In our worship, we use a predetermined set of lessons to guide us through the liturgical year. In Advent, there are readings about expectation and judgment. In the season after the Epiphany, we hear about miracles and other manifestations of Jesus' glory. In Lent, we read about sin and repentance. As much as I might quibble with the lectionary authors about which passages are cut short or omitted entirely from the schedule, I am most grateful for the use of a lectionary, without which I suppose I would be left to figure it out on my own, which would almost certainly make for a boring pattern.
What you may not notice, however, is that with each week's lessons comes a particular prayer, called a "collect" (emphasis on the first syllable). Sometimes it reflects the liturgical season. Often the one or more of the readings is connected to it. Many were written by Thomas Cranmer, and almost all of them are beautiful, poetic, and theologically rich. In my last post for this week, I'd like to focus on the collect for this Sunday and reflect on its remarkably counter-instinctive nature. Here it is in full:
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.It starts with an invocation--Q: To whom are we praying? A: "Almighty and everlasting God." But then it skips the acknowledgment, which is a middle bit usually designed to remind us who it is to whom we're praying. For example, last Sunday we prayed, "Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations...," and you can see that acknowledgment that God has revealed his glory among the nations in Christ. This week, it's missing, which suggests to me that we're even more desperate for an answer than usual.
And what is our prayer? First, that God will "increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity." Think about that for a minute. We're asking God to give us more faith, more hope, and more charity (another word for love). We're not offering these things to God in exchange for something. We aren't pleading our case, making an argument that God should give us something based upon who we are or what we've done. We aren't praying, "Almighty and everlasting God, as we grow in faith, hope, and charity, give us what you promise." Instead, it's pure request.
As the prayer continues, we discover that we're not only asking God to increase our faith, hope, and charity but also to "make us love what you command" so "that we may obtain what you promise." Again, a reiteration of the belief that God doesn't give us what he has promised when we have done what he asked. Instead, we ask for help doing what we need to do so that, through God's help, we finally realize what is being given to us. It's the total opposite of human nature. It's the complete reversal of parenting.
How often do you say to your children, "If you're good, I'll buy you a treat?" We do that all the time. It's what we do. We reward accomplishments. We celebrate achievement. We praise good behavior. And we set all of that up as a conditional relationship: IF you do this, I will give you that. Insert a loud claxon siren here! That's the opposite of grace. That's the opposite of the gospel. And parents like me, who use those techniques, are unwittingly undermining our children's ability to trust that God's love is unresponsive to their behavior and that we need God's good gifts before we even start to do what is asked of us.
Faith is a gift. Hope is a gift. Love is a gift. Obedience is a gift. All of the ingredients to the Christian life are a gift. God gives them to us. Then, God also gives us his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his fulfillment. We bring nothing to the equation. Our relationship with God is not a bartering system. As we will pray this Sunday, God makes it possible for us to trust that God will take care of us. What do we offer? Not one thing. And for that I am thankful.