The Sanity Prayer

This is a transcript from the January 6, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

It’s the first Sunday of the month. It is the first Sunday of the year. What should we talk about today? When my friend Rich and I, he’s my best friend and pastor in Sonoma, California, we every year go off and plan sermons usually right after Easter and we are always careful to make sure that somewhere in the year we address prayer and most of the time we do right at the top of the year. There’s a reason for that. There's a reason for that because I find that prayer is so central to so many things. It is central to so many peoples’ resolutions.

A lot of times people as they're making resolutions, if they make resolutions, have to do with I want to pray more, I want a different time for quiet time, I want to do things that help me get me closer to God. I want to start by saying this-this morning, what I’m going to say, what I'm going to commend to us is simply this, pray well. Pray well in 2019. We want to pray well. We make resolutions about it. We feel bad when we don’t. It feels like we are always not doing what we had hoped around prayer. I wanted to address that. There’s a certain insecurity about prayer I found. Most people don’t think they pray very well.

In fact, if you want to terrorize somebody, in the best sense of the word, just when you’re at dinner with them or something, just turn and say, "Would you pray for us please?" Just watch what happens. People will back peddle and they’ll mumble and they go "Where's Russ?" There is this piece of prayer that we know is central and we know is missing. If we want to do something with our lives, we know that’s going to have something to do with prayer because we don’t want to just have a theoretical God. We don’t want to have a theoretical God that we don’t really pray with and there’s not a connection to. There’s a couple different things we’re going to do.

First thing I want to do is, this next week, if you’re a part of our weekly updates if you get the weekly update every week, look in there, there’ll be a link. I’ve put together something called a simple plan for spiritual growth in 2019 four central keys. You can go to that link and there is something there that I think will be helpful. If you don’t get that and would like to, you can use your bulletin and put your name down there and say "Yes, sign me up for the weekly update" and that will get there too. In there will be something about prayer because prayer is that central. It is one of the four key essentials as well as some other things that are around there.

It’s not a matter of if we will pray it's how we will pray. What I mean by that is this, when I think about prayer, when I watch prayer, when I look at prayer throughout the Bible, throughout the world, prayer is one of those things that is absolutely universal. It is absolutely natural. People will pray in all times, in all places, in all expressions of faiths or even if they don’t think they have a faith, there’s other ways that people pray. More about that in weeks to come. It’s inevitable, it’s inevitable we will pray. If we’re going to pray, let’s learn how to pray well.

William James, the father of American Psychology, about a 100 years ago or so, wrote this about prayer, he said, “It is not so much a matter when we ask why should I pray, or shouldn’t I pray?” he says there’s a prior question, “Why do we pray?” He says, “I’ll tell you why we pray, the reason we do pray is simply that we can not help praying. We will pray.” Sometimes we will use words and sometimes those words will be helpful, sometimes those words will express the deep longings and deep desires of our hearts, the hurts and the hopes and the desires to whatever is out there. Sometimes those same words will be used to conceal.

Ever been in one of those prayers where you are praying for something but what you’re really praying isn’t what the words are saying? We just use the prayer sometimes to sound good. Sometimes because we’re- if we’re honest, we're trying to con God a little bit. A lot of prayer is in that category. "Oh God, help me forgive such and such, what’s his name and what’s her name." What we’re really praying is, "God straighten them out so I don’t have to be so mad at them anymore."

Sometimes our words conceal more than they reveal but they're a part of it. Then there’s prayers that don’t have words. There's the prayers that we pray that are just part of the expression because we will express the deep longing desires, we will express the great values we have, one way or another. Sometimes we do it with our work. Our work become the expression of our deepest longings, our prayers, or the way we love, or the way we spend, or the way we do relationships, or the way we rest, or the way we live.

All of these are ways that whether you use words or not, there is something that we’re doing and will also reveal not only who we are but they will reveal who God is to us. It will reveal whether or not God may be, regardless of what we call God, that we’re really praying for is accomplishment, or acceptance, or affection, or control, or security. To pray well is to live well and the question becomes, what is the prayer of your life? If someone were to look at your life and disregarded all the words, what would they say is the prayer of your life? What is it directed to? What is it oriented around? What do you give yourself to? To pray well then is to live well. We ought to try to learn how to pray well.

As we try to do that, then we will learn most if we learn from Jesus because Jesus is the one who teaches us. Now, you may have heard this, this morning as Andrew was reading the scripture going, "Why are we starting with such a downer passage?" and, "Why are we starting a series of prayer with the garden? Oh my gosh. Can’t we do something else?" Of course, we could. The reason is this, I don’t think we actually get to deal with prayer. We’re not really wrestling with prayer, we are just working around the edges until we get to this key central thing that haunts us, which is, "Why aren’t my prayers answered and what do I do when my llife feels crushed and it doesn’t feel like anything is happening?"

If you want to learn about prayer, if you want to really talk about prayer, we had better start there. The other reason is this, it’s because I think this prayer is a great place to start because if we started here, we could avoid an awful lot of nonsense that gets talked about and spread when we talk about prayer over the last 2,000 years and just in human history. There’s a lot of stuff that sounds pious and it sounds religious and it’s just absolute nonsense.

What this passage exposes first and foremost is that prayer is not magic. Sometimes you get those books, you see those seminars, you go to those places, or that somebody will preach a sermon and you can watch it on TV and they’re all over the place- that if you just pray correctly, then God'll give you what you want. If you just use the right words. You didn’t say in Jesus’ name? Oh, that’s why you have to say in Jesus name. As if it’s a magical incantation. Or you didn’t pray enough, or you didn’t pray with enough faith because if you send that prayer with about $30, then God will answer your-- Prayer is not magic. If anybody had the right words, it would’ve been Jesus.

Likewise, there's this nonsense that somehow if we’re going to pray, we’re going to change God. That if we pray the right way, let’s do the right thing, if we’re in the right relationship with God, then God- we can change God. We pray long enough, somehow we’ll get God’s attention because somehow in our heads we still have this idea of the God who is way up there and if we pray hard enough, long enough and if we get enough friends, if we get enough religious friends and pastors, then God will somehow notice and turn around, then God will come down here and take care of us because we had to change God’s mind. Prayer does not change God’s mind.

Prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes us.

Prayer can change things. I believe that. The thing that changes most and where it usually starts is with us. My father, if there’s any way, get me out of this. Please know what I want. What do you want? Not an easy prayer. Jesus had to go back three times to do this. In the midst of this, what it reveals, for all the talk about prayer and for all the different kinds of prayer, I’ve come to believe that it's basically only two prayers that ever get prayed. Lots of variations. My first prayer is simply, let my will be done. The second prayer is let your will be done. Both of those are in this passage, right? Both of those that are in our life, both of those are part of who we are, and it's in the variations, and all the different ways that that gets woven in and out that constitutes our prayer and our prayer life. It is that my will be done, or that your will be done.

When we pray well, takes those two things, and lines them up, they become one, and it's not because what my will is necessarily bad, it may be great, I may be praying for all the right things, but typically if it's just my will, it is just too small, there's something larger that it needs to line up with, and when we pray well, let my will, and let your will they become one, now what I want is what you want, nevertheless you, what do you want? Oh, God. Let's do that.

There is this part of prayer that we may think it's magic, and it's not.

We may think we're trying to change God, that doesn't work, we change ourselves, but the other part, the other danger to prayer, is that somehow that we've become passive, but it's not going to change God, I can't get what I want. Why would I pray? God's going to do what God's going to do anyway? Why would I pray? There's a lot of people who freeze up around that one, but this kind of a prayer is not an invitation to passivity, just the opposite.

It is to take, and get your life in the deepest things that you long for, and line them up, because God doesn't use magic wants to change things, but God does use people, and God does use passions, and God redirects who we are, so that we begin to want what God wants, and it becomes part of our deepest desire. Not coerced, but transformed and changed. Here's what I mean.

How many years? How many centuries did people pray when our loved one got smallpox or polio, or some of those dreaded diseases? Leprosy that they used to just plague the ancient world, and God didn't wave magic wands, but God did catch the passions of people, and somehow these people began to work till those diseases are eradicated, and we became the answer to the very thing that we're praying for.

We're standing in a church that is 30 years old. 30 years ago, that's more than that, as you know the history. For years, people thought there should be a church out here, we should do something. There should be a church that's going to be here, for people when they get here because people are going to start coming here, and there should be a church there. There should be a place that where people find a home, build a life, and make a difference. It wasn't that God waved a magic wand, and out of the sky drops this church, it was out of the prayers, and they lined up, and people gave, they gave money. They gave time. They taught Sunday school, they served as elders, they serve as deacons. They showed up, and here we are.

The question is, what will people do 30 years from now? What prayers will be answered for those people because of what we do today? Because God doesn't wave magic wands, and just end pestilence. God doesn't wave magic wands and end racism. God doesn't wave magic wands and end loneliness. God doesn't wave magic wands and just make everything better- when people pray well, part of it is to align our life up with what God wants.

That's why we will say, as we do every week here, at the end of this service, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." because prayer aligns heaven and earth.

It grounds us in the work that God has already done. It aligns us and then helps us participate. Pray well. Pray well, is the charge that I think is in front of us at the beginning of this year, and if we're going to pray well, we might as well use a really good prayer, and that's the Serenity Prayer. Serenity prayer, we're going to get to the sanity part in a minute.

Serenity Prayer most of you know is from a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of us have seen it on a bumper sticker, or on a poster, we've seen at least the first part of it, it's a little bit longer, we're going to see that in just a moment as well. In fact, it's in your bulletin, it's on the tear off, and if you would like to tear that off, you can tear that off, and make that a bookmark for you, because what I'm going to invite us to do this next month, is to keep this prayer in front of us, it is to say it, it is to use it.

Now if you've already put your name on because I want the weekly update that's okay. We also have a bookmark form of it and it's still on the table on the way out. I invite you to pick this up. This is what we're going to keep in front of us for this next month.

It was in the '30s, that Reinhold Niebuhr first began to use this prayer in his sermons, and in other places, it got started to get popularized, in the '40s. It got published a little bit later on, it became synonymous with the 12 step movement, and in others, and rightly so, because there is something in here, that is a good way to pray in the sense that it's a prayer that shapes us, prayer not only expresses who we are, prayer becomes the words, good words become the words that shape us, and they help align us.

The prayer that we're going to talk about is when Rich and I were talking was, "You know what? It's really not a Serenity Prayer. It's the first line, but serenity isn't even the point of this prayer, and serenity isn't the goal of the prayer, serenity is a means to an end." What we need quite honestly, in 2019, is it seems we could use some sanity. Serenity, maybe a luxury, can we just hold it together? How do I do that? Coincidentally, maybe, is that this prayer is the same prayers to use.

Here's what I'd like to do. I'd like to use this prayer in this morning, at least I would like to say it out loud. There's one thing to read it, let it hit your eyeballs. There's another thing to say it and to hear yourself say it, and hear other people saying it together. It's three slides, and I would invite you just as in unison. Let these words, and let's listen to what it sounds like, with a room as we lift these words up. Would you join me?

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference."

That's the part we all know, here's comes the rest of it. We may not be as familiar with this part, "Living one day at a time enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace, taking as he did this sinful world, as it is not as I would have it, trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to His will, that I may be reasonably happy in this life, supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen." Did you hear the tension of the two prayers in there?

What are the things that I can change? What are the things that I can't? Where do I need to surrender my will over, so that I get to be part of a larger part of what you are doing? I contend there's an awful lot of parallel between this prayer, the prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden, and the prayer that we pray every Sunday, what we call the Lord's Prayer because the issue was always, what is it that God is wanting? How do I align myself up with what God is wanting to do in me, and through me?

I know there's some people say, "Oh, you know, I don't like written prayers. They're not authentic, and God doesn't need me to say fancy prayers. God just wants to hear me, and I can just-" of course, God can. This prayer isn't for God, prayer doesn't change God. Prayer changes us, this isn't about so that God will hear us. This is about so that we begin to hear, and as it happens, it begins to shape. Even if you don't normally like written prayers, I would invite you, I would encourage you this month, to make this prayer, and read it out loud to say it, to keep it in front of you, for a month, and just see what happens.

No, you won't win the lottery by doing this. That's the magic part, but you might find yourself in alignment and more connected, and able to participate in what God's trying to do, because there is a certain amount of insanity in our life that this speaks to. The very first part just simply says, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change dot, dot, dot, but the courage to change the things I can." Here's the problem, if we fixate on the things that we can't change anyway, not only does that burn up a lot of energy, but usually it makes us less able to tend to the things that we can do.

The more that I am fixated in all the problems of the world, and that just make me angry and I watch TV, and I throw things at the TV, and I talk about the news, and what I cannot change, I'm not talking about being informed, mind you, I'm talking about fixating on those things that you can't change.

How many times do we miss the work that's in front of us, the things that do have our name on them, the person that's right there in the room across the table? If we can't get off of the things over here and we end up missing something, there is great disappointment. The word disappointment is a good one. The word disappointment if you pull it apart dis-appointed it is a missed appointment. I have missed the appointment. How many of us have regrets because we have missed the appointment of a day?

I don't mean on our calendar. I mean when we look back and go, "I missed that person. I didn't say what I should have said. I wished I hadn't said that. I missed the appointment. There was something that had my name where I could have done something that day and I missed it." How many times do we have a disappointment of a week?

In 2019, we want to pray well so that we don't miss the appointment of 2019.

What will have our name on it? What will be the work that we're doing? Where will be God? Where will God want to be working in and through us? Will we keep that appointment? What's the work with your name on it this week? Maybe you already know it. Maybe you think you do.

When it shows up will you be ready? Pray well. Pray well so that we don't miss the appointment of this day, of this week, of this month, of this year, of this life that we've been given. Pray Well. I'm going to finish where I started this morning when I say pray well. I'm going to finish with a quote from Harry Emerson Fosdick about 100 years ago. His great, great preacher and writer said this about prayer. He says, "Deep in every one of us lies the tendency to pray. If we allow it to remain merely a tendency it becomes nothing but a selfish and intelligent occasional cry of need but understood and disciplined it reveals possibilities whose limits have never been found."

Pray well. Pray well in 2019. Let's find what those limits are. Let's push those limits of what God is yet to do and through our lives as they are surrendered to God and God's great mission through Jesus Christ. Let's begin in prayer. Don't let us miss the appointment of our life. Don't have us rush by distracted in such a way that this was the work that I was to do and I missed it because I wasn't paying attention or I wasn't available.

Oh God, by your grace by your grace, help us to keep the appointment of our life. Give us the serenity for the things that we can't change but then oh God, give us the courage to change the things that we can and by all means the wisdom, the wisdom to know the difference through Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.