Where did “The Serenity Prayer” come from?

Used by Alcoholics Anonymous and a very often printed on plaques and cards, the Serenity Prayer is part of our religious cultural fabric, but where did it come from?

According to June Bingham, a biographer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), it was Niebuhr who first penned the prayer and spoke it in a small church in Heath, Massachusetts.

Niebuhr occasionally preached in the small church near the place where he had a summer home. After a service where he spoke the prayer, a man named Howard Chandler Robbins, a neighbor, asked for a copy. According to the story, Niebuhr handed Robbins the original saying, “Here, take the prayer. I have no further use for it.”

Those words do not sound likely but that’s how the story goes. Robbins later published the prayer as part of a pamphlet the following year. Since then it has been adopted as the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous; the U.S.O. distributed millions of copies to U.S. soldiers during World War II; the National Council of Churches reprinted the prayer; it’s re-printed today in many forms. It often has no attribution, but according to Bingham’s biography, Courage to Change, the attribution should go to Niebuhr.

O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot change, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. — Reinhold Niebuhr, 1934

Talking to your children about sex: Part 2

“The Sex Talk” has morphed into many talks and at an earlier age in our home. Talking about sex seems to come much earlier for my children than it came in my experience growing up. I was in junior high before I understood what homosexuality is, and I had barely discovered the differences between sexes. Now, I talk to my children often about sexuality and what they hear from friends, what they might overhear on television or see on billboards, etc.

Stan and Brenna Jones have written a must-have series on God’s Design for Sex that is divided into Book 1 for ages three to five, Book 2 for five to eight, Book 3 for eight to eleven, and Book 4 for eleven to fourteen. Each book ramps up the story of our sexuality and God’s design with increasing detail and explanation. Jill and I have used the four-part book series as a resource for our kids to talk to them about sexuality, and we keep it on the shelf where they know where to find it. We started this when our children were ages 6, 9, 12, and they are now seven years older (14, 17, 19). The book has helped us talk about sex as God’s idea and ways to live with a healthy sexual outlook and practices.

When they were 6, 9, and 12 we read the first two books to all our children and made Books 3 and 4 available to our twelve-year-old to read on her own. Then as the others were the age range of the third and fourth books, we gave them access to these books as well.

When you talk or read on the subject of sex, you can expect giggles, smiles, rolling eyes, and hidden faces behind throw pillows, but they really do wonder and want to know about sexuality at certain ages. The books and regular discussions help children walk through changes in their bodies and minds. Talking about sexuality through the eyes of faith and God’s design opens children up to a whole different world view from our culture’s view of sexuality. And this is important to talk about openly rather than prudishly or defaulting to reacting whenever we find out they’ve heard something at school or from a friend. We’re like a good local TV station: “You heard it here first!”

Soga cultural views of sexuality
In my novel, High Places I wrote about the rites of passage that allow a young boy in Uganda to become a man. Part of this process is to build and move into his own hut. This allows more privacy for the parents and builds a sense of ownership and responsibility in the young adolescent. Girls often are given in marriage at young ages, after they develop physically, but much of that is changing in those who are realizing that girls deserve education as much as boys do, so some girls are given different rooms of the house or another hut to live in as well.

Often, an aunt or uncle takes a child aside and reveals to them the mysteries of sexuality and marriage. There are taboos of speaking about sexuality with certain direct relations. In fact, a daughter-in-law is not even allowed in the same house with her husband’s father. This is to protect from indiscretions and shameful relationships.

Early parameters for Israel’s sexuality
From Israel’s earliest days as a people, God has set boundaries around their sexual lives, calling this and everything else they do in body as a holy act that must remain worthy of their walk as “my people who are called out” (Hebrew term for title of Leviticus). The holiness codes of Leviticus repeatedly show that the sexual act that creates another life is a sacred act.

In Leviticus 18, immediately following an introduction to separation from Egypt and Canaan and their ways, comes a litany of prohibitions about sexual perversions, starting with the general and becoming more and more specific and grotesque, including beastiality and giving children in prostitution and even sacrifice. At the end of some of the prohibitions is the statement, “I am the Lord.” This says that sexuality is under the authority of God who cares about what we do under the covers. It says something about the nature of God. He cares about and gives parameters for sexual life (18:7-18).

Sharing faith in God for our families means giving important parameters and guidelines for sexuality, communicating what Godly intimacy is, what God desires, practice of self-control, and learning about beautiful sexuality in marriage. There’s no way this can be achieved in “the talk” but in a purposeful and gracious conversation over many years with our children as they grow and mature.

Talking to your children about sex: Part 1

Let me start very personally with a few examples of how I was educated as a child about sex.

I got sick the day my school had scheduled for six-graders to watch a sex education film. We’d all anticipated learning more about the “birds and the bees” from this public school film about adolescence and the difference between boys and girls.

Sensitive to my missing out on this grand occasion, Mom sat down with me in the living room that morning and lovingly walked me through the differences. I couldn’t look at her so I put my head on her lap and for some reason I responded to the news by quietly crying. Perhaps it was embarrassment, and I remember feeling left out of this rite of passage of children at my school. Continue reading

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians

by Helmut Thielicke

Helmut Thielicke.

Thielicke says some have “theologian’s disease” and use truth not to build their congregations by instruction but to tear them down.  Destroying a church in this way is the “starkest possible contrast with love,” Thielicke writes.  (31)

Thielicke says the greatest danger of knowledge about God is that you may lose sight of the Almighty in the process.

Says the first germ that causes theologians to catch this disease that infects congregations is when a minister no longer treats Holy Scripture as a means to come near to God but only as an end in itself of “exegetical endeavors.” Continue reading

Does God Speak Audibly to People Today Like He is Portrayed Doing in Bible Times?

In this second blog post that’s part 2 after a review I did of Bill Hybel’s The Power of a Whisper, I clarified some the title. The part 1 blog title was, “Does God Speak?” When I read it again, I thought, of course He does. He speaks anytime He wants, and has throughout time.

Foster Bible Pictures 0060-1 Moses Sees a Fire...

Foster Bible Pictures 0060-1 Moses Sees a Fire Burning in a Bush (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The clarified question is, “Does God continue to speak audibly to people today like He is portrayed doing in the Bible?”

First, let’s review how God speaks in Bible times:

  1. Through messengers called Angels (to many)
  2. Through donkeys (to Balaam)
  3. Like a friend (to Moses)
  4. Through tablets (10 Commandments)
  5. By burning stuff (burning bush, pillar of fire showing presence, burning up wet sacrifices – Elijah)
  6. Through dreams (Joseph, Daniel, kings, prophets)
  7. Whispers (Elijah)
  8. By tricks or tests of God (Gideon – was his fleece test appropriate as a test of God?)
  9. Direct voice (to Moses, many prophets)
  10. Prophets themselves as messengers
  11. Through incarnate Son Jesus
  12. Through written texts of Law, Prophets, Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse
  13. Through the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire causing Apostles to speak intelligible languages spoken in first century world
  14. Through blinding light and vision of the Son (to Saul later named Paul)
  15. Through visions called Apocalypses (to Daniel, John)
  16. Apostles thought God speaks by casting lots or drawing straws for decisions

Have I left some examples out? I’m sure I have. Comment and write your examples from Scripture, citing who and the situation. Continue reading

Steadfast Through Every Change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase that Leonard Allen spoke to me over coffee at Pour Jons. When talking about the unchanging nature of God Leonard suggested the phrase, “Steadfast through every change.”

Because, God does change His mind. He changes his strategies. He changes His heart. He is moved. In Christ, He is vulnerable, changing according to the actions of those around Him. But He is steadfast in every change.

I looked up the phrase because I wondered if there is a hymn or poem or Scripture text that uses this exact phrase. I understand that Steadfast is the English translation of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words for the concept of God’s love that never fails. It’s often paired with “love” so that in Lamentations Jeremiah speaks of God’s “Steadfast Love” and in English we sing a song that’s beautifully tied to my faith growing up as a boy: Continue reading

A Prayer About the Arrogant

Psalm 73 marks the end of David‘s prayers and beginning of the worship leader, Asaph‘s in Book 3 of the Psalms.

The psalm moves from God’s goodness to Israel, to the psalmist losing his grip on reality, to a diatribe prayer about the arrogant culture in which he lives, to God’s faithfulness, ending with this beautiful line, “But as for me, it is good to be near God . . .”

What stood out initially to me in this psalm was the section about the arrogant that sounds a lot like me. It sounds like many in the first world.

My wife and I have a code that we don’t post on Facebook when people talk about certain things, but we say it to one another, and perhaps we ought to actually post it at times (we’ll get unfriended if we do, but may be for the best!). The thing we often say when someone is gripping publicly about some superficial thing like service at a restaurant, is “FWP.”

“FWP” — What’s that?

First World Problem. So, you had to wait for 30 minutes ON YOUR BUTT, while someone brings you food, and you are complaining about it? The salsa wasn’t as good as always, your coke was flat, the waitress wasn’t perky enough. These are first world problems. Half of the world goes hungry. You ought to be guilt tripped about that. Maybe we need to just start unfriending or hiding people who use social media to complain. As Steven Furtick says, paraphrased, “As Christians, we have a responsibility to be happy.” I’m sure Furtick said it somehow more colorfully than that.

So, if you get the urge to post something to complain that you think might be a first world problem, go read Psalm 73:3-12.

Is the hand of God upon you? Study, Observe, Teach

Of Ezra Scripture says “the hand of God was upon him.”

Ezra did three basic things with the law of the Lord.

  1. Study
  2. Observe
  3. Teach

Ezra devoted himself to studying Holy Scripture. He was “well-versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given.”

Ezra also observed the law. We ought not teach until we observe.

Finally, Ezra taught. One who studies cannot help but share. One who shares must reflect upon, speak out of, and show forth from observance, what he or she is teaching.

The hand of God was upon Ezra. When the hand of God is upon us, we can’t help but study, observe, and teach what God is showing us. Is God’s hand upon you?

Some weep and some rejoice

There’s a great story in Ezra about when the second temple foundation was laid. Half the exile returnees rejoiced and half wept. No one could distinguish the sound of weeping from the laughing (Ezra 3:11-13).

What do we make of this story. The exiles had come back from Persia with a calling to build the temple that even Cyrus the King of Persia was behind and thought commissioned by God Himself. God seems to have one intent, though it seems He directs His people differently over time, to build, not to build. The intent seems to be that God wants to be present with His people, and He’ll do whatever it takes to do that, whether it means building the temple or tearing it down.

Weeping. Laughing. Building. Tearing down. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference. What was happening was that God’s people were together and you couldn’t tell laughing from weeping.

In churches, synagogues, and mosques, sometimes you can’t tell the difference between crying and laughing. People come seeking God together and inevitably people are either suffering or rejoicing, or maybe some of both. What’s important? Seeking God. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics, Backsliders: seek God. Seek how He has revealed Himself.

I believe God has revealed himself in three major ways through time. As Creator with authority over the universe. As Savior calling us to his Lordship. As Spirit inviting us into His life. Whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever you have done, whatever religion you have grown up in, seek God. I believe this is how God has revealed himself over time. I don’t limit God to this but this is how historic Christianity sees God revealed. Orthodox Christianity shortens this revelation to the word, “Trinity.”

What’s going on in Egypt?

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пирамиды Гизы на изображении. Español: Las Pirámides de Guiza (Egipto). Français : Les Pyramides de Gizeh (Egypte). Català: Les Piràmides de Giza, a Egipte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s going on in Egypt today? Egypt is the most ancient society known to our world that still survives as a nation state with the same name and location. It pre-dates even Israel. The Old and New Testaments mention Egypt nearly 700 times. That’s a lot. Imagine being Egyptian and hearing things like this in the prophecy of Isaiah, and these are just from one chapter, Isaiah 19.

  1. The Lord will make Himself known to the Egyptians.
  2. The will acknowledge the Lord, worshiping, sacrificing, making vows and keeping them.
  3. The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague and heal them.
  4. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them.
  5. Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together.
  6. Israel, Egypt, and Assyria will be a blessing on the earth.
  7. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

These texts have forever changed the way I view the politics of our American government favoring Israel and Christians who think God has some favored nation status on Israel. God favored humanity, and He told Israel through Moses that it was not because of their righteousness that God picked them (Deuteronomy 9:6).

To read phrases like, “Egypt my people” and “Assyria my handiwork” reframes our politics, our notions of how God favors. He can favor, but he doesn’t have to exclude. I think the politics of the Middle East espoused by many Evangelical Christians over the years have been exclusionary for no good reason, in a way that unfairly views Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims. God seeks Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists to be His people, and He is drawing all people to himself, and He wants all people “to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

 

Reading the Times

For a long time I’ve been a “reader of the Times.” Yes, I read the NY Times occasionally, but I’m talking about another reading of the times. There’s a manner of speaking that we “read the times” by staying aware of the news and what God is doing in the world. I do that occasionally, too. But I’m talking about another way of reading the times.

The kind of reading the times I’m talking about is that I use the date as a guide for Bible reading, using the number to correspond and direct my reading. In this way I respond to the invitation of God to listen to His voice through the Word daily and regularly in a way that keeps me moving through His story over and over.

There are hundreds of methods of Bible reading, but this one I keep coming back to. It goes something like this:

Today is August 15.

I divide the Psalms by 30 days to read five psalms a day. Lots of people do this, it’s nothing new, but doing it, memorizing, reflecting, praying these Scriptures is tried and true and the most ancient of spiritual practices of Israel and the church. It’s a tried and true method, but it’s only true when tried.

I try to read an Old Testament book daily and a New Testament book daily. There are 39 OT books and 27 NT books, so basically I use the day to pick a book.

So on August 15, I would read Psalms 71-75, Ezra, and 1 Timothy. I don’t worry if I missed yesterday, because yesterday’s book will come around again next month and the month after that.

You may wonder if I read straight through the Chronicles, running my eyes over all the name lists. No. I skim those and read for the story, stopping at places, making notes, enjoying a prayer of David or a song of Moses.

This kind of reading has nothing and everything to do with the reading I do for preaching. It has nothing and everything to do with the way I live my life. It has nothing and everything to do with what’s going to happen in my day. It has nothing and everything to do with what happened in Egypt yesterday. It has nothing and everything to do with politics. It has nothing and everything to do with how I treat my neighbor. This kind of reading has nothing and everything to do with how I relate to my wife and children, my co-workers.

When I read these books tied to a date, the only thing that matters is that I’m reading Holy Scripture and Holy Scripture when read, matters. It doesn’t have to be crammed into relevance in my life. What I learn when I read Holy Scripture is that my life is not what matters, and that my life truly matters.

In reading Holy Scripture, I learn that my life is consumed in the life of God. I learn that God’s story must become my story, that my story is a drop in the ocean. I learn that I am a bucket (I use this to mean vessel but it’s a little easier for us to picture today) that may contain God but realizes containing God is impossible, that God exists and is experienced outside of me infinitely, and I am learning to enjoy that, to desire to get my bucket in the ocean to float, sink, be surrounded by God and not “merely” inviting Him into my life. God invites me into His life.

God invites you into His life. Repeatedly, He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Then in Christ incarnate He came to make that invitation personal to a bunch of fishermen. Come, follow me.

DEUTERONOMISTIC POETRY

English: Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deu...

English: Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deuteronomy 6:1-15, Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chances are, even if you are a Christian who has read the Bible, you haven’t read this beautiful text from Deuteronomy 4:32-40. This is one I memorize from time to time (meaning, all the poetry doesn’t always stick in my brain so I have to re-memorize it). One reason you may not have read it is because it comes right after Israel wipes out the population of conquered lands. We don’t always know what to do with those texts, but it’s important to me that we don’t gloss over those particular contexts when we quote “beautiful” poetry from the Bible. We have to take the difficult texts with the cross-stitchable ones.

Deuteronomy is the catechesis of Israel’s young who are being trained to possess a new land and be a people for God. Moses repeats their story going back to Abraham, particularly the Exodus, gives the 10 Commandments and many other stipulations of being God’s holy people.

The following comes from the New International Version, which titles this section, “The Lord is God.”

“Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire. Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength, to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you and to bring you into their land to give it to you for your inheritance, as it is today.

Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.”

Then God said, “That’s enough. Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.”

I found this a profound, fascinating story about Moses pleading with God to allow him to cross over and see “the good land beyond the Jordan [River]–that fine hill country and Lebanon.”

This is from NIV (3:21-29):

At that time I pleaded with the Lord: “Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.”

English: Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afa...

English: Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in Numbers 27:12, by James Tissot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” So we stayed in the valley near Beth Peor.”

What a moment it is when God says, “That is enough. Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.” God relented to let Moses see what he would be missing, but He did not change His mind over this particular matter with Moses.

God invites us into His heart

Evangelical Christians of the last century have come to use a common, “Invite Jesus into my heart.” While I could argue the phrase is not very accurate biblical language, I want to instead flip the phrase on its head with what I think is a more accurate biblical and theological thought.

God invites us into His heart.

Since the beginning of biblical history, God has made moves to invite humans into His life, heart, and story. He has called upon humans saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Leviticus 26:11-13 is the first time and Revelation 21:3 is the last time God or Christ is quoted as saying a phrase about being our God and humans His people. God also states His desire to dwell among us, which was put into practice in the incarnation (enfleshing) of Christ.

I gave a few examples in my sermon yesterday about the difference between God inviting us into His heart and us inviting Him into our hearts.

  1. Have you ever asked someone over to dinner then two days later realized while eating at their house, they’d flipped the invitation on you! That’s what happened in our relationship with God in use of this phrase, “invite Jesus into your heart.” God invited us into His heart, to know His love, His vast power, goodness, mercy, compassion, and unfathomable depths.
  2. Asking Jesus into our hearts is like a bucket asking the ocean to fill it. The ocean has no problem filling the bucket but the bucket loses out on a lot of ocean! No whales, no shrimp, no seashore, no dolphins, no waves, no power, no sailing, etc. Just a bucket of salty water. It’s not that Jesus can’t come into our lives and change our lives, but He desires that we come into His life, His story, His heart.

We join the journey with God. He is God and is not in the business of joining our journey as it is. He is in the business of turning us around and bringing us into His bigger story. A phrase like, “I need more God in my life” is small and insufficient for God. Instead, why not say, “I need to submit my life to God”? It’s God’s world that we are in, it’s in submitting to His life-giving reality that we find our own story in His.

God is not calling us to put more of Him in our story but for us to put more of ourselves in His story.

This is it, the Apocalypse, whoa

This Spring and Summer has been a learning first foray into preaching Revelation. I told the Garnett Church of Christ congregation that if I take the risk to preach on Revelation, they ought to take the risk to read Revelation. Many did! And we learned how to read Revelation in a new way.

After three months of study, we love the conclusion of the angel St. John fell down in front of, just after he told John to get up and stop groveling at his feet, that they were fellow servants: “Worship God. The testimony of Jesus Christ is the spirit of prophecy.” We learned that Revelation is not about images & predictions as much as it’s about God on the throne, Christ ruling now and forevermore, and aligning our lives to the kingdom that is both already and yet to come, the New Heaven and the New Earth, that we long to live in and we long to see break into the world even now.

  1. Revelation powerfully reminds us that no matter how bad the world seems, God is on the throne, Christ rules the cosmos!
  2. Revelation calls us to be faithful witnesses in the pattern of Christ.
  3. Revelation reminds us that Satan is going down, that God will judge the whole earth & all inhabitants, & His judgments are just and true.
  4. Revelation shows us a hopeful picture of the New Heaven & New Earth, that God in Christ is making “everything new,” removing the curse, & will complete his goal: to dwell with His people forever.
  5. Revelation gives us fresh courage for living now as we live counter to our culture that opposes Christ & encourages self-rule, as we endure hardship, persecution, & wait patiently for Christ’s return.
  6. Revelation is not about images & predictions but about God. The final word of the messenger to John is “Worship God.” Revelation shows us how to live & worship God as ruler of the universe & not ourselves, Satan, or any other power that claims to be god in our lives.

Resources I find very helpful on Revelation