The collects are a treasure of Anglican worship. Many people will know the refrain “Read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest” from the collect that always occurs on the second-to-last Sunday of the church year. Many collects have powerful words. On a recent Sunday, I was struck by the collect:
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Proper 10, Sunday closest to July 13)
In the quest for a Biblical, grace-based discipleship, this collect has some excellent pointers to help us find that road.
It cannot be said too often, nor with too much force, that prayer is a cornerstone for discipleship. Weird that we would offer a prayer that God would hear our prayers! The fact is, it is only by God’s mercy that he receives our prayers. This is the first important piece: we are totally dependent on God — in all things — but perhaps most certainly in discipleship and prayer. In our praying we stand in front of a stone wall with no handholds, no way to ascend. It is God who mercifully lifts us up into God’s presence.
Next we see a rather subtle point. It is easy to skip over words like “know” and “understand.” Don’t we already know and understand what discipleship is all about? If we take this prayer seriously, we must face the idea that we do not know and understand what we are to do. This is hard to take for modern Western people who have been taught from infancy the sufficiency of Reason. We do not recognize how limited our view is, assuming that what lies before us is all there is.
God’s view is not limited! We need God to grant to us knowledge of things we cannot see. This does not mean we don’t make plans. Consider the example of Joseph. When he discovers that Mary is pregnant, he makes plans; he is going to divorce her. This is cruel by modern standards but merciful by the standards of the day. Joseph could not see beyond the practical choice, but God reveals to him that there is a larger perspective that includes Joseph keeping Mary as his wife. This greater perspective is exactly what we need. This is the type of knowing that we need.
Truly, though, there is a difference between knowing and understanding. It is one thing to have the facts, to have, as it were, the front cover of the jigsaw box so we can see where the pieces go. Understanding speaks of something different, deeper. To understand is to have the goodness of the thing to hand. It is not just seeing where the pieces go, but it is seeing the picture in all its richness and complexity.
This seems to be what Jesus is getting at in John 15:10, “I no longer call you servants…I have called you friends.” Jesus has given then much knowledge about what there are going to be up to, but he wants them to understand as friends understand friends. James sees this in Abraham — Abraham believes God (what could be a better definition of friendship than believing someone!). We might sum up understanding as the combination of knowledge and the relationship of friendship. Friendship has been modeled as two working side-by-side on the same task. This is a proper view of discipleship — we work side-by-side with God, in knowledge and understanding.
We’ve come this far, God has mercifully heard us, and granted us knowledge and understanding. Now we just need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. No! We stand at a well-trod point, where grace and faith come together. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of people who accomplished great things by faith. Maybe this is one of those times when faith is better translated trust. As we step out in discipleship, we must trust God. The mystery here is total — without grace there is not faith (trust). This is no mere play of words, for we see the power in this line of thought when we make mistakes. We do not need to fear our mistakes, for when we make mistakes, it changes God’s grace not a smidgen.
Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister who gathereth the worst out of everything wherein we err. (Richard Hooker, Learned Discourse on Justification, xiv)
Hooker was referring to our speech, but it applies to our actions as well.
At last we come to a point that if the idea that we lack of knowledge could make us upset, the notion that we lack power will make the modern person fume. And again this prayer makes us come face to face with our basic limitations. We know how to manipulate the levers of political power to get things done. We know how to invest in the market so we can increase our wealth. We know how to use medicine and technology to make us well. We don’t need to ask God for power, we have power — we just need to use it.
But what if we don’t have power?
What if the Apostle Paul is right when he says:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9–10)
What if it is exactly at the points where we are weak (powerless) that God would have us live?
The reader can be forgiven for thinking that I have painted myself into a corner. Is this not the path to quietism and inaction? Not at all, because this is not the complete path, these are pointers along the path. Or, to change metaphors, this is like the “Go” square in Monopoly. We both start here and also circle back around again and again to this point, collecting our $200, and then going back out “in the power of the Spirit” as disciples of Jesus.
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.