Monday Matters (August 14, 2023)


The Collect read in church on August 13

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

These days, Monday Matters offers reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.

Ask for it

What does yesterday’s collect (see above) say about what we believe? It asserts that we need the spirit to think and do those things that are right. We need God’s help to live according to God’s will. It’s the counter-punch to the adage: God helps those who help themselves. Many people think that adage comes from scripture. It may convey the spirit of our age, a commitment to rugged individualism. But it’s not in the Bible. So where does that leave us?

Yesterday’s collect reminded me of the seventh chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Roman church. In that chapter, in a most personal way, St. Paul describes his own spiritual crisis, maybe even a breakdown.

The first chapters of this important letter have been focused on the human condition, how all of us are caught up in powers beyond our control, powers greater than ourselves. Paul speaks of the power of Christ to bring new life. Deep theological stuff. A broad vision covering all of history. Then in the seventh chapter, he gets personal, speaking about challenges he has faced in his own spiritual journey.

He writes: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For the desire to do the good lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that, when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand… Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

I know not everyone likes St. Paul. Some regard him as cranky and legalistic. But for me, St. Paul is a spiritual hero. He recognizes and wrestles with his urges to be a control freak. I get that. (Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for clergy.) He was willing to share his struggles. One of the marks of great spiritual leaders is transparency, a revelatory dimension that shows the ways they work on their own spiritual lives, the ways they work on their own discipleship. St. Paul shares that in this and other letters.

We don’t know the particulars of St. Paul’s struggles, but it is clear he feels ill equipped to meet them. He believes he lacks resources in himself to overcome them. I am grateful that his struggle is included in scripture. It offers freedom to move forward. It offers permission to recognize our own imperfections. It offers companionship and comfort: “I’m not the only one who struggles.” And it points to a place to find help.

A wise friend and mentor, the Rev. Carol Anderson, told me a story about leading a church when she had no money, and no music. She knew she needed music. So she prayed for a musician who could help. Shortly thereafter, a Juilliard PhD student in piano called to ask if the church needed help. The student arrived with about eight musicians. As an additional gift, Carol was offering an evening service, again, in dire need of musical leadership. In short order, a very accomplished jazz bass player, who had a gig in the Village, and who had Sunday nights off, arrived with a few pals to “help”. The lesson that my friend and mentor took from this? She said: What is the thing, now, you cannot do without God’s help? Ask for it. This was her experience: To say that God will give us more than we can desire or pray is an understatement.

I’m wondering what is the thing you face this week that you just know you cannot do without God’s help. A relationship? A predicament? An inner struggle? Ask God to work precisely in that place. See what happens. Pray the collect which asks that we, who cannot exist without God, may by God be enabled to live according to God’s will.

-Jay Sidebotham

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