The Apostle Paul perfectly captures the paradox that stands at the heart of Christian life in a single sentence from his letter to the Philippians. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:12).
The most important part of that sentence comes at the end. God is at work in us, shaping both our will—that is to say, the choices we make—and our work, meaning the things that we do.
Ultimately Paul is reminding us that everything comes to us as a gift from God, including most importantly, our relationship with God.
We couldn’t get to God on our own, so God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We were trapped in sin and death, so Christ freed us by submitting to death on the cross and then rising again. Even now, the Holy Spirit is within us, inspiring us, empowering us, helping us to take the next step in our journey with God.
All of it is God’s grace. The most we can hope for on our own, and even here grace is at work, is to respond in gratitude and faith to what God has done and is doing for us.
That is the Christian good news. And that is one part of the paradox that Paul identifies.
But with that good news of God’s grace comes a responsibility, which is the other side of the paradox. Our choices, our actions, matter. God is at work in us. AND Paul tells us to work out our own salvation. There is mystery here. But both God’s action and our action are necessary.
Now, we always celebrate the first part of the paradox, the good news of God’s grace and love. But two seasons of the Christian year, Christmas and Easter, particularly focus on God’s gracious actions on our behalf. If it weren’t Lent, I might add an “alleluia” here!
The main season of the entire Christian year focusing on the second half of the Christian paradox, focusing on our actions, begins today: Lent.
Lent is the season for us to work at our relationship with God. In Lent, we are invited, in the name of the Church, to take on a whole series of practices that are part of working out our salvation. Self-examination and repentance. Prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
I encourage you to take that invitation seriously, to commit today to some form of Christian discipline, and to stick with it through Lent.
Here at Saint David’s, we offer lots of options.
Say Morning Prayer or another set of daily prayers from the Prayerbook. There are forms on the table at the back. Take a Prayer Partner, or use one of our prayer cycles.
Join us in reading a chapter of the New Testament each day, or attend one of our Bible studies. Maybe our Sunday Lenten Study on the Apostle Paul. Use a Lenten devotional. There are some of those at the back, too.
Participate in Lent Madness, and learn a little something about the saints of our tradition.
Walk the Stations of the Cross with us on Friday mornings. That’s a really powerful way to engage with the story of what Christ went through for us.
And those are just things that we are sponsoring. There is a LOT you might do this Lent to work out your salvation, or at least to work on your relationship with God. Please take advantage of the opportunity this season presents.
But there is an obvious problem, or at least an obvious obstacle. A lot of us are busy. The prospect of taking on one more thing can feel burdensome.
In a book I just finished, Thomas Kelly says that “our lives… grow too complicated and overcrowded. Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk, and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through a never-ending program of appointments” (89).
Kelly goes on to say that we tend to blame the problem of our busyness on the complexity of the demands on us and on technologies that “give us more stimulation per square hour than used to be given per square day to our grandmothers” (90).
None of that is exactly news. The startling thing is that Kelly wrote those words in 1941. Think what he might say today!
So here is the Lenten dilemma. On one hand, Lent is a season for us to work, for extra prayer and worship and Bible study and works of love. On the other hand, the real task of Lent is to grow closer to God. And for those who feel over-committed, harried, and exhausted, growing closer to God requires us to reduce our commitments, to do less.
This is, in part, a practical problem. If we are already busy and we want to take on something new, we need to give something up in order to create space for the new thing.
So, with heaviness of heart, I will, once again, give up Sudoku. In flagrant disregard for Jesus’ instructions in our Gospel reading, I will look dismal and complain about that a lot! But I recognize that dropping something is necessary if I want to spend more time with God without making myself even crazier.
But Kelly’s goal is more radical than simply balancing our responsibilities better. Kelly insists that “religion isn’t something to be added to our other duties, and thus make our lives yet more complex” (97). Religion, our relationship with God, is supposed to be the center around which other responsibilities revolve. Our relationship with God should be part of everything we do, not one task among others.
It might seem like that would be easy for a priest. My job description includes God. God floats around the edges of most of what happens at Church.
And yet I forget. As I work on the tasks of my day, I often have little or no thought of God. I assume the same is true for most contemporary Christians.
So how can we integrate God into our lives so that our every act becomes a prayer, an offering to God?
For most of us, becoming conscious of God during the ordinary course of our lives requires times of intentional practice. And that is what Lent is for. But giving things up, if only temporarily, may be more important than taking things on.
So, take a few minutes, in these first days of Lent, to think about what most distracts you from God. Think about what you need to give up in order to make time each day to truly focus on God. Think about what you can let go, at least for a few weeks.
Call it your “fast,” your fast from distractions that draw you from the love of God.
Come Easter, we may well stop our “fasting.” I will certainly return to Sudoku! But hopefully a season of fasting can help us to become more conscious of God, who is always with us. Hopefully our regular lives will reflect God’s presence a little more clearly. Hopefully our regular lives will become a little more of a prayer and offering to God. If that happens, we will truly have benefitted from a holy Lent.
That is my prayer for us: that we can open ourselves up to God’s presence and God’s gracious work in us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 A Testament of Devotion, 1941
3/3/2020 10:12:30 am
I still wrestle with why, given that God showers us with His grace, it still doesn't "take" much, if at all, for some people. It is hard - impossible? - "both to will and to work for His good pleasure" if you are oblivious to the grace. Do you think everyone is aware of the grace, but that some people choose to ignore it?
3/5/2020 10:13:11 am
It does seem clear that people are not all equally interested in religion/spirituality. I gather the differences may be at least partly hard-wired. But I believe that every human being is hungry, even if not equally hungry, for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, something bigger than themselves and truly lasting. God is the only one who can truly fill that hunger. I also believe that God pours grace on us at all times, and all of us are sometimes receptive and sometimes not. The task we all share is to get a little better at receiving. One difference between us is that the way we experience grace differs, of course. But why people seem differently receptive to any form of grace is a great mystery to me......
3/5/2020 11:11:34 am
Thank you for another great analogy that helps me make sense of things.
3/8/2020 01:14:46 pm
This discussion reminds me of the story of the man caught in a flood who prayed to God to save him. He thought salvation would only come in the form of God’s doing something truly dramatic, like reaching down from heaven and plucking him to safety. Because of this he missed all the more mundane ways God tried to save him. Maybe some are looking for grace in all the wrong places and thus not recognizing the grace that is bestowed upon us.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan