One of my favorite contemporary American writers is Anne Lamott. I first discovered her way back when my UU minister sister, Rose, received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ms. Lamott was the graduation speaker. Her blend of humor and pointedness so captivated me that I proceeded to read nearly all of her published writings.
Her work is a combination of novels—most of them set in California’s Marin County just north of San Francisco—as well as several non-fiction collections of her religiously oriented reflections and essays. I say “religiously oriented” with something of a wink and a nod since she is one of the more irreverent religiously oriented writers I’ve come across—which is probably why I find reading her such a delight. If you want to get a better feel for what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read some of her stuff, if you’re not familiar with it already.
The book of hers I’m using to get us into our topic for today is titled Help, Thanks, Wow—The Three Essential Prayers. The title is largely self-explanatory. Whether or not it is a prayer in the traditional sense of words or thoughts offered to a listening Deity, Ms. Lamott is writing about those often unforeseen or unexpected moments, when we are taken out of ourselves into some kind of a transcendent space.
Help: When you realize you’re near the end of your personal coping resources and have to reach both deeper within yourself and to whatever you sense is beyond yourself, for sustenance and strength.
Thanks: When you feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for a blessing that nurtures and enriches your life. I spoke to this kind of prayer sometime back when I built a sermon around the words of Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘thank you’ that would suffice.”
Wow: When you are suddenly overcome by a sense of awe or beauty, or when certain events converge for you in such a way that that you get a deep sense of the essential goodness and beauty of life itself.
Help. Thanks, Wow.
I share with you my own combination of a Wow and Thanks prayer from four weeks ago on Sunday, April 8. Some of you may recall that on the Sunday prior to it I lit a candle wishing a safe trip for my mother who, at age 92, was flying up to Manchester, New Hampshire from her home in West Virginia to attend the Dedication and Naming Ceremony I’d be doing for my second grand-daughter. The candle must have worked as she got here—and back home—just fine.
As part of the ceremony, which took place that Sunday afternoon at the UU Church of Nashua, a couple I’ve known ever since seminary—and who have remained among my closest friends over the years since—sang Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” This same couple, their names are Dave and Irene, sang this same song when Michele and I were married forty years ago this June. Those of us who had been standing for the ceremony—my son, daughter-in-law, their newest child, and the god-parents all took a seat while the song was sung.
Being seated, and momentarily stepping away from the ceremony, gave me a moment to savor that I didn’t even see coming since I’d been so focused on officiating the ceremony itself.
“May your heart always be joyful; may your song always be sung…” And in that moment, that’s what happened. There I was, with my wife sitting a few seats away holding our older grand-child. There was my mother, who came to this country in the early months of 1946 as a nineteen-year-old British war bride with her six-month-old-son (that would be yours truly), now in the presence of her two great-grandchildren. And there were the other people who had been a part of our lives, in one way or another, for much of our lives.
It was a moment that, however momentarily, even took me out of “minister mode” long enough to say Anne Lamott’s “Wow” prayer to myself. Wow, so this is how life is supposed to go and work out—even with those times when my heart wasn’t especially joyful and my song wasn’t being sung. I didn’t need to have someone or something—other than simply Life Itself—to pray to in order to offer prayers of Wow and Thanks.
Well, the song ended. I snapped back into my minister/officiant mode, the Dedication and Naming Ceremony went on to its completion, and then we all had a party.
Anne Lamott: “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty…, of a sudden unbidden insight or a sudden flash of grace.” That was it for me: “A sudden unbidden flash of insight; a sudden flash of grace.”
I’m guessing that most, if not all, of you have had your “Wow Prayer” moments; or whatever you may want to call them. And I hope I don’t lose too many of you at this point should your minds begin to drift back to them. Try to stay with me, right here, if you can.
A question to ponder in light of this subject is where, if anywhere, do we go with such experiences. Do we take them as a passing visit of awe and grace, and then go back to the day-to-day-ness of our lives, waiting and hoping for perhaps another one to come along at some point and lift us up out of ourselves again? Or do these experiences serve some additional purpose for us beyond the blessing they offer? A few lines after the ones I just read, Ms. Lamott writes, “When we are stunned beyond words we are finally starting to get somewhere.” She’s not exactly clear on where that somewhere is, but that’s a tack I’d like to pursue.
The paradox I see in our Wow moments is that they are both ends in themselves to be savored as a transcendent moment of grace, while at the same time serving as a reminder—when we get some reflective distance on them—of the things we care the most about and are most committed to. This, in fact, is my response to some well-known lines by the novelist and essayist E.B. White: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy; if the world were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I wake up each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.”
However much of a challenge it may present to one’s day planner, I would offer that if we cannot find the means, or cultivate the openness of spirit that it takes, to savor our world, then what would be our motivation, and how would we hear our calling, to save whatever parts of our world that we can? I assume you know that by “save” I do not mean hoard or try to keep for oneself. It’s quite the opposite. The true response to a moment of savoring, or to a Wow Prayer, is: “Now, what can I give?”
This gets me to another story. It’s a Pilgrims and Indians story. But it’s not “the” Pilgrims and Indians story that usually gets told as our American Thanksgiving approaches. That’s a story with a mixture of history and legend and mythology; along with its mixtures of meaning and interpretation. I’ll all that aside this morning.
This Pilgrims and Indians story is one I found in a book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift. Here goes:
“When the pilgrims first landed in Massachusetts they discovered a thing so curious about the Indians feeling for property that they felt called upon to give it a name. In 1764 when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony the term was already an old saying: An ‘Indian gift’ he told his readers, ‘is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.’ We still use this of course, and in an even broader sense, calling that friend an ‘Indian giver’ who is so uncivilized as to ask us to return a gift he has given.
“Imagine a scene: An Englishman comes into an Indian Lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, ask him to share a pipe of tobacco. Carved from red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated among the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time, but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as is polite, give the pipe to their guest when he leaves.
“The Englishman is tickled pink. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on his mantelpiece. A time passes, and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonist’s home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe, and his translator finally explains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property: Indian Giver.”
Lewis Hyde then adds this:
“But the Indian Giver understood a cardinal property of the gift: Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred.
“The only essential is this: The gift must always move.”
What became, then, in European, and later American, lexicon a pejorative and racist epithet, actually arose from a deep awareness among some of the original inhabitants of this land as to how we human beings are to truly be in relationship with one another and with our world: Whatever we have been given is supposed—in some fashion or other—to be given away again, not kept. However the actual transferring may take place, the essential point is that the gift must always move.
Well now, let’s see if we can bring together Mr. Hyde, Mr. White, and Ms. Lamott on this matter. Our moments of savoring, our Wow Prayers, are not experiences we can literally hand off to another. I cannot ever fully replicate the precise experience I described earlier even for myself, let alone anyone else. But can we also regard our times of savoring, our Wow prayers—as wonderful as they are on their own—as also being gifts that we must move? Might our times of wholeness and completion also be a call to direct what energies and abilities we have to help heal, in even the smallest of ways, some of the broken and unhealed parts of our fragile world? The gift must always move. To be given a life that allows us to have our outside-of-time moments is also a call to return to our time-bound lives and take up the work of extending what our UU principles call “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” to our greater human family. The gift must always move.
I’m going to bring this savor/save theme and dynamic—quite literally—in house here now, for the next few minutes, and ask you to think of it in light of your particular religious community. From the reports I’ve heard about what happened last Sunday in this room after your service with Rev. Lara Hoke, it sounds like you had your own collective “Wow” and “Thanks” time of prayer. Yes, I know that no prayer in the traditional sense was offered when your unanimous vote to call Rev. Lara as you next settled minister was announced, but I’m sure it was a moment of great joy and gratitude nonetheless. It was a well-deserved moment to savor for the sake of its own richness.
Join that experience with some of the other “Wow prayers” that no doubt have been experienced in this room over the years: The silence that hangs in the air for a few seconds when the choir has completed an especially moving anthem; the human connection as a joy is related; the hug of comfort for one who has experienced a loss or is troubled; the welcoming of a new life into the world; saying good-bye to a life well lived; the flash of inspiration and insight from hearing a spoken word or two.
Your call to Rev. Lara, joined with the many other “Wow moments” that have been experienced here over the years will serve you well as you move forward in her ministry with you, and your ministry with her. They will stand you in good stead as you continue to seek ways of being a saving presence, however great or small, in this community and in the world beyond it.
And so, let your Wow moment also be a time of re-commitment and re-dedication amongst yourselves to saving, preserving, and moving along a gift that you and those who come after you will continue to be blessed by.
One more place to go now before finishing up as I loop back to the experience I described at the outset. Whenever I officiate a Dedication and Naming Ceremony—even the ones that don’t have the kind of immediate effect on me as the one I’ve described—I often come away thinking about what kind of a world it will be for the child that I’ve helped usher into it in a kind of spiritual sense.
I sometimes recall the line from that old Louis Armstrong song: “I hear babies cry. I watch them grow. They’ll learn more than I’ll ever know.” Most likely they will indeed. And what will they learn? What will they experience? What will they know? To savor the arrival of a new child, whatever our relationship to him or her may be, is to ask these saving questions?
What can I do to make the world this child will come to know a more sane, safe, just and peaceful one and not one overcome with hatred, ignorance, bigotry, and want? I don’t just mean me personally. I mean myself in concert, allied with, those who share the values, principles, and purposes that we feel will give us all a more humane life and a more humane world in which to live it.
To think and act in this way is to move from savoring to saving, and then back to even more savoring to remind us of why we live out the commitments we do.
In whatever great or small ways that may be available to us, then, may our times of savoring also give us our times of time of re-dedication to saving—to saving and moving the gifts that continue to bless us all.
May 6, 2018