Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray: 31 Lessons
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Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray: 31 Lessons

by James C. Howell

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Prayer is not easy, yet learning to pray can be learned. The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray is a brief but probing guide into the life of prayer. James Howell examines the many barriers to prayer (such as our busyness, how uncomfortable with silence we are, our doubts and fears) and invites the reader to take a fresh approach to the devotional life.

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Prayer is not easy, yet learning to pray can be learned. The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray is a brief but probing guide into the life of prayer. James Howell examines the many barriers to prayer (such as our busyness, how uncomfortable with silence we are, our doubts and fears) and invites the reader to take a fresh approach to the devotional life.

Each lesson begins with a scripture passage and the author draws comfortably and appropriately from a rich array of other sources (Annie Dillard, St. Augustine, Henri Nowen, Kathy Mattea, Madeleine L’Engle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Francis, Oscar Romero, and the movie Good Will Hunting are a sampling.) The author’s own engaging writing style, including his ability to illumine his ideas with the shared wisdom of others, is a major strength of this book.

While each “lesson” is only two book pages long, the author draws from a deep well of wisdom about prayer. Howell leads the reader through the “subjects” of prayer (e.g. praise, confession, giving thanks), and digs deeply into theological issues such as whether prayer works, prayer and suffering, and forgiveness. According to the author, “In the end, prayer draws us into community with others— out of our “curved in” lives and into the world in service.”

The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray will be helpful to the novice in spiritual life as well as long-time Christians who are striving for a more profound relationship with God. Includes Study Guide, List of Sources, and Scripture Index.

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Abingdon Press
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The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray

31 Lessons

By James C. Howell

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3428-1


Lesson One


In the beginning was the Word. —John 1:1

We begin our conversations on prayer. To some devout people, prayer is as natural as breathing. But to many modern people, prayer seems alien and futile. If you are bothering to read this, you probably are at least hopeful that there is such a thing as prayer, that there is a God on the other end, and that a meaningful relationship can happen.

Gazing across the centuries, we notice that prayer is pretty normal. About 50,000 years ago, when anthropologists say our ancestors' brain size began to expand and human beings came into their own, painted art began to appear on caves indicating religious belief. When human consciousness "woke up," there was born simultaneously—like a twin in the soul—an impulse to transcend earthly consciousness, and to connect with a power beyond. Humans have always yearned for something beyond ourselves, beyond this world. Primitive people prayed for rain, and fell on their knees when the crops ripened.

As our brains have gotten bigger and smarter, we have begun to shed our sense of dependence upon God. We have come to think of ourselves as masters of the universe, as arbiters of our own fate. In a smarter world, prayer has become confused and pushed to the margins of life.

But prayer is not contrary to intelligence. Perhaps prayer requires (or is!) a deeper intelligence. One thing we must recognize: prayer is not a way of getting a grip on our lives, of getting things under control. Prayer is the yielding of control. Prayer is discovering I am not the center of the universe, that God is working in hidden yet certain ways. Prayer is realizing we have a relationship with a good and loving God. Prayer is our openness to getting involved in God's adventure with us in the world.

Prayer is hard in our world, but prayer is possible—and desperately needed. Our hollowness, our cynicism, our hopelessness, these are signs from God who is crying out to us, encouraging us to reach out to God, to talk, to listen. We are more than flesh and blood. There is a mystery in my heart, and in yours, a mystery bigger than myself. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that each of us "is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery.... This sanctuary is neglected and forgotten, like an overgrown tomb or an attic choked with rubbish, and it needs an effort... to clean it up and make it habitable But the room itself does not need to be built: it is already there."

And so let us begin by praying together: Lord, I do not know how to pray. My heart is hidden even from myself. But my heart is not hidden from you. I will need considerable help to clean the place up. Yet I will work energetically, expecting that you are there waiting for me, and for all of us, to come home. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.


Lesson Two

Closer Than We Think

We do not know how to pray as we ought. —Romans 8:26

A twofold premise of these lessons is that (a) prayer isn't easy, but also that (b) prayer can be learned. Some of us learned "bedtime" prayers as children ("Now I lay me down to sleep ..."). Certainly throughout life we need to retain something of a childlike, simple, trusting approach to prayer. But usually as the rest of my "self" grows up, I need for my prayers to grow up as well, to become more mature. And as an adult, there is generally nobody there to remind you, "Now let's bow our heads and say our prayers."

Prayer is difficult, and we will diagnose some of the reasons (such as our busyness, all the noise, an inability to concentrate). Yet for me there are two kinds of comfort, two hopeful thoughts, hidden in the difficulties.

1. Sometimes we see somebody who seems to be a stalwart at prayer, some beaming, smiling paragon of spirituality whose soul appears to have a direct, fast-access line to heaven. To me, such people are discouraging. We need examples of how to pray! But it is paradoxically encouraging to discover that even the greatest saints of the Church have struggled with their prayer life. Some of Mother Teresa's letters have been published, revealing her struggles in prayer. For instance, she wrote, "I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." And, "Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul."

So we are never alone in our struggle, which leads to a more important truth:

2. Prayer isn't easy, but that doesn't mean God isn't there. The barriers to prayer are all on our side, and God is always thrashing at them, always drawing as close to us as our next breath. You can trust in this: When God seems most absent, God is surprisingly most present. Listen to Oscar Romero, the heroic archbishop of El Salvador, in a sermon preached on Good Friday one year before he was assassinated in 1980:

"God is not failing us when we don't feel his presence. Let's not say: God doesn't do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don't pray anymore. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn't hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don't feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish. When are we going to understand that God not only gives happiness, but also tests our faithfulness in moments of affliction? It is then that prayer and religion have most merit: when one is faithful in spite of not feeling the Lord's presence. Let us learn from that cry of Christ that God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and that we are closer to him than we think."

A meaningful life of prayer is closer than you think. Romans 8:26 does not merely say, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." Paul also says, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." This is our hope.

So we pray together. Lord, I do not know how to pray as I ought. I feel far from you. Thank you for refusing ever to be far from me. I am encouraged knowing that I am closer to you than I have imagined. I am not alone, and we are not alone. You are always with me, with us. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.


Lesson Three

Barriers to Prayer

You are worried and distracted by many things. —Luke 10:41 NRSV

There may be as many barriers to prayer as there are people trying to pray. You probably have a particular challenge in praying that you would rank number one, for we are all uniquely gifted, but also uniquely challenged in the life of prayer.

Henri Nouwen, in a great little book on the spiritual life called With Open Hands, reminds us that "the resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists." He tells of a woman in a psychiatric center who swung wildly at everyone until they had to restrain her and take everything from her. It took two people to pry open her hand, to find one small coin that she refused to yield, as if she would lose her self if she let go of that coin. Prayer is hard, because it is like letting go. We hang on to what is familiar, even if it's of no great value. But, "each time you dare to let go and surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving."

We hang desperately on to our "busyness," which is a devious culprit ruining our life with God. Why do we get so busy? Are we victims? Or are we more responsible for being busy than we'd like to admit? The world tells me: "It's all up to you! You've got to make it happen, to charge ahead." My calendar weighs on me like some albatross— but my calendar also props up my illusion that I am somebody. Like Atlas, we hoist the world on our shoulders.

But the world wears us out. It's too big. Only God can handle the world. A clenched fist works, fights, grabs, holds on—but as Frederick Buechner put it, "The one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept ... a helping hand."

Prayer begins when we admit we need help. I love this humorous remark from Isaac Bashevis Singer: "I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time." All the time you and I are incapable of being God. All the time we are in more trouble than we can imagine.

All the time we are asked to swallow lies about time. Bill Gates doesn't go to church, for he views religion as an inefficient use of time. Prayer is wasting time. Wasting time with God. Jesus never said, "Blessed are the efficient, for they will be productive." We have to open our clenched fists that hang desperately on to the illusion that we must cram our time full, that more is better, than who I am is defined by what I do, by what I produce.

To waste time with God requires a reorientation of our whole being. It requires some practice, training, and discipline. Our culture peppers us with sound bites, little clips of noise. Prayer invites us to be still, to be quiet, to concentrate—but our body will rebel against us, as our adrenaline just keeps pumping, so addicted are we to stress.

At first, being still, wasting time with God, and opening our hands may ravage us with painful withdrawal symptoms. Everything will scream, "Get moving again! Tighten that fist!" But we remember we are in trouble. There is this gaping hole in the marrow of my soul. For too long I've been, as Kathy Mattea sings, "knee-deep in a river, and dying of thirst."

The only way to pray is, simply, to pray. And the only way to pray well, the only way to move more deeply into the life of prayer, is to pray more, to pray much.

And so, let us pray: O Lord, I am too busy. I am overcommitted, which means I have a hard time being committed at all. In the midst of rushing about, I miss you. I am in trouble all the time. I cannot fathom letting go of my familiar life. I cannot fathom wasting time and feeling okay about it. I cannot fathom being still. I cannot fathom a new image of my self. But you see me as your child. You can calm my fears. You are my helping hand, our helping hand. You alone can quench my thirst. Help me learn practical ways to let you lift me up, and all of us up, into your loving arms. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.


Lesson Four


O LORD, you are behind and before me. You lay your hand upon me.... If take the wings of the morning, even there your right hand shall hold me. —Psalm 139:4-5, 9-10 A.T.

The obvious barriers to prayer are our busyness, time constraints, all the racket of the world, a simple lack of experience, feeling "nobody is in this with me." Two others seem to me to be important.

One is self-image. Prayer is muddied when my subconscious keeps nagging me by asking, "Why would God talk to me?" Sure, others can pray, others are close to God, others have important things. Why would God listen to me?

A corroded self-image plagues everything we do in life. Beginning in childhood, and increasing into adulthood, toxins get dumped into your soul that can make you feel small, ridiculous, unworthy.

But the beauty of the gospel is that the love of God is for everyone, whether you are tall or short, old or young, poor or rich, optimistic or pessimistic, sunny or gloomy, happy or sad, whether you are a spiritual giant or the would-be toddler who can't get organized for even the first step.

Perhaps prayer can be more alive for the toddler, because the spiritual giant's gigantic spirituality can be the most insidious barrier to prayer. Jesus responded tenderly to children, to sick old women, to demon-ravaged young men, to tax collectors and hookers, but harshly to the very pious Pharisees, whose mountainous spiritual self-esteem focused their attention on their mountainous "self" instead of on God.

The principle of prayer is like pictures children color: there are no bad pictures, and you are encouraged to color outside the lines. You are God's child, so you take up your crayon and express yourself to a God who is curled inside your own hand, nudging you along, eager to see what's next.

This leads to a second ironic kind of barrier. Quite rightly, we are skittish about what might actually happen if we pray—which jumps ahead to the notion that prayer isn't just me talking to God, but God talking to me. We have this sneaking suspicion that, were I really to listen to God, I would have to change some things. Maybe lots of things. For my life is out of order, my priorities are out of whack.

The paradox is once more that with clenched fist we cling to an old two-bit life because it is familiar, when God is inviting us to a newer, richer, fuller life. Thomas Merton was right: "Much of our coldness and dryness in prayer may well be a kind of unconscious defence against grace."

Most certainly, prayer will make change necessary. Prayer at the same time will seduce you toward change. Prayer will enable change. Prayer will invite you to some major spring cleaning of your soul. And you shouldn't have a yard sale, for the stuff you've hung on to isn't good for anybody else either, so just trash it.

Prayer may feel like some surgery you would rather postpone, but prayer cannot begin until you've decided that in your deepest self you want a different life, a richer life. You refuse to go on as is. You want the tenderness of God's grace to be as fresh as the air you breathe.

Grace is the hardest for us to receive, so schooled are we at working and earning. But grace is the free gift from the universe—undeserved, undeservable.

So we pray. The only way to pray is to pray. We grow to accept grace. We will not be left in the cold. Pray for the desire to pray, for a willingness for whatever might be in God's future for us.

And so we pray together. Lord, why you would have the time and passion for me way down here escapes me. But I believe that I cannot escape you. I have tried to elude your claim on my life, sometimes even when I am being religious. But I believe I cannot escape you, and I don't even want to. I am thirsty for you, for your grace. O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.


Lesson Five

Pray as You Can

When you pray, go into your room and shut the door. —Matthew 6:6

So. What are some very practical hints to help us pray? First, relax a little. You may be praying already more than you realize. Frederick Buechner suggests:

"Everybody prays whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or bad. The ah-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you.... The stammer of pain at somebody else's pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else's joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something more familiar than yourself."

Prayer builds on these moments, these instincts, and it is important to structure your life and space in ways that maximize the possibilities for you to sigh over your life, and over God.

There is no one way to pray. You must develop your own rituals, and these can even shift during a lifetime. Don't try to make it hard. Pray as you can, not as you can't.

Do not be bludgeoned by some image of what prayer ought to be. Maybe your grandmother prayed in a way you envy. But you're not your grandmother. Know yourself, what invigorates you, what sucks life from you. Susan Howatch wrote that hell is "being obliged to pretend to be someone quite other than one's true self." Prayer will never work if you pretend to be somebody else. Pray as you can, not as you can't.

Be pragmatic about prayer. Where is it quiet? comfortable? When is there a lower likelihood of interruptions? Do you have a chair that might be comfortable, but not too comfortable? Can you dedicate some place in your home or office for prayer, a corner, a little nook? Are there pictures you might put there, of a spiritual hero, of Christ, of a scene in nature? Can you shut the door?

I know a woman who prays as she irons, each swath being a supplication to God. You may pray as you jog, praying for people in each home you pass. Prayer may work best when you are in your pajamas with a cup of coffee, or you may wrap a shawl around your shoulders late at night. Folding laundry, walking the dog, in line at the grocery store—there are countless little occasions for little prayers, and getting into the habit of praying can transform otherwise dull or trying busyness into glimpses of the goodness of God in real life.


Excerpted from The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray by James C. Howell. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

James C. Howell is the senior pastor of

Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, and adjunct professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. He is co-author of Preaching the Psalms (Abingdon, 2001) and author of The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray (Abingdon, June 2003). He is also author of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs and Yours are the Hands of Christ (Upper Room Books)

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