Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear Scripture passages that encourage us to place all of our trust in God. For example, in the Old Testament reading from Isaiah (49: 14-15), we read that just as a mother could never forget her infant, so God could never forget us
In the Psalm of today, we hear, “In God is my salvation and glory, my rock of strength; in God is my refuge. Trust him at all times, O people. Pour out your hearts before him” (Psalm 62: 8-9).
And in the Gospel passage today, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span (Matthew 6: 25-27)?” Jesus then says, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6: 34).
So, from these Scripture passages, we have a very clear message: Do not worry and trust in God.
Well, two thousand years have come and gone since Jesus gave us this message, and even followers of Jesus continue to worry. We are anxious and fearful. We believe bad things might happen to us. Often we think that we have to control our world. What we hear today, however, is that a loving God is watching over us. He cares about each and every one of us. Yes, bad things will happen to us. That is part of the human condition. And yes, we will suffer from time to time. But God will stand with us through all of the trials and tribulations of our lives, no matter how scary they may be.
One man who did some excellent thinking about the concept of worry was a Protestant theologian who lived from 1892 to 1971. Though his full name was Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, he went by Reinhold.
Reinhold was born on June 21, 1892 in Wright City, Missouri. After graduating from college, seminary, and Yale University, he was ordained a Protestant minister, he served for a time in Detroit, Michigan.
Reinhold was a most amazing man. He not only was a profound theologian, he was also an ethicist, political commentator, magazine editor, and eventually a university professor. In his life, he saw so many changes affecting the common person, especially men, and these changes were harming men’s lives. Specifically, he saw how the Industrial Revolution was forcing men from the security of their homes and families and putting them on assembly lines as cogs in a wheel. Further, he also saw how male-only draft and combat laws were denying men the same right to life women enjoyed under the law.
While in Detroit, for example, he visited an automobile plant and observed an automobile factory. There, he saw men toiling in sweltering plants with deafening noise and mind-numbing sameness. He saw the end product was very far removed from the worker’s tasks. In short, he saw how the workers were living lives of quiet desperation, while their bosses raked in huge amounts of money while sitting in air-conditioned offices.
Reinhold not only was a keen observer of the social scene of his time, he was also a gifted writer. He wrote many scholarly books on his observations and insights. But probably the most famous piece Reinhold Niebuhr wrote was a short prayer for a sermon he gave at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts in 1934. It was called the Serenity Prayer. Though the wording was changed a bit from its original, and though some have added lines to it, the most famous version was made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous and later movements that used the 12-Step way of spirituality. The popular version is:
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.
In my life, I have found this prayer to be one of the most helpful prayers I have ever heard or used. At first, I could not understand why one would pray for “serenity.” Then it occurred to me: one prays for what one does not have, not for what one has. Thus, this prayer is especially appropriate in times of trouble and turmoil, in those times when one lacks serenity and is filled anxiety, worry or fear.
This also reminds us to distinguish between what we can change – or control, and what we cannot change – or control. Once we grasp this, our anxiety is greatly reduced.
For example, we cannot change or control people. We can’t change government officials, police departments, or institutions. At least, we cannot change these things by ourselves.
We can, however, change or control to a very large degree, our behavior. Thus, we can do the best job possible raising our children and teaching them to love God. We can do our jobs as best we can. We can show our love to family, friends, and neighbors. We can go to school to learn a trade. We can pray. All of these was can control
Once we distinguish between what we cannot change or control, and what we can, we will be amazed at how filled with serenity – or peacefulness – we will experience.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
“Reinhold Niebuhr,” Wikipedia, September 23, 2017.