A few days ago the Emailmeditation was a piece written by bestselling author Anne Lamott (#2213—“Why I Make Sam Go to Church”). I have been reading her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999). In it she tells the story of her conversion from one who hated Jesus to one who gave her life to him. It is an interesting story, and over the next three days I will reprint an edited version of it from pages 144-155 of Traveling Mercies.
Anne Lamott and I are the same age, but that is about all we have in common. I grew up in a stable family; she grew up in a chaotic home. My parents were conservative Republicans; hers were Communist hippies. We were very involved in church; her father hated Jesus, the church, and anything religious. I used alcohol very little and never used drugs; she began experimenting with both in junior high school and was addicted to drugs and alcohol for many years. By the age of 25 I was graduated from seminary, married with two children, and working. At the age of 30, Anne’s life was a complete mess and she finally entered treatment. I have always been a Christian. Anne resisted Jesus with all her being, until she could no longer resist, as this story will tell.
Sometime after the age of 30 Anne came to believe in Jesus and was baptized, so now we have that in common. But there are many different ways to be a Christian, and our beliefs and practices are not very similar. We both want to follow Jesus, but we have very different understandings of what that looks like. Anne belongs to a very liberal church, mine is traditional. My theology is orthodox, Anne’s not so much. Her faith inspires her to be a liberal political activist; my faith leads me towards more conservative political positions.
But we both believe in Jesus, we both go to worship every week, and we are both a part of God’s big, wonderfully diverse family. There is much in Anne Lamott’s writing that I do not like, but I am glad that she has Jesus in her heart and that Jesus graciously forgives us all as we so miserably fail to follow him as we ought.
Here then is the story of how Jesus got a hold of a reluctant Anne Lamott.
In l984 I was living in a small apartment on a houseboat berthed at the north end of Sausalito, on San Francisco Bay. I was almost thirty when I moved in, and I lived for the next four years in a space about ten feet square, with a sleeping loft.
I got pregnant in April, right around my thirtieth birthday, but was so loaded every night that the next morning’s first urine was too diluted for a pregnancy test to prove positive. Every other day, my friend Pammy would come by and take a small bottle of pee to the lab that was near her home. I did not have a car. I had had a very stern conversation with myself a year before, in which I said that I had to either stop drinking or get rid of the car. This was a real no-brainer. I got around on foot, and by bus and friend.
Marin City is the ghetto in this luscious affluent county, built in a dusty bowl surrounded by low green hills on the other side of the freeway from where my houseboat was. The town is filled with families—lots of little kids and powerful mothers. There are too many drugs and guns, there is the looming and crummy government housing called the Projects, and there are six churches in a town of two thousand people who are mostly black. On the weekends, the gigantic lot where the Greyhound bus depot used to be was transformed into one of the country’s biggest flea markets. Every square foot was taken up with booths and trucks and beach umbrellas and tables and blankets and racks displaying household wares and tools and crafts and clothes, much of it stolen, most of it going for a song—hundreds of sellers, thousands of buyers, children and dogs and all of us stirring up the dust.
This is where I liked to be when I was hungover or coming down off a cocaine binge, here in the dust with all these dusty people, all this liveliness and clutter and color, things for sale to cheer me up, and greasy food that would slip down my throat.
If I happened to be there between eleven and one on Sundays, I could hear gospel music coming from a church right across the street. It was called St. Andrew Presbyterian, and it looked homely and impoverished, a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a small parcel of land with a few skinny pine trees. But the music wafting out was so pretty that I would stop and listen. I knew a lot of the hymns from the times I’d gone to church with my grandparents and from the albums we’d had of spirituals. Finally, I began stopping in at St. Andrew from to time, standing in the doorway to listen to the songs. I couldn’t believe how run-down it was, but it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. During the time when people hugged and greeted each other, various people would come back to where I stood to shake my hand or try to hug me; but I was frozen and stiff. After this, Scripture was read, and then the minister would preach, and it would be all about social injustice—and Jesus, which would be enough to send me running back out into the flea market.
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. But the church smelled wonderful, like it was composed 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 Scripture through her mother’s flashing fingers. The radical old women of the congregation often brought huge tubs of great food for the homeless families living at the shelter near the canal. I loved this. But it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open. (continued…)