Sunday, February 7, 2016

Looking at the Serenity Prayer---We Need Some Acceptance

photo by Luca Maglia / flickr
For three weeks we are going to be looking at the Serenity prayer. I don’t know if you know the history of this prayer. After Reinhold Niebuhr’s death someone asked his widow about this prayer that her husband had written. He was one of the great American theologians. And she answered by telling this story: “Well, I think it was in the early 1940’s. We were vacationing in Heath, Massachusetts, where we had a cottage. My husband Reinhold was preaching on Sundays at a little church. At the end of one of the services he used this prayer: “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”

After the service, a retired minister who had been Dean of the Cathedral of the Episcopal Church in New York, Howard Chandler Robbins, asked his good friend Niebuhr for a copy of the prayer. Dr. Niebuhr took a copy of the prayer on a crumpled piece of paper from the back of his Bible and said, “Well, just take it. I don’t have any further use for it.”

Robbins liked the prayer so much he put it on his Christmas cards the next Christmas. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous saw it, liked it, adopted it as their official prayer. The USO reprinted millions of copies for soldiers and their families in the Second World War. Today we find the prayer everywhere—on greeting cards and plaques and whispered by many, many people trying to recover from all sorts of difficulties. The man who prayed those twenty-seven words had no idea the power of what he would pray that summer Sunday morning.

I have wondered what it is about this prayer that has touched millions around the world. Why have so many troubled people found comfort in these words? Maybe it is because the language is clear. The words express something about the things we all understand—real life, real living. The prayer deals with the realism of life. The things that cannot be altered, those things that will not change regardless of what we do. But it also deals with those other realities which are sometimes transformed miraculously, whether we do anything or not. The last part of the prayer helps us to sort out what can be changed from the things that cannot be altered. So I thought it might be helpful during these days of transition to spend three Sundays looking at this prayer. 

Chagall painting / photo by Jim Forest / flickr
Let’s begin with the first part of the petition: “God, grant us the serenity to accept that which cannot be changed.” Our sermon in one sentence is: there are some things that just cannot be altered in your life and mine. We know that. We don’t like it but we know it. 

This is what our Scripture is about this morning. In the second chapter of Genesis, God placed man and woman in the garden. He gave them this magnificent place that was lush and rich in so many ways. And then he gave them the animals and land with such hopeful possibilities. The promise stretched out endlessly, it seemed—except, he said, there was this tree. There in the middle of the garden there was this tree. You can eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden except this tree in the middle of it all. You cannot eat of the fruit of this tree because you will die if you eat it. 

We know the story well. None of us like this story. It says we cannot do everything. We can do a great deal: except. Carlyle Marney used to say there is a wall around our garden. We can’t do it all. There is also this forbidden fruit. There are these limitations we have all chafed under all our lives. Robert Frost understood our frustration when he wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall…it walls in some things and walls out some things…” And one of the first lessons we teach our little ones about becoming human is to deal with the hard edges, the corners, the spills, the falls— writing on walls flushing your Mama’s glasses down the toilet. There are some things we just
cannot do. “Don’t touch that hot stove.” ”Do not play in the street.” Our youngest granddaughter was instructed that she could not take food into the Great room. And so she would take her snack or drink, walk all the way to the edge where the tile ended and the carpet begin—and she would put one foot half-way up into the Great Room. Pushing the limits. For one of the hard lessons of life is that if we break these rules they may just break us.

photo by Tom Sens / flickr
So early, we begin to come to terms with this garden filled with infinite possibilities. But a garden, unfortunately with limits. What does it mean? That I am never got to run a four-minute mile. It means most of us are not going to win the Miss America contest or be movie stars or win the lottery. All of us will have to settle with the painful fact that we cannot do it all. Don’t you just hate that. Once Arthur Godfrey was flying one night over New York City and he'd looked down at all the twinkling, glittering lights and the told the Pilot: “You know what gets me? Fifty years from now all that will still be down there glittering and I won’t be around to enjoy it.”He’s right, you know. For many of us there is more behind than there is ahead. Someone has said that the great grief is this: we all run out of time. I told my friends at a funeral in Birmingham three weeks ago: It never lasts long enough. 

Have you ever gone back to a High School reunion? It’s a funny-sad time. Over there in the corner was the head cheerleader—still a cheerleader after all these years. On a walker and a cheerleader! Senior Class President—toupee slightly askew—still running for office. Athletes that made all the touchdowns, hobbling around still trying to make it to some goal line. One friend confessed to me that when it came to his high school reunion he rented a limousine to make all his class mates think he was somebody. He rented the limousine We all get stuck. Stuck. In the middle of this garden there is a deal we have to contend with. We can’t stay here—we have to move on.

What is this tree and what are the limits in our lives? It’s different for all of us. Maybe you never got married. Or maybe you married and it was lousy. Maybe you never had any children—or maybe you had too many children. Maybe you are the like the woman I talked to one day who said, “I would give anything in the world if I had not had children—it is too painful.” She was having a hard time. Maybe you got the job you wanted and you hate it. Maybe you worked twenty-five years and got passed over and you despise where you are. One buddy confessed to me that he hated the chicken neck under his chin and so he went to this plastic surgeon and had it removed. When he recovered he asked his friend: "Well, what do you think?” And the friend said: "They should have fixed your nose too.”

We all have a tree. Health problems. Some parental scar back there which crippled us intentionally or unintentionally. A friend of mined in Kentucky told me one time: “You know Roger, I used to lie in bed every night wondering what it was I was doing to hurt my children. And all the things I didn’t think of was what hurt them. And all the things I worried about didn’t matter to them at all.”  It’s hard. But there is always this tree. You see, there is always this tree.

What is the point of all of this? We are all human beings. We all travel this winding, winding road called acceptance. And along the way we all have to come to terms with finitude, weakness, lusts, givens, frailties. We have to come to terms or we are going to fail. One of the reasons I think AA chose this prayer is because they know who they are. Can’t drink. Powerless by themselves. They needs some higher power. They need other people. I don’t know why you need to pray this part of the prayer but there is a tree in everybody’s garden. 

One of the great writers of our time was a man named Reynolds Price. He lived in North Carolina and taught at Duke. He had a book entitled, A Whole New Life. He told his own story. He woke up one day with these strange pains and went to the doctor. They discovered a tumor wrapped around his spine. They had to dig it out and when they dug it out it left him paralyzed from the chest down. He would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He could hardly move his arms. But the terrible thing was the pain that came and never went away. It was just excruciating. Twenty-four hours a day—just pain. He thought about suicide. Day after day, month after month was a nightmare. Finally, under the
photo by Willy Nelson / flickr
care of Doctors at Duke he began hypnosis. He learned, in time, to manage the pain. It never went way. It’s was there until the day he died.But he said he learned to manage the pain in such a way that he was able to begin to live and be productive again.

Since that time he wrote more than ten books. PBS featured his life in an hour’s program several years ago. He wrote the song, “Copper Line” for James Taylor. He was honored by a President. The creative juices came back and he wrote that this became the most creative time in his life. Sitting in a wheelchair, crippled from his chest down. He said he wouldn’t recommend what happened to him to anybody. But he went on to say that you can choose to live with your limitations or not. You can be bitter and hateful and spiteful and make everybody around you miserable. He reminded us that doctors could not change his life and medicines could not change his life. But that does not mean we do not use medicines or go to doctors. But he said we have to manage our own lives. There are some things we have to do for ourselves. And if this Church will be healthy and viable in the future we don’t try to copy some big old fat church somewhere—but we choose, with God’s help to do what we can here on our little half-acre. Some people here would;'t be here without this church--or another church somewhere. And with God’s help--it will work. It always does.   
What are you going to do with the tree in your life? That’s the question. What are you going to do with the hurts, the disappointments, the raw deals that are so hard. Evelyn Underhill once wrote: “Sometimes we need to remember there is always a night shift, and sooner or alter we are all going to be put on it.” It’s that lousy tree we all keep bumping into. 

Genesis says, yes there is this tree. But the Garden is still fraught with infinite possibilities. We can spend our time raging at the things we cannot do—or we can spend our time creatively on the things we can still do. 

Somebody wrote a book some time ago. The title took my breath away. Painting Rainbows With Broken Crayons. It’s the only thing we’ve got. We take what is given and ask God to help us learn to paint rainbows with the limitations of our lives.

And so we pray the prayer, bring all the things of our lives: “God grant me the serenity—which is peace—to accept all the things I cannot change.  And if we learn to do this, maybe we will know what to do with all the lushness in the garden—even with a fence around it.

No wonder the Church has set a table of bread and cup and invited us all to come. Just as We Are…just as we are…we bring the broken things of our lives—and here, believe it or not, we find healing and hope and promise and love. They called the Supper Eucharist—thanksgiving. I think I know why.

photo by Tom Sens / flickr

This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church,  Pendleton, SC,  February 7, 2016

--Roger Lovette /

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