Latter-day Saint Life

When we say we’ll keep someone in our thoughts and prayers, do we?

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I’ve recently seen one repeated request that at first felt like an invitation to do nothing: Pray for Ukraine.

Years ago, as my mom picked me up from an appointment, she had an interesting choice of audio playing in the car—she was listening to Learn Ukrainian CDs she’d checked out from the library. My first reaction was to laugh.

Of all the languages she could have chosen, I could see no logical reason why my mom would have decided to casually learn Ukrainian. Laughing, I asked her why she was listening to this. She smiled and just said, “Why not?”

So for the next 30 minutes we learned a few very basic phrases in Ukrainian. To this day I can only remember one phrase: “Vybachte, ya rozmovlyayu anhliysʹkoyu.” Which means, “Excuse me, I speak English.” Not a very helpful phrase should I ever encounter a Ukrainian speaker, but a fun one to pull out at parties.

Back then Ukraine meant nothing to me. I don’t think I even knew where the country was. But today blue and yellow—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—make my heart lurch. A tower near my apartment in Salt Lake City lights up blue and yellow every night, reminding me of an ongoing conflict on the other side of the world that I feel I can do nothing about.

For months I’ve seen, and responded to when I can, the many calls from organizations gathering monetary donations, supplies, and volunteers. I’ve also repeatedly seen one request that at first felt like an invitation to do nothing: Pray for Ukraine. Initially, that invitation to pray felt like a cheap way out; a way to feel like I was doing something without really doing anything.

I mean, how often in other situations of life have I said, “I’ll keep them in my prayers,” and then actually done it? Unfortunately, my personal ratio of success isn’t very high. Or at least it wasn’t until recently. During April 2022 general conference I was taught that praying for someone isn’t the equivalent of doing nothing. In fact, praying for those in need should be at the foundation of everything else we do.

Let’s learn from the example of someone who has to address a lot of needs. Someone whose day-to-day life and divine calling is to watch over, instruct, warn, love, and lead every person on this earth today: President Russell M. Nelson. I imagine he must have so much emotional distress on his plate every morning as he carries the mantle of prophet for a war-torn and suffering world. But in this last conference, I think he hinted at how he not only bears that burden, but how he begins to address it and take action.

The third sentence out of President Nelson’s mouth at the April 2022 general conference was this: “I pray for you every day.”

That emphasis on “every day” is his—not mine.

Of course, I don’t know the specifics of President Nelson’s prayers, but I imagine he prays for the mothers. The fathers. The lonely. The overwhelmed. The sick. The Young Men and Young Women leaders. New converts. For leaders of other faiths. And most certainly he prays for those suffering from the conflict in Eastern Europe.

I have complete trust that if President Nelson says he is praying for us every day, he is doing exactly that. And as we sang in Primary back when the world seemed simpler: “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet.”

He also issues a very clear call to follow his example. In the third paragraph of his talk, President Nelson says, “We call upon people everywhere to pray for those in need, to do what they can to help the distressed, and to seek the Lord’s help in ending any major conflicts.”

Do you see the pattern in that statement? Pray for those in need, go do what you can to help, then keep praying.

Later, in President Nelson’s principal message of conference on Sunday afternoon, the second sentence out of his mouth was this: “I pray daily that you will be protected from the fierce attacks of the adversary and have the strength to push forward through whatever challenges you face.” And then later he said, “I weep and pray for all who are affected by this conflict. As a church we’re doing all we can to help those who are suffering and struggling to survive. We invite everyone to continue to fast and pray for all the people being hurt by this calamity.”

As my last point of evidence, in February, the First Presidency released a statement on the current armed conflict that reads: “We continue to pray for peace. … We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly, that the controversies will end peacefully, and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts.”

I imagine every word of those conference talks and that statement was carefully selected. “Pray” doesn’t mean they really hope for peace. “Pray” doesn’t mean they want it. “Pray” means President Nelson, President Oaks, and President Eyring ask God for peace, and they are asking us to join with them.

What if we stopped looking at “they’ll be in our prayers” as just a phrase and offered it as a promise? What could happen? For starters, we would change in at least three ways I can see:

  • Time spent talking to Heavenly Father about His children in distress would lead us to be more empathetic, which will then guide our everyday actions to be more heartfelt and sincere.
  • Through prayer, Heavenly Father can help us feel hopeful about the end of the conflict. And maintaining that sense of hope will make all the difference in how we serve. On an episode of Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, she and her guest talked about how reaching a state of peace helps us become even better advocates for those who are not at peace. In sum, they discussed how when we remember how good life can be, we are moved us with greater urgency to end conflict. If we succumb to the sadness and fears, then the bad guys have won—and we are not letting that happen. Prayer will keep us reassured that God will provide a path for peace.
  • Continuous petitions and ongoing conversation with God about tough topics like war will lead us to understand His nature in greater depth. As a member of the Martin handcart company once said, “We became acquainted with [God] in our extremities.” Maybe we can come out of this experience closer to Him, more assured of His goodness and watchful eye over us.

I am going to keep those affected by Eastern Europe conflict in my thoughts and prayers—I promise.

The morning this article was scheduled to go live, I checked Facebook and saw a post from President Nelson that began this way: “I have been pondering the evolving meaning in our society of the phrase thoughts and prayers.” Me too, President Nelson, me too. Check out his serendipitous message below:

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