Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Acceptance

The Serenity Prayer has a long and rather mys- terious history.The first three lines were made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -1971), as part of a 1934 lecture. The modern prayer is several lines longer. In 1941, the prayer was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anony- mous. 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 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)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

This first and foundational statement of the Serenity Prayer goes against the grain for many of us. 

  • We don’t like being told that we don’t have the power to change what we don’t like.  That smacks of powerlessness.  And if there is anything a human being longs for it is the power to be in control.  But here is the truth of the prayer:  I can’t change anything but my attitudes and behavior; I can influence others, but I can’t change them.
  • The word accept is a passive term.  One dictionary definition of accept is to assent to the reality of a situation.  We prefer to drive the situation, not assent to it.
  • The prayer credits God as the source of our serenity. If we have to ask God to grant it, that means that we can’t create it for ourselves.
  • We all long for serenity – although we may not recognize that the lack of it is what is making us miserable. When we complain about our lives, we usually are bemoaning our busyness, the agitated state of our minds,  the emptiness we feel as we grapple with life. We have to be reminded that we have the ability to build serenity into our lives if  we don’t like the way that we feel.

So . . . how do we deal with a statement that seems to promise a tranquil and calm life but requires us to give up control of that life?

First, of all we need to face (as opposed to deny) the reality that much of our emotional energy is tied up in trying to change the past. The hurts and struggles and mistakes and pain of the past are real, but they cannot be amended after the fact. To wish that our parents had treated us better, that we hadn’t flunked out of college, that our selfishness had not driven love out of our life, that we hadn’t chosen chasing our career over spending time with our children, that our best friend hadn’t betrayed us is exhausting . . . and useless. In order to heal and to accept serenity, we need to assent to the reality of our past, learn from our mistakes, and move on. 

Second, we need to face that we cannot change other people. This desire is at the root of most failed relationships. It takes many forms.  We are judgmental . . . and mean.  We are judgmental . . . and smothering.  We are judgmental, but believe that our help could truly be beneficial  . . . but the other person won’t cooperate. All of our attempts to enable another person to be different will fail because we can’t fix another; we can only fix ourselves.  What we can do is choose to assent to the reality that we can’t make someone else be different.  

Then we need to accept that the peace and serenity we are looking for comes from God.  That empty hole in our life is a God-shaped hole.  The only thing we can do to fill it is to surrender control of our lives to God and accept that the serenity we are looking for comes when we assent to the reality that we cannot change what is not ours to change.


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Easter Boldness

This post was first published on April 5, 2015.  It dares us to believe in a God who is unlimited, creative, spacious, and imaginative. Is this how you are experiencing God today? In this time of the corona virus and all the sickness and death and limits to our lives that it brings, it is time to remember that God is above all of the fear and sorrow this world can bring us.  We live in the unshakable kingdom of God!

An empty tomb. Forgotten burial cloths. A rolled-away stone. Angel messengers.  A sobbing woman. A “gardener” who calls her by name and changes her sobbing to joy. This is the Easter story.  A resurrection story.  Every year we read and sing and pray this story. But how often does the boldness of this story  light up the room?

Father Gregg Boyle* is a Jesuit priest and founder/executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California.   He uses the term spacious to name and describe God. Do you think of God as spacious, as  vast, magnanimous, expansive, and beyond?

The Easter story is prime proof of this understanding of God.  A glimpse of this God emboldens us to step out of our ordinary, sometimes stale, view of Jesus. The son of God is born to a teen-age girl in a barn. He walks through an everyday life, love pouring out of him. Lives he touches are changed forever.  He dies a horrible death, forgiving those who kill him. And then there he is  standing outside his tomb, healing Mary’s grief.  Who could imagine such a life?  Only a God who is far beyond our imagination!

 Gregg Boyle  rightly points out that we are accustomed to a “one-false-move” God – a God who is occupied with our every flaw. And so we have no room in our minds for the “no-matter-whatness” of God, for the God who’s “just plain too busy loving us to be disappointed in us.”

What if we believed in and lived for a spacious God? What if our God is unlimited, creative, imaginative, operating far beyond our limited vocabulary? And what if that God eternally dwells and delights in us?   Now that’s an Easter story!

 *Father Boyle’s memoir is Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

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Lenten Series – Part 6: Fear of Failure

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

Until I was in my mid-fifties, I lived in a world of fear.  Most that fear was based on the conviction that failing was not an option. I protected myself from any experience that I thought would make me look foolish, incompetent, or just plain stupid. I wouldn’t go in grocery stores I wasn’t familiar with.  I wouldn’t drive anywhere if I didn’t already know how to get there.  I preferred to not make telephone calls  – period.

My fear of failure derived from a false story demonstrated by my parents and grandparents: In order to have worth and value I needed the approval of others. The counter false story was that if I had the approval of others I  would have a happy life. How confusing to someone like me then to read in the gospels that the first must be last and the last must be first.

Recently I read an interesting discussion of failure by W. Paul Jones. Jones says that “the church has consistently ministered to the unintentional victims of failure. It has found it much harder, however to accept intentional failure as central to the gospel itself. Yet Christianity is for losers—so much so that winners must undergo failure to become Christian. Against a lifetime of socialization, there remains the firm insistence: “Whoever would save [one’s] life will lose it, and whoever loses [one’s] life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25, RSV).

“The central image for failure is the desert. It runs from Adam and Eve’s exile east of Eden through John’s exile on Patmos. It is in the desert that our primary temptations become exposed—those of power, status, and security (Matt. 4:1-11). These temptations are the precise marks which our society identifies as success. Thus for the Christian to be faithful is to fail—intentionally.

“But the process through which we refuse to embrace the driving values of the surrounding society is not a teeth-gritting self-denial. By breaking the craving for these “values,” the desert becomes our honeymoon with God (Jer. 2:2). It is where God forms God’s people. Without this desert honeymoon, Christianity is too easily reduced to a justification of questionable winning, or solace as sour grapes for failing when we really wanted to win.

“In time, the search becomes the goal, the longing becomes sufficient unto itself, and the perseverance transforms the meaning of success. Then some quiet evening, perhaps by full moon, it becomes strangely self-evident that we would not be searching had we not already been found. And the desert blooms when we find ourselves willing to be last—not because the last may become first, but because the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.”*

In order to really change my “fear of failure” behaviors I have to spend time in the desert. I have to release those values that stand for success in the world and jettison the false narratives I have been taught. I have to accept the narrative Jesus taught and modeled of a loving God who isn’t influenced by my attempts to gain approval but freely gives mercy and grace when I surrender to God’s love. And in each surrender, the desert blooms and the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.

* (From “Intentional Failure: The Importance of the Desert Experience,” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. VII, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1992)(Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1992), 16-21.)

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Lenten Series – Part 5: Nagging

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

I was sitting in an Al-Anon meeting when Philip said something that changed made me sit up straight in my chair. He said, “When you say something once, it is information.  When you say it more than once, it is an attempt to control.”  He was describing the nasty and dangerous habit of nagging.

The word nag means to pester, badger, harass and to annoy by scolding. It likely comes from a  Scandinavian source meaning “to gnaw” – which is a pretty good image of our behavior when we nag. It is probably the most annoying way to try to control someone’s behavior and perhaps the most counterproductive. I was raised by nagging parents and learned by example. When Philip made his comment, he turned a spotlight on my “go to” behavior to get someone to do what I want.

What do we nag about in families?  Leaving all the lights in the house on, hanging dirty clothes on the floor, texting at the dinner table, storing left-over food under the bed, getting hair cuts, doing  homework, cleaning out the litter box,  taking the trash out. These are normal (though ineffective) attempts to control in many homes. But we also nag and scold about important things: Get up in time to go to church. You’ve had enough to drink! Get a job! Find a new boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend. Pay attention in school! Come home on time!  Pay attention to me!

We nag when we think someone hasn’t heard us or is ignoring us. We nag when we are embarrassed by what someone is doing (particularly a tween or teen) and it reflects on us. We nag when we don’t know how to communicate or don’t dare to say what we really mean. For example, “Stopnagging 2 drinking” means “I’m afraid; your drinking is ruining our family life.” Nagging is a sign of an unhealthy relationship, a power struggle where love and courtesy and respect are non-existent. Nagging almost never works; if it does, it means the other person has given up or given in or is manipulating the nagger.

If nagging is soul-sucking and ineffective, what can we do instead? First, stop denying that this is inappropriate behavior and choose to let it go. Second, recognize that we are attempting to control another person and find other ways to communicate our needs and wants. Look at how Jesus interacted with people. He loved people into relationships; he did not try to control them. Third, stop focusing on the other person, search out your own shortcomings, and give them to God. Once we let go of trying to arrange the outcomes for all the people around us, they may take responsibility for their own lives.  (Even if they don’t, it’s not our business to try to change them.) Finally, and most difficult, fear less and love more. Controlling behavior is all about fear.

The next time you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over  (“Don’t forget to call the plumber today!”), stop nagging and scolding and have a conversation.  You may learn that it’s better for you to call the plumber yourself.

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From My Reading – March

“By contemplation, we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of the world. Action, as we are using the word, means a decisive commitment toward involvement and engagement in the social order. Issues will not be resolved by mere reflection, discussion, or even prayer, nor will they be resolved only by protests, boycotts, or even, unfortunately by voting the “right” way. Rather, God “works together with” all those who love (see Romans 8:28)” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, January 17, 2020).

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“Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company”  (Rachel Naomi Remen).

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“Saint Basil the Great articulated the goal of Christianity as “Likeness to God as far as possible for human nature.” Everyone of us—because of God’s presence and action in our world—can partake in the divine-likeness (2 Pet 1:4). Christianity is not about going back to the garden, it’s about going forward. It’s about cultivating, by grace, the divine-likeness. And that’s the symbolism of the Garden of Eden—cultivation, not completion. The garden was not meant to be the pinnacle but the prelude of human civilization. A place of infinite possibility—a starting point—a genesis” (Jonathan Bailey@jonathan bailey.com).

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“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against justice” (Martin Luther King).

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“[Jesus] never announced to his disciples: “Hey folks, we’re going to start a new, centralized, institutional religion and name it after me.” Instead, he played the role of a nonviolent leader and launched his movement with the classic words of movement, “Follow me” (see Matthew 4:19, for example). He used his power to empower others. He did great things to inspire his followers to do even greater things [see John 14:12-14]. Rather than demand uniformity, he reminded his disciples that he had “sheep of other folds” (John 10:16). . . . He recruited diverse disciples who learned—by heart—his core vision and way of life. Then he sent these disciples out as apostles to teach and multiply his vision and way of life among “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) (Brian McLaren).

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“Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget the perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

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Lenten Series – Part 4: Anxiety

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God. This material was first published in 2016; you can see how much worse the problem has gotten in 2020.

She was anxious, that’s for certain!  She was eager to fly to another state for a weekend visit, but the weather forecast was promising several inches of snow. She was worried about the flight being canceled or delayed and about missing her connecting flight.  And everyone who came in the room added to her apprehension with their own weather-related flight disaster stories – including me. And yet no one, least of all my friend, could do anything about the situation. She would just have to wait until the next morning to see how much snow had fallen and where and then make her decisions.

We all experience anxiety and its first cousins:  uneasiness, apprehension, fretfulness, dread. We know the feeling of  “butterflies in the stomach” and we are pros at pacing back and forth. Intellectually, we know that our inability to set aside a worry about an imminent event or about something with an uncertain outcome will only make our lives more difficult. So where does all this inner turmoil get us?  Nowhere!

Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat and provokes the famous fight or flight reflex. Anxiety is the expectation of and usually an overreaction to a real or imagined future threat – a discomfort that is hard to set aside. We can choose to dwell in the world of anxiety, or we can look at what our Master Trainer, Jesus, did. We don’t read about him pacing the floor or even expressing verbal concern – except in the Garden just before his arrest. And then what did Jesus do with his anxiety?   He let go of it and gave it to his Father.

In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, (p. 184-5), James Bryan Smith recommends this soul-training exercising for letting go of anxiety:

  1.  Set aside ten or 15 minutes each morning
  2.  Reflect on the things you are anxious about.
  3.  Write each one in a journal or notebook
  4.  Ask yourself what you can do about each of the situations.
  5.  Make a note to yourself to do the things you can do
  6.  Turn everything else over to God.
  7.  Write your request to God and be specific.

The answer to anxiety is to turn your cares into prayers.  Seeing your Anxiety 3worries from God’s perspective will put your concerns in a new light. Remember, too, that you live in the unshakable Kingdom of God; no matter what happens you are safe. Remember that God’s strength and power are available as you pray.   Remember that you do not have to be burdened by anxiety.  You can choose to walk away from anxiety  and leave it with God who will bury it in the farthest sea.

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Lenten Series – Part 3: “Watch Your Mouth”

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God. This material was first published in 2016; you can see how much worse the problem has gotten in 2020.

“Watch your mouth” was a clear statement that someone in our family said something out of line (except the parents, of course).  And the parents who said it meant it.  I distinctly remember the horrible taste of brown Lava soap as my mother “washed my mouth out” when I said a forbidden word as a young teenager.  I thought of that incident often during the years when I was a volunteer reading teacher in the county jail and walked the hallways or sat with an inmate and heard language I had never heard in my life – and, unfortunately, began to absorb by osmosis  into my vocabulary.

namecallingBut I never thought I would see the day when candidates for the highest office in this land would throw around insults like school boys in a playground as they are arguing who is the best person for the job.  Talk about counter-intuitive!  But here we are in 2016 listening on TV and radio and hearing offensive language sliding off the tongue like butter from one candidate and rolling out less confidently from others who want to win the competition for biggest bully in the campaign.

I thought about this ugliness when I dipped into Calvin B. DeWitt’s book, Song of a Scientist, The Harmony of a God-soaked Creation again.

“. . . Human beings have a special honor of imaging God’s love to the world that bears with it a special responsibility. God is love and we should image God’s love.  Imaging the Creator’s love and care for the creatures sustains us as their appreciative beholders , prevents us from abusing them or their kind, compels us to have compassion for the biosphere. . . “

Of course, DeWitt’s subject matter is care for creation, but I think his words are just as applicable to how we are to care and communicate with each other. When we fall to the level of demeaning the way someone looks, talks, thinks, or believes, we are no longer communicating. We are bullying. Bullying in any form is dangerous as well as ineffective. It’s time for Americans to watch our mouths!

Watching your mouth involves other tasks than just editing offensive language. “Little white lies,” exaggeration, not speaking up when we should (as in when the whole group around us is gossiping) are all examples of lack of integrity of speech. In his book, The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith recalls a time at a dinner party when he was asked about his opinion of Hawthorne, a writer Jim had never read.  He reports that the conversation lasted an awkward ten minutes, during which he responded with  “carefully crafted lies.” Why did I persist in the conversation?” he asks.  Why do any of us hide behind lies? His answer is that we all have “a deep need to think well of ourselves.  ‘I am important and my well-being is my main mission. There will be times when I need to lie in order to gain what I want or prevent something that I do not want.  That is why lying is okay.’  It is an ends-means justification.”

Every time I teach this material I am brought up short. How often have I pretended to know something that I don’t, to save face? How often have ugly words escaped unbidden?How often have I shaved a little truth from an excuse,  such as “Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was bad,” when in reality I had tried to cram too much into too little time and was just rudely late?

How often do I exaggerate?  For example, I often say, “I’m starving!” I have never been in danger of starvation, but many people have been and many more still are. When I exaggerate, I diminish the impact of the word starvation. How often have I kept still in the face of mean gossip or just plain misinformation?

In many ways, our world is blowing up in around us. We need to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate than ever. We need to work hard to learn the truth. We need to work harder to speak the truth and just as hard to distinguish the truth in others’ words. We need to choose our candidates out of respect and trust, not because we’re angry and they speak our anger louder than we can or dare.  We need to be Christ-like in our care with words. We need to watch our mouths!  Let’s let go of speaking, listening to, and relishing in and approving angry discourse. Let us let God give us our truths to speak.

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“Bright Flows the River of God”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard)

My husband and I have been in a peculiar time of helplessness for a few weeks.  He has a new diagnosis of too much protein in his heart which causes the heart muscles to thicken and not do their job of delivering oxygen to the rest of the body. That plus Stage 4 COPD makes his breathing very difficult. I have added a mean-looking crop of shingles to my back, chest, and up and down one arm to my back pain and diabetes.  We truly are quite a sight to behold as we try to  navigate through life.

In the last week I have learned a deep lesson about the community that the Holy Spirit creates from Christ followers of disparate personalities with different interests, different personal traits, different abilities . . . but the same God.  

M. offered me cleaning coupons given to her by her son when she had a hip replacement. When I finally accepted her offer, she told me she would meet the cleaning lady at my house – which seemed strange. When they arrived, she marched in behind the cleaning lady and announced that she was going to vacuum and dust and K. would clean the bathrooms and the tile floors – and wash the front windows, and clean the microwave and wipe off the top of the refrigerator. I argued a bit and then finally sat back and watched the Dutch heritage go to work.

B. called to say that she had an errand near me and asked if I needed anything.  I sheepishly acknowledged that I hadn’t visited the lock box in the apartment complex to pick up our mail for several days. She came to the house, picked up the key, and then delivered the mail as well as a steaming box of potato wedges – something I always order when we are out for lunch (which she usually pays for).  She also stayed to visit and we talked politics (passionately) for a while – a real treat for me.

S. (the same person who brought me the lamp described in an earlier post) came over and blessed me with the honor of asking my thoughts about some concerns in the church. She also shared her wonder at an exciting interpretation of a familiar scripture verse. I learned that my endless care-giving had not robbed me of the ability to think and share deeply with  others.

Another B sent me a newsletter containing a story that she said reminded her of what I had taught her years ago:  “God does not love us because of what we do but because of who we are.” She thanked me for what she had learned in my classes. She also included a bookmark with the words “Sending a Prayer” to remind us that she and her husband, whom she also serves as a caregiver, always include us in their prayers.

S. (my sister-in-law) heard some of the panic in my voice as I described Fred’s new diagnosis and the frightening struggle he has to breathe. I mentioned trying to find a nebulizer paid for by insurance. She volunteered to research the issue and called in a few hours with the names of two companies in Holland that provide that service and a description of how the whole process works.

My favorite verse in my favorite Psalm (23) teaches that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of our lives and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  The traditional meaning of this verse is that God will be with us forever.  I think that phrase also means that we will leave our own trail of goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. Surely these women have perfumed our home with goodness and mercy this week.

And in addition to the help these women provided my family, their simple service taught me the truth stated above by Annie Dillard: “how we spend our days” (giving to others) demonstrates “how we spend our lives” (in compassionate service).

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