Wisdom in the Serenity Prayer

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Good morning.  I returned to the church from a four-month vacation/ sabbatical last Sunday.  In the time I was away, much happened which caused confusion and emotional turmoil in the life of the church community.  Though ministers are encouraged to take a complete break from the church during sabbatical times, it was not possible in this case.  I was kept abreast of developments when the Board included me in e-mail correspondence.  I had several phone conversations with Board members as well.

It was not a peaceful time, either for me or the church.  I won’t attempt to name the emotions that you all have been feeling, but I will share with you some of my own emotions as I’ve lived through this time.  And after that, I will sound the bell of mindfulness and invite you all to sit in the silence for three or four minutes with me, sharing these two things: the space that we share here in this sanctuary and our breathing.  That’s it.

Anguish. Pain.  Confusion. Frustration.  Anger. Powerlessness.  Inadequacy.

[Sounding the bell of mindfulness]

There is a short version of the Serenity Prayer printed inside your order of service.  I invite all those who wish to, to say it together with me.

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. 

I’ve come to believe that this short prayer, which can be restated as a working philosophy of life for those who are not theists, is at the core of all spiritual life.  Courage, wisdom, discernment, serenity.  These are the building blocks of a resilient emotional life, spiritual life, active life and life in community.  So, let’s take a deeper look at the serenity prayer.

Its author is the 20th-century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  Like much in religious tradition, the prayer existed in oral form before it was written down.  The earliest written references date from the early 1930s in various newspaper articles.  A variation dated 1937 and attributed to Niebuhr was unearthed by a researcher from Duke (Stephen Goranson) in 2009, which the order of the lines was changed:

Father, give us the courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know one from the other. 

I suppose that the preference for the order in which the petitions are stated depends on your personality, your temperament and your philosophy of life.  There is much in our lives that we find unacceptable and there is much that we can change, both outwardly and inwardly.  And there is much that cannot be changed, which we must find a way to accept or else we’ll be beaten down into cynicism or despair.

And then there is the deepest part of the message, the wisdom to know the difference.  That’s where discernment comes in.  It would be nice to think that we are thoroughly rational beings 100% of the time.  But, that’s not true– not for any of us.

The discernment process is not limited to making a cool calculation between what we can change and what we cannot.  It also includes sitting with our emotions, sometimes with emotions that are in turmoil and taking the time to name them, to differentiate them and to decide whether we are using them as guides or whether they are using us– driving us to actions based on our passions rather than our reason.  That’s called “emotional intelligence,” and it’s the subject of next Sunday’s sermon.  In fact, we’ll continue this theme through a third sermon two weeks from today, called “Mindfulness or Mind Control?” so, I invite you to this voyage in spiritual growth over three weeks.

Think of some of the things that you believe need to be changed in your life or in the life of the world.  Think of three things to start with.  I invite you to write them down, if you wish.  Take a minute now to do that if you wish.

Taming the inner demons is one, for me, especially the demon of anxiety.  If you read the comics in The Daily News, you might have seen “Peanuts” in yesterday’s paper.  In the first panel, Linus says “You look kind of depressed, Charlie Brown.”  Charlie Brown responds, “I worry about school a lot… I also worry about my worrying so much about school… my anxieties have anxieties.”  I know the feeling, Charlie Brown.

I’ve been having a lot of hip pain lately, enough to make me limit my walking to just a few minutes at a time and to make me stop from time to time, bend over to relieve the stress, and then continue on.  I waited ten days before seeing a doctor, thinking that this might be something I could not change and that my body would heal of its own accord.  My physician prescribed a cortisone shot and a regimen of Prednisone over seven days.  So, this moved into the category of something I can do something about, something I can take charge of, something that, I hope, I can change.

After watching my home and automobile insurance rates climb every year for the past few years, on the advice of a friend, I shopped around a few months ago and found a way to increase my coverage, save $400 and secure an agent a mile from the house instead of in Nashville.  Something I else I could change, once I decided to be pro-active and advocate for myself.  It didn’t take courage so much as initiative, but sometimes the qualities are closely related.  We have so many things to keep track of, sometimes just shopping around for a better deal feels like too much work.

What in your personal life can you change to increase your sense of control over things that might seem to control you?  How can you gain more serenity in your life?  Taking initiative, taking responsibility, those are actions and often taking action requires courage.  Getting in the habit of being pro-active increases your chances of taking action in the face of perceived dangers–being courageous.

What do you make of the opening lines of these two versions of the prayer: “God, grant me the serenity…” and “Father, give us the courage…”?  Obviously, they state that the source of power lies outside of ourselves.  We must ask for serenity, courage and wisdom.  On the one hand, this increases our sense of humility, which, in this culture of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement is much in need.  On the other hand, it would seem to deny our own powers of discernment, our inherent capacity to make wise and productive decisions, to choose the courageous path or to understand when no action is necessary because it won’t be productive.

There may be times for all of us when we feel powerless and we have to turn our problems over to a higher power for guidance.  This would seem to be the path that Christianity encourages, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Luke 22:42, NIV).

The Buddhists would seem to recommend a different path.  As stated in our hymnal,

“Be ye lamps unto yourselves; 
be your own confidence.
Hold to the truth within 
   yourselves as to the only lamp.” 

This would seem to lead us to that familiar place where Unitarian Universalism is criticized for trying to be all things to all people, and in the process, trying to reconcile understandings of the world that cannot be reconciled, that are fundamentally in opposition.  But, I don’t think so.

If you have ever sat in meditation, you know how such sitting in silence allows you to be more aware of the movement of thoughts in the mind.  Thoughts emerge, continue, wander, jump from topic to topic, reflect feelings, strive to repress feelings, strive to understand feelings.  If you sit for long enough, you will find that the thoughts linger longer on one topic, expand on ideas, flush things out, engage in elaborate constructions.  And if you sit longer than that, you might find that the mind, tired of all its wanderings, sits still for a moment or a few moments or for a minute or two.  At those moments of rest, the mind becomes clear and receptive, calm and serene, perhaps even joyful.  This is the “clear mind” state where insight is most likely to occur.

If you have engaged in the Christian practice of “holy listening” or “contemplative prayer,” you sit in silence, attending to the progress of your thoughts, waiting for them to die down so that God’s presence can be made known.  God’s presence includes peace, a sense of tranquility or serenity and reassurance that things will be okay, things will make sense.  Clarity emerges.  You can, in the parlance, “hear God’s voice,” the small, still voice within.

What makes this voice different from the stillness that arises from the process of meditation?  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps the understandings are like two sides of the same coin– the words used to describe are different; the purchasing power, so to speak, is the same.

I’ve spent a good part of the last few months reading about evolution.  It’s a fascinating subject.  Thinking about processes that take millions of years to develop, thinking of beings that lived over the course of millions of years and have now been dead for even more millions of years has a way of shaking up your usual way of looking at things.  Think about the blood that runs in your veins.  Think about your organs, brain, heart, liver, endocrine glands.

Recognize that they only exist because you were born from the union of a single cell from a mother and a single cell from a father.  Think further that their bodies were the product of millions of years of evolution.  Unbroken evolution.  Products from the cells that created life ten million years ago are still here in transmuted form in your body, your blood, your brain.  The limbic system, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the frontal lobes all have their functions specialized through their evolution over millions of years.

Some are very primitive: organs and organ systems that sense danger and immediately wish to respond.  Some, like the frontal lobes, are very sophisticated, allowing us to process feelings through the application of thought.  Sometimes the feelings are so strong that the thought process is temporarily disabled– our emotions run away with us.  Who is living in those cells?  The unique individuals that each of us are have evolved from other unique individuals.

That blood in our veins from our ancestors says that we are not separate beings, though.  We are united in a network of biological destiny.  Is it God’s nature that inhabits those cells?  Does being a son of God or daughter of God mean being a product of that singularity known colloquially as the Big Bang?  Obviously, there is no one right answer, but it behooves us, when seeking a truth to acknowledge that unique individuals might have unique ways of understanding a common truth.

“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.”  I ask for help in understanding.  I open myself to being receptive.  In the receptive state, I can be aware when wisdom arrives.  But, the real work is the work of discernment, being able to tell the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot.

Your Board of Directors has been challenged over the past several years to draw distinctions between things that must be accepted and things that must be changed.  The challenge that such situations pose to individuals are difficult enough; the challenges when posed to a board of individuals are compounded in an exponential way by the impact of different life histories, personalities, philosophies sometimes, temperaments, and capacities for accepting ambiguity, among other things.

The constant choice is between accommodating behavior that is merely challenging versus accommodating behavior that is destructive; the decision of when to accommodate and when to intervene and how to intervene.  The desire to offer help and counsel, the desire to hold the line on disruptiveness.  The desire to be transparent vs. the desire to maintain confidentiality.  The need to act and the common human temptation to take the path of least resistance.

You might ask yourself why it took human beings thousands of years to come up with the serenity prayer.  Surely, someone must have come up with something like it somewhere before.  And, in fact, they did.  The Wikipedia article on the subject cites a philosopher from Ancient Greece, Epictetus, by name, who offers this insight:

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.  Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us.  Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions– in short, whatever is our own doing.  Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, or reputations, our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”

A challenge for any church is how to govern itself.  When a church has had a tradition for more than two generations of feeling itself a family and acting as a family, it’s natural enough that everyone who feels affected when a decision needs to be made will feel a desire to weigh in.  When that congregation has elected a Board to represent them, though, it means that the responsibility has been shifted.  Dedicated individuals have agreed to take on responsibilities for the benefit of the whole group.

In order for the elected representatives to be effective, they must be trusted to do their job.  A deep level of distrust prompted by a desire of the whole congregation or segments of it to do the job themselves creates a division of philosophies, the forming of sects which then can become cabals or cliques.  A church of a certain size, a church of this size, relinquishes the family style of governance and grows to trust that it is mature enough to choose leaders who have wisdom, practice discernment, and make thoughtful decisions, no matter how difficult, in the midst of chaotic and confusing circumstances.

The challenge for all of us, Christians, theists, Buddhists, atheists, is to make our way through the emotional thickets to the light of wisdom revealed by reason, nurtured in care and concern and even love for the community that we are a part of.  We’ll talk more about this next week when we talk about what emotional intelligence is, and how to further develop it.

If you would like to talk more about today’s topic, I’ll be at the discussion table in the fellowship hall during our social hour.  Our Board President, Susan Webb, will be leading a listening session next Sunday after the service for those who wish to share responses to the Board’s decisive action.

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on November 8, 2015 

Sources:

  • Wikipedia: “Serenity Prayer”
  • Biblehub.com: “Luke 22:42”

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