Things Not Seen

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Boston University: Marsh Chapel and the School of Theology, November 2017

In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. — Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

 

I struggled to come up with a concise word or phrase to describe what this talk is about, so rather than introduce the topic by a definition or a noun, I’d like to introduce it with some stories. The first one comes from one of my all-time favorite novels—Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the book, the youngest of the titular Karamazov boys is a nineteen-year-old kid named Alyosha who hoped to become a novice in a monastery under a famous elder called Father Zosima. Alyosha thought the world of Zosima—actually, pretty much everybody did. Zosima had really made a name for himself as a miracle worker, but what people liked about him best was the fact that he genuinely seemed to love them and to love God. He was a sincerely good man, and folks attributed his ability to perform miracles to this genuine goodness.[1]

But Zosima was old, and he was sick, and everyone knew he was dying. Which broke Alyosha’s heart, since he loved the elder so much, but Alyosha had faith that even in death Father Zosima would make miracles happen.[2]

This hope didn’t just come from nowhere—Alyosha’s expectation of miracles had precedent and promise in his religious background. We don’t really talk about this much anymore, but if you look anywhere in Christian hagiography (the stories of saints), you’ll see what I mean. There are centuries’ worth of stories of folks being healed at the graves of old saints, or by touching a relic of so-and-so’s old cloak, or whatever. But one especially prominent theme in a bunch of these old stories is the one Alyosha really expected to see: Many saint stories claim that when holy humans die, as if in one final testament of their goodness, their bodies do not decompose. After days and weeks and eventually years, the bodies of these saints remain intact, uncorrupted. That’s the story, anyway, and it’s everywhere in Christian heritage—just go look up some of the old accounts.[3]

Alyosha knew these stories, and he believed them too. So did pretty much all of the monks at the monastery, and as Zosima neared death, they were confident that they’d witness this final miracle.

When Zosima did die the monks prepared his funeral rites and then sat around his coffin for the viewing—Alyosha with them. No one spoke it, but they all shared one expectation: that Zosima’s holiness would translate to this miracle. So they waited and watched.

And they noticed a smell.

Which, at first, they all tried to dismiss, and they cracked open a window to let in some fresh air. But the stench grew stronger, and they couldn’t ignore it, and everyone knew what was happening.

Zosima’s body corrupted. In fact, it went fast—strangely fast, especially considering that the fellow was so small, dry, and frail that a stench so strong and so rapid seemed actually impossible. In whispers (and later in shouts), the monks jumped to conclusions. Clearly, they decided, this was some sort of divine retribution. They dismissed everything they used to think about Zosima, they wondered why anyone had ever considered him holy, they berated him and shattered his legacy.[4]

Well imagine the impact a scene like this had on nineteen-year-old Alyosha—to have faith and expect a miracle, to see that expectation fall to pieces, and to hear everyone’s harsh conclusions. The poor kid was crushed, and subsequently went through, I think, one of literature’s best breakdowns.[5]

Now, I don’t wanna spoil the book—because seriously, y’all need to go read it if you haven’t already—so I won’t go into what happens next, or how it fits in the broader narrative, or what have you. Besides, this isn’t literature class—it’s a talk. And it’s a talk to a congregation where I’m willing to bet most folks don’t think that body decomposition is necessarily a marker of divine judgment. So let me share another story—one that might be a little bit closer to home—from one of the men in our Church’s new First Presidency.

When Dallin Oaks was just seven, his father contracted tuberculosis and had to spend months at a sanatorium miles away from his wife and three kids. President Oaks wrote about what happened: “During the six months of his hospitalization, my father had received many priesthood blessings containing promises of recovery. Again and again prominent priesthood leaders went to my father’s bedside and gave priesthood blessings that contained promises of healing. Each of these leaders rebuked the disease and commanded that my father be made whole. But he still died.”[6]

Now, in both of those stories, the stakes were quite high; these were literal life-and-death situations. But the phenomenon I want to address—and you’re probably picking up on it already—doesn’t just have to happen in high-stakes showdowns. Here’s a slightly more casual example.

When Nathan and I got engaged there were (at least) two things that we felt literally led by God to do: 1) get married, 2) pursue more education together. We had put enough prayer and study and fasting and temple trips into both of these decisions to know that we weren’t just making stuff up—there was something Spirit-led in our goals. Nathan was wrapping up his master’s in math at BYU, and I was wrapping up a gap-year of work after getting my BA in history, so the timing was brilliant. On top of that, we had seen a bunch of mini-miracles steering us in this direction. Add to that some very clear promptings, some promises in our Patriarchal Blessings, and a growing excitement and hope, and boom. We knew we were walking the way God wanted us to. So we worked hard to find cities/schools with programs for the two of us, we paid every exorbitant fee, and we submitted the applications just days before our wedding.

In the first few months (and even weeks) of our marriage, we started to hear back from the programs with a mix of acceptances and rejections. And pretty soon we noticed a pattern: We weren’t lining up very well. Opportunities for Nathan didn’t match opportunities for me. But we “cast [our] mind[s] upon [all those] night[s] that [we] cried unto [the Lord] in [our] heart[s].” We remembered the peace that He’d spoken to our minds—and “what greater witness [could we] have than from God?”[7] So we held onto hope, and we just knew that something would work out so that we could both go off to school together.

Well, just a couple of days before the final decision deadlines arrived, our very last chance for a match fell through.

So there are three stories—three disparate-but-not-random stories—to make up for the fact that I can’t quite decide what to say is the theme of this talk. I mean, what do we call these things? Failed miracles? Unfulfilled promises? Trials of faith? If a General Authority were giving this talk, a) it’d be better, and b) he’d probably use alliteration. So could we call this divine disappointment?

I dunno. And I’m not sure it matters, ’cause more likely than not, we’ve all been there before—in those moments when we had faith, and worked hard, and prayed, and studied it out, and took a leap of faith, and really let our hearts hope. And then something happened and we wanted to shout, “Now hold on just one second. That’s not how this works. That’s not what happens in the Ensign. Good is supposed to triumph, and signs are supposed to follow them that believe,[8] and prayers are supposed to be answered. Whatever happened to love and to justice? What happened to all of those promptings and promises? Or were those promptings and promises? Or just my own head?”

That’s about where the spiral starts and it’s awfully difficult to shut out the doubts that follow in those critical moments. I mentioned Alyosha’s big breakdown earlier, and, well, President Oaks wrote that his mom went through one too in the months that followed her young husband’s death. And after Nathan and I realized that one of us would have to give up his or her education for a bit—well, let’s just say it wasn’t easy on us, and we wondered why God had steered us down that failed route to begin with. (Incidentally, it would’ve been a whole lot easier if things had been smooth-sailing from there. But even after we finally decided that I’d accept an offer to do my master’s at the BU School of Theology while Nathan worked, we faced a bunch of trials and disappointments that made us wonder whether we’d made the right choice and whether God even cared what we were doing with our lives.)

The fact is that sometimes miracles just don’t pan out, no matter how promised and certain they seem. And I know it’s not blasphemous to say something like this, because Church leaders have done it before. In a devotional address he gave in 2013, Elder David Bednar shared an experience when he asked a young, newlywed kid with cancer whether he had “faith not to be healed.”[9] And at the most recent General Conference, Elder Donald Hallstrom shared a remarkable story about a man who survived a fall off a cliff, but the experience really got Elder Hallstrom thinking, so he wondered aloud: “What about the innumerable faith-filled, priesthood-blessing-receiving, unendingly-prayed-for, covenant-keeping, full-of-hope Latter-day Saints whose miracle never comes? At least in the way they understand a miracle. At least in the way that others appear to receive miracles.”[10]

Yeah, Elder Hallstrom—what about all of them? What about all of us in our situations? Or our siblings or cousins or neighbors or friends? What can we do in the face of “divine disappointments” when our emotions waver between crushed and confused?

I liked the suggestion Elder Hallstrom proposed: He asked us to consider, “‘Where do we place our faith?’ Is our faith focused on simply wanting to be relieved of pain and suffering, or is it firmly centered on God the Father and His holy plan and in Jesus the Christ and His Atonement?”[11]

Whoever wrote the biblical Epistle to the Hebrews was on the same page as Elder Hallstrom, it seems. Chapter 11 is this amazing discourse on faith and it’s chock full of examples of miracles. But then there’s a list of folks who got no “deliverance”—they were stoned and beaten and killed, “and these all,” it says, “having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.”[12]

Now remember, Hebrews 11 is the chapter that begins with the phrase, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And normally, I usually just think of that meaning, Faith can serve as evidence for me of the things I can’t see yet—like God. But based on Elder Hallstrom’s talk, and based on the way Hebrews 11 ends, I wonder if there’s another way of looking at it too.

Perhaps when we talk about faith being “evidence of things not seen,” we can mean, too, that faith is the only substance and evidence we can clutch when the very “things [that we] hoped for” are “not seen” because the miracle didn’t come like we’d hoped. Maybe faith isn’t only this forward-thinking, someday-I’ll-see-it optimism, but it’s also the salve that soothes us in the wake of divine disappointments when miracles have long since missed their deadlines.

After all, Hebrews 11 isn’t the only spot in the Canon where faithful folks miss out on miracles—either permanently or at least for a very long time. Imagine what it must’ve been like for Abraham and Sarah to have all these grand promises of posterity but to suffer from infertility for so long. And we all like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego getting saved from the fiery furnace, or Daniel being saved from the lions, but what about Stephen, who was successfully stoned? Or, a Book of Mormon example, the martyr Abinadi? Where was his heavenly visitor saving him from the flames?

Probably the pinnacle example of divine disappointment has got to be Jesus’s apostles. I mean, just think what it must’ve been like. With hindsight, we Christians often jump straight from Jesus’s crucifixion to His resurrection, as if no time passed in between.[13] But there was time in between, and Jesus’s apostles didn’t seem to know what was going to happen, and the guy they had all really thought was the Messiah had died. They had seen His death. He was gone. And I suspect they spent the bulk of Holy Saturday feeling just like we do when our miracles don’t pan out in the way we expected them to.

But the neat thing is, they were still around when Jesus showed up again. They had enough faith to stick around—or, in Thomas’s case, to come back. Because maybe these brave, disappointed, confused men kept hold of the substance of faith, even in the face of a bitter “not seen.”

The personal example I shared earlier about failed grad school plans was—by my own admission—a casual one, a low-stakes story, no matter how hard it was at the time. And I’m happy to say that Nathan and I have reached a point where, although we don’t have every answer about why and how we got here, we’ve seen things work out, more-or-less. It took a while, but Nathan found work out here, and, miraculously, it had great health insurance, which came just in time for me to go through a series of sudden medical crises. I’ve liked my program, and it’s shaped my life in important ways. And then Nathan found a professor here at BU who was looking for a guy just like him, so this year he started his PhD in theoretical computer science. Hooray—happy endings.

But this hasn’t been our hardest “divine disappointment,” and some of the ones that remain won’t have convenient, wrap-up endings. I think that’s why Elder Hallstrom’s talk spoke to me so much. I really, truly believe that when our faith is centered on Heavenly Father, His plan, and His Son’s great Atonement, then we’ll have the substance we need to endure. I know that God lives and that Jesus Christ really is the Messiah, and that because He atoned for us we can have the Holy Spirit as a Comforter during our times of trial. Like Elder Hallstrom, I do not think the “day of miracles [has] ceased,”[14] and I’ve seen many real miracles in my life. I know the Bible and the Book of Mormon are true, and that God still speaks through living prophets whose words can guide and sustain us during difficult times.

I say all this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

 

———————————————————————–

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990): 27-29. Dostoevsky’s narrator even says that Father Zosima “had attracted many to himself, not so much by miracles as by love.” See above reference, page 331.

[2] Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 29-31.

[3] The phenomenon is known (by scholars and believers) as “incorruptibility.”

[4] Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 327-337.

[5] The beginning of this is evident in Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 338-339, where the narrator specifies that “it was not miracles [Alyosha] needed, but only a ‘higher justice,’ which, as he believed, had been violated—it was this that wounded his heart so cruelly and suddenly.” I think this is a good emphasis—Alyosha viewed the scene not just as an instance when a miracle didn’t occur but as a breach of some sort of divine justice.

[6] Taken from Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned, as quoted by Kevin J Worthen in a BYU Devotional Address given on 9 January 2018 (see “The Plan of Salvation,” https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/kevin-j-worthen_plan-salvation/).

[7] Doctrine and Covenants 6:22-23.

[8] See Mark 16:17, and its subsequent affirmations in Mormon 9:24, Ether 4:18, Doctrine and Covenants 58:64, and Doctrine and Covenants 84:65.

[9] David A. Bednar, “That We Might ‘Not . . . Shrink’ (D&C 19:18),” 13 March 2013 (see https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2013/01/that-we-might-not-shrink-d-c-19-18?lang=eng).

[10] Donald L. Hallstrom, “Has the Day of Miracles Ceased?” 1 October 2017 (see https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2017/10/has-the-day-of-miracles-ceased?lang=eng).

[11] Hallstrom, “Miracles.”

[12] See Hebrews 11:35-39.

[13] This is an idea that a professor at the Boston University School of Theology has explored in some depth. See Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[14] Moroni 7:35.

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When Prophets Die

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From my mission call, dated 5 July 2011

I’ve spent enough time over this past year researching prophetic successions in various branches of Mormonism that this morning’s news really should’ve seemed academic. Thomas Monson died, so the Quorum of the Twelve took charge of the Church, following a long pattern of apostolic interregna in LDS tradition. Soon Russell Nelson will don the prophet-president mantle, and Latter-day Saints will sustain him as their God-given leader at April’s General Conference. The pattern’s pretty predictable nowadays, though it hasn’t always been, and other off-shoots of Mormons—like the Community of Christ—do things differently. I could tell you all about it, just like I told a roomful of folks in October at an academic conference where Mormon succession was the crux of my paper. And throwing in fancy terms like “apostolic interregna”—did you catch that?—will either a) make you think I actually know what I’m talking about, or b) convince me that this master’s degree in theology is actually paying off. Maybe both. Or probably neither.

But none of that is the point. The point is that when I read about President Monson’s death, I cried. Theological terminology and historical tradition didn’t cross my mind for at least forty minutes after my eyes caught the first headline, which I then scrambled to confirm. In a moment when my academic interests could have been foremost on my mind, sentimentality prevailed instead.

Honest to goodness, my first thought was, But he signed my mission call! as if that somehow exempted the poor fellow from release from his disease-laden body. As if my emotional attachment issues grant folks immortality. As if thousands of other missionaries haven’t already bid farewell to the prophets who signed their mission calls, and as if mine were the only letter President Monson had signed.

I’m a reasonably rational person, but even so, something stung in that realization, which was quickly followed by the recollection that President Monson’s signature is on my BYU diploma too. Never mind that those documents were probably signed by machine and not by the prophet’s own hand (or were they?). They were connections to him and, now that he was dead, memorials to him. The scrawling swoops of his cursive made real to me a man I never met, although I sure talked about him a lot.

As a high school senior I aided a special-needs seminary class where we learned the brand-new, official ASL signs for the recently-sustained President Monson (one of the signs fused M and story, a nod at his iconic sermon techniques), and I spent time teaching the class to flick out the sentence, “I know Thomas Monson is a prophet.”

Later, for a year and a half I trudged through ice, then mud, then humid heat, then ice again to deliver that same message to Ukrainians, this time in broken Russian.

During the first semester of my master’s program the teaching assistant for my Hebrew Bible course asked the class if we believed in modern prophets, and I raised my hand and said, “Yeah, there’s one alive now, and his name is Thomas Monson.”

To the thirty-ish kids in the congregation where I serve in the children’s ministry, I talked about President Monson in a buildup of hype for October’s General Conference, even though I knew the prophet was already too sick and wouldn’t be there in person.

Each of those experiences—and others like them—resulted similarly: A warm excitement energized my pulse, and I smiled. That’s happened so often throughout my life that I’ve learned to recognize it as one of the ways the Holy Spirit reaches out to me to confirm that I’ve done a good deed or spoken a truth or heard a message from Deity. In Latter-day parlance, we call the accumulation of those Spirit-hugs testimony, and the oftener we share them, the stronger they seem to become.

But now the prophet I spoke of so often—the one who accompanied me through my entire adult life, including a mission and an education which literally bear his mark—is dead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed these kinds of events. I’ve lived through the deaths of four Mormon prophets now, and have even attended some of their viewings. Most vividly, I recall Gordon Hinckley’s 2008 passing, and I remember joining many of my fellow believers in wearing Sunday-best to school following the news of his death—our small sign of thanks and of honor. If you add to my life experience the things I study, then, as I said earlier, historical memory traces back over two-hundred years, and lots of prophets have lived and died in that timeframe. Plus, most Latter-day Saints saw this death coming; he’s been sick for so long that it was only a matter of time. There was nothing new in President Monson’s passing, and the scholar in me is grateful the Church handles succession more smoothly these days, and the human in me is grateful that such a jolly person lived a 90-year life and now gets pain-free rest, and the Mormon in me is grateful that Tommy and Frances are together again. So no, there was nothing surprising, nothing unprecedented, and if you consider the overall arc of the Plan of Salvation, nothing even sad about President Monson’s death.

Even still, I sat on the edge of my bed in Boston and clutched my iPhone and cried because Thomas Monson had died, But he signed my mission call!

It wasn’t exactly a rational thought but it was as genuine as they come, not unlike grieving for a person I’ve never met, or believing in a God who selects special spokesmen, or leaving home to testify to strangers in an unknown tongue, or reading scriptures someone dug up from the ground, or any of a number of other tenets that shake my insides with the tremor of truth. I’m not an unthinking believer; my faith and my intellect both demand of me a rigor I strive to satisfy every day. But sometimes the heart leaps before the mind has time to kick in. And sometimes that’s perfectly fine.

So when my heart leaped this morning and its initial thrust was not to evaluate the socio-cultural implications of theological developments in the context of LDS succession history, that was okay. My heart was okay. My faith was okay. And I was okay, even under the grief. I let my heart lead those first moments of morning mourning. I let it sting and sink until I was still. Then I brushed away tears, cleared my throat, and knocked on the bathroom door to break the news to my showering husband.

The Power of Introvert Missionaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good missionaries—I thought—aren’t introverts.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

—————————————————————

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

[2] Церковь Иисуса Христа Святых последних дней.

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

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

[5] Cain, Quiet, 65.

[6] Cain, Quiet, 11.

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

[8] Cain, Quiet, 11.

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Cain, Quiet, 266.

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

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

[17] Cain, Quiet, 70.

New Year Thoughts from Bonhoeffer

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

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

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

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, Berlin (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lass warm und still die Kerzen heute  flammen,

Die du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht.

Führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen.

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

Which a German professor and I once translated as:

“Today let burn, warmly and calmly, the candles

That Thou brought into our darkness.

Lead us together again, if it can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Thrill of Hope

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Baby’s First Christmas, December 1990

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

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

Or maybe she was just hungry. Who knows?

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

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

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

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

And waited.

————————————————————————–

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

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

She sighed and put down her stitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————————————-

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

They’d all turned them down.

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

Had he brought enough for the taxes?

Had he earned enough for the taxes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————-

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

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

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

We’re too weary.

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————–

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

A baby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————————————–

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like those closest to us.

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

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

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

But that’s just when Hope thrills.

The Next Verses

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Provo Utah Temple 24 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of peace

Where God can calm my sorrows

And bid my aching cease.

For the temple is a house of faith,

Of hope and joy and healing.

I’ll do all I can to live my life

To keep this sacred feeling.

*

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of light.

God gives His children wisdom

And arms them with His might.

For the temple is where we prepare

To serve with consecration

I’ll go forth in faith because I know

This is my sure foundation.

*

I love to see the temple

It is a place of love

Where we can give our futures

And hearts to God above.

For the temple is where we begin

This journey to forever

It’s the center of God’s purpose for

The life we’ll build together.

 

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

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

[3] Doctrine and Covenants 109:22

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

Father’s Day

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Moab, July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I saw it—beautiful!”

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

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