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.

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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.

 

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[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.