It’s not often I attend a theological convention. But I’d been looking forward to Anne Lamott’s appearance at the fall convocation of the Perkins School of Theology for the past year. Anne Lamott, author of the beloved writing handbook, Bird by Bird, teaching something that sounds as dry as theology? But after devouring several of her nonfiction books (and a novel or two), what other word would I have chosen to describe her earthy, funny, painful, joyous and heartrending words except – theology? At its best.
Although I had trumpeted my intention to attend Lamott’s talk for the past six weeks, I apparently had forgotten to actually register to attend, back when tickets for her appearance were free. Now, moving to the entrance to McFarlin (seating capacity 2,300), I noticed people presenting paperwork to verify their right to attend. The university had announced days earlier that, with limited seating, no more free tickets would be issued. I could pay to attend the entire two-day convocation or I could go home. Luckily (or so I believed) I had printed my initial email invitation and held it out, prepared to argue with the ushers. One of the smiling women at the door simply tore off a corner of my printed email, dropped it in a basket, and waved me in. Not luck, but mercy, the theme of Lamott’s latest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy.
Lamott emerged onto the stage, looking more petite than ever next to tall Perkins dean Dr. Craig Hill. A pink scarf tied bandeau-style around her head covered some of Lamott’s trademark short dreadlocks of graying blonde hair. She wore blue slacks and a green sweater with another, darker scarf draped around her neck.
After Texas’ trials of hurricane and, little more than a week before Lamott’s appearance, the most horrific mass murder in the state’s history, “We’re had Texas in our prayers a lot,” Lamott told the audience that nearly filled McFarlin to capacity. “I love Texas. And,” pausing a beat, “I especially love Texas when it’s not summer.” One hundred plus degree summer days in the Lone Star State? Everybody in the audience understood that one, and alternately laughed and applauded Lamott throughout.
“I accidently wrote this book on mercy,” Lamott continued. Pondering where to turn for hope and guidance in “these agonizing days, she had searched her Bible from the beginning, finding little help until she reached the Old Testament book of the prophet Micah. “He must have looked a stoner. Or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat,” she said, “but his admonitions struck her: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
Justice? Humility? Not happening in this world, as far as she could tell. But mercy? That might be doable.
“I started to notice whenever I used that word (mercy), people responded.” She began to ask herself, what’s the next merciful thing you could do today? And She decided that mercy must include kindness, wrote a note to herself “why not be kind?” and ended by writing her “accidental” book.
“Mercy calls us for sharing at our must human, without the armor and without the masks. It’s scary and gorgeous to become a person of radical mercy. The bad news is that it begins with developing a merciful attitude toward ourselves.”
She briefly recounted her early life – many of the details already familiar to her audience from her books – her parents’ troubled marriage, a brilliant alcoholic father she worshipped, the years of childhood and adolescence spent trying to be whatever others needed, while “stuffing down” her own needs.
“I didn’t want to go back and experience that kind of bleakness, but stuffing it down doesn’t help.”
Do we sometimes think neither the stuffing down nor the merciful attitude applies to us? Didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional family? Aren’t/weren’t an alcoholic like Lamott? Not an unwed parent? Not a person who forgets to sign up for something she dearly loves?
“Some of you are fine,” Lamott assured us, then skewered her 2,300-hundred-member audience, ever so gently. us. “Well, eight of you are fine. The rest of us are really messed up. . . We get well in such small increments, and I hate it. If I were God, or God’s West Coast representative, I would just wave a wand. But I’m not. Mercy means a heart for someone else’s troubles – and not in that co-dependent way. It means (God) turning a kind face toward you,” and because of that, “you decide to be fully alive for as long as your live, a person of hilarious generosity.”
(For more about Anne Lamott, take a look at her Facebook page, because she’s probably the most public person who doesn’t have her own website. Or better yet, read her books.)