From My Reading – May

“Contemplation helps us discern what is truly important in the largest, most spacious frame of reality and to know what is ours to do in the face of “evil” and injustice. Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, January 18, 2020) . . . . . Like Jesus, Francis [of Assissi] taught his disciples while walking from place to place and finding ways to serve, to observe, and to love the world that was right in front of them. Observation with love is a good description of contemplation” (Daily Meditation, February 2, 2020).

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“The way you make apprentices [of Jesus is to ravish them with the Kingdom of God.  You set it before them in such a way that they will realize their great opportunity in life is to enter the Kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus” (Dallas Willard).

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“We must learn to be gentle with ourselves. It may be helpful, from time to time, to picture ourselves as children learning to walk. No one scolds a little one when they stumble, and we shouldn’t scold ourselves either. Falling down is part of growing up. God doesn’t expect us to be flawless, He expects us to flourish. We’re going to make mistakes, if we respond to them in the right way, we deepen in humility and He expands His likeness inside of us. “Accepting the reality of our sinfulness,” wrote Brennan Manning “means accepting our authentic self. Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could” (Jonathan R Bailey).

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Dear God, I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!  Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to? Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands? Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me. And what you want to give me is love – unconditional, everlasting love”(Henri Nouwen).

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“Beauty to the spirit is what food is to the flesh. A glimpse of it in a young face, say, or an echo of it in a song fills an emptiness in you that nothing else under the sun can. Unlike food, however, it is something you never get your fill of. It leaves you always aching with longing not so much for more of the same as for whatever it is, deep within and far beyond both it and yourself, that makes it beautiful. ‘The beauty of holiness’ is how the Psalms name it (29:2), and ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee (42:1) is the way they describe the ache and the longing” (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark).

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Living in Harmony

The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like we are experiencing during the pandemic. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. This post completes the study of this challenging but beautiful prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and 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 the next.”

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So, here is our bottom line:  if we follow the recommendations of the Serenity Prayer, we can be reasonably happy in this life (as happy as we choose to be in a broken world) and supremely happy (as happy as God created us to be) in the next life.

Years ago, I taught the Bethel Bible Series which used symbolic pictures to help students remember the basic content of the arc of the Christian Scriptures.  The first two pictures came into my mind this week as I mulled over being “reasonably” happy in God’s earthly  kingdom and “supremely” happy in God’s eternal kingdom.

The first picture shows the life of harmony originally found in the garden (depicted by the musical notes). Humans are in harmony with God (the man’s hand is outstretched to the larger hand which symbolizes the Creator)  and with each other (hands of the humans are outstretched to each other.) The man is also in harmony with himself – he is supremely happy. The scene is one of beauty because mankind is in harmony with the rest of the created world. 

The second picture unveils what happens when humans choose to separate themselves from their Creator: disharmony – the musical notes are broken are broken. God’s hand is still extended to his children. But one man has his back to God and is  looking downward, a sign that he has lost the oneness of spirit with which he was created; now he is at war with the image of God he received at creation. Humans are no longer in harmony with each other. The second  man is ready to run away in fear, or perhaps he is preparing to  inflict harm. And the garden that God created for humans to take care of has died. 

The second picture depicts the world we live in now. We are surrounded by disharmony. We can never be supremely happy in this life; there is too much conflict and destructiveness around us.  But we can be reasonably happy if we choose what the Serenity Prayer suggests:

  • understanding that we cannot fix everything or anybody, but that we can be involved in changing some situations.
  • living in the present moment (not the past or the future).
  • accepting that our present world is broken.
  • trusting that if we look for God’s will and collaborate with him, we will learn that God’s intention is to make all things right.
  • choosing a life that will make us reasonably happy.
  • waiting patiently for the harmony to be stored in all ways when God’s  eternal kingdom is ushered in and we will be supremely happy once more.

We are waiting and yearning for the life God intended for his creation, one of harmony and unity.  This life awaits all who are devoted to the God who created this world, to the life style we see in God’s son when he lived on earth, and to obedience to the Holy Spirit. Our collaboration with the Trinity will make life reasonably happy in this life and supremely in the next. 

This journey with the Serenity Prayer is complete.  But our individual journeys toward harmony await us anew in 2020.

I MAY BE REASONABLY HAPPY IN THIS LIFE  AND SUPREMELY HAPPY IN THE LIFE TO COME.

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Making all Things Right

The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like we are experiencing during the pandemic. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. 

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and 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; 

This phrase of the Serenity Prayer presents some huge and fundamental concepts which challenge and stretch us. Let’s think briefly about each of these:

I can trust God – Trust is like faith:  it requires acting on something that cannot be seen.  It is like a muscle: it must be used over and over again to stay strong. Trust is seen most easily in babies; babies are naturally trusting. In fact as James Bryan Smith says, they are so trusting that they are “presumptuous. They presume they will be cared for” (The Magnificent Story). It takes repeated offenses against the soul of a child to create distrust in his or her soul. Our call is to shed the suspicions and fears that we learned from untrustworthy people  and trust that God wants the best for us.  

God will make all things right – Two of my favorite scripture passages speak to this promise:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11; NIV).

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28; CEB)

I am God’s child. I am God’s handiwork, a work of art (Eph. 2: 10 NIV).  I am loved and valued. I am blessed and cared for – even delighted in. God sings songs over me (Zephaniah 3: 17). I carry God’s image within me. Of course, God’s desire is to make all things right for me!

If I surrender to His Will – If I am willing, God will use my every experience to weave a life of “rightness.” I don’t have to like or understand the weaving, but I do need to surrender and to submit to the process. Just as a mother surrenders to pain to bring a child into the world, I must surrender my will to the hands of the Potter to be molded into a beautiful and useful pot.

The Serenity Prayer teaches us that no matter how much we have failed, no matter how much we have hurt ourselves or others, no matter how headstrong we have been, we can bow our heads and our hearts and trust that God is longing to collaborate with us to make all things right.

TRUSTING THAT HE WILL MAKE ALL THINGS RIGHT IF I SURRENDER TO HIS WILL.

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Life as We Would have It

The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like we are experiencing during the pandemic. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the next four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this challenging prayer on Mondays and Thursdays.  

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and 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;  

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My  mother lived a difficult life: rheumatic fever as a young child which put her on bed rest for a year; loss of my father, a beloved husband, a war hero who never returned; raising a child on her own post-WWII America; a sometimes difficult second marriage. The result was her life-long battle with this concept in the Serenity Prayer: she wanted life as she would have it and it was denied her.  The result was a life of bitterness and fear.

As I was musing about how we can live in a world that does not meet our desires or expectations, a phrase memorized more than fifty years ago jumped into my mind: 

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (Shakespeare’s  Hamlet). 

That phrase dovetails with the words of a famous Christian preacher and thinker, John Chrysostom.  St. John Chrysostom was born  in 347 in Antioch, then part of Syria.  Just  35 years earlier, the Emperor Constantine had ended persecution of Christians and began the process of institutionalizing the Christian Church. For 12 years, beginning in 386, Chrysostom established himself as a great preacher, offering his listeners impressive sermons. In 398, St. John was requested, against his will, to serve as archbishop of Constantinople. He had  many steadfast followers who loved his preaching, but he also made religious and political  enemies.

In 403, Emperor Arcadius banished him from Constantinople. He died in exile in the mountains of Armenia after suffering harsh winters, separation from beloved friends,  and frequent illness. Certainly the life he had in this sinful world was not the one he would have liked to have.  However, while in exile, Chrysostom penned these words: 

“The events of this life in themselves are indifferent matters and take on the character of good or evil for us according to our response to them. . . . Those who stumble over the events God allows to occur “would be more correct in reckoning their stumbling to themselves, and not to the nature of the events” (from On the Providence of God).

How do we live in a sinful world that does not meet our desires or expectations?  Perhaps we, too, can begin to think that the events and circumstances of our lives are neutral – not good or bad. The way we think about them and act because of them determines whether we will live in serenity and gratitude for the daily mercies of God or in discontent and bitterness because God dealt us a bad hand. 

“TAKING, AS HE DID, THIS SINFUL WORLD AS IT IS, NOT AS I WOULD HAVE IT.” 

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Hardship and Peace

The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like we are experiencing during the pandemic. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the next four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this challenging prayer on Mondays and Thursdays.  

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace;”

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Hardship or happiness. Which would you choose?  The Serenity Prayer suggests that if our goal is to be at peace, “hardship” is what we should value. Happiness is comfortable, but hardship teaches us what we need to learn.  

What exactly is a hardship? The hardships referred to in Serenity Prayer are not inconveniences like waiting 20 minutes for a train to pass, running out of bread, losing a library book, or being too sick to go on vacation. The dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for hardship:  adversity, destitution, suffering, poverty. The death of a spouse, incurable or serious illness, betrayal by a friend, dysfunction within families, loss of a job,  loss of your home, floods, fires, and other natural disasters, not enough money to feed your children – these are hardships.  

Many people are able to say that they have learned the most from their suffering or hardship. But it’s a level beyond that to say that our hardship is our “pathway to peace.” Can this be true?  I venture to say that yes, hardship is our teacher – if we are willing to be a student.  And the lesson we are studying is finding peace. How does that work?

First, hardship peels away our tough outer public shell and exposes who we really are and what we really believe. We are forced to examine our values. Do we value our social standing, or do we value our integrity? Do we value our productivity or do we value our relationships – especially with God?  Do we value approval or do value truth?  Do we value security or we value the risks of love? When we lose what we think we value most, is our faith still strong and vibrant?  When hardship brings us face to face with who we really are, the journey to peace can begin.

Second, hardship teaches us detachment. Do we expect good health? Illness teaches us to detach from that expectation. Are we proud of our wealth and/or focused on our financial security? Financial setbacks help us gain perspective on the importance and wise use of money. Do we need the approval of others? Rumors, political disagreements, jealousies, misunderstandings, and raised eyebrows or outright attacks on social media can help us see how fleeting that approval really is. Detachment from wishes and expectations helps us become more “attached” to God, our rock and our salvation.

Here’s what Scripture says about hardship and peace:

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, CEB).

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1: 2-4, MSG).

And listen to what Jesus calls us to do with hardship – and the result we will find:   “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

So, hardship or happiness. What do we choose?  Ultimately we can have both, if we change the word “happiness” to peace or joy or rest. Walking confidently with God through hardship ultimately  is the pathway to peace and joy.

ACCEPTING HARDSHIP AS A PATHWAY TO PEACE

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: The Present Moment

The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like we are experiencing during the pandemic. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the next four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this challenging prayer on Monday and Thursdays.  (This series originally appeared in December 2016 and January 2017)

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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.   Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;” 

The phrase in bold above starts off the part of the Serenity Prayer with which most people are unfamiliar. It raises this question: is it possible for human beings in 2020 to focus on the present moment, let alone enjoy that moment? This question is the basis for blogs, podcasts, articles, news reports, and books that focus on our addiction to social media.

Living in the present is difficult because we usually live in the past or in the future.  We are stuck with memories, good and bad, in the past, and many of us waste precious time trying to renegotiate our history. On the other hand, we look forward to the future, dreaming how wonderful it will be, or about how we will handle its problems.

Richard Rohr reminds us that “the mind is always bored in the present. So it must be trained to stop running forward and backward” (Daily Meditation for 11/20/17). Spiritual exercises (silence, solitude, intentional awareness of everything around us, contemplative prayer) can train us to live in the present moment. But these exercises are difficult for most people. Perhaps it is because  of one question we haven’t faced:  Do we even want to live in the present? Do we feel more in control when we  replay the past or worry about the future? The present moment really doesn’t lend itself to our control; it is offered to us as an experience. 

Rohr also reminds us that Jesus “teaches and is himself a message of now-ness, here-ness, concreteness, and this-ness.” The only time Jesus talks about future time is when he tells us not to worry about it. . . .  Thinking about the future keeps us in our heads, far from presence.” And Jesus talks about the past in terms of forgiving it. He tells us to “hand the past over to the mercy and action of God. We do not need to keep replaying the past, atoning for it, or agonizing about it.”

Another reason that most of us who are raised in the traditions of western culture do not live in the present is that we are trained from childhood to be busy and productive.  We must have something to show for our efforts or the day is basically a waste of time. If we not multi-tasking, we are not really working. In contrast, however, living in the moment requires paying attention to one thing at a time and appreciating how it enriches our live:  a child who is excitedly sharing his life with us, a new bloom on a flowering plant, beautiful writing or singing or painting, the peaceful presence of the wood, the aroma of a family dinner, the comfort of a hot shower, a robin’s song, the warmth of the hand we are holding.

Twelve step programs have turned this phrase from the Serenity Prayer into a slogan or a mantra: One Day at a Time.  The idea is we can handle anything if we take it one day (or one hour or one minute at a time). The deeper beauty of the slogan is that if we aim to fully experience each moment of that one day, we will not only handle it better but also be graced by it.    

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Wisdom

We are currently living through a time that seems  totally out of control and may remain that way for some time. The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like these. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the next four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this challenging prayer on Monday and Thursdays.  (This series originally appeared in December 2016 and January 2017)

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“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.

This last clause is the key to “working” the first sentence of the Serenity Prayer. God can supply what we need to be able to discern the difference between what we are not capable of changing and what we should be willing to change. This discerning is wisdom. Wisdom, I believe, is experience plus inspiration fueled by love. It is best lightly shared, but bears repeating if the listener is open.  

Experience –  Our experiences can be our best teachers if we don’t allow guilt or shame to color them. We are who we are because of what we have experienced. And we can learn lessons from those past events which can then be recycled. The hitch here is that we must first actually learn from our mistakes and use them as fodder for growth. Then we can offer what we have learned to others.

Here we see the beauty of the first sentence of the Serenity Prayer.  If we learn that we can change only our own  attitudes and behaviors, we don’t wallow in the past.  And we don’t try to fix other other people.  Instead our growing wisdom  can inspire others.  People who don’t reflect on their experiences don’t learn to change through those experiences.  Instead they stew on them. When challenged, they spew out anger and hatred rather than sharing what they they have learned and inspiring others.   

Inspiration  – The word inspire has a long and beautiful history. In the 1300’s it meant “the immediate influence of God,” especially “the inspiration under which the holy books were written.” That meaning came from the old French word “inspiracion” which meant “inhaling, breathing in. The origin of that meaning is the Latin word  “in + spirare” which meant “to breathe into.” We see this meaning of the word in Genesis 2: 7

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

The meaning of inspire evolved over the years. It seems to have moved more from “breathe into” to “influence” to “affect or guide.” However, the rich old version of “inhaling” or “breathing in” God is still true. God did not only breathe into humanity at creation. The Holy Spirit breathes wisdom into us everyday.  It is our job to listen and then to share that wisdom.

Love – The word “love” has almost lost its meaning in our superficial society.  Decades ago Scott Peck wrote that “love is wanting the best for others.” James Bryan Smith strengthened that sentiment in the Magnificent Story: “Love is to will the good of another.” That kind of love is what changes our need to control others into compassion.  It motivates us to share who we are and what we have learned with others who are willing be breathed into – just as we have been breathed into.  “Willing the good of another” is the basic value we have lost in the United States – especially in the political arena. That is why our willingness to share our humanity through our wisdom is so needed! The Serenity Prayer teaches how to live in a world of meanness, cruelty, and despair.  We harness what we have learned, allow the Holy Spirit to reframe it, and then give it away.

“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.”

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Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Courage

In 1941, the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr, was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous.Over the past 60 years the prayer has gone far beyond AA boundaries. It is especially instructive for anyone longing to be an apprentice of Jesus. We are currently living through a time that seems  totally out of control and may remain that way for some time. The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like these. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the next four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer on Mondays and Thursdays.  (This series originally appeared in December 2016 and January 2017)

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God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot changethe courage to change the things I can,”

In the first post on the Serenity Prayer, we asked God to help us accept what we cannot change. Now this second clause reminds us that there are things we can and should influence and change  – and that it will take courage to do so.  I believe that the Holy Spirit aids us in becoming in tune with things we are called to change, as well as giving us the courage to change them.

CHANGING OURSELVES

First, the Spirit helps us change our behavior and our attitudes by making us aware of our prideful moments, our eagerness to be in control, our temptation to fudge the truth, our fears and anxieties, our prejudices, and so on. Richard Rohr points out in Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, “You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.” It takes courage to face ourselves, but once we see our un-Christlike behavior, we are poised to choose to change it.

In his book The Serenity Prayer, Trevor Hudson suggest the following steps to see ourselves more clearly:

  • Take time to be quiet on a regular basis and ask God to search our hearts.
  • Reflect on our instant reactions to others, especially those that are hurtful.
  • Look for what we criticize in others in ourselves.
  • Recognize contradictions between our public and private selves.
  • Ask someone who knows us well for “feed back about how they experience us.”

BECOMING A CHANGE AGENT

Second, the Spirit calls us to act or speak when change is needed. This call  to be a change – agent will usually be an encouragement to use our particular gifts or talents. For example, one of my favorite change-agents in the New Testament is Barnabas, whose nickname was  “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas played the principal role in encouraging the disciples to accept a much-feared Paul into their group:  

“Back in Jerusalem he [Paul] tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name” (Acts 9: 16-30; MSG).

His gift of encouragement made supporting Paul the perfect role for Barnabas.  However, he was certainly empowered by the Holy Spirit to step out of his comfort zone and stand before the angry and fearful disciples to speak winsomely about Paul’s life-changing experience with Jesus. Imagine the fate of Christianity had Barnabas chosen not to act and the disciples refused to allow Paul to join them in their mission to turn the world upside down!

We can change our behavior and our attitudes. And we can influence our society. At this time in the history of civilization, it is crucial that we are willing to become the best people we can be, strong and faithful apprentices of Jesus, so that we can make our world the best place it can be. God calls us to nothing less.

. . . THE COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS WE CAN

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