I was introduced to Anne Lamott through her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Her beautifully transparent style and self-deprecating humour were truly endearing, filling the book with moments of profundity and laughter in equal measure. In reading, I was struck by several turns of phrase and references which made me question if Lamott might be a Christian. But then again, her lighthearted use of profanity and references to God as “She” made it clear that if so, she was no traditionalist. Thus when I spied her name on the spine of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith while visiting Departure Café (now Husk) in East London, I figured it was well worth the 50p to ease my curiosity.
As the subtitle suggests, the work is a loosely organized group of reflections on life and faith. It begins with an overture describing Lamott’s journey towards conversion, from childhood exposure to Christian Science and teenage forays into atheism, through to becoming a secular Jew at university and eventually stumbling into church as an adult with a drinking problem. It was the music that drew her. Having become a regular back-seat attendee at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church (Marin, California), always leaving before the sermon, Lamott relates that a heart-wrenching abortion is what eventually led her to experience Jesus. While drowning the sadness with drink and pain killers, she became aware of a presence, a person in the room, so real that she turned the light on to look. She knew it was Jesus, but instantly exclaimed, “I would rather die” than become what most disgusted her liberal sensibilities: a Christian. But the presence pestered her, like “a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.” Finally, after a church service that was “so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape”, Lamott went home and surrendered. “F**k it: I quit,” she exhaled. “All right. You can come in.” This, she describes, was her “beautiful moment of conversion.”
From this point of departure, Lamott begins to share her thoughts, some written retrospectively, some ostensibly written in the moment, on the ways in which faith shapes her life. She shares her perspectives on raising a child, death, politics, forgiveness, money, grace, friendship, addiction, family, growing old, letting go and living with insecurities. She is a loveable mess, raising her son Sam alone, navigating life and describing her encounters with a sensitive, yet facetious eye. Her style is often touching and lovely, while making the reader laugh in the same breath. While the book’s progression is not logical and orderly, it seems to reflect the fractured way we experience life, wencouraging us to pause and take in the significance of small, seemingly insignificant moments.
Overall the book left me with a sense of warmness and appreciation for the grace of God and beauty of little things. Lamott certainly seems to write with her own principles in mind: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things” (Bird by Bird, 1994: 125). There was much to be encouraged by, most of all the feeling that God meets even those, or maybe especially those, who are hopeless and broken in this world. I felt for Lamott and appreciated her candour and vulnerability. I too want to join the ranks of writers like her that can bare their souls on the page and bring earth-tested wisdom, joy and warmth to their readers.
On the other hand, I was not left without a few uncomfortable and troubling questions. I, and many Christian readers I know, will be intrigued by Lamott’s conversion story and the hilariously irreverent way she describes such a profound moment. It had the ring of truth to it in God’s relentless hounding of this hurting woman. But it was the aftermath, the life lived in response to this pursuit, that raised questions for me. The query that most often was raised in my mind was, “How can a person who has truly met God continue to live in the way that Lamott describes?” For instance, she continues to sleep around as a single mother, struggles with addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs, and certainly has no change in vocabulary…ahem.
Are these just my nice, clean, ‘churchy’ behavioural expectations? Or can a certain level of change be expected to accompany the ‘new birth’ that Jesus talks about in John 3? What I am sure of is that the way God looks on our lives is quite different from our perspective. Many church people would not spend time with this woman. Jesus would have, certainly. And yet, would not the very presence of Jesus demanded a changed heart, manifested in changed habits of feeling, thought and action? Does not his presence with us today demand this from us?
I am reminded of the words of C. S Lewis in asking whether Christians become “nice people, or new men.” He argues, “If Christianity is true it ought to follow a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. b) That any man that becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before” (Mere Christianity, book 4, ch. 10). By this reasoning, the proof of the effect of Christianity in the book is therefore whether Ms. Lamott is a better person than if she were not a Christian and a better person than she was before. I think it does. I do believe that the new life within must be evidenced by a new life without. But I also must admit that discipleship is a trajectory and not a fixed point. Like all living things, the test of life is growth, and no matter how nascent and frail this growth is, it is proof of vitality. It makes me uncomfortable and I know there is so much more to a life of freedom, wholeness and holiness. But I also know that God sees every indestructible seed that he has planted and knows perfectly well what oaks and cedars he will form out of them. For now, let each disciple fix their eyes on the Master and follow.