Monday, February 22, 2010

Talk on Prayer and Promptings

Spoke in church on Sunday. They asked me to type the talk so I could give it to the translators in advance (we have a significant Spanish speaking population in our congregation). I'm not used to reading a talk. However, here it is.

There’s an early Christian story, probably from the 1st or 2nd century, called the Hymn of the Pearl.[1] It’s the story that begins with a young man being nurtured by his heavenly parents in his royal house. One day, his parents instruct him that he has to leave home, go to Egypt and retrieve a pearl guarded by a terrible serpent. I quote:

And with me They [then] made a compact;

In my heart wrote it, not to forget it:

"If thou goest down into Egypt,

And thence thou bring’st the one Pearl--

"[The Pearl] that lies in the Sea,

Hard by the loud-breathing Serpent,--

"[Then] shalt Thou put on thy Robe

And thy Mantle that goeth upon it,

"And with thy Brother, Our Second,

Shalt thou be Heir in our Kingdom."

He travels to Egypt and finds the serpent – but the serpent is awake. So he settles down to wait for the serpent to fall asleep. While he’s waiting, he decides to dress himself in Egyptian clothes so he won’t be recognized. However, the Egyptians recognize him, they trick him into eating some of their food, which has a drugging effect that makes him forget who he is and soon he’s serving the king of Egypt.

His parents who are watching over him know what has happened. They gather the nobles around and craft a letter that they send to him to remind him of who he is and of his sacred mission. The letter reads:

"From Us--King of Kings, thy Father,

And thy Mother, Queen of the Dawn-land,

"And from Our Second, thy Brother--

To thee, Son, down in Egypt, Our Greeting!

"Up and arise from thy sleep,

Give ear to the words of Our Letter!

"Remember that thou art a King’s son;

See whom thou hast served in thy slavedom.

Bethink thyself of the Pearl

For which thou didst journey to Egypt.

"Remember thy Glorious Robe,

Thy Splendid Mantle remember,

"To put on and wear as adornment,

When thy Name may be read in the Book of the Heroes,

"And with Our Successor, thy Brother,

Thou mayest be Heir in Our Kingdom."

I believe, like the young traveler in Egypt, that our Heavenly Father watches over us, sends us messages that remind us who we are, provide support and encouragement, and has given us a means of communicating with him. This means of communicating is prayer – and I’d like to tell some stories about prayer. These are some of my favorite stories, either because I find them comforting or because I don’t understand them and I like pondering on them.

For those of you in school, you know math is challenging. I hate it that already I’ve been stumped by a problem that Joshua has brought home. Learning math requires hard work and dedication to be successful. A friend of mine teaches graduate-level math. In his classes, he will give students a weekly homework assignment with 5 – 10 problems and expect that it will take 10 – 15 hours to complete. He has plenty of office hours when students can come with questions. However, much to their disappointment, he usually doesn’t answer their questions. He gives hints and confirmations.

Sometimes a student may come to the office – stuck – after spending 15 minutes on a problem. He’ll give them a pep talk about the importance of hard work and sends them packing. Other times, a student will show up, obviously having put hours into solving the problem – they’re close but just can’t get it completed. He’ll look at what they’ve done, perhaps draw their attention to one particular part of the problem or point out an error they made. The student, after all her hard work, will have the light-bulb go off, and they’re off to finish the problem. The other condition is when the student has put in a lot of effort but isn’t close. In these instances, he gives tutoring, tells them to work on it and offers to coach them further.

I think God works with us in a similar fashion. He is the perfect teacher and he’s set up this world as a classroom for us to learn. He gives each one of us problems, suited for our own needs; that help us learn what we need to learn. So, we get the problem, or perhaps manufacture one ourselves, and go to him for help – or maybe to ask him fix it. Just like it would be the worst thing for my friend to solve a problem for a student, it really isn’t in our best interest for God to answer our question or take away our problem. I think that often he gives us hints and confirmations and that he expects us to put effort into understanding the problem and to work at the solution. You recall the Lord’s words to Oliver Cowdery:

Behold you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought…(D&C 9:7-9)

I think there are parallels to the story we read of Limhi’s people. Remember that they ignored Abinidi’s words and were later subjected to Lamanite bondage. Three times they fought for their freedom and were beaten back each time. Then we read in Mosiah 21:

And they did humble themselves even to the dust, subjecting themselves to the yoke of bondage, submitting themselves to be smitten, and to be driven to and fro, and burdened, according to the desires of their enemies.

And they did humble themselves even in the depths of humility; and they did cry mightily to God; yea, even all the day long did they cry unto their God that he would deliver them out of their afflictions.

And now the Lord was slow to hear their cry because of their iniquities; nevertheless the Lord did hear their cries, and began to soften the hearts of the Lamanites that they began to ease their burdens; yet the Lord did not see fit to deliver them out of bondage. (Mosiah 21: 13 – 15)

I think I’ve always read that and thought that God was punishing them. If you look at verse 15, “…because of their iniquities” I can see how I thought that. Maybe, though it’s not punishing them because of their iniquities, but they still needed to learn and throw off their iniquities. Remember the Savior’s words in 3 Nephi,

…how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings. (3 Nephi 10: 6)

I’ve always enjoyed the story of Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah. They were going about their riotous way until the angel appeared with his “Stun-o-meter” set to mild. Remember what the angel said to Alma and the boys:

And again, the angel said: Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.

And now behold, can ye dispute the power of God? For behold, doth not my voice shake the earth? And can ye not also behold me before you? And I am sent from God. (Mosiah 27:14-15)

I find it interesting that the angel acknowledges the reason why he was sent – the prayers of Alma and the people.

Speaking of the prayers of parents, Elder Packer shared this story in a talk this past October:

Elder Graham W. Doxey, who once served in the Second Quorum of the Seventy, told me of an experience…

During World War II, he was in the navy posted to China. He and several others went by train to the city of Tientsin to look around.

Later they boarded a train to return to their base, but after more than an hour, the train turned north. They were on the wrong train! They spoke no Chinese. They pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train. They were put off somewhere in the countryside with nothing to do but walk back to the city.

After walking for some time, they found a small pump-handle car, the kind that the railroad workers use. They set it in the rails and began to pump their way along the tracks. It would coast downhill, but it had to be pushed uphill.

As they came to one steep downhill slope, they scrambled aboard the car and began to coast. Graham was the last to get aboard. The only place left for him was in the front of the car. He ran alongside and finally climbed aboard. As he did so, he slipped and fell. He was bouncing on his back with his feet against the car to keep from being run over. As the car quickly gained speed, he heard his mother’s voice say, “Bud, you be careful!”

He wore heavy military boots. His foot slipped, and the thick sole of his boot caught in a gear of a wheel and stopped the car just one foot (30 cm) from his hand.

His mother sat up at about 2:00 in the morning and awakened her husband: “Bud’s in trouble!” They knelt by the bed and prayed for the safety of their boy.

The next letter he received said, “Bud, what’s wrong? What happened to you?”

He then wrote to tell them what had happened. When they compared times, at the very time he was bouncing along that track, his parents were on their knees in the hotel room half a world away, praying for his safety.

These experiences of prompting and prayer are not uncommon in the Church. They are part of the revelation our Heavenly Father has provided for us.

I like this story because I don’t understand it. I bet that Bud’s parents said a prayer for him before retiring to bed that evening. I don’t understand why they needed to say a prayer “at that exact time.” I shared a draft of my talk with my family last night. Elane shared an example that occurred with her and her parents and said that her mom has told her that this has happened on more than one occasion with several of her siblings. This, is, of course, bad news for my kids. I’m not great at getting up – so their date ending time has now been set for when I go to bed – even when they go to college.

When I was younger we lived in Hawaii. A friend of mine from when we lived there told me a story about a woman in the ward. She was from Okinawa and grew up Buddist. In her house, she had a small shrine set up dedicated to her family members – to whom she prayed. One day while praying she heard, “Stop praying to us. Go join the Mormon church.” She had never heard of the Mormon Church and had to ask her daughter what is was. She didn’t speak English, but joined the Church. She showed up every Sunday and read her scriptures in Japanese. Her children ended up joining the Church as well.

I don’t have too many stories like this in my collection – of a dead ancestor speaking. I sometimes wonder if there might be more to this linking of generations that happens in the temple than we realize. Again while, preparing this talk, Elane told me that her great grandfather, who died soon after WWI due to an injury he suffered in that war, would regularly provide guidance to her great grandmother and helped her get through the depression of the 30s.

While at BYU, I would regularly ride my bike up Provo canyon, to Sundance, and then up the Alpine loop. The stretch of road from Sundace to the main canyon is fairly straight and a good grade. I could get going close to 50 mph down that particular stretch of road. One time while flying down, a big gust of wind came out of nowhere going up that canyon and slowed me to 25 – 30 mph. Right then, my rear tire flatted. I had several distinct impressions. First, that had I flatted at 50 mph I would have gone into the creek by the side of the road and that would have been it for me, second that that gust of wind was not a coincidence and third, that my guardian angel was involved.

The story Sister Mari Com shared in her testimony the other week I’ve added to my collection of stories. I found her prayer and attitude about her cancer very inspiring. As I recall, her attitude in prayer was very much one of recognizing that God has the power to heal her. If He did so, she would continue her work here. If he did not, she would meet Him on the other side of the veil. I believe that attitude well internalizes the phrase, “Not my will but thine be done.”

I think sometimes we earnestly pray for things that simply aren’t God’s will. We exercise faith and ask, but we are praying for something that just isn’t to be – in what is, with our earth-bound perspective, a very difficult time. I believe often God answers prayers not necessarily by changing the outcome, but by speaking comfort to our souls and showing that his hand is guiding the events.

In December, my friend Jeff’s dad died after a long illness. He had a tough struggle but the end came quickly. Jeff drove to Idaho to be with him and shared two stories about the days before his death that, I think, are an example of God answering prayers – not by changing the outcome, but by comforting those involved.

Jeff’s dad had a strained relationship with his other son. While Jeff was there, his dad and brother spent a day together in the hospital just watching TV. Later that day, Jeff said to his dad, “Dad, your going to die soon. You need to use this time to connect with those around you. Don’t let this time go to waste.” The following day, his dad spent the entire day with his wife and son in earnest conversation. That was the last time he was lucid.

As Jeff’s dad’s condition worsened, family members took turns by his side. Jeff was there, watching a movie on his laptop. He felt to look over at his dad and saw him struggling for his last breaths. He called in his mom and she was able to be there as her husband died. The outcome didn’t change, but two events happened where

So, back to the story of the young hero in Egypt. After reading his parents’ letter, he awakes from his stupor, lulls the serpent to sleep, secures the pearl, and begins his journey home. On his return journey, he sheds his Egyptian clothing, and dons his royal robes. The story thus ends:

I clothed me therewith, and ascended

To the Gate of Greeting and Homage.

I bowed my head and did homage

To the Glory of Him who had sent it,

Whose commands I [now] had accomplished,

And who had, too, done what He’d promised.

[And there] at the Gate of His House-sons

I mingled myself with His Princes;

For He had received me with gladness,

And I was with Him in His Kingdom;[2]

Brothers and sisters, may we always remember that our Heavenly Father loves us, that his interest for us is eternal life. I believe answers to prayer are all around us. I believe that with prayer we need to remember that we’re here to learn. Brothers and Sisters, we aren’t mere mortals. We came here trailing clouds of glory and we have our royal robes waiting for us at the end of this journey.

[1] Welch, J. and Garrison, J. (n.d.) “The ‘Hymn of the Pearl’: An Ancient Counterpart to ‘O My Father’” BYU Studies 36(1): n.p. Downloaded 20 February 2010 from For a summary see:

[2] Mead, G. R. S. (1908). “The Hymn of the Robe of Glory.” In Echoes from the Gnosis. Downloaded 20 February 2010 from