I am a Mormon bishop and I have a confession to make. I think I may have only just learned to pray. I know, right? How is that possible? I’m a bishop for crying out loud. I have to know how to pray. And of course I do know how, but I’ve learned to deepen my prayers and make them more meaningful and powerful. I’ve practiced for years. But I just now think I am beginning to get it right.
Learning to Pray
I learned my first lessons of prayer while gathered with my family around my parents’ bed each night. In between fidgeting and a bit of daydreaming, I managed to soak in the patterns of prayer and more importantly the heartfelt desires of my family. In turn I prayed, too, “Dear Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for this day and for my many blessings. Please help me have a good day and to have fun. . . .” As I grew, my prayers advanced to include statements like, “Help this food nourish and strengthen our bodies.” and “Help us get everything done that we need to.” Though I smile as I write this, I am not belittling these prayers.
Prayer changed in a big way for me when I was eighteen. I needed to make a decision about going on a mission. I knew two things: first, that I wanted to serve, and second, that I needed help and I needed answers. When I knelt to pray I remember facing the question of whether God was really there. At that moment I needed to know, really know. I prayed with real intent for perhaps the first time in my life. When I left my room I had learned two things: first, that God did indeed exist for he had manifested Himself to me through the Holy Ghost, and second that He is merciful, so merciful that he cared deeply for a poorly prepared prospective missionary trying to do the right thing.
As a missionary in West Germany, I began to hear more of the whisperings of the Spirit. We prayed a lot as missionaries. We woke up and prayed. We prayed before we studied, and before we left the apartment. We prayed with investigators. We prayed with members. We prayed over our meals and in the evening before bed. I drew much strength from prayer, but my prayers, I think, lacked power. Prayer had yet to lodge in my heart. But in mercy God blessed those we taught despite my lack of understanding.
While in an apartment in Rexburg, Idaho I fasted and prayed about a girl that I liked, a lot. When no clear answer came to the question of whether she was the one I should marry, I was sure I had messed the whole thing up. I feared that I didn’t really know how to pray and get answers. Later that same year in Logan, Utah, I was prompted to pray about another girl. The Spirit then taught me that my earlier frustrations with prayer and fasting had been to teach me what “no” felt like. When “yes” came, it was powerful and sure.
After Julie and I were married we prayed together about starting a family, about where to live and work. After I finished school when we were desperate for a ‘real’ job, we prayed. God taught me that fear can get in the way of answers. It took desperate times for me to listen more carefully and to hear His encouraging voice. He taught me to trust Him in new ways.
As my family and career progressed, I continued to pray, but somehow I managed to trip and fall. I remember being in a place where prayer had become a chore. I knew I needed to pray. I believed in prayer. I had experienced powerful prayer, but somehow I still found myself struggling. I was busy, stressed out, feeling like I could not live up to all of the expectations that I felt were pinned on me.
Exhausted, I would fall asleep kneeling at the bed at night. I judged myself harshly. This in turn made it harder to pray the next time. I would go days, dare I say weeks without really praying. Guilt and the fear of losing my testimony would get me on my knees, but my prayers were not what they needed to be.
I don’t remember a single solution to this crisis. I only know that I didn’t give up.
Even after long stints of shallow, distracted prayer, I would desperately approach Heavenly Father for help. I remember being confused by His patience. I remember feeling loved and understood and couldn’t quite figure out why I could possibly receive such inspiration and mercy. Now when I am tempted to mourn my mistakes, I am reminded that my wrong turns have been compensated for with divine course corrections, every swamping of my boat has been met with stilled storms and unseen, bailing hands.
Today, I am a bishop. I have prayed to know who to call as counselors. I have prayed about callings and ward members. I pray for my children and my wife and my friends. I pray for those struggling with addiction and those scared because of difficult family situations. I pray for people to come back to church and I pray for those people in such desperate need that they lack hope. On Sundays, I feel like a missionary again. I pray before I leave the house, I pray as we start bishopric meeting and then in other meetings and with each person who comes for an interview. I pray with my family. I pray with my wife and even when I catch myself falling asleep on my knees, I crawl into bed without a heavy heart, because I have finally learned God is patient and loves when his children pray, even very tired bishops.
Deepening Our Practice of Prayer
I wish I had learned more about deepening my practice of prayer earlier in my life. It is never too early to build a more meaningful connection with Heavenly Father. I’d like to share ten things that have helped me deepen my practice of prayer. I hope they will help you connect or even reconnect with Father in Heaven in more powerful ways.
- Make More Time for Prayer: Deep, powerful prayer takes time, lots of time—more time that we typically give ourselves. Today, I find more and more time for prayer. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes are usually not enough. I need to lots of time to dump everything at God’s feet and to feel His grace and love for me.
- Learn to Focus: Voicing my prayers helps me focus. When I pray out loud others do not need to hear me. There is something powerful about the human voice. We don’t use it often enough in prayer. I write down the promptings that come so that I can go back and reread them to remember how I felt. As I focus better, I pray longer and my experiences with my Father in Heaven become more powerful. Powerful focused prayer makes me to want to pray more.
- Get Rid of the Junk: Let go of fear, doubt, worry, and other anxious thoughts. Often, I need to write out what is bothering me and then ask Heavenly Father to help me know the truth about who I really am and how He sees me. When He answers through His Spirit, and He does answer! I am able to arise renewed and strengthened, alive with a desire to serve and to act boldly. It is when I have given Him all of my junk and asked for an hundredth time if He is sure I can give Him even more that I begin to understand the never failing love of God.
- Express Deep Gratitude: Remembering and expressing gratitude for my most cherished blessings always raises my sensitivity to the Spirit as I pray. Taking time to feel my gratitude instead of just thinking about what I’m thankful for changes the way I pray.
- Beat the Early Bird: It is in the early morning hours that I have learned to be quiet and pour out my soul, day after day. The quiet, early hours (between four and six) allow me to focus without the pressures of pending responsibilities. If I get up and get ahead of my task list, I can have the time I need to pray while the pressures of life are still putting on their running shoes.
- Pray Always: I pray in the car, as I walk the dog, in the elevator, at my desk at work or at church. Continual prayer feeds me and quiets my fears of inadequacy. I love conversing with my Father in Heaven. I honor Him by reverently approaching Him, but I am always relieved to feel His familiar love, again and again.
- Get Back Up: When I fall down and my perceived failures mock my efforts with prayer, I ignore these tactics of my adversary, “. . . for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray1,” When I don’t feel like praying, especially because I have been lax in my habits of prayer, I muster the courage to approach God again, ready for chastisement only to find that my own chastisement has been quite enough. He is only too glad to hear from me again, his yet somewhat wayward son.
- Don’t Avoid Emotions: I let myself cry regularly as I pray. As men we need to get over the whole crying thing. Emotions are a powerful part of who we are. The Savior wept. So can I. When I am alone with my Father in Heaven, I give myself permission to shed the tears that help speed the cleansing process. This advice in not only for men. Women, too, can hold in things and try to bear burdens alone. We all must learn to let our fears, our cries of shame, our lack of faith flow out through powerful emotion.
- Ask Lots of Questions: The principles of the gospel open to me when I pray with questions, many questions. Again my journal becomes an indispensable tool for my question asking. I have learned that God wants to give me
- Relax: I am no longer surprised when I feel the Spirit as I pray day after day. What used to be an occasional occurrence has become a regular one. All I needed to do years ago, when I was so desperate to feel like my prayers were making it past the ceiling, was to relax and trust the words of scripture that tell us that He is kind, so kind and patient that he will not upbraid2 or scold us for asking.
Tomorrow morning, I will arise earlier than seems normal. I will express whatever is on my mind and listen for the Spirit to remind me of blessings already granted. I will ask questions and I will beg Him for help for members of my family and my ward. I will thank him for being patient while I continue to learn to pray. I confess that I think there is even more to learn about prayer. For now, however, I am content. Today, I am sure of prayer’s power. I am sure God listens and answers and counsels with His children. I look forward to my time with my Heavenly Father. I am so grateful that I have learned to call His name and listen as He, in turn, calls mine.
1 2 Nephi 32:8
2 James 1:5