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.

On A Candlestick: Confessing a Truth that I Frequently Hide

This essay was originally written in September 2013, and is reposted here with a few minor alterations.

dnepr skyline

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men. – St. Matthew 5:15-16

In the heart of Ukraine there is a city called Dnepropetrovsk. It’s a beautiful city bisected by the winding, serene Dnepr River. There are skyscrapers and universities, private homes and street markets, synagogues, onion-domed temples, small churches. The city bustles with over a million inhabitants who jabber in Russian, Ukrainian, or some combination of both all at once. The streets are packed with thirty-year old cars and clunky marshrutky[1]. The air swirls with exhaust fumes, the scent of dried fish from the markets, and wafts of fresh air from the hills and the countryside. It’s an exciting, enthralling, remarkable place. There’s nothing quite like it in America.

In the heart of Dnepropetrovsk there are two shimmering towers. You can see them from pretty much any location—they hold a prominent place in the city’s skyline, and almost everyone knows where they are. Most Ukrainians call them “the Candlesticks,” and I frankly don’t blame them. Svechi (“candlesticks” in Russian) is much simpler to say than Dzerzhinskogo, which is the name of the street in the towers’ address. So if a person intends to visit the towers, it’s much easier to tell the cab driver, “Go to ‘the Candlesticks,’” than to spit out the address. This is especially true for any poor Americans who might find themselves making their way through the hectic, snaking streets of Dnepropetrovsk.

“The Candlesticks” are modern, high-class apartment buildings, and they’re known for housing two types of people: the mafia and the “Mormons.” That’s the joke, anyway. The mafia live there because the Candlesticks have some of the nicest apartments in all of Dnepropetrovsk. And, after all, the mafia have no problems with money. So why not live in luxury, eh? But for the Mormons it’s quite a bit different. In fact, of the hundreds of flats rented out of the towers, there’s only one apartment occupied by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So it’s really not fair to suggest that the Mormons are somehow a significant portion of the towers’ inhabitants. But the joke has foundation; the place does seem to be crawling with Mormons. You see, the one “Mormon apartment” in one tower of the Dnepropetrovsk Candlesticks is occupied by the president of the Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission of the LDS Church. So it’s not that uncommon to see hordes of LDS missionaries trailing in and out of the towers to visit the mission president for conferences and interviews, or to spend the night before being assigned to work in a different city.

I had the privilege to be one of those young missionaries in the Dnepropetrovsk Mission. But I spent little time in Dnepropetrovsk itself. After three months of training in America I lived in the Crimean Peninsula for the duration of my service as a missionary. Fifteen glorious months in a city called Simferopol—an eight-hour train ride south of Dnepropetrovsk. So needless to say, considering the distance between my area of service and the “mission home” (our name for the mission president’s apartment), I was not a frequent visitor to the Candlesticks.

But I still consider the Candlesticks to be a sacred place in my life—a place where I learned several valuable lessons, a place where God spoke to me in powerful ways. I’d like to share one experience that stands out to me as being especially formative. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s important nonetheless. It’s a time when I learned the truth of Christ’s phrase about hiding a light under a bushel—when I learned that I’m awfully good at concealing one of the brightest, most vibrant lights in my life. I’m quite comfortable under a bushel, it seems. Here’s the story:

It was late March, this year. My eighteen-month mission had come to a close. I had spent every hour of every day trying hard to help others come closer to Christ. My companions and I had walked off the soles of a few pairs of shoes treading the streets talking to all the people we met. We had somehow learned Russian so that we’d be able to tell people in their own native tongue, “God lives! He loves you! His Church is restored!” We’d seen miracles, trials, acts of kindness and mercy. We’d made friends, we’d made changes, and—most importantly—we’d made many people more aware of Christ’s love and His role in their lives. We’d become more aware of His role in our own lives as well.

My mission was perhaps the one period of my life when I can say that I lived out Christ’s commandment to “let your light so shine before men” as fully as He probably meant it. Although I’m a fairly shy person, I soon learned to speak rather boldly to let others know how I thought, how I felt. What a significant change from the girl I had been only eighteen short months before! I learned how to recognize truth from the Spirit of God, and I learned not to swallow back all those promptings to speak; I learned how to overcome fear with my faith, and it was a positively liberating sensation.

And then it all ended. It was time to go home. I was a little bit startled to find myself standing in Dnepropetrovsk, gazing out of the spacious window in the mission home, peering over the city and the beautiful river. Thousands of thoughts cluttered my mind as I tried to cope with the fact that my mission was over—and most of those thoughts ended with hesitant question marks.

Fortunately for me, there’s a splendid tradition: When missionaries are about to go home they are given the privilege of talking with their mission presidents in what some call an “exit interview.” I had heard great things of these interviews. Missionaries reported them to be moments of spectacular personal revelation, a time when the mission president—knowingly or not—seemed to speak just the words the out-going missionary needed to hear. Some said that the poignant questions President van Bruggen asked highlighted new possibilities they’d never considered. Others claimed that the special advice that he gave changed their lives and their mindsets. The prospects excited me greatly. After all, who couldn’t use a bit of personal guidance—particularly when that guidance is sent through an authorized servant of God?

That’s how I saw things as I walked into President van Bruggen’s office. All righty, I thought, let’s do this. I’ve prepared and I’ve prayed, and I’m ready to get revelation. Goodness knows I could use some right now.

And it’s true. I had put a great deal of thought and prayer going into the interview. I had lists of concerns I had taken to God, pleading with Him to open my mind and soften my heart through President van Bruggen’s brief words of counsel to me. My life was about to change drastically, and that was awfully scary to face. Something I’d worked for and lived for since childhood—the dream to serve Christ as a full-time missionary—was about to become a thing of the past. What was I supposed to hope for and work for and live for now?

What were God’s expectations for me?

I sat myself down on a comfortable chair in President van Bruggen’s small, book-filled office. The setting was lovely. The Spirit was strong. We prayed, then commenced a remarkable conversation. President van Bruggen was supportive, validating. He asked me to reflect on my mission experience. I cried a great deal, and he cried a bit too. All the while I could sense God’s direction and guidance flowing gently into the open receptacles of my willing heart and clear mind.

But then something happened—something I wasn’t prepared for. Something I thought I’d already overcome. President van Bruggen asked an innocent question: “So, Sister Bates,” he smiled his kind smile. “What are your plans for when you’re back home?”

And that’s when I did it: I committed a sin. That might sound a bit harsh, but please let me explain. At the instant he asked me this powerful question, an answer—a truth—came promptly to my mind. I felt that familiar, remarkable feeling that comes when the Spirit speaks to my heart. I felt Him convey the answer to those questions I had—all those doubts about what God expected of me, about what I should work for and do and become. My prayers had been answered. I knew what to say.

But despite all those months I’d engaged in bold testimony, despite all the lessons I learned from opening my mouth to proclaim God’s great truth, I faltered. I failed. I said something else, too afraid, too ashamed, to bring the truth to full light. I consciously chose to ignore that strong prompting.

Now, I didn’t lie, per se. I guess I just hid under a bushel of sorts. My answer was carefully calculated to conceal the most precious, most personal parts—the parts that, in fact, were the most inspired. I told President van Bruggen all about my “life’s goals”: There were two years of study still waiting for me, my major was history, my minor was English. I had a student job all lined-up and I’d start right away. After graduation I had hopes to attend some grad school, either furthering my historical studies or else branching out to theology. I’d be pretty happy with either of those. And then there were all sorts of occupational goals, but I wanted to see first which direction felt right for my graduate studies. On and on I went, babbling about academics and internships, mentors, careers. And to a vast extent, it was all very true.

But locked deep in my heart—its light smothered and veiled—there remained an even greater truth that I just wouldn’t say.

And President van Bruggen caught on.

He smiled at me patiently, sensing my discomfort as I struggled to hide my omission. When at last I’d completed my minutes-long rant, President van Bruggen had a sly spark in his eye. “That’s all very good,” he said quietly. I smiled with a sense of relief, thinking for an instant that I’d somehow escaped. But then he went on with a condemning question. These are words I will never forget:

“But aren’t you forgetting something important?”

——Why, yes. Yes I was. And by George, I had done it on purpose! I knew what he meant; I knew what I ought to have said. There I sat for a terrible instant of silence, guilty, embarrassed, and somewhat annoyed with myself for my cowardice in such a sheltered environment. I shrugged and looked down, and I probably blushed. I proceeded to give an astoundingly lukewarm response to President van Bruggen’s perceptive question: “Oh, well, yeah,” I began, gulping back all my guilt. “I mean, of course family is my priority. But, you know, it’s just sort of hard to . . . well, to bank on that, you know? I mean, it’s not really something I can . . . well, control. And so . . . yeah.” Then I nervously laughed and silently prayed for a quick change of topic.

And so, there you have it. A lackluster close to one of my final opportunities to testify as a missionary. It’s pitiful, isn’t it? I had spent eighteen months proclaiming truth boldly, unapologetically, with conviction and light. Countless times babushky[2] had stopped me on the street to inquire after the light in my eyes and my face. Women walking their dogs would stop, turn their heads. And when they heard our message, they knew where this radiance came from. It’s an inescapable trait that marks all who endeavor to follow Jesus Christ. It’s the “light” that He gives in the form of His truth. For eighteen months I had carried that light as a good Christian should—set atop a bright candlestick, out in the open, where all could see it and enjoy its warm glow.

But then—in one of the bitterest ironies of my life—when I sat in “the Candlestick” I searched for a bushel. Rather than boldly declaring the truth, I chose instead to say something safe, something dull. Rather than testify of the paramount importance of family, I chose to speak only of secular things, of “success” as the world quantifies it.

Perhaps all this stemmed from a fear of some kind. After all, I’ve developed a certain loathing to conversations in which people ask about my dreams for a future family. Maybe some of you girls have had similar experiences. As soon as I mention wanting to raise children, people will generally laugh just a bit—a pitying, slightly condescending chuckle. And then there’s that dreaded question, “But what else?” as if to highlight a narrow-minded naïveté embedded in my dreams. “You poor girl,” they seem to imply. “Don’t you realize what you’re missing? You’re bright. You’re successful. You’ve already gone far. Just imagine what more you could do with your life! Sure, have a family someday, if that’s what you want. But become a professor as well as a mom. Be a world-famous author as well as a mom. You don’t have to settle for one or the other. Go ahead—take the best of both worlds,” they declare.

But in all honesty, that’s just not how I feel. Please allow me the privilege to express now in writing a truth I’m too timid—or perhaps just too proud—to discuss with most people face-to-face. Although I love history, writing, and theology, although I’d be thrilled to become a professor or author or researcher of some kind, none of that is what’s really important to me deep inside. More than any career or degree I could work for, my priority is family. And that’s what it always will be.

But it’s just so hard to say that to people sometimes. I’m afraid of offending those whose circumstances differ from my own. I’m afraid of eliciting a far too personal discourse with a stranger. I’m afraid of the judgment others might pass if they deem my dreams shallow or somehow naïve.

And perhaps I’m afraid of the disappointment that might come if I set my sights too high, hoping and working and living for something that’s beyond my control to obtain.

None of this is a justification, mind you. I know that Christ never said, “Let your light so shine before men—unless, of course, they just won’t understand. Or unless they’ll just laugh in your face. Or unless it just doesn’t make sense to shine at the moment. Or unless—heaven forbid—you might give offence. Under those circumstances, by all means, find a bushel and make use of it until situations improve.” Christ never called for “fair weather” disciples. Thus, I know that there’s no good excuse for my silence regarding my dreams of family and motherhood. And yet, goodness knows, it’s sure easy to keep quiet on those precious subjects.

That’s the trouble with candles. Once the flame has been lit you’re exposed, vulnerable. You can’t hide in the light.—

—But still, I suppose that it’s worth being seen. It’s worth being seen for Christ’s sake and the sake of His truth.

Now, it might be easy to think that the story ends there, with my shrinking away from the light of my testimony of marriage and family. But it seems that God hasn’t quite given up on me yet. The story is far from a final conclusion, and it recently took a turn that I didn’t expect over five weeks ago when I sat down to start writing this essay.

Fast forward a bit—about five months after my experience with President van Bruggen in the Dnepropetrovsk mission home. Much had happened throughout those five fleeting months. One event in particular stands out to me: An apostle of Christ[3] gave a powerful speech in which he commissioned women to be bold and to “bear [their] testimonies of the truth of all things”—most especially in defense of the family.[4] Sitting in the large auditorium during this talk, I cringed and remembered my interview back in Dnepropetrovsk. With resolve to repent of my former omission, I committed there and then to write an essay expounding my thoughts on the matter.

And so I began. But a few weeks soon passed and I found myself mired in the muddle of strong writer’s block. There’s no ending! I realized with troubled dismay. A beginning and middle—but no way to end. What’s the point if there’s no clear conclusion? So I struggled and stalled, wrote, revised, and rethought things, all without making much progress.

That’s when God intervened, offering me redemption with a strikingly similar situation to the one at the start of this essay.

Once again I found myself seated on a comfortable chair in a small, book-filled office—this time in America on the campus of my university. I sat directly across from a brilliant professor who had graciously agreed to meet with me to enlighten my mind and offer direction for my studies and goals. The conversation was pleasant, edifying, and warm. Dr. Gaskill offered splendid advice, and he seemed to legitimately think that I showed some potential for success as a scholar (a notion which, frankly, surprised me a bit, considering how little he knew me). As the discussion reached a close, Dr. Gaskill leaned back in his chair and remarked, “You know, I’m really anxious to see how this turns out. We could really use your perspective,” he went on with a smile. “There just aren’t enough women in this field.”

My heart jumped. There it was again, that feeling, that powerful truth from the Spirit of God in a soft, unmistakable prompting to speak. Once again, I knew what I needed to say—the exact words, it turns out, I had kept under a bushel six months prior in Dnepropetrovsk. I looked down at the laptop that perched on my knees. I thought of this essay, of the thousands of pixels I was struggling to arrange into some comprehensible form with no ending. The unfinished thoughts filled my brain. All those words I had written flowed into my mind. “On a candlestick,” “it giveth light,” “Let your light so shine” seemed to ring through my ears as adrenaline coursed through my veins.

Then I felt the right corner of my mouth twitch up into a half-smile. I took a deep breath. “Well, you know, to be perfectly honest,” I began. Then I paused. Then I sighed. Then I made direct eye contact with Dr. Gaskill.—Then I finally smiled completely.

“To be perfectly honest, more than anything else, I want to be a stay-at-home mom.”

Then I basked in the wonderful light of that truth.

 

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[1] Маршрутки: small bus-like vehicles used as a form of public transportation.

[2] Бабушки—the Russian word for “grandmother,” colloquially used in reference to older women in general.

[3] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is patterned after the organization of the church Christ established during His life on the earth. Just as He called 12 apostles, the LDS Church also has 12 apostles.

[4] See “Let Us Think Straight,” by M. Russell Ballard, http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=2133.