Commentary on Chapter 2: Pray Always – Ezra Taft Benson Manual

Pray Always

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe8qRj12OhY

When I was studying at the Salt Lake Community College, I had the opportunity to take a course on Humanities, which was extremely influential on my approach to the world. The teacher was a little intense, and seemed to enjoy pushing people outside of their comfort levels, which was something that I came to really appreciate.  During one class he provided us the opportunity to participate in an Islamic prayer, which he stated was not mandatory. We then commenced to kneel on the ground and attempt to follow him in this process.

The point of this exercise was not to convert us to an Islamic style of prayer, but instead to allow our bodies to feel and experience the corporal power that can come from this particular technique.  We then discussed the process, and one of the powerful messages that I gained through this experience is what I learned about submission. Within our secular and modern world, submission is often seen as a negative thing to be avoided, and yet as I believe that there is something about this connection to the divine which allows us to shed some of our barriers, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. I believe that this is one of the great benefits that can come from this consistent connection and relationship that we can have with God.

This reminds me of a silly little story that is often shared in discussing prayer. The story consists of an Indian chief who is attempting to decide which of his two sons would be best to take over as leader of the tribe. He sets up a competition where he hides a feather that the boys are to go out and find. The story ends with one of the sons easily finding the feather. The one who searched all over without any success came to his brother and asked how he was so successful and was told that he was successful because he was going to his father and asking where the feather had been hidden.

This story obviously has its problems, but I also feel that there is something powerful about shedding our need to do everything in life on our own, and instead seeking to strengthen our relationship with a being that has the ability to sympathize and help us as we travel the complex and difficult journey of life. I really enjoy listening to others pray, particularly as we can often see peaks into relationships that have been developing for years through daily fervent prayers. One of my favorite prayers that I have ever heard may appear silly, and has even been auto tuned, which I suggest, but I want to share this prayer with you as beyond its silly elements, I see something that I really appreciate.

I particularly love the cheering when he thanks the Lord for his “smokin hot wife.” It is irreverent, a little silly, but I also feel that there is something wonderful about being able to converse in such a way with a God who you have a real relationship with. Now I recognize that many have a difficult relationship to prayer, as they have not had the best experiences with it. Hopefully we will be able to discuss this topic and perhaps provide some advice on how to have a better experience with prayer in the lesson. So let’s go ahead and jump into the text.

“All through my life the counsel to depend on prayer has been prized above almost any other advice I have received,” said President Ezra Taft Benson. “It has become an integral part of me, an anchor, a constant source of strength, and the basis for my knowledge of things divine.

In an earlier lesson, he wrote about his love of God being the centralized focus of his life. I like this model of attempting to create and nourish our relationship with the divine, in order to allow an opportunity for us to know the will of God. I believe that prayer and meditation is an extremely valuable tool in helping us achieve those goals.

“‘Remember that whatever you do or wherever you are, you are never alone’ was my father’s familiar counsel to me as a boy. ‘Our Heavenly Father is always near. You can reach out and receive His aid through prayer.’ I have found this counsel to be true. Thank God we can reach out and tap that unseen power, without which no man can do his best.”

Loneliness can be such a powerful and painful aspect of life. I remember days in my youth where I wished I was a different person and felt mad at God for creating me as I was. I wanted to be popular, and I wanted to be someone who could contribute something valuable to the lives of others, and yet I felt worthless and utterly alone. Later on as I began to develop this relationship with God, I began to value this idea that I indeed do not need to be alone as God can be with me. There is something empowering about this.

“President Benson followed this counsel in every aspect of his life. When he was appointed to serve as the United States secretary of agriculture, he “prayerfully and carefully” selected a group of men to work with him, “asking God to give [him] a spirit of discernment.”2 At their first meeting, he asked “if anyone objected to opening their meetings with prayer. No one dissented. And so began a practice that [he] perpetuated for eight years. He invited each staff member to take turns offering the invocation.”3 His associates came to appreciate this practice, even though they may have been uncomfortable with it at first. One staff member later admitted that some of the men had not prayed aloud since they were children. “We stumbled and fumbled for words,” he said. “But the Boss [President Benson] never let on that he noticed. And after a few trials everybody was at ease. Has it helped? Well, I’d say that when you start a meeting that way, people aren’t stuck up with the pride of their opinions. You pretty quickly come to an agreement as to what ought to be done in any situation.”4

I would like to point out one key aspect of this story. President Benson asked whether those involved would mind if they made this practice of prayer. What would have happened had they not have been willing to pray in these situations? I would say that Benson would have been in the wrong to force this type of situation, but everyone seemed to consent. I think that the unifying aspect of prayer could have been very valuable as these individuals were seeking together to make the best decisions possible. Some of the individuals were uncomfortable at first, and I think the cultural respect that came from those individuals who still allowed it shows something else that is valuable to consider.

President Benson’s brethren in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also benefited from his prayerful nature. President Gordon B. Hinckley, who served as President Benson’s First Counselor in the First Presidency, said: “I have knelt with him and heard him pray. His prayers were always interesting. Almost without exception, they consisted for the most part of expressions of thanks. He asked for very little. He expressed gratitude for very much. He thanked the Lord for life, for family, for the gospel, for faith, for sunlight and rain, the bounties of nature, and the freedom-loving instincts of man. He thanked the Lord for friends and associates. He expressed love for the Savior and gratitude for His atoning sacrifice. He thanked the Lord for the opportunity to serve the people.”

Again I think it is important to highlight the idea that this is a real and sincere relationship in which we want seriously to engage the questions that are of value to us. We as a culture can learn to pray in wrote consistent patterns that can act as a stumbling block in coming to more productive insights and experiences. If there is any place that we can authentically express our deepest and most vital desires and thoughts, it should be within these moments of meditation and prayer.

President Benson and his wife, Flora, established a home where everyone prayed, individually and together. Their son Mark observed: “When Dad knelt down to pray, he didn’t rush things. There was meaning behind his words. It came through loud and clear that he was communicating with our Father in heaven.”6 President and Sister Benson taught their children to pray for personal guidance and strength and also to pray for one another. A friend of the family once observed the influence of those teachings when she attended a session of general conference with the Bensons. She wrote:

“On an April day … , I discovered one source of a General Authority’s strength. I was seated with the six children of Elder Ezra Taft Benson, one of whom was my college roommate. My interest heightened when President [David O.] McKay arose and announced the next speaker. I watched respectfully as Elder Benson, whom I had not yet met, walked toward the microphone. He was a big man, well over six feet tall. He was … a man internationally known as the United States Secretary of Agriculture and a special witness of the Lord, a man who seemed serene and sure, one who had addressed audiences throughout the world. Suddenly a hand touched my arm. A little girl leaned toward me and whispered urgently, ‘Pray for Dad.’ Somewhat startled, I thought, ‘This message is being passed down the row, and I am to pass it on. Shall I say, “Pray for Elder Benson”? Shall I say, “You’re supposed to say a prayer for your father”?’ Sensing the immediate need to act, I leaned over and whispered simply, ‘Pray for Dad.’ I watched that whisper move along the row to where Sister Benson sat, her head already bowed. … As years have passed, general conferences have come and gone, and each time President Benson has stood to speak, I have thought, ‘His children, who are scattered across the continent, are united now in prayer for their father.’”

Now I feel that this is a sweet sentiment. This is one of the powerful aspects of religion and prayer, which I see as a beautiful way to unite communities together. Imagine the situation where you are in need of help as you attempt to accomplish something that appears to be extremely difficult. The fact that you have 10 or 20 people who are simultaneously thinking about and prayer for you to be successful in achieving your goal is really cool.  All of those people are standing by you.  If they are not just saying things in prayers, but actually attempting to live up to those wishes by putting in an effort to help, I see this as an incredibly powerful tool that we have at our disposal.

Jesus Christ has taught that we should pray always. During His earthly ministry, Jesus taught us a pattern for 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, forever. Amen.” (Matt. 6:9–13.) He further instructed, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” (Luke 18:1.) “Watch and pray,” He said, “that ye enter not into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41.) In this dispensation He admonished, “Pray always lest that wicked one have power in you, and remove you out of your place.” (D&C 93:49.)

The idea of having a prayer in our hearts at all times seems very compelling to me. I see prayer as an opportunity to think and ponder whilst communicating with the divine. It is very similar to pondering and questioning, and yet it is done in a sacred and special way while speaking to the divine. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we should always be thinking and pondering our lives as we seek to learn, grow, and become the kinds of people God would have us be.

The Savior declared to Joseph Smith, “In nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.” (D&C 59:21.)

This is a strange scripture to me. Why would God be most offended by those who do not confess his hand in all things? I mean sometimes it is not totally obvious. Bertrand Russell once while considering the judgment day and what he would say to God were he approached by him one day. He said he would ask something like “sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” I feel there is something to this question, but I also ponder why God would make this an issue. Maybe there is something extremely valuable about being willing to search for those moments of connection with the divine that are helping us as we go through our journeys.

We have this instruction from our risen Lord as He ministered among the Nephite people on [the] Western Hemisphere: “Ye must watch and pray always, lest ye be tempted by the devil, and ye be led away captive by him. …Ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. Therefore ye must always pray unto the Father in my name; And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you.” (3 Ne. 18:15, 18–20.)

I would not want us to follow this advice out of fear of Satan as I think we give him more power than he really deserves. However, as shared above, I think that seeking always to make the very best choices and putting in the work needed to achieve our goals is extremely valuable. Connection with God and ourselves can truly protect us from choices and decisions that could be harmful in our lives.

If we would advance in holiness—increase in favor with God—nothing can take the place of prayer. And so I adjure you to give prayer—daily prayer—secret prayer—a foremost place in your lives. Let no day pass without it. Communion with the Almighty has been a source of strength, inspiration, and enlightenment to men and women through the world’s history who have shaped the destinies of individuals and nations for good.

How old is the tool of prayer and how has it been used throughout history? I believe that there are evolutionary reasons why prayer and meditation are so effective. There is something to say about allowing ourselves to tap into it in order to gain some of the benefits people have been gaining throughout history.

2

Families that pray together are blessed with stronger ties of love and the peace of heaven. The Lord indicates that it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children to pray [see D&C 68:28]. This does not mean secret prayers only. I am sure it means to teach by example through family prayers. We need the sanctifying influence which comes from devotion in the home—prayer as a family. We need as families to kneel in family prayer, night and morning. Just a few words added to the blessing on the food, which is becoming the custom in some parts, is not enough. We need to get onto our knees in prayer and gratitude.

Not only can this tool help us connect to God, but it can also be a unifying tool within our families. As parents, we need to not put the burden on others to teach our children to pray.  Instead, we need to act as examples to show them the most effective way to avoid the harmful ways we use the tool.

Prayer has been and is the ever-present anchor for strength and a source of direction in our family activities. I remember kneeling at the bedside of our young children, helping them with prayers in their younger years, and later seeing the older brothers and sisters helping the younger ones. We had family prayer night and morning, with children given the opportunity to lead, and had special prayers to meet particular problems. Mention was made in family prayer, for instance, of children with [Church] assignments. … We asked for help when one of the children faced a difficult examination in high school. Special mention was made of members of the family [who were] away. … This special mention of particular concerns in our family prayers gave confidence, assurance, and strength to members of the family facing difficult problems and assignments. The differences and irritations of the day melt away as families approach the throne of heaven together. Unity increases. The ties of love and affection are re-enforced and the peace of heaven enters.

Again this unifying moment for families as they seek to help each other is beautiful. My wife and I once visited some friend for dinner and when the time came to pray the child kneeled and began to say the prayer. “We are thankful for the wall, for the fireplace, for the refrigerator…” listing off everything around him. “I am thankful for mom, dad, my brother, sister, etc.” I think this daily routine of thinking and pondering together is so valuable.

In such homes secret prayers are said night and morning by members of the household. Individual and family problems are approached with confidence after invoking the favor of heaven. Young people participating in such a family devotional have hearts freed from evil intent as they leave for an evening of entertainment. These [young people] will be the restraining influence in the group when gilded temptations arise. Parents who surround their children with the refining influence of daily devotion are making their contribution to the safeguarding of the … home.

As children, we think about what our parents would want us to do. As we grow, we may think about whether God wants us to do something. But I think once we reach a more adult relationship we will ask whether we want to do something.

3

We can improve our communication with our Heavenly Father.

Here are five ways to improve our communication with our Heavenly Father:

  1. We should pray frequently. We should be alone with our Heavenly Father at least two or three times each day—“morning, mid-day, and evening,” as the scripture indicates. (Alma 34:21.) In addition, we are told to pray always. (See 2 Ne. 32:9; D&C 88:126.) This means that our hearts should be full, drawn out in prayer unto our Heavenly Father continually. (See Alma 34:27.)

Again we should be involved with frequent and consistent meditation and thought.

  1. We should find an appropriate place where we can meditate and pray. We are admonished that this should be “in [our] closets, and [our] secret places, and in [our] wilderness.” (Alma 34:26.) That is, it should be free from distraction, in secret. (See 3 Ne. 13:5–6.)

Prayer should not be used as a badge of honor or as a way to show off. Some complain about no longer being able to speak explicitly about God in schools and other public places. They wish that public prayer could occur in these places, but I would think that it may be better to avoid these types of public displays and instead focus on our person relationships. If you are in school and you feel like you would like to pray, it is in your power to say a silent prayer. You do not need the approval of others to achieve these communications with God.

  1. We should prepare ourselves for prayer. If we do not feel like praying, then we should pray until we do feel like praying. We should be humble. (See D&C 112:10.) We should pray for forgiveness and mercy. (See Alma 34:17–18.) We must forgive anyone against whom we have bad feelings. (See Mark 11:25.) Yet the scriptures warn that our prayers will be vain if we “turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart [not] of [our] substance.” (Alma 34:28.)

Our prayers need to be accompanied by sincere actions. It is not just a way to list off our wishes into the world, but instead to prepare and ponder how we can make a difference in the world, with the help of God.

  1. Our prayers should be meaningful and pertinent. We should avoid using the same phrases in each prayer. Any of us would become offended if a friend said the same words to us each day, treated the conversation as a chore, and could hardly wait to finish in order to turn on the television set and forget us. …

For what should we pray? We should pray about our work, against the power of our enemies and the devil, for our welfare and the welfare of those around us. We should counsel with the Lord regarding all our decisions and activities. (See Alma 37:36–37.) We should be grateful enough to give thanks for all we have. (See D&C 59:21.) We should confess His hand in all things. Ingratitude is one of our great sins.

The Lord has declared in modern revelation: “And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.” (D&C 78:19.)

We should ask for what we need, taking care that we not ask for things that would be to our detriment. (See James 4:3.) We should ask for strength to overcome our problems. (See Alma 31:31–33.) We should pray for the inspiration and well-being of the President of the Church, the General Authorities, our stake president, our bishop, our quorum president, our home teachers, family members, and our civic leaders. Other suggestions could be made, but with the help of the Holy Ghost we will know about what we should pray. (See Rom. 8:26–27.)

I could ask what you think of superstitious attitudes where we need to be careful about what we ask for as we might just get want we want. A fair amount of times I have heard these warnings as if God is a trickster genie who will punish us if we ask for the wrong things or if we ask in the wrong way. I think we should avoid that fear as I believe that God is loving and wants to hear our sincere hopes and desires.

  1. After making a request through prayer, we have a responsibility to assist in its being granted. We should listen. Perhaps while we are on our knees, the Lord wants to counsel us.14

4

I like the idea of us being the answer to the prayers of others. We need to be consistently listening in order that we can recognize ways to help our prayers to be realized.

God is mindful of us and ready to respond to our prayers when we place our trust in Him and do that which is right.

There is power in prayer. All things are possible through prayer. It was through prayer that the heavens were opened in this dispensation. The prayer of a boy fourteen years of age, in the Sacred Grove, opened a new gospel dispensation, and brought forth a vision of the Father and the Son, as they appeared as glorified heavenly beings before the boy, Joseph [see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–17].

We have the church today because a young man was willing to pray and ask questions to God. If we believe God is listening, I believe that we need to share our questions and concerns with him as often as possible.

It is my testimony, my brothers and sisters and friends, that God does hear and answer prayers. I have never doubted that fact. From childhood, at my mother’s knee where I first learned to pray; as a young man in my teens; as a missionary in foreign lands; as a father; as a Church leader; as a government official, I know without any question that it is possible for men and women to reach out in humility and prayer and tap that Unseen Power; to have prayers answered. Man does not stand alone, or at least, he need not stand alone. Prayer will open doors; prayer will remove barriers; prayer will ease pressures; prayer will give inner peace and comfort during times of strain and stress and difficulty. Thank God for prayer.

This is a point that I question exactly how we are to take it. It is difficult to believe that President Benson has never doubted that God hears him, although I think that goes a long way to explaining aspects of this man. I will say that for myself, I don’t think the goal is never to question or doubt, but instead to consistently seek to know him and ourselves better.

Even during hours of trial and anxiety, it is possible to draw close to the Lord, to feel of his influence and of his sustaining power—that one is never alone, if he will only humble himself before the Almighty. I am grateful for that testimony, for that assurance.  Out of personal experience, I know the efficacy and power of prayer. …

Going back to my beginning example of experiencing an Islamic prayer, I believe that there is something powerful in recognizing our smallness in the world. There is something wonderful about recognizing that we cannot be totally successful in life on our own, and yet we do not need to be alone. God is willing to create relationships, and thus as we go about attempting to strengthen our ability to communicate with him, I feel that we will be able to gain a great deal.

In 1946 I was assigned by President George Albert Smith to go to war-torn Europe and reestablish our missions from Norway to South Africa and to set up a program for the distribution of welfare supplies. We established headquarters in London. We then made preliminary arrangements with the military on the continent. One of the first men I wished to see was the commander of the American forces in Europe. He was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. When we arrived in Frankfurt, my companion and I went in to seek an appointment with the general. The appointment officer said, “Gentlemen, there will be no opportunity for you to see the general for at least three days. He’s very busy and his calendar is filled up with appointments.” I said, “It is very important that we see him, and we can’t wait that long. We’re due in Berlin tomorrow.” He said, “I’m sorry.” We left the building, went out to our car, removed our hats, and united in prayer. We then went back into the building and found a different officer at the appointment post. In less than fifteen minutes we were in the presence of the general. We had prayed that we would be able to see him and to touch his heart, knowing that all relief supplies contributed from any source were then required to be placed in the hands of the military for distribution. Our objective, as we explained it to the general, was to distribute our own supplies to our own people through our own channels, and also to make gifts for general child feeding. We explained the welfare program and how it operated. Finally, he said, “Well, gentlemen, you go ahead and collect your supplies; and by the time you get them collected, the policy may be changed.” We said, “General, our supplies are already collected; they’re always collected. Within twenty-four hours from the time we wire the First Presidency of the Church in Salt Lake City, carloads of supplies will be rolling toward Germany. We have many storehouses filled with basic commodities.” He then said, “I’ve never heard of a people with such vision.” His heart was touched as we had prayed it would be. Before we left his office, we had a written authorization to make our own distribution to our own people through our own channels.

I am not totally sure the point of this story. Maybe it is if you get an unhelpful service provider, then you should just find someone else to help you, and you can get what you need. I wonder what would have happened had this other individual followed the same protocol as his co-workers. We simply would not have heard this story. However, I also believe that it is powerful that in these moments where it appears as if nothing is going right that we can unite, rejuvenate and come together with the Lord. We can come together with him in our struggles in order to figure out what next steps should be taken as we attempt to move forward.

It is soul-satisfying to know that God is mindful of us and ready to respond when we place our trust in Him and do that which is right. There is no place for fear among men and women who place their trust in the Almighty, who do not hesitate to humble themselves in seeking divine guidance through prayer. Though persecutions arise, though reverses come, in prayer we can find reassurance, for God will speak peace to the soul. That peace, that spirit of serenity, is life’s greatest blessing.

 I personally see so much beauty is abandoning fear, and attempting to create real and beautiful relationships with the divine. In a world where others are often so willing avoid giving you the benefit of the doubt, God knows us and wants the best for us.

As a boy in the Aaronic Priesthood, I learned this little poem about prayer. It has remained with me:

I know not by what methods rare, But this I know, God answers prayer.  I know that He has given His Word, Which tells me prayer is always heard, And will be answered, soon or late. And so I pray and calmly wait. I know not if the blessing sought Will come in just the way I thought; But leave my prayers with Him alone, Whose will is wiser than my own, Assured that He will grant my quest, Or send some answer far more blest.

 This message of patience, trust, and hope resonates much more with me then the claims of total certainty. Perhaps we can gain something from never having doubted, but I sincerely doubt that this is truly the experience of anyone. On the other hand, this willingness to recognize that we may not have all of the answers and yet we are willing to move forwards with faith in God is quite important.

… I bear witness to you, my beloved brethren and sisters, that God lives. He is not dead. … I testify there is a God in heaven who hears and answers prayer. I know this to be true. I would humbly urge all … to keep in close touch with our Father in heaven through prayer. Never before in this gospel dispensation has there been a greater need for prayer. That we will constantly depend upon our Heavenly Father and conscientiously strive to improve our communication with Him is my earnest plea.

I would like to end out this commentary by returning to the previous lesson. My hope is that we can attempt to take advantage of the blessings available through communion and communication with God. There are large amounts of diverse ways we can speak to God, but I believe that true power can come from this attempt to become better by creating a powerful relationship of communication with the divine.

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