Monday, June 30, 2008


Last December, one very icy night, I found myself on the corner of 8th Avenue and Roosevelt Street with my car wrapped around somebody’s mailbox. I didn’t have the cell phone along with me, and there I stood in the sleety rain, my poor old Buick immovable, its front fender buried in a snow bank.

I guess the feeling I had could be best described as despair and self-pity. Poor, poor me . . . I was alone, I was cold, I had no phone, I had to go to the bathroom, and my car was irretrievably stuck.

So I did what I try to remember to do in those situations (well, I did what I do after I first cry and kick a tire). I said to myself, “Twenty-four hours from now, I will not be standing alongside the road with my car buried in a snow bank. Something will occur that will make this situation change.” Then I start the backward count: “Twenty-three hours from now, I will not be standing alongside the road with my car buried . . .” Eventually, I get to the point where I can say with a degree of certainty, “An hour from now, I will not be standing alongside the road . . .” And then I said the only prayer I trust in difficult times, “Help me, help me, help me.” What I’m asking for is a little divine perspective.

Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies offers this opinion about prayer: “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’” (Evidently she believes that you must say each of them three times—Father, Son, Holy Ghost, you know. They demand equal time.)

I sometimes fall into the trap of being very bossy about what I pray for. “P-l-e-a-s-e, God,” I might have said on that sleety December night, “please let me be able to back my car out of this snow bank. Please let there be miraculously no damage to either the car or the mailbox. P-l-e-a-s-e reverse time, change the sleet to plain old snow, and let me make it around this corner safely.”

Of course, that wouldn’t happen. Instead, because I had no idea how to fix the situation myself, I just said: “Help me, help me, help me.” Within minutes, three cars stopped to offer help, the owner of the mailbox reassured me that he had never really liked that mailbox anyway, and somebody with a cell phone called a tow truck. Sure, the mailbox had a broken crossbar, the tow truck cost $50, and my car had $400 worth of damage; but I made it home to the bathroom on time and nobody died. (“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”)

I have found that God never pays any attention to my very fervent, very directive prayers in which I outline exactly the way I think a situation should be handled (i.e., my perspective on a situation). In fact, I am a little cynical of people who claim success when they pray to win the big game, pick the correct lottery numbers, heal their Aunt Gertrude’s gouty big toe, or make their dead cat come back to life. That implies that they looked at what was wrong, outlined to God what needed to be changed, and God boomed in his best James Earl Jones voice, “Wow! My mistake! Thanks for helping me realize what needs to be done here.” And presto, change-o! The score of the game is 89 to 90 in overtime, their PowerBall number is 10-15-21-39-42-08, Aunt Gertrude’s gouty toe stops hurting, and little Frisky rises from the dead.

I’m much more inclined to agree with Ann Lamott: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” A little humble praying for some divine perspective rather than offering a prayer with specifically outlined instructions based on my own perspective works out better every time.

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