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Serenity: Grace, courage and wisdom

Posted by Ron George on November 6, 2007

The Program:

Speaking of Faith, with Krista Tippett
“Moral Man and Immoral Society: Rediscovering Reinhold Niebuhr”
Reinhold Niebuhr Time cover

This program stems from a kind of mini-renaissance of interest all along the American political spectrum in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, a Reformed and Evangelical pastor and theologian Time magazine once dubbed, “The No. 1 theologian in America.” Niebuhr himself may have viewed developments in our time with bemusement and skepticism, because he would have known that liberals and conservatives alike, in our day as in his, argue less from principle than through ideological filters, so that any appreciation of Niebuhr’s passionate Christian realism would be skewed by where this or that pundit stood along the political spectrum.

Contemporary conservatives have co-opted Niebuhr’s support of American intervention in World War II to suggest that he would have supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while liberals point to Niebuhr’s opposition to the American involvement in Vietnam to suggest that he would have opposed invading Iraq. Neither appreciation of Niebuhr is complete, so both are misleading.

That’s a tribute of sorts to a thinker whose faith and philosophy transcended political ideology. Niebuhr saw that ideology inhibits rather than clarifies complex issues of state and society, and that it gives no account whatever of the paradoxes and ironies that inevitably arise out of our being in society.

Perhaps the supreme irony of Niebuhr’s considerable contribution to public discourse is that he is best remembered for a prayer, of which there are many versions. Here’s the one reported by Niebuhr’s daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, in her book on the prayer’s history and significance: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that can not be changed,courage to change the things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Ms. Sifton says the prayer originally was composed by Niebuhr in 1943 for “a little village church in northwestern Massachusetts where he spent the summers.” A friend of Niebuhr’s who also attended the small church during summer months asked for permission to use the prayer in a pamphlet for GIs in Europe published by the Federal Council of Churches. That’s the version Ms. Sifton cites in her book, which differs slightly from the familiar text used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Krista Tippett interviews author Paul Elie, who says Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” is an effective distillation of Niebuhr’s thought, expressing as it does the honest dilemma all of us face as we sort through life’s winding way. As millions of members of Alcoholics Anonymous will attest, however, it is far more than that: It is effective prayer.

For one thing, it’s brief and direct, which suggests that this prayer came from the heart, from a lifetime of engagement and reflection that formed Niebuhr’s soul such that he could plead in so few words great depths of yearning and universal meaning. His daughter says as much, that this prayer poured forth after two decades of Niebuhr’s pastoral ministry in Detroit, during which social-justice issues figured prominently.

Niebuhr’s prayer, too, rises to a gospel standard: Jesus warned against lengthy prayer, which tends to be empty and worse, hypocritical, precisely because it is not borne of authentic formation driven by deep-seated concern for the welfare of society in general and people in particular. What else can it mean to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves?

This prayer was experienced long before it was said. The truth of it resided in and shaped Niebuhr’s soul long before the words ever came from his mouth. It reminds me of a phrase from the psalms, “For God alone my soul in silence waits …” Perhaps Niebuhr would agree that, paradoxically, while such silence rests upon the lips, the conscious mind never stops; indeed, God calls most readily upon minds engaged in thought while lips are still and the mind is focused upon prayerful concern, upon bringing holiness to bear upon that which can be changed and hope upon that which can not.

Niebuhr’s is effective prayer for inspiring true humility, not its groveling caricature but the genuine article truly awed by the Mystery and the mysteries of being in the world, in society and within one’s own skin. Humility is the great unspoken term in Niebuhr’s prayer, which makes it all the more profound, that a prayer could be so perfectly imbued with something it doesn’t name. That comes from a very deep place, indeed, from somewhere within the author that is becoming eternal.

It’s easy simply to marvel that a simple prayer came from a complex man — another paradox, perhaps? — but on deeper examination and, certainly, by letting the Serenity Prayer become habitual in one’s spiritual practice, we discover that the prayer is not simple at all, any more than the prayer of Jesus is simple. It’s easy to say but not to pray, for in praying we are opening our consciences to formation by God’s Holy Spirit, and as Reinhold Niebuhr certainly knew, for he lived it, that has profound implications for how we live life in this world.

We believe God answers prayer. When we let the Serenity Prayer form us, the question is whether we truly are willing to receive grace, courage and wisdom from God’s hands and to follow where those values lead. One thing is certain, even if everything else is not: We will be changed and, God willing, so will the world in which we live.


One Response to “Serenity: Grace, courage and wisdom”

  1. Pastor Jim Abbott said

    Hi Ron,
    I’ll miss New Lectionary Notes, Just because I “borrowed” quotes and ideas. But – glad to read this.

    Two words come to mind, Formation and Paradox.
    Formation is a recurring idea, struggle, theme in most of the spiritual writing I am readng now. Formation is a process, which is hard to live with, I want an event – to come out the other side fully formed. But I suspect that would be a brittle kind of faith, far too concerned with how right I already am.

    The Paradox is that silence is where God speaks, and only our of a really deep and complex mind, and long engagement, can come something simple and profound, and lasting.

    Well, enough — back to work on this beautiful day.

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