Prevent and follow us

Sorry for the loooong absence here. I had all manner of reasons for not blogging for a bit, and now I’m eager to get back to it. There’s quite a back log of rants and so on, so I’ll try to get something posted. If you’ve been yearning to see something covered here at 7WD, do let me know.

In any case, this post begins a new series of meditations on some of the collects we pray in autumn in the Episcopal Church. These meditations were offered at a retreat this morning at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. The collects go by so quickly, we may not slow down and appreciate them. So this is my effort to appreciate some lovely prayers, beginning with the collect appointed for tomorrow.

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Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for Proper 23, the Sunday closest to October 12)

I have a small collection of hymnals, and some years ago, I was excited to get a copy of the then-new United Methodist Hymnal. Quite vividly, I remember flipping through the pages, noticing new hymns and so forth. As you have probably noticed, hymnals, including our own Episcopal Hymnal 1982, often have section headers, and I was also looking to see how the United Methodist Hymnal was organized. I was intrigued when I came across a section called “Prevenient Grace.”

Calvary Pittsburgh high altar

Prevenient Grace. At the time, this was a new term for me. The second word, “grace” is pretty easy to sort out. This is God’s gift to us. Grace might be our very salvation or, more usually, as God working in us and our world. Then there is “prevenient.” If you break down that word into its Latin origins, it means, go before.

Prevenient Grace. The idea is that God sometimes works in us to draw us toward God. Do we choose to become Christians? More to the point, do we choose to have faith? Well, of course we do. But prevenient grace also means that sometimes our choice is assisted by the great gift of God working in our lives before we know we are ready.

In older prayer books, this collect began, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always prevent and follow us…” Prevent. It’s archaic English, but it means “go before”, just like “prevenient.” We are asking for God’s grace to God before us and to go behind us. We are asking to be surrounded by God’s grace.

To pray that God’s grace may go before us is to acknowledge that we won’t manage it on our own. This collect is a beautiful reminder that we need God. Sometimes we need God in order to find God.

In this collect, we also ask God for “good works”. And here the sequence is important. Christians have argued for centuries about good works. Can we earn our salvation by doing good works? Does God love us more if we do more good works?

What depth of theology and teaching we find in this little prayer! We are reminded that all our good works come from God. They are not a reflection of our will, but of God’s grace. We do not do good works so that God will love us. Quite the opposite. We do good works because God loves us. We do not, and cannot, do good works to earn our salvation. Instead, we do good works because God has already saved us.

Prevenient Grace. This idea changes everything. It makes our whole lives about God, not about us. To speak of prevenient grace is to speak of a God whose grace and glory shines through your life and mine. To speak of prevenient grace is always to see possibility. If God’s free gift of grace can work in your life and in my life, then God might work in anyone’s life. There is no one beyond God’s grace. All that we do, everything, is meant to be done to the glory of God.

We cannot and we will not live to the glory of God on our own. As we say in our baptismal promises, “I will, with God’s help.” To do good, we must be surrounded by God’s grace. I invite you do reflect on those times when God’s grace has gone before you. And perhaps you will ponder how you might be even more open to God’s grace working in your life.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Photo: High Altar at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. Taken by yours truly with an iPhone.

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3 Responses

  1. I seem to recall hearinng another collect, or perhaps even earlier version of this one, that began “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings….” (Can’t find in my collection of old and ancient BCPs, however.)

    • Scott Gunn says:

      It’s from the 1662 prayer book (and it’s also a Byrd anthem text):

      Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help: that in all our works begun continued, and ended in thee, we may glorifie thy holy Name, and finally by thy mercy obtein everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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