James C. Miller: “A Famous Prayer”
My soul was hewn, as it were, in the deep Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. There are no mountains in Rhode Island, for we are the Ocean State, our land wondrously splashed by the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay.
When that mountain urge beckons in me, our family treks to Stockbridge in The Berkshires of New England. For many years that part of the country was the vacation home of the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
In the summer of 1934, while Dr. Niebuhr was at his cottage in Heath, Massachusetts, he was invited to preach at a nearby church. He concluded his sermon with this prayer:
“God, give us Grace to accept with Serenity the things that cannot be changed.
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
An Episcopal priest, John Claypool, recounts this story about the emergence of a very “famous prayer.”
It is said that as worshipers greeted the guest minister at the conclusion of the worship service, a visitor remarked that he had been particularly moved by the closing prayer … and wondered if he might somehow get a copy of the prayer.
Dr. Niebuhr reached into his bible and pulled out a crumbled piece of paper on which he had scribbled the brief prayer. “Here, you may have what I have written. I doubt that I shall have further use of it.”
What a monumental miscalculation that judgment turned out to be! Professor Niebuhr may have thought the prayer to be of momentary importance; but, from that Sunday on, the prayer began a worldwide journey. Today it is truly one of the world’s most famous prayers.
- The visitor who requested the prayer incorporated it into the family Christmas letter that same year.
- Then, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who received the Christmas letter, liked it, too; and began to introduce it as the prayer/motto for thousands of AA groups.
- USO during World War II printed millions of copies of the prayer for military personnel.
- Often the prayer is framed and mounted on the walls of corporate executive offices, and is taped on kitchen refrigerators, or placed on bedroom night stands.
- A son and daughter read the prayer on a religious card at the bedside of their dying mother. More than anything else, they remarked, it was the prayer that enabled them to get through the trauma of their mother’s dying.
Dr. Niebuhr might not have sensed any further use of the prayer, but for millions of others the prayer is as familiar as the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm.
We ask: Why has this prayer become so famous and so personally meaningful?
The answer is not difficult to extract. In strikingly succinct and poetic language, the prayer portrays and sums-up the context in which you and I live out our lives year by year, day by day, hour by hour.
Everyone one of us is confronted by two realities: On the one hand, there are the things we cannot change. There are circumstances we face that will not be modified, no matter how desperately we try. Paul Tillich describes these circumstances as “What we come up against and have to adjust to because we realize they will not adjust to us.”
On the other hand, there are those things we can change.
Parts of life can be altered … can be influenced, can be negotiated … can be recast!
And in the midst of these two realities, there are the empowering, mysterious ingredients of Courage … Wisdom … Serenity … and Grace!
If we possess these marvelous ingredients, we can live life victoriously and joyfully, rather than being engulfed in embitterment and despair.
Consider first, GRACE FROM GOD TO ACCEPT WITH SERENITY THE THINGS THAT CANNOT BE CHANGED:
Rollo May, the able psychiatrist and gifted spiritual enabler, makes the observation that “there is no great art without serenity.” The same is true, I believe, about worship, prayer, and the whole spectrum of Christian living.
Serenity, it is one of the most beautiful and life-revealing words I know. In the midst of wrenching conflicts and anguished despair, serenity is a gift of God that generates confidence and tranquility.
Haven’t you been up against those times when, what you were facing seemed unmovable and unconquerable forces in your pathway?
Perhaps you face it now:
- an illness that will not yield to recovery.
- Maybe it is living in the shadow of bad decisions we once made, and their costly consequences seem never to go away.
- Perhaps we carry inner thoughts of ourselves wishing we were beautiful and self-confident, instead of being the plain, ordinary persons we are.
Well, we ought to learn by now that a measure of greatness in the human spirit is the ability to cope with what happens to us in life, especially coping with the very realities not likely to alter very much.
Let me share a terrific story, I think, about the mark of serenity upon our lives.
A gruff, strong-tempered individual was severely injured in an automobile accident. The worse injury of all was the possible loss of his eyesight.
His recuperation in the hospital was a daily explosion of resentment, sorrow and anger. However, a specter of hope broke through one day when a medical specialist concluded that there was the possibility that sight might be saved in one eye by a delicate surgical procedure; but, the other eye was so severely damaged that it would have to be removed and replaced with an artificial eye — a so-called “glass eye.”
The specialist first consulted with family, and their response was that their husband and father surely would cascade a fury of anger when apprised of the slim odds such an operation promised.
When the patient was consulted, this normally dour individual shattered everyone’s expectations with his response: “Okay, Doc, I consent. Give it your best to save one eye, and go ahead and pluck out the other eye. But, if you are going to give me a glass eye, then be sure to put a twinkle in it!”
Serenity is having a twinkle in your soul!
Consider secondly, GRACE FROM GOD FOR COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS THAT SHOULD BE CHANGED:
Situations can be reversed. When there seems no way out, an exit will open. When sets of options are frozen or minimal, new alternatives will break open. You’ve got to believe that by the grace of God dismal circumstances can be turned around.
One woman going through troubled times blurted out, “Oh! I wish I had never been made!” To which a friend instantly retorted: “My dear, you are not yet fully made. All of us are constantly in the process of being made.”
That is great theology. We are never a finished product. The great hands of the Creator God are still upon us, shaping dynamic processes of new becoming, rather than leaving our being in static and fixed parameters.
In my career of pastoral ministry, I have witnessed again and again those individuals who summoned courage and wisdom to change the circumstances of their lives. It can be done!
I am impressed, and I rejoice when I observe how well individuals cope when it appears that they are up against so much that doesn’t look hopeful and cheerful.
I believe we can change things in our personal lives, and I also believe we can change the spiritual temperament and social tragedies in our local communities and throughout the world.
The citizens of Rhode Island thank you, dear folk of the Washington National Cathedral, for honoring and lifting up in prayer the first of the thirteen colonies to declare independence.
Roger Williams, the founder of our State, also was the founding minister of the “First Church” in Rhode Island. He bequeathed to our nation the sacred religious and constitutional guarantee of Religious Freedom … Principles of Separation of Church and State … and Soul Liberty.
Those convictions marshaled creative forces that drove the shaping of our new democracy and propelled a vision that all religious beliefs must be tolerant … that our religious beliefs be sane, wise and compassionate … that we stand up for truth and righteousness, but that no one’s corner on truth enslaves another’s liberty of conscience.
The People of God in our day can make a difference!
I shall be 65-years of age next month, and I tell my family and church that I am going to live until at least the year 2050. That is the date when my grandchildren — and one of them is here today — will themselves have likely become grandparents. My decisions and actions now are intended to build a just and peaceful world for my grandchildren’s grandchildren.
- Destitute hunger and despicable homelessness do not have to abide in anybody’s life for all times.
- Dire unemployment or unjust income earnings do not have to reign as a permanent status for large sectors in our global economy.
- Our children and grandchildren must be given a world of interrelated nations that is safe and at peace.
Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with offering a prayer seven decades ago that has helped to change one’s outlook on life and one’s outlook on God.
Let our prayers continue to be pinpointed in helping people to experience the Grace of God, to discover God’s gift of serenity, and to summon courage and wisdom to be God’s change agents for the world.
May I close my sermon by reciting another prayer.
I visited Rhode Island’s state penitentiary not long ago. At the time my own life seemed as imprisoned in sorrow and defeat as was the congregation of prisoners with whom I was ministering. I noticed a piece of paper tacked to a prisoner’s cell wall by a wad of gum. And on that paper were words of a prayer-poem. The prayer summarized all that I was feeling in my life, and still do.
I asked my prisoner friend if I could take it and make a copy for myself. I am certain that many of you have read it before for yourself. It is entitled:
MY NAME IS ‘I AM.’
I was regretting the past
and fearing the future.
Suddenly my Lord was speaking:
“My Name is ‘I Am.’”
The Lord paused, I waited.
The Voice continued:
“When you live in the past
with all its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I Was.
“When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I Will Be.
“When you live in this moment,
it is not hard. I am here.
My name is I AM!”