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.

 

 

————————————————————–

[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.

 

———————————————-

[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).

 

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

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.

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.

 

 

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