For some time, I wanted to write about books that are worth suggesting to others to enjoy and be inspired by. As an evangelist for the written word (as opposed to films, television and most music with the exception of The Weepies), I hope to share readable, thought-provoking books with others so that you might enjoy them as much as I have. So, here is my first blog attempt at rabbit trails (notes in the margins), reflection and reviews of pages that I’ve read recently.
“Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers” by Anne Lamott. Part 1 of 3: Help
Forgive me but this is the first Anne Lamott book that I’ve read. There is a copy on my shelf of “Traveling Mercies” that someone at the college lost but it remains unread. Honestly, I was skeptical to read it because so many people were reading it. Since I am such a non-conformist, I couldn’t possibly read anything popular (sarcasm). Furthermore, I (unfairly) assumed it would be a cynical, aggravated-at-the-Church biography similar to “Blue Like Jazz,” but with a female protagonist. While I resonate with some squinty-eyed faithful folks like Flannery O’Connor or Frederick Buechner, I am skeptical of cynics. My only experience with Lamott was an essay read in an episode of This American Lifewhen she described an airline flight and music (see below). I should have moved sooner to read her work.
However (in my best Steven A. Smith voice), few books have more underlining and notes in the margins as, “Help, Thanks, Wow” which means that “Traveling Mercies” just moved up on the To Read list and more of Lamott’s works have been added to the Half.com wish list. In fact, I resonated with Lamott’s writing so much that rarely did two pages pass through my fingers without an underline or a margin-unwritten-in.
From the beginning, Lamott’s style is probably grittier than some folks prefer: She swears a few times but it is used as an honest description and not simply a fill-in word. Also, she is open-minded to the identity of God. Many times, she refers to God as “She” or “Not Me” or “The Grandmothers” or “Mother” but it is simply an attempt to reach her readers who may or may not be that interested in the God of the Bible. She is a faithful Christian, no doubt, but is open-minded about describing God and likes a well-placed swear word, which I appreciate. Sometimes, swearing is necessary, although in some contexts, you’ll risk losing your audience.
“Help, Thanks, Wow” encourages honest communication with The Father. My experience is more hesitant, more calculated when speaking to God. I want to put on a good face. God is awful big and impressive and I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying something silly. Moreover, it is hard to be honest in prayer because honesty requires transparency. Being transparent with the King of the Universe is risky because He can Blast me if He discovered what a weak-willed, sin-finding, jerk-face I really was.
Lamott writes, God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation (6). Furthermore, My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you are close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing that you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It’s all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real- really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table (7). Perhaps the strongest encouragement for honesty comes even earlier, when she writes that it is OK to pray “God, I hate you.” because it is real and it is truth and perhaps the first sincere thought that you’ve had in months (4). It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to hide those details about myself in good conscience.
This kind of honesty reminds me of another recent book purchase by Darrell Hammond of Saturday Night Live fame: God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem. Hope just started reading this book today. I was so intrigued by Hammond’s honesty of in an interview about his life (see below). That title was the first prayer that he ever remembered praying. And, The Father probably thought to himself, “That sounds about right,” and invited Hammond for more conversation.
After encouraging honesty, Lamott echoes the opening line of The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck (rabbit-trailed review coming soon), Life is difficult. The Psalmist and the Prophets were good at admitting the difficulty of life. Habakkuk writes, How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted (1:2-4). The songwriter, Chris Rice has a great song titled, “Naïve.” He writes: How long until You defend Your name and set the record right? How far will You allow the human race to run and hide? Yeah And how much can You tolerate our weaknesses Before You step into our sky blue and say, “That’s quite enough.” Am I naive to want a remedy for every bitter heart? Can I believe You hold an exclamation point for every question mark? And can I leave the timing of this universe to bigger hands? And may I be so bold to ask You to please hurry?
Lamott writes, This is a hard planet, and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray: Help (13). I appreciate the brevity of praying, “Help” because we are so vulnerable. In this prayer, we echo the Prophets and many other Giants of the Faith. Many times, we are like sinking Peter reaching out for the Lord on the water. No fancy words are needed. No King James is necessary. Just, Help. “God help me” is a great prayer, as we are at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable (4).
Lamott also refers to pre-assembled prayers found in the Bible like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23. She compares them to the good china that we use on holidays and special occasions. They are beneficial in reminding us that God is worthy of trust. But more often than not, her good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I am doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help (35).
Lastly, she gives a suggestion of using a God Box. Such a box is filled with notes written to God the Father. Fold it up, stick it in the box and close it. Tell Him, Here! You deal with this! But you must agree to keep your hands off of the concern until God lets you be concerned about it. On nights that I remember to do so, I often pray to the Father before falling asleep, God, if you need me, I’ll be right here. Unless I have missed it, He has never woken me once with a concern that needed my attention.
In closing, I heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s entire Serenity Prayer this summer. Usually, it stops halfway through. It seems like a fitting wrap-up to Lamott’s first chapter about “Help”:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him, forever in the next.