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Published on Sunday, March 15, 2020

Serenity in short supply these days

This has hardly been a serene week. The COVID-19 virus has quarantined whole nations -- imagine Rome without crowds, Venice without tourists, and  soccer games with empty stands!

            Stock markets took a dive off the high board and haven’t even hit the water yet.

            And Saudi Arabia and Russia dumped oil on the market until the price of crude dropped from around $60 a barrel to around $30, Which makes Canadian prices for crude less than $10. Which makes Teck Resources look smart by cancelling their proposed tar sands operation,  and  makes Jason Kenney look foolish for counting on Teck royalties to Make Alberta Great Again.

            As Scott Gilmore editorialized in Maclean’s, “It’s not the end of the world, it just feels that way.”

            Gilmore recalled his childhood days, reading a framed poem on a church wall. He assumed it must be “a piece of ancient wisdom, a psalm from the Old Testament.”

            It was neither. It was a prayer written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in the 1930s:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

            It’s commonly called the “Serenity Prayer.” Alcoholics Anonymous popularized it. Other self-help programs have picked it up.

            Are prayers the answer to today’s chaos?


Loss of faith in simple prayers

            I used to think that prayers could persuade a heavenly godfather to fix things. Usually, to fix things for me, but occasionally for someone else.

            I held that belief, even though God didn’t bring me a Maserati, until the Indonesian tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. Some self-professed Christians declared that they had called out to God, or Jesus, or someone, as they were being swept out to sea. And God obediently flung them back up on the beach.

            And I wondered why God hadn’t saved 400,000 others who, presumably, also prayed to someone, or something, and didn’t get saved.

            Was God only the God of Christians?

            Does God respond only to the right passwords?

            Is God a harsh judge, who saves only those who deserve to be saved?

            Or does God, in fact, not intervene in natural events?

            I don’t,  by the way, argue that there is no God to intervene anyway. I remain totally convinced that there is something, which I happen to call “God” but for which others may have other names, that pervades the universe.

            But I no longer expect that “something” to act as a supernatural Mr. Fixit.


Ancient wisdom

            Even so, despite my skepticism, I would far rather have a lot of people praying for me than praying against me. Or supporting a cause than opposing it.

            So where does that leave me?

            With Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, I suppose. If fixing’s  needed, I need to do whatever I can. If it’s beyond me, I simply need to accept that fact.

            Which is pretty much what another “ancient piece of wisdom” stresses. This one is called Desiderata, written by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Some lines will be familiar:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste… Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be… In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul…”


Every little bit helps

            Like Jason Kenney, nothing you and I can do will jack oil prices up again. Not even Warren Buffett can rescue the stock markets by himself. And we wouldn’t recognize a corona virus if we met one on the street.

            But that doesn’t make us helpless.

            Scott Gilmore offered his own solution. He wrote, “We are inarguably in the depths of a global refugee crisis, a global environmental crisis, a global public health crisis, and a global economic crisis. It feels like it’s all coming undone.

            “It’s times like this that I unconsciously repeat the Serenity Prayer to myself. And it helps. There are things none of us can change right now. But there are many, many things we can do.”

            Things like washing our hands. Leaving the car in the garage. Giving a few dollars to charities who are doing something. Wasting less. Volunteering at the Thrift Shop or Red Cross. Washing our hands. 

            Gilmore called such actions,  “Simple things. Banal actions that seem almost pathetic in their smallness. Tiny things, none of which really matter in the big picture. And yet, almost magically, when we do them together, do them day by day, they do matter.”

            Maybe prayer is like doing those simple things. Together.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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About last week’s column, about the COVID-19 virus in Canada, Cliff Boldt had been thinking along somewhat similar lines, and sent a copy of his own musings.  He more or less lamented the loss of  personal contact resulting from isolation efforts. And Eduard Hiebert recommended several CBC programs that had dealt with the COVID-19 scare too.


“Of course, there's a lot of over-reaction,” Tom Watson wrote. “But what should we expect when so much misinformation is being spread and many people don't know where to find correct information and what sources to believe? One thing is certain: the global economic impact is huge.”


Bob Rollwagen also took aim at misinformation: “Nothing worse than conflicting information from self-interested sources mixed in with facts from medical professionals about something only a few can understand at this early stage. Yes, China can be blamed but so can the rest of the free world for putting China in that position and for not following basic management rules concerning single-sourced supply chains. Need I say more?  Global free trade is a valiant target but it needs to be balanced with global human rights. Until we discover how to displace military production and structures as the base of the strongest world economies’ power source, we will have to trust the natural evolution of the planet to set the speed for change. Does this mean global warming will set the pace towards a new world?”


Steve Roney told me, “You are wrong to be as sanguine as you are about COVID-19. While you are right that it is not as deadly as cancer or Ebola if you contract it, that is only one relevant variable. The other is how virulent it is. When you put these two together, unless the virus mutates or some effective treatment or vaccine is quickly found, we are probably looking at a death toll in the tens of millions, and the worst pandemic in at least the last hundred years. That is far from trivial.

            “At your age, you in particular should be taking this more seriously.

“How many cases there are [at present] in Canada now is not relevant, unless the virus is going to suddenly stop spreading. The figures now are about double what you cite in your column, written, as you say, a few days ago. Doubling every four days or so-- do you know that old fable about starting with a grain of rice, and doubling it for every square on the chessboard? By the end of that exercise, the man who struck the simple bargain had all the grain in Egypt.

            “As the virus spreads, given the present trajectory, hospital facilities will soon be swamped. This should happen by mid-May in North America; sooner, of course, in most other parts of the world. Whatever the death rate is now, it should jump at that point.

            “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s no small thing.


There were also several letters following up on discussion on the Jean Vanier column, the week before. I’ve decided not to continue that discussion. 






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.


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