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.

Stupid Flowers

wick

Stupid flowers. Don’t you know it’s February?
The sun peeks out, tickles the ground,
and you start shoving your heads through soil
to blossom three weeks early
when any night a frost might come
and pierce your stems and buds—
the shoots you left exposed when you decided
warmth meant safety.

It doesn’t.
It means lies,
false hope,
winter disguised as promise.

Or maybe it means drought
and now you’ve stretched up to the light
only to plunge your roots deep in the desert with
no rain.

In either case, you’ll die.
And I don’t want to watch you wither.

Stay down—trust me.
Wait just a bit until
you’re sure it’s safe and you
won’t harm yourselves
by trusting light and sunshine.

Stay down, because
without a guarantee of hope
you might lose the life you thought
the light would give you.

 

* * * * *

 

Silly girl. Don’t you feel it’s springtime?
Your months and weeks are just a scheme
you’ve thought up, you’ve imagined
just to give yourself control
when what really matters is the sun—
the life that lifts our heads out of the ground
although we can’t know what will happen
once we make ourselves exposed.

Maybe warmth
means risks,
new prospects,
spring wrapped in potential.

Or maybe it means love
and so we must stretch up toward light
through darkness even when the soil
is dry.

In either case, we’ll live.
And life is so much more than safety.

It’s time—trust us.
Although a frost might come
or we might thirst and wither,
even still, one day of sun and beauty
is worth the chance.

It’s time, because
hope has no guarantees
except the promise that no life,
no love is wasted.

daffodil

 

On Value and Hope

 

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK, August 2014

Through years of art ventures I’ve learned that although I’ll never be as creative, daring, or talented as most of my peers, I can do value like nobody’s business. Sometimes that’s all I’ve got going for me—my compositions generally seem pretty bland and poorly-executed next to the canvases and sketch pads of others. But man is my shading fine. And I love doing it too. I love smudging charcoal all over a page, rubbing my fingertips around the contours of shapes my mind projects onto the paper. There’s something therapeutic about tapping the point of a Sharpie to a silent rhythm, stippling thousands of dots to make a face or a flower emerge from the shadows. Blending Prismacolors to fit the perfect shades in bright and dark patches is like pressing two puzzle pieces together and watching them lock into place. And don’t even get me started on crosshatch.

My love of value affects how I look at the world. – Or, perhaps the way I look at the world led to my love of value. I’m not really sure which came first. All I can say is there’s something special about the way Rock Canyon looks at around 5 PM in late August, or the way leaves turn translucent from indirect sunlight. Try watching a cloud’s shadow cross a field. Then try chasing it. It’s exciting to see how glow and shade interact, how two opposite forces collaborate to define the forms and textures of God’s handiwork.

That’s where I see beauty—in contrasts between light and darkness. I’m not sure why artists took to calling it value, but I think it’s a fitting title. In my eyes, sunrays glinting off the lake, or breaching a barrier of clouds, or marking ridges on the mountains—all of this adds meaning to the world and to life. It adds clarity to vision. It adds focus and understanding.

It adds value.

* * * * *

The things in my life that matter most—the things of the greatest value to me—exhibit both light and darkness. Take my family, for instance. Together we’ve gone through the best and the worst. Our love brings happiness, peace, support, hope, and excitement. But that love can also lead to pain as we suffer with and because of and on behalf of each other. Bright and dim. Joy and sorrow.

I’ve also observed this in the process of getting an education. Learning enlightens my mind and heightens my perception, and I cherish the memories of falling in love with linguistics during second grade, of my tenth-grade decision to pursue historical studies, of college lectures that have brought me to tears at the beauty and purpose of knowledge. But I’ll never forget the late nights, the anxiety, and the breakdowns that have punctuated my path toward greater understanding. They’re inseparable; the toil spawns the payoff, the work adds the meaning.

My eighteen-month mission was like that as well. Nothing’s more poignant than watching a spark in people’s faces the moment they feel God’s love for the very first time. There’s a beauty in seeing miracles unfold in the lives of post-Soviet atheists who’ve used vodka to deafen themselves to their fears, but who then come to realize there’s more to the world. But along with the joys of missionary service, I had to endure pains much deeper than any I’d felt up to that time. I saw poverty, drug addictions, rape victims, abuse. I heard gunshots and watched men brawling in the streets. I had to prevent a suicide once. I faced rejection dozens of times every day. My friends and family and companions suffered, and I suffered with them. And—perhaps hardest of all—I became more familiar with my faults and my need for some hard-core repentance. Then I walked through the pains of struggling to make changes stick.

In everything of value, shine and shadow collide.

* * * * *

I can handle dark spots when there’s light around too. I’ve always been tough—I can grit my way through disappointment and misunderstanding and pain, clenching my fists and setting my jaw and keeping watch for glints flashing out in the black. After all, that’s where beauty is, right? In the contrasts of shading.

But every now and again there are pretty big blotches of time when the paint smears together, no value in sight.

I remember one evening about thirteen months into my missionary service in Ukraine, and about six months into a deepening funk that had sapped me of energy and excitement and hope. Things had been pretty hard for me and my companion. It seemed that no one cared about us or our message, and we’d faced some fouler-than-usual rejection. I was shouldering the brunt of our responsibilities, since I’d been in the city the longest and my Russian was more advanced. Plus, things had been hard for my companion, and I didn’t want to compound that.

But I needed support. There were problems back home, and they got worse every time I read the once-a-week emails from my family. There were problems inside me, and those worsened too as I grappled with anger, despair, and shortcomings.

And there was no one I could talk to about any of it.

More than anything else, I just wanted a change. I wanted something to be different—I wanted something to hope for. I wanted to feel happy again, to find something to look forward to, to get out of the rut. For weeks I hadn’t heard anyone comment on seeing a light in my face. And who could blame them? I knew full well that there wasn’t any light to be seen. Not in me. Not the way I was feeling.

All of these thoughts occupied my mind as my companion and I sat on the edge of an old dried-up fountain in an open-air market near our apartment. We had just bought Georgian khachapuri for dinner, but after tearing off a corner of the cheese-filled bread, I realized that I wasn’t hungry. There was too much weighing down on me—too much to do, and no drive to do it. I have to call Svetlana before it gets too late, and maybe Nina and Zhenya can meet out in Sevastopol. And I’ll call Olya to see if she can help out on Friday. And when can we meet with Inna and Gosha? If I call them today, then maybe—

My brain cut off right then as my throat tightened and water collected at the rims of my eyes. My companion was saying something, but I couldn’t process her words. I stared straight ahead, fixing my eyes on the buses and cars that crowded the street.

Otche, my mind whispered to Heaven. Then in English I prayed, Father, I’m sorry. I just can’t anymore.

God and I shared a silence. For several minutes I let my heart pound in mourning for the righteous desires that had dissolved over months of disappointment and strain. I faced the death of my hopes, the reality of the darkness that blocked out any light.

* * * * *

Don’t expect a nice wrap-up to this story. There wasn’t one. It panned out the way most things do in my life. I just had to keep going, despite the despair. Phone calls kept piling up, rejections kept dragging us down, and my personal and family concerns kept refusing to resolve. A month or so after that evening prayer by the fountain, changes did start to come—but the cure they brought wasn’t sudden or wholesale. In fact, there are entries in my mission journal that I still avoid reading, even two years later. I’ve moved on and healed, but the scar tissue still aches when I look back on some of those dark, hopeless days.

But I guess that’s the miracle: Life goes on. Healing comes. Light returns. No matter how dark things get, God’s world is governed by value, which means that there must be a contrast somewhere.

Because even at night there are usually pricks of light forming constellations, or streaking the sky with the galaxy’s arm. And even in winter, when snow clouds and inversions obscure the atmosphere, we know that someday April will come—longer days, warmer air, clearer skies, brighter stars. If not in April, then in May, June, July. Sometime things will be different. Sometime things will change. There’s still hope, even when nights are longest and darkest. There’s still hope that we’ll see the sun rise one more time.

And perhaps it will seem all the more glorious then. As we watch dark and light embrace at the golden-orange border between night and day, we understand why artists call it value. If only just for that moment, the darkness was worth it. If only right then, we remember the way God sustained us as we waited in the pitch of midnight, praying for something to hope for and live for again.

Paul reminds us: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Romans 8:24-25).

So we keep waiting for light to come back, even when we can’t see in the darkness. It will come. It must come. After all, the Light of the World promised that He “will not leave [us] comfortless” (John 14:18), but He’ll come to restore hope and healing.

He will come to restore the value to our lives.

And the contrast will be beautiful.

Roses and Religion

bush

Over the past few weeks I’ve learned to look at people in a new way. Call it creepy or call it empirical, it makes little difference. The fact is that I’ve found a glimmer of hope left in humanity. And so what if preserving that glimmer requires candid photos through curtains and glass?

The story begins at my desk—central station for all things gloomy. At least, that’s how it’s seemed the past little while. The bulk of the time I spend at my desk (a grand chunk of each twenty-four hour block) generally consists of my reading through documents linked to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Nazism, pogroms, etc. After all, it’s what I study. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to process emotionally. And when I need a quick break from homework I’ll pull up a tab on an Internet browser to see if new developments have broken in Ukraine or in Gaza.

Frankly, sometimes I’m not sure what’s more dismal—the past or the present.

Life can seem a tad dreary at times, despite all our best intentions to keep stiff upper lips or to whistle or sing. And although I’m not a naturally sad person, every now and then things just don’t look terribly hopeful—and perhaps my addiction to current events isn’t helping this prognosis.

It was on one of those bleak days that I saw a cliché come to life and my whole mood changed. I was chatting with someone online—a friend or a sibling, I can’t quite remember—when a shuffling old woman entered my view through the window at my desk. I watched her hobble along the sidewalk across the street from my hostel, and she kept up her slow pace until she reached the large rosebush that clings to the building on that side of the road.

She reached up a rheumatic hand, gently took hold of a flower, and drew it close to her face.

Yes, friends. That woman literally stopped and smelled the roses.

I can’t explain why, but that experience struck me deeply. Despite my normal aversion to all things trite, I really admired that woman and suddenly felt the urge to go up to that rosebush myself and take a big whiff of the scent God infused into His creation. The view from my window gained meaning, and the world seemed a little less gray.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a day or two later a group of four passersby took the liberty to do the same thing—to stop for a moment, put their journey on hold, and sniff at the yellow rose petals.

That’s when I lost all sense of propriety. Glancing at the digital camera near my laptop on the desk, I made an impulsive decision and snapped shots of the group in order to document that people really do enact the adage we’ve all heard too often.

first

It became a new hobby. Every day I would look up from my readings from time to time to see how people reacted to the rosebush as they passed. If they stopped, I whipped out my camera for the photo, proving to the world (or at least to myself) that there really is beauty left on the earth, and that there really are people who relish it. I started to trust humanity just a bit more than I have in the past. In each passing pedestrian I imagined a closet philosopher enraptured by aesthetics, or a budding theologian whose mind and soul rejoiced in the glories of God.

second

But one day the motion that caught my eye through the window surprised me. An older man trudged along to the steps of a porch near the rosebush. He slouched onto the cement and leaned his guitar against the handrail, then pulled a can out of a crumpled grocery bag and poured the fermented drink into a bottle.

I watched him down round after round of the stuff. His face flushed, and still he pulled out new cans to fill his bottle when the old tins were empty. One time he got up, staggered to the nearby dumpster, and proceeded to relieve himself publicly. I quickly looked away, feeling embarrassed on behalf of this man who had numbed himself past the ability to feel. Clearly he yearned for the comfort—no matter how transient—that can come only after all senses are dead. Soon he stumbled back to his spot on the steps and eventually lost consciousness for a time.

The sight jerked me out of my idealizing and forced me to remember reality. Right next to the rosebush—that symbol I’d invented to stand for hope and goodness—there lay a drunken beggar who not only could not take time to smell the flowers, but probably had too much pressing on his soul to even see them or care. The immediacies of hunger, of hatred, of loss, unemployment, divorce, destitution, depression—who knows—crowded out the roses. And I understand why.

For some reason, I felt that I needed to capture this image. After a moment’s hesitation, I took up my digital camera, climbed under my desk in order to lift the curtain for a clearer view, and clandestinely snapped a portrait of the person whose pain I’d been watching.

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I prayed for that man. There wasn’t much else I could do.

The next day he was back, and he sat on the porch even though it was raining and the steps had no awning to shield him from the drizzle. I ached for him—especially when he pulled out a can.

But this day turned out a bit differently than the previous one had. After about ten minutes or so, I saw a young woman approach the man. In one hand she grasped the handle of a mug covered in pink and red hearts; in the other she held a banana. She leaned over the man and insisted he take the fruit and coffee, then she stood for a while, chatting, laughing, smiling with the man who had set his beer can aside to make room for the gifts.

The two were so consumed with their conversation that I’m sure neither of them noticed the camera lens across the street, snatching the moment, preserving the scene of true love in action.

last

I’m not sure if the rosebush really is the symbol I’d made it out to be all those times that I watched people stop and observe it, or smell it, or touch it, or maybe just stand in its shade for a while. Sure, it’s beautiful, and I’m glad there are people who notice beauty in the world.

But there’s something more lovely than flowers.

Cliché and all, I think I’m in favor of the maxim to “stop and smell the roses,” just so long as we’re willing to notice the men who sit under the bushes. Just so long as we’re willing to grab our bananas and mugs and go stand in the rain for the sake of God’s sons and His daughters. That’s what makes this world beautiful–men and women and caring and love.

I’ll let you decide whether it’s wrong for a person to hide in her room taking pictures of strangers. But now, on those days when the present and past seem a little too heavy to handle, I’ve got proof that good people still walk on the earth—people who understand that “[p]ure religion and undefiled before God . . . is this[:] To visit [people] in their afflictions, and to keep [themselves] unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).