New Year Thoughts from Bonhoeffer

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Bonhoeffer as a 20th Century Martyr, London, Westminster Abbey, July 2014

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben / Behütet und getröstet wunderbar / So will ich diese Tage mit euch leben / Und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

Surrounded, truly and calmly, by good Powers / Protected and comforted wonderfully / So I wish to live these days with you / And go with you into a new year.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, Berlin (1944)

On 28 December 1944, with little else to do in his cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer scratched out a quick birthday note to his mother. He hadn’t seen her–or his father, or his best friend Eberhard, or his fiancée Maria, or anyone, really–for more than a handful of visits since his arrest in April 1943, and now that the assassination plot he’s helped formulate had crumbled into failure, chances seemed slim that he’d see them again any time soon. If only the war would end, they surely must’ve thought. Then life would return. Dietrich and Maria would marry. The family would sing around the piano again.

“I have to write in some haste,” Bonhoeffer acknowledged after a short greeting in his letter. “. . . All I really want to do is to help to cheer you a little in these days that you must be finding so bleak.” Dietrich–a dutiful, loving son–thanked his mom for her life of sacrifice for her children, and stated his belief that the trials his family endured brought them closer than ever before. Indeed, the family shouldered great burdens. Mrs. Bonhoeffer had yet another son and a son-in-law in prison under the same charge as Dietrich: treason against the Führer. But the Nazis had little hard evidence as yet, and a losing war to keep them busy. So the Bonhoeffer boys sat in jail, and the theologian son wrote his mother.

I love Bonhoeffer’s humanness. I love that he was real and not at all as stoic and convinced as movies make him out to be. As far as heroes go, I guess I like the guarded ones who cry sometimes, because I’m guarded and I cry, so we speak the same heart, and I like that about people. I love the caution he penned when he told his mom, “My wish for you and father and Maria and for us all is that the New Year may bring us at least an occasional glimmer of light, and that we may once more have the joy of being together.”

An occasional glimmer of light. It would sound a bit depressing if not for context. A prisoner of the Reich held out hope for glimmers of light. He still believed in light, in spite of bomb raids and starvation and prison walls and lonely homesick achiness. He knew the sun wouldn’t always shine; he knew the course of nature required the sun to set and rise in patterns that sometimes left the world cloaked in darkness.

But he also knew about stars, and so he clung to hope for “an occasional glimmer of light” in spite of–well, everything dark the world knew at that moment of night.

In an earlier letter–this one to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge–Bonhoeffer pinpointed the light he hoped to catch glimmers of. After reading Dostoevsky’s classic Notes from the House of the Dead (and surely it took courage to read a book by a Slav in Nazi Germany), Bonhoeffer told Bethge, “I’m still thinking of the assertion, which in (Dostoevsky’s) case is certainly not a mere conventional dictum, that man cannot live without hope. . . . (H)ow great a power there is in a hope that is based on certainty, and how invincible a life with such a hope is. ‘Christ is our hope’ — this Pauline formula is the strength of our lives” (letter written 25 July 1944, Tegel Prison, Berlin).

And I say amen to the brave bookworm Bonhoeffer. Amen to the man who could rot in jail for the better part of two years and still speak of hope.

Perhaps I like Bonhoeffer because his words reach my own way of seeing the world. Light and hope mean Christ to me, and He means Light and Hope. I savor sunsets because of the beams that bounce off clouds to reflect radiant colors, and stars keep me going when little else can. When I see these bits of creation, I think about the tawny Carpenter’s hands that orchestrated it all–the perfect pierced palms acting in deft deference to the Father. I like to remember that Christ shined in a darkness that didn’t comprehend Him, just like I don’t quite comprehend how starlight pricks through the veil of atmosphere to glimmer in spite of the deepest dusks. Just like I don’t quite comprehend how humans in jail cells can hold on to hope in the darkness of war, death, and impending condemnation.

Fast forward again to Bonhoeffer’s  birthday/New Year message to mom, and to the poem he sent her as a present. I think it’s safe to say the link between the light-hope of Christ and analogies of night and day isn’t just something I’m reading in, based solely on my own bias. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Lass warm und still die Kerzen heute  flammen,

Die du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht.

Führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen.

Wir wissen es, dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.”

Which a German professor and I once translated as:

“Today let burn, warmly and calmly, the candles

That Thou brought into our darkness.

Lead us together again, if it can be.

We know it–Thy light shines in the night.”

Recently, a few young boys asked to interview me for a history project about World War Two rescue efforts, and they asked if I thought a certain rescuer would have done what he did if he’d known he’d lose his life. I think of this question with Bonhoeffer too as I read his letter to his dear mother, Paula. Would he have written what he did–his hopes for glimmers, his love for light–if he’d known a few months later Nazi guards at a concentration camp would drag him naked from his cell and hang him just days before the Allies freed his fellow inmates?

We can’t ever know. Life, unlike history, never plays in reverse.

But each New Year I think about Bonhoeffer’s poem, and perhaps my love for the guy tweaks my thoughts, but I gotta believe that he meant what he said about clinging to Christ in the dark and the light. I gotta think he believed that no matter what course the new year brought along, God would carry him, his parents, his fiancée, his friends. I gotta trust what he said, what he confessed with his life, and I gotta hang onto it too, because like Bonhoeffer, I believe that Christ and hope make life worth living, come what may.

“Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen,” Bonhoeffer closed his poem, “und ganz gewiss an jeden neuen Tag.” 

“God is with us in the evening and in the morning, and most assuredly in each new day.”

Whether the new year brings light in glimmers or beams, there is hope in the Light of the world.

Amen.

A Thrill of Hope

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Baby’s First Christmas, December 1990

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. . . .” — Placide Cappeau, “O Holy Night” (1847)

This photo is classic. Look at her—look at that three-month-old, perched in peril on Santa’s knee. What a face! There’s something in it that begs of Mom and Dad What are you doing to me?!, while simultaneously—with the help of early 90s technological failings—threatening St. Nick, Back off, bucky, or I’ll fry you with my laser vision! There’s fear and defiance in that pudgy mug. Perhaps a touch of melancholy, too, and a gravity that far exceeds the child’s tender age.

Or maybe she was just hungry. Who knows?

I realize it’s unwise to read too much into twenty-six-year-old photographs, but I also know a thing or two about that baby.

I know, for instance, that she’s her parents’ second child, and so her mom and dad weren’t quite novices but were still experimenting a bit. I know doctors had worried about the size of her giant head, the murmur in her heart, and a handful of other oddities (including infant acne—talk about a bad omen) when she was born. That must’ve put her parents on edge, and she didn’t do much to ease their concerns. In fact, she exacerbated them a bit by taking too long to smile.

Babies can smile by reflex from the get-go, but the conscious smile—the intentional one, or the one that plays along with Peek-A-Boo and other stimuli—starts coming when the kid is six- to twelve-weeks-old. And that matters a lot. Baby smiles are not only adorable, but a sign of cognitive development, so parents must monitor their new infants and work hard to foster the kinds of learning babies need in order to master new cognitive processes.

But the baby in this picture didn’t smile until somewhere in her third month—possibly not until days or weeks after the photo was taken. Surely her parents, whose first child had smiled much more easily and much earlier, surely they wondered a bit. And watched. And maybe worried.

And waited.

————————————————————————–

Elisabeth tried to focus on her sewing, but she hadn’t had much control over thoughts and emotions the past six months, and with Mary due to arrive any minute now, her mind raced down paths she’d tried to barricade. Her heart was conflicted. On the one hand, she’d welcomed Mary’s message—shock announcement and all—for the promise of company. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to. Confinement is hard—every woman said so—but harder still when you can’t even chat with your sweetheart just right when you need him the most, just right when you’re thrilled and sick and scared and overwhelmed by grace and muddled by doubts. Women need to talk those kinds of things out, but for whatever reason—still not wholly clear to Elisabeth—her husband had lost his voice at the temple and it hadn’t come back ever since. Just right when the miracle happened. Boy, she could’ve used her husband’s soothing wisdom during that rough first trimester.

So yeah, Elisabeth reminded herself, she was excited to see Mary, and yeah, it’d be nice to have a conversation again. But –

She sighed and put down her stitching.

“Father, I’m sorry. It doesn’t make sense,” she whispered, rubbing her forehead with her fingertips. “I have nothing to envy anymore, and, well, it’s not envy. It’s . . . hurt.” She glanced out the window to see whether the caravan was in sight yet. Nothing on the road.

“It’s just—she won’t get it. She can’t get it. You set a different life for her, and she’ll bounce in here, chipper as ever, and want to be all excited about how great it is that we’re both pregnant, and our kids can be friends, and she’ll bubble about it, and so on and so on, and . . . and I just don’t know if I can handle that kind of effervescence right now.” She craned her neck to face the ceiling and bit her lip before going on.

“I need someone who gets it, You know? Someone who knows why this is a little more solemn to me. Someone who understands where I’m coming from—the pain, the reproach, all those years of months of throbbing shock-red reminders that my womb and my dreams were as empty as ever. Someone who realizes how heavy it was when You kept the desire burning scars in my heart when I didn’t want it anymore, when it hurt too much to want it anymore, when I actually begged You to take Your promise out of me before it destroyed my capacity for hope.”

Tears blurred Elisabeth’s vision just as she saw the company approaching. She scrambled to compose herself, smudging away the water at her eyes, adjusting her headscarf, smoothing her dress. She put her stitching back on the shelf, but then leaned for a moment to finish her prayer.

“God, just give me something. Get me through this. I don’t want to think badly of her, or to be jealous that You made it so easy for some while women like me had to suffer a bit more. You’re doing something here, I can sense it. There’s more to all this than I comprehend. Change my heart, Father,” Elisabeth heard the front gate open, and she heard light footsteps patter along the path—Mary’s gait.

“Father,” Elisabeth walked toward the door, “I trust You. Teach me. Give me something.”

She paused at the entryway and listened as Mary approached the door. Before the young girl had even reached the steps, Mary could no longer contain her excitement, so she sang out her cousin’s name.

Elisabeth jolted, placed her hand on her swollen belly, and swam for a moment in the warmth of the Spirit. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as she opened the door and shouted the words God pressed into her heart.

————————————————————————

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the baby in the picture with Santa is me. I’m the smiling late-bloomer. Even right to this day my face naturally projects a grim/worried/angry expression, though more often than not, when friends and classmates ask me what’s wrong, the answer’s nothing and I mean it.

Knowing that about my face, I understand that the photo with Santa is not necessarily revealing; there’s really no special depth to my mien. But there’s one other detail about three-month-old Greer that affects how I view that picture—and how I view an awful lot else in life too.

Not long before Dad snapped the shot shown above, he stood surrounded by several other men, mostly uncles and neighbors, at the front of our local church meetinghouse. Dad cradled me while performing my first Mormon rite—a baby blessing, where Priesthood promises trickle from heaven onto a newborn to give insights and hopes for her life. Although there’s no set outline these blessings must follow, they generally fit a standard form. There’s the reminder that the child came from God, and the promise of breathtaking potential. There’s the section about living the Gospel and growing in Spirit, and there’s almost always a sentence or two about missions or marriage.

For obvious reasons, I do not recall receiving my baby blessing from Dad, though Mom has told me a bit about it. She can’t recite many of the words of the prayer—they’re written down who-knows-where in one of her old journals—but she remembers one phrase that stunned and upset her, that made her want to interrupt in protest. Uncharacteristic to traditional baby blessings, mine—voiced by my father—insisted, Greer, you will learn to deal well with disappointments.

“Excuse me?” Maternal instincts shot through my mother. “Who’s going to disappoint my baby?!”

It’s funny to hear her tell the story. Mom’s still got a mother bear locked inside her, and I’ve seen it lurk behind her glance when she’s learned of the disappointments I’ve faced through school, job hunts, my mission, and that mess that was my dating life (may it rest in peace). Though I’m grown now, I think Mom still hopes to shield me from pain. And she knows that—in spite of Dad’s Priesthood promise to me—I haven’t yet mastered the patience it takes to face disappointments without fear, anger, guilt.

So when I look at that picture of baby me next to Santa, I can’t help but see the face of a child facing long years of letdowns.

——————————————————————-

The donkey didn’t need much guidance, but Joseph kept hold of the reins so he’d have something to dig his fingernails into. Fractured thoughts filled the front of his mind, and he had a headache.

They’d all turned them down.

There would be lots of blood when it happened. . . .

Had he brought enough for the taxes?

Had he earned enough for the taxes?

He should heat the knife over fire before slicing the cord—he’d seen the midwife do that when his sister gave birth.

If he couldn’t even get a room, could he really provide for a family?

He’d need to bring in fresh hay to clean up all the blood. . . .

Joseph sighed and told Mary they were almost at the stable. She nodded, and Joseph tried not to notice the pain on her face. He’d prayed all night for the Lord to guide him to shelter. “And nothing,” he thought. “Nothing.”

A pause. “I’m not asking for another angel, God,” he turned his thoughts into prayer, “just a place for Mary and our—her—Your—. . . the baby.”

Another sigh, this one frustrated. “This isn’t the marriage I dreamed of, Father, but I went with it. I trusted You. I did what You said and I never looked back. So where are You, then? Eh? Why have You left us with nowhere to go, and barely enough to get by on? What have I done to incur Your displeasure? To warrant this deprivation? To bring it even on the head of the wife that You gave me—You insisted I take? Or is it. . . .

“—Or is this part of it too?” Joseph recalled the dream, the last time he’d really felt sure God was with him. The last time he’d felt heard.

The stable entrance was even smaller than Joseph thought it would be, so he almost passed by, lost in thought. He helped Mary dismount, got her settled on a stack of hay, then excused himself to fetch water. “Oh Father, I’m frightened,” Joseph whispered as he filled a pail at the stream. “Be with us again. Be with her. Don’t forsake us.” As he stood, Joseph glimpsed a star, and he felt warm for a moment. He closed his eyes. Listened. Walked back to the stall to prepare for the birth.

———————————————————————-

The thing that really gets me about disappointment is that it isn’t just tied to the big things. I think we humans could muster more strength to endure the cancers and miscarriages and house fires and divorces and infertility and disenfranchisement and layoffs and deaths if those were the only types of disappointments life could spit at us, and if we could face them just one at a time.

But the large-scale disappointments never play without constant, smaller-scale accompaniment: car trouble, power outages, bad hair days, stupid things you said that you can’t take back, common colds, high rent prices, zestless months, loneliness, failed tests, grad school rejections, misunderstandings, Seasonal Affective Disorder, stolen wallets, dead-end jobs, and the list could go on.

The persistent dings and scratches we incur over long months of small disappointments sap our energy, and weaken us when we need strength to face the big trials of life.

We’re too weary.

I know many good souls who are braving the disappointments I listed above; I didn’t choose words at random. I could spell out my own too, except that some of them sting too much to commit to typeface, and others are awkwardly personal, and still others make me ashamed of the selfish jerk I must be to whine about any dissatisfaction in one heck of a good life.

But conversations can change people in wondrous ways, as a recent chain of conversations has changed me. As I’ve talked to the people I love whose lives are embedded in the words I selected about disappointments, I think I’ve stumbled onto something theologians might call hermeneutics—the lens through which folks read things, especially scripture.

Maybe it’s because Christmas comes just after the close of my first semester of theological studies. Or maybe it’s the knot of disappointment and thrill that 2016 has been. Or maybe it’s inspiration. Who knows?

But this year I’m reading the Christmas Story like I’ve never read it before—like I’ve never needed to read it til now.

———————————————————————–

He snatched up his staff and the lamb that couldn’t yet run and he bolted down the hillside to keep up with his brothers. He still sensed the flash of light each time he blinked, and the glorias still rang in his ears. But he couldn’t quite swallow the message.

A baby?

“I mean, that’s fine and all,” his mind touched heaven, “You can do it however You please. But—beg pardon—a baby’s not gonna be of much help with the Romans.”

He panted as he ran. “And in a manger? What kind of Messiah is this?”

As a child he had loved to eavesdrop as his father talked politics with the older shepherds, and he’d grown especially fond of their colorful depictions of Mashiach—the Warrior Who’d sweep away a hundred centurions at a single blow, Who’d restore the Promised Land to the Chosen People. As a kid, he lived for stories like this, and had hoped to stick around long enough to see it all pan out.

Then a quiet night sky split and angels appeared and they said Mashiach was just down the hill, run to greet Him.

“But a baby, Father—and a poor one at that. Not even born in a proper house or anything,” he marveled. It t didn’t make sense. How could someone as poor as he and his fellow shepherds pack the kind of punch the Israelites needed the Messiah to bring?

The picture he’d clung to—his precious mental image—didn’t want to make room for this new proposition. His head swam with doubts.

But his heart beat, and not from the running. His hands shook, his knees buckled, his spine tingled. He ran faster than ever, drawn toward Bethlehem, toward the manger, toward the star that glimmered against darkness.

————————————————————————–

Jesus didn’t make His advent to a bunch of quaint actors in Israelite garb, standing stiff in a stable awaiting their scene. Too often that’s how we portray it, though. Mild-mannered Mary with confidence gleaming in her beautiful eyes, brave Joseph with no spoken lines, Elisabeth’s humility, shepherds’ awe, Simeon and Anna and all of the rest in their stately calm precise motions in just the right places at just the right times. Sure, things were hard, we concede. Who’d want to give birth in a smelly old stall? But beyond a few external discomforts, we envision the Nativity as rigid as the wooden replicas on our mantles.

Makes for a nice church pageant. But no one lives on a stage with a towel tied on his head.

The Christmas Story is a history of disappointed, weak, weary humans who forged ahead in spite of very real questions and very real hurts. And that matters. We’re meant to observe disappointment at the turn of each page in Luke 2; it’s there just for us.

After all, the Baby we celebrate was not just a Wonderful Counselor, but a Man of Sorrows Acquainted with Grief, although we hide our faces from that when we stiffen Him (Isaiah 53:3). The whole reason He came was to address disappointments—the large and the small—because they’re the pockmarks of Fallenness, and we can’t smooth them out on our own. I love the scripture that explains that Christ suffered “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” and all of this so that “He may know how according to the flesh how to succor His people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).

That means He gets it—and viscerally. He’s felt the sinking stomach, the raw heart, the tight throat of disappointments.

And those closest to Him knew those kinds of pains too.

Just like those closest to us.

This year I choose to read the Christmas Story through the hermeneutics of disappointment, because I know too many people who are adjusting to life plans against what they chose for themselves, and too many people who are questioning their faith because a mental image doesn’t match with new knowledge, and too many people who are just plumb tuckered out with the dinging and scratching of letdowns.

The Christmas Story is for women convinced that they’ll never give birth, and for husbands unsure how to proceed, and for folks on political fringes. It reminds us that angels split skies, but it also reminds us that even shepherds can bring heavenly tidings of joy. And it reminds us that stars can shine out against pitch.

It will yet be years before I make good on God’s counsel to learn to deal well with disappointments, but in the meantime, friends, thanks for showing what it looks like to forge ahead in spite of the pits in your bellies, in spite of the holes in your hearts. It’s wearisome, yes.

But that’s just when Hope thrills.

The Next Verses

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Provo Utah Temple 24 August 2016

I don’t care what anybody says, it doesn’t look like a spaceship, and it’s my very favorite, so critics can hush because August is a special time for me and the Provo Temple. Ten years ago this month I experienced a miracle there when God more than answered my prayers for comfort and ended years of struggling. Five years ago this month I went there to receive my endowment[1] before launching a mission to Ukraine. One year ago this month Nathan and I went there together for the first time in what became a tradition of (at least) weekly temple trips as a couple, and after the second such trip Nathan first raised the possibility of marriage in an act of sheer courage that propelled us on a beautiful trajectory.[2]

But this year this month we’re leaving. We’re loading a rental truck and driving thousands of miles away from my favorite place on all this green earth. Yes, we’ve got lots to look forward to, and yes, we’re excited, and yes, the future’s bright and all that. There’s even a temple somewhat close to where we’ll live. But nothing can loosen the bond I’ll keep with the Provo Temple where I found healing, where God armed me with power,[3] and where Nathan and I leapt in faith.

So forgive a sentimental sop this moment of reflection. It’s August and I want to talk about the Provo Temple—and temples in general.

One of the most-loved Mormon children’s songs is “I Love to See the Temple.”[4] I’m a fan of the song, but I realized recently that I’ve outgrown it—not the core of its message, but the lyrics themselves, which are understandably geared for young kids. “I’m going there someday,” which is one of the opening lines of the song, used to help me keep sight of a far-off dream, but nowadays it means something more like: “Tuesday or Saturday, afternoon or evening?” I’ve “go[ne] inside.” I’ve “listen[ed] and . . . pray[ed]. I’ve even been “sealed together” there with a really swell guy.

And that about covers all the points of the song, so what’s left for those of us who aren’t little kids anymore?

To be honest, I’d never wondered about this growing-up dilemma until the other day as I sat in the chapel of the Provo Temple listening to the organist play this classic hymn. While the music played I fingered the white lace on the packet holding my temple clothes and I sang the song’s words in my head. The fact that I was humming along about going someday to where I currently was struck me as slightly ironic.

Right then and there I decided to amend—or rather, extend—the song. Because little Mormon kids grow up, and when “someday” arrives, those grown-up kids get to learn for themselves exactly what there is to love about seeing the temple as promises turn into miracles, and think what the world would be like if we all wrote about our miracles just a little bit oftener.

I’ve seen miracles. Thrice I’ve seen miracles in August in the Provo Utah Temple.

So here’s a testimony, a song from a grown-up’s perspective, about the warmth and love and hope God stores in His Home, waiting for broken hearts to cradle and for bursting hearts to join in celebration. Here’s a verse for each of my August milestones—from ten years, five years, one year in the past—written this year in parting and gratitude, because for as much as I loved to see the temple in my frizzy-haired childhood, I love it still more for the role that it’s played in binding my heart to the Father.

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of peace

Where God can calm my sorrows

And bid my aching cease.

For the temple is a house of faith,

Of hope and joy and healing.

I’ll do all I can to live my life

To keep this sacred feeling.

*

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of light.

God gives His children wisdom

And arms them with His might.

For the temple is where we prepare

To serve with consecration

I’ll go forth in faith because I know

This is my sure foundation.

*

I love to see the temple

It is a place of love

Where we can give our futures

And hearts to God above.

For the temple is where we begin

This journey to forever

It’s the center of God’s purpose for

The life we’ll build together.

 

———————————————-

[1] “Receiving one’s endowment” is when a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends the temple for the first time to make special promises to God, Who promises special blessings in return. This typically occurs before an adult Latter-day Saint either leaves on a mission or marries in the temple, though members can work with their Church leaders to adapt to individual circumstances. The ceremony is beautiful and surprisingly simple. You can read more about it here: https://www.lds.org/manual/true-to-the-faith/temples.p1?lang=eng.

[2] After we first began considering marriage following our temple trip, our engagement and marriage both took place at the Provo Temple (in October and January, respectively).

[3] Doctrine and Covenants 109:22

[4] Words and music by Janice Kapp Perry. You can find the lyrics/sheet music here: https://www.lds.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/i-love-to-see-the-temple?lang=eng.

Father’s Day

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Moab, July 2015

It was cold out and we talked so long that the windshield fogged, blocking our view of the city lights down in the valley. He had parked not far from the start of Y Trailhead, as good a spot as any for an emergency talk like this. I had cried about life and fiddled with my charcoal pinstripe skirt, he had listened and questioned and cried a bit for me too. After I confessed feeling irreverent for having nearly yelled at God in a recent prayer about the sudden influx of disappointments, he said, “No—no don’t ever apologize for that, not if it’s sincere,” and his voice choked. “He wants us to be honest with Him, even if that means that sometimes we can’t take it anymore and we have to just shout Why are You doing this to me?!” which he did shout right there in the car before sobs overtook him, and I had never really seen that side of him before, and I cried at how human and real he was.

I had thought I needed him to be unflinching so I could borrow his strength in my moment of shattering; I learned that I instead needed to see that he knew what it meant to be broken too.

One of my earliest and favorite memories of him also occurred on a cold winter night when croup had me coughing so hard I vomited, and he wrapped me in one of our biggest quilts, hefted me, and stood on the driveway pointing at constellations and telling me the myths behind them. And he just held me like that for who knows how long while I rested my head on his broad shoulders and coughed into the quilt until the cool air calmed my breathing.

I also remember summer nights in the backyard when he taught me to memorize the names of Ursa Major’s stars, including Mizar and its binary Alcor—you have to squint a little and look real close to see but it’s there, and he taught me that there are all sorts of things we can’t see but they’re there.

And then there were the nights when he brought out the telescope, or got giddy about the Milky Way, or showed us his iPhone app that charts stellar location from any point on earth.

So it seemed fitting that when he revved up the engine again at the end of our chat near Y Trailhead, after waiting a few moments for the windows to defrost, he started driving us back down the mountain when we both saw it shoot across the piece of sky we could see through the windshield. “Did you see that?” He clutched the steering wheel in excitement. “Did you see that?!”

“I saw it—beautiful!”

“Maybe we’ll see more, maybe there’s a whole shower!” I don’t think he really watched the road for the rest of the drive. I think his big blue eyes—the ones he passed down to me—fixed on the sky like they usually do, searching the stars, watching to see another one dart in a dash of light against darkness.

Maybe he loves the stars because they’re lights against darkness, and they’re constant, even when we can’t see them, which means they’re like the faith that he burns in his heart.

The Finisher

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Along Washington DC’s New York Avenue,  February 2014

 

And the story has only begun. . . .

— “Glorious Unfolding,” Stephen Curtis Chapman (2013)

 

There’s a white Honda parked outside my apartment building, and it sports a back windshield decal that proclaims

And They Lived Happily . . . Ever After

Today I’ll ignore the egregious ellipsis error, ignore also questions about how such a large, flourishy sticker doesn’t obscure views of oncoming rear traffic, and I’ll move quickly through the assumption that all English-literate individuals can identify the source of that phrase and why it might appear on a car in the parking lot of newlywed student housing. I’m not sure which of my neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. White Honda. I don’t feel quite comfortable with spying through slats of window blinds just to see who gets into and out of that car each day. But whoever they are, I sure hope that they’re not at the point in their marriage that that sticker implies.

Happily ever after comes right before The End in traditional stories, and though I doubt that’s meant to indicate that Cinderella and Snow White and the other members of the Happy Ending Storybook Club filed for divorce just as soon as they finished their rides into the sunset, it does seem to signal that there’s nothing more worth telling. We’ve covered it all, folks. Nothing more to see here. They’ve reached the peak, and will hereafter plateau in perpetual pleasure. They’ve overcome all obstacles, beaten all odds, conquered and triumphed and now all that’s left is to bask in their love until the end of time, but we’ve seen enough of that to get the picture. The rest is old news, now. Just more of the same.

Now, I admit that weddings do celebrate a happy ending, of sorts. Dating stinks, in all candor, so when a guy finds a girl he can feel confident with, and when a girl finds a guy who helps her feel safe and strong, they grasp each other’s hands and hang on and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Friday night uncertainties and ambiguous texts and breakups and pits in the stomach. When the couple walks away from the altar, new rings glimmering on their left hands, they’ve gotten to the end of singlehood and move forward as a team, and if that’s not a joy worth celebrating with cake, then I’m pretty sure nothing is.

But I don’t like emphasizing the endness of marriage, which is why I have a beef with the Honda. And lest you think I’m assuming too much about the link between the happily ever after phrase and the story’s conclusion, consider this too: As I’ve pounded out ideas for this essay, a friend of mine was tagged in a Facebook wedding photo album by his new mother-in-law, and she captioned the pictures “And they lived happily ever after, the end.”

So soon? But they only just started. Is it already time to shut the book, flick off the light, tuck in bed, and call it a day?

If lovers were the only ones claiming these premature stopping points in their stories, we’d cut them some slack; love makes people loopy, so they get byes for all sorts of junk. But they’re not alone. They stand side by side with everyone who’s ever claimed that a baptism or a “coming to Jesus” or a prayer or a trip to the temple has changed who they are and they’ll never look back. In the group too are those who land their dream job and assert that they’ve “made it.” And the folks who forget that graduation commencement means start instead of conclusion. And the people who prepare for their first big race and then quit running the next day. And the newly-elected government officials who get too comfy in office and forget their campaign promises.

In short, we humans get real excited about certain milestones, we work and dream and sweat and sacrifice so we can reach them, and then we do and we think we’ve arrived. We consider it done.

But maybe the milestones aren’t ends in themselves—just checkpoints somewhere in the middle.

Nathan and I have been married for almost five months, which means we know nothing. But we’re gathering clues, and each day something hints that we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. Every day there are new plotlines in our story. The earliest (not even twelve hours after the wedding) was the rental car fiasco in the San Francisco airport; the latest was discovering that some punk helped himself to the contents of our own car the other day. The most serious was watching our grad school plans dissolve, leaving us with a painful decision to hash out; the most frivolous was losing ourselves not once but twice on a local school’s campus on the way to rehearsals.

And the stories we could tell you about each of those incidents! The growth we’ve seen! The funny quotes we’ve collected (on yellow sticky notes on the inside of a kitchen cupboard—most of them are from Nathan)! It feels like we’re even farther today from The End than we were on January 16th when we took our marriage license and glimmering rings and pounding hearts to the altar.

Same, too, for how life has gone since my baptism, or my mission, or graduating college. I’ve never “made it” anywhere—there’s still so far to go, and I keep going each day.

I think the Germans had the right idea about how to wrap up fairy tales. I’m not sure who crafted the phrase that we use in English, but it’s a pretty far cry from the traditional ending in our favorite stories’ native language. The German version mentions nothing about ongoing happiness—nothing, actually, about happiness at all. After marching through the plots we’re familiar with, German storytellers say:

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.

Literally: “And if they haven’t died, then they’re living still today.”

They’re living still. They’re in the present tense.

Their stories are ongoing.

I love the way Tolstoy expressed these thoughts in Anna Karenina. Konstantin Levin spends the entire novel (all 817 pages of it) seeking “arrival points” that will change his life wholesale. He thinks it’ll come when he marries the “perfect woman” he’s loved for so long—then they marry and he not only discovers that nobody (not even Kitty Scherbatskaya) is perfect but that his life isn’t suddenly perfect either. He thinks it’ll come when his son is born—then little Mitya arrives and Levin is repulsed at first to see the squirming wrinkled red child, though he feels inexplicably proud to hear the baby’s first sneeze. He even thinks it’ll come when (spoiler alert) he lets God into his life in a beautiful conversion at the end of the book—and just moments afterwards, he snaps at a servant.

“I expected more,” Levin says, describing his feelings when Mitya was born, but also accounting for his experience in the whole of the novel. “I expected that a new, pleasant feeling would blossom in me like a surprise.” But he realizes that in each case, “. . . This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed. . . . I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”[1]

That’s the end of the novel, guys. The next words are The End, but it’s clear that for Levin, the road will keep going.

For all of us, the road will keep going, up and down and left and right and backwards sometimes but that’s OK, we can reorient and find forward again. There’s unquestionable meaning in each of our lives. We’re empowered to do oh so much good. For as long as we live—may it be ever so long—the Father Who cradled us onto this earth has given us all that we need to endure. He wove tenacity into our spirits, then set us on a path with a solid rod to clutch, no matter how dark things might get, and He whispers to us not to let go, not to stop moving, not even to quit once we’ve tasted a bite of the fruit at the bright Tree of Life, but to start up again and make the round one more time so we can take another bite, and then do it again (see 1 Nephi 8).

Somewhere, at some time, in some beautiful place, God will let us know when we’ve arrived at the only true happily ever after any of us can hope and work for. He’ll hug us tight to His chest, we’ll sob into His shoulder, and He’ll stroke our heads as He whispers, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy [L]ord” (Matthew 25:21).

Until that day, though, we’re not at the end—no matter the baptism or mission or wedding or job. Until that day, we’ll take the scriptures’ advice, so fitting for an essay about stories and ends:

“Wherefore, . . . let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis added).

 

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[1] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 814, 817.

The God Who Hears Silence

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Provo Temple, October 2014

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. . . . [God has] made every thing beautiful in [its] time.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7, 11.

 

We Mormons are a publicly praying people. We sandwich our days and church services and youth activities and Christmas parties between opening and closing prayers—sentences projected into heaven by one individual on behalf of a family or congregation, punctuated with a final amen that the group recites in chorus before turning their attention to a speaker, before scurrying off to Sunday School, or before racing to reach the refreshments ahead of the hoard of pubescent deacons[1] who will surely scarf all the potatoes and Jell-O. These public prayers are a hallmark of LDS meetings, and I kid you not, I once tallied over thirty such litanies in one single day of a summer youth camp. Allotting an average thirty seconds per prayer (though believe me, some were much longer), that’s at least fifteen solid minutes I sat with head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded, listening to someone else parcel words up to the Father. Fifteen minutes is nice for a personal bedtime chat with God, but for public prayers? My goodness.

But despite this affinity for communal invocation, in the most sacred place a Mormon can set foot—the House of the Lord, the temple—there’s only one public prayer offered. It comes near the end of the service, when one white-clad volunteer speaks the words that come to his mind while others link the thoughts of their hearts to the sentences rising in an open channel that I swear you could see heaven through if you were brave enough to open your eyes and crane your neck to check out the ceiling during such a holy moment.

It’s one of my favorite parts of temple worship. I love to tie my heart to others’ sacred hopes, and I feel their faith in fiery prickles up and down my spine.

One evening, like hundreds before and dozens since, I sat in the temple quietly nursing a question that throbbed in my heart. I anticipated prayer time the way a struggling student waits outside a professor’s office, desperate for wisdom and counsel before an approaching deadline. I believe that the one public prayer in the temple ceremony moves on inspiration—the words the pray-er pronounces are merely dictation of the sentences the Spirit carries from heaven to the altar. Most times those words balm my worries. Often they convey special answers. Like so many similar times, that evening I begged God to hear me—to hear all of us in the temple that night—to listen to our words. Then I bowed my head and clenched my eyes and waited for the voice on which I’d hang my heart’s pleading.

Nothing.

Nothing stretched over several long seconds. Over too many seconds. The temple echoed silence.

Braving a peek, I tried to see why no one had started the prayer. Maybe someone had to go to the restroom? Perhaps the temple worker whose turn it was to pray had left the room for a moment? Had a patron become sick, or had someone passed out? Once my sister was in the temple when an older gentleman died—had that happened here too?

Through the slit of one eye I saw the temple volunteer in his white suit and tie bowed like an angel at the altar, flicking his fingers to show his fervent faith. I saw other patrons soaking in with their eyes words I’ve never learned because my ASL vocab exhausts at six phrases and the alphabet. It was the first Tuesday of the month, when the temple sets aside a couple of evening hours for deaf temple-goers. I had seen the interpreters throughout the session, but all the rites had been spoken like always while volunteers signed the translation. But now, at the pinnacle of the whole ceremony, the altar angel spoke with his hands and the other patrons heard with their eyes and the temple was still and my heart was on fire as warm quiet calmed my mind with the touch of the God Who hears silence.

I’d lie if I told you I’ve never heard whispers in answer to prayers, though that’s occurred only twice. More often I’ve felt Spirit-borne thoughts pressed into my soul, and I’ve dreamed things, and I’ve stumbled into scriptures that spell out timely revelation, and I’ve deciphered God’s words in the things friends and family and sometimes even strangers have told me.

But nine times out of ten when I turn to heaven, the response is as still as that chamber in the temple that night when I needed the Father to hear my words and send some in return. Nine times out of ten, God “keep[s] silence” (Eccl. 3:7). I keep praying, I wait, I search seek cry hope worry moan, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder more than just a little,

Heavenly Father, are You really there,

And do you hear and answer every child’s prayer?[2]

Silence seems a heavy disappointment to a sincere plea for direction.

But God “made every thing beautiful in [its] time” (Eccl. 3:11), even things that escape human comprehension—like silence. He can burn bushes with a fire that doesn’t destroy. He can make wine from water and water from rocks. He can take a broken bruised Body in a three-day-old tomb, breathe Life into it, and raise not only that One but all.

Among my favorite divine paradoxes is the truth of God’s fluency in the language of silence. I felt it that night. I felt Him absorb the tacit words flicked from the altar and flung from my heart. Where I had anticipated sounds on which I could hook a hope, the Father instead let me witness a quiet that reminded me to “be still and know that [He is] God” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:16, Psalms 46:10, emphasis added). He touched me without a sound. No words resonated in the temple or in my mind as the prayer drew on, but by the time the deaf patrons in the room signed what I can only assume was their chorused amen, I realized that “in quietness and in confidence [was my] strength” (Isaiah 30:15) for the evening, and by the time I stepped into the Celestial Room I no longer doubted the course God desired me to take.

Yes, it’s true that God speaks. I believe He whispered “Let there be” and then there was and it was good. I believe in the Word that was with God in the beginning, I believe in the Word that made everything, in the Word that is Life (John 1:1-4). I believe that God calls people by name, because names are sacred sounds and He knows them all and saves them to use on special occasions.

But there’s a time for God to speak and a time for Him to keep silence, for He knows that in the moments of silence we exercise the piece of our hearts that remembers heaven enough to touch it even when we can’t quite understand what’s going on around us. Faith is a paradox—“the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Perhaps then faith is also the answers we can’t hear, the trust that God hears and speaks in silence, but even when He’s silent He still speaks, and so we must move forward like brave, trusting children, for “of such is the kingdom, the kingdom of heav’n.”

Special thanks to Nathan Cordner for writing (and letting me use!) such beautiful music. 

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[1] In LDS church order, “deacons” are twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys.

[2]  “A Child’s Prayer” by Janice Kapp Perry. A personal favorite from the LDS Children’s Songbook. Emphasis added.

This My Hymn

peak winter

For the beauty of the earth, especially for the way You built it, crafting elements around a core so liquid hot and dense that every so often over billions of years it’s burst and rocks have jutted up and layered and combined to form the peaks I love to watch the sun rise over. For rainfall. For trees and rocks and textures. For the River Cam and the Dnepr, for Lake Helena and the Black Sea. For the fields and forests where You and I have carried out some of our most private, most important conversations, like how in the world was I supposed to survive high school when ninth grade and depression left me and my GPA shattered, or like how incomprehensibly happy I felt and feel that You healed my emotions and got me into BYU in spite of a poor GPA and a late application submission. For columbine and yellow roses, and for the crocuses that wake me from winter into spring. For the miracle of aspen trees and their whisper. For breezes and for frost. For the lovely death of trees in autumn and the resurrection that follows it, which You only just recently taught me to see as a fiery symbol of the resilience of the human spirit, which is really, then, a fiery symbol of the link that keeps us tied to You, the Sire of Spirits, and to Your Son, Who made resurrection possible in a world swallowed up in death.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour, of the day—when it’s light out, and thus I can see, and thus I feel like things make sense and I can move forward with confidence—and of the night—when, in darkness, I cling to the stars You made to remind us that no darkness need ever be total, and thus I can still move forward, even if I have to work on the confidence part a bit. For the beauty of each hour You and I have spent in heart-to-heart contact, and oh those hours are many indeed. For the beauty of the hours that come just as the sun rises or sets, when the heavens are set on holy fire. For the beauty of the hours that come after a good, hearty cry, and everything is still, and You’re there.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love. For the fact that You’ve poured over me so much more of that joy and love than anyone could ever deserve, least of all me. For each of my five brothers, who tease me and whom I tease, and for each of my five sisters, who counsel me and whom I counsel. For parents who do everything for me. For all the times they forgave me after I brought them heartbreak or concern. For their insistence that I go to DC and to Cambridge, because they knew I needed to stretch in ways that couldn’t happen in comfort. For the utter lack of fitting things to say about my dear parents, as I sit here bemoaning the hollowness of every sentence I try to structure in their honor, because how could words repay twenty-five years of life? For the opportunity to live my love for them, even if writing it is impossible. For the sisterhood of Apartment 210. For a best friend who lets me spam her phone with cross-country texts, because Virginia is too plumb far away from Utah. For mission presidents and their wise wives, who kept me upright under the weight of Ukraine, and who keep me upright under the weight of post-mission decisions. For the musical mathematician you led into my life at exactly the right moment, which seemed like exactly the wrong moment at first, as You are well aware after all those nights when I worried about the timing of it all, and begged You for enlightenment or knowledge or something more concrete than just the beautiful mounting calm You used to still my worries and direct my heart. For the something terribly concrete that came just hours before he proposed. For his heart, which somehow hasn’t grown bitter in spite of all sorts of trials and disappointments, including the ones I’ve put him through. For his tenacity and patience. For his hands, which You taught him to use to craft beautiful things, like arrangements and algorithms. For the joy of this very human love, which is all the while a very heavenly matter as well. For the faith You gave us as we tiptoed and chose and guessed our way into romance, even though there were and are things we need to keep in mind and prepare for. For Your wisdom in all of these relationships, in making provisions for the fact that humans hurt each other sometimes, and nothing is ever as clear to us as it probably ought to be, from Your eternal perspective, and so no one really knows what on earth is going on in families and friendships and courtships, but we sure do feel closer to You as we stumble our way through them.

Lord of all, to Thee I raise this, my hymn of grateful praise.

 

 

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Based on text from “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by Folliott S. Pierpont (1835-1917). See LDS Hymns #92.