The Collect for the third Sunday in Lent
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves:
Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; 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.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up
I was recently reminded of a pastoral encounter in the first days of my ministry. It had to do with a quite elderly woman who lived alone in a big house, a crusty New Englander whose unhappiness with life was somewhat contagious, making the people around her as unhappy as she was. She was especially tough on this clergyman.
I was the only one at the church on the day when the call came to the office. It was an alert from one of those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” buttons. I went over to her house. It turns out she had been shuffling around on the floor for well over 24 hours, maybe more, never losing consciousness but simply unable to get up. She was so stubborn in her commitment to her own self-sufficiency and independence that she refused to push the button. She finally realized that she had no power in herself to help herself. But boy was she unhappy to realize her dependency, to have to push the button. We spent a good many hours together as we waited for her children to arrive from out of town. By the end of the time, she admitted that she now liked me. I wonder if recognition of her vulnerability had something to do with that shift. I bet Brené Brown would say so.
“God helps those who help themselves.” Contrary to popular opinion, that adage is not in the Bible. It may be a commendable call to take responsibility, but it bumps up against truth conveyed in the collect we heard in church yesterday. That collect begins with the premise that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. In other words, we need help.
The season of Lent, with a focus on self-examination, may help us realize that. Have you ever felt that you had no power in yourself to help yourself? The great Swiss theologian and pastor Karl Barth was once asked where he liked to preach when he visited the states. He said that he preferred to preach in prisons because that’s where he met Americans who actually knew they needed help, knew they needed the gospel.
The recognition of powerlessness seems to be key to the spiritual journey. The good news of our faith means that power is in fact available and accessible. I suspect many are familiar with the first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). I’ve come to favor the paraphrase which says: Blessed are those who know their need of God. The first step in accessing holy help is to admit we need it. That is why we have a penitential season like Lent. That is why we regularly say the confession in our liturgy. That is why at baptism we promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever we sin. Not if ever we sin. Whenever.
And what kind of help are we looking for? The collect says we need help to be kept in body and soul. We need holy help in all aspects of our lives.
When we ask for help so that our bodies can be defended from all adversities, it may mean prayer for healing, for release from physical ailments that render us helpless. It may be prayer for those who face persecution from adversaries, like the people of Ukraine. The phrase reminded me of Ta-Nahisi Coate’s painfully beautiful book Between The World And Me, written to his son about how racism threatens his son’s body.
And we need help as our souls may be assaulted and hurt by evil thoughts. That’s why the refrain from Psalm 51 is so important as we ask: Create in me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me. Evil thoughts, coming in great variety, may be murderous, lustful or vengeful thoughts we’d be embarrassed to have projected on a screen. They may be thoughts of comparison: envy, jealousy. They may be thoughts that arise from an unwillingness to forgive, so that we stew in resentment. We need help to live with those.
We admit we don’t have power in ourselves. Thanks be to God, that does not mean that there is no power available to heal and protect and bring new life. That’s good news. That’s gospel. That’s what Jesus is about.