Why the Serenity Prayer Says It All
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 6, 2001
Rachel Naomi Remen has written:
I bought a little, falling-down cabin on top of a mountain. It was so bad that when my friend Michael came to see it, he said, “Oh, Rachel, you bought this?” But with two carpenters, an electrician, and a plumber, in three years we have remodeled the whole thing. We started by just throwing things away-- bathtubs, light fixtures, windows. I kept hearing my father’s voice saying, “That’s a perfectly good light fixture, why are you throwing it away?” We kept throwing away more and more things, and with everything we threw away, the building became more whole. It had more integrity.
Finally, we had thrown away everything that didn’t belong. You know, we may think we need to be more in order to be whole. But in some ways, we need to be less. We need to let go, to throw away everything that isn’t us in order to be more whole. Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you-- all the expectations, all of the beliefs-- and becoming who you are. Not a better you, but a realer you.
If there is one thing that I have learned in twenty years in the ministry, it’s that you never know what treasures you’ll come across in church attics. A couple of weeks ago, when I was gleaning issue after issue of thePacket for information about our “Unsung Heroes”, I came across this particular issue from November 19, 1963. It was an unremarkable issue, really-- the same old church news kinds of stuff-- meetings, a treasurer’s report from October, bits and pieces of church news. And, on the last page, filler: a little paragraph to fill what would otherwise be an empty space (and church newsletter editors doth hate empty spaces...). But it was in the “filler” that I found the wisdom. It read:
“The Lord’s Prayer has 56 words; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, 266; the Ten Commandments have 297; the Declaration of Independence has 300. But! A government order setting the price of cabbage has 26,911!!!”
The point is, of course, that there is no correlation between how long a particular piece of writing is, and the wisdom and profundity it contains. Which brings us to the so-called Serenity Prayer, the best-known and most- quoted version of which (the original was actually slightly longer) has the grand total of 25 words:
If ever there was an example of the most precious spiritual gift coming in the smallest package, it is, in my opinion, the Serenity Prayer.
The prayer has become such an important part of our popular culture and our modern vernacular, thanks largely to its use in Twelve Step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. But it’s interesting, I think, to take a little look at some of the history of the prayer (and I am indebted to my colleagues, Dick Fewkes, formerly of our church in Norwell, now interim at the First Parish in Bridgewater, for much of the information I am about to share):
The “Serenity Prayer” (and it’s called that simply because that’s the first thing it asks for-- “The serenity to accept the things I cannot change”-- it could just as easily be called the “Courage Prayer” or the “Wisdom Prayer”) was written by an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the 1930s. It’s said that one Sunday, Niebuhr preached at Riverside Church in New York, near the seminary, and included in the service this little prayer he had written. One parishioner was especially taken by it, and asked Niebuhr to send him a copy. Instead, Niebuhr gave him the original, saying, “I have no further need for this...” It was the parishioner, apparently, who included the prayer (in a slightly edited form) in his Christmas card that year and sent it out to his friends and relatives, who in turn sent it to their friends, and so on and so forth until it became so very well known (and this was in the years before the internet and e-mail, too).
While the prayer was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in the years following the Second World War, it’s interesting to take a look at its original context. Niebuhr was a highly politicized clergyman. He was involved in a host of social issues over the years-- war and peace, civil rights, race relations, labor and business, unemployment, and so on. He had flirted with Marxism and socialism, but ended up as chairman of the Liberal Party of New York for a while.
If we look at the text of Niebuhr’s original prayer, we see some striking differences from that which was later adopted as the credo of AA. The original version reads like this:
Notice the differences, especially in its choice of pronouns-- not “Grant me the serenity...” and so on, but “Grant us...”. Not the courage to change what can be changed, but rather, what “should” be changed.
In its original context, the Serenity Prayer is not just wrestling with purely individual problems-- struggling with personal addictions and afflictions, bad habits and character faults, the limits of one’s own personal strengths and weaknesses. No, there’s a sense of group action, and a sense of a moral imperative. As Richard Fewkes says, “this was the prayer of a man who had struggled mightily with the great social issues of his day, struggled and often failed, won perhaps little victories here and there for one worthy cause or another. He eventually came to the recognition that all social and political goals and ideals were forever flawed by the harsh facts of human nature-- power, greed, pride, fear, and despair-- contending always with the higher virtues of love, justice, compassion... and hope. And all of it played out on the stage of human history...”
“Niebuhr wanted to be a theological realist... to have religion make sense in the real world of work and politics, and not to be disillusioned by the inevitable failures and shortcomings of any human undertaking.” (For this reason, it’s been suggested that calling the prayer the “Reality Prayer” might be more accurate.)
But Niebuhr would have agreed that the start of the journey toward social change starts in each individual human heart; the locus of that starting point has to be rooted firmly in a sense of individual responsibility.
Now, there’s always a danger when a spiritual work becomes popularized-- and inevitably, in our culture I’m afraid, commercialized. In 1970, the year before Niebuhr’s death, an advertisement was run in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Amazing Embroidery Offer!” it read. “Beautiful ‘Silent Majority’ Serenity Prayer Now Yours in Fabulous Crewel Stitchery!” As Dick Fewkes has written: “For Niebuhr to have his prayer claimed for Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ was ‘cruel’ indeed.” According to one biographer, Niebuhr “would practically go into apoplexy whenever President Nixon’s image appeared on the television screen.” Now, it seemed, “that man” was stealing his prayer!
But in spite of the co-opting, and in spite of all the money that was made on “Serenity Prayer” coffee mugs and wall plaques and refrigerator magnets and what-have-you, the universality of the prayer’s common sense approach to the Big Questions of life is unmistakable.
Universal, too, is the way the prayer touches on those shared, common experiences which make us human: worry and anxiety in the face of life’s challenges and tragedies; the fear (and the inevitability) of change, and just how hard it is to change oftentimes; the struggle to discern the voice of truth in our lives, and make those decisions we need to make, how difficult it can be to choose the “right” path.
Niebuhr’s prayed said it all-- it pulled it all together-- in a few simple sentences that you didn’t have to be an educated theologian to understand. No, that you only needed to be a breathing human being who had spent more than a few years on this planet to understand. In twenty-five words, Niebuhr captured the essence of the red/yellow/green traffic lights that guide us through life.
First, the red light: accept the things we can’t change.
We live in a natural world, and have to conform to natural laws. First of all, that means accepting the fact that we’re all going to die some day, sooner or (we hope) later. When we accept the fact of our death, maybe we can liberate ourselves to get on with living.
We can’t cling to the past, either. It’s gone. We’re not going to stay young forever, and sooner or later, the passage of time will place certain physical or mental limitations upon us. (Maybe as we get older, we can rely on the “Senility Prayer” instead. That one goes: “God, grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do like, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”)
Likewise, we can’t control the natural world within which we live. Sometimes, people think that as a clergyman, I have some kind of “special pipeline” direct to the Big Guy (or Big Gal) “Upstairs” (or wherever) to hold off rain for their golf games, or get them nice weather for their week on the Cape. But you know (this might come as a surprise to you, but) I don’t. No, I tell them, I’m not in management; I’m only in sales. We can rant and rave against nature all we want, but odds are, nature’s not listening...
There are two days in our lives that we should not get overly vexed worrying about either-- one is yesterday and the other is tomorrow:
Yesterday is gone! It may have blessed you or it may have cursed you (odds are it did both), but you can’t correct its mistakes. You can’t right its wrongs. You can’t take back what you said; you can’t do what you left undone; you can’t seize the opportunity that you passed up.
Yesterday is gone. Learn from it, perhaps. Cherish its happy times deep in your hearts. But then, let it go.
And don’t worry about tomorrow either. “Sufficient unto tomorrow are the worries thereof.” Worrying about tomorrow does nothing to solve tomorrow’s problems. Instead, it may just be draining today of all its strength and joy and life. We can’t do anything about tomorrow until it gets here.
Life red light tells us: Accept the things you can’t change.
But then, sometimes, we have that green light staring us in the face, and we know that we have to change the things we can! We can’t go on living in denial any longer. Life has become too small in some way. There’s something about our lives that doesn’t fit any more, something inside of us that has to get out.
“Life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday,” Kahlil Gibran wrote. And someone else once said that the change is the only constant in life. Now, today, we live in a turbulent age where not even the constants are consistent anymore. We know that “Changes are not permanent. But change is.” Individual changes in style, in fashion, in opinion may come and go. But the great sweep of Change itself is inevitable and inexorable. We can choose whether we will become Change’s agent, or its victim.
Of course, it’s easier wanting someone else to change, than it is to find the courage to change ourselves.
A slightly different version of the “Serenity Prayer” was in the New Yorker not too long ago. It had a man in his pajamas kneeling beside his bed, and he’s praying: “And please, Lord, let Allen Greenspan accept the things he cannot change; give him the courage to change the things he can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
But real change doesn’t start “out there”-- with Allen Greenspan or with Old Dubya or whomever. It starts in here [in the heart]. It starts with Old Jeff here-- or with Brad or with Warren or with Brenda or Sandra, or with Ann. [Aren’t the choir members lucky to be sitting in the front row this morning?] It starts with whomever you are.
It’s easy to stand in judgment and point the finger and want others to change. It’s a heck of a lot harder to find the courage we need ourselves to make those changes we need to make, one change at a time, one day at a time.
This little prayer reminds us that serenity isn’t the same as complacency, and that oftentimes the only difference between a rut and a grave is just a few more feet. While it might be easier to ride the camel in the direction it’s already going, sometimes we have to turn the beast around if we’re going to get to where we need to be, even if the camel (even if Life) spits in our eye in return. Change is seldom easy. But sometimes, the only other choice we have is the numbing of our spirits and a sort of living death.
So second, we need to find the courage to change.
And third, there’s that amber-- flashing-- caution light of life (before which, perhaps, we spend most of the hours of our lives): the wisdom to tell the difference. How do we choose? Where can wisdom be found?
We make so many choices in life, each and every day, from the moment we wake up, until we drop back into bed at night, exhausted. Sometimes, we might feel overwhelmed by it all, like the man in the ad for one of the cell phone companies:
Wouldn’t it be great if everytime we needed to “tell the difference”, we could simply call someone (“Our sweetheart, who art in heaven...” perhaps), and just ask: Paper or plastic? Is this a red light, or a green? Something I can change, or something I just have to accept?
Of course, it’s not that easy. The phone call we have to make in those situations is a local call-- but maybe it’s the longest distance of all: It’s that call we make inside, to the Inner Voice in our own souls.
And while we’ll never do it perfectly (remember: perfect is not in our human job description), there are ways to hone our skills of discernment, and deep inner listening, and coming to know ourselves that much better.
I think it has a lot to do with letting go of those things that we don’t need any more-- those parts of life that we’ve outgrown-- or that haven’t worked for us-- or that just clutter up our way now and distract us-- those voices from the past that keep telling us “But it’s a perfectly good light fixture... Why would you ever want to do it any other way?...
We need to let go of the clutter, so that we can see who we really are, like Rachel Naomi Remen did in the reading this morning, when she was restoring that old dilapidated cabin. “You know, we may think we need to be more in order to be whole. But in some ways, we need to be less.”
We need to be less (at times). And do less (at times). And almost always, we need to slow down in what we’re doing... “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist reminds us. Not-- “Write a sermon and know that I am God.” Not-- “Work harder-- and know that I am God.” Not-- “Do more and know that I am God” or “Go faster”. No-- slow down, be still, hush, listen-- there’s a message waiting for you, deep inside your soul. Listen, listen...
Annie Dillard has written:
On this beautiful bridge between spring and summer, may we all find, deep inside ourselves and here among ourselves, and with all our relations the serenity and courage and wisdom we need. May we let go of those things which no longer nurture and support us, and discover and discern those people and places and experiences with which we can share this precious gift which is our lives, this precious love which makes life worth living.
Blessed be. Amen.