“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not
let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
--John 14:27 NRSV
Last week I had the honor of officiating the graveside service for Gary Montague, who was a part of PHCC in his youth and whose grandfather was the founding pastor. His widow asked that I include “The Serenity Prayer” in the service, which I was glad to do. When I googled the famous prayer, written by 20th Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and widely used by AA and other 12-Step groups, in order to copy and paste it into my readings for the service, I was surprised to discover I didn’t know the whole prayer, despite having used it most of my life.
I had only prayed, preached and shared the first four lines of the prayer, which says:
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.
What I had never known (and apparently many people already knew) is that the prayer is longer and includes the following lines:
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
The lines which were unknown to me are no less beautiful than the first four. The reference to “one day at a time” may be the reason the sentiment is repeated so often in recovery groups. I’m sure some must use the longer prayer for just this reason, but the recovery meetings I’ve been invited into did not do so. Its message of acceptance rather than denial of the world’s troubles seems like a truth I still struggle to live out and I am glad to have the longer version as a tool for my own journey.
Niebuhr’s original prayer was written in first person plural (“we, us, our”) rather than first person singular (“I, me, my”). On coffee mugs, t-shirts and social media memes however, it is almost always written in the singular. I know from personal experience how praying the prayer in the singular can be a powerful tool for discerning between what is in my control and what is outside of it, yet I agree with the many writers who point out that something is missing in the individualistic version.
We also struggle as communities and societies to figure out what is within and outside of our control to change. We constantly struggle against feeling apathetic and powerless in order overcome systematic evils. Niebuhr himself oscillated back and forth in his writings over how much power humanity had to face the great social sins of his day. In a year like 2020 when our difficulties feel so overwhelming, praying the Serenity Prayer corporately seems like a welcome antidote to the waves of communal powerlessness we all feel. Yes, God, help us to know what we can do in the face of pandemic, racism, corruption, ecological disaster and economic instability!
As I stood by a graveside reciting the longer version of the Serenity Prayer, I felt like I was lighting a small candle in the gloom of this year. Whatever your situation as you journey through Advent towards a Christmas which resembles none in recent memory, I commend to you the longer version of the Serenity Prayer. Try praying it as an individual with the pronouns “I, my and mine” and then pray it as a part of a larger community crying out to God for help using the pronouns “we, us and our.”
In this second week of Advent when we have lit the candle of peace, may this prayer live up to its name in your life and grant you some serenity.
Grace and Peace,
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