There is a wonderful prayer called the “Serenity Prayer” that has been quoted around the world since 1934 when it was written by an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s known as the serenity prayer. It was published in a small pamphlet then, during World War II. The military distributed millions of copies to service personnel. Then, Alcoholics Anonymous took it as their serenity prayer. You may have heard it, although in various versions.
The one I’m thinking about says:
O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Amen.
When you stop to think carefully over these words, they have healing power which can transform your life. The “Serenity Prayer” there are many things in this life which you can change if you receive and muster the courage and strength. There are also many other things which, no matter how hard you may try to change them, you can’t. You just have to learn to live with them and to make your peace with them. You won’t be able to clean them up. You won’t be able to do it.
Maybe no one knows these lessons better than the sober, recovering alcoholic, who turns to God for help – his higher power, who helps him through his addiction.
This prayer also speaks profoundly to parents and their children. Sometimes when I pray this Serenity Prayer, I think about Norman Thayer and his daughter Chelsea, played by Henry and Jane Fonda in the film classic On Golden Pond. As you remember, Chelsea finds it almost unbearable that her father has not changed into something other than the controlling, crotchety, condescending old grouch he has always been. And Norman finds it almost unbearable that daughter Chelsea has not changed into the all-American boy he has longed for all his adult life. Miraculously, and by the grace of God, they receive a power which enables them to accept and forgive one another – warts and all. They receive serenity; they receive a blessed kind of peace; they receive the peace that passes al understanding, and they learn how to mend in their broken places.
There is a wonderful film which now is on Broadway. It’s called Billy Elliott. Billy Elliott is a 10-year old who lives in a rough and tumble mining community in England. All the boys in Billy’s neighbourhood receive an allowance from their parents to attend boxing class after school, and all the girls go to ballet class. Well, Billy is a very bad boxer and doesn’t exactly enjoy boxing class, so you guessed it, Billy sneaks into the ballet class with the girls, and there he discovers that his feet are like wings. But when his father and older brother discover that Billy yearns to be a ballet dancer rather than a macho-man, they are both humiliated and furious. Brutally, they try to change Billy, but to no avail. Rather, it is they who change. While Billy has changed from boxing to ballet, they change from stubborn blokes (I’m putting it mildly!) to semi-sensitive men. Graciously, lovingly, sensitively, they support Billy as he applies to and finally attends a prestigious dance company in London. “When I dance,” Billy confesses, “my entire body is filled with electricity.” And, when Billy debuts as the star in the London Ballet company’s performance of Swan Lake, his changed father and brother are in the audience to watch him soar and celebrate a wonderful moment of ballet.
What does this serenity prayer say?
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
We recall that in Hebrews 11, the author gives a long, glowing report of the accomplishments of the many saints of the Bible. Then the author observes that all these people, “having obtained a good report,” did not quite receive the full promise they had sought while here on earth. Rather, they died in faith – but their lives here on earth were finally incomplete.
In other words, while their report card of life contained some very good grades, it also contained some very serious incompletes. For a parable of all our lives is this – while there is much that we begin to build in life that we can finish, there is also much that we are not able to finish.
Did you know, there is one project that we will never be able to complete? It is our lives. Someone else will have to complete us! The Holy One, who created us and welcomed us at the beginning of our lives, will receive us and complete us at the end of our lives. That is why Christians have funerals at the time of death. At Christian funerals, worshippers stand in awe before the Holy One who thought of us before we were born and who redeems us when we die, the Holy One, who completes and fulfils what we cannot complete and fulfil.
For a parable of life is this – There is much that we begin to build that we are not able to finish. God alone will provide the finish. God alone will be the completer. And because this is true, pain, brokenness and death will not remain sovereign. They will not have the last say. One day, God in Jesus Christ will clean up the final brokenness of our lives. One day, God in Jesus Christ will clean up the final brokenness of history. One day, God in Jesus Christ will meet history’s weariness and anxiousness with heavenly renewal, its sins with redemption, its wounds with healing, its broken places with mending, its frustrations with victory, its bitterness with tenderness, its death with life everlasting.
What about your report cards? What are the wonderful changes and metamorphoses that you have been blessed to enjoy and rejoice in? And what are your lingering burdens and incompletes? Name them and accept them. Embrace the victories. Bear the burdens. And, in doing so, know that Jesus Christ accepts and bears them with you. Jesus has given you the courage to change what ought to be changed; and do so, knowing that Jesus also wants to give you serenity and peace with all of life’s incompletes.
Surely this is what the Apostle Paul means when he declares: “I have leaned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to have little and I know how to have plenty.”