(Psalm 23, Matthew 6:25-27, Acts 4:32-36)
Anne Lamott is a recovering alcoholic, a Christian, and a very good writer. She writes about lots of things, but her books about faith are great. They’re funny and down to earth and wise in the bluntly honest best friend kind of way.
She’s written about her prayer life. The first thing in the morning when she’s getting out of bead her prayer is “Help!” “Help me, God”. And the last thing at night, as she’s getting back into bed, her prayer is “Thank you!” “Thank you, God.” That’s the basis of her prayer life. These book ends to the day. Help and Thank you.
This is a great way to pray on the day to day. Feel free to steal it. I think it’s an antidote to anxiety. Because, well, first of wall, it’s taking things a day at a time – as Jesus says: “Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow. This way of praying is focused on what we need for today – that’s enough. It’s only asking for enough. It’s asking for help with what we need and giving thanks for what we need.
This is being really honest about the fact that we’re absolutely dependent on God. We can spend a lot of energy fighting this idea. I think this is part of the feeling of anxiety, being worried that it may be true that a whole lot is out of our control, maybe ultimately everything. We fret about it, and hope it’s not true. Well, it is true, so don’t fret about.
Ultimately, we are dependent, absolutely dependent on God. Best to be honest about it. We need help from outside ourselves, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the love and support and meaning we need, to, well, the very existence of our beings, which are rooted in the Source of All Being, from whom we come and to whom we return. We are in God’s hands.
So at the start of the day, the most honest thing to say is, “Help! God, help me.”
When we embrace dependence, we can discover abundance. Help comes. There is enough. God provides a way, expected or surprising.
And at the end of the day we can say Thank you. We can reflect on everything and notice the ways we found enough for what we need, and we can pray in gratitude. It has all been a gift. Thank you.
This way of praying through life shifts our attention in important ways: We embrace how we are dependent on the Source of Life outside ourselves … rather than pretending that we are self-reliant. We focus on what we truly need, what’s truly important and good, true, beautiful, nourishing … rather than getting caught up in “needs” that are just empty things, like image and status and quick addictive fixes. And this way of praying in our lives focuses on how there is abundance and beauty for us to receive gratefully, rather than lack and scarcity. It simplifies our lives and our needs.
Now, what if there actually is lack and scarcity?
The basis of this whole prayer is that this is an abundant, beautiful world that God has made. There. Is. Enough … For. Everyone. And that is a fact. There is enough for everyone’s needs in this abundant world. So, why is it also a fact that everyone doesn’t get enough? Far from it. Not everyone gets enough food, water, shelter, safety, freedom, justice. You may know this all too well.
Alright, I’m going to let that question hang there.
Let’s go back to the Stone Soup story I told the kids. I propose that this is a story about people who embody the kind of prayer life that Anne Lamott talks about. These are folks who are used to praying “God, help me,” and “Thank you, God.” This orients them to discover how the help will come, where the abundance is. Because they have a regular spirit of gratitude, there’s the awareness that what we do have, even if it is a little, is a gift. Because it’s a gift they can be happy to pass it along – it’s in the nature of a gift to generate more giving – out of gratitude for what little they have they can give it along in a way that generates greater abundance.
The villagers didn’t each cling to their one onion or one potato. Or start stealing and fighting. That’s what we’re led to believe always happens when there’s scarcity, but the truth is the opposite, actually: communities in crisis take care of each other. Nasty stuff does happen, obviously, but that’s not what most people are doing, especially when it’s in the culture to value gratitude and interdependence. In times of crisis, folks help each other out – that what I found in NYC during Sandy, that’s what folks I know who were in New Orleans for Katrina found. It’s what you find on the ground in crisis – folks helping each other out, discovering the abundance they have to share.(eg. “Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit)
So in the Stone Soup story these villagers were willing to contribute what little they had into the common pot – literally – which grew into more than the sum of its parts, which they all share and enjoyed and thanked God for. Notice that this way of Help me God, Thank you God is active, not just passive. It’s not just waiting around for help to come, it can motivate a creative and communal solution.
And notice that this story is about finding abundance in the midst of scarcity. As a matter of fact, it seems that folks understand this relationship of dependence and gratitude with God and with each other better if they’re used to making due with less, rather than always enjoying plenty. I’ll never forget the civil war stories I heard in El Salvador. One woman told me that she was fleeing with two other women, one of whom was pregnant, because the army was attacking their town. They ran all night. When they got to a relatively safe place, the pregnant woman unwrapped three tortillas she had. The other women had nothing. They were all very hungry. The woman offered her tortilla to the other two, who refused saying, “No. No. You’re pregnant, you eat.” But the pregnant woman was forceful, “You eat too. Today we share our food. Tomorrow we share our hunger.” Today we share our food. Tomorrow we share our hunger.
I think about this when I think about Aleppo. Or the parts of Nigeria where there’s a hunger crisis in the wake of war. Or the places of hunger and fear in our country, or wherever else in this world where war, where greed, where exploitation has created scarcity where it doesn’t need to be. The Stone Soup story took place at a time of war. So often scarcity is not a natural event. So often it’s the consequence of folks not living in right relation with God and with each other.
That’s why the Way of Jesus is so important. Here’s the antidote. I mean, look at this teaching in Matthew about contentment of heart, simplicity of needs. Look at our reaching from Acts, how the early Christians lived out the truth of the resurrection by discovering the abundance that came when they depended, absolutely, on each other and on God. “God’s blessing rested on them all abundantly. Nor was there anyone in need among them.” Here is Good News. There need not be any in need.
May it be so. So, God help us! And, thank you, God.
(Delivered on October 16, 2016 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)