RS Lesson #9: Open Your Soul to the Lord In Prayer
Prayer. It’s the earliest lesson in primary (“Fold your arms and close your eyes”) and yet as we grow older, the conversation grows richer, deeper — or perhaps more painful and confusing. How do we speak to God? How does God speak to us?
Spencer W. Kimball said, “The Lord answers our prayers, but it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.” That someone can be a Relief Society teacher. I am a teacher by trade, and if I have ever felt God’s guidance in my life, it has been in finding ways to reach my students. “Help me be sensitive to the unspoken needs of my students . . . help me say or do something that will reach someone who is seeking today . . . ” These are prayers I believe in.
From the Life of George Albert Smith
Since learning more about President Smith’s life-long struggle with depression, fatigue, and anxiety, I have developed a particularly tender spot for him. I read his personal anecdotes with this additional lens of understanding.
Take the warmth of this memory — which recognizes his mother’s spiritual power — retold in the autumn of his life.
I was trained at the knee of a Latter-day Saint mother. One of the first things I remember was when she took me by the hand and led me upstairs. In the room there were two beds, the bed in which my parents slept, and a little trundle bed over on the other side. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. When we got upstairs, she sat down by my little trundle bed. She had me kneel in front of her. She folded my hands and took them in hers, and taught me my first prayer. I will never forget it. I do not want to forget it. It is one of the loveliest memories that I have in life, an angelic mother sitting down by my bedside and teaching me to pray.
It was such a simple prayer, but … that prayer opened for me the windows of heaven. That prayer extended to me the hand of my Father in heaven, for she had explained to me what it all meant as far as a little child could understand. From that day until now, while I have covered approximately a million miles in the world among our Father’s other children, every day and every night, wherever I have been, when I have gone to my bed or arisen from it, I have felt I was close to my Heavenly Father. He is not far away.
Opening question to set a tone of sharing: What are some of your earliest memories of learning how to pray?
Follow-up question: How has your understanding of prayer changed as you have gotten older?
Along those lines, here is a story from later in President Smith’s life:
I was considered a very good swimmer and thoroughly enjoyed the sport. This particular day the tide was very high and very swift. As I left the shore and swam out into the ocean, I dived through the big breakers as they would crest and spray over me. My objective was the large swells beyond the breakers, where I could lie on my back and ride the big swells up and down.
While engaging in this interesting sport, one very huge wave crested and broke before I could right myself following the dive through the previous one. The second one caught me and threw me to the floor of the ocean. I could feel myself being dragged out by the undertow. At this particular time many waves came in rapid succession and I was not able to right myself before I had to dive from one into another. I realized that my strength was rapidly leaving me, that it was going to be necessary for me to find some means of help. As I rode to the crest of one huge wave, I saw the underpilings of a pier close at hand, and I thought if with superhuman effort I could reach the security of the pilings that I would be able to save my life.
I silently asked my Heavenly Father to give me the strength to reach my objective. As I was washed into arm’s length of the pier, I reached out and put my arms around one of the posts. They were covered with sharp dark blue barnacles, and as I wound my arms and legs around its security, they cut my chest, legs and thighs. I hung on as long as I could stand the pain and watched for a big friendly swell to come my way that I might throw myself on it and travel to a piling closer to shore. Each time with a prayer in my heart I would make the effort of traveling from one pile to another with the aid of the rolling swell.
Slowly but surely and with great difficulty, I made my way to the shore where the water was shallow enough for me to walk to the beach. When I reached the safety of the warm sand, I fell, exhausted. I was so weak, so nearly drowned I was unable to walk home until I had rested some time. Lying on the sand with its warmth and security, I thought of the harrowing experience that I had just endured and my heart was filled with gratitude and humility that the Lord had … spared my life.
Question: What strikes you about this story? How is this experience different than his first encounter with prayer? I noticed that not only was it a desperate and visceral plea for help – the very act of prayer helped sustain the overwhelming effort of “traveling from one pile to another.” His story reminds me of this amazing passage in Ether 2:
22 And he cried again unto the Lord saying: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?
23 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have awindows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire.
24 For behold, ye shall be as a awhale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the bwinds have gone forth cout of my mouth, and also the drains and the floods have I sent forth.
25 And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?
What does this exchange between God and the Brother of Jared reveal about the purpose of prayer in this often painful world? I’m struck by the acknowledgement that we will be swallowed up and tossed to and fro. Prayer is not an escape-hatch or a magic wand. What is it, then?
Consider this quote from former Young Women’s General President Patricia Holland:
We are women now, not children, and we are expected to pray with maturity. The words most often used to describe urgent, prayerful labor are wrestle, plead, cry, and hunger. In some sense, prayer may be the hardest work we ever will engage in, and perhaps it should be.
Question: Have you experienced prayer as “work”?
If we live near to our Heavenly Father, we will be inspired to know what to pray for.
President Smith: “We should attend to our secret prayers. We should live so near to our Heavenly Father that when we bow before him we may know that the thing we are asking will be pleasing unto him, and if it isn’t granted in the way that we ask it we may know that the blessing will come to us that we are entitled to and that will really be a blessing.”
Smith uses the phrase “secret prayer” several times, echoing Jesus’ admonition to “pray in secret.” What benefit does private or secret prayer offer us that family or public prayer does not?
Read Alma 34: 26-27 aloud. What does it mean to “pour out your souls . . . in your secret places and in your wilderness”? When I hear “pour out your soul,” I think of “emptying” ourselves before God, opening ourselves. I think we all have “secret places” in our soul — hidden fears, shame, scars, pain. We might put on a brave face in public, but “in the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” I wonder if God is asking us to meet him there, in that secret place in our soul, in our own private wilderness. I wonder if he is asking us to trust him with ourselves.
Questions for discussion: How has prayer helped guide you in the “wilderness” — during times of personal struggle? And how have you “endured to the end” in those times when answers were NOT forthcoming? Returning to the lesson title, what impedes us from “opening our souls” to God?
Family prayer brings unity to families.
President Smith: “We [as family members] will not always see alike; men will not always reason as their wives do and vice versa, but if you will pray together, with a real desire to be united, I can say to you, you will agree on all important matters.”
Note: I appreciate Smith’s language of unity. He is not invoking “priesthood leader holds the trump card in decision making.” Rather, he suggests that families pursue a course of joint spiritual effort to come to a common understanding.
Final thought: Consider ending with a reading of the Lord’s prayer in all its beautiful simplicity . . .
P.S. I posted another Relief Society lesson about prayer in April 2010. Clearly I like this topic. That lesson, based on the Gospel Principles manual, can be accessed here. You might find it a helpful supplement. And yes, I did recycle my opening thoughts . . .
P.P.S. I also LOVE this essay from EmilyCC about her experience as a hospital chaplain: “A Thousand Ways to Pray”