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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This My Hymn

peak winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

*****

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

And Again, I Say

Wasatch Mountains September 2015

Wasatch Mountains
September 2015

God never said “be happy all the time.”

What He said was “rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, Doctrine and Covenants 98:1).

And there’s a difference that, yes, perhaps I only noticed because Dad drilled a love of language into me, or because Mom launches Latin roots discussions around the dinner table, or because I’m rather a pessimist at heart and thus have devoted long hours to hashing about through the seeming paradox presented by commandments to take up a cross and follow the Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief, while personally never allowing bereavement and trials to nick at a positive outlook on life.

Until recently I had always taken the twice-repeated quintosyllabic commandment to mean that I should be unflinchingly happy regardless of whatever trials I might endure. “Rejoice evermore,” to me, seemed to equal: “don’t let anything get you down,” or “stay happy always,” or “if you have even an inkling of understanding of God’s plan, then this death or that rejection or this injustice or that major breakdown of everything that felt solid won’t bug you in the least.”

And that seemed a crummy way to plough through life in a world bent on smashing things into shards that are too small and devastated to piece back together. I hurt. It’s a fact of my life. And I happen to know that all human beings hurt when the black blood of disappointment courses into their hearts, which it does on a regular basis. And what kind of a friend or sister or roommate would I be if I didn’t allow others the privilege to recognize the real human trueness of pain?

So “rejoice evermore” never really made sense—not the way I was trying to fathom it.

But one afternoon as I reviewed one of the two spots in Canon where the directive occurs, my internal linguist whispered, Well goodness, I’ve never thought of that prefix before.

Re.

As in, repeat, or renew, or resume, or recur.

Or rejoice.

Re is shorthand for do again.

And at that thought, the dust of paradox settled to show a truth that my mind, heart, and soul could embrace.

Perhaps the purpose of the Gospel is the promise in the prefix—namely, the notion that when hurt and hate and despair crack our dreams and extinguish our hope, if we work toward and trust in and hold hands with God, then the joy that is not quite perpetual will at least be regainable. That is, we can joy again. Rejoice.

I’m biased. I’m writing this from a highpoint on the joy-disappointment-grief-healing-joy cycle, and things that I cursed in weeks and months and years past now seem to fit a pattern that resonates with reason and leaves room for me to sit back and thank the Father for leading life to happinesses I’d never have found if He’d let me do the steering all along like I asked Him on a number of fitful nights. Frankly, I don’t know how I got here. I certainly don’t know how I made it here heart intact. What about all those times I swore I’d numb myself, shun all feelings, turn off sensors to keep from withering under the weight of it all? I honestly thought I had done that, sometimes, because how else could I have lived through the pain?

Yet somehow I still feel. What’s more shocking still, I even feel good, though not always, and happy, though not irrationally, and joyful, though still bearing in mind that some wounds haven’t healed yet and are out of my power to fix because other people can make their own choices no matter how ardently I may oppose what they choose.

So all right, it’s delicate. But it’s real. This happiness I sense now is real. I’ve experienced it before in life, differently, thenly. And now it’s come back, an unexpected guest visiting on errand to remind me that God knows that life shouldn’t always be good, or else we’d never learn, but it shouldn’t be endless sorrowing either. It’s a slow dance rounding corners of trial, passing moments of joy, led sometimes by hurt and then sometimes by bliss, all while ebbing and flowing to the kind of songs souls can hear if they listen real close.

Point is, God never asked us to be happy always, but to hang onto His words and be happy again. Endure, He said. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t quit walking just because the patch that you’re stuck in right now is exactly what it oughtn’t to be and you hurt.

Always go on in spite of doubts, fears, and discouragement.

Always trust that some things might get better sometime.

Always clutch for the punctured palm of that Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief.

And He’ll always help us to be happy again.

To rejoice, and rejoice, and rejoice as often as it takes, evermore, cycling on through eternal agains that God grounded in the promise that His plan makes againing possible to those who believe in His Son and endure to the end.

“Rejoice in the Lord alway,” quoth the scriptures—then to emphasize what that means, the writer penned next: “and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

And then do it again and again.

Fall Beautifully

Fall 2014

Fall 2014

“I’m trying to live by heart, because it’s the one human organ in which I’ve never lost faith. When brains break they usually seem to stay broken. When hearts break, though, a surprisingly frequent result is a torrent of newfound compassion.” – quoted in Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine, 123.

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For me the world began in autumn. I was born while foliage launched its dramatic maturation, and I blinked brand new blue eyes as temperatures fell and hues heightened around my parents’ place in the foothills of the Rockies.

Whether because of the timing of my birth or independent of it, I feel a deep bond with the season of crisp-clean-cool-calm-colorfulness. Maybe too much of a bond, because driving becomes a hazard for me when the mountains and their expanding patches of orange and red and yellow command my attention and eyes more than the road does. Although I miss school something fierce, I suppose it’s a blessing that this year—the first in many—I won’t need to hole myself away to avoid losing focus by gazing through windows at Squaw Peak instead of gazing at books or computer monitors. Homework is decidedly duller than fall. And the season passes so quickly. I don’t want to blink and miss beauty.

So I love September walks and impromptu nature photo shoots. I love shivering in a cardigan, or lying on the grass to watch low-hanging clouds spill out of the mouth of Rock Canyon and roll across the valley. Once I chanced to catch a leaf in my hand as it spiraled toward the ground. The fortune excited me so much that I skipped—an uncommon occurrence for such a stiff stoic.

The season tingles me. Were it possible, I’d capture it and keep it on hand all year long.

But when I break down autumn into its basic processes, sometimes I shudder and wonder what kind of a morbid nut would get giddy over a season that symbolizes death. What’s my problem? I mean, my goodness, I like watching things die! That’s what goes on, after all, on the mountains I love to watch while shades shift. Trees sense cool weather and short days, so they trigger their leaves to quit photosynthesis, to build up a cell wall that plugs the connection between leafstem and branch and that essentially says, “Thanks for your service, but you’re done, and you shouldn’t expect to receive any more minerals from the ground through the trunk.” So the leaves lose their green. They dry up. They starve. And a soft September breeze knocks them clean to the ground where some student will veer slightly out of her way to smash them in hopes that they’ll crunch. And when they do, and they crumble to dust beneath the sole of her sneaker, let’s be honest—the student rejoices. Rejoices in the destruction.

Which is, frankly, a little macabre. Sometimes I feel a slight twinge of remorse when I glory in dead, dried-up leaves.

Until I remember that fall isn’t actually terminal. The dust of crumbled leaves will seep through the soil under the weight and water of winter snow, and will become the nutrients that fuel buds in the spring. The buds of spring will become the verdures of summer, and the process will start over again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains as the earth makes its orbit, and new babies are born, and humans and trees feel their way through the miracle of slow, stretching growth.

The scripture is familiar: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4), and all this, it says, “is the gift of God” (13).

If you count the one that greeted me to the planet, then this is my twenty-sixth autumn. Across the years that are marked by those falls, I’ve fallen and watched others fall more times than I’d like to count or remember—but somehow we’ve all gotten back up again. Between the time to be born and the time to die there are plenty of breakdowns, and I’ve done my share of weeping and mourning. But in spite of it all, there have been times to dance too. And to laugh—sometimes, irrationally, at the peak of tough times when emotions run high, and a sudden stumble on the stairs, or pun from a professor, or YouTube clip shared by a roommate is enough to spark all the tears and side-aches and suffocation that lead from laughter to healing.

Human beings have the astounding capacity, if they will, to identify God’s gifts even when things appear to be drying up, withering, and falling apart. So I guess what I love about autumn is what I love about people as well.

I know humans whose breaking hearts have brought to them the fiery orange glow of a compassion that carries warmth to others even when the temperature drops. I have friends who’ve been crushed and who’ve turned into dust and who’ve relied on that dust to fuel vibrant growth in the future. I’ve watched loved ones regenerate again and again and a hundred agains. And they’re doing it still. And they will, I believe, ad infinitum, because people are strong as trees. Stronger, I guess, because although I don’t know what it’s like to lose leaves, I’d wager that losing jobs or homes or limbs or sight or brothers or daughters or husbands or hope is an awful lot harder than anything oaks have endured in the chill of September.

God bore hardy children made of spirits that remember Heaven closely enough to appreciate joy, filled with hearts that pound fiercely enough to survive discouragement.

And He gave them autumn to remind them of a plan that brings healing, wholing and reviving.

Essayist Brian Doyle captured in words the beauty of burdened people who commit to carry on. Pondering the weight of disappointments or heartbreaks or duties, he wrote:

“I think about this all the time. I find myself staring at the shoulders of counselors and priests and doctors and mothers, to see what the weight looks like. I find myself thinking that most people sure are extraordinary. I find myself thinking, as I get older and less cocky and less sure and more merciful and more hip to the fact that everyone has scars on their hearts or will, and everyone carries loads or will, and everyone carries their load alone or will, that maybe all people are extraordinary, whether or not I see that clear, and that my seeing it or not seeing it has nothing to do with the reality of grace under duress, which is pretty much the story of the human race. Love carries a lot of pain in its chest” (The Wet Engine, 131-132).

A friend’s mother once told me that she wants a deciduous tree to stand over her grave. “Most people I talk to want evergreens, since they defy death,” she explained, “but I want a tree that shows resurrection.”

The more I think about it, deciduous trees really do make a more fitting legacy not just at death, but throughout life as well. Jesus didn’t only make possible the resurrection that will take us from our tombs to His arms, but also the ones that occur day to day, year to year, fall to fall. That’s why He could promise that “whosoever liveth and believeth in [Him] shall never die” (John 11:26). He is the promise that there will always be new seasons ahead. There will always be purpose, hope, healing, and life. If we clutch Christ’s pierced palms and hang on to His truths, then “all things wherewith [we] have been afflicted shall work together for [our] good, and to [His] name’s glory” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:3).

The trees that color and bare during autumn are not only lovely for their shades and their warmth, but because of their pledge to bring beauty again. They’re resilient. They’re tough. And I love them for it, and I believe that God counts every leaf as it falls, just as He’s aware of each sparrow, each hair, each skipped heartbeat, each pit in the stomach, each cry. And what’s more, God calculated a plan that based life and the world on the doctrine of resurrection. There’s a season for everything, and seasons repeat, and we laugh and we sob and we fall and we grow, and the plan carries on, and we rise and we pray, and we lean on Christ’s breast,[1] from which vantage point we can see that this plan of renewal is indeed a great gift from the God of things that fall beautifully.

So perhaps for us all the world begins in autumn. And each autumn it will begin yet again. And again. And again and again. And a hundred agains still to come.

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[1] “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” LDS Hymns #104. Text by Edward Hooper.

By Grace


Lake Helena Helena Montana, July 2015 (photo taken en route to Canada)

Lake Helena
Helena Montana, July 2015
(photo taken en route to Canada)

“God’s plan from the start for this world and your heart has been to show His glory and His grace.” — from ‘Glorious Unfolding,’ Steven Curtis Chapman

Because neither of us is that great with goodbyes, my best friend and I spent close to forty hours together in a Hyundai Sonata on a trek to-and-from Canada before grad school and work forced us to part paths. We had planned the trip for over a year, and when the departure date finally arrived we loaded snacks into the back seat, buckled ourselves into the front ones, and took the nearest exit onto I-15 North.

It was what any good road trip ought to be. We managed to misplace a freeway, to get lost on the prairies of Alberta, to “encounter” a tornado and exaggerate our experience with it, to inadvertently massacre insects at 70 MPH, to discover a lake, to keep quotes, to crack up and cry and discuss politics and eat pizza and sing along with the radio and learn what produce may and may not cross the border.

And we managed, for the most part, to avoid discussing my friend’s impending move across the country. We couldn’t talk about it. We didn’t want to sour the mood of pretended stability and carefreeness.

But the thought still gnawed at the backs of our minds, burned in the pits of our stomachs, tore at the flesh of our hearts. Separation. – And not just separation, either. Uncertainty. Adulthood. Moving on.

Maybe it would be easier to face if all this graduation-and-going-forward stuff were all that bears down on us right about now. Maybe if every other aspect of life were well-planned-out and controllable—maybe if everything else felt solid and safe—maybe then we could tackle the foreboding unsureness with a little more perky pluck. Instead we skirted the topic, or made vague allusions to it, feeling nauseous while doing so, giggling nervously, and then shifting subjects.

I’ve tasted enough heartache to realize that things like this aren’t fatal. When disappointments or separations or uncertainties pop up, they leave scars but not corpses. We can talk about “moving on” because somehow we’re all capable of doing just that. Something in the human spirit, some miracle of resilience, keeps us stumbling along even after—even during—the wounds and wars we face daily.

I thought about that on the trip—about the staying, fighting, get-up-and-keep-going power that’s healed me through horrors before, that’s healing me now, and that I hope will heal me in the future. As a child I learned to call this power grace, and to point as its source to the Savior, Who volunteered to endure every brokenness known to man so He could support, lift, heal, encourage us when we break. Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, and Calvary all tell the story of the source of hope and healing. They tell the story of grace—a story recounted billions of times every day when our vias are a touch more dolorosa than we can handle, but somehow we pull through and look back and marvel, “My goodness, how did I survive that dark patch?”

We survive by grace.

Jesus’s grace, poured out through Atonement to soak us in warm cleansing curing gentle succoring power when our hearts bleed and our souls break.

God’s grace, proved by sacrificing one perfect Son to save billions of sinful children.

I guess I’ve always looked at grace primarily as something that heals or makes up for or soothes. It’s the stuff that God uses to forgive the sins of repenters. He takes it to make salves for the scrapes and gashes we incur through offense, disappointment, or failure. Jesus came to earth to “[suffer] pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind,” to take on Himself “. . . the pains and the sicknesses of His people,” to suffer our transgressions, to be infirm, and to die, all for hope’s sake, all to know how it feels to be fallen, all to make it so bad things can be righted through grace (Alma 7:11-13).

“If men come unto me,” God told one prophet, “I will show unto them their weakness . . . that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all [humble] men . . . [to] make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). Grace strengthens the weak stuff. It heals the hurt stuff. It cleans the filthy stuff.

It comforts the sad girls who weep when their best friends up and move across the country for graduate school.

That’s how I typically look at grace—for its make-this-stop-hurting side.

Which is to say that for the bulk of this quarter-century life I’ve examined only half of that piece of Godly goodness—or perhaps much less than half.

I learned a gracious thing or two on the road trip to Canada, and one important lesson occurred when my former mission president (who, along with his wife, played Albertan host to me and my friend) put his hands on my head and prayed out a Priesthood promise that pierced through my practiced pessimism. Although I hadn’t said anything about the questions that nagged me, the uncertainties I faced, or the sorrow that grumbled in my heart, President van Bruggen’s soft voice became firm as he said:

“God wants you to know that life will be good.”

And my soul recognized that that promise was true.

Because grace isn’t just a post-facto power that swoops in to sweep up the mess of shattered lives. It’s not just meant to make up for bad things, or to salve cuts and bruises, or to smudge away tears. To be certain, grace does all those things, and thank heavens, because I’m sure I couldn’t have made it this far without grasping for grace in tough times, and I’m sure I won’t ever reach Heaven without scouring my sins with the Lord’s Atonement.

But God wants us all to know that life will be good, so Jesus’s mission on earth wasn’t simply to learn how to feel for us during our pains, but also to pave the path to rich blessings. Not just yet-to-come, someday, celestial blessings. The here-and-now ones. Mundane ones. Tangible, earthy ones that we can wrap our fingers around and hold onto and hope for.

The scriptures say that “in Christ there should come every good thing,” which means that grace isn’t only a reaction to bad but a promise of good (Moroni 7:22). In Christ there comes every vibrant sunset that bounces orange-yellow-pink beams off cumulus canvases set against a blue sky. In Christ there are friendships, romances, and “chance” encounters that are anything but. Without Christ we could never be giddy. We could never be satisfied. We couldn’t be comfortable, warm, or secure. Hope couldn’t crawl chills up our spines—joy couldn’t squeeze wrinkles from our eyes—glee couldn’t shake laughs in our bellies without grace. And grace comes in and from and through and with and by the One Whose life means Life itself, the One Whose name is Love.

I’ve seen the strengthening, healing, and cleansing part of grace when weakness, hurt, and sin have stung me and made me wonder how I’d ever make it. I’ve seen grace smooth over the aches of separations in the past. I trust the current throbs will ebb with time and prayer and sighing.

But I’ve also witnessed good things come of grace, and something tells me grace has yet to exhaust the blessings God still keeps in store to give His children every day through light and love and laughter and excitement and fresh air and nieces, friends, forever families, music, plants, beaches, sleep, summers, snow, dirt, galaxies, wind water petals sunrays roommates muscles conversation textures shadows mountains education eyes reflections pebbles prairies. . . .

I believe in a Savior Who felt and feels both pain and joy. I believe in a Christ Who lived and lives through hurt and love. I believe in a Messiah Who gave and gives the strength to endure trial and glory. He’s the “high priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11) and He blesses us in ways built with a beauty we can’t fathom, either by gracing our path out of sorrow or by gracing our path into bliss. Separations, anxieties, and burdens will come. But God crafted a plan to bring salvation to His frightened children, and that plan is called grace.

And it’s glorious.

Disillusions of Love

'I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.' -- Joni Mitchell,

‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still, somehow, it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.’ — Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

“For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives . . . a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.” – C. S. Lewis[1]

Throughout his role in Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin—like all human beings—had to work hard for love. And not just because of his awkward-shy-keep-to-himself personality, which always bodes poorly for fictional and actual love-seekers (take my word for it). Even when he finally breeched the barrier of bashfulness, mustering enough mettle to ask Kitty Scherbatsky to marry him, things didn’t go well. Kitty rejected him, having fallen for one of those typical romantic heroes—a guy whose wooing words and dashing looks made her heart flutter, even though he was actually a punk, like most guys are when they care more about wooing and dashing than about working for love (take my word for that too).

In short, Kitty broke Levin’s heart, and Levin sulked himself back home where he tried to drown his sorrows in farm work and exercise.

But then Mr. Romantic Punk shattered Kitty’s hopes, and after Kitty pieced herself back together, Levin got a second chance. And thus Count Tolstoy set the stage for literature’s awkwardest proposal and wedding sequence, which ends when Levin and Kitty ride off in a carriage toward their new home together in the countryside a few miles from Moscow.

Dream come true. Hard work paid off. Just deserts. What have you. Essentially, a happy end to years of righteous hopes. Levin’s desire for a perfect love to a perfect woman who would help him become manlier, patienter, kinder—well, for all intents and purposes, it looked like that desire had been fulfilled in his marriage to Kitty. Their love for one another was sincere, each looked up to the other, they’d conquered heartache, confusion, and fear.

But the Kitty-Konstantin wedding concludes on page 454 of a novel with 817 pages. And on page 479, Tolstoy gave readers one of the most important insights of the book:

Levin had been married for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected. At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment. He was happy, but, having entered upon family life, he saw at every step that it was not what he had imagined. At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat. He saw that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking; he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easy only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult.”[2]

In a word, disillusionment—the destruction of illusions, which are false ideas about something.[3] That’s what happened to Levin. He hadn’t erred when he worked so hard to marry Kitty, or even when he determined that marriage and family were goals worth his faith, time, and effort. No, Levin’s choices, desires, and actions were right, as Tolstoy explained for the remaining hundreds of pages in the novel.

It was Levin’s perceptions—his expectations—his illusions—that were wrong. He’d created a false idea about love. Marriage was harder than it seemed in his imagination. It took effort and energy. Bliss came only with blisters. It was worth it, but the fight wasn’t over just yet.

Having never been married, I can’t relate with Levin on a direct parallel. But I think I understand something about the process that eats away at illusions. And I think that I understand why that process isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

For example, four years ago today a mailman delivered to my house a large white envelope addressed to “Sister Greer Louise Bates” (full name means business), with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listed in the top left corner as the sender. Mom and Dad drove down to pick me up from campus, and they let me hold the envelope in the car as we made our way home to be with family when I opened it. I squeezed the packet in my hands and squeezed the tears out of my eyes and felt joy shoot up my spine. Without knowing where God’s prophet had called me to serve a full-time mission, I already knew I would love the place and the people.

Five months later, including a three-month preparation in the Missionary Training Center, I stepped off a plane in Dnepropetrovsk—a metropolis in central-southernish Ukraine. Two days after that a bus drove me ten hours south to Simferopol, Crimea, where I spent the remaining fifteen months of my mission.

Fifteen months of the best kind of disillusionment.

Missionary work wasn’t what I had envisioned. So much of it was more mundane than I had anticipated. I was wimpier than I’d imagined, and I had to give myself pep talks (sometimes out loud) to get myself to talk to people, to invite them to church, to explain the Book of Mormon. There was no rousing soundtrack to keep me energized. Some people made rude comments. Some drunk men creeped me out. The winters froze my skin through multi-layer outfits, it rained and I didn’t have an umbrella, the streets smelled of exhaust from the marshrutky, the underground crosswalks smelled of something much worse.

And I had to work and trust and hope and pray and fight to keep on going.

I had to row and my unaccustomed hands hurt. Missionary work was easy only to look at.

But doing it, while very difficult, was also very joyful.

Because Ukraine and its people ceased to be mere illusions in my mind. Simferopol was a bustling humid loud populated reality—not just an idea or a vision, a mental scene to give backdrop to daydreams. It was real, and I really loved it. My ideas of “Ukrainians” broke down to become the Solodovniks, the Polyakovs, the Sichkarenkos, the Petrovs, Nadya, Lara, Svetlana, Nina, Zhenya, Gosha, Inna, Leonid the street peddler, Tatyana the half-paralyzed babushka. Real people. Real friends. Real, living, loving children of God.

Actualities, not just illusions.

It took work. It was hard. It was awkward and often heartbreaking. But my mission was real. And the people were too. I watched illusions die off and fade out and obscure. The result of this disillusionment was much more complex than the dream I’d cooked up when I first got my mission call. But I’d trade illusory love any day for the real, solid stuff that took shape in my heart and bound it to Ukraine.

Because illusions, you see, can’t love back.

Disillusion done right is letting go of false thoughts to make room for the real stuff that means so much more. It’s the process of loving the real kind of love—the kind built with “the tough fiber of the human heart” instead of “[the] texture of wine and dreams”[4]—the kind that peels back enchantment without losing hope, growing numb, giving up, drying out.[5] It demands that we examine “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), not just as we’d like them to be.

Sometimes it means loving when it love doesn’t come easy.

Sometimes it means progressing when we can’t see the way.

It takes faith, hope, and charity; it takes repentance and trust; it takes maturity, empathy, reason, and heart—things I can’t fully give, though I try to each day.

“For now,” Paul wrote, “we see through a glass, darkly,” filtered through false expectations, illusions, and figments (1 Corinthians 13:12). But Christ—the most important Reality—didn’t promise His followers fantasies, or mirages, or imagination, or dreams; He promised “the Spirit of truth,” the Comforter that speaks hope and healing (John 14:17, 26).

Disillusionment usually hurts. There’s a reason why we hang on to dreams, and why we sometimes build them back up when they crash. Perhaps using my mission experience was a poor authorial choice. After all, as hard as it was, I don’t regret my service, and I’d go again in an instant if I could! Some disappointments hurt an awful lot more—paralyzingly, on occasion. Even long after the fact. I’ve watched enough dreams become nightmarish real life that sometimes I despise disillusionment for the rude wake-up call that it is. Illusions are comfortable. Illusions don’t keep me up at night crying. Illusions are safe and they’re soft and they’re nice.

But illusions aren’t real, and they won’t ever be. And as long as there are real lives to experience, real blessings to see, real people to love—won’t that always matter more than even the pleasantest dreams?

At least, I suppose so. I’m still so young, so caught up in ideals, wishes, hopes, so afraid that those visions and dreams won’t come true.

“[So] for now [I] see through a glass, darkly; but [someday] face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. [Until then] abideth faith, hope, [and] charity” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).

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[1] From A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: HarperOne. 686.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin Classics. 479-480.

[3] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disillusion?s=t

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics. 176. The entire quote says: “Our friendships come to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fiber of the human heart.”

[5] See the above C. S. Lewis quotation.

I Didn’t Ask for This

From the steps of my apartment 21 March 2015

From the steps of my apartment
21 March 2015

Hast thou not seen
How all thou needest hath been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
— Joachim Neander (trans. Catherine Winkworth)
“Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” LDS Hymns #72

For forty days I didn’t ask for anything in prayer.

That’s theologically ridiculous, and I know it. In the scriptures, prophets repeatedly urge us to ask God “for whatsoever things [we] stand in need” (Alma 7:23). Jesus Himself even set the example when He asked God for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), and for His disciples’ salvation (John 17:24), and for the bitter cup to pass (Matthew 26:39). Asking is a part of prayer. It’s a sanctioned, encouraged, even commanded aspect of the line that links us to Heaven.

But on Ash Wednesday (18 February) I sat on an upholstered seat, scrawling Russian notes-to-self in the upper margin of my notebook, sorta-halfway-not-exactly paying attention to the lecture in my religion course. As the professor expounded principles in the Doctrine and Covenants, I racked my brain for Lent ideas; I still hadn’t decided what sacrifice to make that year in preparation for Easter.

I wanted it to be good—real good. Not my typical abstinence from sweets for forty days. That’s fine and all, but this year needed to be different. It needed to mean something more than self-control.

It needed to mean healing.

I’d been grumping more than usual, and that’s saying something coming from an inborn grump. Things had been rough—with academics, social situations, family, physical conditions. Everything. You name it. It was rotting or dissolving or falling victim to my clumsy no-good wreckingness. And I failed at masking my inner disillusionment with life right then. My attitude soured, my speech increased in sarcasm, and I worked my tear ducts like a 1900s sweatshop master.

Clawing to escape despair, I concluded that this year’s Lenten fast would need to be a last-ditch fight to shake off the Greer I saw myself becoming—the wretch who burdened parents, roommates, and teachers with perpetual reminders of the soul sores she was nursing. It’s gotta stretch me, I resolved, staring at the spiral-bound notebook on my lap. It’s gotta help me chip away at all this nasty outlook.

Cutting into my moment of reflection, my religion professor called on a student to read a verse out loud. “Section 98,” Dr. Fredricksen clarified, “starting at the top.”

A baritone voice from one of the rows behind me sounded out the words that snapped my private musings into line with the class discussion:

“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord . . . ” (D&C 98:1-2).

For just a moment I let my mind replay the phrase “in everything give thanks.” In everything give thanks. In everything—even in the crummy times when life is going wrong.

A surprise flicked from neuron to neuron, gaining mass until the thought had meaning and could settle, discernible, with all the other bits of light that lodge inside my brain from time to time. It was clear and Spirit-led, and so I wrote it down, solidifying my commitment with the black ink of my BIC pen: For Lent this year, only pray in gratitude.

I promised God that, until Easter, I’d fast from asking Him for things.

And—crazy as it sounded—I felt really good about the decision.

The purpose of the Prayer Challenge seemed clear to me at first. I wanted to increase in gratitude. It was a logical choice, considering what scriptures and modern prophets and social scientists have said about the correlation between thanksgiving and contentment—and, conversely, between ingratitude and bitterness. President Thomas S. Monson once said: “We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and [instead] cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”[1] President James E. Faust called gratitude “a saving principle.”[2] Both prophets referenced in their talks the Lord’s reminders to His children that ingratitude is really the sole foundation for offense to God. Ingratitude begets every other sin. It shows a disrespect for all the Father’s given us.

So gratitude, I thought, could cure me from the funk I wallowed in. Of all the virtues I could learn and study, surely thankfulness—in spite of lousy circumstances—was the one I needed at that moment in my life.

But as the forty days progressed, I discerned God’s Hand at work in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I first resolved to put a bit more thought into my prayers, censoring out requests in place of thanks.

The lesson came as I continued to face situations that tried and tested me. The hardships didn’t disappear the moment I committed to learn gratitude. In fact, sometimes it seemed they doubled.

In the days leading from Ash Wednesday to Easter I faced challenges in which I’d normally beg God for help. Like the violent stomach flu that hit me the day before a midterm. Or the first 10K I ran. Or the stabbing sear in my left ankle that meant I damaged something during that 10K. Or the papers, conference presentation, social awkwardness, family tensions, impending unemployment, prep for graduation, uncertainty, disappointment, failure, envy, anger, pride.

The crumminess of life continued, even as I worked on learning thanks.

But in every situation, although I didn’t ask for help, the Lord still pulled me through. Which shocked me into a new self-realization.

I think I cling too much to the idea that everything hinges on my actions, work, desires. Too often when I kneel next to my mattress late at night, pressing my palms against my face, I talk to God as if I need to prove my faith by begging Him for blessings. If I really mean it, my spiritual subconscious seems to think, if I can get my heart to yearn just that much more, if I can sense His will and yank my own in line with it—then everything will turn out fine. He’ll make it all work out.

The “pray hard for blessings, otherwise you don’t deserve to have them” line of thought.

But by silencing my requests for forty days, I learned the truth of what Christ taught when He reminded His mountaineering disciples:

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not: and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass . . . how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? . . . [B]e ye not of doubtful mind . . . [for] your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.” (Luke 12:27-30; see also Matthew 6:25-32)

Perhaps sometimes my prayers show fear more than faith. Perhaps they show a prideful it’s-in-my-hands-and-I’d-better-not-muff-it kind of scramble to secure the things I think I need.

Perhaps they show a focus on self, rather than a glory in God’s grace.

God always gives us blessings we don’t ask for or deserve. I never once asked Him to make the sun come up, to accompany its rising with pink and orange and yellow streaks, to cue the birds to sing, the buds to open, the breeze to whisper that it’s morning. I didn’t ask for mountains or rivers. Or for a heart that pushes oxygenated blood throughout a web of veins. Or for the bumpy-smooth texture of cherry tree bark. I didn’t ask for constellations, or for a dad who taught me how they got their names and stories. I can’t remember praying for hot chocolate after sledding, or for the instinct to laugh at puns, or for a tingling in my cheek when I lie down on a cool pillow.

For joints and nerves that function. For emotions that react. For creativity. Tenacity. Historical heroes. My niece’s dimples. Shining specks in quartz. Eyelids that blink. Taste buds that savor. Aspen leaves that rustle in the northwest corner of my family’s backyard.

I never asked for any of these things. Yet God knew that I’d need them—or at least that life just wouldn’t be the same if they were absent.

If there’s one thing my forty-day Prayer Challenge hammered into my attention, it’s that I need to trust the Father for the things I need. I’m learning to ask in faith rather than in fear of what will happen if I don’t ask hard enough. I’m learning to believe that God can unveil to my soul what to ask for, and what He gives without my asking. It’s a trust that’s building up between a frightened, failing, striving girl and her patient, loving Father.

And that trust—wrapped up in gratitude—is starting to heal me bit by bit and pain by pain.

God is good. And He’s omniscient. He knows our wants and needs and hurts and hopes and fears and overcomings. He lets us pray to ask for things, and gives us what will mean the most. Even if we don’t know just what that is. Even if we don’t know just what to ask for or expect.

He knows that we have need of things to pull us through the aches of imperfection.

And if we wait on Him, remembering to voice our thanks, He’ll wrap us up in the grace that makes mortality as beautiful as the lilies of the field.

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[1] Thomas S. Monson, “An Attitude of Gratitude,” April 1992 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/an-attitude-of-gratitude?lang=eng

[2] James E. Faust, “Gratitude as a Saving Principle,” April 1990 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/gratitude-as-a-saving-principle?lang=eng.