In her characteristic way of making theology accessible, the writer Anne Lamott identifies three types of prayer: Help! Thanks! and Wow! Each one of us, no doubt, can recall times when we have asked God for help, given thanks to God, or offered to God our amazed response to something that has caught us off guard, indeed found us in an awe-inspiring moment. Together, according to Lamott, these three words capture the constituent parts of prayer, and the essence of what prayer is all about.
They may also be helpful as a way to think prayerfully about the school year that has just past, or is about to end.
First, what were the events, the needs that emerged, the frustrations we experienced during the school year that led us to cry out for help? Every school is an institution, a community that in some way is seeking help with vexing or unexpected problems. Even the most confident, robust, and self-sufficient of schools will, when honest with you, speak out of need. What can be done about this or that problem? What do other schools do when they encounter something seemingly unsolvable? Prayerfully reminding ourselves, or reviewing those times when we have called out in help invite us to come face to face with our shortcomings, but can also help make us feel a closer kinship with other schools (let alone our fellow human beings!). For what binds us together as Episcopal schools are not only the things we do well, but the problems we are prone to encounter, the symptoms that remind us that we are—surprise! surprise!—very human institutions. While dwelling on our accomplishments can lead us to think we have cornered the market on something, or positioned ourselves ahead of every other school, sharing our sense of where we need help puts us back into the common ground of every other school. Truly, it is our wounds that bind us together.
Secondly, what are the areas, the events, the people, for which we need to give thanks, at the end of the year? Our schools are places that constantly struggle to be better; that in part is what makes us great and inspires us toward excellence. Just as it is hard to admit our shortcomings, so it is equally difficult to pause to give thanks for what we have done, who we have been, and what blessings have we received this year as a school community.
A common assumption in the advancement world is, “You can never thank people enough.” In our prayers to God, something similar could be concluded: we don’t give thanks enough. A culture of appreciation can be nurtured in part by the spirit of thanks that we give in prayer, be it individually or collectively.
Lastly, what were the moments, the stories, which left us in awe over the past year? What were some of the extraordinary examples of kindness or care that left us virtually speechless? What were the tales of students or adults overcoming incredible odds that humbled us and reinforced our commitment to being in these extraordinary communities? From the number of hours a student racked up doing service to the community, to the talks in chapel that left the gathered multitude in profound silence, to the turnarounds we saw in the work or attitudes of some students, our schools are places that can leave us in awe of what human beings can do and be.
Whether we reflect on the past year in a formal administrative review, or simply as we catch our breath following the whirlwind of activities and expectations that come with the end of the school year, I sometimes think we need to include more of the “Wow” moments in such instances, for these are the times that bind us to the school; these are the experiences and memories that keep our commitment going when our energy seems sapped.
This is the miracle of our schools: each year, God provides us with times of need, times of profound thanks, and times when we are overwhelmed by stories that leave us in awe of the human spirit. On the one hand, these experiences all point to the uniqueness of our school communities. But they also leave us profoundly linked to so many other schools, all of whom humbly ask for help, proudly give thanks, and find themselves caught off guard, truly amazed by what can take place when young people and adults come together to learn, grow and live out God’s blessings.