I gave a talk in sacrament meeting today and while I may have made Andrew sit with me in the congregation when he gave a talk last week, I definitely sat on the stand, by myself, today. We weren't really sure it was going to work but Andrew suggested we go ahead and try it, so I positioned myself on the stand so that the pulpit was blocking me from Zoë's view.
It worked great and she didn't even care that I wasn't there...until I was there.
Andrew had to run her out as soon I as I stood up and the two of them spent the duration of my talk wandering the hallway finding distractions. Zoë was not impressed...
...though she was, apparently, rather intrigued by the way Mommy's voice kept coming through the speakers on the ceiling.
I'm sure glad to have this behind me. While I recognize that preparing a talk is a great opportunity for in depth study of a gospel topic, speaking in public isn't exactly my favourite thing (I'm sure many people (maybe 75% of people) relate to that feeling). Being the last speaker on the program is even more daunting because you're responsible for both carrying the meeting long to the end and making sure it ends on time. My instructions were to be prepared to speak for somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes (most likely around 15 minutes). As if it's easy to just create a talk flexible enough to give or take ten minutes of content...
But, although Andrew teased me about it, I managed to preplan a talk that could be between five and twenty-five minutes long. I timed each section (using this) and noted the length inside my talk so that I could cut out sections as needed. If I didn't do that I really would have been sweating bullets (or at least more bullets than I was already sweating).
Below is my talk more or less as I gave it (and below that are parts that I cut out to trim it down to about 18 minutes).
44 times I've prayedIntroduction (4.5 minutes):
I’ve been asked to speak on prayer today, which is a rather intimidating subject for me because prayer is such a personal thing. Although we’re taught a public pattern of prayer at church, I think that privately we each have our own unique way in which we commune with God. How do you define or elaborate on such a sacred and private relationship?
In 1818, James Montgomery penned the words to the hymn, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.” His beautiful verses capture the simple complexity of prayer. The first few verses, in particular, speak to me when Montgomery says, “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, / Uttered or unexpressed… / Prayer is the burden of a sigh, / The falling of a tear, / The upward glancing of an eye / When none but God is near.”
“Prayer is,” according to Sister Virginia H. Pearce, “...the most basic religious ritual—of all faiths. All those who believe in God seek him in some form of prayer…. None of us understands how it works, even though we may have had a lifetime of experience with it.”
Sister Carol F. McConkie testified in last October’s General Conference that “prayer can be holy time spent with our Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
Prayer is “trust that [God] will help us, not necessarily in the way we want but in the way that will best help us to grow,” Sister Jean A. Stevens once explained. The bible dictionary further explains that “prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them.”
The Lord revealed to Emma Smith that “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.”
So, prayer can be spoken aloud, whispered quietly in our minds, sung jubilantly from the choir seats, or, as Ashley Mae Hoiland mentioned in her book, One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, prayer can be “without words.” It can be an inexpressible emotion that transcends human speech—the burden of a sigh or the falling of a tear—that none but God can understand.
We read One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly: The Art of Seeking God for book club this month and it was such a fantastic read that, once again, I’ll be bringing a bit of book club to the pulpit. As I mentioned, it’s by Ashley Mae Hoiland, and it was published by BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Hoiland is an artist and beautifully uses her her book to describe her spiritual journey in short vignettes, which she once described as “being like different displays at an art exhibit.” These narratives are punctuated by simple lists, including things like, “Twelve Times I’ve Prayed,” “Seventeen Times I’ve Felt Strong,” and “Things I Can Believe Better.”
In all honestly I had forgotten about her lists (it's been a while since I first read it and my copy is floating around the ward somewhere) so it was nice to be reminded about them at book club, where we talked about coming up with some lists of our own. Since I had already been pondering my testimony of prayer in preparation for this talk, I had a short list going already, but on Friday morning I took my children to the playground and turned them loose while I sat down to really knock out a list of times that I’ve prayed. So here is my first list of ten times I've prayed:
Ten times I’ve prayed (1 minute):
When I wanted a little sister instead of a little brother. After “hitting the wall” while running the Salt Lake City marathon. When my older sister was habitually running away from home. On a sunrise hike to the top of Mount Sinai—suffering from food poisoning—and knowing I somehow had to make it back down. When a “passing grade” (also known as “an A”) popped up on the screen at the testing center. Outside on a beautiful spring day while hanging clothes on the line. While moving my millionth load of pukey laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Every time I get on a plane. Every time I get in a car. When I didn’t think I could stay awake for one minute longer but my baby seemed determined to pull an all-nighter.
Allahu Akbar (5 minutes):
Shortly after our oldest daughter, Rachel, turned one, we packed up our few belongings and set off on an adventure. Andrew would be studying at the American University in Cairo, and I would be beginning my somewhat illustrious career as a trailing spouse. We arrived in Egypt, feeling rather worn out. Rachel had stayed awake the entire journey—from start to finish—which was well over 24-hours. It was brutal, but we survived and we made it to the branch president’s apartment, where we’d be staying while we looked for a flat of our own.
The laws of jet-lag decree that if you stay awake until local bedtime, you will adjust much faster than if you crash upon arrival. Although I knew this and Andrew knew this, our sweet one-year-old would not be convinced. She took a long (and admittedly well-deserved nap) and then, of course, wanted to be up the majority of the night.
I had just gotten her settled and was hoping to finally get some sleep myself when a ghostly wail pierced the semi-quiet of the night: “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!”
“You have got to be kidding me!” I moaned, as I pulled my pillow over my head.
We had lived in the Middle East before, so I knew it was the call to prayer, but we had not lived quite as close to a mosque as we were now. Somehow, during the hustle and bustle of the day—and being still unused to the noises of the city assaulting my ears—I had not yet noticed the adhan (azən) being recited over loudspeaker...five times a day.
The particular prayer that was being called was the Fajr (fudge.r), the first prayer of the day, which is supposed to be completed before sunrise. It wasn’t even yet four o’clock in the morning and all I wanted to do was fall asleep, but instead there I was listening to the long form of the call to prayer—because, you see, there is an extra line in the call to prayer for Fajr, which is this: “prayer is better than sleep.”
At that very moment I could think of nothing better than sleep.
Of course, the call to prayer eventually ended, as did the jet-lag, and we soon found ourselves settled into our own place...right around the corner from the Sakanat al-Maadi mosque (there are a lot of mosques in Cairo). The call to prayer, while foreign at first, soon became a welcome interruption to my day (and, sometimes, my night). Although we were already praying several times a day as a family—in the morning and the evening as well as at meal times—and although I was in the habit of saying my personal prayers already, these added prayer times became a special part of my routine.
When I would hear the muezzin (muwah.zin) begin chanting, “Allahu akbar! God is the greatest!” I would take a few minutes to express gratitude to Heavenly Father for whatever I was doing at the time, whether I was out with friends, or taking care of my children, or fixing dinner, or trying to fall back asleep in the middle of the night.
The call to prayer became a soothing rhythm in my life. I could depend on it to call me away from my earthly cares at least a handful of times a day, to remind me that God is the greatest. It helped me learn to pray, as the scriptures often mention, “continually.”
Sister Carol F. McConkie said in her most recent conference address, “Whether we pray privately, with our families, at church, in the temple, or wherever we are; whether we pray with broken hearts and contrite spirits seeking forgiveness, heavenly wisdom, or simply the strength to endure, we pray always with full hearts, drawn out unto God continually.”
As ungrateful as I was for the call to prayer that first long night in Cairo, I now find myself missing that tangible reminder to have my heart drawn out to God continually.
Ten more times I’ve prayed (1 minute):
When I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t. Taking the first peek at my newborn babies. Watching my baby boy being taken away in an ambulance, then spending five weeks at his bedside, waiting for him to be strong enough to come home. When I got the news that a friend’s mom had suddenly and tragically passed away during a family vacation. When I lost a baby sock while out and about on a chilly day. When Andrew got accepted into graduate school. When we were all protected in a car accident that totalled our vehicle. After reading the Book of Mormon. Relaxing in the sunshine at the beach while watching my husband play in the waves with our children. While preparing this talk.
To go to school or not to go to school (5.5 minutes):
When Andrew was finishing up his first master’s degree we had to decide what we were going to do after he graduated. Should he enter the workforce? Should he shoot for a PhD?
As with many big life decisions, we made it a matter of prayer, and eventually we both felt good about continuing his education. There was no thunderbolt or messenger sent from heaven. Applying for PhD programs simply felt like the right thing to do. So that’s what we did. We researched schools and filled out applications and then anxiously waited to hear back.
We felt pretty good about ourselves for following the prompting that we had received.
And then the rejection letters started flooding in.
We got rejected from schools we thought we had a long shot of being accepted to. We got rejected from schools where we thought we’d be a shoe in. We even got rejected by a school that had sought Andrew out and invited him to apply. We got rejected from everywhere. 100% rejections across the board.
We could not understand it. We had prayed. We had received an answer. We had done our part. Yet here we were with no plan, no future, and two little children to take care of. It was spectacularly crushing.
After admitting absolute defeat, Andrew’s father asked us if we wanted to meet with him to discuss The Future, so we planned a time that we could Skype together without the children dancing around. His dad suggested that we apply to the MPA program at BYU. Although the application deadline had passed, there is a provision allowing for late applicants and his father said he’d do his best to pull a few strings to convince the committee to give us a chance.
So that’s what we did. A few weeks later we got our acceptance letter and the rest, more or less, is history.
Getting his master’s in public administration was absolutely the thing that Andrew needed to do—it completely changed the trajectory of his career—but it was not something that we had considered at all. It hadn’t even crossed our minds. Andrew had been studying Middle East History, so those were the types of programs we had been looking at, which was quite different from what we actually needed to be doing.
I mentioned earlier that a prayer can be wordless. Heavenly Father understands our feelings; he hears our prayers whether they are uttered or unexpressed; he hears the song we cannot sing. And, often, the spirit will answer our prayers wordlessly—with nothing more than a feeling.
Unfortunately, interpreting feelings is a lot more difficult for me than I think it is for Heavenly Father. I can surrender my grief or my frustration or my joy to Heavenly Father and he seems to know exactly what to do with it, but when he sends me a clear-as-day answer, a “yes, this is right,” I can completely misinterpret it and still end up doing the exact wrong thing, even as I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
Sister Virginia Pearce explains that “...the power of praying is more than saying at the end of the prayer, ‘Thy will be done.’ It is actually finding that his will has become our will…. the miracle of prayer doesn’t reside in the ability to manipulate situations and events, but in the miracle of creating a relationship with God.”
Like any relationship, our relationship with God takes work. Prayer is a huge part that work. And if we consistently work at prayer, if we consistently work at our relationship with God, we will find that prayer works. Sister Pearce testifies that prayer, “does indeed call down the powers of heaven. It reconciles our will with the will of the Father. It consecrates even our most adverse experiences to the welfare of our souls… We may not be granted that which we desire, but we end up grateful with all of our hearts for that which the Lord gives us.”
As frustrating as it is giving up my will and accepting the plan the Lord has, and as difficult as it can be to find my way to the path the Lord would have me be on, it’s there that I’ve found peace and happiness.
Another ten times I’ve prayed (0.7 minutes):
The many times I’ve gotten myself lost due to my absolute lack of sense of direction. Before moving overseas. Waiting for news at the hospital after my father’s aortic aneurysm and subsequent emergency open-heart surgery. At breakfast. At lunch. At dinner. Before going on stage. While stuck with my children in the bathhouse at a campground during a crazy thunderstorm. When I needed a friend. When, at two years old, my little brother fell asleep behind the couch while we were playing hide-and-seek and we couldn’t find him for hours.
Conclusion (1.5 minutes):
Although I don’t know how prayer works, I certainly have a testimony that prayer works. Taking the time to compose these lists of prayers—and by extension answers to prayers—was rather eye-opening for me. I suppose when Edwin Excell wrote the words, “Count your many blessings; / name them one by one, / And it will surprise you what the Lord has done,” he really knew what he was talking about!
If you also desire to be surprised by what the Lord has done in your life, I challenge you to sit down and write out a simple list of times you’ve prayed, and if your list is shorter than you’d like, I’d encourage you to add to your list by reaching out to Heavenly Father in prayer and allowing Him to work miracles in your life, because he is there. He “knows us and hears the pleadings of our hearts,” and, as Sister Stevens once said, “He accomplishes His miracles one prayer at a time, one person at a time.”
I’m so grateful for the power of prayer in my life, for the blessing of being able to commune with my Heavenly Father, for this window into heaven that allows me to come to know Him and to more fully understand His love for me.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
My first BIG bang (5 minutes):
When I was nine years old my family moved—in the dead of winter—from Vancouver, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta, just a short 600-mile hop over the Rocky Mountains. My dad drove the moving truck and my mom followed closely behind in our mini-van.
As you might imagine, mountain passes in Canada don’t exactly qualify as ideal driving conditions in the winter. The roads are windy, narrow, and pretty much always covered in ice and snow. Under the best of circumstances winter driving is stressful, but we had the added bad luck of running into a blizzard, with no stopping point in sight. We couldn’t simply pull off to the side of the road to wait for a blizzard to end because then we’d be sitting ducks in an avalanche area and so we pressed on, slowly and cautiously making our way through the pass.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it was.
My dad slipped off the side of the road into the ditch and my mom panicked and slammed on the brakes. Our wheels froze, sending us into a tailspin. My mom tried desperately to regain control of the vehicle before throwing her hands up in the air and with genuine faith, cried, “Heavenly Father, help!”
No sooner had she said these words than the van came to a rest, in the opposite lane of traffic, inches away from the guardrail (and beyond that a sheer cliff). Knowing that her passengers were safe, my mom hopped out of the van and ran over to the moving truck to check on my dad—and my brother—who were mostly uninjured.
We thought that was miraculous enough, though we still didn’t know how we were going to get both of our vehicles back on the road. A few minutes later, however, a car drove up and a man jumped out, eager to help (it was obvious we were having trouble).
“I have a cell phone in my car!” he said. “I’ll call a tow truck!”
That might sound ordinary in today’s world, but this was back in the mid-nineties. Hardly anyone had cell phones back then! The chances of coming across someone with a cell phone—not to mention the fact that the man was able to get coverage—in a mountain pass were really pretty slim. This was nothing short of a miracle.
Miracles, however, do little to strengthen one’s testimony unless they are accompanied by faith. In fact, as is so often infamously quoted in the church, we believe that “faith precedes the miracle,” as D&C 63: 9 & 10 says, “Behold, faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe. Yea, signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God.”
If this had been my only experience hearing my mother pray, I’m not sure it would have had the same impact it did. However, my mother had already been helping me develop a pattern of prayer, so the seed of faith was already there and this ended up being an opportunity for it to grow.
In general conference in April of 1991, Sister Janette C. Hales spoke about the importance of righteous patterns. She quoted D&C 52:14, which tells us that Heavenly Father has “‘given unto [us…] pattern[s] in all things, that [w]e may not be deceived’” and urged us “to avoid deception” by watching for—and I would add cultivating—“patterns of righteousness in our lives.”
Sister Hales further said that “when we have learned the importance of prayer, the habit of daily prayer can be reproduced in the lives of others by teaching and good example,” thus perpetuating the pattern of righteousness. I will forever be grateful to my mother for cultivating a pattern of prayer in our home.
Ten final times I’ve prayed (0.5 minutes):
To be a good mother. When I hated high school and didn’t know what to do about it. For patience. For health. For safety. For forgiveness. When I needed to make the grocery budget stretch to the end of the month. For loved ones who are going through challenges. When I needed to know how to help someone. When the world seems too scary.
Answer the phone (7.5 minutes):
When I was 18 I went to Voronezh, Russia to teach English for a semester. I knew it would be difficult, but I was surprised by how isolated I felt. My host family didn’t have internet (no one really did in Russia then) so I had to use an internet cafe to write home, which felt like stepping back in time. And though there were seven other American girls who were assigned to my same school in the same city, they all lived within walking distance or a short bus ride from the school while my host family lived across the city—a long bus ride from the school.
My host dad actually drove me to and from school for the first few days, and then my host mom rode the bus with me a couple of times, to help me figure out the system before they let me attempt the commute on my own. Finally the big day came. My host dad dropped me off in the morning, and reminded me that I was to take the bus home. “Are you prepared?” he asked me in English, a direct translation from the Russian that doesn’t quite carry over. I nodded bravely and wished him a good day and then spent the rest of the day worrying until I was sick to my stomach.
When the school day ended, all the other girls headed off together in one direction, talking and laughing, while I headed off alone, in the opposite direction—a long, lonely bus ride ahead of me.
It was winter, so it was already getting quite dark by the time I caught my bus and because I lived so far away, busses to my end of town didn’t come around very often so you could be waiting in sub-zero temperatures for quite some time the right bus would come by. So when I managed to flag down the right bus and hop on board, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I wedged myself upright between my fellow rush-hour commuters, packed into that bus like a bunch of human sardines.
“I’ve got this,” I assured myself, as I dreaded the upcoming transfer I knew I had to make. “I can totally do this every day for the next six months. This is fine.”
And then, with no scheduled stop in sight, our bus suddenly spluttered to a halt. The door opened and everyone started filing out, stopping by the doors to collect their fare in rubles. Gasping like a fish, I followed suit, holding out my hand to collect the coin I’d given the money-taker only a few minutes before.
“But...what?” I stuttered to a fellow passenger in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“The bus is broken,” they explained, and then left.
Not knowing what to do, and unsure of where, exactly, I was, I watched as everyone else filtered away, this way and that. Soon I was completely alone, standing in the cold and the dark, on a dirty snowbank by the side of the road, in a foreign country, whose language I was barely able to communicate in. So I did the only thing I could think of doing. I prayed.
“Oh, Heavenly Father,” I whispered through my tears. “What am I even going to do?”
I received an immediate—and very clear—response: Answer. Your. Phone.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said to myself, shaking off the idea. “I don’t even have a phone.”
Although by this time I was used to having access to the internet (and thought it was so backwards that hardly anyone in Russia did) cell phones hadn’t taken off the way they have now (there were no smartphones yet). I mean, I had friends who had pagers in high school but I didn’t know anyone with a cell phone.
But there was that thought again: Answer. Your. Phone.
“That’s right!” I remembered. My host mom had slipped me her cell phone that morning. I did have a phone. But, of course, I hadn’t thought to use it.
I opened my bag and there it was, its tiny screen lighting up green with each silent ring.
I answered it.
“Miss Nancy!” my host dad’s voice boomed cheerfully. “We decided to pick you up. Where are you?”
“I don’t know!” I cried. “The bus broke and they made us get off...and…”
“Pick a direction,” my host dad instructed. “Walk until you see a bus stop. Tell me the name.”
So I did. I walked along that icy, dark, deserted road, feeling much less alone, until I got to a bus stop (that I didn’t recognize) and I told my host dad the name.
“We will be there in ten minutes,” my host dad said.
To this day, I’m not sure why they thought they decided to pick me up rather than have me take the bus, but whether or not they know it, I’m convinced they were following a prompting from the spirit, directly answering my prayer. This experience taught me just how very aware my Heavenly Father is of me, that whether you are a 14-year-old boy praying in a grove of trees in Palmyra, New York, or an 18-year-old girl praying on a snow bank in Voronezh, Russia, Heavenly Father knows and cares for you.
Sister Elaine S. Dalton once testified that though “you may not have heard the Lord call you by name, ...He knows each one of you and He knows your name.” She then went on to quote Elder Neal A. Maxwell who said: “I testify to you that God has known you individually … for a long, long time (see D&C 93:23). He has loved you for a long, long time. He not only knows the names of all the stars (see Ps. 147:4; Isa. 40:26); He knows your names and all your heartaches and your joys!”