Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: Help Thanks Wow

There are times when we don't know what to pray. Sometimes it's because we're so broken or lost or speechless. At other times it's because we've come to the conclusion that prayer is supposed to be done in a certain way or else it's not valid.

I'll never forget the high school kid who talked like a normal high school kid, complete with the usual assortment of cuss words, but when he prayed, he suddenly switched to High King James English: "O Lord, we do bless Thee, and thankest Thee for Thy bountiful blessings, and we do look to Thee in our hour of need."

Some people are gifted with the gift of eloquence, while the rest of us flounder around trying to make sense of life in our common vernacular.

Help Thanks Wow is Anne Lamott's effort at making prayer simple and accessible, making sense of something so deep and profound and nonsensical as interacting with the Creator God who is above and beyond all that we know.

Well, not so much the underlying truth of prayer. If anything, Lamott pushes back at our attempts to make prayer too simple, too predictable, too sensible. As if prayer could be made routine, as if it were a formula employed to make God do what we want. Instead, she reminds us that prayer doesn't make sense - our prayers are often selfish, they don't often get answered, they often conflict with other prayers. Prayer doesn't often save us from sickness or divorce or addiction, at least not in the usual way we would hope for.

And God - Lamott honestly admits to not really understanding God, and goes to great lengths to not try to paint any specific understanding of God on the reader. God is so much bigger and stronger and stranger and magnificent and mysterious than any of us really consider, and Lamott readily admits to confusion and mystery in the presence of the Almighty.

All of which makes many Christians uncomfortable. She challenges commonly-held beliefs and assumptions, she refers to God in the feminine, she sometimes calls God "Something." Her understanding of God's Kingdom is a lot broader and inclusive than most Christians, at least the conservatives and evangelicals, like. There are certainly pieces of her belief system with which I disagree.

But the heart of this book is prayer, the place where humanity and divinity meet. And this, says Lamott, should be simple. So she offers three little prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow. (to those seasoned Christians reading this, think Supplication, Gratitude, Adoration).

Help - the prayer at the end of our rope, when nothing makes sense, when the kid has run away, when sickness is winning, when money is running out, we pray help.

Thanks - the word spoken for the blessings that come, for friends, for a paycheck, for a sunrise, for a parking space, for breath, for bread, for a smile, for a bird's song, for love, we pray thanks.

Wow - when we are pulled outside of ourselves by the beauty of an aria, by the sharp tang of a blackberry, by the beauty of new life in spring, for transcendent moments, by an unexpected treat, we say wow.

Lamott ends with an Amen, which is simply surrender that it will be, and it will be well. Giving it all to God and letting it remain there. We let go, we trust, we forgive, we surrender.

Help Thanks Wow is a simple little book and a fairly easy read; I've probably made this review even more complicated than the book. But this is a helpful book to remind us that prayer can be simple; it's an especially helpful book if you are have a hard time getting into prayer and need something fresh to push you in a new direction. Lamott is a fine writer with her own unique perspective on the world, and while I disagree on some of her conclusions regarding God and faith, I still think she has given us something valuable, if only her own take as a person struggling to find a prayer language that fits her life, her story, and her unique relationship with God.

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