by Rev. John Zehring for The Christian Citizen
Camping at the Mohawk State Forest in northwestern Massachusetts during the pandemic, my wife and I took rides around the area and passed through the neighboring town of Heath, a small rural community off the beaten path of the Mohawk trail. The New England country church in Heath, known as the Heath Union Church, is a federation of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists. The Heath church experienced a moment of renown when its substitute preacher offered a prayer which became so famous that it has a title: The Serenity Prayer. The preacher was Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr and his prayer went like this:
“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian and professor at Union Theological Seminary, spent the latter years of his life in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. When I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I remember reading his prominent theological work “The Nature and Destiny of Man.”
The local newspaper, the Greenfield Recorder, wrote this about the Heath church: “The Church is an independent congregation, located at 5 East Main St. in the center of Heath, 4 miles north of Charlemont. In 1892, Congregationalists, Methodists and Baptists in town merged to form the basis of today’s congregation. The sanctuary contains a historic, fully restored Johnson Opus 16 of 1850 organ. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, famous for his ‘Serenity Prayer,’ wrote and delivered the prayer at the Heath church in 1943.” In 1943, World War II was raging, the planet witnessed the best of leaders and the worst of leaders at that time, and the future was rapidly changing, uncertain, and scary – not too different from today.
Since that day, the prayer has catapulted to a life of its own. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs use a version of it as a foundation pillar to steps toward health and wholeness. There are some doubts about if Niebuhr actually created it. Since the prayer speaks a universal truth, it would be natural for others to have had the same idea. Most likely, Niebuhr probably unconsciously adapted the prayer from something that he had heard or read, as many preachers, teachers, or public speakers do. Yet it is the words he cobbled together which endure.
Whichever the version and whoever the original author, the point is clear: in these endless pandemic days of uncertainty, economic volatility, political turmoil, threats to American democracy, irreversible climate change, racial inequality, not to mention any personal challenges we face, we are craving serenity. Serenity – defined as the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled – always seemed to me more like a momentary state of spiritual bliss. Now, months into a life-threating pandemic, how is serenity sustained for periods of time that extend to months and even years?
Serenity, serenus in Latin, means clear or unclouded skies. By extension it thus means calm, without storm. That does not describe your life or mine in these times. These are stormy times. Go into a large grocery store, and your head throbs with a stress headache. Forget your mask and you cannot enter. The number of cases, deaths, and positive cases escalates with every news account. Your child or grandchild can bring you within fourteen days of being six feet under. How can you be serene when your life or the life of one you love is on the line?
The prayer is still good. It is a petition, not a guarantee. Yet it serves as a lighthouse of hope and a reminder that we cannot create our own serenity, and so it is to God we turn. There are no self-help books, no meditative practices, no New Age calming music that can give us serenity in today’s kind of environment. Only God can grant us what we cannot do for ourselves. In the deepest valleys of dark shadows – which seems a good description of our times – only the Shepherd can make us to lie down in green pastures, lead us beside still waters, and restore our soul. Our soul hungers for serenity and thirsts for Divine restoration.
Courage is the second part to the prayer. Perhaps God’s message to you is like it was to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Take courage, the Lord proclaims (Psalm 27:14). But where do we obtain courage? It comes from knowing God is with us wherever we go. It springs forth from the inner light within us. And it arises from others who lift up our courage: “Each one helps the other, saying to one another, ‘Take courage!’” (Isaiah 41:6). Then, courage emanates from us to others as we empower each other to take courage.
Wisdom is the final phrase of the prayer, the wisdom to discern between what cannot be changed and what should be changed. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” explains Proverbs 9:10. The word fear in this sense does not mean being scared or afraid. A loving, compassionate God would not wish for believers to be afraid of God. A better translation is “to revere.” That makes sense. Revering God is the beginning of wisdom. Revering God gives the sense to discern a time for acceptance and a time for action. In Proverbs, wisdom is a practical application of our good sense or common sense. For example, Proverbs 12:15 advises that “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.” That is good common sense and an application of wisdom.
The Serenity Prayer is not in the Bible, but arose from the lips of a renowned theologian preaching at a summer service in a small New England rural church. It is our prayer, not just for a momentary bit of spiritual relief, but for a soul-deep serenity in turbulent times, for a God-inspired courage, and for growth in our own wisdom to discern the difference between acceptance and action. In the worst of times, these crazy times, it become our earnest plea:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
1 A popularized version of the prayer used by AA and others reads: 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.