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Dear Pastor Paul,
My family is Christian, but has never really been all that involved with the church. I feel lately that I don't have a loving connection with God. I need him in my life, and I pray, but I'm not getting the sincere feelings I used to when I was younger. What should I pray about to bring me back to God?

-- Unsigned

Dear Friend,
It can be difficult for individuals to maintain a spiritual practice alone. It sounds like you need a community to help you (and your family, if they are interested) regain what you felt when you were younger. Start your search by finding a loving, prayerful community that will encourage you in your desire to get back to God.

Try to pray at least once a day. Take time to meditate on your day and give thanks for the beautiful things that are happening in your life and ask for help with your struggles. End each prayer time with the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses (or debts) as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power forever. Amen.

When you pray this, you are praying the prayer Jesus prayed and millions of Christians have prayed for the last 2,000 years. In teaching us to pray in this way, Jesus invited all of us into the profound relationship that he held with God. God has been listening to this prayer for a long time and will hear your prayer as well.

Dear Pastor Paul,
How do I know when I am talking to God? I am a sophomore in high school dealing with depression and low self esteem. I don't have any friends. When I pray I ask God questions about how my life is going and why this stuff is happening to me. What did I do to deserve these things? I don't know if He's talking to me, or if it's my thoughts I'm hearing?

-- Darnetta

Dear Darnetta,
Your question is such a good one. Learning to distinguish our own will and thoughts from God's is a very subtle and profoundly important task.

Talking (or praying) to God is an intentional act different from having a running conversation in your head. You talk to God when you address Him specifically and directly with your deepest love, hope and suffering.

Make sure you pause to listen for God's response! In my experience, God doesn't blab on and on (unlike this column sometimes), but offers a few words or even a feeling that truly changes my mind or soul. God's voice allows me to feel at peace, and to know that my life will be all right. Even in my deepest struggles, when I hear God's voice I know that I'm loved. I encourage you to listen for this voice because, undoubtedly, God loves you too and is trying to communicate that to you.

I want to directly address your comment that you suffer from depression. Depression can be very serious. You should talk to your school counselor and make sure you see a mental-health professional, in addition to any guidance you may be getting from your pastor. Your life is precious and you do not need to suffer alone. There are people who can help you. Let them.

Dear Pastor Paul,
I am a Christian who goes to church every Sunday and Wednesday and participates in many church activities, but I don't feel very close to God. I feel like I'm not doing enough. I want to have a close relationship with Him, but I don't know how to develop one. I see other people praising, and I am envious of their closeness to God. I know He exists but for some reason, I can never really love Him, or feel the love He has for me. What do I do?

-- Confused

Dear Confused,
Your situation must be frustrating: you're doing everything "right" but you are not feeling God in your life.

First of all, don't compare your relationship with God to your perception of other people's relationship with God. Nobody's is perfect. It's the authenticity of the effort that counts.

There is such a thing as being too active in your church life, and not leaving enough time spend time in silence with God. Love between two people requires intentional time together, so does love between God and us.

The most important act in the Christian faith is to love God with all your heart. This love springs most readily from gratitude and trust. Take the time to recall the periods in your life when you felt alone or struggled, and remember how you got help and survived. That was the hand of God. Look around at the beauty and wonder of the world. That too is the hand of God. Give thanks for these things, and the other wonders and people in your life, and your love for God will grow from this fertile ground.

You might want to investigate the mystic traditions within the Christian faith which value the personal love relationship between the individual and God. Meanwhile, a prayerful silent retreat in a place of natural beauty will help your relationship with God to flourish. Contemplate Psalm 139, which addresses how we spend time with God. Attending a Taize prayer service-where people sing simple phrases of thanks and love to God is a nice communal activity, not to mention very beautiful and moving. You can find Taize services in Catholic churches (they are open to people of all Christian traditions).

Spend some time being open to God and the Love that God has for you. It is there--in abundance.

Pastor Paul has worked with young people in the Twin Cities, Seattle, Sao Paulo, and New York City. He was most recently a Chaplain at Columbia University in New York City.