Relief Society Lesson 2: Pray Always
Due to a scheduling snafu (my bad) this lesson was due to go up next week, but I’ve learned that many Relief Societies are teaching this lesson tomorrow. So, I wanted to throw up a few thoughts, quotes, and links gathered from the collected input of Exponent bloggers on the subject of prayer, in the hopes that something here might be useful. We would love your input as well! Please comment if you have ideas on how to teach this lesson. Let’s use this post as a chance to share thoughts and approaches.
EmilyCC suggests that a great place to go for thoughts about how to teach on prayer is the Exponent archives. This is what I’ve found.
- A terrific lesson by April on prayer.
- A great Young Woman lesson on prayer by Jessica, a guest poster.
- Deborah’s lovely lesson on prayer.
- Jana’s thoughtful lesson on prayer and personal revelation.
I read the manual version today, and was interested in ETB’s remark that “After making a request through prayer, we have a responsibility to assist in its being granted. We should listen. Perhaps while we are on our knees, the Lord wants to counsel us.” It reminded me of something the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said about the lily in the field:
“But the lily who is the teacher is profound. It does not enter into conversation with thee, it keeps silent, and by keeping silent it would signify to thee that thou art before God, that thou shouldst remember that thou art before God—that thou also in seriousness and truth mightest become silent before God.”
Reflecting on some of these same themes, another suggested that the lilies (and the birds) might help us reframe the way we look at prayer. Rather than us perceiving prayer as an opportunity for us to speak to God, it may be better understood as an opportunity for God to speak to us. Prayer becomes a forum for contemplative silence, where alone, we may practice being quiet before God–wholly present as listeners. Adam Miller shares this same thought in his Letters to a Young Mormon: “In prayer, you can practice remembering God in one of two ways. You can practice by remembering what you were saying or you can practice by remembering to listen. The first way is important, the second way is imperative…talking is just half a prayer. As a rule of thumb, take however much time you spend talking then devote at least as much time to listening. Listening, though, is harder.”
I also appreciated ETB’s reliance on scripture, especially Alma 34. When I was an undergrad, I heard Elder Wirthlin read from that same chapter (albeit different verses) to suggest that we could thank God for “our favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, the scent of rain, or the sound of a loved one’s voice.” I have taken that to heart, and pray for the very tiny things that mean something big to me-including tiny/big things I am grateful for, and tiny/big things I am seeking. I have also taken it to heart from that chapter that I can pray anywhere. ETB emphasized the potentially secret nature of closets and wilderness, but I also like Alma’s flocks and fields. They tell me that I can pray when I’m at school or work, sitting by others, as I can pray in my bathroom or on a walk or drive when I’m by myself. Alone time with God can come anytime, about anything. And for me, my prayers at strange times in strange places are often more meaningful than those that are more formal, at “morning, mid-day, and evening.”
The last thing that I really appreciated in ETB’s given remarks are his injunction to a) be prepared to pray (which to me means be thoughtful to pray-think about it/feel about it), and b) don’t be repetitive. I don’t love Mormon repetitive prayers “that we all get home safely,” “to nourish and strengthen our bodies,” etc. They take very little thought and very little presence to say them. Slow down. Be present. Pray how you really feel, when you really feel it, in your own words.
I would also love more ideas to hear God’s voice clearly. People usually say if you want to hear God, read the scriptures. And I really do feel that is true. But I think maybe for some people when they want to hear God maybe they do other things — listen to rain? stretch? I don’t know. But if there are ideas of how to hear God and stay focused on listening, I’d love to know.
I love the concept of “praying with power;” no one can take prayer from us, and when we command God’s time, in prayer, in righteousness for a moment, God will come to us no matter where we are, and no matter how isolated we feel. We can pray with power that commands the spirit to be with us, because we are daughters of God.
First, as with any prayer, you ask for God’s grace in helping you to pray.
Second, you recall the things for which you are grateful from the past day. These can be big things—a healing conversation with a friend, an intimate moment with a spouse, an exciting new project at work. Or they might be as small as the feel of the sun on your face, a refreshing breeze, a funny moment in the office. You recall them and, as St. Ignatius said, “savor” them. Then you express your gratitude to God.
Third, you recall the events of the day, almost as if your day were a movie playing out in your head. You ask yourself: Where did I experience God’s presence and accept God’s invitation? And where did I turn away from God?
Fourth, you ask for forgiveness. Step three will probably reveal some sins that you committed (unless you’re perfect!), so you ask the Lord to forgive you for them. You may also decide that you need to ask for forgiveness from someone.
Fifth, you ask for the grace to live the next day in God’s love.
Our RS teacher sent out these questions for our class.
1. Where and how often do you pray?
2. Have you found ways to make your prayers more meaningful?
3. How do you act on the answers to your prayers?
I’ll start out with my favorite Mormon woman sage/leader, Chieko Okazaki. This is an extended quote, but I love that she asks and attempts to answer the hardest questions we might have about prayer, such as, Why doesn’t God answer my righteous prayer? I’ve prayed and prayed; why doesn’t God grant my righteous pleadings and desires? Here are her thoughts on this topic — from Being Enough, p. 153-158:
Since we know the Lord can do everything, and since we know that he has done mighty miracles in the past, how, then, do we explain the many times that our righteous prayers seem to go unanswered? Think of those heart-breaking, heart-stretching prayers…. Some of you are single. Many of you have prayed with sincerity and faithfulness, from the pure center of a righteous life, to find a worthy spouse, but your prayers have not been answered in the way you have hoped. Some of you have been carrying the burden of same-sex attraction; and despite your yearning prayers, the feelings do not go away. Some of you are struggling with chronic ill health, and ask yourself the terrible question of why you lack faith to be healed. For others, there are wounds of the soul and spirit left over from crimes inflicted on you in your childhood.
…Some people cruelly blame the person who is experiencing these difficulties, accusing her or him of not being righteous enough or not exercising enough faith. I refuse to blame the person who is suffering. It is a harsh and wicked judgement that lets the person who is saying such things avoid coming to grips with the fact that the prayers of the righteous are not always granted. I do not accept it. I know that sometimes the answer the Lord gives us is “no” because he knows it will not be for our best good — but surely that is not the answer in every case.
I do, however, think that there are three reasons that may help explain why prayers are not always answered in the way we might wish:
First, the scriptures do not tell us about all cases of infertility — only about Sarah’s and then only because her story is important to the story of the patriarchs whose miraculous activities are recorded in scripture. In other words, Sarah’s answered prayer may be the exception, not the norm. What about the hundreds of Sarah’s sisters who endured childlessness for their entire lives?
Second,, God cannot be compelled to answer our prayers the way we want him to every time. That would mean he is a machine and our only task would be to punch the right buttons. Or it would mean that he is like the genie in the lamp and our job is to say the right spell. No, he is free to act, and we are free to act.
Third, because we live in a world that operates according to law and because God’s respect for agency is one of the most important facts we know about him, next only to his love for us, then there are some prayers of ours he cannot grant without violating the agency of others in ways that are unacceptable to the laws that govern our world. Because we cannot see all of the consequences of an action or a choice for ourselves, let alone for all of the people it might affect, there are doubtless some prayers he cannot grant.
But then what are we to make of all these ask-seek-and-knock promises? …. We’re commanded to pray, urged to pray, encouraged to pray, and promised absolutely that prayer will give us what we seek. The scriptures are full of miracles about answered prayers; but our personal lives, even though they contain examples of answered prayers, often give us painful examples of seemingly unanswered prayers or postponed answers. Are we being told two things when only one of them can be true? I think on of the answers may lie in what I call sparrow prayers.
Sparrow prayers are the little prayers that the Lord can answer when granting our request to the great prayers is not possible. Despite our faithfulness, the Lord may not reverse the course of a crippling cancer that is slowly taking the life of a beloved mother or brother. But he may be able to grant a prayer for a good night’s sleep or a pain-free afternoon. He may not grant the prayer of a righteous woman for marriage, but he may teach her the very real pleasures of solitude and give her other companions who are also valiant and honorable.
I think we are surrounded by angels who are anxious to help us, to breathe comfort and consolation when we are sorrowing and anguished. They do not desert us when we have bitter moments or angry moments, and their companionship and that of the Holy Ghost may be the truest answer to our prayers when we ask those terrible questions without an answer — those questions of “Why?” and “Why me?” and “Is this what obedience brings?” Just because mortality does not provide answers does not mean that eternity lacks answers. And it is only when we fail to find answers in one place — fail but without being punished or reproached — that we can turn to other places.
Please contribute your thoughts in the comments below. On a lesson about prayer, what discussions would you like to have? How would you teach it? What questions or points would you bring up?