Monday, February 28, 2011

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Everyone knows the serenity 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, the one from the other.

We come now to the last phrase: the wisdom to know. Proverbs Chapter 9 is at the heart of Biblical wisdom. This wisdom is knowledge but it’s more than that. This wisdom is information but it’s more. This wisdom comes to all who know God, and therefore is a gift of God.

There are three ways that we search for the wisdom of faith and the faith of wisdom. God grant me the wisdom to know…

The first is with trembling. Ellen Davis, Wisdom literature scholar, says that this “fear of the Lord” has an element of “ordinary” fear in it. Then, she points to the time in Exodus when Moses is meeting with God and the people are waiting on a word and they are trembling. At the heart of Biblical wisdom is that verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Alyce McKenzie says that Biblical wisdom has this in it- the bended knee. We come to this God overwhelmed by his power and love.

Like the Lenten hymn says: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…”

She grew up in the church attending with her family every Sunday. When she was a teen, she joined the youth group and rose through the ranks of leadership. She went to college and got married. Now, 31, she has two children and she and her family go to church, serve on committees, and are active in every aspect.

She went to a rather ordinary meeting with a friend and something that was said or done moved her to take a fresh look at her faith. The next week she said to her pastor: “I grew up in the church. I have heard and seen the cross so much that am numb to it. I have been playing church. I am not ready to stop all the game playing and make Jesus my savior.”

To meet this God is to come to the realization that all of this is real. To fear the Lord is to take God and our faith seriously.

The second way that we attain to this wisdom is through trusting.

Ben Patterson tells this story: “In 1988, three friends and I climbed Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Two of us were experienced mountaineers. I was not one of the experienced two. Our base camp was less than 2,000 feet from the peak, but the climb to the top and back was to take the better part of a day, due in large part to the difficulty of the glacier one must cross to get to the top. The morning of the climb we started out chattering and cracking jokes.

As the hours passed, the two mountaineers opened up a wide gap between me and my less-experienced companion. Being competitive by nature, I began to look for shortcuts to beat them to the top. I thought I saw one to the right of an outcropping of rock - so I went, deaf to the protests of my companion.

Perhaps it was the effect of the high altitude, but the significance of the two experienced climbers not choosing this path did not register in my consciousness. It should have, for 30 minutes later I was trapped in a cul-de-sac of rock atop the Lyell Glacier, looking down several hundred feet of a sheer slope of ice, pitched at about a 45 degree angle. ... I was only about 10 feet from the safety of a rock, but one little slip and I wouldn't stop sliding until I landed in the valley floor some 50 miles away! It was nearly noon, and the warm sun had the glacier glistening with slippery ice. I was stuck and I was scared.

It took an hour for my experienced climbing friends to find me. Standing on the rock I wanted to reach, one of them leaned out and used an ice ax to chip two little footsteps in the glacier. Then he gave me the following instructions: Ben, you must step out from where you are and put your foot where the first foothold is. When your foot touches it, without a moment's hesitation swing your other foot across and land it on the next step. When you do that, reach out and I will take your hand and pull you to safety.

That sounded real good to me. It was the next thing he said that made me more frightened than ever. But listen carefully: As you step across, do not lean into the mountain! If anything, lean out a bit. Otherwise, your feet may fly out from under you, and you will start sliding down.

I don't like precipices. When I am on the edge of a cliff, my instincts are to lie down and hug the mountain, to become one with it, not to lean away from it! But that was what my good friend was telling me to do. I looked at him real hard. ... Was there any reason, any reason at all, that I should not trust him? I certainly hoped not! So for a moment, based solely on what I believed to be the good will and good sense of my friend, I decided to say no to what I felt, to stifle my impulse to cling to the security of the mountain, to lean out, step out, and traverse the ice to safety. It took less than two seconds to find out if my faith was well founded. It was.

To save us, God often tells us to do things that are the opposite of our natural inclination. Is God loving and faithful? Can we trust him?

He is. We can.
-Ben Patterson, Waiting, Leadership, Vol. 15, Number 1.

A man lay in the hospital bed when a nurse came in to draw blood for what seemed like the tenth time. The nurse was gracious. She said: “I am sorry to have to do this to you again.”

The man said, with arms open, “I am in your hands; do with me as you need to do…”

We open our hearts, our lives, to God and we say in faith: “I am in your hands; do with me as you want to do…”

A third way that we attain to this Biblical wisdom is by taking directions.

I don’t have a GPS in my car but my friend does. He showed me how it works. A woman with a British accent tells him to turn in 1.4 miles. He loves that. But, instead he turns left, and the voice doesn’t know what to do. It says:

A man was lost on a country road in rural Alabama. He saw a farmer sitting on a fence and asked him the way to Montgomery. The man listened, thanked him, and drove on. Thirty minutes later he was back where he started. The same farmer was still sitting on the fence. The man said: “I am back where I started from. What happened?”

The farmer said: “I wasn’t about to give you directions to Montgomery until I knew that you could take directions.

Philip Yancey tells the story of a friend of his who went swimming in a large lake at dusk. As he was paddling at a leisurely pace about a hundred yards offshore, a freak evening fog rolled in across the water. Suddenly he could see nothing: no horizon, no landmarks, no objects or lights on shore. Because the fog diffused all light, he could not even make out the direction of the setting sun. Yancey then tells how his friend splashed about in absolute panic. He would start off in one direction, lose confidence, and turn 90 degrees to the right. Or left - it made no difference which way he turned. He could feel his heart racing uncontrollably. He would stop and float, trying to conserve energy and force himself to breathe slower. Then he would blindly strike out again. At last he heard a faint voice calling from shore. He pointed his body to the sounds and followed them to safety.
Disappointment With God
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988), 203

God promises that if we seek his wisdom and ask him that when things get foggy and scary we will hear his voice saying: “come this way…”

As Proverbs says: “This is the way; walk in it. This is the way that leads to life.”

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Faith to Accept

This is the second in the series of sermons on The Serenity 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

Last week I took the second phrase and looked at the courage to change. This past Sunday I took the first phrase and worked on the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

One the one hand I hesitate to say that there are things that you and I cannot change. There have been some things in history that were declared unchangeable that people of good will changed. I’m an optimist in faith; so, I have been reared to think of myself in this world as a change agent. But, says the prayer, there are simply some things in life that cannot be changed.

Three areas where this might apply are: 1. Past regrets, 2. Unchangeable situations, and 3. other people.

Do you have any past regrets? Someone on the way out of church Sunday said: “I don’t have any regrets…” Then, he followed his words with hearty laughter. We do all of us have things that we regret, but the prayer helps us to remember that they are past and hopefully done.

Reynolds Price tells the story about his professor at Cambridge in England. Professor Nigel went to see his mother who was near death. She was lying in the bed, her eyes closed. Thinking her asleep he stayed awhile and then left. As he opened the door to leave, his mother said clearly, “Nigel, my only regret is my economies…” Price explains that the British use this word “economies” to mean stinginess. I regret my stinginess in giving love, in helping when I could have, in giving as much as I might have. My economies.

God grant me the serenity to accept past regrets and let them go…

There any many unchangeable situations in life. Sometimes things happen to us that have nothing directly to do with us but still they affect us. Sometimes someone does something to us or we do something that creates an unchangeable situation.

A man learning to fly felt suddenly abandoned by his teacher. Seated beside him in the plane, the teacher suddenly cut the plane’s engine and the plan started to spin out of control. The student said to the teacher: “How dare you desert me now.” After a while the teacher took charge of the plane and landed it. The teacher said to the student: “There is no situation in that plane that I could not get you out of…”

The student said that it was like God was saying to him: “There is no situation in life that that I cannot get you through or out of…there is nothing that can happen to you that I cannot help you through…I am with you always…It will be alright.

There are things in my life that I wish were different back there in my past, but some things cannot be changed, even by me or you.

Then, there’s the reality of other people. Some people live in deep anguish that they are unable to change other people. And yet, we who have lived long enough know that no person can change another. The only person who can change you is you.

Young couples planning to get married sitting in my office are so much in love. I love to ask them: “What do you think needs to be changed in the other?” They struggle to think of something. After all, they are in love. The other is at this moment perfect. But, if you probe enough, something comes out. Then, I say, you cannot change the other. He can change him. She can change her. All you can do is love them as they are.

You can have an influence on someone. You have the power to lead someone maybe, but change must come when the other decides.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

One person says that we crucify ourselves between two thieves: “Fear of the future and past regrets…”

We all long for serenity, and serenity comes only from the grace of God.

Winston Churchill planned his own funeral. At the end of a powerful service, a bugler arose on one side of the altar and play taps. “Day is done”. It’s over. Then, on the other side a bugler played Reveille: “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning…”

John Claypool says that this was to say: “All your worst times are not your last times…”

God give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change…

Dave Nichols

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faith to Change

I am beginning a three-part sermon series on the Serenity Prayer. I have always been fascinated by that prayer, maybe because I yearn for serenity. Serenity means simply “peace”. And, who doesn’t want it. When I think of peace in this sense, I think of that tough inner security that nothing can fully take away. Surely, no one has a peace that cannot be touched at all by the circumstances of life, but all who profess to be followers of Jesus have access to a power that nothing can fully take away. Serenity.

There’s no doubt about it. We all yearn for it.

Where did the Serenity Prayer come from? We don’t know for sure. Some say that it goes back as far as the year 500 AD, or maybe earlier. What we do know is that in 1934, Reinhold Neibuhr used a form of it in a chapel service at Union Theological Seminary.

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 one from the other.

We do know that around 1941 AA started picking it up as the prayer that best expressed what they were doing and going through. At first, everything that they sent out had the Serenity Prayer on it. Every communication, every meeting, was saturated with this prayer. You can still find it in some of the literature of AA and you might still hear it prayed at some of their meetings.

The first sermon I am going with the second petition: the faith to change.

Change is in everything. Of all the things in life that you can’t count on, one thing you can count on for sure is that things change. And, living in this world we are in now, we might as that things change fast. Just when you get used to things being one way, they change. It’s been said of the weather in South Carolina: if you don’t like it, wait a day or two and it will change.

The world around us changes. Politics change. And, we, from the first moment of birth, are on this movement of change. We move from one house to another, from one town to another. Some today are moving from one country to another for work. Sickness, death, stress, all bring us change. And, we can fight the change that comes into our lives or we can find a way to embrace change as God’s way of making us.

God give me the courage to change the things I can. Often I am praying for others to change; very seldom am I praying that I will change myself. And, yet, this is where the prayer takes us. What about you needs changing? Admit what needs to be changed. Is it anger, fear, the need to control, the need to believe that everything has to be perfect, the need to be right? What needs to be changed in you?

As some people say today: denial is not a river in Egypt. Stop denying and confess, admit the changes that you need to make in your own life.

Then, the prayer invites us to let God do the changing. Instead of turning to God, we often just try harder or try to change ourselves. And, usually, our attempts at change on our own result in frustration. Just think of the New Year’s resolutions that you and I make.

Let God in Christ be your guide. Tell God what you want to change- or to show you what you need to change. And, then ask God to lead you in the change.

One of the main principles of Christian faith is the notion that people can change. We don’t have to stay the way we are. Things can get better.

God grant us the courage to change.

Dave Nichols

Comments on Lectionary - Sept. 1

That Jesus would be healing comes at no surprise to any of us. Nor, is it surprising that Jesus is healing on the Sabbath. So, when the re...