Monday, September 09, 2013

BookPastor >> "Help Thanks Wow" (Anne Lamott)

TITLE: Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
AUTHOR: Anne Lamott
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2012, (106 pages).

One of the most challenging tasks for writers is to be able to condense many years of experience into as few words as possible. Whether it is a student writing a research paper under a few hundred words; a pastor preparing a sermon to come under 30 minutes; or a writer who has lots to say but very little space to describe it; writing something short, sweet, and succinct is no easy feat. Anne Lamott has this gift of writing short and impactful pieces. This latest book is no different. Compressing her past 25 years of both praying as well as learning about prayer, she summarizes the three essential prayers of life using a single word for each type.

The first is "Help" which can be intercessions for people, praying for leaders, friends, loved ones, the self, and so on. It grows from an awareness that we are "so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little." Called the "three most terrible truths of our existence," it becomes easier to acknowledge a higher power, and for Christians, that is God. After all, if we think we can do it ourselves, why bother to ask for help? I love this.

"Praying 'Help' means that we ask that Something give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problems."

The second essential prayer is giving thanks. It is easier to give thanks for good things happening to us or our loved ones than bad events or circumstances that hit us cold. Thankfulness comes from a greater revelation of truth that comes with the positive or negative event. How can we give thanks when a friend falls seriously ill? What about bad news? What can we give thanks about when someone we love gets terminal cancer? Can we give thanks when the sole breadwinner of the family loses his job? The key thing is to manage our emotions. Through gratitude, we guide our hearts toward godly behaviour and holy thinking. It is a behavioral modifier as well as a mind-shifter. It pulls us away from the gravity of self-obsession toward the sanctity of God's presence. One example is her easy irritation with wind. After praying for help, and be ready to consider an alternative view, she starts to see that winds can clear away the haze and smoky particles in the air to reveal sharp and crisp images of the natural world. In a way, the wind can blow away any smog of unhappiness. Thankfulness can do precisely that too.

The third kind of essential prayer is the acknowledgement and recognition of beauty: Wow! The three letter word is described in what is uniquely Lamott style. Beginning briefly with the Scottish etymology of the word, she notices how "wow" is weaved into children's poetry, everyday conversations, exclamations of spectacular sights, and in particular, the wonders and beauty of nature that evokes much amazement. "Wow" and "awe" has much in common.

Although the book is about three essential prayers, there is a fourth that gets slipped in toward the end: Amen. This is a prayer of acceptance and trust that God will do what He needs to do. In fact, this one word demonstrates a confidence not in our prayers, but in the power and person of God. 

So What?

What I really appreciate is Lamott's insight about prayer being turning attention away from self and toward God. If asking for help and giving thanks is a greater awareness of God near us, wow is that deeper assurance that God is present everywhere. This is one of the clearest and easiest to read prayer books that talk about intercession and petition; gratitude and thanksgiving; wonder and amazement. Keeping things simple, the three different kinds of prayer are eloquently summarized in one word which makes it really easy for laypersons to remember. The remembrance of one word can trigger off a flurry of memories and thoughts.

The conclusion of all praying activities is this: "It changes me." CS Lewis has said it. Oswald Chambers has said it. Now, Lamott affirms it. When all else fails, there is prayer for help. There are opportunities to give thanks. There are plenty of ways to say "wow." There is that quiet assurance that causes us to squeak in an Amen. Prayer is indeed less about us, but more about turning our eyes on Jesus, and to tune our entire disposition toward Christlikeness.


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