Do you ever find yourself praying the Serenity Prayer? There are days that I need the sound of the Pachelbel Canon playing as background music in my head while the words to the introductory paragraph of the Serenity Prayer are on the conscious horizon of my thoughts. The prayer begins: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer. Reportedly, he first wrote the prayer for a sermon at the Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts. It was used widely in sermons as early as 1934. I don’t know the subject matter of that first sermon, but I suspect the introductory phrase was a thought he grew up with for years. After all, who’d name a child “Reinhold Niebuhr?” Niebuhr obviously was an intelligent man based on his occupational pursuits and accomplishments, but I suspect he was in the third grade before he could spell or maybe even pronounce his own name. Perhaps that’s where the thought: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” may have originated. Most likely is is not, but I thought I’d at least introduce the concept.
Like I said, Nieburh was a smart man and a gifted and talented one at that. Wikipedia lists his occupation as Theologian, Ethicist, Political Commentator, Minister (1915-28), Professor (1928-60), and Magazine Editor. In the 1940s the prayer was adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve step programs.
Obviously, Niebuhr has many accomplishments and things to his credit, but his book entitled: “Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic” catches my attention. It is autobiographical and is an account of the frustrations and joys of the first pastorate he experienced. As it turned out, it was both his first and last pastorate. Perhaps it was more than enough.
Niebuhr was pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan from 1915 – 1928. When you stop to think about it, thirteen years is a long time for a pastor to be at a single church. Most pastors don’t have that kind of tenure. I haven’t read the book, but in some respects Bethel Evangelical Church had to be a cold church at least during certain times of the year. Michigan isn’t known for warm weather during the wintertime. The term “Tamed Cynic” snags my attention. What happened to the concept of youthful idealism? Perhaps it gave way to a different reality that was subsequently softened into the sense that things were okay even if they weren’t perfect. Niebuhr is credit with making the observation: “Every experience proves that the real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love one another, but do not”.
Niebuhr was only twenty-three years old when he accepted the responsibility of being pastor. He was thirty-six when he moved to a higher calling or perhaps “a different calling” is a better way to express it. He became a college professor.
“Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic” was crafted as a tool to share with young pastors. It provides reflections and insights for those engaged “in the challenging yet infinitely rewarding occupation of pastoral ministry”.
In my lifetime, I have been privileged to serve four different churches as their pastor for varying lengths of time. The first church was First Baptist Church in Sylvester, TX. It was purposefully time limited. I served at the church during my senior year of college. They knew I would be leaving for seminary the following year. Perhaps there was a method to their madness. You can look past a lot of mistakes when you know you only have to deal with a person’s shortfalls for twelve months.
The second church I pastored as a bi-vocational pastor was Henderson Heights Baptist Church in Odessa. I was only there for a transitional period while I looked for a career track and a full time job. My subsequently accepting a job as a child protective services worker in San Angelo necessitated leaving the part-time pastorate behind.
First Baptist Church in Mertzon was the third church I served. I left a child welfare related job I loved to accept the full-time pastorate. I loved the people at church and I felt loved by them. However, the role as full-time pastor in a very small setting proved not to be a good fit for me. It didn’t take me long to get bored. Honestly, there wasn’t enough to keep me busy. It was a bedroom community. Most people worked in San Angelo and I missed that same opportunity. What was I supposed to do all day?
I subsequently asked permission to go back to work with the Texas Department of Public Welfare in the residential child care section. The job would require travel. It wasn’t about the money or my wanting to double-dip. In proposing my plan, I shared with the deacons that if they’d permit me to go back to work, I’d fulfill my church responsibilities voluntarily. I didn’t need compensation. I had to have the other job to survive. I wanted to do both.
The church carefully and thoughtfully considered my offer, but subsequently turned it down. Actually that’s not exactly true. The Sunday the church was to vote on the decision, one of the deacon’s wives said to me as she was entering the church: “If you’re gone all day we won’t have a preacher in town. That’s not right.” However, in an effort to communicate the depth of her disdain for the idea, she added: “The vote will pass because no one gives a damn and if it passes, I won’t either”. What was I supposed to do with that? What I did was opt not to have a business meeting to vote on the matter. Instead, I tendered my resignation at the close of the church service. The church did allow me to continue as the interim until they located my replacement. I think my transition was about a nine-month duration. From my perspective, it was a problem free transition. I still have found memories of the time I shared there.
When I was attending St. Edwards University in 1977-1979 taking social work classes at night, I met Frank Deutsch. Frank was pursuing the same coursework. Frank worked for the Austin Baptist Association. We became good friends. Knowing my background, he asked if I’d like to preach at a little country church the other side of Dripping Springs. I said, “Yes”.
It was thirty-eight years ago this month that the church called me as their pastor. I started preaching during calendar year 1978, but the decision to keep me wasn’t made until February 1979. Frank clearly acknowledges that he provided the invitation for me to come to Henly, but he wasn’t responsible. He’d tell you that it was a Divine appointment.
I resigned as pastor from Henly Baptist Church in 1991 when we moved to Midland. I was working for Texas Baptist Children’s Home at the time and they transferred me to West Texas. After a couple of years, I had a chance to return to Henly Baptist Church. The weekly commute from Midland had the potential to be a killer, but instead it was like being provided a fresh start. Despite the fact that it represented a 600-mile round trip commute every weekend, it proved to be manageable because it was the right thing to do.
Unlike my experience in Mertzon where I missed my regular job through the regular work week, in Midland I longed for the role I had served as pastor at Henly Baptist Church. I’d left that behind when we moved to Midland and it didn’t feel right. I guess the bottom line is, “I want it all”. I need both pieces of my life to be fulfilled and content.
If I were to write a book, I would not entitle it “Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic”. I’d craft it as a simple four-word title: “Bless Beyond My Deserving”. Never have I know such love.
All My Best!
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