Transcending Space and Time
I suppose if I had a "most formative religious experience," it didn't actually take place in my lifetime, but occurred to a teenage boy 126 years ago. He was my great-grandfather, Gustav Niebuhr, after whom I'm named.He goes on to tell of how his great-grandfather's conversion to Christianity had ongoing implications for his family and writes of the elder Gustav's conversion saying,
About Gustav: He was strong-willed and adventurous, with something of a rowdy streak. At 18, he abruptly pulled up stakes from his native German village, found his way to a seaport and set sail for America. He got as far west as Illinois, where he shifted between agricultural and factory labor, eventually ending up working for his cousins, fellow immigrants who owned a farm. They were pious folk and used to invite him to church. He typically refused.Those words did matter as they were a turning point for a whole family that would follow. Though he doesn't go into detail in the column, his family is one of famed theologians. His grandfather was H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) whose book Christ and Culture was formative for me when I read it while serving as a pastor intern in Tanzania.
But one day, he took them up. There's no record that's come down to me about what he heard that morning. But a sermon changed his life. Words do matter: I take that on faith.
Another of the Niebuhr offspring effected by that Sunday in the farm country of Illinois was Richard's brother, Rheinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) who wrote perhaps the best known prayer of the 20th century the text of which (not usually printed in full) reads:
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
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 I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Sometime after the prayer was written, the old Federal Council of Churches used it in some literature and later it was printed on small cards to give to soldiers. Later still it became the prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step groups. Now it has been printed millions of times and prayed billions of times by people looking for the courage to change what they know they need to change about themselves.
Of course, Rheinhold Niebuhr could have come to faith and ended up writing the Serenity Prayer anyway, but his great nephew Gustav wonders if that is not the ongoing effect of a the patriarch Gustav Niebuhr's conversion that Sunday long ago.
The contemporary writer Gustav Niebuhr concludes his column A 19th-century decision resonates still by writing,
I could quote Faulkner here, about the past not being past. But I think it's more to the point to say that experiences involving faith--which I consider deeply human experiences--can be exceptionally powerful. They can transcend space and time, and can even be felt for generations.peace,
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor