The Power of Intention and a Prayer for Serenity

by | Apr 5, 2020

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’
Matthew 21:1-2

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:4-8

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  
Matthew 27:45-46

Please pray with me:  

God, grant us the serenity
To accept the things we cannot change,
The courage to change the things we can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as we would have it
Trusting that you will make all things right
If we surrender to your will;
So that we may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. 

–The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr

I’d like to speak to you about a poignant, confusing, heartbreaking, and awe-inspiring dynamic that moves us between living with intention to address all that which lies within our power to change when there is so much that must be changed, and accepting–eventually with serenity, although it can take awhile to get there–the things that we cannot change. I’m struck that in what’s known the world over as “the serenity prayer,” serenity is something that we ask God to grant us, suggesting that when we experience it, serenity comes not through our will, but as a gift. 

What I want to leave you with, to borrow from William Blake, is a “firm persuasion,” (1) a determined resolve to live these days as best you can, with intention and equanimity–an important word for this time, meaning calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. Like serenity, a firm persuasion is something to pray for, not try to force upon yourself as an act of will. My prayer is that God will give you the particular grace you need to rise to what’s being asked of you now, so that you can live with intention and do what needs to be done. 

At the same time, I pray that you might know the transformative grace that comes whenever you must accept what you cannot change, and allow yourself to feel grief as you surrender what or who is being taken from you. When that moment comes, there is no escape, really, although we instinctively fight it for a long time. In the end, the only option is to let go and lean back, trusting the rope of God’s love will hold. May you receive assurance that God will meet you in the moment of surrender. I’m not speaking only to you, of course, but to myself. May God grant us the serenity to accept things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Consider the interplay between intention and acceptance for Jesus in the last week of his life:    

First, think of the intention with which Jesus entered Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples walked 100 miles to get there from their base of operations in Galilee. And, as biblical scholars point out, it wasn’t because Jesus was tired that he rode a donkey for the final stretch. (2) It was his intention to make his entrance as he did, and the crowds responded just as he had hoped.

Now, was it his intention for events to unfold as the gospel accounts describe in such tortuous detail? Some voices in our biblical texts are unequivocally clear–yes, he came to die for us and everything happened according to divine plan. Other voices in the texts suggest, painfully so, that it wasn’t his intention and certainly not his desire to suffer and die as he did. But even in that branch of the tradition, you never get the sense that Jesus was surprised or that he railed against what happened. His intention went deeper than any expectation of outcome. He would walk the way of love to the end, no matter what.  

As we walk through these days–or weeks, months, however long they last–that’s the kind of intention to pray for, a firm persuasion that rises from a place of inner resolve. On some days, I grant you, getting through the day may be intention enough, particularly for those carrying great burdens. On other days, God’s grace may inspire more of us to action–albeit from our homes–for greater good. How the world needs that now. 

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry said something this week about his own intentions. Taking his cue from the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself,” he’s decided that his way of living through this time is to ask himself each day  “How can I love God today? How can I love my neighbor today? How can I love myself today?” (3) It’s a practice we do well to emulate. It helps keep our focus on that which lies within our power. And when we run up against the limits of our love, as we surely will, then our prayer can be to ask God to increase our capacity to love. 

Keep in mind that intention does not assume perfection. In fact, it assumes imperfection, that we will fail to live up to that which we intend. What intention does is keep us on the path even when we fail, when we fall short, when we fall down. Intention allows us to say as we lay our heads to sleep, “Okay, that was today. Tomorrow I begin again.” 

Jesus also lived through the experience of accepting what he could not change. Remember his prayer in the  Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He knew then what was coming. He feared not only death, but also the unraveling and destruction of everything his life had stood for. He knew how fragile his disciples were, how fickle the crowds, how deeply those in authority resented him. He went to the garden to pray, specifically to pray for a way out. When none came, he did the only thing left to him–he turned his face toward what was coming and he accepted that fate as God’s will. On the cross, he cried out his feelings of abandonment even as he surrendered his spirit.  

There is spiritual language for such times, drawn from the story of Jesus’ Passion: we speak of our gardens of Gethsemane, our crosses to bear, our dark night of the soul. The psalmist wrote of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Dorothy Day described “the long loneliness” of her life. The poet William Wordsworth wrote, “A great distress hath humanized my soul.” (4) We’d like to pass over our distresses if we could, but when we can’t, Jesus’ story becomes our own. One gift in observing Holy Week is its reminder that accepting what we do not choose is holy work. 

So as we begin, I invite you to set an intention. Let it be an intention to receive whatever it is that God seeks to give you now. Allow the prayers and rituals of this season 

be a means through which God might speak to you in a personal, sustaining, and transformative way. This year, the holiest season for Christians overlaps with the Jewish commemoration of Passover, and the Holy Month of Ramadan falls within the Christian season of Eastertide. May we take heart in knowing that people across the world are praying their deepest prayers, born of both suffering and hope.

For those of us who follow Jesus, this is a timely week to invite Jesus to make His presence known in suffering. Dare to name aloud before God whatever it is that you’re struggling with, whatever hurts the most, scares, worries or energizes you now. Listen for what word, what guidance, what reassurance may come, and then pray: 

Dear 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. 

And the grace to trust that You are here. 


(1)  “Then I asked: Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so make it so? He replied: All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains: but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.” William Blake, quoted in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte (NYC: Riverhead Books, 2001), p.3
(2) Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
(3) Habits of Grace Invitation from Presiding Bishop Curry
(4) So once it would have been–’tis so no more; I have submitted to new control: A power is gone, which
            nothing can restore; A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.
            Poetry Foundation – Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm