A Heritage of Prayer: Lessons from Lorne Sanny

During my first year on staff with The Navigators Eagle Lake Camps in 1996, we did a Bible study on prayer. After months studying the Scriptures, we invited Lorne Sanny (who had been president of The Navigators from 1956-1986) to come and speak to our group. I remember trying to figure out how to sit as close to him as possible, writing his name at the top of my journal page, and straining forward to listen to him.

He asked us a few questions about what we’d learned. There was a long pause.

And then he said:

“I know less about prayer today than I did when I was your age. I have prayed for over 60 years for several of my family members to come to faith and God has not answered those prayers, and I do not know why. Several times I’ve prayed for lesser things and God has provided above and beyond and immediately. All I know now, after all these years, is that prayer is communication, it’s talking to God. I don’t know how it works. I do know that God has asked me to do it, and I’ve always benefited when I’ve obeyed God. I have been changed by prayer, I am known by God and know God through prayer, but I don’t know how that happens.”

You could have heard a pin drop. I had expected mechanics, tips, and assurances. I hadn’t expected to hear longing and humility.

That night deeply impacted the way I model prayer to my kids and to students in our ministry over the years. I return so often to the notion that prayer is just talking to God and that we don’t get “better” at prayer, because every earnest prayer is warmly welcomed by God.


  1. Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered. And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is in the mind of the Spirit for he make intercession for the saints according to the will of God!

  2. I’m encouraged to press on in spite of my shallow love for Him, my wandering thoughts, my seeming to have so little to say to Him.

  3. One of the first things my wife and I did, after being led to the LORD by Jim Vaus in the ’50s was go to one of the Navigator’s conferences, with whom Vaus was affiliated. Lorne Sanny was on his way to be the Leader. Even from his earliest associations, he was the best.

  4. Writing again because I forgot to say that all this blessed closeness to God came about through intense and completely unexpected suffering. That is how I learned to pray. That is when, if we persevere through the anger, and the fear, and don’t turn away, He draws us close. And we come to know Him, and His love and His tenderness, and His power, and His faithfulness. And He is able to burden us for others. What a privilege!

  5. Thank you for this sweet wise word from Lorne Sanny. Amen! I am 84–the comments seem to be mostly from us octogenarians–and my fellowship with God grows ever sweeter, the sense of his presence stronger, I sense his answers when I am perplexed. I have no words to describe what I feel when I contemplate that the creator of the galaxies, the sovereign Lord over all of human history, is a personal God who cares about the details of my life. Prayer means simply turning the eyes of my heart toward Him, and sitting in stillness, pondering His love. Then interceding for many others, as his Holy Spirit leads.

    1. I take heart that there are sometimes struggles for you “octo’s”; I am in my mid-50’s, and have had plenty of dark nights of the soul, yet… you all give me hope, as a “younger” person, that all is never lost! I have been in deep, agonized, but very fruitful prayer about a coming church transition (for many reasons I won’t go into here, my current one is no longer home for me), and the saying my Gordon College roommate had is so apt: god can’t steer a parked car. The minute I started reaching out and acting on the possibility for my next move, I kept getting confirmations that this, indeed, was the direction God has for me right now; it seems that action is also a kind of prayer. Also, I have always loved the concept of Brother Lawrence: practicing the presence of God–talking to Him spontaneously while vacuuming, hearing the birds from my condo windows, doing laundry, whatever. So, I cherish your (and the others’) comments here. Lastly: Are you the Lois Westerlund who taught at Barrington College, circa 1985? If so: I was, to my knowledge, the only blind student there–and I so enjoyed studying under you. I hope you’re well and wish you every blessing! Sandra Streeter

  6. Thank you for this lesson. It’s a new perspective for me about prayer. Not because my prayer is being answered as I ask for, but because prayer draws me closer to the Lord, and most importantly, it’s an act of obedience.

  7. I remember going through the Col. 2:7 Series with a navigator staff leading a group of us at our business office. This was 1978 and I trusted Christ in l976 and my husband in 1977. Out of the spokes on the Wheel Illustration prayer was the most difficult discipline for me as well and actually still is. I have read books on prayer, gone to seminars on prayer, done Bible studies on prayer and have practiced prayer with several different groups. After 42 years I’d think I’d be more of a prayer warrior, but my biggest problem is praying alone. I love prayer with others and for others, but alone my grasshopper mind races from one thought to another and I have such a struggle staying in prayer. I am praying now that the Holy Spirit will give me the desire to pray and the determination to do it! Thank you for sharing so honestly and transparently. By doing so you have encouraged me and taken some of the guilty away!
    A California Grandmother

  8. After 55 years as a Christian, I continue to find prayer the most difficult discipline of Christianity. But I am more convinced than ever that God hears and He answers, though seldom in the manner I expect.

  9. This is such an inspiring article. I teach a missionary biography class and we were looking to see what God did in the life of Dawson Trotman just a few days ago. We admired his determination to get alone or with others to pray. This article increases the likelyhood that I’ll do it. Skip Coulter

  10. I was a young widower (25 years ago) and found that communication with God is perhaps deeper or at least more noticeable in the most difficult times. I remember others who heard my prayers were surprised by some things I said. In my conversation with my Creator I trusted that He already knew my heart so to say what I was feeling, the hurt and confusion, may have startled others but reassured me the He knows and He cares and He loves me more deeply than I can imagine. I also know less about prayer now than I did then but God has given me glimpses, about all that I can handle, of the power and comfort in the knowledge that He asked me to do it and always blesses me when I follow His direction.

  11. I am almost 93 years old and have learned a few things in my lifetime. One of the things that I was continually embarrassed by was that I thought I did not know how to pray. I often have ‘set out’ to formalize my prayers and always found myself just talking to God. It is such a comforting way to ‘visit’ with Him ! This article has reassured me that, for me, I am doing it ‘right.’ Blessings!

  12. I have been giving much time and thought to the Psalms the last few years. What has struck me is that so many prayers begin with supplication and end with praise.

  13. Thank you for this lesson. I am newly widowed. I am having a hard time concentrating and this is comforting that my feeble attempt is being heard. God bless the Navs. I have admired your principals of decipleship for many years

  14. Thank you John. I agree that each year as we grow older he seems nearer. I assume it is because we are getting closer and closer to heaven. I seem to need more and more wisdom.
    Prayers for you this new year.

  15. I’m 88. My wife went with Jesus last September. I pray often…with tears in my eyes for my wife and I were very close for over 63 years. I praise Him for each year. I know He hears my prayers for He comforts me. As we grow older He seems nearer. We know all wisdom comes from Jesus. It is clear to me that Lorne Sanny has prayed for much wisdom…and received it. Blessings on the Navigators

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