On Prayer: Help, Thanks, Wow

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell & MVUUF member Trudy Krisher – April 14, 2013

I don’t know much about prayer myself, but I do like what Anne Lamott has to say about it. She has written an engaging book called Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. All of my comments today have been largely drawn from this simple but powerful little book.

First of all, Lamott admits that for many years she recoiled at the very idea of prayer. She believed people who prayed were “ignorant.” Prayer was no better than “voodoo.” Lamott, like her atheistic parents, worshipped at the shrine of The New York Times. But after years of searching, Lamott became a Christian – and a pray-er. She defines prayer as “communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding.” That which surpasses understanding can be anything you mean by it. God. The Force. The Mystery. The Not Me.

Lamott believes prayer should be simple. To that end, she has decided that there are only three essential prayers. The first is HELP. The second is THANKS. The third is WOW.

We offer HELP prayers when we are “bitter or insane or broken,” when you find yourself in a “big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation.” Lamott believes that there is something glorious about HELP prayers because with a HELP prayer we are finally “telling the truth,” coming clean about the despair in our lives. “It is all hopeless,” we confess, “but I could use a hand.” HELP!

The second type of prayer is the THANKS prayer. It can be gratitude for any number of things like, as Lamott writes, “the highway patrol guy who didn’t notice me speeding…the IRS letter that was NOT about being audited…the proliferation of white blood cells that turned out to be allergies, not leukemia and you can take Benadryl, not chemotherapy…”

Lamott offers up the THANKS prayer most often in the midst of deepest communication with another, in those too rare moments when we realize someone cares enough to be honest with us or trusts us with the revelation of their terrible pain or is unspeakably kind to us or plain blunt about something we would rather not face. In those moments we are grateful, says Lamott, for the gift of open honesty. THANKS.

The third and final type of prayer is what Lamott calls simply WOW! It comes with “a gasp, a sharp intake of breath” in the face of unexpected beauty or destruction or grace. It is what we feel when we witness the joy of a birth or a tragedy like the World Trade Centers falling down. According to Lamott, there are lowercase WOWs and uppercase WOWs.

The lowercase WOWs might include that delicious hot soup after a morning shoveling snow or the cream filling inside an Oreo. The uppercase WOWs might include that first glimpse of a brontosaurus skeleton at a science museum. The WOW prayer is reserved for something so mesmerizing, so miraculous, so jaw-dropping that no more than a single syllable is required to signify its power.

What’s interesting about prayer to Anne Lamott is that prayer somehow changes us. She says prayer brings us “back to our hearts, from the treacherous swamp of our minds. Prayer brings us back to the now.”

Over the years, I have changed the way that I conceive of prayer. When I was growing up in an Episcopalian family, we were taught to pray at bedtime, “Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake…” That was a little scary for a child to consider that I might die. Then there was the meal time blessing that my Father intoned quickly in his deep voice, “Bless this food and us to thy service, Amen.” Short and sweet. Didn’t want to take too long because we were hungry.

The feeling I got from these prayers was one of a comforting ritual. The same every time. The meaning a little unclear- but something about what we asked of a God who would look after us because He loved us. What got a little muddy was- why would he look after us any more than anyone else? Why would He grant our prayers and not the ones of the people next door who were Jewish? That part made me a little uncomfortable and in fact, was one of the reasons for my moving away from my concept of prayer as a petition to an all powerful God.

My concept of God changed in young adulthood. I became a Buddhist and Buddhism taught me of the oneness of the universe. That we were all divine and that divinity was inherent in the enlightenment within each of us. I was taught a form of verbal chanting as prayer. The prayer was a meditation meant to prepare us for becoming more in rhythm with the universe.

In other words, it wasn’t a God who was answering our prayers, our prayers were conditioning us to be aware of our connections to the universe and aware of the goodness inherent within us.

These concepts fit right into my understanding of Unitarian Universalism which teaches us that humans are inherently worthy and that we are a part of the interdependent web. So, when I became a UU, while I continued to meditate, but I also began to explore other religious thought about God and prayer.

Our own Unitarian Alfred Lord Whitehead wrote about what he called “process theology”. He spoke of God, not as a being, but as a process, the sum of all our experiences. He described God not as everything that makes up the universe, but everything that happens in the universe. All “sufferings, sorrows, triumphs and joys”. God became that which binds us together, wrote Whitehead.

He also described God as the possibilitites for what might happen in the future. All the unfolding possibilities in front of us at any moment, is God working in our lives where we make the choice in the moment for what happens next. When we see our path in life as unfolding in some meaningful and purposeful way, we feel that sense of a higher purpose nudging us toward a life that fulfills us.

God gives us those choices, not as a conscious being making these decisions, but as the natural effects of causes we’ve already made. That’s Buddhism again- which is based on our taking responsibility for the cause and effects inherent in all experience.

So, meditation for me became a way of allowing myself to simply be with the universe. And prayer became a way for me to communicate- to listen and to speak to my own life and the universe and all its awesome possibilities.

Anne Lamott, in her book, “Help, Thanks, Wow!” speaks of prayer as “talking to something or anything with which we seek union… Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, that we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.” I resonate with the feeling that sometimes our prayers are just feelings about needing something, or anyone to listen.

So, many of you may have your own ideas about prayer and what it means to you. But when we are together here and we pray it feels to me like group intentional thought. When we are all speaking from our hearts of what is most meaningful to us, we create energy towards our feelings and needs. It’s like investing money in the fund that you think will yield the most return.

When we focus on what we care about and give voice to that together, or spend time in silence together, we are investing in our dreams. The energy that is created during these times is unexplainable, but it is real.

I can think back over the years to the times when I’ve prayed with various people at important times in their lives.

— During the time when a child was stillborn with “water on the brain” and I sat with the parents. We said a prayer for this child that they would never know but still felt as a presence among us.

— Prayers said with couples right before they walked down the aisle to be married. We’ve prayed for the families to accept the marriage, for them to be present to each other and for the strength to overcome the hard times.

— I’ve said a prayer with a man who had just been told he was dying of lung cancer. He said he really didn’t know what he believed about death but he wanted to pray that his family would be okay.

I pray myself to send energy to people who I care about who are going through a difficult time. I pray with tears of joy when I’ve had difficult words with someone I love and I finally speak with them and tell them I love them. Many silent prayers are said in my heart when I see the unspoken beauty of nature with a feeling of gratitude.

All these are types of prayers. A way of communicating to the universe. Sometimes with words. Sometimes there are no words. Anne Lamott says the best words for prayer are “help, thanks, and Wow!”