by Jessica Etten
from the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr
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.
The serenity prayer is beloved by many and recognized for its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous. It was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the first half of the twentieth century and became widely circulated; it was even printed on cards and distributed to soldiers during World War II.
It’s a meaningful prayer for many reasons – and to me, the understanding of prayer that it reflects is especially powerful. The meaning of prayer is something I have wrestled with over the years. Why do we pray?
One common belief is that we pray to God to change something and then maybe (if we pray hard enough? if we are good enough?) God will make it so. An example of this is praying for healing when our loved ones are sick. If they recover, God has answered our prayers. This understanding of prayer doesn’t have to be limited to life-and-death issues. Many grateful people have exclaimed that God answered their prayers with a new job, a new house, or money showing up in their bank accounts when needed.
I have never been comfortable with this understanding.
Why would God answer one person’s prayer for money, but not another’s prayer for her mother to survive a heart attack? Why would God answer one person’s prayer for a new job yet not the prayers of the nine million people who die from hunger each year in our world? Don’t get me wrong: we all need to cry out for help when there is suffering. But if we believe God chooses to answer prayers by intervening in the world, then we must also believe God chooses not to answer the prayers of millions of others who suffer. I just can’t believe that’s how it works.
In recent years I have become aware of different understandings of prayer, thanks in part to our pastors. As a member of the church council, I have had the opportunity to be led in prayer by Pastor Ali at the beginning of many meetings. Often, I arrive in a harried state, with countless daily tasks and responsibilities on my mind. I am quickly centered as Ali leads us with a moment of silence and a deep breath, followed by words that ask God to help us slow our minds, quiet our hearts and be present in our work. This kind of prayer reminds me of the meditation that happens at the end of a yoga class. It reflects an understanding of prayer as centering.
Pastor Brad is incredibly gifted with language, and the way he prays demonstrates an understanding of prayer that also resonates with me. His language isn’t about asking God to intervene in the world -- stopping hurricanes, eradicating disease or ending hunger. Rather, his prayers are about us – that we might feel gratitude, see our neighbors’ needs and be stirred to act for peace and justice.
Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Prayer does not change things; prayer changes people, and people change things.” A recent article in Living Lutheran by Kurt Kammi and John Potter echoed a similar belief – prayer is not a way to “mold God to our needs” but “a practice focused on being shaped by God.”
As we face the fear, uncertainty and isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe positive, life-giving things will also emerge. We’re already seeing people finding new and innovative ways to come together and care for others. Perhaps this will be a time where many of us rediscover prayer as a powerful practice for changing ourselves – giving us the “courage to change the things we can.”
Bio: Jessica Etten is currently the President of the St. Michael’s Church Council. In her professional life she serves as the Senior Director of Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving at the University of St. Thomas. She, her husband Jason and their children Tommy and Abby are currently holed up together at home in Roseville, playing musical instruments, competing in board games, organizing closets and watching Netflix.