Help, Thanks, Wow

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I have never learned to drive a standard transmission car.

Since futurists keep insisting that the age of autonomous (“driverless”) vehicles is just around the corner, the window to address this gap in my life is rapidly closing.

My associations with standard transmissions are comically traumatic.  Shortly after my 16th birthday, my father insisted one Sunday afternoon that I join the rest of the human race in learning how to use a stick-shift and clutch.  I was reluctant.  “Mom’s going to teach me,” I said.  But Dad, who did not have the gift of extraordinary patience, made it clear that this was the time and this was the place.  “Get in the car.”  There’s not much room for two people in the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle.  The tension was thick.

I started the car, depressed the clutch, shifted into reverse, and gently put my foot on the accelerator. 

Actually, I had done only three of those four things.  Instead of shifting into reverse, I had put the car into drive.  The Beetle lurched forward and hit the maple tree in our backyard. 

The words we exchanged at that moment should probably not be reported in a morning reflection.  That was the end of my one and only driving lesson with my father.  That event has also been my default excuse, for more than 50 years now, why I never sit behind the wheel of a standard transmission vehicle. 

Some time ago I was delighted to learn that the actor Pierce Brosnan, despite all those great car chase scenes in James Bond movies, barely knows how to use a stick-shift and clutch.  At last, 007 and I have something in common. 

Pierce and I – we’re now on a first-name basis – are more than willing to let other people have all the gear-shifting fun.

What a disaster it would be, however, if any of us came to a similar conclusion concerning prayer.  It’s true that many of us have earnestly tried to pray.  We’ve learned the mechanics, but it doesn’t seem to work. Everybody else seems to “get it,” but all we do is mash our spiritual gears. 

How can we turn the life we already have into a running conversation with God?

Try this:  Bring to mind something that has blessed you in the past few weeks – something large or small that went unaccountably well, beyond your expectations.  Now gently turn your mind toward God, and take a deep breath. 

As you exhale, either aloud or in some quiet interior place, simply say the words, “Thank you.”

Now bring something else to mind.  Think of a problem you have to solve or a challenge you are currently facing that appears to be impossible.  It feels like a cloud hanging over your life.  Once again turn your mind to God and take a deep breath. 

As you exhale, either aloud or in some quiet inner place, simply say, “Help me.”

Or how about something that’s recently moved you to feel a sense of awe?  Maybe it’s the stunning appearance of the summer night sky, or your first look into the face of a newborn child, or the sudden realization that the corn that was just an inch high last May now towers over your head.   

Catch a breath, let it go, and say, “Wow!”

You just prayed three times.  Not only that, you prayed three significant prayers. 

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s not really praying.  That’s just sighing.  It can’t be that easy.” 

But God has always intended that prayer be just that accessible.  As author Anne Lamott notes in her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, that trio of simple expressions can become attached to the everyday blessings and struggles of our lives. 

As we turn our minds to God as rhythmically as breathing in and breathing out, we can, with the Spirit’s help, begin to turn the lives we already have into a running conversation with God. 

Which, when you think about it, is a wonderful strategy for shifting out of neutral.