Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

In 1941, Alcoholics Anonymous adopted a short prayer, a modified version of a longer one by Reinhold Niebuhr.  The AA version goes as follows:

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.

Simple, but not easy.

It seems our culture has adopted the mantras to the effect that  we can do whatever we dream of, whatever we work hard enough for, or whatever we pray fervently for.  We are exhorted to give ourselves fully to our passions, our dreams, our desires.   Age is not seen as a barrier, for “you are only as old as you think you are”  or “you are only as old as you feel” with the implicit admonition to think and feel young.  

Vast is the distance between those cliches and the reality that we experience most days.  They are meant as encouragement, and perhaps they work that way for a while, but soon enough we learn that there are things that we cannot change.  Many things.   Oh, we can nibble away at the edges of some problems, and it is good to do so. We may eventually eliminate this or that burden, or at least lighten it significantly.  Therefore, we can quite rightly ask God for the courage to change the things we can.  But serenity will certainly elude us if we cling to the idea that we can change everything if we just believe more or try harder.

Enjoy your victories.  Thank God for such courage and strength you have. Use them well. However, also gracefully accept the hard truth that there are things you will not change much, if at all.  Seek the wisdom to discern how you should expend your finite energy, intelligence, skills, and persistence. You are finite, and you mock God if you pretend otherwise.

Of course you should enlist the help of our infinite, all powerful God.  But it is foolish, even blasphemous, to suppose that he will do whatever you ask, just the way you ask for it, regardless of your motives.  God is not a genie to be summoned by rubbing the bottle of heaven with your prayers.  You are finite, and you mock God if you pretend otherwise.

If you are enjoying an abundance of energy, optimism, and blessing,  I am glad for you.  This essay may not seem much use.   I encourage you to store away the basic precepts for reference should that blissful state diminish.

On the other hand, if you feel overwhelmed and unable to change anything at all, I ask only that you move one tiny step to effect change that may seem insignificant for now.  During the depths of a clinical depression, I felt unable to exercise, despite the benefits it promised.  I read an article that exhorted me to stand up, walk 5 minutes in one direction and then walk back.  I did that.  I did it again, and again as days passed.  I soon found that I could go a bit further each day.  Eventually I was walking for an hour each day during my lunch.
But perhaps you cannot take an actual  step.  I am reminded of public figures like Stephen Hawking that are trapped in a body that cannot move. Let the step be metaphorical.  Choose to think of one thing that will change things for the better.  Ask God for the courage to change something, even if it is a single thought.  Ask Him to show you the truth about what you can do.

I write things like this primarily as reminders to myself.  I post them so that perhaps a single other struggling soul will be helped by them.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

That Saved a Wretch Like Me

Last week, President Obama sang the first verse of Amazing Grace at a memorial service for those slain in the mass shooting at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. Perhaps many of you will be aware that the song was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian. You may not know that Newton continued in the slave trade for a number of years following his confession of Christ as his savior. Newton wrote that first verse of Amazing Grace in 1848 while he waited for his ship to be repaired after a storm that so humbled him that he called out to God for mercy. Incredibly, that ship was rescuing Newton who had himself become a slave to a slave trader's African wife. Nonetheless, Newton went on to captain other slaving ships until ill health forced him to retire from the sea. Newton became a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1764. His reputation for wisdom and spiritual depth grew until he was embraced as a guide by many prominent people of his day, as well as by the church at large. Eventually, his eyes opened to the horror of the slave trade. He became active in the abolitionist movement.
The verse that President Obama sang was written by a man who had slain and tortured many African slaves while quelling revolts on his ships. Early in his career he was a notorious drunk and an enthusiastic participant in the common practice of raping the slave women. Even as he wrote "that saved a wretch like me" he was still early in the process of being redeemed and made Christlike. That process was ongoing when he died in 1807.
A Christian is not one who has turned to God and stopped sinning. A Christian is one who has turned to God because he is a sinner and needs a life time of grace from God to transform him into a likeness of Christ. Christians are aware that the transformation is not completed in this life. We are assured by God that He is glorified even in our weakness. We have been lost, found, and are still being guided home.