Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prayer. Show all posts

Monday, May 13, 2013

Listen to the still small voice! Listen. Listen.

In 12-step programs there are often promises associated with working the steps.  Families Anonymous is a group that helps those who have addicted loved ones. While the better-known Al-Anon is for those whose loved ones are alcoholics, Families Anonymous is for anyone who has a loved one with any chemical addiction.

And true to the tradition, there are promises in Families Anonymous. The promises are the result in the lives of many people who work the steps. One of them is this:

We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
I was thinking about this promise recently. In a lesson someone mentioned this verse from the Doctrine & Covenants:
For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say.
The revelation to Joseph is an echo of this counsel from the Lord to the ancient apostles: 

But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.
None of these admonitions is a suggestion that we should not prepare for difficult circumstances. They are, instead, admonitions that if we prepare, the Lord will provide us with what we need when we need it.

The scriptural references are for those called to do difficult things: to preach the gospel, sometimes in adverse circumstances. And the Lord promises that when His servants are on His errand, He will bless them with the right words to say.

Perhaps you’ve seen that in action: a sacrament meeting speaker who delivers a talk that seems out of his or her natural ability, a missionary who teaches with a particular strength of testimony beyond his years, a Relief Society president who knows what comfort to offer a young sister when she needs it the most.

The Families Anonymous promise, though not scriptural, suggests the same blessing is available in our personal lives. As we work the 12 steps (which are really a path to applying the atonement in our lives), we become more in tune with spiritual things. (Most workers of 12-step programs will refer to them as spiritual journeys.) And it makes sense as we open our hearts to the spirit, we will be more receptive. And the spirit will help us to know instinctively how to do things we could not do before.

As a parent, I relish inviting the spirit to help me learn how to be better. The work I have as parent – to teach the gospel to the most important audience I will ever face – is daunting to me, and I have regularly felt myself unequal to the task. But I am buoyed by the Lord’s promise to help me. And I have seen that help at work in my own home. I have had flashes of inspiration, of instinctively knowing what to say (or how to say it), of having words given to me in the very moment that I need them.

Not that I always listen. But I’m getting better at that. I’m open to the possibility that I don’t have all the answers (that lesson took surprisingly long on my parenting journey). And I recognize that I need to be quiet enough to hear the still small voice. When I can stop and ask, “What wouldst Thou have me do?” I can feel the promptings that will help me.

It’s good to know I’m not alone as a parent. Good for me, and good for my kids.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A new me

This is the old me, the picture that had been in the upper right hand corner of my blog. Look over there now -- there's a new picture of me, just taken this week.

Not a lot of difference between the two -- still an old white guy. I'm grayer now than I was two years ago when the old picture was taken. And I'm thinner (I've dropped sixty pounds, though that was seven or eight months ago). And I have newer glasses (well, I've had them for nearly a year). So it's taken me a while to update the photo.

There are other ways I'm different from the old me. Some very subtle, some not so much. I think rarely do we go through drastic and dramatic changes. We change jobs, move houses, get married, have children come into our family or move away. None of those dramatic changes for me in the last few years.

But there are changes nonetheless. I think I'm less strident (I hope so) and more reflective. A benefit of writing is that I have time to think more carefully about what I write than I do when I speak (when all too often I speak first, then think...ready, fire, aim!)

One of the themes I've noticed in the talks of President Eyring is one that I've tried applying in my life lately. He has spoken more than once about what he does in his personal prayers, that he seeks in the morning to understand the Lord's will for him that day, and in the evening he reports back to the Lord how he did. This focus on each day has been really important to me.

I used to be a compulsive planner, and I still find great security in a good plan, though I'm less compulsive about it. I've come to realize that for many things in my life, I have to take them a day at a time. Although I may commit to lasting change, I have to realize it on the retail level, day in and day out, one day at a time, as the 12-steppers like to say.

The idea of considering my own performance each day has been really helpful, particularly in the relationships in my family. Elder Uceda's recent conference talk about a father who prayed before discussing his daughter's behavior with her really moved me. The act of prayer, it seems to me, does several things in such a circumstance:

It puts distance between the indicident that requires the discussion and the discussion itself, allowing the father to think more clearly rather than being ruled by his emotions.

It humbles the father. Kneeling and seeking his Father's advice, a father will approach his own child with greater humility and is more likely to learn from the experienced.

It invites the spirit into the delicate conversation, rather than allowing the natural man to chase it away.

I have more than once when evaluting my day in prayer felt my heart soften as I prayed, and therefore seen things in a new light, recognizing that I have changes -- and amends -- to make.

So, I suppose there's a new me every day. But not a new picture.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The vent

I am not a big fan of venting. Oh, it’s fine for the dryer and the furnace. But not for my emotions. Because unlike the dryer or the furnace, where the vent carefully directs the hot air, my venting spews my hot air in places I do not want it to go, places where it generally does more harm than good.

I do acknowledge that sometimes we need to talk things out. Sometimes, we need to share our emotions, even raw ones, to sort through them and to get a handle on appropriate next steps. But simply venting, letting off steam, spewing out the bile that afflicts us, is not the same.

I grew up in a home where we were often quick to speak (and maybe slower to think about the implications of what we said). That tendency still plagues me today to the detriment of those I love the most. I do not blame my family of origin for my quickness to shoot off my mouth – it’s been 35 years since I lived at home, and I don’t observe the same behavior among my siblings. And I’ve made a lot of progress in this regard in the last decade of my life, much to the benefit of those I love the most. But I have a long way to go.

In the end, it’s a good thing for us to learn not to say everything that pops into our head.

For instance, I love my ward’s Gospel Doctrine teacher. He prepares well. He’s faithful and he leads a good discussion. But once in a while he says something I find a little goofy. (I’m sure people find some of what I say goofy when I teach, too.) I learned some time ago that the time for me to discuss my feelings about anything goofy said by my Gospel Doctrine teacher is NOT in the car on the way home from church. My lovely wife (who is as charitable as the day is long, and then some) is not interested in my complaints about the Gospel Doctrine lesson. Further, she doesn’t want me to give my teenage son any more ammunition than he can manufacture for himself to complain about his classes. (I remember the first time I heard one of my kids parrot back a complaint about one of their teachers that I made about mine. Yikes. Way to follow my example, kids.)

I have heard others offer critiques about sacrament meeting talks, firesides, directions from the bishop. At some point this “venting” is not only unpleasant, but it’s destructive.

So, what to do when something happens I don’t like? Hmm. I can think of three possibilities that are better than kvetching about it:

1. Forget about it. This is by far the best one. I need to remember that I’ll be judged by whatever judgment I use, and it would be just as well to spare myself by looking past my own complaints.

2. Pray about it. The one and only safe place to vent is to the One who already knows, namely my Father in Heaven. If I go to Him in humble prayer, He can help me to know if I need to do anything more (including, perhaps, repent of my prideful assumption that I know best). I’m reminded of Elder Uceda’s story of a father who prayed before dealing with a daughter who did not want to participate in family scripture study. What a revelation to me about the humbling power of prayer.

3. Talk about it – to the right person. If there really is something that needs discussion, then I ought to find the right person. If I have a beef with the Sunday School teacher, I can talk to him and share my point of view, and then let it go. I can share something I’ve read or another reading of a verse, but in the end, I’m not the Doctrine Police. If I’m concerned about something involving one of my kids, I can seek out the individual involved and have a gentle conversation. If I need to involve the leadership of the organization or the bishop, I can prayerfully consider that. What I don’t need to do is gossip about it to other members of my family or ward.

In Isaiah 1:18, the Lord invites us to “reason together,” and if we do that though our “sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Motivation enough to reason with the Lord rather than complaining to anyone who is within earshot.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Awesome Elders Quorum President

I have long held that a great elders quorum president is an unsung hero in the church.

The bishop gets lots of praise and thanks, and he deserves it, too. The Relief Society president should be recognized as one of the bishop’s greatest co-workers in his ministry, particularly to the poor, and a wise bishop takes great advantage of that resource.

A good elders quorum president may well have (if he's doing everything he should) a church workload quite similar to the bishop’s, but he gets little recognition for what he does. The elders quorum president – the only other Melchizedek Priesthood holder in the ward with keys – does all his work at the retail level. And yet, he's often seen as "one of the guys" among his own quorum and among others in the ward.

I thought about all of this yesterday as I attended my nephew’s ward for his mission farewell talk. (He was also awesome, by the way – really awesome!) In the third hour, the bishop led the combined elders quorum and high priest group in a discussion of a couple of topics of importance to him, including home teaching. Toward the end of the bishop's comments on home teaching, the elders quorum president stood briefly to remind his quorum he had just redone the home teaching assignments (he’d made the same announcement in opening exercises), and then he did the awesome thing: he bore his testimony of the inspiriation he had received in making these assignments.

It was the bearing of that testimony that was moving to me, and I’m not even in his ward. And yet, I could feel that here was a quorum president who had counseled with the Lord and sought His guidance in making the assignments he had. He may well have counseled with others (and would have been wise to do so), but he made it clear that these were not just assignments based on geography or demographics, but on spiritual confirmation.

I believe (and hope) this happens in the church more often than we realize, that local leaders who are doing their best to honor their covenants and magnify their callings go to the Lord for His help and guidance in the work He’s called them to do. I know I did when I was an elders quorum president and a bishop. And I watch my lovely wife do the same in her present calling in the stake Relief Society presidency. I know that many Primary teachers pray about how to reach one or another of the kids in their classes. I know that youth leaders pray to understand how to approach a particularly surly youth to help soften his heart to the possibility of spiritual influence.

We’ve all heard the occasional story of a calling made out of desperation rather than inspiration. But I believe and hope those are the exceptions. I’ve sat in plenty of corporate personnel meetings in which we’ve tried to decide who should do what job. I’m happy to say my experience in the church is very different as we prayerfully considered who to recommend or who to call.

So, kudos to that elders quorum president, and to all those local leaders who seek to magnify their callings by seeking to know God’s will for them in their service.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Preparing to speak -- a post script

I blogged last week about how I prepare to speak.

This past Sunday I attended a youth fireside in our stake (the organizer is my home teacher and he invited my wife and me to attend with our kids). One of the speakers is one of my favorite sisters in our stake. She’s a former stake YW president, a former seminary teacher and an all-around great teacher.

She began her talk by telling us that she was a compulsive planner and how she prepared her talk (pretty much as I described my preparation). What she said next surprised me, but I got it completely.

She said that morning as she was praying, the very strong impression she had was that she should throw out her prepared remarks and bear her testimony and listen for inspiration as she spoke. She then said she even tried to print out a copy of her talk, “just as a back-up plan,” but the printer wouldn’t connect to her computer.

And then she spoke beautifully and from the heart.

The point: we can prepare all we want. And we should prepare. A lot.

But in the end, if we listen, the Lord will tell us what to say when it’s time to say it.

(And, by the way, I still believe that’s more likely to happen if we are very well prepared than if we are not prepared.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is this a prayer or a talk?

Like many I enjoyed the music and talks and the short film in the First Presidency Christmas devotional Sunday evening. We watched via the internet in our family room, which was great because I couldn’t go to church that day since I’m recovering from surgery.

I had a bit of a struggle at the beginning, however. I shouldn’t have. I know I shouldn’t have. But I did. I know I’m not perfect, and Sunday night was just one more example of that.

It was Brother Beck’s opening prayer cum talk.

I’m old enough to remember Elder McConkie’s counsel on the length of prayers. Here are two quotations from Mormon Doctrine (I know it’s out of fashion, but these guidelines still stick in my head). The first is from Elder McConkie:

Certain proprieties attend the offering of all prayers. Public prayers, in particular, should be short and ordinarily should contain no expressions except those which pertain to the needs and circumstances surrounding the particular meeting then involved. They are not sermons or occasions to disclose the oratorical or linguistic abilities of the one acting as mouth. (2nd ed., p. 582).

In the second, Elder McConkie quotes Francis M. Lyman who was president of the Quorum of the Twleve:

It is not necessary to offer very long and tedious prayers, either at opening or closing. It is not only not pleasing to the Lord for us to use excess of words, but also it is not pleasing to the Latter-day Saints. Two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it (Improvement Era, 50:214, 245; quoted in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 583).

I don’t know where or when I first encountered these guidelines, but I confess that it’s now sometimes hard to listen to a prayer without measuring it against these. And I did it on Sunday night.

I had to consciously tell myself to knock it off. And it was hard to do. And so the opening prayer wasn’t as meaningful to me as it could have been.

And, by the way, that’s my fault, not Brother Beck’s.

A friend, jmb275, posted a great item over at Wheat & Tares yesterday on reigning in the analyst. And that’s something I need to work on. There are times – and I think during a prayer is one of them – when it’s a time for devotion, worship, and feeling the spirit, not analysis of the speaker’s motivation, education or erudition.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Second attempt: Quality Prayers

I posted this last week, but a glitch at Blogger made it difficult for nearly everyone to find it. So I'll try again today...

It’s easy to think about the great prayers of the scriptures. The Savior in Gethsemane, Enos on his hunting trip, the brother of Jared with his sixteen stones, Joseph Smith in the grove. Prayers with purpose in places set apart with the attention of the prayer-givers focused intently on the matter at hand.

And yet, I also think about a prayer my MTC companion told me about. Late into our missions we were serving in the same zone. We happened to be on a split together and he told me about a moment with his companion that had so upset him that when he went to bed that night, all he could pray was this: “Heavenly Father, I’m so mad I could spit.”

It helps me to remember that God hears both kinds of prayers. And yes, of course the first kind is valuable (and more likely to be fruitful), the second also has its place as we lay our burdens at the Lord’s feet.

Sometimes I don’t know what to pray. And sometimes I’m so mad I could spit. And sometimes I’m so tired I fall asleep before the prayer ends. And sometimes I can pray in a place set apart from my routine, with purpose and focus.

Sometimes my prayers are those omnibus prayers – mention everyone by name and specific concerns I’m aware of. Sometimes my prayers are more general, grouping like folks together (“the kids” or “the kids at home”). Sometimes my prayers are focused on just one person – my wife or one of my children or another family member or friend – or one event. Sometimes my prayers are fixed in time and space and sometimes that prayer lives in my heart throughout the day.

It’s comforting to know that God hears them all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Begging and Bargaining With God

This weekend I remembered something that happened to me years ago.

I was begging God to let me live. And bargaining by offering whatever He wanted. Period.

Now, King Benjamin does teach us that we’re all beggars, but I’m not sure this is what he had in mind.

Here’s the backstory: I was on a plane from Hiroshima, Japan to Seoul, Korea. I felt an incredible tightness in my chest. Breathing became very difficult. And I hurt!

I was not yet 35 years old, but I thought I was having a heart attack. I kept trying to remember those warning signs I’d read about. Was it a heart attack? Whatever it was, it hurt.

And I was on a Korean airliner surrounded by Korean and Japanese nationals. And I don’t speak either Korean or Japanese. (And did I mention it hurt?)

So I prayed. I probably started off pretty calmly, trying to keep my cool. But very quickly, my prayer escalated to pleading in the first degree. Please, God, don’t let me die. I’ll serve any way I can, wherever you want me to serve. I’ll do whatever you want me to do. Please don’t let me die on this airplane. Just let me land. Please. Please. Please.

All things considered, it was pretty selfish, wasn’t it? I don’t remember praying not to leave my wife a widow or my children fatherless. Don’t let me die.

And all those things I promised? I’d already promised all those things years before.

Well, I didn’t die. And I was grateful for that. By the time we landed, the chest pains had subsided (though I felt bruised for the two days I was in Seoul, like someone had punched me in the sternum).

When I got back home to Hiroshima (we were living there as a family at the time), I called my dad and told him about what had happened. Based on what my dad told me, it probably wasn’t a heart attack. It was probably a hiatal hernia (where the top of the stomach presses up into the esophagus).

A few weeks later the same thing happened as I was waiting for a meeting to start. Same 30 minutes of torture. Same pressure and pain. As it subsided I began to put the pieces together. Just before the second incident I had eaten lunch. Just before the airplane incident I’d eaten the sandwich served me on the plane. I had tried the horseradish at lunch (usually I never eat it). And I suspected horseradish in the sandwich on the plane. (Two years later I got some dip at a US restaurant that caused the same reaction and we confirmed it had horseradish in it.) For whatever reason, the horseradish produced the symptoms of the hiatal hernia.

I’ve thought about my begging for my life on that plane and my selfish prayer. I’m really grateful I didn’t have a heart attack, and I’m very grateful I did not die on that plane. I’m glad I didn’t leave my wife a widow and my children fatherless. But I’m not proud of my prayer that day.

In the intervening years (nearly two decades), I’ve matured a bit. First, I avoid horseradish at all costs. And I exercise 5-6 days a week to keep my heart healthy. And I have an annual physical. But I also have come to change the way I pray.

For many, many years, my assumption was that my personal righteousness was a golden ticket to having my righteous desires granted, so all I needed to do was make them known. As I’ve studied it in the meantime, I’m come to realize that there are really very few in the scriptures who are given that promise (one of the Nephis and Elijah spring to mind, but not many more).

I’ve learned instead to seek the Lord’s will for me. And to stop handing God my punch list with a perfunctory “Thy will be done.” Now my prayers most often (I hope!) are more along the lines of, “Here’s my situation. Here’s what I think would be helpful. What do you think?”

I do still seek the Lord’s blessings. And I do fast and pray for certain specific things along the way. But I hope my heart is more open to the Lord’s will for me rather than dictating mine to Him.

I can’t say how I’d pray if I were on that Korean airliner today, but I hope it would be more along the lines of, “This really hurts and I don’t know what’s going on. Of course I’ll accept Your will, but I would prefer to live through this so that my wife and kids are not alone.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Cleave Unto God"

Recently I came across this phrase in Jacob: “…and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you” (Jacob 6:5).

Jacob has already delivered his I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-talk-about-this speech, and he already shared Zenock’s allegory of the olive trees.

His whole book seems to be about returning. Return from sin. Return from the diaspora. Come home to God.

In this verse, he reminds us that God already cleaves unto us. In the next sentence in this verse, he reminds us that God’s arm of mercy is extended toward us. (And all this prophetically spoken since the Atonement is still to come.)

How do I cleave unto God? Well, studying his word is a great place to start. I had gotten out of the habit of daily personal scripture study and a few weeks ago, egged on (inadvertently, I’m sure) by my teenaged son, I set about to re-read the Book of Mormon again. (I have no idea how many times I’ve read it, but this time is a “fast” read where I’m trying to read multiple chapters a day in order to get connections I don’t get when I go slowly.)

Daily prayer also helps. But real prayer – real communication, including listening for impressions that come in those quiet moments during and after prayer.

Obedience to the next commandment is important to me. Yes, I need to obey all the commandments, but I know that my spirit gets nudged from time to time about what I need to do next (like improving my scripture study a few weeks ago). It’s not so much keeping up the status quo (I haven’t been translated yet, so there’s got to be more I could do), but sorting out what should be next to do.

Living a life of love is probably related to obedience, and could nearly always be the next commandment for me. But it deserves particular mention. Loving my fellow man is Commandment #2, and King Benjamin and the Savior (among others) teach me that as I love my fellow man, I show my love to God. And that love, of course, is not reserved for strangers, but also for those closest to me.

I could go on all day, I suppose. But what I’d like to get to is this question: How do you cleave unto God?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Temple blessing

Sometimes when I visit the temple, I seek a specific blessing – confirmation of a decision I'm considering, help with an issue I'm confronting, or peace for my troubled heart. This past weekend was one of those times. And the blessing came, at least in part.

I went this time with specific questions, looking for guidance and comfort regarding something going on in my life. As I sat in the endowment room prior to the beginning of the session, I reflected on my questions, saying a silent prayer that I might be tuned in to listen for help that might come. In fact, I was so preoccupied with my concerns at one point that others must have thought I had fallen asleep, but I tuned in soon enough.

Part of the endowment session is a prayer, offered normally for those whose names are on the prayer roll of the temple. Patrons may include names on the prayer roll, and members can even phone in names to be included. While the prayers follow a specific pattern, they are not prescribed; their content is up to the person offering them and his inspiration.

The prayer in my session was so specific that it seemed perfectly tailored to the questions I had brought with me to the temple that day. It was unique from other prayers I had heard in that circumstance; I had never heard certain elements of this prayer in such a setting before. As I listened to it, I felt the Lord's love pour on me like the balm of Gilead. There was no voice to answer my specific question, but rather simply the knowledge that the Lord had heard my cry: I knew He was there. (That's what Isaiah 58 promises: that we'll cry and know He is there.)

After that experience, I've had repeated promptings through the weekend (including in the talks and lessons I heard in church the next day, in conversations with my spouse, and during the course of my personal prayers) that have shaped how I think I will respond to my challenges. But the prayer in the temple was a dramatic and significant blessing for me.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

An Experiment

Alma invites us to experiment upon the word, to plant the seed of faith and see if it grows. It reminds me of the first grade bean experiment in which school children put lima beans in wet paper towels against the glass of a jar. Within a few days, the kids can see their beans sprouting.

I have sometimes wondered why the experiment Alma outlined worked so well for me but apparently not for others. I was fortunate in that I was a little bit like Nephi in that I wanted to know the truth of what my father had taught me. And over the years I looked for evidence to support that truth. And I found it. And many other people do, too.

But some others don't seem to. Someone very close to me, whose testimony of the Book of Mormon gave water and sunshine to my own barely sprouting one, finally parted ways with the church while I stayed strong. Another very close friend and I explored young adult questions of history and doctrine together and ended up on different sides of membership in the church. I am not in a position to know the hearts of these two people who still mean a great deal to me. And I suppose there is a possibility that they are right and I am wrong, though frankly I don't entertain that idea.

I've known quite a few young people who have wrestled with questions of faith and felt their pleas have gone unanswered. One told me once that he decided to try a year of inactivity to see if anything bad would happen. When it didn't, he concluded that church activity was not important. (I suggested that it might take longer to see the final results of that experiment, but his mind was made up, at least at the time.) Another, when I suggested he read the Book of Mormon again and put Moroni's promise to the test, told me he'd already read it; why bother reading it again? (I suggested that although he was very bright, there might be things he missed the first time around.)

Most troubling to me are those who claim they cannot get answers to their prayers. And I wonder (and sometimes ask) how long they have prayed, and for what? What in their view constitutes an answer? I think about Mother Teresa, who served the destitute and sick of India for 45 years who confided in her biography that she had felt separated from God for 50 years. And it causes me to wonder what kind of faith held her where she was despite her spiritual loneliness.

In my own life, times of no-answers (and I never had a 50 year stretch) grew into times of faith. Because sooner or later I came back to memories of things I did know, things I had felt, things I had read that were meaningful, uplifting and strength-giving.

Shortly after Oliver Cowdrey arrived in Harmony and began to work with Joseph Smith, he sought a blessing at Joseph's hand. It would not be unthinkable to imagine that he wanted renewed confirmation that he was on the right path, as he sequestered himself with this young prophet engaged in translating an ancient record. His answer in this blessing (after rather specific and pointed testimony of the truth of the work): "Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:22-23).

There is power in remembering our connections to the Divine. They are for me evidence in The Great Experiment of Faith. And I am grateful for them.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bargaining with God

It was the early 1990's. I was living in Hiroshima, Japan and traveling to Seoul, Korea on business. About halfway through the one hour flight I was sure I was having a heart attack. I couldn't be having a heart attack, I thought – I was in my early 30's. But pressure around my heart was building and the pain was incredible. Which arm is supposed to go numb? I couldn't remember, and neither hand was tingling. Or maybe they were. I wasn't at my most rational.

As my pulse raced and my breathing became shallower, I began to bargain with God. Heavenly Father, let me land safely and I'll do anything. Anything. I was willing to promise whatever I had to in order to be saved from a heart attack on a Korean airliner far from everything I knew and loved.

The pain subsided. I could breathe again. My heart rate returned to normal. There was a feeling like bruising behind my sternum. But by the time I deplaned, I was, as far as I could tell, fine. I was to be in Korea just overnight, and I'd be back home in Hiroshima the next evening for dinner. I finished the trip without incident, and without ever finding out what caused the pain in my chest.

A couple of weeks later I had a repeat experience. I was waiting to go into a meeting after lunch. Same chest pain. Same racing heartbeat. Same panic. I began to think about what I'd done that day. I realized I had eaten a Japanese lunch and I had eaten some horseradish – something I never have liked, but which I'd eaten by mistake. Then I thought back to that Korean Air flight to Seoul. Had there been horseradish in the sauce on the sandwich I had on the plane? Probably. I then avoided horseradish and avoided another repeat performance.

I described my pain to my dad and he said he had the same thing – a hiatal hernia. As we discussed it, I realized this is what had happened to me, and it must have been somehow brought on by the horseradish. (I had horseradish again several years later back in the US – it was in a sauce at a restaurant – and I had the same reaction.)

Well, the health history is to illustrate a point larger than my weak constitution. In my first moment of distress, I prayed. And I prayed specifically to be delivered from what I perceived to be danger. And I bargained with the Lord.

While I am a fan of prayer, and a fan of covenants in which we make commitments to the Lord, in this case my prayer of desperation, however laudable on the one hand (for instance, at least I thought to pray, and I did have faith that God could deliver me if He wanted to), was probably misguided. Not because the source of the pain was a temporary allergic reaction, but because I was trying to tempt God by bargaining my own righteousness for my relief.

I should have been willing to give my righteousness anyway (and, by the way, I think I am doing that, even in my own imperfect way). King Benjamin (Mosiah 2) reminds us that when we obey a commandment, we're instantly blessed, so it's not like we have some bank account full of "obediences" that we can draw on when it's convenient to do so. No, the point is that we are not ever in a position to bargain with God.

It's true, God tells us He's bound when we do what he says (D&C 82:10), and it's true that there are blessings associated with obedience (D&C 130:20-21), but we don't ever get to set the terms. King Benjamin reminds us that we are not in a position of power in our relationship to God.

Here are some lessons I take away from this and other experiences I've had in connection with these principles:

1. I don't get to set the terms of my relationship with God. He's in charge, and it's up to me to find Him. (He knows where I am already, and the scriptures teach that his hand is always stretched out to me.)
2. I don't get to pick my blessings. He has already decided what blessings are associated with obedience, and it's up to Him to sort that out. It's not like going to the prize booth at Chuck E. Cheese with my game tickets and getting to pick the blessings I want.
3. I do better when I seek to find His will for me, rather than giving Him my shopping list of what I want.
4. He really does bless me, and it is good for me to recognize His hand in my life.

In that regard, my prayers about my "heart attack" were answered. I did land safely. And over time I came to an understanding of the cause of my pain and I learned to avoid it. I suppose that all might have happened just the same way if I had not prayed. But I'm still glad I prayed on that airplane. Just as my children learned to walk by stumbling a few times, so do I.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Prayer is the Soul's Sincere Desire

Since our priesthood lesson a couple of weeks ago, I've thought about prayer a little more.

I've been a member of the church since I was nearly nine years old (my parents and siblings and I are converts), and I prayed with my parents as long as I can remember. Prior to our joining the church, blessings on the food were common in our home, and at night we'd say The Lord's Prayer and / or "Now I lay me down to sleep…" After joining the church, blessings on the food continued and we had regular family prayers, and we were encouraged at home (and of course at church) to pray individually, too.

A favorite childhood memory was trying to say prayer after some family nights. My mom played piano, and after FHE, we'd gather round the Steinway in the living room and sing hymns. Dad kept asking for one more and one more. We'd sing and then become remarkably silly (not sure why), and by the time we'd kneel for prayer it was nearly impossible for everyone to keep a straight face. On more than one occasion, Dad suggested we simply allow Heavenly Father in on the joke so we could get through the prayer.

Around age 13 I was called as deacons quorum president. I was told to go home and pray about whom to call as counselors. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I knew how to pray. So I knelt by my bed several nights and asked who I should call. One name kept coming to me, so I assumed that was the right choice. (It wasn't like there were a lot of alternatives; we were a typical small quorum of five or six boys.) I recommended him and the bishop approved. That was likely my first "answer" to prayer that I recognized as such.

Over the years, I took to heart the counsel in Alma 34 that we ought to pray about everything in our life, and ask for blessings. As a young man I typically felt that my prayers for others were more readily answered than prayers for myself, or at least more directly. I learned from the example of a great district leader on my mission to pray for our investigators by name. When he prayed in our district meetings, he mentioned each investigator and often something particular about where they were in the lessons or what question they were trying to answer at the time. I've been fortunate to see positive answers to my prayers on behalf of family members, friends and those I home teach.

As I've entertained gospel questions through the years – probably beginning in my late high school years when I really started to wake up to a desire to know more than I did – I've found that I rarely got burning answers during my prayers. Instead my prayers have framed my study, and answers have come later as I've read or listened to others. Even so, I've been able to link those answers to specific prayers enough that I see the relationship in my life.

I've relied on prayer in my callings where I've had responsibility to minister to others or to handle matters of administration such as extending callings, staffing organizations, organizing meetings. In some cases, like when I was a deacon, names have come clearly to me in prayer. In other cases, I've felt the warm confirming spirit as others have recommended names to me to consider.

I remember a lesson taught me by a loving stake president who once told me he couldn't explain to me why a particular name I'd recommended had not been approved. He said simply, "The spirit tells me yes or no, not why."

Several years ago, because of some challenges in our family, I had been in the habit of giving the Lord my laundry list of wants in prayer, expecting that if I had enough faith, and if I were righteous enough, these "desires of my heart" would be granted. They were righteous desires: safety for my children, and healing for some who were in desperate need. Sometimes I'd remember a perfunctory "Thy will be done" at the end of my prayers, though probably not always (and not often enough to actually demonstrate my faith in His will).

I had a rather large epiphany along the way. Thanks to a variety of sources converging on me at the same time, it occurred to me that I might have it wrong. Yes, I was concerned about specific things, and yes I hoped for specific outcomes. But those outcomes were out of my control. And I believed that my Heavenly Father loved all the players involved. And my prayers changed. I moved from praying for a specific outcome – my desired outcome – to praying for understanding of what I should do, how I should respond.

I have found much more peace in this approach. While previously I worried how things would end up, and I cringed each time it seemed things were going awry, now I know that the Lord is at the helm, and all I need to do is seek to understand His will for me (and do the best I can), and trust that He'll do the rest. In this way, I've been able to lay my burden at His feet.

I read Alma 34 now and think about my new understanding (after all these years). Surely it is good to seek the Lord's blessing in every aspect of our lives as Amulek recommends. In so doing, we learn humility, for when those blessings come we can recognize they are the Lord's blessings and not only the results of our labor.

But I believe it is also good to seek the Lord's will for us. Elder Eyring said in October General Conference in 2005, "We can pray every day to know what God would have us do. We can commit to start to do it quickly when the answer comes. My experience is that He always answers such petitions" ("Spiritual Preparedness: Start Early and Be Steady," Ensign, November 2005).

Seeking to understand the Lord's will for me is one way in which I can say with my whole heart, "Thy will be done." And that attitude allows me from time to time also to pray for specific outcomes, but with the faith that His will supersedes mine every time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Answers to Prayer

Returning to the topic of prayer: In an early post, I talked about Joseph Smith’s rather dramatic answer to his first prayer spoken out loud: he received a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ. Subsequently, Joseph received other heavenly visitations as a result of his prayers, and those visitations played key roles in the restoration of the Lord’s church on earth.

When I served as a missionary in Germany, we taught a gentleman the gospel. He was thoughtful and studious, and ended up not joining the church. When we spoke to him about his decision, he said he had prayed as he walked through a park in a very calm part of the city we lived in. And, interestingly, he prayed specifically not to have a visitation of any kind. At the time I thought that an odd request for at least two reasons. First, it had never occurred to me that I might have a heavenly visitation as a result of my prayers, and second, I would have welcomed the certainty that such a visitation would have brought.

But my prayers, especially when I was a young man, were rarely answered as I expected, or hoped. As a freshman at BYU, I made a half-hearted effort to scale Squaw Peak behind the Provo Temple in an effort to have an “Enos” experience. (Enos is a young man in the Book of Mormon who prays all day and into the night to gain forgiveness for his sins and hears the voice of the Lord.) Looking back, I’m astounded at the hubris that I should dictate to the Lord how He should reveal himself to me.

That prayer was answered, but days later, and in a rather specific way (to me) so that I knew it was an answer to that prayer, though no one else would have known. It was in that answer, given in the Lord’s way and time, that signaled to me what tender mercies the Lord held for me, regardless of my youthful demands that He present Himself on my terms.

Over the years my prayers have changed from lists of wants (albeit righteous ones, I think) with a perfunctory “Thy will be done” tacked on at the end to seeking greater understanding of His will for me and greater acceptance of what comes in my life and more help in knowing how I can and should respond to events I do not control. I find greater peace in my more recent prayers.

It is not a lack of faith that drives me to less demanding prayers. In fact, I think it is greater faith that does so. My doing so is driven by a conviction that my Father in Heaven loves me, and I can have faith enough to trust his promises that He will care for me in the way I need it the most.

- Paul