Article of the week: Searching for serenity
9 January 2021
Captain Berri McKenna continues the series in which people reflect on a favourite prayer
SERENITY is not a concept that often manifests itself in my house. The dynamics of the three boys that I share it with – aged one, four and thirty – mean that life is often busy, noisy and energetic. It is perhaps why one of the prayers I often find myself praying is one that asks God for serenity.
The Serenity Prayer, as it’s often called, is attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and is perhaps most famous for being a regular feature of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The prayer acknowledges that serenity comes from being able to identify the difference between the things going on around us and within us that we can have control over and those that we can’t.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
This prayer challenges me particularly in two ways. It challenges me internally, to let go of what cannot be controlled.
Many of us will be familiar with the overwhelming sense of anxiety that can come when we feel caught in the middle of chaos, where a million and one things shout for our attention and we don’t know where to start. Sometimes these feelings fester and grow. As we look back over them, they might even seem irrational. For me, this prayer centres on the act of surrender – of letting go of the things going on around me that I can’t control, but which are starting to control my thoughts and feelings. The search for serenity, according to Niebuhr’s prayer, comes in surrendering these things to God. It’s about recognising that we can’t do God’s job. This is perhaps what Peter had in mind when he wrote, ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). Serenity comes from surrendering to God the things that we can’t control.
The prayer also challenges me externally. I love the fact that serenity isn’t just found in the things we let go of, but also in having courage to know what to take hold of. It’s not as if we’re called to live in some passive, abstract realm. Niebuhr’s prayer recognises that serenity comes through taking action on the things that we can change.
There are things about the world in which we live that threaten our serenity. In 2015 it really troubled our church community in Hythe that, a few miles from our building, across the English Channel, there were hundreds of migrants and refugees in camps in northern France. It troubles us when children go to bed at night hungry. It has troubled members of our corps when girls have missed school due to not having access to sanitary products. These and other things trouble us – and when we pray the Serenity Prayer, we’re reminded that serenity might well come by us taking action, with God’s help and through the empowerment of his Spirit.
When we pray, ‘God give us the courage to change the things we can,’ we’re being moved to action on the things that threaten serenity, and to actively live out God’s shalom peace in the world. Our church family have worked to resettle a Syrian refugee family, campaigned against period poverty and shifted mountains of food bank items. Why? Because God has given us the courage to change the things that we can.
I once heard Colonel Janet Munn preach, and I remember her saying, ‘We can’t do God’s part, and he won’t do ours.’ What we’re asking for in the Serenity Prayer is the wisdom to know the difference between these two things. As we pray it in the chaos of our everyday lives we receive serenity, because we give God control of the things we can’t control ourselves – we let go and let God. At the same time, we receive serenity in the courage to act on the things that prevent God’s serenity – his shalom peace – from being fully realised in our communities and our world. It’s an incredible experience. We can find serenity in every situation, even amid the chaos.
CAPTAIN McKENNA IS CORPS OFFICER, HYTHE