Standing up from her pew, in the midst of a crowded sanctuary, she asked for mercy.
To be sure, this was not a church service, though certainly we expected to hear the Word of God made real. We were gathered to hear Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite writers, who is currently on tour to promote her new book, Hallelujah Anyway:Rediscovering Mercy. Anne, with her characteristic dry wit, unabashed truth-telling, and deep faith, shared her thoughts on how mercy – “the promise to offer and receive relief and forgiveness” – is what we and our world need most at this moment in time.
It was this promise of mercy that brought me to this event. Well, almost; maybe fifty/fifty. My other reason for being there was to meet Anne, fan-girl, and share my newest book, Beads of Healing with her.
As I was anxiously awaiting publication of my book, the winter/spring edition of the Cokesbury catalog arrived in my mailbox one day this past January. I quickly thumbed through the pages to find the listing for my book, and was stunned to find it on page 12, across the page from Anne Lamott and Hallelujah Anyway. I am not exaggerating when I say that I squealed the tiniest bit, then promptly shared a photo of the listing on Facebook. Anne’s book Bird by Bird is one of the first books I read in the days when I wanted to write but didn’t fancy myself a writer. It remains one of my favorite books of any category, and I often tell myself to put “butt in chair” so as to produce my “(ahem, shall we say ‘not so pretty’) first draft” per Anne’s advice.
And so it was that I was here to show Anne the catalog pages that proved we were writer soulmates and should be the best of friends. Oh, and to give her a copy of my book. Never mind the fact that we were here for her and her book. Oh well.
Sitting in my pew, listening to Anne, I began to rethink my plan of giving her the book. I knew she would be gracious about receiving it, but I also expected that it would be awkward and weird. Plus, I’m sure she gets more than her fair share of books foisted upon her from writer-fans. I wavered about what to do.
After reading from her book, Anne invited questions from the audience. She took questions from a half dozen or so people, then said, “Let’s take one more question.”
That’s when the woman stood up.
“You speak a lot about addiction in your life. My addictions were perfectionism and anger, which created a really difficult life for my daughter. When she was sixteen, she developed an eating disorder. I realized I had contributed to her disease, and so I got serious about getting help for her and me, and we made it through that. But sixteen years later, at the age of 32, my daughter died of kidney failure. And I’m really struggling with that because I miss her so much and I’m so very sorry and feel responsible. And so the question I have is, how do I find mercy for myself? Especially when I know that I’m the one who won’t let myself off the hook for the pain I caused my daughter.”
We all sat in stunned silence, waiting to hear Anne’s response.**
“I’m so sorry for your loss and I hear your pain,” Anne said. “I know what it’s like to go through life beating yourself up for things you did, especially when it comes to being a parent. Being a parent is excruciatingly difficult on the good days, and more so on the bad. But we do the best we can. We really do. And you’re right that you need to offer yourself mercy, because Jesus has already offered it to you. That’s what he did when he died on the cross. He was taking your baggage and parenting mistakes and anything else and holding the weight of them as he died so that you wouldn’t have to carry them around anymore. He’s the one hanging from the cross. He’s the one on the hook so you don’t have to be. So just go easy on yourself. See the beauty in your daughter’s life and the hard work y’all did together when she was sixteen and all the memories you hold. Let yourself off the hook. That’s a way to show yourself mercy.”
Crying softly, the woman thanked her. Anne said, “What’s your name?”
“Donna, you’re the one I’ll be praying for tonight.”
I imagined there would be lots of prayers for Donna that night.
Standing in line to meet Anne, my friend Shannon turned to me and said, “You need to give that book to Donna.” I nodded, having come to the same conclusion. As if there was any doubt, Donna ended up right smack dab in front of me in the line. Clearly, God was going to make sure I gave that book to Donna. I wrote a blessing on the inside, tapped her on the shoulder, and handed Donna the book.
Later, as Anne was signing my copy of Bird by Bird, I showed her the catalog page and emphasized how much she meant to me as a writer. She was gracious and showed interest in what I was saying. Mind you, we didn’t exchange phone numbers and promise to become best writer friends; there will be no late-night chats or back-and-forth texting. But we did get to connect for a moment, and that was good enough.
Today is Good Friday, the day when Jesus makes the excruciating journey up the hill to Golgotha, before being hung on the cross to die an even more excruciating death. He does all of this willingly, carrying the weight of our sins, our baggage, our regrets, our mistakes, and our pain with him. He does this to atone for our sins – to clear the record and make things right so that we can move forward in Grace as “forgiven and reconciled people.” It is the surest, most complete act of mercy that is possible.
Anne is right. We are all in need of mercy. And like Donna, we are prone to hold onto our mistakes and regrets and sins, refusing to let them go. We stay stuck in our old life, fearing we are the worst, judging ourselves as undeserving of forgiveness. But that doesn’t do anyone any good, least of all, ourselves.
Lucky for us, we don’t have the last word. Christ does. Christ has died for us. Christ will rise for us. Christ will come again for us. And that is Mercy indeed.
Prayer Bead Devotion
On this Good Friday, use each bead to feel the devastation of this day. Picture yourself at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus as he dies. Look around at the faces of the people – his followers, his family, the Roman soldiers, the religious leaders. What do you see? What do you hear? How do you feel? What is your prayer?
**Obviously, I’m capturing the exchange between Anne and Donna as best I can remember. Hopefully, it’s enough that you’ll get the idea.