Occasionally I find myself ashamed because of a look my wife will give me. A little perturbed but mostly amused, it’s the look that says, “Are you still listening or is your mind somewhere else?” “Oh,” I think to myself. “Um… sorry.” My own recognition of my folly is usually accompanied by a slight shoulder shrug as I gesture that I wasn’t paying attention like I thought I was. Silly me. As hard as I try to stay present, I’m not always successful. Perhaps you’ve been there, too.
As Liz and I have regular conversations, she will often say something that sparks a thought that takes me in a slightly different direction than she was intending. The idea is intriguing, and suddenly I am off on a “thought-chain” where one idea leads to another. It just happens that the end of my chain doesn’t connect with hers and I have to forge a link to bring us back together. I’m glad we can make those kinds of connections.
Fortunately in our relationship, I am not alone in this regard. (Grin. It’s nice having something in common. I don’t feel so strange that way.) I may have things I really want to share with my wife only to find out that she isn’t fully engaged either. On any given day, either of us can be preoccupied with other details that keep us from connecting fully with the other. Yes, we may be having the same conversation together, and we both may be listening. However, it’s the specific way that we listen that can make all the difference.
What a wonderful thing it is to have a friend! On a number of occasions this past year I have talked about friendship, conversations, and connections on this blog. If you didn’t know me better, you might think I was referring to social networking like Facebook or Twitter. My gratitude goes far deeper than that. Whether it is my wife, a parent, one of my children, or a very close friend, I treasure the opportunity to truly connect.
This year, more than any other year in my life, I have discovered what a wonderful thing it is to have something unique to share and have a friend whose interest matches my own. It is simply exhilarating! Deep closeness, commonality, and sharing can forge a powerful connection between two people. As I have considered how rewarding this kind of relationship is, I have been more diligent to improve all of my relationships with others. I have tried to find more connection with whoever I am with. Not only has this improved many friendships, it has also made me reconsider the most important relationship in my life.
On more than one occasion, I have found myself ashamed to admit that the private prayer I just offered to God on my knees seemed very familiar. It was so familiar, in fact, that it could almost have been a written prayer – one with a formula where certain things need to be said in a certain order to get a certain result. I almost jest that a number could be assigned to that prayer as though I was placing an order for a combination plate on a dinner menu. Hmm. I’m not sure that meets the intent of why I pray. But it happens. Whether I am tired, indifferent, or distracted by a thought-chain, my chain still does not connect with Father’s and I have to forge a link to bring us back together.
In contrast, there have been times in my life where certain prayers felt more powerful. Because I was in great need, and I tried to be very sincere, it was as though I had access to a VIP hotline that is sure to get results. Those prayers were meaningful. They were deeply close. I felt connected to Father in Heaven, if only by prayer, and I could pour out my heart to him. These are prayers I would consider recommending for my own personal hall of fame. They are prayers that are worth remembering – not the words, but what I felt.
As I compare the most rewarding conversations I have had with those where I am not fully engaged, I have noticed a pattern. When I talk to my wife, a close friend, or with Father in prayer, my ability to feel connected has less to do with outside circumstances and more to do with the combined intent of myself and the person I am talking with. I don’t think my hall of fame conversations need to be left to chance or serendipity. More often than not, they are a matter of choice.
The car that I currently drive has an automatic transmission. While I learned to drive with a stick shift in a standard car, an automatic has become my standard preference. Switching gears has become so automatic that I hardly think about it, yet I believe it has a good application here. In order to shift, the clutch must be disengaged by pressing the pedal on the floor. Doing so allows for the gears to change. However, if I push on the clutch pedal but never release, then I can’t engage the gears to move and I come to a halt.
When my prayers become so automatic that I am not fully present in mind, it’s as though the clutch is not engaging the gears that allow for a connection that will take me someplace better. Instead, I go through the motions of having a meaningful conversation, but don’t really get anywhere at all. In essence, I offer prayer #18 because it was a good one worth repeating. But unless I really mean it, I get stuck. If I feel that I need help and my prayers are not being answered, this is one of the first places I check.
The Book of Mormon prophet, Moroni, concluded his record with a promise whereby readers might know if the book is truly scripture. He invites all to read it and then promises that God will manifest the truth of it by the power of the Holy Ghost. I believe this to be the right kind of formula for answers to all of our prayers. The key is to “ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ,” and then He will manifest the truth to us. (Moroni 10:3-5) Having faith and being sincere is crucial to the equation, but just as important is the need for real intent – or the intent to receive the answer and follow once it is given.
All too often, my intent becomes apparent by where my heart and mind are directed. If I am talking with my wife, but I am thinking about something else, then it is hard to be turned toward her thoughts in that moment. If I am talking with a friend, but I am not really engaged in what they are saying, it is difficult to make a connection. Where I especially want to be connected is with Father when I pray. I want to feel that my prayers are being heard and will be answered, just as He has promised. God doesn’t change, and He is always listening. He has promised to take care of us and answer us when we are not of little faith. I know that He does, and I feel it most when I turn my heart to Him.
I have a combination lock at home that I use when I go to the local rec center for some exercise. In order to open the lock, I have to know the right combination of turns. A typical combination lock requires you to make several turns to the right to clear the lock of any memory. This is followed by a complete turn to the left and another partial turn to the right. As long as I turn to the right places on the dial, the lock opens.
Like my combination lock, there is a combination of things that are calculated to unlock answers to my prayers. All I need is a sincere heart, real intent, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The answers I seek are not restricted. Father is merely protecting His blessings until I have turned my heart towards Him. Once we each turn our hearts to Him, He is willing to give us everything. Also like the lock, there are some changes I have to make in my life that are very minor. Quite often it may be as simple as a decision to focus and listen when Father is trying to speak to me. There are other times that I have to turn and turn and turn until I clear the memory of the lock, or rather, desires that are so strong they override my faith. What is most important is to make a complete turn, which has a slightly different definition in the scriptures.
The Lord has often warned His people against becoming a stiffnecked generation. When we become prideful and determined to do what we want instead of choosing what He asks us to do, we lose any intent we may have had to follow God. We become stubborn and persistent in doing that which will lead us away from Him. While this may sound like it could apply to the most serious of sins, it also has application in our daily communication with our Father.
As we turn to God in prayer, we keep our necks flexible and agile. When we begin each day with prayer, and real intent, the events that follow will have a set direction. The physical direction may vary and meander, but the spiritual direction will become more and more rigid on the will of our Father. By turning our hearts fully, it matters less how much we turn than where we turn. A complete turn is learning to trust Him completely. We then turn our lives over to him along with our faith and our sacrifices.
Moses also taught the ancient Israelites of the importance of turning to God. He warned them that they would be scattered because they were already scattered in their hearts and in their will to serve the one true God. But, he also told them that they would be gathered if they would turn completely to Him.
“But if… thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul. When thou are in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them. (Deuteronomy 4:29-31)
Seeking the Lord starts with prayer. Completely turning to him requires that we are engaged in conversation to learn His will. If we intend to live with Him again, then we should have real intent to start following Him now, as much as is within our ability.
As I think about beautiful conversations I have had this year that have been deep and meaningful, where I felt very connected to a friend, I begin to wish that every conversation were that way. If I truly believe that Father is waiting for me to initiate such a conversation with Him so He can speak to me as a friend, I have to ask, “What am I waiting for? Why don’t I make every prayer qualify for my own personal hall of fame?” Even if I am not sure how to develop such a close friendship with Him, he has already given the promise. If we seek Him, we will find Him.
If our hearts have not yet turned, we can at least start turning. An effort to do so will demonstrate real intent. Then, when we arrive at the first correct step, we can make another turn. A combination of complete turns to God will eventually unlock the answers to prayer that we seek and enable us to make a deeper connection with Father as a friend.