Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) gave the keynote, concluding remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, probably the first time a Latter-day Saint has been selected for such a prominent position in this gathering. It is certainly a rare event for a Latter-day Saint to be sharing personal feelings about the prayer and atonement before a large national audience.
The National Prayer Breakfast is held the first Thursday in February, and despite its name, it is an all-day event, widely attended by members of Congress, people from all 50 states and 100 nations. Started in 1953, every President since Dwight D. Eisenhower has come.
The event is hosted by the Fellowship Foundation, otherwise known as “the Family,” a conservative Christian group.
It’s a pleasure to be with you this evening. I’m honored to address what some refer to as the family dinner’. As I’ve said in the past, a group this large could easily be mistaken for a family in Utah.
Unlike so many privileges and blessings we enjoy in this world, the right to pray cannot be restricted by government, interrupted or intercepted by technological means, and is not allocated on the basis of one’s social or economic status. One’s prayers will not be ignored. Prayer is free. It requires no electricity, advanced technology, or advanced education. But prayer doesn’t happen by chance. It requires us to assert ourselves by approaching our Heavenly Father in faith and humility.
To me, prayer is a fascinating thing. In our everyday experience, there is no other situation in which people commonly communicate with someone from whom they have no expectation of receiving a visual, audible, or written response. In light of that unavoidable reality, it is little wonder that, when the non-believers among us are inclined to criticize or belittle those of us who are believers, they point to the fact that we pray. In some respects, this is a fair point. From the perspective of the nonbeliever, prayer is an irrational behaviorarguably an act of insanity.
That perspective, however, overlooks not only the essence of faith itself (the fact that God sometimes expects us to believe without seeing), but also critical differences between prayer and various forms of mortal communication.
We, as humans, often confuse prayer with other, more earthly forms of communication. To whatever extent we do so, we tend, at least subconsciously, to view God in the same light in which we might view a mere mortal who, however wise or powerful, is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Jesus taught us to “pray always.” He also taught us, in Matthew 7, that even mortal parents know how to answer a sincere request from their children. A father whose son asks for bread will not give him a stone, and a father whose son asks for a fish will not give him a serpent, and that our Father in Heaven knows our needs and will bless us with profound blessings, especially if we learn to pray earnestly and as Jesus taught. So considering that we have been commanded to pray, and that we have been promised great blessings if we do, we had better learn to do it right.
I have always thought of prayer as analogous in many ways to a communication between a child and his father. This has caused me to reflect on my relationship with my father, the late Rex Lee, who served as Solicitor General of the United States during the Reagan Administration and later as President of Brigham Young University. He was respected throughout his career as a great lawyer, law professor, and administrator; but around our house he was known as a kind and loving husband to my mother and father to seven children.
While his career kept him busy, for me he was always present. And although he was occasionally the quintessential absent-minded professor, his heart and mind were perpetually focused on his family. He was a gifted orator, but used his persuasive skills at home to teach his children to love each other and love the Lord. He died eighteen years ago at the young age of 61, having fought a courageous, nine-year battle with cancer, with his faith firm in Jesus.
In the eighteen years since his death, I have never stopped wishing I could speak to him again, even if only for a few minutes, to share important events in my life and that of my wife and our three children. But because he isn’t here, I reflect frequently on memories of conversations I had with him while he was still alive. As I think about those conversations, it occurs to me that some of them resemble prayer more closely than others.
So I begin with this simple question: in what ways do our prayers resemble earthbound communications? As I’ve asked myself this question, I have thought of three types of conversations I had with my father, only one of which can properly be analogized to a legitimate prayer. I will now describe each category, sharing examples from my youth.
The first category can be described as a transmission or exchange of information between two mortals. The very need for such communication arises from the fact that the listener is unaware of what the speaker needs to say.
Here’s an example of this type of exchange. One evening when I was in junior high school, I went out to dinner with my family. After dinner, one of my siblings suggested that we go out for ice cream. My parents agreed. Ordinarily, I would have been pleased with this development, but I had homework to do, and therefore asked my parents to drop me off at home before they went out for ice cream. I stepped out of the car and my absent-minded father started to drive away from our house before I had completely exited the car, a really big and fairly ugly Oldsmobile. Somehow, my dad managed to run over my foot, oddly while half of my body was still inside the car.
I groaned. I gasped for air. I struggled to find words. I somehow managed to muster the presence of mind necessary to utter just one word: “reverse!” He got the message. He put the car into reverse, saving me from momentary agony that could have become more long-lasting.
Sometimes we are tempted to think that this is like prayer. And in some ways it is. After all, we frequently utter our most fervent prayers at the moment we find ourselves experiencing a degree of misery. And sometimes in these moments, our prayers are quickly answered to our great relief.
That kind of conversation, however, does not really resemble the kind of communication we should have with our Heavenly Father. There is one distinction that makes all the difference: when we speak to God, we are speaking to a being who always already knows what we are going to say before we even say it.
The first category can be described as one involving the sharing of information between two mortals. The very need for the communication at issue arises from the fact that the listener is unaware of what the speaker needs to say.
The second category consists of an exchange that, while involving the utterance of words, does not entail the sharing of any significant information. We might call this the “vain repetition” category. It serves only to fill empty space, giving the opportunity for the speaker to express complaints or concerns. No one is made better by these communications.
Here’s my childhood example of that: when I was young, I hated to mow the lawn. And even though it was a task I had to perform every week, I routinely tried to talk my dad into relieving me of this duty. It became almost a ritual. When it was time to mow the lawn, I’d say, “Dad, I don’t want to mow the lawn.” I would usually then proceed to offer up some really lame, but elaborate explanation as to why this couldn’t happen.
“It rained yesterday, and the grass is too wet to mow”, that was one of my favorites, along with “the grass really hasn’t grown too much this week; maybe we should wait a few more days.” These protests were futile, and I understood their futility even while expressing them.
The bottom line of these conversations was that they were largely pointless. No information was communicated and neither of us was any better off as a result of them. I used them only as a chance to complain, which did neither my father nor me any good.
The third category consists of a conversation in which the speaker asks for the help of the listener in a way that emphasizes to the speaker his own reliance on the listener.
When I was a teenager, my family frequently went on vacation to a place called Lake Powell. If you’ve never visited Lake Powell located within Glenn Canyon National Recreation area in southern Utah and northern Arizona, I highly recommend that you do so. It’s a man-made reservoir in the desert created by the damming of the Colorado River.
Anyway, on one trip to Lake Powell, my siblings and I discovered a patch of quicksand while on a hike up one of Lake Powell’s many sandy canyons. It was a lot of fun. We jumped on it, watching the surface ripple. The quicksand had the properties of both a solid and a liquid. This is fascinating stuff for a teenaged boy.
At one point, I decided to show my family how deeply I could mire myself in the quicksand and still manage to escape its powerful grasp. First I sank down to my calves; then to my knees. Every so often, I’d step out of the quicksand, just to prove to myself and to my family that I was stronger than the forces of nature.
As this concededly juvenile exercise continued, my dad’s reaction to it shifted from curiosity to concern. He started warning me gently, but firmly, that at some point I would find myself so deep in the quicksand that I would be unable to escape. And yet beyond offering mild, periodic warnings, he declined to intervene directly in what I was doing.
He waited. I kept sinking deliberately deeper and deeper into the quicksand. At some point, the rest of my family became bored with this exercise and decided to continue their hike. My dad stayed behind with me, perhaps because he was concerned for my safety, or maybe just for the sake of his own amusement.
He remained silent until I too decided it was time to move on. Determined to catch up to the rest of the family on the hike, I started to remove myself, yet again, from the quicksand. Only this time, I couldn’t.
I was now up to my waist in quicksand, and suddenly discovered that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes, let alone remove the lower half of my body from the ground. It seemed suddenly as if I had been submerged in concrete that had started to harden and was no longer in liquid form.
I struggled. I moved this way and then that way. I tried digging myself out with my hands, but that only seemed to make things worse.
At that moment, I looked up and saw my dad looking at me with a look on his face that seemed at once to reflect both bemusement and a degree of disgust. I knew there was only one way I would make it out of the mess I had just created for myself. I knew I would have to accept responsibility for what I had done.
Knowing what I had to do, I said simply, “Okay Dad, you were right. This wasn’t such a good idea. We have a shovel on the boat. Would you be willing to go and get it, and then bring it back here and dig me out?” He agreed, and proceeded to do exactly as I had asked. Moments later, he returned carrying the shovel.
While digging me out of the quicksand, he continued to remind me that it was foolish of me to think that I could play with quicksand and expect it to end well. He continued, perhaps embellishing a little, by telling me that, while growing up in eastern Arizona, he occasionally had to rescue cows from quicksand because, as he put it, “animals don’t have enough sense to stay away from the stuff.”
In the end, I emerged from that trial suffering from nothing more than a bruised ego.
I think this example can provide us with some understanding of how a conversation between a parent and child can resemble a prayer. In this conversation, my dad had the power to rescue me, even before I needed rescuing. And he knew I would ask to be rescued, even before I did. In that sense, when I asked for his help, I was communicating nothing that he didn’t already know. And yet he waited, quite wisely, before helping me.
Yes, he waited until I asked for his helpuntil I acknowledged my dependence on him.
While the analogy certainly isn’t perfect, this kind of conversation is far more similar to prayer than most others. It’s a reminder of how we should approach our Father in Heaven not with an eye toward changing God, but with an eye toward changing ourselves, acknowledging our dependence on Him, and qualifying ourselves for His assistance, which we so desperately need. We aren’t telling Him anything He doesn’t already know. In this respect, “prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.” (LDS Bible Dictionary, Subject: Prayer)
It is, however, easy to miss this point. Perhaps it was with this in mind that C.S. Lewis explained, “I’ve heard a man offer a prayer for a sick person which really amounted to a diagnosis followed by advice as to how God should treat the patient.
” On another occasion, he made a similar point by saying, “I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless…. It doesn’t change Godit changes me.”
I think that’s what Jesus meant when he reminded his followers, “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask them” (Matthew 6:8). He then taught his followers how to pray, giving them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
“After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” Matthew 6:9-13.
I find it especially significant that, immediately after advising us of the need to glorify our Father and his name, emphasizing our dependence on Him, Jesus reminds us to approach prayer in the attitude of “thy will be done.” Jesus would later demonstrate ultimate devotion to this principle, “thy will be done.” In Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus warily approached the daunting, unimaginable task of taking upon himself the sins, the pain, and the agony of all mankind. While humbly submitting the will of the Father, he was not anxious to endure what was coming. At that moment, he said “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
As we all know, the allegorical cup, the bitter one he took upon himself to redeem mankind, was not removed from him. Nor could it be. For reasons we don’t entirely understand, some cups cannot be removed, as badly and as understandably as we might want them to be. It was the will of the Father that this cup could not pass. The Father did, however, send an angel, “strengthening him” for the immeasurable task at hand (Luke 22:43).
As Jesus began to endure what would be the most difficult thing anyone has ever experienced, he found himself in absolute agony, bleeding from every pore. “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44).
As in all things, here we see the ultimate example in Jesus. His prayers in this, his darkest moment, reflected an attitude of “thy will be done.” And then, as he endured agony, “he prayed more earnestly.”
The Father didn’t give Jesus an easy out that day. And in many cases, he won’t with us. But as we learn to pray as He did, we will qualify ourselves for more of the blessings our Father is eager to bestow upon us. It is true that we live during difficult days and in very trying times. Never has prayer been more important. Never has the example of Jesus been more needed. Some have lost hope, others live in fear and far too many have forgotten how simple it is to “look to God and live.”
Confidence can come to each of us as we live our lives with ever more attention to the life of Jesus. If we live as he lived, serve as he served and pray as he prayed, we too will be able to hear from heaven the comforting and confidence-inspiring words as an answer to our prayers. “Fear not I am with thee, Oh be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand. Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.” I know this to be true. I have experienced this Heavenly help and strength, not simply through my own prayers, but often through your prayers and the prayers of others who pray for liberty and peace, and for that I am most thankful.
My faith in Jesus has been strengthened by being with you tonight. I know that your nations, communities, neighborhoods and homes are blessed by your prayers, by your faith and by your faithfulness. My prayer tonight is that each of you will continue to be blessed as you continue to bless the lives of so many others.