There are a few formal or written prayers that I return to over the years. One is the Prayer of St. Francis, beginning with that excellent phrase, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” There is a quote I am especially fond of by Henri-Frédéric Amiel, and I use it often as a blessing: “Life is short, and we do not have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love! And make haste to be kind.”
Then, there is the Serenity Prayer. It is my “go-to” morning invocation and nightly vesper. Surely, you know it or have heard it: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Praying this prayer daily, and doing my best to put it into practice, has been life-changing for me.
It is also a proven lifeline for those in Recovery. Every 12-Step program uses a variation, it seems, from A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) to W.A. (Workaholics Anonymous) and every “A” in between. You see the prayer printed on sobriety chips and coins all the time, helping to keep many an addict on the path. But as popular as it is within that community, it did not originate there.
Theologian and preacher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer almost a hundred years ago for a sermon he was preaching in New England. It found welcoming hearts when he first invoked the prayer, so he began using it often as a benediction. It took decades to ever find its way into print, and years more before the Recovery movement adopted it as a mantra.
I find the second paragraph of Niebuhr’s prayer – yes, there is more – to be as moving and powerful as the first. It reads: “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.”
That last line is the real zinger: “Taking this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.” This is neither the dismissal of personal responsibility, nor a hopeless resignation to the status quo. Quite the opposite, it is admitting that this world is in fact, corrupt and oppositional. Society tends to be cruel and ferociously unfair.
The response of faith is not to ignore this reality, but to face it honestly and soberly. We meet the world on its terms, yes, but we never slouch toward the temptation of trying to change those things over which we have no control. We confess that life will never be exactly as we wish it would, and thus, choose to do all the good we can do, where we can do it, for as long as we can do it. For such serenity, courage, and wisdom, indeed O Lord, hear our prayer.