Anne Lamott is a popular author who has written books of both fiction and non-fiction, many of which tell the story of her own life. She grew up in a home where alcohol flowed freely, belief in God was seen as the cause of most of the world’s large-scale suffering, and prayer was something that only the ignorant did. As a teenager and adult, her life became one of drinking, drug use, and promiscuity. But God kept calling her.
In 1984, she learned she was pregnant. She decided to end the pregnancy, which left her sadder than ever—a sadness she tried to erase with pills and booze. But in the midst of her pain that night, she felt a presence in her room. Eventually, she became certain that Jesus was in the room with her, watching her with patience and love. She resisted but finally surrendered to his persistent presence.
In the years that followed, her faith grew and grew, and Lamott learned that prayer is not just for the ignorant. It became an essential and constant stream in her life. She wrote a book a few years ago about what she considers the three essential prayers for all of us praying people. The book is called Help Thanks Wow. Thanksgiving is a perfect time for us to think about when and why we offer these three prayers, especially the prayer of “thanks.”
Our Psalm gives us examples of “Help” and “Wow“ type prayers. Lamott describes the “Wow” prayer as the one we offer “when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or [shocking] destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace.” Our “wows” often come when we are reminded of God’s creative power and immeasurable love in the sight of the purple mountains’ majesty or a once-lush farm field dusted with snow, at the sight of our family gathered around a table or in the grip of a baby’s tiny finger curled around our own. Wow.
Our “wows” come when we hear of the fortitude of families who have lost everything in the fires in California or the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida and the East Coast. They come when we hear of grieving families who forgive the perpetrator of a crime against a loved one. They come when we experience an unexplainable sense of peace in the face of dire illness or a financial crisis or family discord. Wow.
This prayer can be a people’s “wow” over what God has done for them. The pilgrim Edward Winslow spoke of a “wow” moment when he described the abundance of the first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth: “Although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” Wow.
It’s also the “wow” of the psalmist. Psalm 126 is part of a group of psalms called “Songs of Ascents.” These psalms may have been used as pilgrimage songs—songs that the Jewish people sang as they ascended the hills near Jerusalem and the steps to the temple. Although the people singing them came from various tribes and regions, they also shared a history and experiences that transcended local, personal interests.
In this psalm, they remember the great things that God had done for them as a people: that God had been with them throughout their long exile in Babylon. That their faith had helped them retain their identity as God’s people. That God had led them out of bondage and exile. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” Wow.
But the returning Jews also faced difficulties, and so they also prayed prayers of “help.” They were returning to a city that had suffered from years of abandonment, years when the poorest of the poor had struggled to survive there. They would have to rebuild the city almost from the ground up. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Help.
Lamott says that the truest “Help” prayer isn’t the one we offer for the little things—things we might even be embarrassed to admit praying for: to find a parking spot close to the door on Black Friday, to lose a few pounds before the office Christmas party (or to not gain a few pounds over Thanksgiving), that the Buckeyes (or the Wolverines) will win the big game or that our child’s team will win any game.
It’s not even the prayer of help for the big things: “Lord, help me save my marriage.” “Lord, help me beat this cancer.” “Lord, help me find enough food for my kids.” Help.
The truest prayer for help, Lamott says, is the one we offer when we finally free ourselves from the notion that we can control the uncontrollable. It’s the prayer we offer when we realize that we cannot be our own “higher power.” It’s the prayer of the Jewish people returning to a city and to lives they know they cannot rebuild themselves. Help.
Our psalm gives us examples of the “wow” prayer and the “help” prayer, but one is missing. We don’t hear a prayer of “thanks.” I suppose you could argue that “thanks” is implicit in those other prayers. After all, when we are wowed, don’t we also give thanks for God’s greatness, expressed in things large and small? Don’t our prayers for help include a nugget of thanks for God’s presence and power in our lives?
My Grandma Williams would have said that’s not enough. She was a stickler for writing thank-you notes. We had hardly blown out the last birthday candle or unwrapped the last Christmas present when she would look at my brothers and me and say in a stern voice, “Don’t forget to write your thank you notes right away.” It was really annoying.
But it was also a lesson I never forgot. Because what she taught us was that being joyful over a gift isn’t enough, even if the gift-giver is there to witness your joy. Humility in asking for help isn’t enough, even if the one giving the help can see how relieved we are to receive it. And if that lesson applies to those who give us earthly gifts, doesn’t it apply even more to the One who supplies us with all that we need?
That’s why we need to express the prayer that Lamott places in the middle of her list. In Scripture, things that fall in the middle of something—the middle of a book or a chapter or a passage—usually are important. I think that’s also true of Lamott’s middle prayer. Because it’s only when we express our thanks to God that we express our complete dependence on God and acknowledge that nothing we have is ours by right, but is ours because God chose to give it to us, freely and abundantly. We need to express our thanks to God just as freely and just as abundantly. But, I would suggest, that we need to go further than that. Instead of expressing our thanks, we need to express our gratitude.
Our children’s Sunday School class at Zion meets in the loft above our sanctuary, and I often get to listen in on their lesson as I prepare for the worship service in the sanctuary below. Last week their teacher, Cassie, shared something with them that I had never heard before: the difference between “thankfulness” and “gratefulness.”
She said that gratitude goes beyond thankfulness—gratitude goes beyond simply knowing that we’ve been given a gift to having our hearts touched by that gift. I looked up the two words in the dictionary. Merriam Webster explains the difference this way: when we’re “thankful” we’re aware of benefits that we’ve received. When we’re “grateful” we’re appreciative of the benefits we’ve received.
“Thanks” may be a good short-hand kind of word for our response to God’s goodness to us. That’s how Anne Lamott uses it. But we really need to move past thankfulness to gratefulness, to the place where our hearts overflow with an awed wonder that God gives us so much that we can’t help but offer our prayers of “wow,” and that God loves us so much that we can, with utter confidence, lift up prayers of “help.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” The motivational speaker Zig Ziglar coined that phrase, which now appears on countless tee shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers. That attitude is a good starting place for our grateful response to God. Because the great thing about having an attitude of gratitude is that it opens us up to recognizing all that we have to be grateful for.
But, as my Grandma Williams realized, just having a grateful attitude still isn’t a complete response to the gift-giver’s generosity. Our attitude of gratitude has to be expressed in some visible, tangible form—a thank-you note of some kind.
The apostle James taught that what we believe and feel on the inside must show on the outside if it is authentic. So it is with gratitude. Lamott puts it this way: “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior.” When we truly feel the effects of God’s good gifts in our hearts, it makes us want to give to others—of our time, our money, our talents. And the great thing about showing our gratitude to God through generosity and service to others is that it’s self-reinforcing—the more grateful we feel, the more we want to serve; the more we serve, the more opportunities we have to be grateful, and so on and so on in a wonderfully endless cycle.
As we grow in gratitude, we still need to take one more step. We need to from an attitude of gratitude to what Lamott calls a habit of gratitude. An attitude is something we have; a habit I something we do.
It’s a habit that includes the constant prayer and praise that Paul recommends to the Philippians—advice that is clearly inspired by the words of Jesus from our Gospel passage this evening. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always . . . Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The habit of grateful action in response to God’s goodness results in more reasons to be grateful. Paul wrote about this to the Corinthians, saying “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. . . He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Gratitude grows. Gratitude multiplies.
Jesus had the habit of gratitude. He was grateful to God for the food which fed the five thousand. He was grateful that Lazarus would be raised from the dead. He was grateful for the bread and wine on the table in the upper room—the bread and wine which would come to be the signs of what he gave for us. The very word that we use for Communion—the Eucharist—comes from the Greek word eucharistia, the Greek word for gratitude, for thanks.
Help. Wow. And, especially, thanks. Three prayers for this time of Thanksgiving, and for our entire lives. Three prayers that spring from a heart-felt, bone-deep appreciation of all that God has done for us by grace, through faith in the saving love of Jesus. Three prayers that spring from an “attitude of gratitude” that opens us to all the reasons we have to be grateful. Three prayers that form in us a “habit of gratitude” that spills out in thank-you notes to God, written in our acts of service to others.
Help. Wow. And, especially, thanks to our loving God who is in the habit of blessing us so abundantly every day. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young