Tag Archives: serenity prayer

Completion

One thing I rarely have experienced in my three decades of pastoral ministry is a sense of completion.  Unlike a contractor who sees a completed home or an artist who holds a completed piece, I have rarely felt like I had finished a long-term task.  I may have finished a pastoral visit or a Sunday sermon, but there were always more visits to make and sermons to write.  The job of pastor, by its nature, was never finished.

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Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom, MN

So when I ended my thirteen month interim at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lindstrom last week, I was surprised that my dominant emotion has been a sense of satisfaction.  I had accomplished the specific job I was called to do.  I had been their temporary shepherd as they took time to grieve the departure of their previous senior pastor, to assess their present mission and leadership needs and to call a new senior pastor.  Now they are ready as a congregation to walk forward into God’s future.

12741879_10153577171059480_1232960852186957582_n-2Yes, there are other emotions.  I feel sadness at leaving some great relationships.  As a pastor I shared in the joy of baptisms and the sorrows of funerals.  Together we struggled how to faithfully steward a large bequest to the congregation.  I truly enjoyed working with Trinity’s leadership of council and committees as together we sought God’s path for Trinity.  I will miss many gracious people.

palmsundayhorizontal2014What my recent study and practice of mindfulness has taught me is that all things change.  As a pastor I intellectually knew this, but never fully embraced it.  All pastoral ministries come to an end.  As an intentional interim pastor I recognized this from the start.  I practiced “living one day at a time, enjoying each moment at time,” as the Serenity Prayer says.  Some days I did become anxious, trying to control the outcome.  But during my final weeks at Trinity, as they prepared for the arrival of their new pastor, I took time to be grateful for the opportunity to serve and to savor the satisfaction of my call’s completion.

At this time, I do not know where my next interim will be.  I am reminded of Psalm 121,

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

For now, I rest during my personal interim.

When have you experienced a sense of completion?  How did you respond to it?

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Rocks

On the last evening of my hike I struggled up a rugged overgrown trail towards a high ridge.  I had left the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that afternoon for a side trail.  The new trail would eventually lead me to a trailhead where I would meet my brother and sister, but the word “eventually” was taking new meaning.  The trail had not been cleared of fallen trees in several years and brush had overgrown sections.  Whereas the PCT was known for its overuse of switchback (making for longer, gentler climbs and descents) the new trail was what I called a “billie goat trail.”  It climbed straight up the ridge, as if made for billie goats and not humans. I missed the PCT.

09-0816-methow-pass-north-editedIt was about 6 pm when I reached the top of the ridge and found a place to plop down.  The spot was semi-flat and a potential camping spot for the night.  I decided to make dinner and then decide if I would camp or hike further.  The rest and food restored my energy level and I decided to push on. “There will be another camping spot on the next ridge,” I thought.

As I walked down the trail into the next valley, I encountered a solo hiker, only the second party I had encountered since leaving the PCT.  We chatted for a moment.  He was climbing to the ridge top to take some pictures of the evening sunset and had set up his tent in the small valley towards which I was headed.   “That’s the last water source before you reach Devil’s Basin.  There are a couple of open campsites there if you want to stop.”

I hiked on down to the small stream and refilled my water bottles.  I saw his tent, but no other campsites were visible from the trail.  There was still an hour of sunlight and I prefer to camp high for the morning vistas, so I pushed on.

The trail to this second ridge was gentler, but when I reached the top there was no obvious campsite.  The trail was built into the side of the ridge with no level spaces in view.  Darkness was coming on and I kept hiking, hoping that I would eventually find a workable spot for my tent.

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The trail up the scree field in the morning light

Earlier I had heard that the trail had a tricky spot.   The trail climbed a third ridge but made the climb through a scree field.  A scree field is a collection of loose rocks, smaller than footballs.  Imagine climbing a pile of rock and gravel.  Now I was approaching the scree field and saw no visible trail.  Darkness was deepening and I did not want to climb the field in the dark, even with a headlamp. No level spot was visible around me.

So I did the only sensible thing.

I camped right on the trail in the midst of the rocks.

It was not totally level, but it worked for one night.  I had a new air mattress that would smooth the rockiest ground.  I set up my tent, inflated my air mattress and crawled in for the night.

Throughout my hike, I embraced the serenity prayer.  First to be at peace with whatever I encountered; to have serenity about the things I cannot change, such as lack of camping sites.  The second was the courage to change what I could, which was my attitude.  Instead of despairing that I was camping on rocks, I saw it a new adventure, a test of my camping skills.

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Tent, air mattress, jacket and pack in the morning.

Though I would not recommend camping on rocks, sometimes it’s the only choice.  In the morning I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

If you would like to see a video of the trail and campsite, click to my YouTube video
Night on the Rocks

One Day at a Time

Just past the familiar opening phrases of serenity, courage and wisdom in Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer comes this statement:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,

The prayer invites us to stay focus on the present , not to be trapped by  past regrets or future anxieties.  To live fully alive today, not drifting off to yesterday or tomorrow.

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt 6:34)

boarding-a-plane-11282012-113858_horiz-largeI have struggled with this.  I remember preparing for a wonderful vacation trip with my family, but even as I boarded the airplane, my mind raced ahead.  In my mind’s eye I could see myself boarding the plane to return, the vacation over and done.  I felt this wave of regret that the vacation would end, and it had barely begun!  I was not living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at time. I had become anxious about tomorrow, not heeding Jesus’ warning.   I was letting my mental thoughts race ahead to the completion, focused on how transient my week of vacation would be.

Yes, there is value in recognizing that all things in life, including vacation trips, are transient and impermanent.   The old proverb, “all good things must come to an end” holds truth.  But I was pushing away the enjoyment of the good with my future focus, unable to savor the gift of one day, one moment.

The practice of centering prayer (a form of mindfulness practice)  has helped me recognize when my thoughts are running away from the present.  The practice has taught me to simply see such wandering thoughts and feelings as “thoughts and feeling” that are not necessarily reality.  In my vacation example, I could not predetermine how I would feel when I returned.  Today if I were to encounter a similar thought/feeling as I boarded, I might respond, “Oh that is an interesting thought.  I will be curious to see how I feel when I board to come home.  But for now, I am here at the beginning of my vacation.  I will find my seat and enjoy the novel I brought along to read.”

How do you find ways to live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time?

Lord Jesus, help us to live in this moment with you.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Growing up I confused wisdom and knowledge.   My grades were always at the top of the class. I loved the attention teachers and pastors gave me when I had the right answer.  I knew everything and I knew I was RIGHT.  But I was clueless in how this attention caused classmates to resent me.   I was not wise in how to keep friendships thriving.

7K0A0478In the Niebuhr’s Serenity prayer a key petition is to have the wisdom to know what can and what cannot be changed.  This is particularly true in human relationships.  I might desire my spouse, child or co-worker to change in some way, but I cannot make them change.  What I can change is how I interact with them.  I can choose to have the serenity to listen carefully to what the other is expressing.  I can have the courage to “speak my mind” or “to hold my tongue” depending on the context.    I will need wisdom in each situation in what I say or how I act.

IMG_3289I confess that at times I am unwise in my desire to be right.  I think I have the right perspective and the other person must be wrong.   And if I simply repeat myself enough time with varying intensity of voice, the other person will finally hear my perspective and agree.   I KNOW I am right, but I am not WISE in how I interact. Really, at time I can be clueless.

Jesus had the wisdom to know the difference.  He had the courage to confront the self-righteous Pharisees, but the tender compassion to heal a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).

Slowly I am learning to let go of my need to be right.   I think the stronger, wiser course is to learn how to love the other, to listen and to be present to the other.  Wisdom grows one day at a time.

What kind of wisdom do you seek?

Lord Jesus, give me the wisdom to know how to act in love.

The Courage to Change

I knew something needed to change as I hiked one summer along the Pacific Crest Trail.  I had looked forward to the seven-day backpack for several months.    I had entertained frequent day dreams in which I visualized myself hiking across open alpine meadows, surrounded by the snow-laced  peaks of the Cascades and swimming in cold sky-blue lakes. But as my fantasy became reality I notice something troubling.   My mind had trouble staying on the trail.

IMG_20130816_105142_210Instead I would discover that my thoughts were ruminating about some worry or concern back home in Minnesota.    For a moment I might be able to enjoy a colorful alpine flower or a striking mountain peak, but all too quickly my mind jumped to some pestering concern at my church or my family.   My intention was to be on the PCT in Washington; my mind seemed to be at dozens of other locations.  And I wanted that to change.

bowl-with-spoonWhen I came back to Minnesota, I began to hear about “mindfulness” – the ability to be in the present moment.    My health plan offered a simple six-week exercise that focused on mindful eating.   I thought it would be easy to simply focus on my meal as I ate.   I discovered that it was incredibly hard for me.  My eyes continually looked for something to read; my ears sought the noise of the radio.  The challenge was to simply be present to my bowl of cereal, to see the color and texture of the granola, to taste each bite, and to give  thanks to God for the meal.

Emotional LifeI began to read more about mindfulness and my emotional impulsiveness.  A key book  was The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson.   I remember reading about how our brains have plasticity, that they can be rewired or remolded with certain practice.  The author discussed how people who have participated in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes have been able to deal with their chaotic, impulsive mental thought patterns.   After reading the book, I signed up for a MBSR class.

“Courage to change the things I can” is the second part of the Serenity prayer.  I once thought courage was reserved for the “big” things like racism or sexism.  I admire Dr. Martin Luther King’s courage to challenge the racial injustice of his time. We need such models of courage in every age.

Yet there is also the daily kind of courage to face our own flaws.  Through the MBSR class I learned the practice of daily meditation.  The practice has begun to calm my busy mind and to live in the present.   I am thankful that God gave me the courage to change the ways I look at the world and to be fully alive in each moment.

How do you stay living in the present moment?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your promise to be always with us.

The Serenity of the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer begins with three requests:  the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

When I first prayed this prayer, I wondered if the order should not be changed.  I wanted the courage to act, to move, to change things.  I sought the power to DO God’s will and to ACT in God’s name.  Should not courage come first?

Serenity in Winter

Serenity in Winter

Instead the prayer starts with the serenity to accept things that cannot be change, to be at peace with the way things are before any changes come.  Four years ago I wrote about the Serenity Prayer and the challenges of accepting Minnesota winters.  The weather is definitely something I cannot change (though I can change where I live).

The weather is not the only thing I cannot change.  On a more profound level – and where I think AA and Al-Anon see the prayers connection to their program – I cannot change other people’s behavior or attitudes.  Oh, I can love and care for, cajole and advise other people.  But I cannot change them.   A spouse or parent is unable to change the addictive behavior of a loved one.  A family intervention might help a spouse or child seek rehab but ultimately the alcoholic or addict must seek healing for themselves.

Backpack Tent 2014

I carry a one man tent when backpacking

But it does not need to be as dramatic as alcoholism.  In marriage, husbands and wives need to able to love, accept and support each other as they are.  When I first married Carolyn, I thought I could change her to share my love of backpacking.  I thought that I simply had to get her in the right setting and she would see the light.  I was wrong.  Though we both enjoy day hikes and the beauty of God’s creation, she does not share my fascination with sleeping on the ground in sweaty clothes after eating dehydrated gruel.   At the same time, she has come to accept that she will not expunge my fascination with carrying a forty pound pack up and down trails for days on end. Instead we accept each other as we are while enjoying the passions we share.

One passion that Carolyn and I share is our love for our grandchildren.

One passion that Carolyn and I share is our love for our grandchildren.

The prayer uses the word serenity as the heart of this acceptance.  Serenity is NOT the grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it attitude, but rather the calm, internal state of mind that sees reality for what it is: reality.  I remember experiencing such serenity when my father died twenty years ago.  He had contracted pancreatic cancer and then had a debilitating stroke.  When I sat by his bedside during his final hours, I felt sadness that the father I loved was dying, but also serenity that this was his reality. I could not change it.

To develop such serenity takes practice.   We may have moments of instant serenity, but to have consistent serenity takes the practice of prayer and meditation. Saint Paul connected prayer and peace.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)

How have you experience serenity?

Lord Jesus, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Serenity Prayer: Intro

For the past two and half years I have participated in a clergy spirituality group.  The six of us meet each Thursday morning for conversation and prayer.  We started out with an adaptation of the The Twelve Steps used by Alcoholic Anonymous and other recovery groups.

downloadOur first book was a kind of spiritual workbook titled: The Twelve Steps: A Spiritual Journey,  A Working Guide for Healing Based on Biblical Teachings by RPI Publishing, 2012.  Though we have moved on  in our reading to other books (that I might highlight in other blogs), we continue to use some parts of the The Twelve Steps.  The book included questions for personal reflection based on the 12 steps and a format to guide our group conversation.  It was a helpful book to start our group.  What I appreciated was that we ended each meeting praying together the full Serenity Prayer:

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 different.
Living one day at a time
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as the 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.  Amen

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

This prayer is attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though he was taping into older Christian and other wisdom traditions that shaped this prayer.  As the above Wikipedia link shows, the prayer had oral roots back to the early 1930’s, but was not formally published until that 1940’s.

The prayer strikes a deep resonates in me, especially as we use it in our group.   We pray the Lord’s Prayer to open the meeting (often with a few minutes of silent meditation) to bring focus.  The Serenity Prayer has become a kind of ritual and blessing that brings closure and hope as our group concludes its meeting.   I find great comfort in such simple rituals.

Lately I have been feeling tugged to explore the spiritual depth of this prayer.  I plan to write reflections on the Prayer and what certain words or phrases mean for me.  I admit that this will be highly individualistic; not everyone will agree with my insights.  Yet hopefully it will spark your desire to pray this prayer or other prayer as part of your life in Christ.

What written prayers are shaping your spiritual life?

Christ Jesus, grant me the courage to pray with hope and utter trust in you.