Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heavenly Father, are you really there?

I have been taught to pray all my life.  I have been taught that God hears and answers prayers.  I have been told what an answer to prayer feels like, and because I have taken questions to God in prayer, I also have personal experience with receiving answers.  I know what an answer to prayer feels like because I have experienced it first hand.

I have also struggled with prayer.  I don't always pray as regularly as I ought to.  Sometimes I pray as fervently as I know how, truly desiring an answer, and I don't feel like I get one.  Or I fervently pray, feel like I receive the answer, and then a short time later, the answer seems to change.  The answers that change have been the most challenging to my faith, but I have learned a little something about those answers and about prayer, and it's something that I've learned because I stuck with it.

Years ago, about the time my oldest child was three, I started investigating home schooling.  I had been introduced to the concept during my time in the Teacher Ed program in college.  I was fascinated by it, and I wanted to provide the best educational opportunities for my very bright little girl.  I studied it, I developed new ideas about education in general, and I found a method that struck me as being THE method, at least for my family.  I was excited.  I found like-minded friends, I did my best to implement the principles I had learned, and I prayed.  It was such a good thing!  I felt confident that I had discovered the Lord's path for our family.

Fast forward a few years, to the summer of 2007.  My oldest was now six, and was begging to go to school.  I was in turmoil.  For the first time in my life as a parent, I was questioning my earlier decision, and I wasn't sure why.  Clearly my six-year-old didn't have the capacity to make that kind of decision for herself.  I talked things over with my husband.  He was concerned about my ability to give the proper attention to our daughter's schooling and take care of our two younger daughters, one of whom was just a baby.  I brushed his concerns away.  With God, I could do anything, right?

I prayed about what to do.  So many years later, I'm not sure what I asked for in my prayers, but I did yearn to know with certainty what the Lord's will was for me.  About a week before school was to start, my mom was visiting.  She has always supported my desires to home school.  So it was rather unexpected when she looked at my daughter who was playing nearby and said, "You know, she would really thrive in school."  I started to cry.  "I know," was my reply.  It was even more unexpected than my mom's comment, but the instant I said it, relief washed over me and I knew what to do. It was a most certain answer to prayer.

Sometimes we feel that when we get an answer, that the struggle is over.  For me, that was just the beginning.  I knew God had answered my prayers.  But it wasn't what I wanted.  Oh, it was fun to shop for school clothes and supplies, and to take her first-day-of-school picture out on the front lawn. But every time she struggled with school or teachers or friends, I wanted to pull her out and teach her at home.  I had spent years studying and forming opinions about public school and home school, and I was emotionally invested in it.  Now, with my heart in home school and my daughter in public school, I didn't know who to be.  Should I join the PTA?  That's what good public school moms who care about their kids' educations do.  Isn't it?  Should I find a charter school that would push her academically?  That's what good moms who believe in school choice do, isn't it?  In the end, convenience won out.  The bus stop was two houses away.  I didn't even have to take my kid to school; the school district did that for me.  And I did not join the PTA.

Two years later, I revisited the question.  It was always a question for me.  I felt very strongly that I had been divinely guided to study home school, and it didn't make sense to me for that to be the case and then send my kids to public school.  My oldest was preparing to enter third grade, and my second daughter was getting ready for Kindergarten.  I didn't want them to go.  I wanted the benefits and blessings of home schooling my children, and I couldn't have them if I sent my kids to public school. I spent the summer in fervent prayer.  I knew what I wanted.  I knew it was good.  I felt strongly that it was right.  So I made plans to make home school our reality.

The first and most important step in the process was to discuss the matter with my husband.  He and I have several subjects where we really don't see eye to eye.  Home school is one of them.  But I knew that for home school to be right, we both had to be on board.  I asked him to pray about it, to study about it.  I felt confident about the direction we should take, and confident in his ability to receive answers to prayer.  I told him that whatever he felt was right, that's what we would do.  I knew there was a possibility that he would get a different answer.  While I was certain that his answer would be the same as mine, I also made the determination to stick by my word and follow my husband's counsel.

The entire summer passed.  I would occasionally broach the subject: "Have you gotten an answer yet?"  "No, not yet."  I was discouraged.  If I was going to home school, there were things I had to prepare! But I didn't want to push or nag.  I took the matter to the Lord in prayer.  He told me to trust my husband.  So I tried to calm my anxiety over the matter, and waited.

Traditionally, the night before school starts, my husband gives our children father's blessings.  As that night rolled around, my husband's answer still hadn't come.  He gave our daughters beautiful blessings, promising them that their year in school would be good.  I was angry.  He had blessed them to have a good year in school.  After our littles were tucked into bed, I asked if he had received his answer, and he had.  He told me that as he blessed our girls, the answer had come for him, and he knew that school was the best place for them to be.

Now I wasn't just angry.  I felt devastated.  I had made a promise, and I had promised to abide by it. But the worst part was that I had felt so strongly that I had received an answer to my prayers, and it seemed to have somehow changed.  I was sure that my husband's answer from God was just that--an answer from God.  I was also certain that I had been receiving answers--different answers--all summer.  How could that be?  I knew what the Spirit felt like, didn't I?  I knew how to receive answers to prayer.  How could we both be asking the Lord the same question for the same children and getting different answers?

I started doubting.  I didn't doubt the Lord, but I doubted my ability to receive answers from Him.  It felt useless to pray if I wasn't going to get what I wanted.  And there was the rub--what was my purpose in prayer, anyway?  To receive answers from the Lord?  Or to be right and get what I wanted?

It's been nearly eight years since I first received the answer to send my daughter to school.  And I've learned so much about prayer and answers in the intervening years.  The subject of home school is not one that will be a vehicle for spiritual growth for most people I know, but it has been the perfect learning tool for me.  And as this post is not really about home school at all, but about prayer, here is what this experience has taught me over the years:

  • When answers change, it is because circumstances have changed.  I prayed a lot about home school when my daughter was young.  The answer to send her to school did not come until she was at the age where she was legally required to be enrolled in school.  The answer didn't come when I asked, but when I needed it.
  • Sometimes the purpose for our experiences is different than we expect. I felt divinely guided to study home school.  Because that inspiration came when my oldest was young, and because I was so concerned for her education, I assumed that the reason was because home school was the best option for her.  That didn't turn out to be the case.  That doesn't mean that I was not divinely inspired to learn about home schooling, it just means that the purpose for it was different than I thought.
  • Our prayers for one answer can lead us to another.  My intention in asking my husband to pray about home school was because I thought that was what our children needed.  But what my children need more is a mom and dad who are completely united, and who seek to know and follow the counsel of the Lord.  This has been a critical learning experience for me, and it crossed over into my "home school lessons."  More important than where my kids go to school is that my husband and I make these decisions together.  (I'm sure I'll be writing another post on this subject!)
  • Sometimes we get in the way.  When we are so invested in things being a certain way, we may truly desire to know the will of God, but we aren't in the right place to receive the answer when it comes. I've learned over the years that being wrong is a really difficult thing for me, especially when I have drawn conclusions after a lot of study and effort.  It feels like my efforts were wasted.  It feels like I must be stupid for having drawn those conclusions in the first place.  Neither of those things are true. But in order to really know God's will, we have to be willing to give up our own.  Not feeling peace over an answer?  Are you willing to choose the opposite of what you want?  When I have been humbled to the point of being willing to give up my deepest desires, that is when those big answers have come.  It has always been painful in one way or another.  But the rewards and the peace have always been greater than the pain.  The peace and certainty that comes with an answer to prayer has gotten me through many difficult times--every difficult time.  I rely on it every day.
  • God is in charge. He is not controlling my life.  I can make my own choices.  I could have, at any point, abandoned my prayers on the subject and just home schooled my children.  But what would the consequences of that choice have been?  There would have been a serious rift in my relationship with my oldest daughter.  There would have been an even more serious rift in the relationship with my husband, one that could have been irreparable.  I'm certain that there would have been a serious toll on my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  But I would have gotten what I thought I wanted.  In reality, what I want most is a sweet and loving relationship with my husband, one where we are completely united.  I want a healthy and positive relationship with each of my children.  And I want to trust in the Lord and follow His will.  The Lord is blessing me with those things.  He sees the path for me to get those things. When I wanted home school, all I could see was home school.  I didn't see how it intersected with all the other desires of my heart.  But God did.  And in giving me "no" answers sometimes, what He was really doing was giving me "yes" answers to the things I want most.  I just didn't have the perspective to see it.

My struggles with prayer have changed over the years.  Each new struggle is a part of my growth. As I have worked through each struggle, my testimony of prayer has been strengthened.  Each "no" answer is not really about what I've been praying for.  It's about God teaching me important lessons to help me develop my full potential, both in this life and in the eternities.  I am so thankful for His perfect knowledge and wisdom.  I am so thankful for His love for me.  I am so thankful that He knows what I can become, and that He will tell me "no" when it will serve that higher purpose.