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.

Keeping Watch: A Christmas Confession

View from the courtyard of King's College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

View from the courtyard of King’s College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

The name Greer, according to most sources, means something about being watchful or observant. Those who know me well might be tempted to assume, therefore, that my given name is somewhat of a misnomer. I try not to think about how often I’ve misplaced or neglected important items—like the time I was preparing to leave Ukraine and thought I’d scoured the apartment to locate the belongings I needed to take with me on my journey home to America. I’m embarrassed to say that several months passed before I realized that I’d left my Social Security card on one of the shelves in that Crimean apartment. I’m even more embarrassed to say that I likely would never have noticed the card’s absence had it not been for one of the missionaries who took my place after I’d left. She found the card one day and mailed it to me in an envelope we’re both grateful the postal workers kept track of.

So much for great powers of observation.

But my name has another meaning too, and it’s one that I find particularly interesting around Christmastime—especially this year. If etymologists are correct, then the roots embedded in the name Greer (a variant of Gregory) tie back to words related to shepherds and flocks. Something about the name implies a person guiding herds, watching over them, leading the sheep. And that makes sense. After all, shepherds need all the watchfulness, vigilance, and observation that Greer apparently connotes. How else could they keep track of the lambs, or prevent predators from attacking the flocks? Watchfulness defines shepherdry; it’s the hallmark of the profession.

Or, at least, in my limited experiences with sheep, that’s how it seems to me. But growing up in a suburban town known more for orchards than livestock, I can’t actually say that I’ve seen many herdsmen at work. In fact, a good portion of my exposure to shepherds has come just once a year when my family and fellow church-goers spend some time reviewing Luke 2 in the Bible to celebrate Jesus’s birth.

“There were in the same country,” we’re told, “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

The shepherds—all those greers gathered in the field with their sheep—likely sat or kneeled or stood in wide-eyed wonder as the “multitude of the heavenly host” started shouting Gloria in excelsis Deo! Then they scrambled off to see the Newborn, and after that they told everyone they could about the miracle they had witnessed and the salvation they had seen lying asleep in a stall.

When the angels arrived, the shepherds had been “keeping watch” over the sheep. They’d been living up to their names and their job titles, calmly doing exactly what they’d done every night without fail. I like to think that they had kept watch over their faith just as much as they had over their flocks. Perhaps that’s why the angels appeared to them—the shepherds had “eyes to see” and believe in God’s might (Deuteronomy 29:4). They had learned vigilance, and that was the trait God sought in the first, humble witnesses He selected to testify of the birth of His Son. Let them be poor, let them be frightened, but let them be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let their tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the stable, the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the Infant. “And this shall be a sign unto you,” the angel had told them (Luke 2:12), as if implying: “Remember these details. Watch for them. God’s giving you proof of His wonders and power. You’ve learned to keep track of each sheep in your fold—now remember the Lamb of God too.”

The angels’ appearance was almost certainly unexpected, but the shepherds were ready. They were keeping watch. Their eyes were open to notice the mysteries of the Creator of heaven and earth. But that doesn’t mean that they were anxious or impatient in waiting for signs and blessings; in all probability, not a single shepherd had agonized that night over the fact that God hadn’t yet sent the Messiah. They believed enough to wait and watch, and they trusted enough not to worry or waver. Without developing any ulcers from the angst of perpetual, impatient expectation, the shepherds kept watch, and in that way they were prepared to see the Hand of the Lord. Their watchfulness was proportionate to—or perhaps indicative of—their faith.

In the title of this essay I noted that these thoughts constitute a confession, and this seems like a good point to transition into that portion of things. I confess feeling bitterly jealous of the shepherds for enjoying a visit from angels. I confess worrying that my faith isn’t as strong as it ought to be, and certainly not as strong as the herdsmen’s. And I confess that it’s sometimes hard to “keep watch” for the Hand of God when it’s night and it feels like I’ve been sitting alone with my flock in a field with no heavenly hosts and no stars and no signs.

This past year has been exceptionally difficult for me. It might not have seemed that way to others who’ve watched me; on the surface it looks like a whole lot of stuff has gone right, with absolutely no catches. I lived in Washington DC doing research for the Smithsonian Institution—a dream come true for many history majors. I traveled to Britain where I studied at Cambridge University, explored the streets of London, hiked in the Highlands of Scotland, and encountered some of the world’s best examples of art, theater, and literature. I snagged a second publication. My résumé grew, and—more importantly—so did my circle of friends. To top it all off, I became an aunt and spent time with my beautiful niece once a week, watching as she learned to roll over, smile, and “sing.”

And trust me, I really am grateful for these (and dozens of other) marvelous blessings. But woven throughout all the moments and miracles, there’s been a higher-than-usual level of uncertainty, worry, concern. I’ve faced some pretty big decisions lately, and in each decision-making process I’ve studied and analyzed, planned, pondered, and prayed, wanting nothing more than to do God’s will, fearing nothing more than to make a mistake.

And in every single decision, I haven’t felt so much as a nudge from the Spirit regarding the paths I should take. No inklings, no promptings. Certainly no angelic visitations or heavenly choirs. Time after time I’ve just had to jump in, blind, begging God not to let me wander too far without the comfort and peace of being able to slip my hand into His and walk without wondering where I stood in relation to the Father Whose guidance means more to me than anything else.

A few months ago I wrote about one of those trying decisions—the process of choosing to go to Cambridge despite how illogical it seemed, despite my fears, and even despite the fact that it meant missing my grandmother’s funeral. (See “Remember Your Vera!”) I wrote the bulk of that essay on a plane jetting over the Atlantic Ocean, finished it up in a hotel in London, and posted it to this blog as soon as I reached my hostel on Fitzwilliam Street in Cambridge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. At that moment I was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, trying to commit myself to have faith that everything would turn out all right.

And it did. But only after several of the loneliest, homesickest weeks of my entire life. Sometimes the pain was so intense that I couldn’t focus on my studies, so I’d abandon the books on my desk, or the outlines of research papers on my laptop, and walk a few blocks to the River Cam—the only place where I felt somewhat peaceful. I don’t know how many times I strolled the banks of the Cam, but the tally is likely in the dozens. Sometimes I’d go running there, and once I even skipped out on a formal dinner just to take a run along the river, preferring the solitude of a two-mile jog to forced chit-chat with others when I felt so crummy inside.

I recall several nights when I cried in my bed, praying—out loud or in thought—for God’s help. I felt that I had no clear purpose, which made me wonder whether I’d really made the right decision in choosing to go on the study abroad. The choice had been hard, and I’d had so many doubts. Maybe I was just wasting my time. Maybe I wasn’t where I should be. Maybe my internal distress was divine confirmation that something was desperately wrong.

What I wouldn’t have given then for an angel to show up and say, “Fear not!” or “And this shall be a sign unto you.” Or perhaps a more colloquial, “Buck up—everything’s going to be fine. Keep your eyes peeled, and soon enough you’ll see God’s Hand unfolding the plan and the mercies He’s preparing you for.”

But of course no angel ever appeared in my small room, and those tearful prayers generally ended with my fading into sleep before waking up to another day of struggling to find meaning and purpose and drive.

During those seven weeks of waiting, God heard my prayers, although the answer He sent was just as unexpected to me as the seraphs must have been to the shepherds. But perhaps if I’d been just a little more watchful I could’ve prepared myself better to receive it. I hesitate to share many of the details, since the story isn’t just mine; it doesn’t seem right to outline someone else’s ongoing experience, especially when it involves personal matters. But I can explain that a feeling overcame me as I stood in front of King’s College on one of the last nights of the program, talking with a friend who opened my eyes to the glory of God because, she claimed, I had done the same thing to hers over the course of our interactions during the study abroad. Apparently our daily, quotidian conversations had more purpose than I’d ever realized. Somehow they’d helped my friend consider—for the very first time—that she might have a Father somewhere in the vastness of Heaven.

My friend cried and I cried, and the Spirit, at long last, whispered to my mind: See, Greer, everything’s working out. There really is meaning in all of this. This isn’t the only reason why God willed you to come here, but it certainly is one, and it matters a lot. There’s been direction and guidance all along—you just haven’t seen it. You haven’t let yourself see.

I hadn’t been keeping watch, too blinded by fears to pay attention to miracles. But God had mercifully laid out a blessing that changed me and calmed me. That night I cried as I talked with my family on Skype and explained that my time in Cambridge had not been in vain.

I wish I could say that every uncertainty in my life has panned out as clearly as this one. What’s more, I wish I could say that since this experience I’ve made impressive strides in showing more faith, watching more carefully for evidence of God’s Hand at work, trusting more fully the Father I know will never forsake or desert me. But I guess I’m too stubborn, too faithless—which has brought me to tears many more times since then as I’ve prayed in confusion and fear. I reckon that there are still many more tearful nights lurking in the near future. – And I reckon that God will be there with me too, just as He was out in Cambridge.

Which brings me to another confession—this one a bit more the way Jesus meant the word when He turned His apostles into full-time witnesses, giving them the role of the shepherds who had witnessed His birth (see Matthew 10:32).

I confess the reality of a Savior I can’t see. I confess the “man of sorrows” Who is simultaneously the “high priest of good things to come”—and I confess that it’s no mistake for those two titles to go together (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 9:11). After all, the Child all those shepherds scurried through the streets of Bethlehem to greet grew to be the Man Who “[went] forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind . . . that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).

I confess that He has succored me according to my infirmities. And I confess that I still need His succor.

At the close of what has to be one of the hardest, best, teariest years of my life, I thank God for the mercies with which He sustained me, even when I was worrying instead of watching. And I pledge to try a bit harder to be more like the shepherds who witnessed the birth of the Lamb, calmly “[doing] all things that [lay] in [their] power” as they kept watch over their sheep “with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:17).

I have no idea what next year will bring as I face the decisions and changes that swarm graduation, grad school, job hunting, family, finances, housing, moving out, moving on, growing up. More than ever, I need to live up to my name—to be worthy to witness God’s miracles through vigilant faith even when things seem dark and no angels show up to proclaim the glad tidings my heart aches to hear.

For strength, I look to my namesakes, the shepherds, the greers. Like them, let me be poor, let me be frightened, but let me be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let my tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the world God saved by sending His Son to a cradle of hay.

And all this shall be a sign unto me.

 

Leaning and the Limits of Logic

If you’ll pardon a bad scriptural pun, “lean not” really made a whole lot of sense “unto [mine] own understanding” as I tried not to peer over the lip of the 170 foot cliff I was supposed to rappel down in Moab as a first-timer. Seriously, though—I was standing there, clutching desperately to the rope that everyone assured me would bear up my weight and allow me to scale the sheer wall of sandstone, and all of the veterans kept telling me to lean back, keep my backside low, my legs perpendicular to the rock face.

I wanted to shout to them, “Excuse me, but have you seen how big this drop is? And how thin this rope is? And did you not hear the dozens of times I’ve insisted that I have never ever done this before?” Leaning back contradicted every rule of safety Mom and Dad ever drilled into me. Upon encountering a vertical drop, one ought to scoot away from the edge, not lean toward it and beg gravity to take over. It’s pretty basic stuff. My mind filled with lists of reasons why I should run up to the tree that was serving as the anchor for the rope, unlatch my harness, and book it back to safety.

But instead of ejaculating my protests in exactly the way my mind formed them, I just giggled a lot and made sarcastic jokes and tried to talk myself through it—the top three ways I instinctively indicate fear. And in the meantime all the others just kept instructing me to lean back. They said that the carabiner and belay latched onto my harness would provide friction to prevent me from falling too quickly. They said the guy down below would tighten the rope to stop my descent if I lost control. They said everything would be fine. But first and foremost, I had to lean back, position my body exactly 90 degrees from its normal upright angle, and walk off the edge of the cliff.

It all seemed terribly illogical.

My mind grasped for anything that might make rappelling make sense. Hadn’t I just watched an entire tour group—all newbies except for the experienced guide—lower themselves down the cliff one by one? They’d all gotten down safely. No accidents. No screams. No snapped rope or broken belay. And several members of my own group had also already gone down without incident.

So I knew it was possible. But I really couldn’t see how.

It was too late to change my mind, though. I’m too proud to display so much weakness in front of my peers, and plus, I was already hooked up to the harness, attached to the rope, and standing at the edge. I don’t know that I actually shrugged, since I was trying at that moment to move as little as possible. But I resigned myself to the commitment and took tiny steps backward, leaning into the mouth of the canyon.

I’ll spare you the details of the entire descent. It wasn’t the most graceful rappelling maneuver known to mankind. In fact, the skin between the thumb and pointer finger on my left hand still (over forty-eight hours later) bears the boil-like and still-growing blister from when I let my hand get so close to the belay that it got stuck for an agonizing half-minute between the rope and the metal. This essay will be short because typing hurts too much to permit my typical wordy philosophizing. You’re welcome for the brevity and for not including a picture of my bulbous, pus-filled injury.

But consider this: The fact that I’m writing means that I made it down alive. Actually, I made it down two other cliffs as well on that hiking trip—one 30 foot drop (piece o’ cake), and a 100 foot one that had a glorious view.

Everything that seemed so ridiculous to me now makes much more sense. I don’t pretend to understand everything about rappelling; there’s much to the physics of it that still baffles me as I consider how on earth such minimal equipment could sustain a grown woman for such a long, sheer drop. My mind still can’t quite fully wrap itself around the experience of feeding rope through a small metal trinket as it holds up my wriggling frame in midair. Logically, I don’t entirely understand how anyone could have thought up the sport, or how a fireman’s belay works, or how I convinced myself to take a step off the cliff, leaning back, trusting that I’d be okay just like all the people who went down before me.

All that I know is that it worked. And it worked again and again on that trip. And I actually had fun once I’d gotten my hand out from its pinch in the belay and allowed myself to take a look at the stunning nature that surrounded my dangling body.

Hands-on experience appeased my mind’s demand for logic, although it never fully answered the questions about how or what or why. I learned to lean toward the edge, not away. It made as little ostensible sense as many decisions I’ve had to make in my life, like leaving home for eighteen months to live in Ukraine when I didn’t know the language, or moving to DC to accept an unplanned-for internship, or going to Cambridge for a study abroad that I didn’t think I could afford.

In each of those situations, everything worked out fine—not always terribly gracefully, and not always without an injury or two. But they worked, and I lived, and I actually enjoyed the experiences.

I still have a few chasms to face that seem just as real as the 170 feet of sheer sandstone I scaled in Moab, and I have to hope that I’ll be able to swallow my fear—or at least impulsively giggle and sarcastically joke my way through it—to the point where I can take a step back, forcing myself into all sorts of unreasonable angles. I guess it’s worked before. I’ve seen faith pan out in others’ lives and my own, even under the most illogical of circumstances when it looked like nothing could brake a rapid fall. And there are veterans all around me who have done it themselves, and they swear that everything will be fine. All I need to do is let go of my demand for full comprehension, cling to the ropes, and lean into gaping nothingness. It’s counterintuitive, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work and be worth it. In fact, perhaps the mystery accounts for some of the beauty and thrill of the experience. Perhaps we sometimes have to teeter at the brink of a gap in logic, and lean hard—not unto our own understanding, but against the invisible hand of God, trusting Him to sustain us throughout the descent.

Trust, Love, and Peanuts

Although I don’t have statistics to back up the claim, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that I am one of very few people in this world who can say that they’ve gotten an EpiPen 2-Pak for Christmas. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to be one of those hot-topic items that jump off the shelves in the days leading up to 25 December each year. It’s not a common stocking stuffer. And what kid in his right mind would climb up onto Santa’s lap in the mall and say, “I’ve been real good this year—can I pretty please get a portable allergy medicine injection device?”

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really ask for it either; it was one of those gifts of necessity. My mission president’s wife told me—in no uncertain terms—that I was not allowed to conceal from my parents the severe reaction I suffered one evening almost a year after I arrived in Ukraine. For twenty-two years I had managed to live with my peanut allergy, toughing-it through the nausea, asphyxia, and hives by sheer grit or through Benadryl, no EpiPen needed, thanking heaven that my allergy was not as severe as some people’s. As the years went by I became more sensitive to the presence of peanuts, and soon I learned to prevent reactions from escalating too far.

But one night in a secluded village in Crimea a dear friend made dinner for me and my mission companion. She knew of my allergy, and swore up and down (even saluting for emphasis) that the cake balls she’d baked were nut-free.

They weren’t. I could tell as soon as the soft treat touched my lips. But I couldn’t bear the thought that poor Lyuba would know she had caused an allergic reaction, so I hid it from her, pretending everything was just fine. We had an hour-long lesson, and I even played the flute when Lyuba insisted on having a concert of hymns. My swelling lips stung as I pressed them into the correct embouchure, and my stomach heaved as I struggled to take breaths deep enough to supply the instrument with sound.

After a ninety-minute bus ride back to the city where we lived, my companion and I went straight home where we noticed the hives for the first time. My face and neck were visibly swollen, and my trachea was starting to close off. I lost control of my stomach. Ultimately, after prayers, a Priesthood blessing, and a phone call to the mission president for advice, I gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep. The next morning my poor companion admitted that throughout the night she had woken herself up just to see whether I was still breathing.

Sister van Bruggen told me that I absolutely had to tell Mom and Dad about the reaction and ask them to send me an EpiPen. Reluctantly, I provided an account of the experience in my weekly email home, and a few weeks later I found a small box wrapped in silver/candy cane paper tucked among the clothing and sweets that filled the Christmas package my family sent. Taped onto the shiny wrapping paper was a poem my parents had written for the occasion:

epipen

Not a typical Christmas gift, to say the very least.

To this day, nearly two years later, I’ve still never used an EpiPen. I’ve had nut encounters in that time, but the idea of stabbing myself in the thigh with a needle is less appealing than the thought of just willing my way through the discomfort and hoping for the best. And besides, the recent reactions haven’t been quite as severe as the one out in Nizhnyaya Kutuzova.

But the allergy is always with me, forcing me to pay close attention to the foods that I put in my mouth, insisting that I read menus and ingredients carefully, or requiring me to ask friends to taste a baked good before I become brave enough to give it a try.

One of the side effects of a food allergy is a strong element of distrust. In order to survive, I’ve got to be careful—I’ve got to employ every effort of caution and I’ve got to take matters into my own hands. The safest foods are the tried-and-true ones that I’ve eaten before with no problem, or the ones that I’ve made on my own. Control is also a big issue; the more I can control the production of a food, or the more knowledge I have about it, the more willing I am to trust that it’s safe, that it won’t hurt me, that I’ll be okay if I let it inside.

Which makes me wonder, sometimes, if there aren’t other allergies I’ve struggled with all my life. After all, food isn’t the only thing that gives cause for concern as I contemplate the consequences of letting something in.

I think I’m allergic to boldness. I think I’m allergic to love. I think I’m allergic to hopes, wants, and dreams—to anything that could break down inside of me and spark a crippling, painful reaction called fear or disappointment—and last I checked, there’s no medication to save me from anaphylaxis in these types of allergic attacks.

I tend to treat life much the way I treat food—that is, dolloped with heaps of doubt and distrust. The people and situations that earn my confidence are the ones about which I have the most knowledge, or the circumstances that yield to me the most sway. Place me in tried-and-true social settings and I’m comfortable with chatting and making new friends. Give me detailed descriptions of how things will turn out, and I walk forward boldly, with courage and pluck. Tell me how to best behave in a situation, and I’ll exceed expectations. I thrive in carefully monitored environments in which I can control all the variables. I yearn for clear guidelines. I seek for direction, like reading the ingredients listed on the side of a cereal box before placing it in a shopping cart.

But there just aren’t clearly marked allergy warnings in life. Not for inedible things, anyway.

Consider, for instance, another “allergic reaction” I suffered as a missionary. My companion and I had been teaching Sasha for months, and I loved her so much. She had confessed to us her belief that our acquaintance was not a coincidence, and I agreed. She had opened up to us about her past and her desires for a new start, a clean slate, a rebirth, a baptism. In so many ways, Sasha seemed like an answer to the prayers I had poured out to God, asking Him to lead us to those of His children who were seeking the truth of His Gospel.

Shortly before Sasha was scheduled to be baptized, however, she disappeared. She never answered the phone. She stopped coming to church. My companion and I were baffled, and we tried to reach her a number of times, even stopping by her home to deliver fresh-baked lemon poppy seed muffins.

It took a long time, but one night we finally found her. We had stopped by her house in one last effort to invite her to attend a special conference with us. The street was dark, so we almost didn’t see her standing near the curb. She was drunk, disoriented, she hadn’t eaten for days. She told us that she had planned to take her life that evening, sick of living with an abusive son who beat her and stole from her and starved her.

Feeling uneasy about being alone in such an unstable situation, my companion and I phoned some of the elders for backup. They arrived shortly before Sasha’s son came home—which was really poor timing. The presence of the elders sparked a conflict with Sasha’s son, who called his friends to come “take care of us.” Eventually the police became involved, and we spent hours standing in the cold outside a decrepit Ukrainian police station, ultimately being released on the condition that no missionaries would visit Sasha’s home ever again.

When my companion and I returned to our apartment at nearly 2:00 in the morning we were emotionally drained. We had prevented Sasha’s suicide, but now her son had a restraining order against us. We would never see our friend again.

I was too hurt to cry. My heart ached, my head throbbed, and a lump gathered in my throat. Despite intense exhaustion I found enough strength to pray, begging God to explain why the situation had unfolded in such a terrifying way. Why had Sasha—His daughter—suffered so much? Why had He not warned us earlier? And why, why was Sasha now forced to avoid the one thing that could have given her the comfort and peace that she sought?

In the weeks following our experience with Sasha I found it very difficult to hope for the best with the other people my companion and I taught. After all, I had poured so much faith and love and happiness into the relationship we had painstakingly built with Sasha—and for what? Just to have everything dashed apart in front of our eyes? Was that really worth it? I felt guilty for causing Sasha so much pain (since, after all, one of her son’s complaints against his mother was her involvement with “Mormons”). And I felt too battered and bruised to open my heart readily to anyone else.

My love for Sasha had resulted in a bitter reaction. I wasn’t too keen on the prospects of loving again.

Sometimes it just seems easier to avoid anything that might cause heartbreak rather than to endure the reaction when things don’t go well. If only each situation, relationship, or dream came with ingredients posted in bold on a side panel:

WARNING: Contains uncertainty.

ALLERGY INFORMATION: This product was processed on equipment that also processes disappointment.

MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF DISCOURAGEMENT AND FEAR.

Instead, we’ve got nothing. No warnings. No guidelines. No guarantee that everything will work out all right. – In fact, sometimes it just doesn’t.

But there’s one other lesson living with a nut allergy has forced me to accept: Sometimes survival requires a bit more than simply avoiding the things that could hurt.

If I were to insist on eating only those foods that I’ve tried once before—well, I’d probably only ever eat Ramen and Cheerios, which cuts out of my diet newly-acquired favorite meals, in addition to foods rich in nutrients needed to keep me hiking and running and thriving. If I demanded total control over my own food production, then I’d never have gotten to eat out at the new Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, or order pizza from Little Caesar’s, or enjoy home-cooked meals from Mom on weekend visits. I would have to live in fear every moment. And what kind of a life would that be?

Similarly, if I were to live life avoiding any possible pain, disappointment, or sting, I would give up the relationships that make me who I am. I’d stop loving and caring. I’d stop hoping and praying.

And what kind of a life would that be?

To truly survive, we must learn to trust. It’s hard. It hurts. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for even daring to write it. But I really believe that it’s true.

Every time I put food in my mouth, I’m vulnerable. Every time I reach out in love, my defenses are down. Sometimes these efforts have turned out poorly, launching me into painful, suffocating reactions that put me on guard and make me question whether I can ever open up again, try something new, and expose my weaknesses.

But I believe that God planted in each of us a surprising amount of resilience—enough to pull through heartache or to wrestle with doubts. Enough to keep dreaming after our hopes have been sunk. Enough to convince us to pray yet again after searching in vain for an answer. And although there can never be medication to stifle our spiritual allergic reactions, at least God gave us other vulnerable, susceptible, weak human beings with shoulders to cry on and lean on and grow on as we all feel our way through the pains and discouragement of living a meaningful life.

Somewhere between caution and risk comes trust. It’s what makes new experiences possible. It’s what makes life worth living—not free of fear but coping with it, and bearing uncertainties, sorrows, and pain. I hope to develop the trust I’ve neglected in favor of safety and ease. I hope to lean more on God than on what I can see and control. In the joys, trials, peace, and fear of my life, I hope to rely on the One Whose hand formed the world and the structures that make up my frail, vulnerable body—the One Who inspired life’s breath in me and sustained me through my sickness, sin, and pain.

Like the prophet Alma, “I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; [and] God has delivered me . . . yea, and I do put my trust in Him, and He will still deliver me.” (Alma 36:27)

On A Candlestick: Confessing a Truth that I Frequently Hide

This essay was originally written in September 2013, and is reposted here with a few minor alterations.

dnepr skyline

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men. – St. Matthew 5:15-16

In the heart of Ukraine there is a city called Dnepropetrovsk. It’s a beautiful city bisected by the winding, serene Dnepr River. There are skyscrapers and universities, private homes and street markets, synagogues, onion-domed temples, small churches. The city bustles with over a million inhabitants who jabber in Russian, Ukrainian, or some combination of both all at once. The streets are packed with thirty-year old cars and clunky marshrutky[1]. The air swirls with exhaust fumes, the scent of dried fish from the markets, and wafts of fresh air from the hills and the countryside. It’s an exciting, enthralling, remarkable place. There’s nothing quite like it in America.

In the heart of Dnepropetrovsk there are two shimmering towers. You can see them from pretty much any location—they hold a prominent place in the city’s skyline, and almost everyone knows where they are. Most Ukrainians call them “the Candlesticks,” and I frankly don’t blame them. Svechi (“candlesticks” in Russian) is much simpler to say than Dzerzhinskogo, which is the name of the street in the towers’ address. So if a person intends to visit the towers, it’s much easier to tell the cab driver, “Go to ‘the Candlesticks,’” than to spit out the address. This is especially true for any poor Americans who might find themselves making their way through the hectic, snaking streets of Dnepropetrovsk.

“The Candlesticks” are modern, high-class apartment buildings, and they’re known for housing two types of people: the mafia and the “Mormons.” That’s the joke, anyway. The mafia live there because the Candlesticks have some of the nicest apartments in all of Dnepropetrovsk. And, after all, the mafia have no problems with money. So why not live in luxury, eh? But for the Mormons it’s quite a bit different. In fact, of the hundreds of flats rented out of the towers, there’s only one apartment occupied by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So it’s really not fair to suggest that the Mormons are somehow a significant portion of the towers’ inhabitants. But the joke has foundation; the place does seem to be crawling with Mormons. You see, the one “Mormon apartment” in one tower of the Dnepropetrovsk Candlesticks is occupied by the president of the Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission of the LDS Church. So it’s not that uncommon to see hordes of LDS missionaries trailing in and out of the towers to visit the mission president for conferences and interviews, or to spend the night before being assigned to work in a different city.

I had the privilege to be one of those young missionaries in the Dnepropetrovsk Mission. But I spent little time in Dnepropetrovsk itself. After three months of training in America I lived in the Crimean Peninsula for the duration of my service as a missionary. Fifteen glorious months in a city called Simferopol—an eight-hour train ride south of Dnepropetrovsk. So needless to say, considering the distance between my area of service and the “mission home” (our name for the mission president’s apartment), I was not a frequent visitor to the Candlesticks.

But I still consider the Candlesticks to be a sacred place in my life—a place where I learned several valuable lessons, a place where God spoke to me in powerful ways. I’d like to share one experience that stands out to me as being especially formative. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s important nonetheless. It’s a time when I learned the truth of Christ’s phrase about hiding a light under a bushel—when I learned that I’m awfully good at concealing one of the brightest, most vibrant lights in my life. I’m quite comfortable under a bushel, it seems. Here’s the story:

It was late March, this year. My eighteen-month mission had come to a close. I had spent every hour of every day trying hard to help others come closer to Christ. My companions and I had walked off the soles of a few pairs of shoes treading the streets talking to all the people we met. We had somehow learned Russian so that we’d be able to tell people in their own native tongue, “God lives! He loves you! His Church is restored!” We’d seen miracles, trials, acts of kindness and mercy. We’d made friends, we’d made changes, and—most importantly—we’d made many people more aware of Christ’s love and His role in their lives. We’d become more aware of His role in our own lives as well.

My mission was perhaps the one period of my life when I can say that I lived out Christ’s commandment to “let your light so shine before men” as fully as He probably meant it. Although I’m a fairly shy person, I soon learned to speak rather boldly to let others know how I thought, how I felt. What a significant change from the girl I had been only eighteen short months before! I learned how to recognize truth from the Spirit of God, and I learned not to swallow back all those promptings to speak; I learned how to overcome fear with my faith, and it was a positively liberating sensation.

And then it all ended. It was time to go home. I was a little bit startled to find myself standing in Dnepropetrovsk, gazing out of the spacious window in the mission home, peering over the city and the beautiful river. Thousands of thoughts cluttered my mind as I tried to cope with the fact that my mission was over—and most of those thoughts ended with hesitant question marks.

Fortunately for me, there’s a splendid tradition: When missionaries are about to go home they are given the privilege of talking with their mission presidents in what some call an “exit interview.” I had heard great things of these interviews. Missionaries reported them to be moments of spectacular personal revelation, a time when the mission president—knowingly or not—seemed to speak just the words the out-going missionary needed to hear. Some said that the poignant questions President van Bruggen asked highlighted new possibilities they’d never considered. Others claimed that the special advice that he gave changed their lives and their mindsets. The prospects excited me greatly. After all, who couldn’t use a bit of personal guidance—particularly when that guidance is sent through an authorized servant of God?

That’s how I saw things as I walked into President van Bruggen’s office. All righty, I thought, let’s do this. I’ve prepared and I’ve prayed, and I’m ready to get revelation. Goodness knows I could use some right now.

And it’s true. I had put a great deal of thought and prayer going into the interview. I had lists of concerns I had taken to God, pleading with Him to open my mind and soften my heart through President van Bruggen’s brief words of counsel to me. My life was about to change drastically, and that was awfully scary to face. Something I’d worked for and lived for since childhood—the dream to serve Christ as a full-time missionary—was about to become a thing of the past. What was I supposed to hope for and work for and live for now?

What were God’s expectations for me?

I sat myself down on a comfortable chair in President van Bruggen’s small, book-filled office. The setting was lovely. The Spirit was strong. We prayed, then commenced a remarkable conversation. President van Bruggen was supportive, validating. He asked me to reflect on my mission experience. I cried a great deal, and he cried a bit too. All the while I could sense God’s direction and guidance flowing gently into the open receptacles of my willing heart and clear mind.

But then something happened—something I wasn’t prepared for. Something I thought I’d already overcome. President van Bruggen asked an innocent question: “So, Sister Bates,” he smiled his kind smile. “What are your plans for when you’re back home?”

And that’s when I did it: I committed a sin. That might sound a bit harsh, but please let me explain. At the instant he asked me this powerful question, an answer—a truth—came promptly to my mind. I felt that familiar, remarkable feeling that comes when the Spirit speaks to my heart. I felt Him convey the answer to those questions I had—all those doubts about what God expected of me, about what I should work for and do and become. My prayers had been answered. I knew what to say.

But despite all those months I’d engaged in bold testimony, despite all the lessons I learned from opening my mouth to proclaim God’s great truth, I faltered. I failed. I said something else, too afraid, too ashamed, to bring the truth to full light. I consciously chose to ignore that strong prompting.

Now, I didn’t lie, per se. I guess I just hid under a bushel of sorts. My answer was carefully calculated to conceal the most precious, most personal parts—the parts that, in fact, were the most inspired. I told President van Bruggen all about my “life’s goals”: There were two years of study still waiting for me, my major was history, my minor was English. I had a student job all lined-up and I’d start right away. After graduation I had hopes to attend some grad school, either furthering my historical studies or else branching out to theology. I’d be pretty happy with either of those. And then there were all sorts of occupational goals, but I wanted to see first which direction felt right for my graduate studies. On and on I went, babbling about academics and internships, mentors, careers. And to a vast extent, it was all very true.

But locked deep in my heart—its light smothered and veiled—there remained an even greater truth that I just wouldn’t say.

And President van Bruggen caught on.

He smiled at me patiently, sensing my discomfort as I struggled to hide my omission. When at last I’d completed my minutes-long rant, President van Bruggen had a sly spark in his eye. “That’s all very good,” he said quietly. I smiled with a sense of relief, thinking for an instant that I’d somehow escaped. But then he went on with a condemning question. These are words I will never forget:

“But aren’t you forgetting something important?”

——Why, yes. Yes I was. And by George, I had done it on purpose! I knew what he meant; I knew what I ought to have said. There I sat for a terrible instant of silence, guilty, embarrassed, and somewhat annoyed with myself for my cowardice in such a sheltered environment. I shrugged and looked down, and I probably blushed. I proceeded to give an astoundingly lukewarm response to President van Bruggen’s perceptive question: “Oh, well, yeah,” I began, gulping back all my guilt. “I mean, of course family is my priority. But, you know, it’s just sort of hard to . . . well, to bank on that, you know? I mean, it’s not really something I can . . . well, control. And so . . . yeah.” Then I nervously laughed and silently prayed for a quick change of topic.

And so, there you have it. A lackluster close to one of my final opportunities to testify as a missionary. It’s pitiful, isn’t it? I had spent eighteen months proclaiming truth boldly, unapologetically, with conviction and light. Countless times babushky[2] had stopped me on the street to inquire after the light in my eyes and my face. Women walking their dogs would stop, turn their heads. And when they heard our message, they knew where this radiance came from. It’s an inescapable trait that marks all who endeavor to follow Jesus Christ. It’s the “light” that He gives in the form of His truth. For eighteen months I had carried that light as a good Christian should—set atop a bright candlestick, out in the open, where all could see it and enjoy its warm glow.

But then—in one of the bitterest ironies of my life—when I sat in “the Candlestick” I searched for a bushel. Rather than boldly declaring the truth, I chose instead to say something safe, something dull. Rather than testify of the paramount importance of family, I chose to speak only of secular things, of “success” as the world quantifies it.

Perhaps all this stemmed from a fear of some kind. After all, I’ve developed a certain loathing to conversations in which people ask about my dreams for a future family. Maybe some of you girls have had similar experiences. As soon as I mention wanting to raise children, people will generally laugh just a bit—a pitying, slightly condescending chuckle. And then there’s that dreaded question, “But what else?” as if to highlight a narrow-minded naïveté embedded in my dreams. “You poor girl,” they seem to imply. “Don’t you realize what you’re missing? You’re bright. You’re successful. You’ve already gone far. Just imagine what more you could do with your life! Sure, have a family someday, if that’s what you want. But become a professor as well as a mom. Be a world-famous author as well as a mom. You don’t have to settle for one or the other. Go ahead—take the best of both worlds,” they declare.

But in all honesty, that’s just not how I feel. Please allow me the privilege to express now in writing a truth I’m too timid—or perhaps just too proud—to discuss with most people face-to-face. Although I love history, writing, and theology, although I’d be thrilled to become a professor or author or researcher of some kind, none of that is what’s really important to me deep inside. More than any career or degree I could work for, my priority is family. And that’s what it always will be.

But it’s just so hard to say that to people sometimes. I’m afraid of offending those whose circumstances differ from my own. I’m afraid of eliciting a far too personal discourse with a stranger. I’m afraid of the judgment others might pass if they deem my dreams shallow or somehow naïve.

And perhaps I’m afraid of the disappointment that might come if I set my sights too high, hoping and working and living for something that’s beyond my control to obtain.

None of this is a justification, mind you. I know that Christ never said, “Let your light so shine before men—unless, of course, they just won’t understand. Or unless they’ll just laugh in your face. Or unless it just doesn’t make sense to shine at the moment. Or unless—heaven forbid—you might give offence. Under those circumstances, by all means, find a bushel and make use of it until situations improve.” Christ never called for “fair weather” disciples. Thus, I know that there’s no good excuse for my silence regarding my dreams of family and motherhood. And yet, goodness knows, it’s sure easy to keep quiet on those precious subjects.

That’s the trouble with candles. Once the flame has been lit you’re exposed, vulnerable. You can’t hide in the light.—

—But still, I suppose that it’s worth being seen. It’s worth being seen for Christ’s sake and the sake of His truth.

Now, it might be easy to think that the story ends there, with my shrinking away from the light of my testimony of marriage and family. But it seems that God hasn’t quite given up on me yet. The story is far from a final conclusion, and it recently took a turn that I didn’t expect over five weeks ago when I sat down to start writing this essay.

Fast forward a bit—about five months after my experience with President van Bruggen in the Dnepropetrovsk mission home. Much had happened throughout those five fleeting months. One event in particular stands out to me: An apostle of Christ[3] gave a powerful speech in which he commissioned women to be bold and to “bear [their] testimonies of the truth of all things”—most especially in defense of the family.[4] Sitting in the large auditorium during this talk, I cringed and remembered my interview back in Dnepropetrovsk. With resolve to repent of my former omission, I committed there and then to write an essay expounding my thoughts on the matter.

And so I began. But a few weeks soon passed and I found myself mired in the muddle of strong writer’s block. There’s no ending! I realized with troubled dismay. A beginning and middle—but no way to end. What’s the point if there’s no clear conclusion? So I struggled and stalled, wrote, revised, and rethought things, all without making much progress.

That’s when God intervened, offering me redemption with a strikingly similar situation to the one at the start of this essay.

Once again I found myself seated on a comfortable chair in a small, book-filled office—this time in America on the campus of my university. I sat directly across from a brilliant professor who had graciously agreed to meet with me to enlighten my mind and offer direction for my studies and goals. The conversation was pleasant, edifying, and warm. Dr. Gaskill offered splendid advice, and he seemed to legitimately think that I showed some potential for success as a scholar (a notion which, frankly, surprised me a bit, considering how little he knew me). As the discussion reached a close, Dr. Gaskill leaned back in his chair and remarked, “You know, I’m really anxious to see how this turns out. We could really use your perspective,” he went on with a smile. “There just aren’t enough women in this field.”

My heart jumped. There it was again, that feeling, that powerful truth from the Spirit of God in a soft, unmistakable prompting to speak. Once again, I knew what I needed to say—the exact words, it turns out, I had kept under a bushel six months prior in Dnepropetrovsk. I looked down at the laptop that perched on my knees. I thought of this essay, of the thousands of pixels I was struggling to arrange into some comprehensible form with no ending. The unfinished thoughts filled my brain. All those words I had written flowed into my mind. “On a candlestick,” “it giveth light,” “Let your light so shine” seemed to ring through my ears as adrenaline coursed through my veins.

Then I felt the right corner of my mouth twitch up into a half-smile. I took a deep breath. “Well, you know, to be perfectly honest,” I began. Then I paused. Then I sighed. Then I made direct eye contact with Dr. Gaskill.—Then I finally smiled completely.

“To be perfectly honest, more than anything else, I want to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Then I basked in the wonderful light of that truth.

 

——————————————–

[1] Маршрутки: small bus-like vehicles used as a form of public transportation.

[2] Бабушки—the Russian word for “grandmother,” colloquially used in reference to older women in general.

[3] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is patterned after the organization of the church Christ established during His life on the earth. Just as He called 12 apostles, the LDS Church also has 12 apostles.

[4] See “Let Us Think Straight,” by M. Russell Ballard, http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=2133.

“Your Life is Null and Void”: Thoughts on Futility

ukraine

Washington DC, February 2014

On 27 October 1942 Nazi guards at Plötzensee Prison brought Helmuth Hübener into a darkened room bisected by a black curtain. A pastor whispered the words “Your life is null and void,” one guard drew back the curtain and the others led Hübener to the guillotine where they executed him. He was seventeen years old—the youngest person condemned for organized resistance against the Nazi regime.[1]

One of my professors once led a class discussion about Helmuth Hübener. He chose to focus the conversation on one question: Was it worth it? Did Helmuth’s death have meaning? Or, more important still, did his life and his actions have meaning?

Helmuth had been the ringleader of a tiny resistance movement in the north-Germany port city Hamburg. His brother had gifted him an illegal short-wave radio, which Helmuth had used to listen to BBC broadcasts that contradicted German propaganda. Using the typewriter he’d been permitted access to for ecclesiastical duties in his local church group, Helmuth began writing leaflets that he and two friends distributed throughout the town. Eventually one other friend joined the group. The four teenage boys continued their work until Helmuth made one fatal slip that led the Gestapo to arrest the participants. Three of the boys received sentences to hard labor in the Third Reich’s notorious prison camps. Helmuth Hübener received condemnation—and the Führer himself denied pleas to have the sentence commuted.

More than seventy years later, what does all of this mean? Sure, the Hübener Gruppe was one of the earliest organized movements opposed to the Nazis, so kudos to them. But did anyone actually read what Helmuth wrote? And if they did, then why didn’t they do anything about it? The war and the horrors of Hitler’s empire went on for years following Hübener’s death. Was that worth dying for—especially at such a young age?

Perhaps Helmuth Hübener could have been of more use to Germany if he’d kept quiet, held back, and not risked his neck on a movement that yielded no measurable success. Maybe he could have contributed to rebuilding his nation after the war. He was bright. He was talented. And post-Hitler Germany needed all the brightness and talent it could get to pull through the Cold War and the efforts to construct a new life in a battered, bombed-out shell of a historic land. Maybe he should have waited a bit. Maybe then he could have made a difference.

— At least, that’s what most of my classmates had to say.

And I guess I can understand their logic. After all, we come from a generation infused with a sense of futility.

We have access to information from all over the world—twenty-four-hour news coverage, Internet contacts, Pinterest and YouTube and probably a slew of new trinkets Google is cooking up out in Silicon Valley. It’s exciting to see, learn, and know so much. But the most poignant side-effect of this broad range of information is the smallness we feel when we realize how vast the whole world is. And in such a big place, surrounded by such big-name players with power and actual influence—well, what could I possibly do to make so much as a ripple beyond my own family, my intimate circle of friends?

If you’ll allow for a personal example: I was living in Washington DC during Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. I followed the issue closely since I had lived in Crimea’s capital city for a year-and-a-half and had many friends still living there. Glued to my laptop, I sat for hours reading news from Moscow, Kyiv, Simferopol, London, New York, and any other location that ran stories about the fate of my second home. For the first time in my life I became addicted to Facebook, since that proved my one forum to receive direct information from eyewitnesses—all my Crimean friends who wrote about their experiences.

I wanted to do something. Caught up in the zingy excitement that courses through my veins whenever I read of important events, I made a flag out of blue and yellow construction paper, wrote “I PRAY FOR UKRAINE” on it, and pinned it to my backpack. I wore that flag proudly as I trekked to and from work along a path that took me past the White House every day.

Talk about futile efforts. Believe me, no earth-shattering political movement began as a result of my backpack campaign. Russian tanks still patrolled the streets of Crimea, the infamous referendum still took place in March, and the Ukrainian army was forced to flee to avoid all-out combat against the invaders. It seemed that Putin just couldn’t care less if a twenty-three-year-old unpaid intern in DC thought his actions were wrong and unjust. And no one else in DC seemed to care that much either.

One day near the end of my internship my paper flag got ruined in the rain. I unpinned it and threw it away, frustrated with my inability and powerlessness.

I know the hollow sense of futility. And so, I think, do most people today—which explains low voter turnout results at the polls, among other things. We recognize that there’s an awful lot that needs to be done in the world. And we recognize that we are not in positions to do it.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands, to “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9), or to cancel your newspaper subscriptions.

Sometimes I feel like the butterfly I observed the other day in the library at Cambridge University. It had flown in somehow, but it desperately regretted the decision and struggled to get out. I heard it drive its exoskeleton against an enormous stained-glass window, beating its wings in a hopeless effort to reach beyond the glass to the sun, trees, and flowers in the courtyard two stories below. Again and again it attempted to breach the barrier. Thump, flutter flutter. Thump, flutter flutter.

And I knew it could never get out.

But I felt sort of proud of the poor thing for trying so hard. Every minute or two it would rest, then resume its battle for freedom. I put aside my homework as I watched the insect, and I thought back to my class’s discussion about Helmuth Hübener and a fruitless, fatal resistance. I recalled my professor’s voice choking as he insisted that the teenager’s death had not been in vain. The boy had spoken out for what’s right and true, Dr. C—- asserted with tears in his eyes. He had done it when no one else would, and that’s worth it. Truth is always worth it.

Helmuth’s leaflets didn’t bring down the Reich. My backpack didn’t stop an invasion. And that butterfly—which eventually flew to a different window outside of my vantage point—didn’t break through to freedom. Perhaps you could argue that our efforts were futile and vain.

But I think there’s something to be said for the actions themselves, independent of any potential results. After all, isn’t a poem still worth writing even if no one reads it? Isn’t a person worth loving even if the relationship might not work out? Aren’t there plans still worth making despite the confusion and changes that will spring up somewhere down the line? Isn’t life still worth living even though we’ll all die?

One woman expressed her thoughts on this matter shortly after the Nazis executed her husband and her brother for their work to organize an assassination to murder the Führer. “I have to go my way,” Emmi Bonhoeffer said in an interview. “But at least I feel, at least my children will never have to be ashamed of their father. That he had known about [all the horrible things going on] and hadn’t done anything.”

For the sake of our children, our examples, or at least for the sake of our consciences, we must not give in to the frustration of futility. After all, God made us “things to act [as well as] things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). And by His power, according to His will, when the books are opened as we stand before Him to be “judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to [our] works,” then at last we may see the results of our actions (Revelation 20:12). Then at last we may see how we changed as we lived, learned, and loved.

Then at last we may realize that no life spent in the pursuit of righteousness can ever be pronounced “null and void.”

 

 

 


[1] I had the blessed privilege of meeting Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, the last surviving member of the Hübener Group (who has since passed away) in 2005.

Peregrine: A Conversation about Wandering

Peregrine: adj. Foreign, alien, coming from abroad; wandering, traveling, or migrating.

I’m just not sure that today was the best day to tell me, that’s all.

– Sure it was.

But I’m not even home yet! It’s been months since I’ve seen my family. How can I start planning another trip when I haven’t even finished this one?

– You’ll figure it out. Your parents will help, and so will Dr. K—-. Don’t worry about it.

Heh. Right. You know what a worrier I am. – And speaking of worries, how’m I supposed to pay for all this? I have no job, and no one will want to hire me if I’m only gonna be home for, like, what? Two months?

– It’ll work out. Seriously, stop worrying! You’re making too much of this.

I know, I know. Sorry. – I mean, I should be grateful, right? And I am. It’s just. . . yeah.

– I know.

Yeah.

– You’re homesick.

Well . . . I wouldn’t say. . . .

– Greer, you’re homesick.

Well, maybe. I guess.

– There’s nothing wrong with that; don’t be ashamed. You want to spend time with your family. And like you said, it’s been a while since you’ve seen them. It’s completely natural to want to go home.

But—well, shouldn’t I be past that by now?

– . . . What do you mean?

I mean, good grief, I’m twenty-three years old. I’ve lived in a foreign country, traveled to conferences and to visit family, and I’ve even come out here for this internship. In less than a year I’ll graduate college and head off who knows where for grad school. And, theoretically, someday I’ll get married and go start a family somewhere.

– And?

And so I really don’t think I should still be stuck on the idea of being at home. It’s time to move on. I’m too old to be homesick.

– Nonsense.

But seriously. If I’m stressing out so much about a study abroad, how’m I gonna handle moving away for good?

– Well, honestly, I think you already have.

. . .

– . . . Greer?

. . .

– Greer, think about it for a second. When was the last time you really lived at home?

. . . A while ago, I guess.

– Mmhm. And that only lasted a few months. You’re in a transitory period. Moving around’s normal—expected, even. And you’ve handled it well this far. I think you can make it in England for a couple of months. But that doesn’t mean that you have to stop missing home and family.

Hm. Yeah. You’re right.

– But I understand how difficult it is. After all, you’ve got a loyal heart—you grow attachments pretty quickly, and those attachments run deep.

Heheh. Yeah. Like praying to never be transferred on my mission.

– Exactly. And look at how that turned out! You stayed in one spot, and learned the strength of deep commitment. That’ll really come in handy someday. But you learned something else on your mission too. Remember that one day, on the bus heading back to Simferopol?

Which day? There were so many.

– The day you first thought of yourself as a traveler.

Oh yeah! I was thinking about what to write to Mom and Dad in my email for the week, and then all of a sudden I was like, “Whoa. I never would’ve called myself a traveler before. But this week we went to Evpatoriya and Sevastopol, and next week we’ll go to Bogatoe and Alushta. And every week we go places and buy bus tickets and travel and stuff—like pros.”

– Yep. For a missionary who never left one area, you sure traveled a lot.

Yeah. And I’m grateful for that.

– There was something special about it, wasn’t there? Think of the people you met and the skills you acquired. You saw all different shades of humanity—in others and in yourself.

Hm.

– That’s one of the reasons experiences like this are so important.

I suppose.

– It’s true. Greer, do you realize how much you’ve changed because of all the places you’ve been? – And do you realize how many people you’ve changed because of your interactions with them in your travels?

Well, I don’t really know about that second part. But . . . but yeah, I think I’ve changed a lot the past few years. I’ve grown up a lot.

– Mmhm. And you’re not quite through just yet. That’s why you need to go on this study abroad. There are things you need to learn, and if you pay close enough attention, you’ll be able to learn them in England.

Yeah. Yeah, I know.

– And you’ll be able to do some good there too.

I sure hope so!

– Don’t worry—you will.

Hm. – Well, like I said, I really am grateful that everything’s worked out so far. And I guess that it’ll keep unfolding somehow.

– It will.

All right, then.

– . . . So, how are you feeling about it?

Well . . . I guess I feel a bit better.

– Good.

But I still think it might’ve been better to find out once I’d already gotten home.

– Well, you’ll be home in a few hours anyway.

Is the plane landing soon?

– Soon enough.

Good. It’ll be nice to be home.

– For a couple of months.

Right. Only a couple of months.

– Then off again.

Then off again.

– But you’ll remember what it says in the scriptures?

Which part?

– In Psalms. “They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted in them. Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses.”

Hm. I like that. Thanks.

– And later, “Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!” – No matter where they might wander.

Amen.

– Amen.