I continue looking at prayers that have been sources of help to me in my times of crises, as well help to my patients as a chaplain, and those I’ve supported as a pastor over the years. Because of how being in community, supported by arms and hearts other than my own, has been so important to me in times of loss and pain, I choose to focus on the prayer of my church community, the United Church of Christ. Today I continue to look at the “Serenity Prayer”, the original version of which was penned by United Church of Christ pastor Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr in the last century. His original version of this prayer is:
“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change,
“Courage to change the
things I can, and the
wisdom to know the difference.
“Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the
pathway to peace.
“Taking, as He did, this
sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it.
“Trusting that He will make
all things right if I
surrender to His Will;
“That I may be reasonably happy
in this life, and supremely
happy with Him forever in
As I mentioned in my previous post, this prayer at least in the abbreviated form commonly used in the 12-step movement has become a central spiritual practice for me over the years. I began to use this prayer to meditate when people close to me became involved in 12-step spirituality groups like AA, Al-Anon, and NA, as they confronted the ways in which addiction and substance abuse impacted their lives either as addicts or their close companions. Later, when I discovered the power of mindfulness and meditation in helping me find center in the noise and storms of life in part through experiences with counseling and also studying Eastern religions, I began to find what would become my regular use of this prayer. I found that mindfulness and meditation practices are not the sole property of Eastern faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism, but exist in every religion as the practices of the mystics who drive those faiths forward into deeper compassion, understanding, and spirituality. In Christian history a range of practices including lectio divina, Ignatian meditation, and breath prayer have always existed as forms of mindfulness or meditation practice. As I learned this, I began to incorporate the Serenity Prayer into my regular practice of breath prayer.
I have done a previous post on breath prayer but in many ways breath prayer in Christian mystical practice resembles zazen in Zen Buddhism. In both a repeated phrase or mantra is used, in connection with one’s breath, to help one begin to put aside the noise, distraction, anxiety, fear, and even yearning which can cause one to not be fully present in the moment. The words used as mantra in Buddhism, or prayer, in Christian mysticism, act as a focal point upon which one focuses their mind. In both, a phrase is used which helps not only push away those things that keep you from being fully present in the moment but also which is packed with significance for the sort of interior life you want to develop, an interior life which spills out into the shape your external life takes. The hope is that as one begins to develop an inner world of peace, serenity, awareness, openness through meditation, one will begin to live out those qualities in your outward relationships, which then re-inforces your practice of meditation in a synergistic way.
When I began to use this particular prayer of the church in my own meditation practice through breath prayer, the first thing that struck me is that like breath prayer itself, the focus is on the inner life first.
In one of his most challenging statements to at least the audience of his day, Jesus confronts their obsession with outward signs of purity – how one dresses, what one eats, how one cleanses one’s self and one’s things ritually. He says in Matthew 23:25-26::
“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and … hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking… First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too…”
And likewise in Mark 13:
“8 He said to them, “Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. 20 “It’s what comes out of a person that contaminates someone in God’s sight,” he said. 21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, 22 adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.”
What struck me as I first began to use this Serenity Prayer as a daily breath prayer is how much its focus was on what Jesus talks about here: the inner reality. My temptation is always to pray “fix, fix, fix”; “cure, cure, cure”; “give, give, give”. Like a little child, grabbing onto its mother’s apron strings, begging for her to just give it what it needs, so often I want to ask God to fix the outward situations of my life.
One time, as a young newly married man, I remember sitting and praying just such a prayer – “God, fix this!” It was an outward thing, in a way. A situation where I was sure if I had just these resources in my grasp, it would all be ok. And a thought struck me, one that in looking back I wonder if might have been an insight the Holy Spirit was trying to bring to my awareness in Her way: “What if? What if you had all of these things? Could you handle them?” I’ve thought about that flash of insight in that moment for years.
For years my late wife and I wanted kids. But were we ready? What would being ready look like? The work I do now, I love, and longed prayed for God to bring me to the right career. But when I first prayed that prayer I hadn’t done the work on myself I would need to sustain what I do today.
You see God can send us the right partner. But if we aren’t ready to be the right partner to them, even the perfect person won’t work out for us. God can give us kids but unless we have done the work to work through whatever issues we have had from our own childhood, it is likely we won’t be ready to be the parents those children need us to be.
On the flip side, in situations of great suffering, we can pray “God take away the pain”. Goodness knows, since the death of my late wife, there have been times I prayed “God, let me no longer hurt from this grief”. Yet the hurting of the grief, the facing of the pain, is the only way for me to get better.
I prayed to God “Lord, let this woman I love kick this illness, and live a long life”. For whatever reason God could not answer that prayer with a “Yes” but could only answer my late wife’s repeated prayer “when the time comes, and the Chiari causes me to lose capacity again through a stroke or aneurism, dear Lord take me home”. And God did.
And so often as a chaplain now and before as a pastor I see people so longing for God to remove it – remove the illness, remove the struggle, fix the physical situations.
It has so shaped me to daily pray not God change it, but God change me. God shape in me serenity, a deep abiding peace to accept whatever comes my way, be it peaceful waters or raging storm. Help me find the inner resources to stand against the flood. God shape me. Shape me to have the courage. Courage not found in not having fear or uncertainty. But in being able when I do not want to get out of bed, face my pain and loss, to do so. To move one foot in front of the other. To keep going. Courage to not wave my fist furiously at how the world will not conform to my wishes and desires, but rather to look at what small things God has put in my care that my choices can shape. And wisdom. A God-given space within that lets me discern, little by little, which is needed and which is possible.
As I faced into my own loss this past year, such a perspective has been helpful to me. I can’t say I haven’t cried out, tear in my eyes, begging God to let me get to the other side of grief without facing my pain. I can’t say I haven’t shaken my fist to heaven, furious at God, the universe, and everyone for having my wife and all our dreams together ripped out of my hands. Who doesn’t do that in grief? But I can say this prayer, prayed every day, has reminded me that my focus cannot be on just these externals. I must focus on letting my heart be shaped through whatever I face so that I can develop the inward poise that allows me not to be flattened by what falls upon me. I must also not simply throw up my hands helpless at the confusing tangle of pain, loss, fear, and heartache, that lays in front of me. I must grab the tiny slender threads of possibility and hope, letting God show me what small choices lay in front of me which, if I make with courage, can help my life and others’ lives move forward, ever so little. Also I must trust that there is also goodness coming in front of me, even in the darkest moments, realizing that those too are things I must accept, I must be willing to embrace, and have courage to not let my pain keep me from seeing.
The patients and parishioners I see finding their way forward through their faiths, whatever those faiths are, also find this inner resolve, this deep shaping toward serenity, courage, and wisdom through their spiritual practices. Some of them, like me, join in this prayer of the United Church of Christ which has become a prayer for all people of all faiths, just as the United Church of Christ strives to be a “united and uniting church” for all peoples. Others, though, prayer different prayers and some do not pray at all but engage in other life-giving practices. Yet drinking deep of the well of courage, serenity, and wisdom enables them and me to face whatever pain and joy life throws at them.
Those who find this make real the words I often pray as a change “God, who is nearer to us than the air that we breathe or the sunshine falling fresh on our shoulders, surround us in your love. It is from your love that we come, born into this world, and to your love we return. Your love, O God, is what gives us the strength to stand in the face of overwhelming joy & wonder, and before crushing pain. And it is that Love which lifts us up and carries us as a mother her child in those moments when we cannot stand. Amen”
That these three – serenity, courage, and wisdom – are gifts for which we pray show that ultimately whether God is looked to in receiving them, when they are borne in our inner life through practices such as meditation, prayer, or other ways of connecting with the heart of life, ultimately they are the working of this love in us.
However you touch this love and are changed by it, I challenge you both in times of deep joy and pain, waiting and wonder, to reach out your hand and made new with me this day.
Your progressive redneck preacher,