Thankful Prayers

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Last Sunday I had the prompting that all personal and family prayers (other than blessings on food) for everyone in the home should be nothing but expressions of gratitude. For one week we would not ask for anything in prayers and instead just focus on the blessings we receive. It’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve all been able to reflect more on things we are grateful for. It seems like the children have bickered less – not that they ever do much but occasionally they’ll bug one another – and that our home has been more peaceful.

I urge you to try the same – take a week and only express gratitude in your prayers. The Lord will show unto you the many tender mercies which He bestows upon you continually.

Image by MTSOFan on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

Life-changing Prayers

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In my opinion, one of the most impactful of all the talks at the April 2014 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Pres. Henry B. Eyring’s talk given during the priesthood session: “The Priesthood Man.”

In particular there is one paragraph that I believe to be life-changing:

“We all pray, but the priesthood holder you want to be prays often and with real intent. In the evening you will get on your knees and thank God for the blessings of the day. You will thank Him for parents, for teachers, and for great examples to follow. You will describe in your prayers specifically who has blessed your life and how, during that day. That will take more than a few minutes and more than a little thought. It will surprise you and change you.” (Eyring, Henry B. (2014). The Priesthood Man).

Ever since I re-read this talk, I’ve taken his counsel to heart. Specifically, I “describe in your prayers specifically who has blessed your life and how, during that day.” This requires me to be more mindful throughout the day of how and who does something for me. The blessings can be as little as a smile or holding an elevator door or helping me with a task. The blessings can be a hug from a child or a spouse or a kind word said. Modifying my prayers to include this level of specificity helps me be more mindful of small and large acts of service around me and particularly ones done for me. Trying to mention names has also been beneficial. I’ve never been particularly good at remembering names (I once even introduced myself by the wrong name but that’s a story for a different time) so this counsel from Pres. Eyring provides encouragement for me to go out of my way to try and learn, remember, and later recall someone’s name.

The end result is that I get to express gratitude for specific acts of kindness or service. To do so requires me to be more grateful and watchful throughout the day. Our Father notices falling sparrows so we can certainly notice a held door or a warm smile. Searching and expressing gratitude for acts of kindness and service encourages me to go out of my way to do kind things for others. I’m grateful for the teachings of living prophets that help me become a better man.

The Truth of the Book of Mormon

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As he was completing the Book of Mormon Moroni wrote the following exhortation:

“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. And whatsoever thing is good is just and true; wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is. And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God; for he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men, the same today and tomorrow, and forever.” (Moroni 10:3-7).

Whether or not the Book of Mormon is true is not the question. The question is whether or not we are willing to do what it takes to discover the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. If we pray and ask sincerely, really wanting the answer and with openness to the Holy Ghost, we will know that the Book of Mormon is true. We will never receive the answer that the Book of Mormon is not true. I was once summarily dismissed by someone while I was a full-time missionary when she said that she had prayed about the Book of Mormon and had received witness that it was not true. The fact of the matter is that that is not possible, as audacious as that might sound (but it’s only as audacious as stating that Jesus is the only Way and path to salvation). God will never provide witness that the Book of Mormon is not true.

In other words, the Book of Mormon is True. It’s Truth is independent from us. Our opinions or beliefs or thoughts about its truthfulness do not change its nature, which is Truth. The Book of Mormon is not on trial, we are. It is thus imperative that we deny not the power of God and deny not His word. We can deny His word simply by choosing never to ask about its truth. Many times people make decisions in life by simply choosing not to choose. Choosing never to honestly seek for a confirmation of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is denying the power of God by choosing to remain in ignorance. Being ignorant of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon does not mean the Book of Mormon is not true, it just means one is ignorant and ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it is a willful ignorance.

Unexpected Answers and Examples

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Sometimes the Lord answers prayers in unexpected ways. I started feeling ill last night, I felt ill this morning. I knew that today was supposed to be a busy day (with other people having to scramble around if I was not at work) so I did not feel like I should take a sick day. Instead, I prayed to feel better and to have strength to get through the day. I showed up at work and the patient I was supposed to work with did not show up (it turns out that the individual called to cancel the appointment yesterday but no one got the message). I saw this as the unexpected answer to my prayer. I wasn’t healed and I might not even have been physically strengthened in this illness, but circumstances changed that made the day bearable. Sometimes we are strengthened in our burdens and sometimes the burdens go away.

The Lord always answers our heartfelt prayers but we might miss those answers if we are not paying attention.

As an addendum on the topic of prayers – this morning I was glad to catch my oldest daughter saying her morning prayer after she caught me saying mine. This experience reminded me of a story Pres. Monson told in the October 2007 General Conference:

“We can teach the importance of prayer to our children and grandchildren both by word and by example. I share with you a lesson in teaching by example as described in a mother’s letter to me relating to prayer. ‘Dear President Monson: Sometimes I wonder if I make a difference in my children’s lives. Especially as a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet, I sometimes come home to confusion, but I never give up hope.’

“Her letter continues as she describes how she and her children were watching general conference, where I was speaking about prayer. Her son made the comment, ‘Mother, you’ve already taught us that.’ She asked, ‘What do you mean?’ Her son replied, ‘Well, you’ve taught us to pray and showed us how, but the other night I came to your room to ask something and found you on your knees praying to Heavenly Father. If He’s important to you, He’ll be important to me.’ The letter concluded, ‘I guess you never know what kind of influence you’ll be until a child observes you doing yourself what you have tried to teach him to do.'” (Monson, Three Goals to Guide You, October 2007).

We need to be mindful of God’s blessings and mindful of our examples to others. Sometimes answers and examples come when and how we least expect them.

2012 Mutual Theme – Arise and Shine Forth

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The theme for Mutual (Young Men and Young Women weekly activities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) this coming year comes from the Doctrine and Covenants. The Lord told Joseph Smith: “Arise and shine forth, that thy light may be a standard for the nations” (D&C 115:5). In the following brief video, Elder L. Tom Perry introduces the Mutual Theme for the year:

“Arise” can be applied in many ways but the most important is to pray day and night and then arise and go forth unto the temple. “Shine forth” means being a good example to others – those within and without the church. It means to encourage others to read the scriptures daily.

The Church put together a nice music video with the theme song for the year – Arise. Pay attention to the lyrics, they’re inspirational. For the lyrics I tried to include all the parts when possible. Lyrics of background singers are in parentheses ().

We are the voices.
We are the rising sun.
We are the children.
Last of the fearless,
We are the light and love
Shining in darkness.

Reaching out to all places,
Calling out to all nations.
If your heart is changing
Now your chance has come.

Arise, arise, arise!
Arise, arise, arise!

We are all travelers
Looking to the sky
Destined for glory.
Here on this journey
We are all sure to find
Those who are wandering
And show the way.

Reaching out to all places,
Calling out to all nations
(Arise, arise)
There’s promise on the horizon
Now’s your time to
Shine!

Arise, arise, arise!
Arise, arise, arise!
Arise, arise, arise!

Praying day and night
We will all kneel down.
Raise our voices
Up!
If we humble ourselves,
We’ll be lifted!

Arise, arise, arise, arise, arise, arise, arise!
(Arise, arise!)
(Arise)
Arise and bring in the new day!
Arise and bring in the new day!
(Arise)

Reachin’ out to all places (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Calling out to all nations! (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Now’s your time to shine! (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Now’s your time to shine! (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Now’s your time to shine! (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Now’s you time to
Shine! (arise)

Arise, arise, arise! (arise)
(Now’s your time to shine!)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Arise, arise, arise! (arise)
(Now’s your time to shine!)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)
Arise, arise, arise! (arise)
(Arise and bring in the new day!)

You can download a PDF of the piano/voice sheet music for Arise from the LDS Youth website. The Church has many other resources available for the youth and youth leaders at the LDS Youth website. I’ve enjoyed the videos and music (including many of the now classic Seminary video songs). Take time to navigate the website and learn what the Lord hopes for the youth and for all of us, for we were all young (or still are) at some point.

Are All the Answers in the Scriptures?

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While listening to a talk in church this morning something a speaker said reminded me of something I had been taught in my youth. This is something I was taught in church or seminary that is not true. The speaker today did not teach this but something she said reminded me of this false teaching. What is this great falsehood? All answers to our questions are found in the scriptures. Sometimes this was softened with a “most answers” instead of “all answers” but while the sentiment is good, there is a lurking untruth at the core of this teaching. Occasionally I had teachers who got it right though – they said that the answers might not be in the scriptures, the scriptures will tell us how to find the answers. That is the truth, not that the answers are all in the scriptures.

We have living prophets and the gift of the Holy Ghost precisely because all the answers are not in the scriptures. Joseph Smith read the Bible but had a question that could not be answered by the scriptures – “which of all the churches was right?” What he did find in the scriptures is how he could get an answer – ask God in prayer. The scriptures guided Joseph to his answer but God provided the answer. That is how it should be in our own lives – we seek knowledge from the scriptures but guidance best comes from the living prophets and the Holy Ghost.

Knowing that the scriptures do not, in fact, have all the answer does not diminish the importance of them; to the contrary, it raises their importance as a source of direction but the scriptures are given greater power by the prophets and by the Spirit. The scriptures were never meant to be a closed canon of the summation of God’s teachings for us. Personal revelation and ongoing revelation is vital in our lives.

Use Not Vain Repetitions

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In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior said, “But when ye pray, use not vain  repetitions, as the  heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matt. 6: 7).

This is a verse that was much discussed back in my seminary days. Maybe I am just remembering wrong but I remember the general consensus was that this meant saying the same things over and over in prayers and maybe without sincere intent. While I think this is a valid view of what the Savior meant, I believe it is not entirely correct.

So what are vain repetitions? If it is not saying and asking for the same things all the time in prayers, what are vain repetitions?

Elder Oaks provided one explanation:

“Literary excellence is not our desire. We do not advocate flowery and wordy prayers. We wish to follow the Savior’s teaching, ‘When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking’ (Matt. 6:7; see also 3 Ne. 13:7). Our prayers should be simple, direct, and sincere.

“We are especially anxious that our position on special language in prayers not cause some to be reluctant to pray in our Church meetings or in other settings where their prayers are heard. We have particular concern for converts and others who have not yet had experience in using these words.

“I am sure that our Heavenly Father, who loves all of His children, hears and answers all prayers, however phrased. If He is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their wording.” (New Era, Jan. 2006).

Elder Oaks equated vain repetitions in prayer as the opposite of “simple, direct, and sincere.” In other words, saying prayers that feed our vanity. These are prayers that we give in order to impress other people with the ‘power’ and ‘beauty’ of our prayers. They are prayers where our reward is the accolades of other people rather than the Spirit of God. The other part of Elder Oaks’ explanation of vain repetitions was insincerity. I will return to this topic later.

When people do things to be seen and recognized by other people, especially in prayer, they are exhibiting their pride.

We read in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2). Such is the vanity of those who pray pridefully.

There is another type of vanity. This is what we are commanded not to do – e.g., we “should not take the name of the Lord [our] God in vain” (2 Ne. 26:32). This vanity is two-fold. On one hand it means with disrespect but on the other hand it means without reward or power or result. If the Lord’s name is used in vain, it could be ‘swearing’ or it could be an attempt at an unauthorized use of His name (e.g., trying to perform priesthood ordinances without priesthood authority). This type of vanity goes well beyond pride or lack of sincerity but is a part of my final point on this topic. Now I want to return to sincerity in order to transition to my final point.

King Claudius, the villain of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, at one point retires to a chapel to pray. He offers what sounds like a repentant prayer, or at least the struggling towards one.

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect….
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.

It sounds like he is trying to repent but the king soon reveals his lack of sincerity.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go (Hamlet, Act III, Scene III).

Again, the king was honest enough to recognize his lack of sincerity but his prayer was in vain. He was not sincere. His repentance was in vain.

Now my final point is this: what the Lord means is to not keep asking for things that are vain. Vain meaning prideful but vain meaning it won’t happen. This could be because what we are asking for is impossible, even for God (at least not possible without destroying His plan for us). Our prayers might be vain when we ask without sincerity like Hamlet’s uncle / step-father. Our prayers might be vain when we keep asking God for something about which He already told us “no.” These types of prayers could go like this, “Please give me one million dollars so I can buy a ski boat.” Then this prayer is repeated over and over. That might seem laughable but it only differs in degrees from the vain repetitions found in prayers we sometimes offer.

I’m not talking about repetitious prayers. There are things that we need to offer our thanks for regularly and things for which we should ask regularly. In the church we have a set, ritualistic sacrament prayer. The Lord didn’t preach against repetitious prayers, He spoke against vain repetitions. There are times when we are asked to ‘weary’ (i.e., always to pray and not faint) the Lord in prayer (see the parable of the unjust judge [or, persistent widow] in Luke 18:1-8).

Prayer is about communicating with our Heavenly Father. As we read accounts of Jesus’ prayers, we see the great intensity and sincerity and faith that He had in His supplications. Jesus gave simple but powerful prayers. Our prayers should emulate His prayers.

Vain repetitions in prayers could mean a number of things. I think the key though is that vain prayers are ones done without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. They are ones devoid of intent. They might be edifices to our pride, to be gazed upon in wonder by humankind, but these types of prayers are not real prayers; we have our reward and what an effervescent reward it is! It is only in the sincere, honest, inspired prayers that we can better know God and in turn, know His will for us.

Two Brothers – A Mormon Messages Video for Youth

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As someone who is training as a clinical psychologist (although I plan on an academic and research career), the following video resonated with me. The gospel of Jesus Christ has great power; that power comes from Christ – from His Priesthood and His Atonement. This video gives a perfect example of how through faith, repentance, and much prayer our weaknesses can become strengths. I am not saying that mental health issues should be tackled only by faith and prayer. Competent mental health professionals can provide necessary treatment for problems. Just as we should rely on the best medical care we can acquire – in addition to relying on faith in Christ – when we have physical illness, so should we seek out professional help when necessary for mental health issues. However, many mental health issues can be solved by faith in Christ and by His Atonement through repentance.

One Word

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On Sunday in our Teacher’s quorum we talked about prayer. One point I tried to teach our Teachers is that God really does answer our prayers. The topic of prayer and answers to prayers leads naturally, at least for me and especially when teaching 14-15 year old boys, to the prophet Joseph Smith.

When Joseph was a preteen he starting thinking about the universe and the nature of God. He started seeking for truth. As he entered his teenage years he became surrounded by tumultuous teachings and preachings. A religious revival was underway – Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists were all preaching their gospels and vying for converts. Each minister had the same Bible (more or less) and each read the same verses but there was little agreement of key doctrines of the gospel (there still is little agreement). Joseph Smith was confused by all the controversy. If there was one Bible and one God, should not there be one gospel?

In order to sort out his confusion, Joseph did what the faithful have done throughout history – he sought the Lord in prayer. Joseph went into a grove of trees near to his home and knelt down in humble prayer. Joseph wanted to pray aloud, something he had not done before. But as soon as he started to pray he was attacked by a dark being; Satan himself tried to snuff the life out of the boy Joseph. This was one prayer Satan did not want uttered. Joseph felt the will to live flowing out of him; he started to despair but continued to pray in his heart. Then the darkness was gone and Joseph saw a light that was brighter than the sun. When this light rested upon him, Joseph saw two Beings – radiant, glorious, perfect Beings. Then came what was one of the most powerful words spoken in this dispensation – “Joseph” said one of the Beings.

The particular word “Joseph” was not what was powerful, the implications of the word were. With this simple word, Joseph’s name, the boy learned a powerful lesson, a lesson we all can learn. God loved Joseph Smith; God knew him. God loves each of us; He knows each of us by name. We are not faceless entities created to worship the Almighty God (although we should!), we are His children. He sees us with his perfect love. That is what the utterance of Joseph’s name taught – that God knows us; He hears our prayers and He answers them. Our prayers will likely never be answered in a similar manner as Joseph’s but our sincere prayers are heard and answered.

That is the lesson I wanted my Teachers to learn – they are loved of God. He knows each of their names and cares about their lives. Joseph Smith was a special person, he was called to be the Lord’s prophet but each of us are special too – we are all sons and daughters of God. While Joseph’s experience was powerful, each of us can know with the same power – the power of the Holy Ghost – of God’s love for us.

A Voice of Thunder – Part 2

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Now I will return to D&C; 110: “[We heard] the voice of Jehovah, saying: I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father.” Jesus said that He is the first and last; He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. What all these titles mean is that Jesus is the power behind the plan of salvation. He created the earth and all life upon it. Because of Jesus Christ are we able to return to God again. Abinadi taught that Jehovah Himself would come down and atone for our sins: “For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things? Have they not said that God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth? Yea, and have they not said also that he should bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, and that he, himself, should be oppressed and afflicted?” (Mosiah 13:33-35).

It is clear from these verses that Jesus is Jehovah – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the Creator. He is God. This does not mean that He is the same entity as His Father but Jesus is one with Heavenly Father in power and in glory. They are exactly alike in personality and power. Jesus is God because the Father declared Him so and gave Jesus the power and authority to act in His name. It is important to note that we worship God, usually in the name of Christ. We pray to Heavenly Father, not Jesus Christ. However, if we were in Christ’s presence like the Nephites were when Jesus appeared to them following His resurrection, it would not be inappropriate to pray to Jesus Christ. In 3 Nephi we read:

“15 And it came to pass that while the angels were ministering unto the disciples, behold, Jesus came and stood in the midst and ministered unto them.
  16 And it came to pass that he spake unto the multitude, and commanded them that they should kneel down again upon the earth, and also that his disciples should kneel down upon the earth.
  17 And it came to pass that when they had all knelt down upon the earth, he commanded his disciples that they should pray.
  18 And behold, they began to pray; and they did pray unto Jesus, calling him their Lord and their God.
  19 And it came to pass that Jesus departed out of the midst of them, and went a little way off from them and bowed himself to the earth, and he said:
  20 Father, I thank thee that thou hast given the Holy Ghost unto these whom I have chosen; and it is because of their belief in me that I have chosen them out of the world.
  21 Father, I pray thee that thou wilt give the Holy Ghost unto all them that shall believe in their words.
  22 Father, thou hast given them the Holy Ghost because they believe in me; and thou seest that they believe in me because thou hearest them, and they pray unto me; and they pray unto me because I am with them.
  23 And now Father, I pray unto thee for them, and also for all those who shall believe on their words, that they may believe in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one.” (3 Nephi 19:15-23).

The Nephites prayed to Jesus because He was there with them. While they did so, Jesus went and prayed to the Father for them, thanking Him for their faith. Jesus took no glory upon Himself in this case, He prayed to God and explained that the people praying to Him (Jesus) was a manifestation of their faith in Him. In any case, this is an exception. We are commanded to pray to God in the name of His son Jesus Christ. We do not pray to Jesus (but should He ever be here with us, it would not be wrong to do so).

I do not think any of us can really imagine what it would be like to see and hear the Savior. We can get tastes of the experience in the temple or whenever we feel the Spirit strongly but to actually be in Christ’s physical presence – what an experience that would be! We all lived with Him before this life so I think – assuming we are cleansed from sin – that it would be comfortable; it’s something we’ve experienced before, even if we do not remember it, and so experiencing His presence again could be comfortable but overwhelming, at least initially. I think of the Nephites who met and talked with the Savior after His resurrection – what a powerful experience! It was so powerful that generations of people passed away before wickedness took hold of the people. Oh, to stand in the presence of Jesus Christ!

To close I’ll quote from parts of an old English hymn with words by John Cennick that were modified by Charles Wesley. Its verbiage is not strictly in line with traditional LDS wording but I love the hopeful, expectant pleading of the hymn:

“Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

“Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see….

“The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

“Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!” (Source).

Some day all will hear the powerful voice of the Son of God. Some day all will hear the voice of the Father. We will return to their presence, either to stay or to be sent somewhere else. To stand in the presence of the Lord and to hear His voice and see His face is something that can give hope to us as we hike through the dusty canyons of our lives to reach the fountain of living waters.