True Prayer: a Collaborative Conversation
"O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee." (Helaman 11:4).
When Nephi, son of Helaman, asked the Lord to send a famine upon the land, his purpose was redemptive, not punitive. He didn't want the people punished for rejecting him, for rejecting the Lord, or even for killing each other. Rather, he hoped that sufficient hunger would distract them from their bloodlust. A famine might soften their hearts to the point that they could remember the Lord and turn to Him.
He was right. It took three years and the deaths of many thousands (probably many of them innocent children), but the famine both put an end to a civil war and ultimately, brought the people to repentance.
What I wonder is, what should others of the faithful have been praying during those three years while many thousands of innocents were starving to death alongside their rebellious leaders? Should they have been praying for the rain that was so desperately needed? For their own stores to miraculously outlast the dearth? For the Lord to hedge up the way of exploiters who would have been trying to fill their own bellies by taking the food of others? For the workers of secret combinations to be destroyed?
I wonder because lately, I've struggled to pray with faith in the face of wildfires and whirlwinds, disasters and destructions that seem to be a fulfillment of prophecy. Especially so because the prophesies suggest these hardships are being poured out for a redemptive purpose. And that they will continue to be poured out until Jesus comes again.
It seems that in order to know how to pray at such times, I need a better understanding of the purpose of prayer. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16), but what if righteous people are fervently praying for less-than-ideal things? The question feels particularly important to me because recently, my dad suffered a massive stroke. In a world of social media, the news spread quickly and my family was buoyed up by hundreds of messages from loved ones near and far, letting us know they were praying for him. The difficulty was, as circumstances unfolded, I began to wonder whether praying for his life to be spared might be doing him a disservice.
Dad was prepared to die. He had been carefully preparing for years, to the point of digitizing his journals and sending a personalized account of his faith journey to every one of his descendants. He was eager to serve and frustrated with the limitations of an aging body. If it was time for him to graduate to a sphere where his service could be more effectual, prayers for his life would be counterproductive. Or would they? Could the fervent prayers of well-wishers actually keep him here if it was his time to go?
3 Nephi 17 seems to suggest the possibility that they could. It recounts how the Lord told a faithful multitude that it was time for Him to go. He had other things to teach them that they weren't yet ready to hear, so He invited them to go to their homes, to ponder on what He'd taught them already, and to prepare their minds for the morrow. But the people couldn't bear to see Him leave and gazed at him with such longing that, filled with compassion for them, He changed His plans. Not only did He tarry, but He healed all their afflicted, blessed their children, brought down a host of angels to minister to them, and prayed things that could not be written.
It strikes me that the outcome of the Lord's change of plans was glorious. Had the people simply, obediently gone to their homes without giving Him the beseeching looks that prompted His staying, I don't imagine things would have been better. Rather, might this spontaneous and unparalleled spiritual outpouring have been missed or, at best, delayed?
I think about my dad, who survived his stroke and then languished in a dark night of the soul, feeling useless, a drain on resources, without any purpose and spiritually bereft. Before his stroke, I don't think Dad ever met a challenge he wasn't prepared to overcome by dint of faith, hard work and/or physical exercise. His go-to solution anytime he felt sick was to go for a run. But with his stroke, hard work and physical exercise became impossible for a time and something about either the damage to his brain or his medications left him feeling like there was a physical wall between him and God. The spiritual separation, he said, was worse than the physical pain and he'd rated his physical pain at 10/10. When his physio team started working with him on very basic tasks, like learning to squeeze a ball with his right hand, he felt no motivation. He just wanted to be done and couldn't even bring himself to eat. Meanwhile, the prayers continued. The day after the first post-stroke Fast Sunday, Dad found the motivation to eat. The next day, he was able to work hard in physio and to start feeling hope. Within the week, he was calling physio "fun." He had goals and he was looking forward to them with joy.
I begin to think that it is possible that prayers kept Dad here, even though he was ready to go. And if so, I begin to think that there is glorious, eternal purpose in it. Dad is an inspiration to all of us right now, and more reasons for his remaining continue to unfold. And when, at last, he does leave this life to continue his ministry in the Spirit World, how much more compassionate will he be, given his recent experience? A poem written years ago, when another loved one lingered in a helpless state, becomes even more meaningful to me now.
The stalwart back is feeble now,
The steady knees buckle and bow,
The heart is failing,
Lungs give meagre breath.
Thy earthly ministry is done,
Commission's filled, thy crown is won,
So why do I
Delay release of death?
When thy soul longs to serve again,
This helplessness is bitter pain.
The burden on the angels
That attend thee tastes like gall.
But soon, attendant thou wilt be
To stalwart souls who followed Me
To vital earthly stations
Turned toxic by the Fall.
Bereft of backbone, feeble-kneed,
In captive dark, they boldly plead
And lift unto Mine ears
And so I fit thee for their care
To, patient, lift them from despair,
How helpless feels.
So, if earnest prayers on my dad's behalf brought about an altering of an earlier timetable, I can be grateful because the ultimate fruit is good. At the same time, it challenges my understanding of prayer. I've previously imagined that the Lord's will about any given matter was static. For example, that each of us had an appointed time to go and that prayer couldn't change that. I figured we needed to pray in order to bring our will in line with God's. Prayer, I thought, unlocks doors on an appointed path; the path doesn't change -- only our ability to follow it does.
But earlier this month, I attended a women's retreat offered by Leading Saints, where I began to learn about collaborative versus hierarchal leadership. The latter form of leadership is mostly vertical, like a step pyramid. You start at the bottom, with no leadership opportunities, and as you prove yourself by working hard to accomplish the work that is set out for you from above, you get promoted up the steps, becoming responsible to direct the work of more and more people. Individually, the people at the bottom have minuscule impact on the venture, which tends to dampen their enthusiasm and their loyalty. By contrast, collaborative leadership is mostly horizontal, like a round table. Everyone sits at the table and, while the leader directs the discussion, everybody contributes their ideas. The leader may, from a wealth of wisdom and experience, know the most efficient approach to a given problem, but elicits ideas from those who are actually grappling with the issue. The collaborative leader may even embrace a less-efficient solution that's the result of the synergistic thinking of the group, because a) they will be able to apply it with greater vision and enthusiasm if they had a part in creating it, and b) doing so grows the people at the table in addition to solving the venture's problems.
Several presenters at the retreat invited us to consider whether God is a collaborative/horizontal leader.
My mind has become flooded with sacred evidence that He is. A powerful example is the story of the Brother of Jared. When he asked the Lord what to do about the lack of light and air in the Jaredite vessels, the Lord gave instructions for letting in air. Mahonri Moriancumer applied those instructions and then came back with his continuing concern about light.
The Lord replied, "What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you". He reminded Mahonri Moriancumer that the vessels would be in His hands, "for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth." He explained that He was preparing them against the winds, the waves and the floods, and then asked once more, "Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?" (Ether 2:23-25).
If I were listening with my well-trained hierarchical ears, I would probably understand the Lord to be saying, "It's time for you to stop being afraid of the dark and just trust Me. I've prepared you against those things that would destroy you, and I, who made the winds and the waves, can take care of you in the dark. What more do you want from me?"
But the Brother of Jared was not listening with hierarchical ears. He had just had an intense 3-hour conversation with the Lord that seems to have clarified what the Lord desired by nature of a relationship. So, instead of hearing a dampening, "What more do you want?" he heard an inviting, "What ideas do you have?" Then he went and melted 16 stones out of a rock and asked the Lord to light them with His finger. As I read his prayer with my new eyes, I see him marvelling at being invited to sit at the collaborative table with Almighty God, and hoping that he hasn't misunderstood, that he isn't being too bold. Then the Lord puts forth His finger and he recoils, very much afraid that he has been too bold. Only the Lord is touching the stones, not smiting him. And then, he is invited into the presence of the Lord.
Could it be that the kind of prayer that most pleases the Lord is a collaborative conversation? Might He delight when, instead of begging Him to help me with my problem, I open my eyes to see our problem, my ears to understanding its nature and the constraining factors that apply, and my mind to seeking solutions, instead of just submitting to His directions? Isn't that what Enos did?
The Lord had told him, "Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it" (Enos 1:15). Yet, it's interesting to me that there were constraints. When Enos had prayed for the Nephites, the Lord reminded him of the covenant of the land and promised, "I will visit thy brethren according to their diligence in keeping my commandments." Then Enos had begun praying for his enemies, the Lamanites. Evidently, he wasn't just banging on the doors of heaven with the same repeated request. He was asking, listening, understanding, exploring possibilities, until at last he arrived at his solution -- that the Nephite record would be preserved, even if the Nephite civilization was destroyed, and that it would, at some future date, be brought forth to the Lamanites to bring them unto salvation.
The Lord answered, "I will grant unto thee according to thy desires, because of thy faith" (Enos 1:12).
I have understood for some time that it was possible to get into a place of such harmony with the will of God that He would promise to give us what we ask, as He did with Enos and with Nephi, son of Helaman. But I didn't understand two key elements of that potential. First, that the essence of the invitation is not so much about power as it is about collaboration. In the past, I have wondered why Nephi, who had received the power to command the elements, didn't just order that there should be rain when he felt that famine had served its purposes. Why did he spend 7 verses explaining his reasoning to the Lord and asking the Lord to hearken to him (Helaman 11:10-16) when he'd already been told that all he had to do was speak and it would be done (Helaman 10:7-10)? Now, I see Nephi's prayer to end the famine as a conversation with his Collaborator. Yes, he could just command and the Lord would honor it. But he wants to connect, to consult, and then he moves forward. This is an ever-deepening relationship.
Second, I didn't understand that the Lord wants me as a collaborator now. He's not waiting for me to get to Nephi's level of perfection. Since collaboration is an ever-deepening relationship, starting now is the best way for me to get closer to Him. There are some prerequisites. Collaboration requires a shared goal -- the venture we're on needs to be not just His or mine, but ours. That means I need His law graven on my heart (2 Nephi 8:7); I need to be willing to sacrifice whatever lesser goals would distract me; I need to be all in on the cause of Zion. In other words, I need to be fully committed to my covenants. Then I can bring Him that problem that worries me, speak, listen and repeat until we come up with a solution.
All of this brings me back to my original question: what should I pray for in the face of last-day devastations that seem to be a fulfillment of prophecy? The answer I am coming to is that I should pray for whatever I perceive as a need. And I should listen to understand the Lord's purposes and the constraints that apply, and then keep asking and listening until we arrive at the specific miracle I need to seek so that the loving hand of the Lord can be revealed in midst of all our difficulties.
Yes, we have an ocean of hardship to cross before the Saviour comes again, but we do not have to face it in darkness. That's not what the Lord wants from us. Instead, He wants us to bring our longings, our intellect, and our 16 small stones to the altar. That's how He wants us to pray. Boldly and creatively. Like collaborators.