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.

And Hearts are Brave Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Post-MRI selfie, 16 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for our dreams and vocation.

So much for our vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long

Stills on the ear the distant triumph song

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,

Alleluia, alleluia![2]

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

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

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

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

In spite of the hurts, our hearts are brave.

Alleluia.

 

 

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

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.

The Finisher

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Along Washington DC’s New York Avenue,  February 2014

 

And the story has only begun. . . .

— “Glorious Unfolding,” Stephen Curtis Chapman (2013)

 

There’s a white Honda parked outside my apartment building, and it sports a back windshield decal that proclaims

And They Lived Happily . . . Ever After

Today I’ll ignore the egregious ellipsis error, ignore also questions about how such a large, flourishy sticker doesn’t obscure views of oncoming rear traffic, and I’ll move quickly through the assumption that all English-literate individuals can identify the source of that phrase and why it might appear on a car in the parking lot of newlywed student housing. I’m not sure which of my neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. White Honda. I don’t feel quite comfortable with spying through slats of window blinds just to see who gets into and out of that car each day. But whoever they are, I sure hope that they’re not at the point in their marriage that that sticker implies.

Happily ever after comes right before The End in traditional stories, and though I doubt that’s meant to indicate that Cinderella and Snow White and the other members of the Happy Ending Storybook Club filed for divorce just as soon as they finished their rides into the sunset, it does seem to signal that there’s nothing more worth telling. We’ve covered it all, folks. Nothing more to see here. They’ve reached the peak, and will hereafter plateau in perpetual pleasure. They’ve overcome all obstacles, beaten all odds, conquered and triumphed and now all that’s left is to bask in their love until the end of time, but we’ve seen enough of that to get the picture. The rest is old news, now. Just more of the same.

Now, I admit that weddings do celebrate a happy ending, of sorts. Dating stinks, in all candor, so when a guy finds a girl he can feel confident with, and when a girl finds a guy who helps her feel safe and strong, they grasp each other’s hands and hang on and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Friday night uncertainties and ambiguous texts and breakups and pits in the stomach. When the couple walks away from the altar, new rings glimmering on their left hands, they’ve gotten to the end of singlehood and move forward as a team, and if that’s not a joy worth celebrating with cake, then I’m pretty sure nothing is.

But I don’t like emphasizing the endness of marriage, which is why I have a beef with the Honda. And lest you think I’m assuming too much about the link between the happily ever after phrase and the story’s conclusion, consider this too: As I’ve pounded out ideas for this essay, a friend of mine was tagged in a Facebook wedding photo album by his new mother-in-law, and she captioned the pictures “And they lived happily ever after, the end.”

So soon? But they only just started. Is it already time to shut the book, flick off the light, tuck in bed, and call it a day?

If lovers were the only ones claiming these premature stopping points in their stories, we’d cut them some slack; love makes people loopy, so they get byes for all sorts of junk. But they’re not alone. They stand side by side with everyone who’s ever claimed that a baptism or a “coming to Jesus” or a prayer or a trip to the temple has changed who they are and they’ll never look back. In the group too are those who land their dream job and assert that they’ve “made it.” And the folks who forget that graduation commencement means start instead of conclusion. And the people who prepare for their first big race and then quit running the next day. And the newly-elected government officials who get too comfy in office and forget their campaign promises.

In short, we humans get real excited about certain milestones, we work and dream and sweat and sacrifice so we can reach them, and then we do and we think we’ve arrived. We consider it done.

But maybe the milestones aren’t ends in themselves—just checkpoints somewhere in the middle.

Nathan and I have been married for almost five months, which means we know nothing. But we’re gathering clues, and each day something hints that we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. Every day there are new plotlines in our story. The earliest (not even twelve hours after the wedding) was the rental car fiasco in the San Francisco airport; the latest was discovering that some punk helped himself to the contents of our own car the other day. The most serious was watching our grad school plans dissolve, leaving us with a painful decision to hash out; the most frivolous was losing ourselves not once but twice on a local school’s campus on the way to rehearsals.

And the stories we could tell you about each of those incidents! The growth we’ve seen! The funny quotes we’ve collected (on yellow sticky notes on the inside of a kitchen cupboard—most of them are from Nathan)! It feels like we’re even farther today from The End than we were on January 16th when we took our marriage license and glimmering rings and pounding hearts to the altar.

Same, too, for how life has gone since my baptism, or my mission, or graduating college. I’ve never “made it” anywhere—there’s still so far to go, and I keep going each day.

I think the Germans had the right idea about how to wrap up fairy tales. I’m not sure who crafted the phrase that we use in English, but it’s a pretty far cry from the traditional ending in our favorite stories’ native language. The German version mentions nothing about ongoing happiness—nothing, actually, about happiness at all. After marching through the plots we’re familiar with, German storytellers say:

Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.

Literally: “And if they haven’t died, then they’re living still today.”

They’re living still. They’re in the present tense.

Their stories are ongoing.

I love the way Tolstoy expressed these thoughts in Anna Karenina. Konstantin Levin spends the entire novel (all 817 pages of it) seeking “arrival points” that will change his life wholesale. He thinks it’ll come when he marries the “perfect woman” he’s loved for so long—then they marry and he not only discovers that nobody (not even Kitty Scherbatskaya) is perfect but that his life isn’t suddenly perfect either. He thinks it’ll come when his son is born—then little Mitya arrives and Levin is repulsed at first to see the squirming wrinkled red child, though he feels inexplicably proud to hear the baby’s first sneeze. He even thinks it’ll come when (spoiler alert) he lets God into his life in a beautiful conversion at the end of the book—and just moments afterwards, he snaps at a servant.

“I expected more,” Levin says, describing his feelings when Mitya was born, but also accounting for his experience in the whole of the novel. “I expected that a new, pleasant feeling would blossom in me like a surprise.” But he realizes that in each case, “. . . This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed. . . . I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”[1]

That’s the end of the novel, guys. The next words are The End, but it’s clear that for Levin, the road will keep going.

For all of us, the road will keep going, up and down and left and right and backwards sometimes but that’s OK, we can reorient and find forward again. There’s unquestionable meaning in each of our lives. We’re empowered to do oh so much good. For as long as we live—may it be ever so long—the Father Who cradled us onto this earth has given us all that we need to endure. He wove tenacity into our spirits, then set us on a path with a solid rod to clutch, no matter how dark things might get, and He whispers to us not to let go, not to stop moving, not even to quit once we’ve tasted a bite of the fruit at the bright Tree of Life, but to start up again and make the round one more time so we can take another bite, and then do it again (see 1 Nephi 8).

Somewhere, at some time, in some beautiful place, God will let us know when we’ve arrived at the only true happily ever after any of us can hope and work for. He’ll hug us tight to His chest, we’ll sob into His shoulder, and He’ll stroke our heads as He whispers, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy [L]ord” (Matthew 25:21).

Until that day, though, we’re not at the end—no matter the baptism or mission or wedding or job. Until that day, we’ll take the scriptures’ advice, so fitting for an essay about stories and ends:

“Wherefore, . . . let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2, emphasis added).

 

————————————————————-

[1] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 814, 817.