Prelude: Prayer 101
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time,” (p. 5).
While I was reading the prelude of this book, I kept thinking of my university InterVarsity leader Greg Little and what he shared with us one day. He told us how, for Christians, it is much easier to rely on God during the down times in our life compared to the up times. Kind of a bizarre notion isn’t it? Well, he said it’s because we think to rely on God when we’re down, but we don’t think we need to rely on God when we’re up. Isn’t it kind of true? When life seems to suck, we will almost automatically turn to God for help. But what about when life is up? When it’s going great? I’ll admit, I don’t always pray when my life is going great. But as Christians, as human beings who’s lives fluctuate constantly and who don’t always do the “right” thing or the nice thing, we should be relying on God regardless if we’re down, up, middle, or even sideways.
And this is where the prayers of Help, Thanks, and Wow can come in.
Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
This prayer is not about asking God to do this or that, or to get you this or that, or to show you this or that. It’s about asking God to respond, with you in tow, to others “with graciousness and encouragement” regarding their situation, and especially regarding the final outcome of it, whether it is what they desperately wanted or it is what they feared most. The situation can be big or small—from someone cutting you off in traffic to a dear friend, or yourself, receiving a cancer diagnosis.
To me, that means meeting others where they are not trying to force them where they’re not ready to go. Lamott writes on page 27, “But where do we even start on the daily walk of restoration and awakening? We start where we are. We find God in our human lives, and that includes the suffering.” Telling someone “Your relationship falling apart is just for the best; you’ll see eventually” or “God wanted another little angel up in heaven” could be shoving them towards a notion they’re not yet ready to face, and doing that is quite cruel and unloving (un-Christian). Lament with them, cry with them, be with them. But don’t emotionally take them to where you are, you who is not experiencing the pain they are in the way they are.
Of course, and this is the psych major in me, also be cautious that they do not wallow in despair too long. While there is nothing wrong with releasing painful emotions in whatever way they see fit to (minus if it involves hurting others; that is frowned upon in most modern societies), staying in that space without any attempts to begin moving through it can be very toxic. But remember: people process situations differently, and that involves differing time ranges. That also means that some people might want to hear that “God wanted another angel” or that the relationship falling apart will actually be fruitful some time down the line. People are different and that’s okay, but if it’s not your pain, you don’t get to decide how someone will feel and respond to it.
Which is where the help prayer can come in. Pray that you may help someone in the way that benefits them. Pray someone helps you in the way then benefits you. Pray for graciousness for when you encounter someone or something that breaks your heart or your spirit or your desires. Pray that you can give yourself the grace and encouragement you need each day, even when you’re the one who—accidentally or on purpose—broke someone else’s heart, spirit, or desires.
(Yeah, I know, that last one is super hard; is far too easy to be disparaging to ourselves instead of gracious. Also, if you were cruel on purpose, please take a moment to think about why you did that and maybe if you should apologize to the other person. Even if what you did was in retaliation to what they did, perhaps a different path could’ve been chosen. Perhaps not; I don’t know your situation, but I pray for graciousness and encouragement for you nonetheless.)
Another way to view Help prayers is by thinking like 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. We stop the toxic peering and instead turn our eyes to something else” (p. 40)
Lamott mentioned in an anecdote that the only thing she could offer her friend with a dying daughter “prayer and friendship” (p. 22). It reminds me of the notion of “thoughts and prayers” that people ask for, respond with, and bash on. I don’t think I’ve mentioned in my blog yet, but while I do not think sending or receiving “thoughts and prayers” to others during difficult times is bad, I do think it is fairly useless without action. The action can be as simple as a follow-up text or phone call saying “I’m here if you need me” or “I saw your favorite ice cream at the shop and I’ll be at yours in five.” It can be organizing a rally or protest or charity event for the situation. It can be making new or rewriting old laws to be better suited for the new age we’re living in. Actions come in all shapes and sizes and can differ depending on the person and situation.
But again, just to be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with thoughts and prayers; however, without action, I do not believe you are showing love, kindness, godliness to the person(s) who asked for it. And to be clear, I think that typing out or saying aloud a prayer does count as action, but if you never bring up the situation again, in a lovely and respectful way, to see how the person(s) is doing and if there’s anything else they might need, then your spoken or written prayer was a bit shallow. (Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!)
Something I find difficult about praying is that sometimes I pray because I want to change things. I’m sure most of you are aware of the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to except the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
…But some of the things I desperately wish to change, I can never. The 3 things no one can change are “the past, the truth, and you” (p. 31) and doesn’t that suck? There are many moments and conversations I wish I could erase or alter that have already happened. That one saying about how the truth hurts? Oh boy, yep that’s so very, very unfortunately true sometimes. And you? The person reading this, the person in the other room, in the other house, the other city, other country—basically everyone who’s not Me? Yeah, I can’t change you no matter how much I want to. Maybe I can affect you and you can affect me, but no one can change another person. Only I can change me and only you can change you. It can be so frustrating, but what can you do about it?
I find myself doing this prayer most when I’m in my car, which means I haven’t done it much since starting this YAGM journey, with me being in Hungary while my car still resides in Florida, USA. Of course, even then, my Thanks prayers would generally be “Oh, *expletive*! *Expletive*! Thank you, God, for not letting me hit that IDIOT who CUT ME off *expletive* thanks thanks thanks thanks oh *expletive* thanks, God!”
Granted, there have also been times where I implored the Help prayer in my car, but mostly it’s mostly Thanks.
This line from this section really suck out to me: “Gratitude becomes a habit” (p. 49). From small things like a parking spot or your favorite candy being in stock to large things like not being being by a drunk driver or the missing child being found, being purposefully grateful for the things life is a good habit to have, but a hard one to start. Maybe its easy for the small things, but what about the big, challenging, scary, unexpected things?
I like a phrase Lamott uses in regards to hypothetically finding out someone’s marriage was actually falling apart or that someone was struggling with their mental health. This is what she wrote in response: “Thank you for the openness between us” (p. 51). Another way of saying this would be “Thank you for trusting me with this.” You’re not offer to fix the problem or placing any blame with those words; you’re being with the other person with gratitude and love. I find that beautiful.
(And yes, in this hypothetical situation, this isn’t necessarily a prayer to God above, but it is a verbal admission of Thanks. You are thanking someone. If that doesn’t help, then just imagine that after the hypothetical person tells you their hypothetical situation, you quietly, or aloud, send a prayer to God about being grateful for the hypothetical person trusting you to share their hypothetical situation.)
Despite the small, usually fear-induced Thanks I’ll pray, sometimes, I forget that it is still possible to be thankful even in other, miserable situations too. Maybe I had a fight with a friend, coworker, my own brain. But I can still be thankful.
Thankful that I have someone to talk to—my friends, my mom, and I’ve had a few therapists too—even if my brain tells me I can’t for whatever reason, I logically know I can. (I know logic doesn’t always combat emotions, anxiety, depression, etc. for people, but for me it can, so I cling onto it whenever I find myself in a swirl of emotions, anxiety, depression, etc.) Thankful that I have a roof over my head and food to put in my belly. Thankful that the situation could’ve turned out much worse but didn’t. Thankful my car still works. Thankful I have a job even if I don’t like it. Thankful to have an education and hope for the future even though none of my initial graduate schools accepted me. Thankful.
This prayer, Lamott explains, is when we “click into being fully present,” when you are almost-but-not-completely speechless. It happens through seeing, feeling, experiencing things such as the beauty of nature, the birth of your child, or the news that yet another school shooting occurred in your country, state, city.
I remember softly breathing out Wow when I held my little (half) sister for the first time. She was so tiny. Her skin was so soft. And she was my sister.
I also remember devastatingly breathing out Wow when I heard about another school shooting. I’d lost count of the number we were on. But I know this: It’s too many.
I remember the car ride home after I got glasses. Wow! I would shout, pointing at the individual leaves that I could finally see. The road signs that weren’t blurry.
I also remember the first time it hit me that my grandmother was dead. Wow. I still catch myself talking about her in present tense. I repeat her jokes and there’s a part of me that aches because I’ll never hear them again. Her birthday is in 10 days. January 9. She wouldn’t been 96. Wow.
I feel the tears well up in my eyes as I type that. But as I’m wearing spectacular makeup for a Hungarian New Years Eve party, I’m forcing myself not to cry. It can wait until next year.
I pray for many Wows in this upcoming 2019 year. Many Thanks and, yes, even Helps too.
Creator of All
Friend of Mine
Help me to be gracious and encouraging to those I meet. Strangers, Friends, Acquaintances, Enemies. Help me to be gracious and encouraging to myself. Help me to turn my eyes to You, even when my human, sinful flesh begs me not to. Help me to show your Kingdom through my actions. Help me to have and spread courage, discernment, love, trust, and peace. Help.
Thanks for the people you’ve put in my life. The ones who taught me love. The ones who taught me patience. Even the ones who taught me pain. And loss. Thanks for the memories of 2018 and thanks for the memories yet to come of 2019. Thanks for the host family you’ve given me in Hungary. Thanks for the beauty and challenges and beautiful challenges I’ve experienced each day in this country. Thanks for my family, by blood and by choice, that reside all over this world. Thanks for myself—my laughter and creativity and energy. I don’t give You thanks enough for creating me, and I should. Thanks.
Wow, I’ve done some amazing things this year. And I’ve done some terrible things. Some amazing things have happened this year in the world. And some terrible things. Wow. I pray for more wows this next year. For wows that leave a smile on people’s faces. Wows that make you wish your eyes could capture moments in crystal clear perfection for eternity. Wows that leave people inspired and feel loved. And I pray for the devastating wows, the ones that leave tears streaming down our faces, that make us want to shout or pound out fists or sink to our knees, I pray those wows give way to change. To a better world. One where, when a tragedy occurs, the people and government work together to prevent it from happening so easily again. Where groups of people will band together to love and stand with others, even if they don’t look the same, sound the same, or worship the same. Where the wows are because of human kindness, earth beauty, or Your goodness. Wow.
And Lord, I pray that my actions of 2019 not only point towards You, but also towards a better tomorrow.