Monday Morning, December 31, 2007
Some words, just by their sound, carry a certain appeal. Serenity is one of those words. Serenity is a place of quiet; of peace; of contentment. A walk in the garden or alongside a still pond with a swan floating by. Lots of color. A gentle breeze on a balmy afternoon. Ah, serenity.
We describe a face as reflecting the serene when it exhibits an inner peace; tranquility. It’s a rare find in our high pressure, fast-paced world. Most faces betray the stresses of a day filled with high expectations, staccato decision-making, information overload, the shrill of relentless demands and the screech of tires squealing as they start and stop and peel around the bend. Serenity seems like a distant, unattainable dream.
And so we close out another calendar year, us leaders. I wonder how much serenity we’ve known in the last twelve months. Some, I hope. Probably not enough.
Reinhold Niehbur, the son of an evangelical pastor, along with his brother (Richard), pursued the ministry as their father did. One thing they took from their dad was an unyielding commitment to build a bridge between what they believed and the real-life conditions of the world they lived in. So when, as a young seminary graduate, Reinhold took a church in Detroit during the Roaring Twenties, he saw the conflicts in the work-place of his blue collar auto-workers. Violence, and strife and poor working conditions created all sorts of social ills. Niebuhr challenged Henry Ford to consider the needs of his people. It was straight talk. Ford yielded. The workplace improved. The church grew.
The Ku Klux Klan wielded influence in Detroit, too, spewing racial hatred and bigotry into the streets and on the assembly lines and even in the political process. Niebuhr exposed the Klan, which worked best in secret. He wrote stinging critiques and preached powerful sermons proclaiming a God of justice and a gospel of peace. His church and his influence grew more.
Later, from his post as a seminary professor, his influence stretched into Europe. A young Dietrich Bonheoffer studied Niebuhr’s writings and sat in on his lectures. When Hitler rose to power and Bonheoffer opposed him, Niebuhr’s influence gave him a theological foundation and moral strength. Later, a young seminarian named Martin Luther King, also an evangelical preacher’s son, developed his life mission in part, by exposure to Niebuhr and his work.
Niebuhr is complicated. There is much to disagree with. But his efforts to live out a Christian faith in a world of conflict, political strife, economic injustice and corruption set a high and compelling standard.
In 1942, Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, ran across an anonymous prayer attached to an obituary in the New York Herald Tribune. He was so taken by the powerful message in the simple words that he had the A.A. office reproduce the lines on hundreds of small cards; distributed out of the famed Vesey Street offices to all the A.A. groups in Manhattan.
“With amazing speed,” Bill later wrote, “the [prayer] came into general use and took its place alongside our two other favorites, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer of St. Francis.”
Once it was published, the simple prayer gained national attention. As the U.S. Government made plans to provide a written copy to every GI in the armed forces fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters, the hunt began to find its true creator.
Soon, the author was identified: The Rev. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote the supplication as a “tag line” to a sermon preached in his Detroit church:
“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
While there remains to this day, some doubt as to the authenticity of the attribution, no one has successfully offered an alternative, though many have tried.
No matter who was the author, the prayer expresses a powerful longing in the heart of every true believer.
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It’s the last Monday morning of 2007. You are a leader. It’s time to say goodbye to another year… a year that brought successes and surprises and disappointments and rewards.
The Serenity Prayer, as it is called by many, is an invitation to reflect on that tug-of-war that pulls us in both directions just about every day. We’re stuck with some realities over which we have no control. We need serenity to let it be.
In contrast, we’ve got opportunity and freedom and responsibility to take action; to say yes. To say no. To commit. To decline. To embrace. To let go. To affirm. To deny. To initiate. To refuse.
Niebuhr’s prayer sums it up. Folks in recovery know it well. Funny (don’t you think?) how we obsess over the things we can not change. Funny, too, how we step back from the very decision-making that could make all the difference. We need serenity in the first instance. And courage in the second.
And most of all, we need wisdom to know the difference.
In 2008, may God give us all three.
Serenity. Courage. Wisdom.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2007 – Posted in Melbourne, Florida