the prayer I am convinced enough.
I love to think of this prayer as part of our tradition because it’s a great prayer. It’s a prayer that seems to covers it all. It touches us personally and as people living out our faith in community and in the world. I‘m not sure why it has not been more widely used by our churches and is now more often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. But, Niebuhr freely gave permission to use the prayer believing it was spoken freely from the heart for everyone to share. In addition to granting AA permission, the prayer was also borrowed by a friend and colleague of Nurbuhr’s Dean Howard Robbins. Robbins put the prayer in a pamphlet for servicemen in Europe during WWII.
SO for the next three weeks we will be exploring this prayer and reclaiming it as part of our tradition as protestants.
I am intrigued by the differences in the prayer as it became adapted. Niebuhr uses “us” vs “me” like a true preacher he prayed the prayer for a particular congregation in 1943 where he spent his summers and as such meant it to be for a community of people rather than individuals. As Christians we are a community of people that’s how we practice our faith it’s always WE not I. Still Niebuhr acknowledged our personal struggles, according to his daughter, he had no problem when the prayer was applied to individuals. Another difference is that Niebuhr’s version says “ courage to change the things which should be changed” which is stronger language than the adapted version which says “change the things I can” It clearly reflects the social activist in him. He believed that we have a responsibility to change what should be changed in society and to speak up when we know things are wrong.
BUT I am getting ahead of myself maybe to avoid today’s topic….Serenity!
I immediately think of the common joke around this prayer ….God grant me serenity…NOW!
Serenity is not something that comes easy to most of us ….at least I know it doesn’t come easy to me!!! The dictionary defines it as “the state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled” The prayer suggests we need God’s grace in order to achieve it. The very purpose of the prayer seems to be to align our lives with GOD.
Accepting things we cannot change is not an easy task! I think we spend a lot of energy trying to shape and mold things and people to be the way we want them to be! If you have spent any time (and most of us have) trying to change people in your life you realize what an impossible task that is!!! The longer you live the more you realize there are so many things we cannot change…like the fact that you are aging, or that you just got a diagnosis that you’d rather not have, that your relationship is falling apart, that you can’t control everything your kids do, that loss is an inevitable part of life. There are many things we cannot control or change.
SO the idea of serenity then, is not, when things calm down I’ll find serenity but in the midst of chaos I will accept with serenity the things I can’t change. We usually live our lives with an attitude more like” I will accept kicking and screaming the things I can’t change” Our mantra becomes no no no I don’t want this.
A few years back I went on a mission trip to Appalachia. Our group was assigned to Mary’s house, a home that was completely falling apart around her. Mary was a widow who was very disabled with Rheumatoid Arthritis so there was no way she could take care of her home alone. Her hands are deformed, she couldn’t unbend her elbows, couldn’t lift her arms very high and she walked with a very slow shuffle…kinda inch by inch. My work team wasn’t very pleased with me because I spent a lot of my time sitting on the porch talking to Mary instead of working! I’m sorry I couldn’t help myself. If there was ever a picture of serenity I found it on the porch swing looking out at the mountains listening to the birds and talking to Mary. Mary was full of gratitude for our help. She had a wonderful sense of humor and made me laugh daily! She was a philosopher sharing her wisdom on life earned by a hard lived life in a coal mining town. She had suffered significant losses...including her ability to do work she loved, her ability to take the long walks she cherished and most of all her husband of many years . She told me she never had much BUT, she seemed a lot happier than many of us who have too much. Her faith was embedded in every part of her being. There was something about her presence that was such a comfort to me. I thought about the silly things I had worried about in my life and for some of the big things she became a model of serenity for me. Now don’t get me wrong I am not glorifying poverty. Some of the stories Mary told me about family members at the mercy of an inadequate health care system were heartbreaking and plain wrong and that’s were the WE part of the prayer comes in. What can WE together change?
Still, I found serenity on Mary’s porch. When we were leaving, Mary told me we were her favorite group (I don’t know maybe she says that to all the groups) but then she said, “You know Linda if my house wasn’t in shambles I never would have met any of you…it’s kinda a blessing when you think about it, isn’t it?” It was truly a blessing I can’t deny that!
Now, if you are waiting for the “how to” part of this sermon I am sorry to disappoint you, there isn’t any. Try as we may we can’t quite “make” serenity happen. It comes to us through God. We can only open ourselves to God through prayer and meditation, which is probably why Reinhold Neibuhr prayed this prayer rather than write a how to book. He knew the importance of prayer. So really opening ourselves to God through prayer and meditation is an action we can commit to that will make serenity more likely to happen. Yet, As comforting as this prayer might be, it’s a hard one too. We want to believe we can make everything happen but in some ways this is a prayer of surrendering into what is….it’s a prayer about listening to our lives and engaging in self reflection and admitting our limitations. It’s a pray about listening for God.
In order to accept with serenity, maybe we all need time on the porch swing with a friend, listening to the birds, breathing in the beauty amidst the chaos around us. We all need to remember that even in chaos there is blessing. We all need to practice gratitude.
God grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed….We all need to remember God’s grace is free…there is nothing we need to do except align our lives in God. Amen