A Room Full of Friends: Anne Lamott
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 27, 2021
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 3:21-24
Continuing this morning with the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, let us consider the life of American writer, public speaker, teacher, political activist, and Presbyterian: Anne Lamott. She was born in San Francisco in 1954 and is known and loved for her humor and openness, writing on such topics as her own alcoholism and depression as well as motherhood and her deep love for the God who somehow saved her from herself—saved her from the atheistic beliefs of her childhood home. Strangely enough, Lamott’s father was raised by Presbyterian missionaries in Tokyo but for some unknown reason, he turned against Christianity. He particularly despised Presbyterians whom he referred to as “God’s frozen people.” Lamott’s mother wasn’t much different. Even though she attended the Christmas Episcopal midnight mass, she often remarked on how ridiculous it all was!
While Lamott did not inherit faith in God from her father, she did inherit his love for reading and books—not so strange when you consider he was a published author, too. On the topic of books, Lamott writes, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die… Books, for me, are medicine.” Sadly, Lamott’s first book was a novel written in her 20’s about real life circumstances—her beloved father’s diagnosis and death from incurable brain cancer. Later books include Traveling Mercies, Grace Eventually, Plan B, Stitches, Bird by Bird, and numerous others.
Lamott’s parents and their circle of friends lived a wild and crazy lifestyle. Lots of parties. Lots of drinking and drugs. If they worshiped anything it was ideas, the written word, and, perhaps, nature. It wasn’t enough for Lamott—though she tried to be satisfied with what seemed normal to everyone around her. Nevertheless, she had a sense that there was something bigger—Someone Bigger—a higher purpose. In small ways, God came seeking little Anne—through a friend whose family was Catholic, through a philosophy class in college when she had to read Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham and his son, Isaac, through an Episcopal priest she contacted when she had nearly reached the end of her rope and was considering suicide. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
In college Lamott began to believe in God but she didn’t want anyone to know. In fact, all through her 20’s, she tried to find something else to believe in—something not as embarrassing or as awful as being a Christian. But nothing took. Then one day in 1985 she somehow stumbled into a little Presbyterian Church, of all places. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. She was 31 and hung over—still wrestling with the demon of alcoholism. The choir was made up of 5 black women and 1 Amish-looking white man—but what a glorious sound they made together. The congregation consisted of 30 people or so, who radiated kindness and warmth—something that Lamott needed desperately. It was the songs that got to her first—those old spirituals. She loved hearing them, so she stayed, and the people didn’t hassle her. They didn’t try to get her to sign up for something or threaten to pay her a visit. If they had, she would have surely run in the opposite direction. The church folk just let her be there at a time when she didn’t really have much sense of belonging anywhere. She had little sense of being OK at all, since she was pretty hung over most mornings.
Lamott went to church for months and months without staying for the sermon because it was too bizarre to hear Jesus stuff. Then about a year later, she started to feel like Jesus was around her. She writes, “I would feel His presence. It would be like a little stray cat. You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, ‘No,’ because you can’t let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, you have a little cat, and I didn’t want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: ‘Oh, whatever. You can come in.’ And from that day on, I have really felt a relationship or friendship with Jesus, a connection to Him. I got baptized, and I invited some friends from my literary community, and the reaction was kind of like, ‘How very touching — we are seeing Annie’s little blind spot. She was getting so bad before with the mental illness and with being an alcoholic and a person who uses a lot of drugs.’”
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
Over 20 years ago a very hung-over Anne Lamott stumbled into a small church and started what was to be a long journey towards sobriety and sanity. There were no instant miracles on that road, but many small mercies that for Lamott added up to a growing awareness of God’s grace. She soon came to understand that, to her, religion was a “come as you are” party, with no need to pretend to be anything but your own true self. In her words, “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot and have no real certainty about anything. I have learned that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
When asked what grace means to her, Lamott answered, “I’ve heard it said that man is born broken and the grace of God is glue, and I think that’s pretty true, that it’s divine glue. It’s glue that surprises you. Classically, grace is unmerited assistance from God. I know that grace meets you wherever you are and doesn’t leave you where it found you. I experience it as buoyancy, as a very strange sense of calm in the midst of tremendous anxiety and lostness. I often get my sense of humor back, or I just feel safe and in God’s care.”
Lamott has written a beautiful book on the topic of prayer, entitled: Help, Thanks, Wow! The following is an excerpt:
I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.
You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God…
Some of you were taught to pray at bedtime with your parents, and when I spent the night at your houses, I heard all of you saying these terrifying words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake … ”
Wait, what? What did you say? I could die in my sleep? I’m only seven years old…
“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
That so, so did not work for me, especially in the dark in a strange home. Don’t be taking my soul. You leave my soul right here, in my fifty-pound body. Help.
Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, “God help me.” This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.
Or I might be in one of my dangerously good moods and say casually: “Hey, hi, Person. Me again. The princess. Thank you for my sobriety, my grandson, my flowering pear tree.”
Or you might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, “I hate you, God.” That is a prayer, too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you’ve had in months.
Some of us have cavernous vibrations inside us when we communicate with God. Others are more rational and less messy in our spiritual sense of reality, in our petitions and gratitude and expressions of pain or anger or desolation or praise. Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.
We can pray for things (“Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”). We can pray for people (“Please heal Martin’s cancer.” “Please help me not be such a jerk”). We may pray for things that would destroy us, as Teresa of Avila said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” We can pray for a shot at having a life in which we are present and awake and paying attention and being kind to ourselves. We can pray, “Hello? Is there anyone there?”
We can pray, “Am I too far gone, or can you help me get out of my isolated self-obsession?” We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.
Anne Lamott is a renowned writer and a Christian. Faith in God didn’t seem possible when she was a child, living amongst atheists. But in God’s great mercy and grace, a little Presbyterian Church drew her in, gave her spiritual and physical sustenance, created a haven for her. It was a small church that looked homely and impoverished on the outside—a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a little piece of land amidst a few skinny pine trees—not much by the world’s standards. Yet a church choir of 6 and a congregation of 30 were used by God to share the love of Jesus with a young woman who had lost her way. It’s a familiar story told again and again around the world. God has a habit of using small churches to do extraordinary things. Such is the way of God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.