The Power of Introvert Missionaries

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Bogatoe, Crimea, December 2012, one year after this story took place

[M]y grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)

One of the first real moments of discouragement I faced as a missionary doesn’t even have a cool setup—no barrage of vulgarities from hecklers on the street, no investigator texting “don’t call me again,” no harassment from a drunk dude dressed as Santa (true story, that came one year later). This moment bore none of the marks of the standard disappointments that buckle missionaries’ resolve, and it doesn’t make for an epic story either.

We just went to the store for bread and yogurt. That’s all.

It was my second full day in Ukraine, and while my assigned companions sat through training with a leadership council I spent time with a pair of sisters whom President and Sister Nielsen had praised. Both were new-ish themselves, but had served for a while and had caught the respect of our mission’s top leaders. With every ounce of sincerity in the heart that pounded just a few layers beneath the black plastic tag on my chest, I wanted to be like these sisters. I wanted to be a good missionary—not for praise or attention, but simply because that’s what I’d felt called to do. God and I had a pact: I would consecrate everything to serve Him and His children, and He’d give me the strength to do all that He asked. And by all reports, the sister missionaries I accompanied were exemplars of that exact kind of love, consecration, and service.

With the assignment to procure a few items for lunch, the sisters and I left the mission home and braved the December wind. We’d stuffed our overcoat pockets full of pamphlets with info about the Kniga Mormona[1] (Book of Mormon) and the Tserkov’ Iisusa Khrista Svyatykh poslednikh dney[2] (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I vowed to watch my colleagues, to imitate, to learn by example.

Unfortunately, not many folks were on the streets that morning, which stymied our efforts to proselytize. However, the sisters lost no opportunity to chat with me, asking all about myself and my background and my family and my schooling, and introducing themselves in return.

These were two of the kindest humans I’d met, so I couldn’t understand why discomfort mounted into a lump in my throat. We reached the store and bought the goods, then wound our way back to the mission home on Dzerzhinskogo Street. Once we’d unwrapped from our winter layers I bee-lined to the bathroom, desperate for a moment alone.

The two sisters—and virtually all of the missionaries that crowded the Nielsens’ apartment for mission council that day—seemed vivacious and friendly and warm.[3] They had more zest than lemons and their bold daring charm was genuine. These were likable folks. These were good missionaries, and I frankly saw why.

But I also saw the gulch separating their personalities from mine. And as I hid in the bathroom, exhausted from a half-hour’s small talk, I worried that that gulch might be real hard to cross. Good missionaries, it seemed, are gregarious. Good missionaries love to get to know brand new people, and they thrive on these new friend connections. Good missionaries don’t lock themselves in the washroom to avoid interactions with other humans.

Good missionaries—I thought—aren’t introverts.

* * * * *

Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking first hit the markets thirty-nine days after the above story took place (yes, I looked it up and counted), so of course there’s no way I could have known about it while I shuddered in the Nielsens’ bathroom. Which is a pity, really, because even though she never discussed Mormon missionaries, Cain laid out research that didn’t just feel familiar—it felt eerily exact to my experiences as a full-time missionary and in other Church settings as well.

Take her interview with Adam McHugh, a shy Presbyterian chaplain who noted that many introverted Christians struggle to square their drive for private devotion with the church’s emphasis on community. There’s undeniable tension, McHugh insisted, “[a]nd in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like.’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’” The symptom of this apparent displeasure is guilt tightening a knot in the back of the brain, knowing that “every person you fail to meet and proselytize is another soul you might have saved.” It’s another burden you might have lifted. It’s another heart you might have touched.[4]

After all, it’s on all the bumper stickers and bracelets—WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? Didn’t Jesus walk around and talk and teach and heal and help and bless? Twelve hand-picked BFFs thronged Him most of the time, plus dozens or hundreds or thousands of others. He certainly couldn’t have amassed followings like that from the quiet solitude of a nook in the carpentry shop. Surely He was a people-person—surely He was the people-person, the Ideal after which Christians strive.

No wonder, Susan Cain pointed out, that church websites often explicitly call for pastors to be extroverts; mustn’t the minister mimic the Master? Toward this end, one priest advised parishes looking to hire new clerics to check applicants’ Myers-Briggs scores: “‘If the first letter isn’t an ‘E’ [for extrovert],’ he tells them, ‘think twice. . . . I’m sure our Lord was [an extrovert].’”[5]

Well, perhaps He was or perhaps He wasn’t, but I know for absolute certain I’m not. Like McHugh—and like Cain—I scored the world’s staunchest “I” on the Myers-Briggs test. No “ambivert” or “extroverted-introvert” here (if such things even exist outside the Buzzfeed articles my friends share on Facebook). And long before I took the test I knew full well how I’d score.

But I also knew that God had sung in me a call to missionary service, so in the years preceding my twenty-first birthday (back when that was the threshold for sisters) I worked hard to learn how to fake charisma. I got a job as a mentor for university freshmen, which meant going to orientation activities and organizing group events and manning phones in the office. I volunteered to hand out fliers on campus for an upcoming club activity, and I actually told myself to pretend I was a missionary just to get through that one-hour time slot. The fact that I was in clubs—three of them!—is itself remarkable, since it meant interacting with people when I wished to hide in a library carrel all day.

All of those efforts—all of that time—I saw as investments for my full-time mission. Necessary investments. And I hoped they’d reap permanent dividends. I believe that God built into each of His children the capacity for change, and goodness knows I wanted to change into an extrovert, if for no other reason than to be a good missionary. So I worked at it, sacrificed, faked and fumbled and feigned. And my twelve-week stay in the Missionary Training Center wasn’t too bad, so I supposed that I’d made it.

But wandering around Dnepropetrovsk to buy bread with two model missionaries brought reality back into focus. More clearly than ever, I saw a long road between me and extroversion, and with McHugh I thought, God isn’t pleased with me.

* * * * *

What spooked me the most was the prospect of pride. Just by its name introversion sounds haughty—from Latin: turning inward. Sounds like turning toward oneself. Wouldn’t its synonym be self-absorbed? Susan Cain noted this perception in the earliest parts of her book; negative stereotypes about introversion abound. Cain acknowledged that some people think introverts are “hermits or misanthropes.”[6] Others link introversion with insecurity, Inferiority Complexes, and even poor hygiene. One fellow put introvert in the same category as “erratic, eccentric, . . . screwball, etc.”[7] So it does appear common—culturally, at least—to tie introversion to prideful or hateful or self-centered qualities, if not downright weirdness.

Each of these traits is anathema to anyone who wants to pin on the black nametag that brands full-time representatives of the Savior and His Church.

But none of these stereotypes defines introversion itself, and Cain noted that extroverts can be just as fallible as introverts can. (Think: If a missionary’s prime motivation for contacting, teaching, or securing “baptisms” is the social-centric rush of adrenaline s/he gains as an extrovert—well, isn’t that pride too?) Much more importantly, though, extroverts have no corner on the market for social strengths. Introversion carries its own pack of powers, which can often include deep thinking, careful listening, question asking, and a penchant for profound conversation rather than small talk.[8] Throughout Quiet Cain outlined examples of introverts dispelling tense situations in business or personal encounters by “deploying the powers of quiet.”[9] Characteristic high sensitivity[10] can also help introverts make careful observations about the situations they’re in and the potential consequences of proposed actions—more so than many extroverts.[11]

These are all qualities that Preach My Gospel admonishes missionaries to develop.[12]

So perhaps introversion is not wholly a disadvantage to the latter-day “army of Helaman,”[13] but simply a different approach to the work.

In all the dealings we humans face, “[t]he trick” Susan Cain wrote, “is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.”[14]

In other words: “[A]ll have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to [everyone] is given a gift by the Spirit of God . . . for the benefit of the children of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:11, 26).

* * * * *

Although, as I said, Cain’s book Quiet came around too late to shape these thoughts on my mission, another book did the trick far more powerfully. When at last I emerged from the Nielsens’ bathroom, I joined my interim companions—those charismatic exemplars of all I wanted to be—for an hour of personal scripture study. We sat on the floor of the spare bedroom and I took hard stock of my life while thumbing through the thin sheets of my Bible. Listening to the pages crinkle, I worried a confused prayer to Heaven, hoping to find in God’s Word the key to becoming the extrovert I thought a missionary must be.

Feeling a tug at my heart, I stopped turning pages and glanced at the text that lay open on my lap:

In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).[15]

The warm shudder of Truth climbed my spine. At that moment I had no idea what my mission would entail. I couldn’t yet know that some of the folks I’d meet would need a quiet approach to the Gospel. I couldn’t have known that cutting out small-talk would bring a quick and deep answer to that one woman’s prayer on Kyivskaya Street in Simferopol, or how it would feel when she sobbed “Spasibo” (thank you). I couldn’t have guessed that investigators and recent converts would confide that they trusted me because I was private. Or that one guy at English practice would make me cry when he said that he saw in my demeanor the mark of a Christian. To be sure, I couldn’t have known then how my companion’s and my quiet resolve would carry the Spirit into even the worst “dropping” lesson one week before I came home. And certainly I could not yet envision the horrible night when calm, quiet confidence—sustained through desperate prayer—was all that dissuaded one dear friend from taking her life.

I had no idea about any of that sitting there in the mission home on Day Two in Ukraine. But God knew, and so centuries earlier He linked quietness with confidence and strength, and He left the message right where I could find it in a moment of fear.

Sure, there were days when I put on pretended charisma, and days when staying in “sight and sound” of companions was draining,[16] and days when I cried in the bathroom. But whereas I once saw “extroversion not only as a personality trait but also as an indicator of virtue,”[17] the Lord showed me that He’ll accept any offering of sincere consecration. And what’s more, He’d already given me gifts by the Spirit of God for the benefit of the folks in my mission.

What I once considered a disadvantage was in fact a blessing, and in changing my perception God made “weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27). I haven’t yet thanked Him enough.

 

 

 

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[1] Full Russian title: Книга Мормона: Ещё одно свидетельство об Иисусе Христе.

[2] Церковь Иисуса Христа Святых последних дней.

[3] I fully believe that the most important word in this sentence is “seemed.” Folks can seem extroverted without actually being extroverts, and after I got to know many of these missionaries better, I learned that several of them (most notably President and Sister Nielsen) are more introverted. However, this story explains how I saw things that day.

[4] Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Broadway Books, 2013), 66. Note: Although I reference the 2013 edition of the book, Quiet first came out in January of 2012.

[5] Cain, Quiet, 65.

[6] Cain, Quiet, 11.

[7] Cain spends the whole of “Chapter One: The Rise of the ‘Mighty Likeable Fellow’: How Extroversion Became the Cultural Ideal” discussing these ideas. See Quiet, 19-33.

[8] Cain, Quiet, 11.

[9] Cain, Quiet, 266. For all the specific examples, well, you’ll just have to read the book. It’s packed with ’em.

[10] This comes up many times in the book, but specifically see Cain, Quiet, 14-15, and the bulk of Chapter 6 (130-154).

[11] See, among other examples, Cain, Quiet, 161.

[12] See https://www.lds.org/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service?lang=eng.

[13] See Janice Kapp Perry’s “We’ll Bring the World His Truth,” printed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Children’s Songbook (see https://www.lds.org/music/text/childrens-songbook?lang=eng).

[14] Cain, Quiet, 266.

[15] In its context, this line comes from Isaiah’s prophecy against Israel, whom he accuses of rejecting God’s messages. Here the Lord reminds Israel of all the promises they’ve refused, including peace: “For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength; and ye would not.” (Taken from KJV.)

[16] One of the top rules for missionaries is that they must stay within sight and sound of their companion(s) at all times. See the “Missionary Conduct” section of the Missionary Handbook published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2010).

[17] Cain, Quiet, 70.

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And Hearts are Brave Again

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“Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Joshua 1:9 — Photo from May 2017

On 17 March 2017 I was diagnosed with a tumor that is neither malignant nor benign.

That this particular brand of tissue growth tends not to metastasize was welcome news indeed, and you’d better believe I thanked God for it. All the more so because the diagnosis—and the blood tests and the brain scan that led to it—fell right-smack in the thick of midterms. It was hard enough to pretend I still cared about school. How much harder would it have been if the prognosis had been worse? Praise be to the Father, I do not have cancer.

But why do we call noncancerous tumors benign when they still can still rip the rug out from under your feet and leave you sprawled and dazed and aching and bruised and unsure how to pick yourself up from the dust?

Sometime in the whir before our wedding, I remember chatting with Nathan in his little red car. Like all almost-newlyweds we carried hopes in our hearts, and whispering those hopes into words we could share was a shivering sacred pastime we never tired of. We were piecing together a future—our future. It felt warm and right. Nathan held my hand as we committed to welcome any and all children God would send to our marriage, and never to bar their arrival. We stitched that commitment into the tapestry of our plans.

We wed, and soon my body beckoned the symptoms I knew to watch for. I walked on weak legs to the nearest CVS and bought a ClearBlue test—

—which I bombed worse than my Statistics 121 midterms in college.

In spite of all the tell-tale signs, I was not pregnant. It didn’t make sense, but the failure stung worse than it confused me, so I tried not to think much about it.

Except that the symptoms persisted. They were hollow each time, but they were real and they were there—and some of them I couldn’t just chalk up to stress. Month after month, my body acted pregnant. Month after month, my faith spiked and dashed. Nathan and I clutched what we could, but I’ll be honest: Hope became an increasingly untrustworthy verb.

A couple meets the medical definition of infertility after they’ve sent twelve months’ worth of invitations for a child to join their family without getting so much as an RSVP, so by the time our first anniversary rolled around, we knew it was time to drag my body to the doctor to investigate the ongoing cycle of lies. This essay is not a Wikipedia article, and I promised Nathan I’d avoid publicizing the gruesome details, so suffice it to say that the physician knew exactly what to test my blood for when she heard about the symptoms. In short order I was bouncing back and forth between campus and the hospital for tests and consultations and an MRI, memorizing flashcards for school exams when I wasn’t Googling stuff like hyperprolactinemia and pituitary adenoma.

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Post-MRI selfie, 16 March 2017

Early morning on St. Patrick’s Day when Dr. Goundan explained the previous day’s MRI results she used a plastic diagram to show me what a tiny pituitary gland looks like and how close it is to the optic nerve. She reassured me that the tumor on my gland is still small and that medicine might mask its effects—might even convince it to shrink some. “Yours is a good ways off from the nerve,” she explained, “but just to check, have you noticed any trouble with your vision?”

Vision as in eyesight? I wanted to ask. Or vision as in hopes and goals and who I want to be?

My eyes function just fine, but the adenoma attached to the pea-sized gland just behind them has wrecked a fundamental part of my vision.

This tumor doesn’t threaten my life, but it does threaten my ability to give life.

So long as it sits there pumping out pregnancy hormones for no discernible reason, Nathan and I will not be parents. Whether we will have children is no longer a commitment; it’s a question. And if we do bring souls to our family, there almost certainly will not be very many, because we’ll have to fight a little lump in my head every time. And who knows what else we’ll battle? There could yet be other factors at play, which is why I’ve still got on the calendar five more trips to the hospital for ultrasounds, examinations, and—undoubtedly—more blood tests. I’m collecting prick scars on my right arm from all the vials of blood I’ve had to fill. And I’m collecting receipts from Walgreens Pharmacy too for the medicine that blocks my tumor’s industrial-strength prolactin production.

So much for our whispers in Nathan’s little red car.

So much for our dreams and vocation.

So much for our vision.

I promise it’s not off-topic to switch now from talking about what’s in my head to what’s in my heart. The heart, after all, plays a central role in this saga for at least two reasons. First, because my heart holds congenital defects, and because I ditched the last cardiology check-up I was supposed to have four years ago, my primary care physician insisted that I visit a cardiologist to ensure that my heart is strong enough for a pregnancy anyway. So among the ten hospital trips I’ll have racked up by the end of July, three will have been to examine the broken thumping engine in my chest.[1]

Second, any person who’s lost grip on a longing must examine his or her heart, for—in words an ancient Israelite probably tole-painted and hung in her kitchen—“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick” (Prov. 13:12).

Aye, that it does. I’ve leaked liters of salty tears over the past several months, most recently on a train home from the library because the sore was raw that day and I lacked my typical resolve to hold in, chew my lip, and wait for privacy. I’ve scoured the scriptures for comfort, drifting again and again to my friends Sarah, Rachael, Rebekah, Hannah, and Elisabeth. I’ve chastened myself for wimpiness (Others have gone through way worse, you know), and questioned the purity of my motives (Isn’t it self-centered for adults to make child-bearing all about themselves?). I’ve even slipped toward pseudoscience, wondering whether all the Ukrainian babushki I met on my mission were right to warn me against sitting on cold concrete benches (“It will freeze you—you’ll never have children!”).

Questions like these do not live in the head, where my tumor lurks. Questions like these pulse in the heart, and they squeeze a tad too tightly sometimes.

Which is why Nathan and I have redoubled our efforts to flee to God’s House—the great Hospital of the Heart. When I say that there’s peace in the temple, I’m not spitting out platitudes; I’m speaking from uncounted experiences of bringing my bruised heart to the altar and walking away renewed.

On one such occasion—after my physician had said there was likely a tumor but before we’d run the tests to confirm it—I sat shaking in one corner of the temple, scared of the abyss Nathan and I would likely have to cross before we could ever realize the promises God planted inside us. I wrapped my arms around my midriff, tucked in my chin, and prayed.

As I did so, a song sung its way through my mind. Not a metaphorical song; actual music got stuck in my head, and I couldn’t shake it out for three hours. It was a hymn I enjoy but hadn’t really thought of that often—a British Protestant anthem we Mormons have claimed, perhaps because all folks of faith can resonate with words like these:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long

Stills on the ear the distant triumph song

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,

Alleluia, alleluia![2]

I swear, at that moment Our Father Who Art In Heaven crooked His arm around my shoulders and drew me close so His lips could whisper that “distant triumph song” right into the ears of His twenty-six-year-old infant who desperately needed a lullaby to calm her heart and make it “brave again.” He reignited a trust that months of false leads had tarnished, and He bolstered the hope I’d let slip.

At that moment, God was Fathering a woman who cannot yet mother.

Nathan and I do not know how long our warfare will be, nor how fiercely we’ll have to strive. We do know, however, that a very real God handles very real hurts in our very soft hearts. He has whispered words through scriptures and prayers. He’s blessed us with blogs to read and doctors to consult. He’s sent family and friends and church fellows and utter strangers to buoy us, to remind us about the “song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26). Most of the time that song is distant and the music is metaphorically masked as a breeze or a bird or the babbling Charles River. But in at least one important instance, that song was literal music that washed through my mind in the House of the Lord.

It’s enough to hold on to. It’s enough to get by. Grasping for faith and for each other’s hands, Nathan and I are poised to accompany the throng of soldiers who’ve fought for their children, who are fighting today, who are singing and shouting the music of God.

In spite of the hurts, our hearts are brave.

Alleluia.

 

 

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[1] Essayist Brian Doyle calls the heart the “wet engine” in a beautiful book by that name, and because Doyle’s own heart will soon be still, everyone ought to read the book and cry and thank God for making such a lovely, gifted man.
[2] From William Walsham How’s “For All the Saints,” #82 in the LDS hymnal.

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

light

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.