Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
Summary: The author’s account of what it is for her to pray and three types of prayer that, for her, describe what it means to pray.
Anne Lamott hit bottom in her own life, struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, and out of this came to faith as a Christian. And she began writing about it in her unpretentious, “this is who I am and my best shot at explaining what I’ve come to understand and what God still hasn’t made sense out of.” In this book, she does that with prayer and, along the way, narrating her own experiences in prayer. All of it is free of spiritual jargon, evident in her title summarizing what she thinks are three essential prayers in three words. Help. Thanks. Wow.
Help. Help is the prayer when you hit rock bottom and know that all your efforts to run life or fix someone else’s just aren’t working. It is the prayer when we are mired in broken relationships, debt, or a scary medical diagnosis. It is praying that God will help others facing the same kinds of stuff, or just trying to make it through life. It is the prayer of her grandfather, a missionary. She writes, “if one person is praying for you, buckle up. Things can happen.” (I know this. I had a grandmother who prayed like that for me.). She writes that the beginning place for this kind of prayer is “admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” She shares her own “help” prayers and talks about the miracle of when we reach the place where our hearts shift and we surrender, which leads to…
Thanks. For Lamott, this is short form for “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” It can be everything from ten minutes free of obsessive thoughts to a good day of work to a season of good health. Sometimes it is a glimpse of “the beautiful skies, above all the crap we’re wallowing in, and we whisper, ‘Thank you.’ ” Thanks, Lamott proposes flows into our behavior–serving or at least not “being such a jerk.” Serving others is where joy comes, an awareness that God is having a good time watching us do this. Sin in this regard is the hard, ungrateful heart. We can’t change it–we can only give it to God to change. And those moments when grace leads to gratitude reveal the changes God is working. Thanks.
Wow. It’s the gasping response to something of incredible wonder or terror. Sometimes it is the response to climbing between clean sheets that feel so good on us. There are so many wonders for her from dinosaurs to the cosmos to boys to Monopoly and Sylvia Plath. She believes “spring is the main reason for Wow.” It is the extravagance of a God who “keeps giving, forgiving, and inviting us back. And it is blackberries eaten slowly.
Amen. This chapter sums up her thoughts on prayer and discusses the place of “Amen” in her prayers. She concludes:
“Let it happen! Yes! I could not agree more.Huzzah. It is a good response to making contact with God through prayer, and to praying with people who share the journey, and to most things that are good, which much of life can be. So it is, when we do the best we can, and we leave the results in God’s good hands. Amen.”
There is so much good in this account of prayer, a life of prayer woven into all of life, into all the moments of help, thanks, and wow, in which we become aware of both our desperate need of God and God’s utterly extravagant care. All of this comes in Anne’s self-deprecating demeanor (she suggests that “Help me not to be such an ass!” might be a fourth great prayer). She likes a version of the Serenity Prayer that prays, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the weaponry to make the difference.” As with so much of Lamott, you laugh at one moment and catch your breath at a bracing insight the next. If you want to learn to pray but have been put off with books that just seem more spiritual than you ever hope you can be, Lamott may be the place to start. “Help, Thanks, and Wow. Amen” seems a pretty good place to begin.