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 the words of others who’ve stood with me in trials have often been just what I needed to find my own words and way when struck voiceless by loss and pain, I choose to focus on the prayers voiced by 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
What is striking to me as I reflect on the meaning this prayer of my community has come to have to me as I’ve prayed it through trial and as I have led others in praying it in dark moments in my work as chaplain and pastor is the way in which acceptance flows from the gift of serenity. In the longer original form of the prayer Niebuhr first wrote we learn to take “as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.” To be honest when I first learned that extended description of this prayer, it made me flinch. At the time I was working hard as a pastor in a predominantly queer church fighting for equal rights for queer people here in the south where it is still not unheard of for transgender same-gender-loving persons to be fired, pushed out of housing, attacked, or even killed for no other reason than who they are. I looked at the example of Jesus who courageously broke custom by crossing boundaries of exclusion, loudly called out the hypocrisy of those in power, and even overturned the money tables in the temple of God to say “no more!” and had a pretty hard time squaring that with this picture of ones accepting the world as it is, trusting another to fix it. I felt deeply that I must be busy, a part of the solution.
How time changes us. The other day I was speaking to a younger friend who has just begun his journey to ministry, studying seminary and actively engaged in the church, who was coming to me with oh so many hopes and dreams about how we could change the world, reform the church, mend things so beauty and love reign in holiness in our world. It was beautiful to hear, and reminded me of myself as that young man ready to take on single-handedly the injustice and oppression that haunts our days. And as soon as it appeared beautiful I found myself feeling weary, worn out, and exhausted. “I just can’t,” I admitted to him, “I can’t lean into the world any longer. Ten years ago I really believed if you just lean into the world, it will change. I did lean in, at great cost. And you know what happened? The world changed. In important ways. And yet… it was still ugly and mean, barbaric and painful, beautiful beyond words, full of wonder – just as it always had been. I am glad you feel this power and passion to change the world, but I know right now especially right after burying my late wife, I must first mend my wings”.
You see what I did not realize as a young man but know now is that there is not a dichotomy between changing the world, working to mend its brokenness, and also accepting it as it is now trusting that only a power greater than myself can change it. Ultimately to have the sustaining power to be a change agent in the world I must first learn the art of accepting the life and world there is, even while working to build a better more beautiful one in its midst. Hence we are invited to both pray for serenity to accept what is before us and also courage to change that which we can. For there is only so much one person can do; only so much one lifetime can achieve. This does not mean we should throw in the towel – I haven’t, even with my exhausted words in grief to my friend – but it does mean we need to seek to be discerning. We need to seek the wisdom of asking not just “What must be changed?” but “What part do I play?”
You see ultimately change is not the result of just one person. So often we tell the stories of change as if this is the case. There is the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who single-handedly stared down Jim Crow, spoke, and it fell, right? No, not really. He was a spokes-person for a movement that existed before him, continued after him, and involved so many people whose names we do not know. Ultimately that movement continues in others today who speak out for justice, equality, freedom. King recognized that even if he was plowed down by a gun, as he was, that this work was God’s work. And God could pick up the pieces through others, just as God had begun this work before King came on the scene.
Seeing our work in that way – with us as participants who work together with a God who already was working to mend this world long before we were born and will continue long after we die – takes some of the pressure off of us that at least for me my youthful idealism placed upon me. It isn’t all up to me. It never was all up to me. It never will be all up to you.
Seeing it in this way, it makes sense to slow down, to accept that there are aspects of what is broken around us too big for us to fix right now. We can accept that ultimately we only have the ability to change those things God puts in our hands and enables us to change. In fact, ultimately, the most significant changes we will make will not be on the outside – in neighborhoods rebuilt, laws changed, systems re-structured. Sure, those will make lasting change. But the biggest changes we can make our inward: in our heart, our attitude, our perspective. For those changes give us strength and passion to do the structural change all around us. What’s more, they give us the winning attitude and heart to others that will enable us to show the genuineness in our dealings that others will not look at what we talk about doing to change the world as if we are treating them and others like mere projects, but rather as ones whom we connect with in a deeply human way, as fellow members of this world family. Or as my faith would say, children of the same God, all bearing that One’s Sacred image.
This poise which serenity creates, which enables us to engage what must be done with courage while also recognizing what is beyond our reach, takes on such significance in grief, loss, and trauma. So often people face situations in which there is not a good or a right choice. It is choosing between two objectively bad outcomes. It is slowly losing their independence, their health, or the person with whom they had hoped to live out all their days. This is not easy. Learning to place into the hands of God that which is outside of our control is key. It enables you to let others do lifting too heavy for you – whether friends, nurses, social workers, neighbors. This gives you the energy to handle what you must – whether that is tough decisions, paying bills, or simply showing up and sitting with the one you love in those uncomfortable moments which if you miss you will never get back.
For me I cannot say I ever really could easily accept as fair that my dear late wife passed. But I also came to accept that though we ask God for things, there are things God cannot even do. If God could not heal my wife for whatever reason from her Chiari, nor ensure a long happy life with it, God answered her prayer to make sure she went home to God in her sleep passing from this world to the next without pain, without feeling like a burden. I still at points rail against this happening, but I know: it is outside of my hand’s. It might in fact have been outside of God’s hands. In my heart, I believe God did what God could, and sat alongside me as many of my friends did in those days, weeping salty tears alongside my own, heart breaking that more was not possible and also heart breaking that I could not see anything beyond the darkness crashing in around and overhead.
Yet also, I find this call to have the serenity to accept is not just about pain. In the days following my wife’s passing I found I hit moments where I began to experience real peace. I suddenly had the energy to go to the gym, to care about my health. I suddenly was clear-headed enough to plan healthy meals. I found I was no longer stress eating worrying about a very sick, slowly dying partner. One day, when I was considering doing something truly fun with a really enchanting person, I was struck with so much guilt. “How can you be happy? Do fun things? Your wife is dead.” Then as I meditated on these words, I heard “Grant me the serenity to accept…”
I heard in that a call to accept not just the bad, but the good present in the bad. The good underneath the pain. To accept darkness as not the only or final word, but also joy. Friendship. Companionship. Laughter. Perhaps one day love.
I see this as a part of the serenity journey which my patients and parishioners face. So often in talking with caregivers they express guilt that they set boundaries on their care so they can have time to rest, to exercise, to laugh, to be with friends. I have to remind them: No apologies are necessary for this. You too are called to live. To embrace life. To find what joy and hope is possible in the midst of pain. This is also accepting this world as it is, not as we would have it. This is also putting your life and worries in the Creator’s hands, for like a mother may give gifts to her children they do not accept, so our God is able as Father and Mother of us all to give us gifts to strengthen us for the journey, to enable us not just to experience crushing pain but also the strength to stand up in its midst, even some moments the vision with which to see flowers growing beautifully in the cracks of our lives or lighted hillsides on the other side of our climb.
May you find the peace and strength to embrace what beauty lies before you this day, accepting both what you cannot control and wish you could together with what beautiful gifts you could not have chosen to appear but struggle to embrace.
Your progressive redneck preacher,