Prayer: A Quick Autobiography

I remember most the loneliness of the weeklong scout camp some time during one of those long summers between junior high grades. I didn’t have a close friend in the group which means, as a desperately shy kid, I trusted no one. I did not trust the scout leaders in charge of this event. Well, I trusted they wouldn’t kill us, but felt like I was always on the edge of angering or frustrating them in some way. I especially did not trust my parents, who while they did not come on this trip, had no idea how to make sure I was properly prepared for a week long trip in the woods. I did not trust myself to say or do the right things to win the respect or friendship of the other boys on the trip. Given all of this, I determined to make myself as small and unnoticed as possible.

I have passing memories of that week in the woods. I remember getting my own tent and taking some comfort in having control of that little space. I was (and still am) a bit of a weakling. I remember attempts on a lake on a row boat, trying to manipulate the oars to move across the water. I remember the other junior high boys’ impatience with my unsteady efforts. I remember in my chore rotations, my turn to help wash the dishes, accidentally cutting a towel while trying to dry a knife and hearing the leader ask accusingly, “didn’t your parents teach you how to wash dishes?” No they didn’t actually, feeling horrified that I had been found out, shrinking a little more.

I remember working on our Wilderness Survival badge requiring each boy to build a shelter in the woods using only found material, then sleeping in it overnight. No way did I trust myself with this task. I found a couple of other boy I could hitch myself with, doing whatever they wanted me to. I do not remember anything about the night. I do remember another kid, that next morning, pulling himself out of a little cave he made by covering a couple of down logs with sticks. I remember feeling really grateful I wasn’t that kid.

What I remember most of all, though, was a lost shovel. The leaders called on all the boys to help find it. I felt responsible, probably the culprit. I prayed desperately to find it. Almost immediately I felt a prompting where to go and then finding it and returning it to the leader grateful that this particular disaster was averted. The lost keys prayer that everyone kind of makes fun of.

I’m not sure the accuracies of these memories. I trust how I felt and how I interpreted the situation more than I trust the specifics. But I remember more than anything that I felt especially close to God that week. I felt God’s love and no matter how small I tried to make myself, God noticed and cared anyway. I trusted implicitly God heard and answered my prayers. I leaned heavily on that. When I trusted no one else, I trusted God.

This time in the woods was a common childhood experience. I prayed before every test, the prayer intensity increasing with the stake of the test, but really every test felt high stakes to me. I remember praying each night that my dad would find a job during those years of economic instability. I don’t ever remember praying about what my church told me to pray about, whether the church was true or Joseph Smith was a prophet. I took that as a given, immersed as I was in that world view.

But then I went on a mission. For the first time in my life I had two years when I did not have to think (much) about finances or grades or what I should be doing with my time.  For two years I committed nearly all my time serving for my church and giving all of my time to the rigidity of someone else’s rules and schedules. Up by 6:30am, three hours committed to prayer, scripture study and daily preparations, then another ten hours trying to find people to teach.

I prayed as a manner of course. I prayed because I was told to. I prayed because I did not want to waste my two years and of all the many areas I lacked control, whether someone joined my church, or whether my companion and I got along, I controlled my prayers. That habitual, follow the rules type of praying continued after my mission, like clockwork before every meal, before I left my house for the day, before I closed my eyes at night. My prayers were most intense when I needed them the most or when I felt scared or lonely. I prayed for others sometimes, but most often I prayed for myself.

But I didn’t pray when I met the woman who would be my wife, at least I don’t remember it. At first, I obsessed over it. Talked through it over and over again with friends. I kept asking her on dates, dutifully so, liked how I prayed. I wanted to see where it would go, date a girl until it either worked out or didn’t. Rinse and repeat. Despite my algorithmic dating, I fell in love anyway. Right before proposing, I thought maybe I should pray about it, but I don’t remember doing it, I’m sure I did. I don’t remember an answer but I proposed anyway. From the moment we held hands, I felt sure about it. I wasn’t rewarded with an overwhelming emotional response – the way my church teaches me answers to prayers come. Well, until on my wedding day, kneeling as we do wedding ceremonies in our temples, looking into her eyes that day in the Salt Lake temple, saying yes to those commitments, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt right. It felt like God sanctioned the decision.

I continued to pray, of course, after marriage. It was part of our wedding goals we made on our honeymoon. But now eighteen years into marriage, some time along the way, I stopped praying. Not completely and not completely for reasons I can put my finger on. My faith has changed. I have read a lot of Mormon history, got involved in a lot of social media discussions with skeptics. I know friends and family members who left the church. I also feel less desperate, more in control of my life more confident in the generous nature of the world.

Mostly, it didn’t feel that necessary, too transactional, too habitual, too rote, too self-interested. Or was it? I definitely believe I lost something significant when I lost prayer. But I also felt like I never really had prayer either, not really. Because I think prayer is necessary, but not in the way I was doing it. There are too many ways life can go sideways if we’re not paying attention, careful, thoughtful attention. Prayer done right is a way to help one pay attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really want to rediscover prayer anew. And I’m being too hard on myself. I trust my positive experiences with prayer.

What I want to do is a kind of a deep dive on prayer, both in study and in practice. I want to dive deeply what the Mormon tradition says about prayer. Mormonism is part of the larger Christian tradition, so I want to explore prayer in broader Christianity as well. From there, I want to see what more progressive, secular and eastern perspectives say. Prayer and God are inextricably linked, so I think to understand prayer, one must understand God.

Finally, I want to bring prayer more fully back in life but in a more meaningful, thoughtful less self-centered sort of way. I hope to do so in a series of posts. Wish me luck.