The wonderful twentieth century
story-teller Isaac Bashevis Singer once admitted: “I only pray when I am in
trouble.  But I am in trouble all the
time, and I pray all the time.”  Even
when we need to pray, because of the trouble we’re in, or when we want to pray,
because of the thankfulness we feel, we sometimes lack the words. When I can’t
find words for my prayers, I turn gratefully to the prayers of other
people.  They help me to say what I need
and want to say to God. 

Even though I have never been
even an amateur sailor, and  the last
time I went fishing was with my uncle in a West Virginia trout stream when I
was a boy, I resonate to this prayer offered by a Breton fisherman: “O God, thy
sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” While I have intimations and hints
of God’s vastness, mystery and wonder, I also know that they are sounding from
a greater immensity and splendor than I will ever begin to comprehend: “thy sea
is so great; my boat is so small.” 
Then, there’s this prayer of
Thomas Merton’s which I have prayed so often that, if it were a quarter I kept
in my pocket, it would be worn smooth and imageless by now:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your
will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire
to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all
that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may
know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to
be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
When I can’t see the road ahead, and when I
am confused not just about what to do but about who I am, I cling to this
assurance that God is so gracious and understanding that our desire to please
God is enough to please God. 
I miss the delightful comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, 
once said to Hobbes: “Know what I pray for?” 
“The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can’t
and the incapacity to tell the difference.”
“You should lead an interesting life.”
“Oh, I already do.”  (8-28-92,
Universal Press Syndicate)
Of course, Calvin had scrambled-up what
we know as “The
Serenity Prayer,” which is central to the daily practice
of millions of people.  The prayer originated
in the mind and heart of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “
God grant me
the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the
things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I have known this
prayer for most of my adult life, but, these days, I pray it with deeper
urgency.  It helps me to ask the right
questions, even when answers are slow to come: 
What is serenity,
anyway?  I know what peace is like when I
can wade in the French Broad River or a rushing creek on hot day, or when
understanding finally overtakes confusion in a relationship which has known too
much stress and strain, or when morning breaks with new possibility after a
frightening night.  But what does
serenity, peace, look, feel, and sound like when there a storm brews up and you
can’t find shelter or when every path open to you leads to the unknown? 
What are the things I
cannot change?  There are some things
about all of us that won’t change, and some of them are trivial and don’t
matter.  I won’t have more hair in any of
the places I would like to have it.  I
won’t ever have the metabolism of a teenage boy again, so I have to think about
what I eat.  There are things we cannot
change that are more serious: some people face limits on their abilities and
opportunities which are unjust, unfair and inexplicable.  Their lives are narrowed in ways I know God
does not intend but also in ways that do not change.  Tragedy and brokenness are real, and they
result in things which cannot change, until all things are made new and whole
and right.
How can I be sure
that I am not surrendering too soon and yielding too early because I lack
courage?  What if it isn’t as late as I
think?  What if I have let other people
tell me what’s possible, rather than God? 
And what is
courage?  I am learning that it is
nothing more, but also nothing less, than doing a next right thing, no matter
how unsettling or intimidating, with the confidence that God’s love is more
tender and more tenacious than any other reality.     
And what about wisdom?  It is ability to see past the glitter or the
grime which rests on the surface of things and to perceive there the presence
of God, to hear the tender voice of Jesus beneath the clamor and confusion of
the loudest and most insistent voices, and to feel beyond the demands of the
urgent and overwhelming, the stirrings of joy and blessing. 
I mention these three prayers—the
prayer of the fisherman on the vast sea in his small boat, Merton’s plea always
to desire to please God, and Niebhur’s search for serenity, courage, and
wisdom—not simply because they have helped me to pray when I lacked words of my
own, but also because all three acknowledge, in their own ways, that there are
depths and heights in God which are far beyond our capacity fully to comprehend
and that we face questions and challenges which stretch
us beyond our ability to manage.  That
kind of acknowledgment is, I think, where prayer begins and the spiritual life
takes on reality.