The following results are from a survey I conducted that consisted of me thinking at my desk and a call to my Catholic daughter. It’s not scientific and may very well generate more discussion than anything in the rest of the book.
As far as prayers that are familiar to and memorized by the general American public, The Lord’s Prayer would be number one. The Hail Mary, the Saint Michael Prayer, and the Guardian Angel Prayer are whispered by hundreds of thousands of worshipers, mostly Catholics, daily. Many families have a familiar grace-at-the-table prayer. Many people know parts of the St. Francis Prayer, but few have memorized all of it. The Shema is certainly up there. Other religious traditions also have cherished prayers in their liturgy, of course.
Somewhere in the top five, however, is The Serenity Prayer, or The Prayer as I refer to it in this book. Go into any of the literally thousands of AA meetings and you are likely to hear The Serenity Prayer at the beginning or end of the gathering. Many people not in this program are also familiar with this three-line prayer. It is very well-known.
My reasons for writing this book are three-fold. I am a Christian minister with two post-graduate degrees and about four decades of experience in churches and many religious institutions. My faith is very important to me, and my religion is a positive, central, organizing principle of my life. The Long Version of The Serenity Prayer is simply a very beautiful and powerful prayer that I’ve felt led to pray and now study and write about. It’s theologically deep and practically relevant. The Prayer is life-changing, and especially for anyone facing change and challenge, The Prayer offers a powerful and refreshing way to understand God and life.
My second reason for writing is for another group of people whom I hope may benefit from it. I am a recovering alcoholic and will relate some of my story in the following pages. When I first entered the rooms of AA, I was intrigued that most everybody recited the familiar first three lines of this prayer even though AA is careful to be non-sectarian and does not even require a belief in God. But the prayer begins with “God.” Even doubters and thoroughgoing agnostics recited The Prayer because it gave them comfort and hope. I was moved by their respect and their honest interest in something transcendent. The Prayer is Christian in its origin and language, so I hope to communicate its meaning and explain the powerful and elegant theological concepts it expresses.
Third, The Prayer addresses the idea of happiness, a very popular and important topic. Part of my initial intrigue with The Prayer was that it aimed at making us reasonably happy. The fact that happiness appears in such a theologically rich text may surprise many people who think of God and spiritual matters as very serious, perhaps even morbidly so. That’s simply not the case. God would not create us with the capacity to be happy and then wish to shut down our interest in it. In an age where many people think the way to happiness is to jettison any belief in traditional theological doctrines, The Prayer is an endearing example of how a clear mind for spiritual matters warms the heart.
The Prayer has a wide appeal because people perceive that the world is increasingly out of control. Whether that’s true or not is impossible to accurately assess. What is clearly true, however, is that we’ve lost some common foundations and vocabulary that formerly enabled us to discuss and come to some fairly reasonable shared understandings. At the very least, we live in an angry world. Throw in a pandemic and social unrest, and you can understand why so many people feel tremendous and uncertain shifts. I believe The Prayer will help bring peace, perspective, and challenge to anyone who wants to recover and maintain a solid foundation of faith and practice. Ironically, acceptance, which is the main theme of The Prayer, is control.
I’ve included seven summary points at the end of each chapter. These are intended to highlight the main take-aways for each phrase of The Prayer. I hope they will provide an extra layer of clarity, for we will be wading into some rather deep theological waters.
Finally, a word about prayer, perhaps aimed mostly at my doubting friends. Prayer certainly has no effect if you do not engage in it. Often the questions about prayer silence our prayers before we begin. How does prayer work? Why does something happen sometimes when I pray and not other times? Does God change His mind? These are all wonderful questions and have some very intelligent responses that settle the matter for many people. Other people less so. Keep searching and asking. Good theology invites questions and requires searching. When it comes to the practice of prayer, however, don’t wait until you have all the answers. It’s simply too mysterious. Pray because you need help and comfort from a Power greater than yourself.
One final, final word concerning my references to God. Throughout this book, as in all my writing for decades, I use masculine pronouns for God. I understand this practice creates some issues for some readers, but I assure you that I’m not implying God is masculine or that men have a superior place in God’s creation. God is, in classic theological understanding, a genderless Spirit. My use of a particular set of pronouns is merely my nod to tradition as well as a matter of a simpler sentence construction in many situations. I also capitalize these pronouns in keeping with the very ancient tradition of nomina sacra (sacred name) in which names are treated with a special reverence in written texts.
I encourage all readers to memorize The Prayer in its full version. Pray it daily for three months and see what happens to you internally during that time. The results will likely surprise you, because God as I understand Him listens to all our prayers and responds because He loves us. I trust The Prayer will stir your spirit deeply as it did mine.