It’s the end of the year and most of us are pretty tired. Between Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday and Christmas Day, we have a marathon of services, hurdles of tradition versus new ideas, and a juggernaut of music, readings, plays, parties, and sermons. Panting, we come skidding into the Epiphany- hoping for a nap, inspiration, and a dearth of pastoral calls- in no particular order.
In all this, did you remember to pray?
Perhaps you did. Deep heartfelt prayers and quiet meditations. Rushed words tumbling out of your mouth in between activities. Memorized stanzas comfortable, familiar and consoling. Muttered phrases just upon waking and just before falling asleep. I hope that you got a few prayers in, but I trust that God heard all the prayers of our hearts and minds.
Knowing our need for rest and our need for prayer, I commend to you the very brief new work from Anne Lamott on prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow. (Lamott on Facebook and Twitter) The hardback edition has 102 slim pages and, like most of Lamott’s writing, it goes down like your favorite food that also happens to be good for you (high in fiber or protein or what-have-you).
There is little research here on the history of prayer or the orans posture or even prayers of the Bible or other holy writings. Instead, Lamott ponders her own history in prayer- her way of communicating with God. She exposes her own soft underbelly by telling of how she speaks to God in the depth of pain, in great joy, and in times of deep need. In so doing, she draws the reader into a conversation about the reality of what prayer is and how it happens, rather than instructing on what prayer should “be”.
God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversations. My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re 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 you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would bring tears to my eye, tears of pride in your, for the courage it takes to get real- really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table. So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. (7)
While many of us allow ourselves some realness in our own prayer lives, how do we communicate the power of truth-in-self-in-prayer to our parishioners and congregants? In our encouragement toward fullness in prayer lives (in prayer lives at all), what are the ways you’ve encouraged people toward honesty with God? It is not as though God does not know what we are feeling and thinking. However, for many- the utterance of despair and frustration and truly asking for help is a step too far out to be certain of one’s footing. Yet, doesn’t faith require some honesty? Shouldn’t it promote the same?
Lamott describes three types of prayer: 1) help, 2) thanks, and 3) wow. In each section, she not only gives examples of her own experiences with these prayers, but also their presence in the lives of those around her. She details how expansive they may be and the honesty in their brevity as well.
On “help”, Lamott says:
[W]hen we stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds… when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer. We say, “Help.” We say, Help, this is really all too much, or I am going slowly crazy, or I can’t do this, or I can’t stop doing this, or I can’t feel anything. Or, Help, he is going to leave me, or I have no life, or I hate the one I’ve created, or I forgot to have a life, or I forgot to pay attention as it scrolled by. Or even, Help, I hate her so much and one of my parents is dying- or will never die. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten to the big-ticket items yet: cancer, financial ruin, lost children, incontinence. (29)
We do often utter the most sincere prayers in flashes of grief, joy, and desperation. We know them to be true and we believe them to be heard. This is the gift of prayer- that it is not about getting it right, but getting it heard- getting it said- getting it out- and getting it to God. Our praying (or not) does not inhibit or permit God’s own action in a given circumstance, but the act of praying does open us more to seeing the Holy Spirit, to releasing some of what holds us back, to being honest with ourselves, and thus more able to feel God’s presence with us.
This tiny book makes a good conversation starter for any group or person in the difference between how we think we should pray and what we actually do. Possibilities for its use include a Lenten study, a book group, a spiritual counseling tool, or just a breather read between Christmas and Epiphany- little prayer primer in the time of Great Light. I do recommend this book to you. It’s quick, but you’ll find yourself thinking it over, returning to it, and (probably) quoting parts of it to yourself and to others. For Lamott’s thoughtful work, I pray, “Thanks and wow.”
Lamott, Anne. Help Thanks Wow. Penguin Group; NY, NY. 2012.