It is hard to fully describe how significantly Anne Lamott rocked my faith journey when I read her book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, in the summer of 2006. Anne and I do not share a similar upbringing. Or a similar life story. But there was something about her soul. Her transparency. Her imperfect nature that allowed me to see how truly neurotic and self-absorbed and good-intentioned – and similar – we all are.
I have friends who have read some of her work and not liked her at all. I get that; she’s a very different kind of believer. She has a messy story and shares it in a way that is neither apologetic nor boastful. It just is. She offers it up courageously to be examined. Yet her readers often see their own story through her pauses, humor and self-deprecating intonations.
I have often said she is a soul I immediately loved and with whom I passionately identified, jokingly referring to her always as my-best-friend-who-doesn’t-know-I-exist, Anne Lamott.
The over-arching thing that Lamott represents to me is exactly how the Church should function. It should be dirty and flawed and loving and filled with the astounding and unexplainable grace that only God could provide. She represents a heart that has deeply found Jesus as their dearest companion and sweetest friend.
Her sauntering into faith began when she started wandering into the nearby little inner-city church – arriving late, listening to the singing, and then leaving early before anyone could speak to her. Week after week this went on – sneeking into the back of the church, working off a hangover and confused as to why she kept being drawn in.
Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.
My notes in the book read: When we feel raw and hurt and flawed, we don’t want to be among starched white purity. We gravitate to the dusty authenticity of real people – with real problems. We long for openness and honesty in others so that we may begin to find it within ourselves.
After attending church by herself for awhile, Lamott began bringing her small son, Sam.
And people loved on them both.
They loved Anne and they loved and cared for her son until Lamott finally reached a point where she began to realize that the love of this integrated church must be coming from an unearthly force. Slowly, she became acquainted with God’s grace and forgiveness and supreme love for her. Her church loved on her first: “They just knew I was damaged. That I was un-ok…” They understood; and they loved her anyway.
How often have we felt un-ok and therefore shirked away from people of faith? How much did we need a community of people who had fallen and stumbled and were still trying to make their way through this thing called Christianity?
What a beautiful group of Christ-followers this church was. How fortunate and provisional it was that Lamott should be drawn in by their music – and introduced to their savior through their love and acts of kindness…
When I read the announcement in my Facebook Feed that Lamott was going to be in nearby St. Louis, Missouri, I thwarted a lot of excitement about the possibility of seeing her. However, Scott was all for it so we made a few adjustments to our schedules and took off the next morning from Kansas City, bright and early, to make the 4-hour trip.
After a lot of worrying about not being let in, then a lot of standing in line (we were the 15th/16th people in a line of people that spanned about 600 in total attendance), we finally made our way to the 3rd row, middle aisle seats.
Her presentation with now 21-year-old, Sam, was as heart-warming and filled with humor and transparency as I would have expected. I was mesmerized.
I sat still.
She read sections from her book and Scott recorded it all with his video camera. I have clipped a section from her talk about her wonderful church that welcomed her with open arms so many years ago, here and here. She spoke of people I felt I already knew from her books. People that were part of her healing community.
She didn’t disappoint or dash any expectations I had. The only frustrating part of the evening was the actual book signing itself. I don’t like that process. Not at all. There were people standing around she and Sam as they sat at the table and signed their names (no personalization…not with 600+ people.) I stood in the small room and listened as woman after woman said basically the same thing to her. I listened as they laughed nervously and talked too fast and too similarly. I watched as she nodded and tried to react as if she hadn’t heard it a thousand times before – that evening as well as at various other cities on their tour. I listened as the woman in front of me said, “My son was born a year after Sam so I knew just how you felt when I read your books.”
You live in Missouri. She lives in California. She was a meth-addict, for Christ’s sake! You do NOT know how she felt!! You have no idea how any of us felt raising our kids.
…Please move on, miss.
Scott leaned over to me as we were 3 persons back from her, “What are you going to say to her?” I’m sure I looked as sick as I felt inside: “I have no idea.” And I didn’t. Believe me; I had been trying to come up with something for the past 24 hours. But I was a total blank. There was just too much. Too much emotion. Too much impact on the way I looked at humanity since reading her words.
The woman standing at the end of the table took my book from me and turned to the title page then handed it back to me to hold it open for Anne to sign.
The loud-clammering woman in front of me finally left.
I moved up to face Miss Lamott.
Right there. Inches away. Face to face.
I handed her my worn and yellow-paged copy of Traveling Mercies. Then some supernatural thing inside of me formed words and my mouth opened:
“Thank you for changing a conservative’s heart.”
It was just one sentence. But I know exactly what I (and that supernatural thing inside of me that was forming words) meant by it. I wasn’t speaking politically. And I wasn’t trashing my upbringing or my conservative church heritage.
Actually, I wasn’t speaking about that at all.
What Lamott did for me was to point out the narrow way in which I viewed the world. There were good people and there were bad people. And bad people were to be avoided. By reading about and connecting with Lamott and all of her rogue friends and church colleagues I realized that imperfect people were just like me. Our stories have different fill-in-the-blanks, but our need for grace is identical. Our ghosts are varied, but we each have a history for which we are not proud. We each struggle to figure out what it is Christ wants from us, individually, as we simultaneously struggle to figure out how to journey together peaceably, as a collective body.
Things weren’t so black and white anymore after I read about Lamott’s journey. We each are fighting a battle, as they say. We EACH are. You can choose to appear as if you’ve got it all together – or you can bend your head, hold hands with your neighbor and admit that ONLY there by the grace of God, go I.
It was the beginning of my understanding of what Grace meant and how profoundly Grace changed my heart; and thoroughly covered and engulfed my Story.
My thinking was too narrow. Too uninformed. Too conservative.
Lamott taught me to love extravagantly and to trip over my good-intentions, no matter how misplaced they may be at times. She taught me that although life can be very complicated, Faith is far more simple than we imagine it.
She taught me that although Grace is completely beyond my understanding, it is not beyond my Worth. She taught me to liberally extend that same empathetic understanding to others – that we are all struggling. It is our duty as Christ-followers, to bolster each other with the unnatural foundation of understanding and love.
She stirred up my conservative heart and mixed in a liberal dose of humanity.
Then, I stepped aside for the next person to thank her for the heart-connection that they too felt when reading her gift to each of us: grace, communicated through the transparency of an imperfect life.
I rode home feeling blessed and filled to capacity for the way God uses others to throw His arms around us and remind us that we are deeply and inexplicably loved…