Mercy, Mercy and ‘Hallelujah Anyway’

Anne Lamott may be one of the most high-profile progressive Christians in America today, but she’s better known as the author of such bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction as Imperfect Birds and Some Assembly Required, not to mention the beloved writing guide Bird by Bird. This may change with her newest book, Hallelujah Anyway. Though all her essay collections have centered on themes of faith and compassion, this one is her most explicitly Christian. In it, she wrangles with biblical stories, and not just the ones that make everyone comfortable. Ruth, Mary, Martha, Jesus, and controversial Paul dance through this book about mercy and self-reckoning. It’s wonderful, and not just because her combination of leftist politics and Christian beliefs bridges a looming gap in our country.

Lamott acknowledges that her sources of strength may put some people off. “Where do I look for answers when I’m afraid, or confused, or numb?” she writes. “A dream-dancing Sioux grandmother with a tinkling laugh? No, more often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah [who said] ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ Oh, is that all?”

Her metaphors and prose sparkle, but what most distinguishes Lamott’s writing is a crisp transparency and specificity. To the extent that she’s willing to grapple with her limitations, she’s willing to share them, and she’s always taken us on her journeys (though she might protest such a clunky noun), whether through the hiking trails near her Northern Californian home or her own shadows. Addiction, bulimia, family dysfunction, the death of loved ones, parenthood, and now grandparenthood: This author has navigated them all, and she not only offers advice but heeds it too. The wisdom of friends, family, fellow congregation members, Rumi, Beckett, and Saint Augustine score equal billing, as do her own demons. She even addresses the kerfuffle she caused in her family and in the public arena by tweeting disrespectfully about Caitlyn Jenner. Yes, Lamott seems to suggest, she is perfectly imperfect. But loving these imperfections – our own and everyone else’s – is the process, or at least the inception, of mercy, what she names “the ground of our being.” “Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable,” she writes.

She goes on. “Where is mercy in a beloved’s suicide? In the Christian tradition, we say that Christ continues to be crucified, in tsunamis, sick children, political prisoners, and that we must respond … Mother Teresa cradling strangers at dawn is very romantic, but in life, there’s also your thirsty bigoted father, your lying sister, the whole human race, living and dying and rising with Christ.”

I’ll admit that, as I typed that last paragraph, I could hear my Jewish grandmother rolling over in her grave. On this point, she would not be alone; many on the left not only share her aversion to “Christ talk” but identify as agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” And yet, Lamott’s appeal cuts across all kinds of divides.

I think this is because of her faith, not despite it.

Hallelujah Anyway doesn’t explicitly call out our current administration the way that Lamott’s earlier books called out the Bush Dynasty. This may be wise, for our political landscape is shifting so rapidly that it’s not safe to assume we’ll have the same president in six months. Yet in her call for mercy she implicitly acknowledges these harrowing times. Never in U.S. history have peace, love, and understanding been so vital, and never have they been more elusive.  To bridge our many schisms, we must abandon the snap judgments, resentments, and rivalries upon which American life feeds. When I read Lamott’s work I rethink my most uncharitable comments and attitudes, though I usually pride in being the bully’s bully. I consider the merits of forgiveness, humility–of ruthless self-accounting. I tiptoe toward eternal love.

What’s most lovely about these essays is that they not only alert us to our sins but offer tools to correct them, for Lamott teaches by example. When she owns up to trolling Jenner, for example, she discusses how resistant she was to self-reckoning, and the steps that led her to finally apologizing. Apologies are such unmodern miracles.

Paths are many, and Lamott’s happens to be that of Christ. To judge this fact would be to judge the wisdom Christ inspires in her. More than that, it would be to deny the mercy that, in our increasingly secular country, has become the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Instead we should follow Lamott’s example, not necessarily to convert to Christianity but to pursue greater grace. “The point of life,” she quotes a friend, “is not staying alive but staying in love.” Say amen, somebody.

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy