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"The Limits of The Serenity Prayer"

“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”

artwork "The Good Shepherd" by Sieger Koder
1. “The Good Shepherd” by Sieger Köder

Jeremiah 23:1-6

November 20, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with the Serenity Prayer:


“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”


It became wildly popular, both due to the depth and simplicity of the language and the underlying theology. It was “included in a book for army chaplains and servicemen in 1944 and the USO circulated the prayer (with Niebuhr's permission) to soldiers on printed cards during World War II.” In addition, “AA's co-founder, Bill W., and [rest of] the staff liked the prayer and handed [out printed copies]. It has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous ever since, and has also been used in other twelve-step programs.”[2]

 

It has been prayed by thousands... and if it had been possible to travel back in time, perhaps it would have granted some comfort to Israel during the Exile. Their list of the things they could not change was long:


the curse of a line of shepherd-kings who had mislead and mishandled them;

the burden of feeling discarded and deserted, lost and unloved;

the miles from home and the loss of everything that made them feel secure.


I suppose they should have just accepted what they could not change.


The prophet Samuel had warned them about the failings of kings, but they had pled with God for a king so they could be like the other nations and now they were stuck with them.


They were not blameless either – their own sins had sawn at their relationship with God until it snapped. They’d ignored the prophets’ warnings and now they were left with a world in shambles.


And military defeat was the cost of being caught in the crossfire between waring Empires. Absolute humiliation was the way Babylon treated all their victims. Resistance was futile.


So maybe Jeremiah should have channeled his inner Niebuhr and told them to pray, “Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.”


It worked for soldiers and sailors and pilots facing the horrors of war; it works for addicts facing the mess they have made of their lives. And if you aren’t in either of those groups, know that this prayer is often prescribed for those facing incurable cancers or crushing debt.


It is important to know your limits and accept what cannot be changed – right?

 

God will have none of it!


God does not say grin and bear it!


God fumes and flares and pronounces woe to all those failed kings.


God bristles and beckons the chosen people to believe they are chosen still.


God smiles and sings a song of hope,


because God will step in and shepherd them until


the scattered are gathered and the lost are brought home!


They need not accept things that they cannot change. God will change them!

 

Perhaps there are things in your life that you are wishing could change right now:


Perhaps you are longing for better shepherd-kings than we have,

or maybe you regret not speaking up or speaking out when you had the chance.


Perhaps you regret something you did or said and don’t know how to make it right,

or the path you have followed and now you can’t see your way back.


Perhaps you feel a long way from home and yearn to be there,

or maybe you are missing someone who always made everywhere feel welcoming.


Perhaps you have been trying to muster the courage to change the things you can.


Perhaps you have worked the twelve steps, or sought counseling, or made a budget.


Perhaps you have gone back to school, or hit the gym, or gone vegetarian.


Perhaps you left you abuser, or got your anger under control, or faced your demons.


Then this short section from Jeremiah is for you – a piece driftwood in a stormy sea, something for you to cling to, a righteous branch that will keep you from drowning!


For any changes you will make are built on the back of what God has already begun.


And for every sheep that has lost its way, God is the one with the staff pointing the way home, and the one who rejoices at your return, and the one who welcomes you with a feast!

 

I don’t suppose Jeremiah’s words will find their way into many Thanksgiving cards.


Hallmark is funny that way!


Niebuhr’s prayer probably won’t be there either.


But it may help to know that those first few lines are not the end. He continued on:


“living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardships as a pathway to peace …

trusting that You [God] will make all things right …

so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next.”


Both Jeremiah and Niebuhr counsel trusting God to make all things right.


May that be your experience and the source of all your heartfelt thanksgiving. Amen

[1] “The Good Shepherd” by Sieger Köder
[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer
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