Today’s Word from Pastor Jim… 

He was born on the longest day of the year, June 21st, 1892, in Wright, Missouri. His parents were immigrants. His father was a pastor, in their home only German was spoken. He attended Elmhurst College in Illinois. He would become according to Time Magazine, “the greatest Protestant theologian since Jonathan Edwards.” He followed in his father’s footsteps, as a pastor and then as an esteemed professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a position that he would hold for 30 years.

He had a prophetic voice, was a social activist, a gifted orator, and a prolific writer. His long list of literary works included: “The Irony of American History,” “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” and “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” He influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., Myles Horton, Hubert Humphrey, Dean Acheson, Madeleine Albright, John McCain and Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

His name was Reinhold Niebuhr and though he died when I was 12 years old, he profoundly influenced my life. Unlike Niebuhr, I am a rather simple man, I am not the least bit intellectual, I have not read most of Niebuhr’s writings. In my graduating class at Luther Seminary the professors voted me “least likely to succeed.” My faith is simple, my understanding of God is rather childlike, I don’t quote great theologians off the top of my head. I am pragmatic. I try to stay in my lane and stick to Jesus, knowing that I am not smart enough to tell anyone how to vote or how to live.

The writings of Reinhold Niebuhr helped shape the theological conversations and social movements of the 20th Century. One particular writing of Reinhold Niebuhr has profoundly influenced my life, and perhaps whether you know it or not, he has profoundly influenced you as well. In 1937, Niebuhr wrote this familiar 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.”

This is a simple prayer for simple people like me. Most of us journey through life wrestling with a series of problems; we lose sleep over finances, children, grandchildren, work, relationship issues, societal injustices, and a variety of health concerns. We carry anxiety with us like a millstone. We are sometimes paralyzed and rendered helpless. This simple prayer calls us to action, but it also offers us release. As Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.”

In almost every counseling situation, I encourage people to start with a clean piece of paper. On that paper they are to make an extensive list of the issues that are causing them anxiety. Most of the items on the list will be personal, perhaps some will be global. Once the list is made, they are to check it twice. Then they are challenged to categorize each concern by placing them in one of two columns. Column one contains all the issues over which they have SOME control. Column two is no less important, printed there in black ink they list anxiety causing issues over which they have NO control. After careful examination, column one becomes a call to action. Column two offers a dose of reality and an invitation to let go of some excess baggage.

Quite simply if something is in our control, then we are duty bound to get on it. If finances are a problem don’t expect God to solve that problem without your participation. Spend less than you make. If you are concerned about the environment, then do what you can to care for your corner of creation. If you have a broken relationship, make every attempt to restore that relationship. If you need to lose weight or exercise more, make a plan, and execute it. Eat less sugar, quit smoking, join a 12-step group, turn off the 24-hour news cycle, volunteer, and put yourself in the path of the Gospel. There are things we can do to alleviate dysfunction in our lives and in doing so we can reduce our anxiety. Remember, you are the primary author of your story. If something is in column one, then exercise your free will, be inspired to change, get on it.

Column two is about acknowledging that we are not God. Consequently, we are not responsible for most of what happens in the world. We tend to overestimate our influence. We are somewhat delusional forgetting that we are nothing more than frail flesh and blood. We do not control others; we cannot make life decisions for our adult children. We cannot make someone love us, and sometimes our olive branches of peace will not be accepted. We have no control over the war in Ukraine, the mass migration at our southern border or the lack of civility in public discourse. Column two is about release, releasing to God the things that are out of our control.

“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.”

This prayer has been called “The Serenity Prayer.” It is a call to action. We ask God to give us courage to face the challenges of life. Serenity comes when we have done what we can to change our story, but equally important, we must learn to trust God for the rest. The opposite of serenity is anxiety. Anxiety preys on procrastinators and feasts on those who do not know the limits of their control.

Reinhold Niebuhr influenced activists and presidents, and a simple man trying to navigate life in a beautiful but broken world. I am one beggar, telling other beggars where to find bread.

My love to you,

Pastor Jim

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