Tag Archives: Polly Berrien Berends

An atheist’s most difficult prayer: Help

Help Thanks WowBack in November, I saw a Thanksgiving essay in the NY Times, The Prayer of an Unconventional Family by Anne Lamott and noticed in the footnote that she had a new book  out titled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

I bought the Kindle version of the book when I saw this short review of the book in the Strib by my former Utne Reader colleague, Lynette Lamb:

If you seek a pithy explication of prayer, as understood by one reliably funny Christian, this is your book. But if you’re hoping for fully realized stories about Lamott’s own wrestling with religion, like those found in her previous books on faith, you’ll be disappointed. This is more self-help manual than essay collection.

I was going to blog about it several times since then but every time Northfield bookseller Jerry Bilek at Monkey See Monkey Read got the book in stock, he’d sell out in a day or two. (On Friday, Jerry got a whole stack of books in.)

I was most interested in Lamott’s chapter, Help, because I’ve found that as an atheist, it’s the toughest of the three prayers. Being grateful (Thanks) and mindful (Wow) are for me, more easily practiced because they don’t activate my mind’s habitual desire to have a being/God involved.

But how do you pray/say/ask for Help without conjuring up an image of someone on the other end who might A) be listening; and B) have some inclination to act on the request? Lamott writes:

Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer. I don’t pray for God to do this or that, or for God’s sake to knock it off, or for specific outcomes. Well, okay, maybe a little.

I’ve blogged about prayer occasionally as I think it helps to distinguish between true and false prayers.  Asking for specific worldly outcomes is a false prayer.  Here’s a good example of one of Lamott’s Help prayers that combines true prayer with what she calls her ‘beggy prayers’:

A lifelong friend, a staunch agnostic, has asked me to pray for her daughter, Angie, who has young children and a diagnosis of aggressive lung cancer, the kind that continues to grow tumors in the midst of chemotherapy. I close my eyes and say in silence, “I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, and to have stamina, for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them come through, although if You have a minute, I’d like to know: What on earth could You be thinking?”

That prayer and my friendship are pretty much all I’ve got to offer. I wish I had a magic wand and could tap Angie on the head with it, and the cancer would be gone and her kids would get to grow up with a mother. Even better, I wish God had a magic wand. I’ve never seen evidence of it.

Lamott correctly identifies the element of surrender as the key to asking for Help in this prayer:

Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon— say, two-ish? Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.

And:

Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, “Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going. I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.” These prayers acknowledge that I am clueless; but something else isn’t. While I am not going to go limp, I am asking for the willingness to step into truth. It’s like the old riddle: What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.

I first came across this notion of surrender in everyday prayer in a book by Polly Berrien Berends: Coming to Life: Traveling the Spiritual Path in Everyday Life.

The primary thing that has to be given up is knowing what is good for us.

And here’s a related quote by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and several follow-up books (some of which I like; others I hate):

There are situations where all answers and explanations fail. Life does not make sense anymore. Or someone in distress comes to you for help, and you don’t know what to say. When you fully accept that you don’t know, you give up struggling to find answers with the limited thinking mind, and that is when a greater intelligence can operate through you. And even thought can then benefit from that, since the greater intelligence can flow into it and inspire it. Sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and becoming comfortable with not knowing.

Once I park my ego, stop my noisy thinking, surrender, and then ask/pray correctly for help, it comes. Every time. Reliable as gravity.  Even for me, an atheist.  I just have to get better at not waiting so long till I’m suffering.

coldsassytree_cover.gifI’ve blogged about Olive Ann Burns’ novel, Cold Sassy Tree, and the passage that offers an interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said “Ask and ye shall receive.”  (If the authors of the New Testament had quoted Jesus as saying “Ask correctly and ye shall receive,” a lot of trouble over the past couple of millenia could have been avoided.)

At the time, I only provided a screenshot and audio version of the passage but I’ve now got a transcript (courtesy of the OCR feature in Microsoft OneNote).

In the passage, Grandpa (Rucker) is talking to his newlywed, Miss Love. The narrator is the young grandson.

“Something Will Tweedy’s been questionin’. He don’t unnerstand why Jesus said, ‘Ast, and it shall be given.’ He says why would Jesus say sech a thang when it ain’t always so?”

“That’s easy to explain, Rucker. Tell Will that sometimes God has to say no for our own good, or to teach us something, or show His power. Sometimes it’s just not His will to give us a certain thing. Or He wants to test our faith and see if we trust Him no matter what.”

Grandpa laughed. “Love, you sound like ever preacher I ever heard. But Jesus didn’t say God might say no when we say gimme. He said God’s go’n say yes. Anythang we ast for, we go’n git it. Well, hungry folks pray for food, but they shore don’t all git fed. And sick folks beg Him for healin’, but lots of’m die, or maybe live on in bed. Jesus had to mean something diff’rent from what folks think He meant, else to my mind He was a dang fool to go round promisin’ what God wouldn’t do. But Jesus warn’t no fool, Love. So what did He mean?”

Distressed, she sat up and said to Grandpa, “Please, Rucker. Don’t talk sacrilege.”

“Hit ain’t sacrilege. Miss Effie Belle says when she cain’t think what to have for dinner, she asts God and right off He gives her a idea. To my thinkin’, thet’s sacrilege.”

Miss Love really laughed. “There’s not a woman in the world who hasn’t prayed what to cook for dinner, Rucker.”

“Well, God give y’all cookbooks for thet. Anyhow, when I got to ponderin’ on it last night, the word ast commenced to jump at me like sheep comin’ over a fence. Ast. Ast. Ast. But ast for what? For meat and bread? For healin’ miracles? Are we s’posed to ast ‘Lord, give me the answers on the arithmetic test,’ ‘Lord gît me hired over the next feller,’ ‘Lord, give me a son’? Gosh a’mighty, how I used to ast thet’n, Love!” He looked long and tender at her, and kissed her cheek.

“And didn’t God send you Will Tweedy?”

Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that!

“Maybe He did,” said Grandpa. “Then agin maybe He sent me you so I could have another crack at it.” I could see Miss Love blush. and, out in the hall, I blushed. Grandpa didn’t. “But I don’t think He planned Will Tweedy for me. I don’t even think He sent me you. You and Will jest happened in the way of thangs. God ain’t said you won’t git nothin’ good less’n you pray for it. But I’m shore thankful for you, Love.” He touched a finger to her chin and her mouth, then rested his hand on her cheek.

His voice softened as he went on. “Another thang to think on: some folks ain’t said pea-turkey to God in years. They don’t ast Him for nothin’, don’t specially try to be good, and don’t love no body the way Jesus said to — cept their own self. But they go’n git jest bout as much or as little in the way a-earthly goods as the rest of us. They go’n have sorrows and joys, failures and good times. And when they come down sick they go’n gît well or the, one, jest same as the prayin’ folks. So don’t thet tell you something bout prayin? Ain’t the best prayin’ jest bein’ with God and talkin’ a while, like He’s a good friend, stead a-like he runs a store and you’ve come in a-hopin’ to git a bargain?”

Miss Love frowned. “Rucker, you can’t write Holy Scripture. It’s already been written.”

“Well, I shore can question what it means.” With a heavy groan, trying to shift a little to get comfortable, he put his arm across her stomach again. “And hit fIne’ly come to me in the night, what Jesus must a-meant by ast. You want to be like them folks with rock brains, or you want to hear it?”

She smiled. “I want to hear it.”

I put in my journal all the above. Also the answer that had come to Grandpa.

“When Jesus said ast and ye shall receive, I don’t think He meant us to pray ‘Lord, spare my child,’ or ‘Make it rain for the crops,’ or ‘Don’t let my bizness fail.’ I don’t even think Jesus meant us to ask for—”

“—for a house or a piano?” She put her hand on his open palm. He laughed, and lifted her hand and kissed it.

“Naw and not even for a husband or any other sech favor. The Lord’s Prayer does say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ but thet’s the only dang Jesus ast for in the whole prayer thet you can tetch. They ain’t nothin’ in the Lord’s Prayer says ‘Make me well.’ I’m tempted to pray thet right now, hurtin’ like I am. But I don’t think Jesus meant us to think we can git healed jest by beggin’ for it.” Grandpa laughed kind of rueful. “God made us so we want to stay alive. He put healin’ power in our bodies. We don’t have to beg Him to save us. All we got to do is accept bein sick, do what Doc says, and trust thet God wants us to git well if’n we can.”

Miss Love broke in. “In the Bible, Jesus only healed the people who asked Him to — and believed He could. If Jesus could heal, can’t God? If we pray and have faith?”

“Well’m, faith ain’t no magic wand or money-back gar’ntee, either one. Hit’s jest a way a-livin’. Hit means you don’t worry th’ew the days. Hit means you go’n be holdin’ on to God in good times or bad times, and you accept whatever happens. Hit means you respect life like it is — like God made it — even when it ain’t what you’d order from the wholesale house. Faith don’t mean the Lord is go’n make lions lay down with lambs just cause you ast him to, or make fire not burn. Some folks, when they pray to git well and don’t even git better, they say God let’m down. But I say thet warn’t even what Jesus was a-talkin’ bout.

When Jesus said ast and you’ll git it, He was givin’ a gar’ntee a-spiritual healin’, not body healin’. He was sayin’ thet if’n you git beat down — die, or scairt folks won’t like you — why, all you got to do is put yore hand in God’s and He’ll lift you up. I know it for a fact, Love. I can pray, ‘Lord, hep me not be scairt,’ and I don’t know how, but it’s like a eraser wipes the fears away. And I found out a long time ago, when I look on what I got to stand as a dang hardship or a burden, it seems too heavy to carry. But when I look on the same dang thang as a challenge, why, standin’ it or acceptin’ it is like you done entered a contest. Hit even gits excitin’, waitin’ to see how everthang’s go’n turn out.”

Grandpa stopped to move a little and his face twisted with pain. But he went on. “Jesus meant for us to ast God to hep us stand the pain, not beg Him to take the pain away. We can ast for comfort and hope and patience and courage, and to be gracious when thangs ain’t goin’ our way, and we’ll git what we ast for. They ain’t no gar’ntee thet we ain’t go’n have no troubles and ain’t go’n die. But shore as frogs croak and cows bellow, God’ll forgive us if’n we ast Him to.”