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At the General Conference where President Nelson and President Oaks were sustained as Apostles, Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave an incredibly powerful talk that has been a tremendous guidepost to me, both personally, and especially with certain Temple related responsibilities. My inspiration for what follows draws heavily from that magnificent sermon.[i]
I hope that the following thoughts may be beneficial to every saint, but I especially hope that brethren who serve in the Temples will pay particularly close attention.
Prayer is the way our creator has given us to council and communicate with Him. It is one of the cornerstones of pure and perfect worship. In prayer, we speak to the Lord, and He speaks to us. It is our privilege to have our voices heard and our petitions answered.
In the Sermon on the Mount and the corresponding Sermon at the Temple in Bountiful[ii], the Savior gave specific instructions for personal prayers[iii], using the singular pronoun “thou” when He instructs us to pray secretly in our closets. By doing so, He promises us that God will openly reward us for our secret prayers.
Continuing the instructions regarding prayer, He then switches pronouns to the plural “ye”. In English, this isn’t quite obvious to most, but in the New Testament Greek, it is quite clear. Within a temple context, Jesus is now going to teach us about proper group prayer.
The instructions are twofold: do not use “vain repetitions”, and “after this manner therefore pray ye”. What follows is Christ’s prayer delivered on those occasions, sometime called “The Lord’s Prayer”. The verses before it are probably some of the most misunderstood verses in all of Christianity, for just after being instructed not to use vain repetitions, what do so many of our Christian brethren and sisters do? They repeat the next six and a half verses verbatim, again and again.
But why not? Didn’t the Lord just say to pray after the same manner as Him? If the general interpretation is incorrect, then what are we to make of these two seemingly conflicting instructions? With the light of the restored gospel, the meaning is actually quite simple. Allow me to rephrase the two components of the Lord’s counsel:
“Don’t say the same thing every time. Now, repeat after me…”
One person offers an un-memorized, spirit-inspired prayer, and the rest repeat their words. This is called “antiphonal prayer”, and it is still practiced today in several of the world’s oldest religions. Like us, many often use a simple “Amen” on most occasions, to signify our agreement and participation for whoever prays on behalf of the group. Others have antiphonal hymns or recitations. I suspect the doctrine behind it is lost on many, including Latter-day Saints.
The truest and holiest order for us to follow is the example of Christ. As our ultimate Exemplar, we mirror and copy Him, even in prayer. If Peter, James, and John were to teach us this principle, it should not come as a surprise to us if James was given the opportunity to act as voice, for he most strongly represents Christ in that symbolic presidency.
[If this principle is new to you, consider how many similarities there are between the Godhead and that ancient First Presidency: James and John were brothers, the “Sons of Zebedee” (ie. “Gift of God” in Hebrew), and Christ and the Holy Ghost (also brothers) are the two most precious gifts God has given us. James suffered an untimely death by Herod. Peter and James have glorified immortal bodies, but John still doesn’t (not exactly like the Holy Ghost, but similar). John goes nameless in his gospel, referring to himself simply as “that other apostle” or “the Apostle whom Jesus loved”, similar to how the Holy Ghost goes nameless. Etc, etc.]
Therefore, when engaged in antiphonal group prayer, one person acts as voice, symbolically representing Christ, and the rest repeat their words.
Now, considering that this particular pattern of prayer is both ancient and scripturally established, let me remind you of something that many reading this will know: there are special prayers reserved and offered for those who drink the still waters and lie down in green pastures[iv], prayers which are not uttered for those still in the world.
Should you have an opportunity to offer such a prayer, you certainly wouldn’t want to fall into the category of “vain repetitions” saying what has been said so many times before. You would want to be guided by the power of the Spirit, working to receive revelation perhaps days in advance, so that you may “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”[v]
I believe it is pleasing to that God whose we are, that we plead with all the energy of our souls for that which will give us a fullness of joy, recognizing that in such a role, we are in essence speaking as though we were the great Atoning One Himself. Elder McConkie said in his conference address:
“We do not give memorized, ritualistic, or repetitious prayers. We seek the guidance of the Spirit and suit every prayer to the needs of the moment, with no thought of using the same words on successive occasions. But it would be appropriate for us to use words that convey such thoughts as these in our prayers:
Father, we ask thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, to hear the words of our mouth, to discern with thy all-seeing eye the thoughts and intents of our heart, and to grant us our righteous desires.”
From there, he proceeded to give further, powerful examples of his most prayerful reflections.
With these things in mind, might I tell you some of the prayers within my own heart, that I believe will echo with some of your own desires and tender feelings, and inspire you, as Elder McConkie did me, to refine your petitions to be more heartfelt, humble, and holy.
For example, after opening our prayer with words that reflect reverence for our creator as Elder McConkie demonstrated, it would be proper to turn our minds to words of gratitude for our mortal life, the hope of immortality and exaltation, and the One who made it possible:
“With a watchful eye Thou hast looked after and blessed our generations. Can anyone doubt that Thou art indeed the God of our Fathers, and that Thy promises, O Lord, are sure? As pilgrims far from our heavenly home, Thou has granted us the privilege of gaining experience and knowledge we never could otherwise. We are grateful beyond measure that Thou didst ordain the Plan of Salvation, whereby we may return to thy presence, and with Thee and Thy Only Begotten, partake of Eternal Life and Exaltation.
We cannot express enough our gratitude for the gift of Thine Only Begotten Son, who came down from on high, and in great drops poured out his love, to atone for and redeem all mankind! Through His stripes we are healed, and saved from death, hell, and everlasting torment! O how we glory in His blessed name, the Mediator between us and Thee, and in whose blood we shall yet wash our garments so as to stand clean before Him and Thee in that great day!
From everlasting to everlasting, He will reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Possessing all power, glory, dominions, kingdoms, thrones, and exaltations! With our whole souls, we desire to be counted as one with Him, that we may be one with Thee.”
As further expressions of thankfulness for our latter-day opportunities, and to show our desire for even greater privileges, we might say:
“How grateful we are for The Book of Mormon, for modern revelation, and for priesthood authority. What a privilege it is to have living oracles of God in our midst, that we may receive knowledge and communication from Thy holy presence, that we need not look to the foolishness of the world to know Thy will!
We are grateful for the many angels Thou didst send to restore keys and knowledge, and pray that our hearts may be prepared to receive many more revelations pertaining to the Kingdom of God and our eternal salvation. Help us to be quick to observe, and quick to obey, every line and precept we receive, for we know that Thou wilt show us the truth, and lead us in straight paths.
May we find delight in honoring Thee for the many mercies and blessings we receive daily.
May we be blessed with an even greater abundance of spiritual gifts.
May we respond humbly and charitably to the weaknesses of others. Give us sufficient strength to pass those tests which require utter faith, courage, and consecration, that we may lay hold upon the promise of eternal life.
Bless us with a deep understanding of the powers of creation and redemption. In the midst of a seemingly infinite creation, we are in awe beyond measure to feel of Thy desire and love for us; to know that Thou didst send Thy son to suffer and die for us is a thought we can hardly comprehend. Teach us more deeply about the doctrine of atonement. Lead us into all truth.”
In response to the illnesses and disease which are common to the lot of mankind, thoughts might be expressed along these lines:
“We perceive through the workings of the Spirit that thy bowels are overflowing with compassion…
Therefore, O Thou Great Physician. . . Whose breath is in all mankind, and who observeth the fall of each sparrow. . . Look upon thine own children, and glance with thine all-seeing eye, on those who are sick and afflicted, and who are not yet appointed unto death. Has the day of miracles ceased? Nay, we know it has not! For thou art the same yesterday, today and forever! Therefore, pour out Thy healing power upon Thy saints with abundance and great mercy. And moreover, let He who came with healing in His wings heal them spiritually as well.”
Regarding prophetic priorities and new revealed direction given in our day, we might offer words of encouragement and faith, such as:
“Help us to be good ministers. May the light we hold up always be the light of the Gospel, pointing people to Thee and Thy Son, knowing that the worth of souls is great indeed. As we open our mouths in faith, may they be filled with words of inspiration.
Help us to guard that which has been deemed sacred. May we honor Thy Sabbath and Thy Sacraments. We desire Thy Spirit to be with us always.
May we search the Holy Scriptures individually and as families with all diligence, knowing that they contain the words of eternal life.
We know Thou art our Father, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Redeemer and Savior of mankind, sent down to bring to pass Thy plan of salvation, whereby all may be redeemed by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Lord, increase our faith.”
As we seek blessing for our families, for ourselves, and for those we love, our feelings are often especially tender. I would not hesitate at all to ask:
“Bless the sheep of thy sheepfold, but especially Kind Father: watch over our lambs! Let angels fly to their rescue, protecting them from dangers both seen and unseen. May we stand with them in Holy Places, where they both witness and perform holy ordinances, designed to impress upon their minds the sacred nature of the covenants they have and will yet enter into. Give us wisdom to unfold great mysteries in a way that they may easily understand them. May they be filled with faith and righteousness. And let our examples to them be that of unfailing loyalty to the Father of all!
Let pure intelligence, the light of truth, flow into their hearts and minds. Give them comfort in the knowledge of that which is true, and help us to prepare them in all things for greater comfort and glories.
Watch over our flocks and fields. Help us to provide and be self-reliant.
O Merciful One! Look upon our families and loved ones, and have mercy indeed! Spare them from tribulation, from sorrow, from grief, and from pain, with acts of divine tenderness both great and small. Give us that peace which can only be had from Thee.”
And finally, looking toward that blessed day when all strife and sorrows will end, when the Lord shall wipe away all tears, and as capstone to our prayer, we could consider thoughts such as:
“Father, we hope for a better world, even a place at Thy right hand.
Bless those who labor, and are heavy laden, for the cause of Zion. Help us to take up the yoke of Christ, that we may become meek, and lowly of heart, that our souls may find rest. May we truly offer up all that is ours for Thy kingdom.
And now Father, if it be appropriate, we ask that Thou wouldst hasten the day when Thy Kingdom will come down from above to a place here prepared for it, that Thy will be done on Earth – finally! – as it is in Heaven. Even that day when the Son of Man who was lifted up – far beyond the cross! – doth return in glory; to reap the harvest sown in Gethsemane, to set an eternal feast before the righteous, and complete His rescue of the helpless family of Adam!
Can anyone say too much of our God? Of Thy amazing love, goodness, mercy, wisdom, might and righteousness? Nay, but we will praise Thee forever! And though we may now close our prayer, we will never cease to lift our thoughts to Thee, and praise Thee in our hearts. ”
Language along these lines sets forth a truer expression of
what I believe are seldom spoken thoughts and desires of many of the Lord’s
most humble and quiet followers in our day, and it is my faith that all who join in
such choruses of praise and petition, of adoration and thanksgiving, and who
strive to live as they pray, will gain peace in this life and eternal life in
the world to come.
[i] In a few places, even a casual observer may notice that some of what I will say was said first by Elder McConkie. While true, his words are now my words, and so I felt this footnote of acknowledgement would suffice in lieu or multiple citations. To watch/read it for yourself, see: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1984/04/patterns-of-prayer?lang=eng
For more on the Sermon on the Mountain as a temple analog, I cannot recommend
enough John Welch’s
“Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and The Sermon on the Mount”, which can be accessed for free online here: https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/illuminating-sermon-temple-sermon-mount
[iii] See 3 Nephi 13 or Matthew 6 for the following references, beginning in verse 5 for either chapter.
[iv] Psalms 23:2 This phrase was used by Elder McConkie, I believe, to allude to a particular type of group prayer. See also: https://interpreterfoundation.org/knowhy-otl25a-is-there-more-to-psalm-23-than-words-of-solace-and-comfort/
[v] Hebrews 4:16