No one will argue that prayer is central to our spiritual health. We even create helpful acrostics to assist us such as ACTS. We talk a lot about its importance, but find the discipline of doing it more difficult.
Recently, I came across a short article by Gordon McDonald on how a prayer affects him. The prayer highlighted one of the ACTS categories, but in a new practical, redemptive mode. It was a new angle that probably was stimulated by his restoration journey. It reminded me of Christ’s prayer and it’s affect on Him in the Garden. It also reminded me of the many challenges a field leader faces in daily life and a way to respond to them. And it gave me new impetus to practice redemptive prayer and counter my need to control.
Gordon MacDonald writes:
My mother often referred to a prayer that her mother said (in Swedish) nightly at the bedsides of her eight children as they headed off to sleep. The prayer became so embedded in their memories that one of her brothers, when he was dying 80 years later, asked my mother to “pray the prayer that Mama used to pray.”
Like my dying uncle, many of us have simple lines of thoughtful prayer to which we cling when life becomes rough. The Lord’s Prayer is an obvious one. Or some version of the “Jesus prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Or the so-called prayer of St. Francis of Assisi that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …” (as much as one senses the spirit of Francis in the prayer, it is highly improbable that he was its creator).
Throughout the years of my Christian journey, I have used Psalm 23 as a prayer, and there have been sleepless nights when I have repeated the Shepherd Psalm over and over, perhaps as many as a hundred times. The vision of green pastures and quiet waters has rarely failed to re-order my heart and mind.
Then there is the more recent 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.”
The Serenity prayer is embraced by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. It is usually prayed at the beginning and end of any meeting where self-confessed drunks gather to help each other stay sober for another 24 hours.
There is an ongoing debate as to who authored the Serenity Prayer. It is usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, but some claim that the prayer’s core ideas come from one or more spiritual masters of a century (or even a millennium) ago.
Friends who are alcoholics tell me that the Serenity prayer speaks to the core of the alcoholic’s mental disease.
The prayer highlights three concerns. First, one needs to recognize those events and experiences over which there is no immediate control and to accept them for what they are. We might call this the act of submission. Since most alcoholics admit to being control freaks, I can see why this line means so much to them.
Second, one needs to acknowledge those events and experiences where it is possible to effect change. Here the operational word is courage.
And third, one needs insight to know which of the first two is actually in play. Is something changeable, or is it beyond my control? The answer requires wisdom.
Some time ago I latched on to the Serenity Prayer as a tool for daily reflection. I began repeating it many times during the day, especially when I faced issues that were affecting my emotions and attitudes.
The Prayer has provoked me into wondering how often I waste time and energy trying to manage things that are beyond my grasp. To do this is to invite frustration, stress, even anger to flood my inner being.
This state of agitation is easy to observe in a small child who, lacking wisdom, throws a temper tantrum because he cannot get what he wants. He may scream, lash out at others, even breaks things. One frequently observes adult versions of this behavior that are just a bit more subtle and sophisticated: irritability, blaming, defensiveness, criticism of others, manipulation.
In such moments of immature behavior, the Serenity Prayer can become quite relevant.
Herein lies one of the reasons the incarnate Jesus appeals to me so powerfully. He is such a quiet, orderly, and patient person in the face of adversity. His “serenity” originates with what he completely controls: the affairs of his own heart. When the people of his hometown turn again him, he disengages without a word. In a Galilean storm, he chooses to rest his eyes. On an early morning while others sleep, he quietly communes with his Heavenly Father. On the cross he forgives hateful people.
In his mysterious divine/human way, the Savior seems in perfect touch with what he must—by choice—accept and what, at the moment, he cannot (or chooses not to) change.
Accepting things I cannot change is about surrender. There come those times where one simply surrenders and adapts to the realities around him. One friend calls this “living around the situation.”
On the other hand, there are those things that can be changed, and the list usually begins with the unChristlike attitudes and behaviors that coat one’s inner life. As one writer puts it, “Quit talking about changing the world until you’ve found a way to change yourself.”
In my relationships—marriage, family, work colleagues, friends, even “enemies”—the courage to change what is changeable begins with me. My alcoholic friends keep telling me this over and over again. Their disease told them that everyone else needed to change, but now, in sobriety, they’ve abandoned the blame-game and set out to change themselves.
But the Serenity Prayer also raises the idea of wisdom. How does one know the difference between what is changeable and what is not? “Grant me wisdom,” the prayer calls out.
Wisdom comes from learning from my (successful and unsuccessful) experiences, listening to others, and drawing instruction from whatever ways the Spirit of God wishes to whisper into my soul. Somewhere in the triangulation of these three things, wisdom emerges.
The other morning I left our home for a breakfast appointment at a restaurant. It was a beautiful New England day, and I drove down our street feeling confident that my personal world was properly ordered. Nothing was likely to go wrong.
But something did go wrong. There was an accident on the freeway, and I soon discovered that the traffic was backed up for at least a mile. Okay, I thought. I’ll just call my breakfast partner and alert him to the delay. But when I reached for my cell phone, I discovered that I’d left it at home.
Suddenly, the order in my life began to unravel. My sense of confidence and control collapsed. My emotions began to heat up into frustration and irritability. Silly thoughts, blaming thoughts, circled in my head. Why, I wanted to ask, had this crowd of drivers all about me chosen to drive this road to their jobs at just the time I needed to use the freeway? Why had the people involved in the accident not driven more carefully? And where were the police when I needed them? Of such self-centered thoughts is the stuff of spiritual disorder. Note the “I’s” and the “me’s” in my questions. Immature perspectives like this can begin to color a whole day of relationships and character formation.
Then I remembered that it was for times like these that my alcoholic friends prayed the Serenity Prayer. I began to say it out loud, repeating the lines several times, each time emphasizing one of the three parts, each time making a different word the center of my attention.
God, the hearer of all prayers, responded in ways we attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. The traffic jam, I was reminded, was an event beyond my control. It was something to accept. I could not change the circumstances. But I—perhaps more accurately, God—could change me. And that’s what happened.
Oh, the rest of the story. The guy I was supposed to meet at the restaurant? I discovered that he was in a car just ahead of me. Perhaps he was praying the same prayer.
(Gordon MacDonald is editor-at-large for Leadership Journal and Chancellor of Denver Seminary)
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