How to Grow in Prayer on this Journey

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Prayer is the centerpiece of the spiritual life, the axis around which it all turns. But I can’t simply say “Pray!” or “Pray more!” Certainly, the only way to pray is to pray. You show up before God, and keep showing up. You block out time in a sheltered space. You make it your most inviolable commitment.

Maybe like a child’s coloring, there’s no bad or wrong prayer. And yet, there are better, healthier prayers, more in sync with God – which is why we’re encouraged to pray “in Jesus’ name.” It’s not a magical formula to make your prayer work. We try to talk with God, to be with God, in the way Jesus was with God, and lived and spoke among us. People asked Jesus “Lord, teach us to pray.” They saw his intimacy with God, and his peaceful, courageous, compassionate life, and they wanted in on it.

So how do we grow in prayer? While God loves us pleading for help or for a sick friend, if all we do is ask God for favors, we’re not living into a very meaningful relationship with God. That’s what prayer is: not a mechanism, but time spent with the beloved.

What are the elements of a more well-rounded prayer? Anne Lamott’s bestseller’s title points us in the right direction: Help, Thanks, Wow. We ask for help, we express gratitude, and we invest some time just letting our jaws drop in awe. Your habit might be you’ve done a lot of Help!, and bit of Thanks! but not much Wow! Maybe reverse the order. Take some Wow time, and then the gratitude and only then the pleas. Paul, fascinatingly to me, didn’t say “Ask God for help, and if you get it say Thanks,” but rather “With thanks let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

In our worship services, we begin with Wow. We praise, with a hymn – but you can do it with your eyes and ears. Notice. Be amazed. It’s okay if your mouth hangs open. Recently I read an amazing book that heightened my amazement with… everything: Awe, by Dacher Keltner. He’s not writing about faith. But I commend it to you if you want to grow in awe, in praise – which is delighting in who God is. God has strewn God’s marvels all around. Ours is to notice, and to be in awe.

We’ve spoken often in this series about Gratitude. You hope you get past the nice things you own or whatever “blessing” you have (health, family, job) others don’t, so moving more deeply into gratitude for love, God’s mercy, life, the last breath you took, another day, chances to do good, even for what you don’t know just yet.

A breathtaking moment for me in seminary was when I learned that Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have a word for the idea “Thanks!” When we see “Thanks” in an English translation, the Hebrew original is todah – which is a thing, something precious which you offer up as a sacrifice to God in gratitude. I love that idea. No cheap words, but parting with something precious to express my genuine gratitude.

To grow spiritually, you stop offering God your leftovers, what you don’t mind parting with. Mother Teresa spoke of “love in action”: “You must give what will cost you something – giving not what you can live without, but what you can’t or don’t want to live without, something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice, which has value before God.”

Having touched now on Wow! and Thanks!, we’ll look next time to our Help! prayers.

Try this – the whole email you just read! And try this daily.