What of the
Line upon Line Learning to Pray
Confession of a Mormon Bishop By Tom Obenchain · November 16, 2014 ldsmag.com
I am a Mormon bishop and I have a confession to make. I think I may have only just learned to pray. I know, right? How is that possible? I’m a bishop for crying out loud. I have to know how to pray. And of course I do know how, but I’ve learned to deepen my prayers and make them more meaningful and powerful. I’ve practiced for years. But I just now think I am beginning to get it right.
I learned my first lessons of prayer while gathered with my family around my parents’ bed each night. In between fidgeting and a bit of daydreaming, I managed to soak in the patterns of prayer and more importantly the heartfelt desires of my family. In turn I prayed, too, “Dear Heavenly Father, I thank Thee for this day and for my many blessings. Please help me have a good day and to have fun. . . .” As I grew, my prayers advanced to include statements like, “Help this food nourish and strengthen our bodies.” and “Help us get everything done that we need to.” Though I smile as I write this, I am not belittling these prayers.
Prayer changed in a big way for me when I was eighteen. I needed to make a decision about going on a mission. I knew two things: first, that I wanted to serve, and second, that I needed help and I needed answers. When I knelt to pray I remember facing the question of whether God was really there. At that moment I needed to know, really know. I prayed with real intent for perhaps the first time in my life. When I left my room I had learned two things: first, that God did indeed exist for he had manifested Himself to me through the Holy Ghost, and second that He is merciful, so merciful that he cared deeply for a poorly prepared prospective missionary trying to do the right thing.
As a missionary in West Germany, I began to hear more of the whisperings of the Spirit. We prayed a lot as missionaries. We woke up and prayed. We prayed before we studied, and before we left the apartment. We prayed with investigators. We prayed with members. We prayed over our meals and in the evening before bed. I drew much strength from prayer, but my prayers, I think, lacked power. Prayer had yet to lodge in my heart. But in mercy God blessed those we taught despite my lack of understanding.
While in an apartment in Rexburg, Idaho I fasted and prayed about a girl that I liked, a lot. When no clear answer came to the question of whether she was the one I should marry, I was sure I had messed the whole thing up. I feared that I didn’t really know how to pray and get answers. Later that same year in Logan, Utah, I was prompted to pray about another girl. The Spirit then taught me that my earlier frustrations with prayer and fasting had been to teach me what “no” felt like. When “yes” came, it was powerful and sure.
After Julie and I were married we prayed together about starting a family, about where to live and work. After I finished school when we were desperate for a ‘real’ job, we prayed. God taught me that fear can get in the way of answers. It took desperate times for me to listen more carefully and to hear His encouraging voice. He taught me to trust Him in new ways.
As my family and career progressed, I continued to pray, but somehow I managed to trip and fall. I remember being in a place where prayer had become a chore. I knew I needed to pray. I believed in prayer. I had experienced powerful prayer, but somehow I still found myself struggling. I was busy, stressed out, feeling like I could not live up to all of the expectations that I felt were pinned on me.
Exhausted, I would fall asleep kneeling at the bed at night. I judged myself harshly. This in turn made it harder to pray the next time. I would go days, dare I say weeks without really praying. Guilt and the fear of losing my testimony would get me on my knees, but my prayers were not what they needed to be.
I don’t remember a single solution to this crisis. I only know that I didn’t give up.
Even after long stints of shallow, distracted prayer, I would desperately approach Heavenly Father for help. I remember being confused by His patience. I remember feeling loved and understood and couldn’t quite figure out why I could possibly receive such inspiration and mercy. Now when I am tempted to mourn my mistakes, I am reminded that my wrong turns have been compensated for with divine course corrections, every swamping of my boat has been met with stilled storms and unseen, bailing hands.
Today, I am a bishop. I have prayed to know who to call as counselors. I have prayed about callings and ward members. I pray for my children and my wife and my friends. I pray for those struggling with addiction and those scared because of difficult family situations. I pray for people to come back to church and I pray for those people in such desperate need that they lack hope. On Sundays, I feel like a missionary again. I pray before I leave the house, I pray as we start bishopric meeting and then in other meetings and with each person who comes for an interview. I pray with my family. I pray with my wife and even when I catch myself falling asleep on my knees, I crawl into bed without a heavy heart, because I have finally learned God is patient and loves when his children pray, even very tired bishops.
Deepening Our Practice of Prayer
I wish I had learned more about deepening my practice of prayer earlier in my life. It is never too early to build a more meaningful connection with Heavenly Father. I’d like to share ten things that have helped me deepen my practice of prayer. I hope they will help you connect or even reconnect with Father in Heaven in more powerful ways.
Tomorrow morning, I will arise earlier than seems normal. I will express whatever is on my mind and listen for the Spirit to remind me of blessings already granted. I will ask questions and I will beg Him for help for members of my family and my ward. I will thank him for being patient while I continue to learn to pray. I confess that I think there is even more to learn about prayer. For now, however, I am content. Today, I am sure of prayer’s power. I am sure God listens and answers and counsels with His children. I look forward to my time with my Heavenly Father. I am so grateful that I have learned to call His name and listen as He, in turn, calls mine.
1 2 Nephi 32:8
2 James 1:5