Monday, November 14, 2011

Sermon - "The Serenity Prayer"

Serenity Prayer
For the first time in a VERY long time, I went to a high-school football game last a couple of weeks ago. I live just a couple of blocks away from Laguna Beach high school, so when I heard some of my friends were going to the game I decided to join the. Unfortunately the Laguna Beach Breakers got hammered by the Costa Mesa… what ever they are.

At half time we went and got something to eat. And we noticed the level of energy and anxiety in the middle schoolers and highschoolers around us. There was some low level fighting, there was making out, there was some obvious posturing. It was like social life on steroids. And it made us think back about those days. How exciting it was, and how important every moment of every day was. I don’t mean in a Buddhist sense of living in the moment. I mean in the terrible anxious sense of, “if I don’t do well on this paper it could drop my GPA and I’ll never get into college.” Or “If I don’t get on the team I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.” Or “If I don’t have a date to the dance, a place to eat my lunch, or an exciting plan of the weekend, my life is ruined.” Oh, and “If my totally misinformed and uncool parents don’t get with the program, I’m going to go insane.”

Everything mattered so much. For me, and for a lot of people I think, those years were hard, because so much pressure was placed on every little detail of life. That Friday night at the football game we chuckled a little bit at the youth that we saw around us, and the lack of perspective that we had back then. But the more I reflected on this sermon, the more I realized how easy it is to lose perspective at any stage of life. It’s easy for any of us, in the moment, to be flung back to being an anxious highschooler.

A sense of perspective is a huge gift. It’s something that we can cultivate, and it’s one of the cornerstones of religious life. To me, that’s what the well-known serenity prayer is all about, a sense of perspective. That’s why it is so powerful and speaks to just about anyone who hears it. Who couldn’t use a little help letting go of the little things, or courage to face up to the challenges of life. And most importantly, we all can use some help from time to time in remembering what is worth worrying about and what isn’t.

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.

Some of us may stumble at the first line of this prayer. Some of us may stumble at the word prayer. I understand that. But exploring a little bit of how this prayer is most often used today may help us as Unitarian Universalists get a better grasp of it. This prayer is best known today for its role in the community of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups.

The beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it revolves around people telling their own story, and sharing with one another where they have found hope and meaning in their own lives. It’s only fair to say that a good portion of that comes in the form of religion, and faith in God. And, so some AA meetings take on a more religious / gody tone than others.

But within AA and the twelve steps, there is no test of creed. There is only a commitment to be a part of the group and try to make your life better. Does that sounds familiar to anyone? It should. Because that’s the way I explain Unitarian Universalism to anyone who asks. We have no set doctrine, no specific thing that we all believe in, but we agree to be on a journey together as we improve our lives.

You don’t have to believe any particular thing there, or here. But in AA they talk a lot about believe in a higher power. The second step of AA is “Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Of course for many people that power is God. But for lots and lots of others, that power is something different. It is something like the power of human community, the power of the fecundity of nature, the power of love. Any number of different things are identified to help those in recovery lean on some source outside of themselves.

And just in the way a power greater than themselves can help a person in recovery feel supported and gain perspective beyond the immediate circumstances, any of us can replace the word God in this prayer with whatever we hold in high esteem. Weather that is love, community, nature, God or something completely different, calling upon our highest ideals is a great place to start in our search for serenity and perspective.

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

That alone is a tremendous prayer and the spiritual discipline to fill a lifetime. Accepting the things we cannot change is so difficult, and so important. Much of our lives are shaped by things that happen to us. We come into the world from the very beginning shaped by circumstance beyond our control. The family we are born into, the culture, the economic resources, the country, all of these things shape us before we take our first breath.
But it doesn’t end there. Life is filled with things that just happen to us, things beyond our control. Sometimes what we want to change most, are other people in our lives, whether they are friend or foe. One of the hardest things to accept in life has to be the inability to change other people, especially the people that we love. Certainly we can provide encouragement and resources, but it is virtually impossible to force another person to change unless he or she is willing to change themselves. Anyone who has loved someone through addiction knows that struggle.
And anyone who has moved through recovery knows the struggle of not being able to change the past. Every one of us has regrets, a bad decision made here and there. We can do our best to mend a relationship that has been damaged, but the past is the past, there’s no erase in life. There is nothing we can do to change it. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.
And then there is the nagging desire to change ourselves. There are a great many things that we can change about ourselves, but there are many more that we are stuck with. We are imperfect beings, by nature. We are not going to be perfect parents, perfect spouses, perfect homemakers, perfect professionals. And we also aren’t going to have perfect bodies or perfect health. Try as we might, some things are beyond our control.
We spent the month of October focused on death here at UUFLB. That is not primarily because death raises religious questions. We spent a month on the topic because it’s a question that we avoid dealing with in the rest of our lives. We are magnificent creatures, you and I, but we are given limit resources to work with. The sooner we accept the things we cannot change about ourselves, the sooner we can move on to focus on the things we can change.

Grant us the courage to change the things we can.

Faith engenders courage. It inspires us to move beyond ourselves and our immediate concern, to bring about a greater good in the world. People often mention the litany of terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. And it is true. Countless wars have been fought over religion. And religion has been used to justify injustice and oppression in terrifying ways. I’m not going to deny that.
But the religious impulse has also motivated some of the most beautiful moments of humanity as well. Those who rallied to confront injustice did so empowered by their faith. And religious experience has been the inspiration for a vast amount of art, music, philosophy, and even scientific discovery. Faith has a tremendous potential to bring courage into our lives.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “All great ages have been ages of belief. I mean, when there was any extraordinary power of performance, when great national movements began, when arts appeared, when heroes existed, when poems were made, the human soul was in earnest.”

Earnest. That’s a helpful way of describing the kind of courage that faith engenders, or at least the kind that I’m advocating for. It’s about earnestness. It’s about embracing your convictions and living them out in the world.

God give us courage to change the things we can. Give us courage to stand up and speak truth to power. Give us courage to be a beacon for justice. But even more, give us courage to engage small changes, small moments that come every day that we have the power to control. Courage isn’t just about doing the big stuff, it’s also about choosing to do the little stuff right. Whether that means offering a smile to someone who needs it, continuing an uncomfortable conversation to a real conclusion, or making one more little change to make our lifestyle more earth friendly.
People who know this prayer know that change is a hard thing to do. As creatures of habit, we rarely choose change, even when we know it will bring about an improvement in our lives. No one likes change. I recently read the only person who really likes change is a wet baby. So while we hope our faith leads to courage to change the world, we also hope it leads to courage make the little changes that improve our life, baby step by baby step.

Of course the crux of this prayer is in gaining the wisdom to know the difference. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Notice the request is for wisdom, not intelligence, or information. What we long for isn’t so much a laundry list of what is worthy of our time and what isn’t. Because you and I both know that we would ignore that list.
I hesitated to tell the story of attending a high school football game and the anxiety of youth that we saw there, because I don’t want to be condescending to youth. I don’t want to say, “You know you may not even remember prom. There are lots of colleges you can attend. Everyone else has acne too. Maybe that wasn’t the one and only true love of your life.” We don’t say those things because they are insensitive to the real pain of the moment. And we also don’t say them because we know they won’t be heard.
It is impossible to absorb the information that this thing that you are so upset about is really no that big of a deal. You have no power to change this thing that you are so hung up on, and meanwhile the rest of your life is flying by. It’s not something that information can impart or something that intelligence alone can process. Try telling that to a fifteen year old who has just ended a relationship that in the grand scheme of things, its not that big of a deal. It’s a message that doesn’t sink when it comes from another person.
The wisdom to know the difference is something that we cultivate for ourselves, and it’s something that comes through a relationship with a higher purpose. It’s a little odd to dedicate an entire worship service to one short little prayer. But this prayer is one that has application for each and every person’s life. And more importantly, as we talk more about faith this month, this prayer is a beautiful description of what faith has to offer us. Having a relationship with something greater than ourselves, be it God, or our highest ideals gives some context to our lives. It helps clarify what really matters.
The wisdom to know the difference isn’t something ANYONE can tell you. But it is something that each one of us can cultivate for ourselves, when we check in with that higher purpose, that reality beyond ourselves. That’s what having faith is all about.


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