Since childhood I have marveled at the workings of the telephone. How is it possible for the sound of a human voice to be converted into a signal which can be transmitted to someone listening on the other side of the earth. Even more mind-bending is the thought of communicating with a Supreme Being. With billions of humans who have lived on earth, and millions yet to be, it is almost inconceivable that God could even be aware of me. Still, He invites all of His children to raise their voices in prayer, to send up their concerns, and to petition for needed blessings.

My prayer life has undergone many transformations as I’ve passed through nearly six decades. The simple prayers of my childhood deepened into more emotional pleadings during the teenage years. As a missionary, I learned to pray with faith for my faraway family, my companions, and my investigators. As a young adult I earnestly shared with the Lord my desires for a husband and children, and as those prayers were answered my life was filled with new people to pray for.

Sometimes good habits–which are active and intentional–can gradually fade into passive habits without a person noticing, as if someone flipped our switch to autopilot. This happened to me in my mid-forties. I realized that my prayers had grown casual, and my long-standing habit of praying both morning and evening had become hit and miss. Though I often prayed as I did housework or drove my car, I didn’t always finish those prayers. Even when I began praying in earnest, I soon became distracted–later wondering if I’d actually reached “amen.” (If you have to wonder if you finished a prayer, you can be sure you didn’t.) I also became aware that my attention often wandered as I listened to other people pray. Half-hearted attempts to improve my prayer life were unsuccessful. My prayers no longer felt “real.”

“Too many times I’ve murmured shallow prayers,
pronounced without an ounce of feeling.
And even as I spoke the words, I knew inside
that they didn’t even have the pow’r
to penetrate the ceiling.

Too many nights I’ve knelt beside my bed
as I pretended to be praying.
I’ve asked “the Lord my soul to keep,”
though half asleep,
with my mind so uninvolved
I barely knew what I was saying.” (1)

Finally, I resorted to extreme measures: I made myself a chart. Did your parents ever make a progress chart for you–perhaps to keep track of your chores? Charts can be used to assess progress in everything from piano practice to potty training. A toddler who successfully uses the potty chair may be rewarded with an M&M; a budding pianist may get a gold star to stick on her chart each day she practices–perhaps with the promise of a greater reward after a week of consistent work. Although progress charts seemed fine for young children, I felt chagrined that I needed a chart to help me improve my prayers. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Using a ruler, I drew careful lines–making one square for each day of the week, with each square divided diagonally. When I prayed in the morning I filled in the top half of the square, marking the lower half after praying at night. During the first few weeks there were some empty spaces as I struggled to get back to a more consistent prayer routine–a reminder that “prayer is a form of work” (2) –but I found the chart to be surprisingly motivating. After weeks of filling in the squares, my reward was not an M&M or gold star. Rather, it was the pleasure of a gently increasing connection to my Heavenly Father. The first helpful step was to improve in praying consistently, day and night. As that habit was reestablished, my capacity to pray with true intent soon increased. My spirit began to reach into eternity and connect to the God who was already reaching for me, and my prayers began to feel real again.

While the mother of young children, I became adept at interpreting the nature of my children’s requests based on the intensity and pitch of their voices as they called out to me. There was the casual query of “Mom?” when one of the kids was just wondering which room I was in. A whiny singsong “MOOO-ooom” let me know that someone was hungry or cranky or intended to tattle on a sibling. My responses to these situations were generally relaxed, or, in the case of tattling, accompanied by a sigh. On rarer occasions, my children cried out “MOM!!” with such intensity that I was instantly alert, my feet heading in their direction almost without conscious thought, because the fierceness of the cry signaled terror, rage, or an impending trip to the emergency room. My response was in direct proportion to the intensity of their call. That intensity brings to mind the prophet Enos:

The first page of The Book of Enos is one of my most treasured parts of The Book of Mormon. Years ago, I scribbled a heading above the title: Prayer 101. I’ve probably learned more about real prayer from this page than any other scriptural source. Whenever I find my prayers growing casual or lacking real intent, I turn to this remarkable prayer experience. No wonder the Lord answered Enos when he prayed in the forest–his words connote true intensity:

…the wrestle which I had before God
…my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my maker
…I cried unto Him in mighty prayer and supplication
all the day long did I cry unto Him
when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens
…while I was thus struggling in the spirit
…I prayed unto Him with many long strugglings
…after I had prayed and labored with all diligence
(Enos 1:2-12)

Just this week I heard it said that, “Prayer is the essential connecting thread that binds us to the God who gave us life.” (3)My personal experiences confirm that this is true, for whenever my prayers have stagnated and I feel distant from Heavenly Father, nothing in my life feels quite right.

Years ago, in addition to using a progress chart to assist me in returning to a more robust prayer life, I wrote myself a song–a reminder to help me avoid slipping back into passive prayers. At the time I wrote the song I shared it only with my parents, but recently made a simple recording of it in case it’s helpful to anyone seeking to make their prayers more real.

“This time when I pray, I will speak humbly.
This time when I pray, I’ll be sincere.
And this time I’ll remember
my Heav’nly Father’s listening,
and I’ll stay here on my knees until I feel
that this prayer is real.”

THIS PRAYER IS REAL

Words, music, and piano by Lynne Perry Christofferson
Vocal by Tanya Barkdull

“Too many times I’ve murmured shallow prayers,
pronounced without an ounce of feeling.
And even as I spoke the words, I knew inside
that they didn’t even have the pow’r
to penetrate the ceiling.

(Chorus)
But this time when I pray, I will speak humbly.
This time when I pray, I’ll be sincere.
And this time I’ll remember
my Heav’nly Father’s listening,
and I’ll stay here on my knees until I feel
that this prayer is real.

Too many nights I’ve knelt beside my bed
as I pretended to be praying.
I’ve asked “the Lord my soul to keep,”
though half asleep,
with my mind so uninvolved
I barely knew what I was saying.

(Chorus)
But this time when I pray, I will speak humbly.
This time when I pray, I’ll be sincere.
And this time I’ll remember
my Heav’nly Father’s listening,
and I’ll stay here on my knees until I feel
that this prayer is real.

Not only when my heart is aching,
not only when I feel despair.
Not only when I need Him desperately,
but every time I bow to God in prayer.

(Chorus)
But this time when I pray, I will speak humbly.
This time when I pray, I’ll be sincere.
And this time I’ll remember
my Heav’nly Father’s listening,
and I’ll stay here on my knees until I feel
that this prayer is real.”

Notes:

  1. “This Prayer is Real,” lyrics and music by Lynne Perry Christofferson, 2008.
  2. Bible Dictionary, Authorized King James Version with explanatory notes and cross references to the standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 753.
  3. Tyler J. Griffin, Book of Mormon Central, Taylor and Tyler, Come Follow Me Insights, 3 Nephi 17-19,  minute mark 17:15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvmBWPYRS_g