Anne Lamott is an enigma. She writes with complete candor about her life-experiences. She sometimes offends the sensitivities of church people with her unvarnished remembrances of her journey from atheism to an unashamed confession of faith in Jesus. Her honesty is unsettling for churched people who are huddled behind the barriers, insulated from the un-saved, un-churched masses of humanity.
A poignant example of this is found in Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” (1999, Anchor Books). Here she discusses her first steps away from a life of heavy drinking, frequent drug use, licentious living and avowed atheism into the netherworld of Christianity as experienced in Christian worship.
What she says about singing is especially interesting. Please look at the following lines closely. I wonder if Anne Lomott would be a believer in Jesus Christ if the hearts of the worshipers had not been where they were when she encountered them!
Ponder these words:
I went back to St. Andrew about once a month. No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying. I always left before the sermon. I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing. But the church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of these people’s exhalations of warmth and faith and peace.
There were always children running around or being embraced, and a gorgeous stick-thin deaf black girl signing to her mother, hearing the songs and the Scriptures through her mother’s flashing fingers. ….And every other week they brought huge tubs of great food for the homeless families living at the shelter near the canal to the north. I loved this. But it was the singing that pulled me in a split me wide open.
I could sing better here than I ever had before. As part of these people, even though I stayed in the doorway, I did not recognize my voice or know where it was coming from, but sometimes I felt like I could sing forever.
Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life. But I had to leave before the sermon.
Lamott goes on to tell about another series of events, which make up the twists and turns of the spiritual battles taking place for her soul. Many of her choices were not good; but, she did maintain her connection with the Christian community at St. Andrew’s. After describing a series of soul stirring events in which she had an undeniable sense of Jesus’ presence in her life, she continues:
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels (a metaphor for her sense of Jesus’ presence), and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “x#*x: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”
So this is my beautiful moment of conversion.
In subsequent years Anne Lamott’s theology has grown wider and deeper, but the rawness of her confession remains. She is still a bit too far “out there” for some. She is unique in many ways, to say the least. But, she is like us all in one key area:
Her stiff and rotting heart was touched by the mystical affect of believers singing “with the Spirit and with understanding” (See: 1 Corinthians 14:15).
Further reflection on Lamott’s experience has prompted me to ask many questions. Some of these are:
1) Where would Anne Lamott have been without these believers and their songs?
2) How would this grown woman, who felt like a scared little child, ever have felt God’s warm embrace without these believers “singing between the notes”?
3) How can any community of Christians think it is “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18-19), without such singing?
4) How would a church’s “order of worship” be impacted if worship leaders determined to think of the song service as “breath and food” for its worshippers?
5) How can any body of believers or any individual believer think that an attitude of “performance and judgment” with respect to worshipful singing will honor God or impact lives? (See: Colossians 3:16)
One additional point: In these instances, Anne Lamott does not mention the type or title of songs St. Andrews was singing. There was no need, because they would best be described as “Heart Songs”! That which made them special was not their musical style. It was not their original publication date either. The beauty of the lyrics was felt because they gave life to love for God within the hearts from which they flowed.
Oh, that we would learn how to sing in between the notes!
© Bill Williams