Prayer

by Heather Adams
Part 1

I’d like to spend some focused time thinking and talking about prayer: how we pray, and when, and of course the two big questions – why prayer? and does it make a difference? The Christian writer Ann Lamott believes that all prayers are a variation on one of three themes: Help. Thanks. Wow. Let’s start with Help.

The very first step in the endeavor of prayer seems to me to be surrender. To say to God, or Jesus, or the universe – or to whomever it is that operates as your higher power – I am stuck in the dark on this, fumbling badly, and I can’t find my way out without your illumination. Help.

Full and complete surrender does not come easy for some first-born, control-freak, type-A people – like the one I see in the mirror – because it feels a little like defeat. I should be able to figure out how to respond to my mom’s deterioration from Parkinson’s with more personal fortitude, for example, or how to welcome the next stage of my children’s lives with more genuine enthusiasm for what they are gaining as opposed to what I am losing, or how to find equanimity about my relationship with an in-law. Yet on these sticky wickets and oh so many others, I somehow find myself floundering, flailing, falling, failing. Help.

Ann Lamott writes:

This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable on your own, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making. Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer.

Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything on my own, and that I have to open myself up to being helped by something, some force, some friend, some something. Because when we think we can do it all ourselves – fix, save, buy, or create a solution – it’s hopeless. We’re going to screw things up. We’re going to get our tentacles wrapped around things and squirt our squiddy ink all over, so that there is even less visibility.

Through prayer, we take ourselves off the hook and put God on the hook, where God belongs. When you’re on the hook, you’re thrashing, helpless, furious, like a smaller kid being lifted by the seat of his pants by a mean big kid. Jesus, on the literal hook of the cross, says to God “Help,” and God enters into every second of the Passion like a labor nurse.

So when we cry out Help, or whisper it into our chests, we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own – or other people’s – higher powers. Help.

Praying Help means that we ask that Something that give us the courage to stop in our tracks, right where we are, and turn our fixation away from the Gordian knot of our problem. We stop the toxic peering and instead turn our eyes to something else: to our feet on the sidewalk, to the middle distance, to the hills, from whence our help comes – someplace else, anything else. Maybe this is a shift of only eight degrees, but it can be a miracle.

(excerpted from Help. Thanks. Wow. 2012).

Forward movement requires surrender to the truth that I am in desperate, raging, consuming need of a fix that is greater than anything I am or have to offer. I need only ask for that assistance, that illumination, that guiding healing hand. And the awesome power and might of our God is made manifest in the fact that she stands at the ready, toolbelt strapped and flashlight in hand, waiting for the one word we need only whisper. Help.

Part 2

The concept of gratitude has been getting a lot of play lately – celebrities discuss their gratitude journals, the book The Gratitude Diaries made the New York Times Bestseller list last year, Instagram has a devoted following at the hashtag #gratitudechallenge. I’ve read these resources and more, and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the connection between gratitude and a happy life is similar to the connection between eating well & exercising and a healthy life: direct, tangible, and scientifically proven.

Equally true for both, however, is the fact that despite our knowledge that one leads directly to the other, i.e. practicing gratitude → a more joyful existence, getting more exercise → a healthier me, putting this into practice on a daily basis is challenging and takes discipline. Just as I’m always going to be tempted to choose ice cream over broccoli even though my arteries (and thighs) cry out for a different choice, there can be something oddly comforting in cataloging how we’ve been wronged or harmed or slighted, and in allowing ourselves to linger in that ungrateful canyon. And let’s face it, it’s just easier some days to passively react to what is hard, or painful, or even mundane in our lives by wallowing in our woes than it is to flip the script and actively identify and experience gratitude for that which we have been given. But we are called to do just that – we are called by science, and by each other, and by God – to stop, to really see those things in our lives which so richly bless our existence, and to say it and to pray it: Thanks.

In The Gratitude Diaries, author Janice Kaplan surveyed scientific studies over the past ten years on the topic of gratitude and found the results “startling.” She notes “study after study have connected gratitude to higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression and stress. An article in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology evaluating all the literature in the field concluded that gratitude has the highest connection to mental health and happiness of any of the personality traits studied.” Sustained focus on the positive “changes neural pathways and rewires automatic responses. Taking the time to have loving, giving, and grateful feelings can change how your brain functions in emotion-related areas.” For one year of her life, this author chronicled those things about her spouse, kids, career, and life for which she felt grateful, and she reframed the negatives. It changed her and altered all of her relationships for the better.

While many writers and researchers focus on the benefits of an inward attitude of gratitude and an outward expression of our gratitude to those people we hold dear, we as believers are also called to express our gratefulness to our creator – we are not just thankful for the blessings of our lives in some vague and amorphous way, we are grateful to God for these things, and we express that gratitude through prayer. The writer Ann Lamott believes that all prayers are a variation on one of three themes: Help. Thanks. Wow. She writes:

A lot of us religious types go around saying thank you to God when we find a good parking space, or locate the house keys, or finally get a good night’s sleep. And while this may be annoying to the people around us, it’s important because if we are lucky, gratitude becomes a habit. You say “thank you” when something scary has happened in your beloved and screwed-up family and you all came through. Or maybe you look at what was revealed in the latest mess, and you say thanks for the revelation, because it shows you some truth you needed to know, and that can be so rare in our families, let alone in our culture, our world, our marriages, and in our relationship with ourselves.

Without revelation and reframing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention we may find so many sources of hidden water, so many bits and chips and washes of color, in a weed or the gravel or a sunrise. There are so many ways to sweep the sand off our feet. So we say, “Oh my God. Thanks.”

Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back. The truth is that “to whomever much is given, of him much will be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked,” if Jesus is to be believed. He meant us, not the Kennedys or the Romneys – us, to whom such exquisite companions and gifts have been given.

The movement of grace toward gratitude brings us from the package of self-obsessed madness to spiritual awakening. Gratitude is peace.

(excerpted from Help. Thanks. Wow. 2012)

So, at least for today, I will reach for the broccoli, I will wipe the sand from my feet. I will set aside my latest angst, my bank account balance, the neighbor’s barking dog, the fresh assault from this Administration. I will turn instead both inward and upward, praying a simple prayer that illuminates and amplifies all those pieces and parts and passages of my life for which I feel so spectacularly grateful: Thank you.

Part 3

I spent my junior fall semester of college at American University in Washington D.C., and I interned at an office near the United States Capitol Building. The first time I caught the full length of its western front in my line of vision, I gasped.  Every lunch hour this small-town Iowa girl would sit with my sandwich on the National Mall and look towards the Capitol with wonder, awestruck. I remember being mystified by all the people –lobbyists in navy power suits, runners crunching the white stone with their Nikes – who would skirt the shadows of the Capitol without so much as a glance at its awesome presence.

Fast-forward several years, and I began a career in a government office building overlooking the Iowa Capitol – a statehouse that rivals its counterpart in the nation’s capital with its own incredible architecture and its uniquely spectacular gold dome. The first several weeks at my new job I would always pause in the parking lot to admire this sandstone castle on the hill, the gold gleaming against the blue Iowa sky so sharp and vivid it would take my breath away. And yet, as the months and then years passed, the Capitol became just a part of the backdrop of my life, and most days I pay it about as much attention as I do the car parked next to me, or the tree which shades my van.

I’ve been reading about the many ways we humans become desensitized to the horrors of life, and of course it’s true – from mass shootings to children dying at our southern border, we can easily become numb to it all. This is tragic and this is wrong. But it’s also true that we can become desensitized to the wonders and amazements and joys that make up this life. When the incredible becomes the familiar, our attention to it can become blunted, muted, subdued.

The first time I saw the Capitol, the first time I saw my husband’s legs when we were sixteen years old playing pick-up basketball, the first time I walked into my living room as a prospective home buyer – each of these moments evoked a one-word, almost visceral reaction in my mind: “wow.” Now that those things are as familiar to me as my own skin, my focus on them can be dulled. Lately I’ve been thinking and praying about those places, moments, and events that inspire that one-word reaction – and how we can continue to experience them, savor them, revel in them, and stay fully alive to the wonder that they offer. The writer Ann Lamott believes that all prayers are a variation on one of three themes: Help. Thanks. Wow. She writes:

The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty, of a sudden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time. “Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.

What can we say beyond Wow, in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away, and makes room for new breath. That’s why they call it breathtaking. In museums, when we behold framed greatness, genius embracing passion, obsession, discipline, and possibly madness, our mouths drop open. For a short time, we see past all that is jumbled, mysterious, marvelous, and ugly. Instead, we glimpse life, beauty, grief, or evil, love captured and truth held up to the light. Awe is why we are here, and this state is the prayer: “Wow.”

The words “wow” and “awe” are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels. They could dance together. Even when, maybe especially when, we don’t cooperate, this energy- the breath, the glory, the goodness of God- is given. Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.

(excerpted from Help. Thanks. Wow. 2012)

I have experienced countless significant moments of wonder sparked by travel to places of unfathomable natural beauty, or incredible man/woman-made creation, or human connection. Having children also re-awoke in me the appreciation of all those parts of life that seem small and mundane but to a child (and so to you) are novel and fascinating (like worms, for example, or birds, or feet). I pray to stay awake and alive to it all – the big and the small – to retain my sense of wonder, to tip my hat to God and say, as is so often the case – wow, you really outdid yourself this time.

Yesterday as I left work, I saw a family of four practically gawking at the Capitol, snapping selfies with it in the background, staring at it with faces of pure appreciation. I set my briefcase down next to them and followed their line of sight to the golden dome against the cloudless sky. It is amazing, I said, and they nodded. And so it is.

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