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More Meaningful, Less Mechanical Prayer

OneClimbs commenter and general all-around good guy Richard Nobbe left a comment on one of my recent posts and I thought he had a host of excellent questions.

I was intrigued with the challenge of providing some of my own thoughts and takes on the aforementioned questions. So let’s begin by taking a look at some of Richard’s musings:

Anyway, so I was pondering about “Prayer” itself. What are some ways you and your audience can suggest on not only making prayers more purposeful, but also less “ROUTINE?” Sometimes as a church we focus on making sure to “have our morning prayers,” “have our evening prayers,” “have our mealtime prayers,” or whatever… I often fall into the “routine” of THINKING that, “Oh, it’s mealtime, and that means I HAVE to say a prayer.” Even if I think to myself, “It’s mealtime, I GET to say a prayer,” it still seems somewhat forced instead of being completely genuine. Maybe this has something to do with my 18 years as a Roman Catholic and being taught to pray in repetition. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’m alone among my LDS friends in saying that it’s hard to get out of the rut of routine.

Now routine can also be a good thing. It’s better to say prayers than not to say them. But sometimes I feel that even though I’m grateful for the food that is placed before me, and even though I’m grateful for the roof over my head and the clothes on my back, and even though my HEART is continually filled with prayer, sometimes I feel like I’m “forced” to do this half-hearted religious act that seems a lot more something that I “should” be doing than something that I “want” to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I usually “want” to pray. But the very thought of “this is something that is EXPECTED” sort of takes the meaning out of it for me. It’s like me surrendering my agency. I want prayer to come from ME, it’s something I can do in and of myself. It’s what’s MINE to give Heavenly Father. I don’t want that to come from compulsory means. But yet, almost like priesthood ordinances, we are commanded to pray at specific times.

And the strangest thing is that Heavenly Father gave US prayer, just like He gave us the Sabbath, not the other way around. This means that we should be benefiting greatly from prayer. I want to be completely honest and say that sometimes when I’m in a situation where there is “supposed” to be a prayer, I don’t get nearly as much out of it as when I fall on my face and surrender my soul to the Savior. Now obviously there are different levels and types of prayer, but I think the temple and the scriptures teach us that when our heart is not fully given to the savior, “we have our reward,” so to speak.

I desire to be obedient, so I pray always and in all ways. But how can I make the “supposed to” type of prayers as meaningful as the “want to” type of prayers?

I’m going to break my responses down into four categories that I will address: focus, real intent, and public prayer.

Focus

I don’t think routines are the enemy; I think that among other things, detachment, unspecified intent, and impatience are at the source of most problems with prayer.

The scriptures as well as modern leaders council us to pray quite a bit. Amulek spoke of crying unto God morning, noon, and night (Alma 34:21), but not only that, he suggested that “when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.” (Alma 34:27)

That seems like a lot of prayer so how do you pull that off?

So how does one accomplish this without feeling like they are just punching a card and getting nothing in return? After a while, every prayer sounds something like this (especially with kids):

“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this stay, we’re grateful for all our many blessings and bless this food that it will strengthen and nourish our bodies and minds and do us the good that we need, and bless all the sick people that they will get better nameJeesCrise, amen.”

My personal experience with prayer is more effectual when it is relevant rather than just rattling off stock cliches in “build-a-prayer (TM)” fashion. One suggestion is to focus on the now.

Often we just jump right in and start a conversation (prayer) without even considering what is coming out of our minds and mouths so we fill the space with stock cliches. When we do this, prayer begins to feel inconvenient, repetitive, routine, and forced. One solution I have found is taking some time, even a small moment to connect with the present, to consider my situation and that of those around me. Every day is different with it’s own needs, challenges, and joys; by focusing on the now, you will never be left without a purpose in your prayer.

The Bible Dictionary makes this important statement about prayer:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship.

Think about prayer as a communion with another soul, a conversation, for that is what it is supposed to be isn’t it? This is God with whom you are speaking, so how does your attitude reflect that fact? What questions would you be asking and how would you be positioned if he were right there next to you? Elder Russell M. Nelson once said, “We often kneel to pray; we may stand or be seated. Physical position is less important than is spiritual submission to God.” (Conference Report, April 2003)

If you still struggle with focus, I recommend the following posts which have some ideas along this line:

The Wise Man on the Mountain

How Prayer, Creation, Returning and Reporting Can Make Life Awesome

Real Intent

How do we have real intent in prayer? Moroni 10:4 talks about praying “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ” but what does that mean and how do we get there?

There’s a verse in 3 Nephi where Jesus is praying with his disciples and some interesting things happen.

And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus prayed unto the Father, he came unto his disciples, and behold, they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him; and they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire. (3 Nephi 19:24)

They didn’t multiply words, and I think often we try to make a prayer longer by including everything and covering every possible scenario, situation, and person in the world. The scripture says that it was given unto them what they should pray, but I don’t that means that they were just provided a script that they ‘read’ from so to speak.

I believe that as their minds communed with the minds of Christ and God, they became conscientious of what was really important and were thus filled with desire.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a character named Claudius states:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

If our intent is to simply “say” a prayer then that’s all that will happen, our words will fall from our lips and land on the floor in front of us. To pray involves connecting with what is real and what is really important. This shifts the intent from the act of prayer to the intended reason for the prayer.

One thing that might help is to practice recording some of your prayers or realizing the power of others hearing you pray in their behalf:

The Lost Practice of Recording Prayers

Our Earnest Prayers in Their Behalf

Public Prayer

Ezra Taft Benson said one of my favorite lines concerning public prayer:

Our public prayers need not be everlasting to be immortal. We are advised not to multiply many words (3 Nephi 19:24) and to avoid vain repetitions (Matthew 6:7). An invocation should set the spiritual tone of the meeting, and the benediction should leave the people on a high spiritual plane, because they have been present when one has talked with God. It is the feeling rather than the length which determines a good public prayer.” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 427.)

Whether you are called upon or volunteer to pray in a group setting, think about what you are doing, where you are, and who is around you. Detachment destroys intent, so connecting with the now is critical.

Public prayers may be those offered at church, in the home, or some other setting where a vocalized prayer is offered by one acting as the mouthpiece for a group. This is not only a great honor but a sacred privilege. Your focus and intent can help bind the minds of the group together into a central, effectual purpose.

Prayer at church

I’ll often hear prayers at church that offer generalized petitions that ask for church leaders, the military, government officials, the missionaries and other groups to be “blessed.” What does such a prayer hope to accomplish? By shifting the responsibility to God to “bless” in some unspecified way an entire group of people, how are we to even know when such a prayer is answered? If we cannot know if a prayer has been answered then how can we express our gratitude to God for answering?

I’m not saying it’s bad to pray for groups, but what if our prayers in church were directed more toward the immediate needs of the moment and the people involved there? Are you preparing to partake of the sacrament? How can focusing on that central part of the Sabbath day alter your intent? Are there people suffering in the congregation that need our attention?

There is no template or solution I can provide for this, it is something we each need to think about and ponder on our own.

Prayer at dinner time

Prayer at meal time can be challenging because you are hungry, your desire is for your food, and it is very hard to focus on anything else. I don’t think there is anything wrong at all with a meal time prayer being focused on the meal itself. You may offer many prayers around meal time and I think detachment often happens there.

Typically, I keep my meal time prayer focused on the meal. Instead of asking God to “bless” the food, I give thanks for it. I don’t need to ask for the food to “strengthen and nourish” me if I’m eating healthy food. It is even more bizarre to ask God to bless dessert to strengthen, nourish, and “do you the good you need.”

If there are any other immediate needs such as anything that might follow dinner but before a nightly family prayer then I will include that as well, otherwise I try to stay focused on why we are gathered at that moment. Again, I’m just sharing personal experiences and not trying to say that one way is right or wrong.

Other than ordinances, there is no mandated language or patterns to use in our daily prayer. You don’t need to feel obligated to ‘say’ specific cliches or phrases. I think it is actually refreshing to hear people avoid the cliches and pray with real intent and an appropriate purpose.

Family prayer

There is no mandated form or position of prayer among the LDS people. Typically head down, arms folded, and eyes closed is a culturally acceptable form of reverence. I have no problem adhering to such a thing as to not be distracting to my fellow worshipers.

In our home, we have experimented with different kinds of group prayer. When I was a single adult, the Houston Temple president did an exercise with us in a chapel devotional at a single adult conference. He was talking about group prayer and had several individuals come forward and hold hands in a circle. He told one of them to offer the prayer and asked the others to repeat the words of the one offering the prayer.

He pointed out how holding hands helped them feel connected and in repeating the words of the prayer, they were all involved as a group effort. His point was that every group prayer should convey that level of intimacy. Though we may not be holding hands or repeating the words out loud, we should feel the connections between each other and be mentally engaged in the words spoken by the mouthpiece.

Years later, I was kneeling around a bed with a few of my small daughters and they were finding it very hard to focus during the prayer. So I told them all to hold hands. I asked one of the younger ones to pray and that we would repeat her words. I was astounded at the sincerity and relevance that came out of the mouth of a child as they seemed to respect the weight of responsibility given to them

We dubbed this our “Family Prayer Circle.” We don’t do it all the time, but if people are having a tough time focusing, or perhaps on the Sabbath or other important time, we will pray in this manner and find it very meaningful.

We’ve done a few alterations to the Family Prayer Circle. In another form, one person will begin the prayer and when they are finished with their words, they will squeeze the hand of the person on their right to pass their turn. Each person will offer their own words and the last person will close.

I’m sure there are many ways to make family prayer more meaningful and connecting. Interestingly, when we pray in this manner, the children use far less cliches.

Find out what works for you and your family.

In the name of Jesus Christ

We typically close virtually every prayer with the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen” because we are commanded to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. But is that what it means to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, just to say those words at the end of a prayer?

These lines from the Bible Dictionary definition provides some insights:

We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ—when His words abide in us (John 15:7). We then ask for things it is possible for God to grant. Many prayers remain unanswered because they are not in Christ’s name at all; they in no way represent His mind but spring out of the selfishness of man’s heart.

I could probably go on for at least an hour about the elements of these words, but I don’t have time to write a literal novel here. Suffice it to say that we must learn to know the mind of Christ.

The Lectures on Faith teach that this mind is the Holy Spirit and I wrote about it here:

…And Say Unto You, ‘Receive the Mind of God’

Praying in the name of Christ is more than just invoking his name, it is merging our intent with his. Praying in the name of Christ might be better said as praying with the intent of Christ. If we desire to know the intent of Christ we must come to know him. To begin we read scripture, we learn of him by what has been written, we also seek wisdom from his servants today who also know him.

Then as we put into practice his ways and begin to pattern our lives after him, we receive his Spirit (or his Mind) to abide in us. We then begin to gradually see through his eyes and can pray with his intent. It is then that our prayers no longer spring from our own selfishness desires but a higher purpose graced with wisdom.

Well, there you have it, Richard. I hope that some of your points were addressed and maybe there might be a few new thoughts that can help you in your desire to have more meaningful and less mechanical prayer.