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Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous 20th century theologian and writer whom many of you know or have studied, has been widely followed. He has influenced American Presidents across the political spectrum, from FDR, to Reagan, to Obama. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he looked more to Niebuhr’s ideals then he did to Gandhi’s. Niebuhr wrote one of the best known and perhaps most influential prayers of our time – the so-called 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.
Widely used by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organizations, the implicit meaning of the prayer gets at the fundamental paradox we find in humans. Alone at the pinnacle of all creation in terms of intellectual capabilities and the power to exert control over nature, humans are nevertheless prone to the sin and downfall of pride. For Niebuhr, that is the ultimate flaw within the human character – our propensity no matter one’s religion, politics, intelligence or social status – to assume we have the insight, the answers and the power to change almost anything.
This sin of pride derives, according to many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians, from humanity’s very beginnings. According to the Bible and the Koran, pride began at the moment Adam and Eve defied God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. In doing so, they sought to be like God. And that original presumption has led humanity, according to the Adam and Eve myth, to think and act according to their own selfish desires.
Many Christians therefore believe in the original sin of all people – since we are ancestors of Adam and Eve. We are a fallen species, stained by selfishness and pride that is imprinted on our very souls. Our only hope for redemption is to follow religious teachings of self-restraint and obedience. In recognition of our sin, in understanding that only an all powerful and theistic god can rescue us, we must submit, surrender and give in. We are fallen. There is no hope apart from a supernatural god.
In conflict with that view, however, has been the long march of historical argument that the earth and humanity are perfectible. From Aristotle, to Enlightenment thinkers, to twentieth century secular humanists, has come the viewpoint that our lives can be redeemed by our own actions. Hope does exist and we need not turn to some outside god for salvation but, instead, to ourselves. Humans are not born with the original sin of selfishness. That is a learned behavior and it can just as easily be unlearned. As I often say, God is not some outside force that controls our destiny. God is us. It is the power of the human spirit, it is we – who are to work for a better planet.
What distinguished Niebuhr, reflected in his Serenity prayer, was his refusal to take sides in this debate. He charted what was and still is a middle course between conservative and liberal theology – one that he called “realistic.” Implicit in his beliefs and in his prayer is the idea that yes, sin exists, but there is a difference between that which we have control over and that which we don’t. For Niebuhr, we exist at the mercy of a higher power but that higher power allows humanity both the ability and the responsibility to confront and change the sins, flaws and failures in our world.
All around him Niebuhr saw an imperfect world bullied by the likes of Hitler and Stalin. In his day, evil existed in the face of the Holocaust, in racism, in the mistreatment of factory workers. Differing from the thinking of many Christians, Niebuhr asserted that humanity cannot sit idly by in the face of such evil – trusting in the eventual triumph of God. Idealistic pacifism and reliance on prayer can only go so far. Humans must have the COURAGE to change the things over which they do have control. That was and is a radical departure from much of Christian thinking which often promotes acceptance of injustice in anticipation of a better afterlife. Humans, he claimed, can and must act as agents of goodness to confront many of the defects in our world. That was, and is a more liberal understanding of human purpose.
But just as important, for Niebuhr, humans must also find a certain serenity by accepting that people and much of the universe are not perfectible. Echoing what more traditional theologians believed, Niebuhr agreed that humanity is stained by original sin. Hitlers and Stalins and the KKK will always exist and we cannot change the darkness in their hearts and minds. We only have the ability to fight against the consequences of their evil. Human nature is too sinful, too broken, too fallen to completely fix. We must have the peace of mind, the serenity to let go of changing the the flaws found in the hearts or minds of people. Such change, if it is to be done, must begin with each individual person.
The key in resolving these two impulses – to work for change, or to accept what cannot be changed – these are resolved by human reason. Our minds give us the ability to perceive the difference between opposing the actions of people like Adolf Hitler, which we can influence, and shaking our fists in impotent anger at how their minds think. In other words, may we have the serenity to accept the reality of imperfection in the hearts of others and in ourselves. May we nevertheless have the courage to confront their actions. May we have the wisdom to know the difference. And in perceiving that difference, we will find our peace of mind.
My introduction is an indirect way to address my topic this morning – how do we simplify our lives by simply letting go? Sin, evil and suffering affect all of us. What is our answer to that? Cower in fear. Rage with anger at all of the injustice that we see and feel? Burn with bitter resentment? Refuse to forgive? Immerse ourselves in trying to judge, fix and solve all of the problems and flaws we see around us and in others? Assume that God will take care of the world’s flaws in his or her own way? Such attitudes consume our energy, complicate our thinking and waste our time. Is there a simpler approach?
I have related in some of my past messages how I was a hands on father. My girls were a project to me – one assigned to me by the fates of life. But, I was determined not to fail. I wanted them to be special. I wanted them to achieve. I wanted them to be good, decent and kind people. I wanted them to be little trophies to put on my symbolic shelf and look upon with pride at my job well done. In many ways, I believe their mom was the same.
And while I see my girls today with all of their beauty of body, mind and spirit, I look at them now not so much with pride as I do with simple love and honest enjoyment. I like being around them. And that was not always the case. As a hands on dad, they resented my obsessive concern and nagging. We had our fights about missed curfews, lackluster grades, rebellious behavior. There were times times when I honestly looked them in the face and said, “I will always love you, but right now I don’t like you very much.” And, in their own way, they said the same thing back to me.
About eight years ago, however, all of that angst and sturm and drang miraculously changed. While not conscious of it at the time, my relationship with my girls became more calm, more enjoyable, more deeply loving. Of course, I want to attribute this to the fact that they finally grew up and accepted all that I had been telling them over the years! In reality, I see now that it was me who grew up. I changed. Instead of obsessing over every detail in their lives, instead of worrying about everything they did, instead of seeking to change them in ways that sucked the life out of our relationship, I began to just let go – to the point today where I have almost totally let go. I had held my figurative, tiny, fragile, birds in my hand too tightly. Their wings were crushed. Once I opened my hand and allowed them to fly free, their spirits soared – and mine along with them. I had to let them go in order to really hold onto them.
How I wish I had applied the Serenity prayer when my girls were younger. Indeed, all of my efforts to control them and change them only worked to control me and alter my better instincts – for the worse. Had I understood then that I could not not change them or control them, only they could do that, our lives would have been much simpler. Had I the wisdom to control only what I can truly change – me! – then all would have been different. Their behavior and their choices were up to them. Yes, there are consequences to their behavior – the law of naturally reaping what they sow – but I could choose to be in control by not being angry, obsessive or bitter. “Here is my boundary. If you cross it, this will be the consequence. You have the freedom to choose how you want to behave and how you want to grow up.”
Niebuhr’s philosophy speaks perfectly to the role of parenting or of relating with anyone. Wisdom and experience tells me that I cannot change anyone. Nor should I judge or demean anyone. Finding simplicity in my life means seeing my girls and others in their goodness and in their beauty – loving them and accepting them for who they are – while letting them, and not me, seek the kind of inner growth and change only they can execute.
Grant me the peace, the calm, and the unconditional love, yes unconditional love, of accepting others as they are. Grant me the courage to place reasonable boundaries around myself – protecting me from the negative actions of others. Grant me the wisdom to know that I cannot change others – nor can they change me. Change is a choice only each person can make about themselves.
While Niebuhr believed in a god that ordered the universe, his theology does not exclude humanism and Atheism. Indeed, the Serenity prayer places humans at the center of life. It is not a god that controls our destiny, but us. We choose to be at peace, or not, by letting go of anger, bitterness and strife. We choose to let go of worry and doubt. We choose to share with the poor, feed the hungry, show compassion to the sick, act humbly and gently toward others, and work against injustice…….or not. Evil pervades the world but we can simplify life by focusing on areas over which we have genuine influence – the effects of evil that we see, and the flaws we find in ourselves.
What we learn to let go of is the idea that we have control over much else in life. Indeed, what we discover is the more we try to control things, the more we try to control others, the more out of control we really are. Letting go, however, is counter-intuitive. I must lose control in order to gain control. I must let go in order to hold on. I must die in order to live.
How many of us constantly work to change what we don’t like in a lover, partner, spouse, child or friend – believing we will improve them or the relationship? How many of us are distrustful, jealous or too needy toward someone we love, believing we will hold onto that person? How many of us yearn to find a romantic partner, searching desperately for Mr. Right or Ms. Perfect, believing we will then be happy? How many of us live in constant fear of illness, death, or harm – believing we will thus be protected? How many of us slog away at a job or role in life we dislike, believing we could not survive without it? How many of us despair at our own inner flaws, body image or sense of self believing that is just the way we are?
The ironic fact we find is that our efforts to change another person will not bring them closer. It drives them away. The same happens when we are too needy or too jealous. Searching in desperation for a lover only sends the signal that we are unhappy and no fun to be around. Living in fear and striving to protect ourselves from harm does not insure a longer life, it only diminishes it. Staying with a job we hate puts food on our tables, but it prevents us from doing what we truly enjoy. We survive, but we don’t thrive. Choosing to be stuck in any self-destructive behavior or thinking does not insure our contentment. It holds us back from life-enriching beauty, compassion and happiness.
In this way, Christianity and Niebuhr provide valuable insight. We must die to self in order to really live. We must kill the self pride that assumes we can change people or events beyond our control. We must slay the green eyed dragon of jealousy and envy. We must poison the black fear that restrains us. We must stifle the notion that we cannot be happy as a single person. We must accept our innate weakness – yes weakness – in changing many things. We cannot change our boss. We cannot change the weather. We cannot change the freeway traffic jam we get stuck in. The only realm over which we can legitimately act as an all powerful god, is the kingdom of our own hearts and minds. We can change ourselves.
By letting go in many life situations, we find the miracle of resurrection, of new life, new relationships, new happiness, new passion, new contentment. And life is so much simpler.
I confess there is much about me that I must work to change. I worry about bad things happening in so many situations that I am blinded to the joy of living in the moment. I focus on what others think of me so much that I neglect what I think about myself. So often in here on Sunday mornings, for instance, I get caught up in controlling the details of a service, in trying to offer an interesting, inspiring message, that I am mostly deaf to what I say or to what is going on – I read the readings, sing the songs, deliver my message as well as I possibly can. But, I miss the spirit, I miss the simple pleasure of living in this wonderful hour. I want the passion, the life, the beauty, the funny mess-ups, the good but imperfect human that I am. I want this in many areas of my life. I want peace. I want serenity. I want to let go…
As you might pray the Serenity prayer for me, I pray it for each of you.
(Communion – then talk back)