Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

Anne Lamott

–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.

          I remember when I read Anne’s book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. I thought it was great. I loved her stories, blessed sarcasm, and rapier wit. Since then, I have maintained a love/“what’s-wrong-with-you?” relationship with her. She continues to write about her journey with penetrating authenticity and candor. I admit to loving it when she refers to some Twitter troll as an “asshat,” but her unnecessary penchant for slinging F-bombs on “The Twitter” wears me out. Splitting hairs? Possibly. That being said, this book offers wonderful insight into mercy from the Scriptures and the street. There’s no theoretical drivel or sanctimonious platitudes found here.

          She comes out of the gate pointing to the Older Testament prophet Micah and his famous question, “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” She notes that Micah “must have looked like a complete stoner or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat, yet nearly three thousand years ago, he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose.” (2) As is true for most of us, she says the humble-walking part is not going to happen anytime soon for her or any of her closest friends. That amount of candor and confession ropes you in from the start. Micah is talking about grad school curriculum from a spiritual standpoint. We feel more junior high-ish in the humility area.

          The fact that we live in “Vengeance World” means that having mercy sets you up for a life of pain, shame, and being mocked. She describes the ever-presence of mercy as “the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy,” while also admitting “I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.” (9)

          What’s your definition of mercy? Many of us grew up hearing the standard “unmerited favor.” Lamott offers several: “Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. Charge it to our heads and not our hearts, as the elders in black churches have long said.” (10)

The title of the book comes from Candi Staton’s great gospel song, “Hallelujah Anyway.” I sort of liked the title, while initially going back in my head twenty-five-plus years ago to the P. T. L. Anyway days of glib clichés from the high-hair and double-chin evange-television crowd. Yet the truth does resonate—in spite of all, there is love and mercy.

          When facing the mess of ourselves, it’s good to see mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion as synonyms. If mercy is also an approach we take facing the mess of ourselves, “it includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.” (11)

          Anne and her son are extremely close, and she let us in on a period when she disgraced both of them following a snarky public comment that blew up on her. The backlash was both stunning and shaming. Her son encouraged her to make it right, for she had done something beneath her that had hurt a lot of people. With poignant words and powerful spirit, her son said, “Please apologize. I’m not going to let this go. And I won’t let you go, either.” (40) You can read the rest of the story. As some have read about and others have experienced, there’s nothing like screwing up on a big stage…

          There are gripping stories in this book, such as the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church slaughter and the forgiving families that followed the tragedy. In the 1990s, in South Africa during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a woman in confronted the man who had burned her husband and son in front of her. Though wanted him in prison forever and not put to death, she wanted to adopt him, so she could give him all the love she could no longer give her husband and son. In so doing, she let herself out of jail. The Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania reached out to the widow of the man who killed five of their schoolgirls in 2006, so she could be included in the circle of mourning and comfort.

          One of the many resonations we have in reading Lamott, is that we can relate with the truth and reality of her journey. She puts words to our morning, or afternoon. We know we share the same road. “We try to come from a place of mercy, because it is good practice; no one is very good at it, especially when someone doesn’t deserve it and knows exactly which of our buttons to push.” (73) Can I get a witness?!? She has a quote taped to her office wall from an anonymous source: “Love is hard. Love is… seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.” Who can’t relate with that?

          Particularly intriguing was her recount of a trip to Tokyo, where her father lived from 1923 to 1938, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, “God’s frozen chosen, and the reason my father loathed Christianity.” (80) She wanted to see the church where they taught and worshipped. Her expectations were not necessarily met in every way, but you can read about it and the subsequent trip to Hiroshima.

          ‘Tis ironic that during Holy Week as I write, Lamott uses Mary and Martha as examples of those of us who may have come far in our faith, but it’s not enough for Jesus. “He admonishes them, and this bugs me. He wants them to come all the way into faith. He’s saying, ‘Okay, so the shit has hit the fan—do you still believe that I am the Resurrection and the Life? Even when you don’t get what you want? Even when nothing makes sense?’” (93)

          Bottom line: There’s a lot of truth, insight, coarse candor, and revealing authenticity in this account of the unsearchable riches and mercy of the risen Christ. Happy Easter.

You’re welcome.