Things Not Seen

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Boston University: Marsh Chapel and the School of Theology, November 2017

In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. — Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

 

I struggled to come up with a concise word or phrase to describe what this talk is about, so rather than introduce the topic by a definition or a noun, I’d like to introduce it with some stories. The first one comes from one of my all-time favorite novels—Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the book, the youngest of the titular Karamazov boys is a nineteen-year-old kid named Alyosha who hoped to become a novice in a monastery under a famous elder called Father Zosima. Alyosha thought the world of Zosima—actually, pretty much everybody did. Zosima had really made a name for himself as a miracle worker, but what people liked about him best was the fact that he genuinely seemed to love them and to love God. He was a sincerely good man, and folks attributed his ability to perform miracles to this genuine goodness.[1]

But Zosima was old, and he was sick, and everyone knew he was dying. Which broke Alyosha’s heart, since he loved the elder so much, but Alyosha had faith that even in death Father Zosima would make miracles happen.[2]

This hope didn’t just come from nowhere—Alyosha’s expectation of miracles had precedent and promise in his religious background. We don’t really talk about this much anymore, but if you look anywhere in Christian hagiography (the stories of saints), you’ll see what I mean. There are centuries’ worth of stories of folks being healed at the graves of old saints, or by touching a relic of so-and-so’s old cloak, or whatever. But one especially prominent theme in a bunch of these old stories is the one Alyosha really expected to see: Many saint stories claim that when holy humans die, as if in one final testament of their goodness, their bodies do not decompose. After days and weeks and eventually years, the bodies of these saints remain intact, uncorrupted. That’s the story, anyway, and it’s everywhere in Christian heritage—just go look up some of the old accounts.[3]

Alyosha knew these stories, and he believed them too. So did pretty much all of the monks at the monastery, and as Zosima neared death, they were confident that they’d witness this final miracle.

When Zosima did die the monks prepared his funeral rites and then sat around his coffin for the viewing—Alyosha with them. No one spoke it, but they all shared one expectation: that Zosima’s holiness would translate to this miracle. So they waited and watched.

And they noticed a smell.

Which, at first, they all tried to dismiss, and they cracked open a window to let in some fresh air. But the stench grew stronger, and they couldn’t ignore it, and everyone knew what was happening.

Zosima’s body corrupted. In fact, it went fast—strangely fast, especially considering that the fellow was so small, dry, and frail that a stench so strong and so rapid seemed actually impossible. In whispers (and later in shouts), the monks jumped to conclusions. Clearly, they decided, this was some sort of divine retribution. They dismissed everything they used to think about Zosima, they wondered why anyone had ever considered him holy, they berated him and shattered his legacy.[4]

Well imagine the impact a scene like this had on nineteen-year-old Alyosha—to have faith and expect a miracle, to see that expectation fall to pieces, and to hear everyone’s harsh conclusions. The poor kid was crushed, and subsequently went through, I think, one of literature’s best breakdowns.[5]

Now, I don’t wanna spoil the book—because seriously, y’all need to go read it if you haven’t already—so I won’t go into what happens next, or how it fits in the broader narrative, or what have you. Besides, this isn’t literature class—it’s a talk. And it’s a talk to a congregation where I’m willing to bet most folks don’t think that body decomposition is necessarily a marker of divine judgment. So let me share another story—one that might be a little bit closer to home—from one of the men in our Church’s new First Presidency.

When Dallin Oaks was just seven, his father contracted tuberculosis and had to spend months at a sanatorium miles away from his wife and three kids. President Oaks wrote about what happened: “During the six months of his hospitalization, my father had received many priesthood blessings containing promises of recovery. Again and again prominent priesthood leaders went to my father’s bedside and gave priesthood blessings that contained promises of healing. Each of these leaders rebuked the disease and commanded that my father be made whole. But he still died.”[6]

Now, in both of those stories, the stakes were quite high; these were literal life-and-death situations. But the phenomenon I want to address—and you’re probably picking up on it already—doesn’t just have to happen in high-stakes showdowns. Here’s a slightly more casual example.

When Nathan and I got engaged there were (at least) two things that we felt literally led by God to do: 1) get married, 2) pursue more education together. We had put enough prayer and study and fasting and temple trips into both of these decisions to know that we weren’t just making stuff up—there was something Spirit-led in our goals. Nathan was wrapping up his master’s in math at BYU, and I was wrapping up a gap-year of work after getting my BA in history, so the timing was brilliant. On top of that, we had seen a bunch of mini-miracles steering us in this direction. Add to that some very clear promptings, some promises in our Patriarchal Blessings, and a growing excitement and hope, and boom. We knew we were walking the way God wanted us to. So we worked hard to find cities/schools with programs for the two of us, we paid every exorbitant fee, and we submitted the applications just days before our wedding.

In the first few months (and even weeks) of our marriage, we started to hear back from the programs with a mix of acceptances and rejections. And pretty soon we noticed a pattern: We weren’t lining up very well. Opportunities for Nathan didn’t match opportunities for me. But we “cast [our] mind[s] upon [all those] night[s] that [we] cried unto [the Lord] in [our] heart[s].” We remembered the peace that He’d spoken to our minds—and “what greater witness [could we] have than from God?”[7] So we held onto hope, and we just knew that something would work out so that we could both go off to school together.

Well, just a couple of days before the final decision deadlines arrived, our very last chance for a match fell through.

So there are three stories—three disparate-but-not-random stories—to make up for the fact that I can’t quite decide what to say is the theme of this talk. I mean, what do we call these things? Failed miracles? Unfulfilled promises? Trials of faith? If a General Authority were giving this talk, a) it’d be better, and b) he’d probably use alliteration. So could we call this divine disappointment?

I dunno. And I’m not sure it matters, ’cause more likely than not, we’ve all been there before—in those moments when we had faith, and worked hard, and prayed, and studied it out, and took a leap of faith, and really let our hearts hope. And then something happened and we wanted to shout, “Now hold on just one second. That’s not how this works. That’s not what happens in the Ensign. Good is supposed to triumph, and signs are supposed to follow them that believe,[8] and prayers are supposed to be answered. Whatever happened to love and to justice? What happened to all of those promptings and promises? Or were those promptings and promises? Or just my own head?”

That’s about where the spiral starts and it’s awfully difficult to shut out the doubts that follow in those critical moments. I mentioned Alyosha’s big breakdown earlier, and, well, President Oaks wrote that his mom went through one too in the months that followed her young husband’s death. And after Nathan and I realized that one of us would have to give up his or her education for a bit—well, let’s just say it wasn’t easy on us, and we wondered why God had steered us down that failed route to begin with. (Incidentally, it would’ve been a whole lot easier if things had been smooth-sailing from there. But even after we finally decided that I’d accept an offer to do my master’s at the BU School of Theology while Nathan worked, we faced a bunch of trials and disappointments that made us wonder whether we’d made the right choice and whether God even cared what we were doing with our lives.)

The fact is that sometimes miracles just don’t pan out, no matter how promised and certain they seem. And I know it’s not blasphemous to say something like this, because Church leaders have done it before. In a devotional address he gave in 2013, Elder David Bednar shared an experience when he asked a young, newlywed kid with cancer whether he had “faith not to be healed.”[9] And at the most recent General Conference, Elder Donald Hallstrom shared a remarkable story about a man who survived a fall off a cliff, but the experience really got Elder Hallstrom thinking, so he wondered aloud: “What about the innumerable faith-filled, priesthood-blessing-receiving, unendingly-prayed-for, covenant-keeping, full-of-hope Latter-day Saints whose miracle never comes? At least in the way they understand a miracle. At least in the way that others appear to receive miracles.”[10]

Yeah, Elder Hallstrom—what about all of them? What about all of us in our situations? Or our siblings or cousins or neighbors or friends? What can we do in the face of “divine disappointments” when our emotions waver between crushed and confused?

I liked the suggestion Elder Hallstrom proposed: He asked us to consider, “‘Where do we place our faith?’ Is our faith focused on simply wanting to be relieved of pain and suffering, or is it firmly centered on God the Father and His holy plan and in Jesus the Christ and His Atonement?”[11]

Whoever wrote the biblical Epistle to the Hebrews was on the same page as Elder Hallstrom, it seems. Chapter 11 is this amazing discourse on faith and it’s chock full of examples of miracles. But then there’s a list of folks who got no “deliverance”—they were stoned and beaten and killed, “and these all,” it says, “having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.”[12]

Now remember, Hebrews 11 is the chapter that begins with the phrase, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And normally, I usually just think of that meaning, Faith can serve as evidence for me of the things I can’t see yet—like God. But based on Elder Hallstrom’s talk, and based on the way Hebrews 11 ends, I wonder if there’s another way of looking at it too.

Perhaps when we talk about faith being “evidence of things not seen,” we can mean, too, that faith is the only substance and evidence we can clutch when the very “things [that we] hoped for” are “not seen” because the miracle didn’t come like we’d hoped. Maybe faith isn’t only this forward-thinking, someday-I’ll-see-it optimism, but it’s also the salve that soothes us in the wake of divine disappointments when miracles have long since missed their deadlines.

After all, Hebrews 11 isn’t the only spot in the Canon where faithful folks miss out on miracles—either permanently or at least for a very long time. Imagine what it must’ve been like for Abraham and Sarah to have all these grand promises of posterity but to suffer from infertility for so long. And we all like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego getting saved from the fiery furnace, or Daniel being saved from the lions, but what about Stephen, who was successfully stoned? Or, a Book of Mormon example, the martyr Abinadi? Where was his heavenly visitor saving him from the flames?

Probably the pinnacle example of divine disappointment has got to be Jesus’s apostles. I mean, just think what it must’ve been like. With hindsight, we Christians often jump straight from Jesus’s crucifixion to His resurrection, as if no time passed in between.[13] But there was time in between, and Jesus’s apostles didn’t seem to know what was going to happen, and the guy they had all really thought was the Messiah had died. They had seen His death. He was gone. And I suspect they spent the bulk of Holy Saturday feeling just like we do when our miracles don’t pan out in the way we expected them to.

But the neat thing is, they were still around when Jesus showed up again. They had enough faith to stick around—or, in Thomas’s case, to come back. Because maybe these brave, disappointed, confused men kept hold of the substance of faith, even in the face of a bitter “not seen.”

The personal example I shared earlier about failed grad school plans was—by my own admission—a casual one, a low-stakes story, no matter how hard it was at the time. And I’m happy to say that Nathan and I have reached a point where, although we don’t have every answer about why and how we got here, we’ve seen things work out, more-or-less. It took a while, but Nathan found work out here, and, miraculously, it had great health insurance, which came just in time for me to go through a series of sudden medical crises. I’ve liked my program, and it’s shaped my life in important ways. And then Nathan found a professor here at BU who was looking for a guy just like him, so this year he started his PhD in theoretical computer science. Hooray—happy endings.

But this hasn’t been our hardest “divine disappointment,” and some of the ones that remain won’t have convenient, wrap-up endings. I think that’s why Elder Hallstrom’s talk spoke to me so much. I really, truly believe that when our faith is centered on Heavenly Father, His plan, and His Son’s great Atonement, then we’ll have the substance we need to endure. I know that God lives and that Jesus Christ really is the Messiah, and that because He atoned for us we can have the Holy Spirit as a Comforter during our times of trial. Like Elder Hallstrom, I do not think the “day of miracles [has] ceased,”[14] and I’ve seen many real miracles in my life. I know the Bible and the Book of Mormon are true, and that God still speaks through living prophets whose words can guide and sustain us during difficult times.

I say all this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990): 27-29. Dostoevsky’s narrator even says that Father Zosima “had attracted many to himself, not so much by miracles as by love.” See above reference, page 331.

[2] Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 29-31.

[3] The phenomenon is known (by scholars and believers) as “incorruptibility.”

[4] Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 327-337.

[5] The beginning of this is evident in Dostoevsky, Karamazov, 338-339, where the narrator specifies that “it was not miracles [Alyosha] needed, but only a ‘higher justice,’ which, as he believed, had been violated—it was this that wounded his heart so cruelly and suddenly.” I think this is a good emphasis—Alyosha viewed the scene not just as an instance when a miracle didn’t occur but as a breach of some sort of divine justice.

[6] Taken from Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned, as quoted by Kevin J Worthen in a BYU Devotional Address given on 9 January 2018 (see “The Plan of Salvation,” https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/kevin-j-worthen_plan-salvation/).

[7] Doctrine and Covenants 6:22-23.

[8] See Mark 16:17, and its subsequent affirmations in Mormon 9:24, Ether 4:18, Doctrine and Covenants 58:64, and Doctrine and Covenants 84:65.

[9] David A. Bednar, “That We Might ‘Not . . . Shrink’ (D&C 19:18),” 13 March 2013 (see https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/ces-devotionals/2013/01/that-we-might-not-shrink-d-c-19-18?lang=eng).

[10] Donald L. Hallstrom, “Has the Day of Miracles Ceased?” 1 October 2017 (see https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2017/10/has-the-day-of-miracles-ceased?lang=eng).

[11] Hallstrom, “Miracles.”

[12] See Hebrews 11:35-39.

[13] This is an idea that a professor at the Boston University School of Theology has explored in some depth. See Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[14] Moroni 7:35.

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The Next Verses

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Provo Utah Temple 24 August 2016

I don’t care what anybody says, it doesn’t look like a spaceship, and it’s my very favorite, so critics can hush because August is a special time for me and the Provo Temple. Ten years ago this month I experienced a miracle there when God more than answered my prayers for comfort and ended years of struggling. Five years ago this month I went there to receive my endowment[1] before launching a mission to Ukraine. One year ago this month Nathan and I went there together for the first time in what became a tradition of (at least) weekly temple trips as a couple, and after the second such trip Nathan first raised the possibility of marriage in an act of sheer courage that propelled us on a beautiful trajectory.[2]

But this year this month we’re leaving. We’re loading a rental truck and driving thousands of miles away from my favorite place on all this green earth. Yes, we’ve got lots to look forward to, and yes, we’re excited, and yes, the future’s bright and all that. There’s even a temple somewhat close to where we’ll live. But nothing can loosen the bond I’ll keep with the Provo Temple where I found healing, where God armed me with power,[3] and where Nathan and I leapt in faith.

So forgive a sentimental sop this moment of reflection. It’s August and I want to talk about the Provo Temple—and temples in general.

One of the most-loved Mormon children’s songs is “I Love to See the Temple.”[4] I’m a fan of the song, but I realized recently that I’ve outgrown it—not the core of its message, but the lyrics themselves, which are understandably geared for young kids. “I’m going there someday,” which is one of the opening lines of the song, used to help me keep sight of a far-off dream, but nowadays it means something more like: “Tuesday or Saturday, afternoon or evening?” I’ve “go[ne] inside.” I’ve “listen[ed] and . . . pray[ed]. I’ve even been “sealed together” there with a really swell guy.

And that about covers all the points of the song, so what’s left for those of us who aren’t little kids anymore?

To be honest, I’d never wondered about this growing-up dilemma until the other day as I sat in the chapel of the Provo Temple listening to the organist play this classic hymn. While the music played I fingered the white lace on the packet holding my temple clothes and I sang the song’s words in my head. The fact that I was humming along about going someday to where I currently was struck me as slightly ironic.

Right then and there I decided to amend—or rather, extend—the song. Because little Mormon kids grow up, and when “someday” arrives, those grown-up kids get to learn for themselves exactly what there is to love about seeing the temple as promises turn into miracles, and think what the world would be like if we all wrote about our miracles just a little bit oftener.

I’ve seen miracles. Thrice I’ve seen miracles in August in the Provo Utah Temple.

So here’s a testimony, a song from a grown-up’s perspective, about the warmth and love and hope God stores in His Home, waiting for broken hearts to cradle and for bursting hearts to join in celebration. Here’s a verse for each of my August milestones—from ten years, five years, one year in the past—written this year in parting and gratitude, because for as much as I loved to see the temple in my frizzy-haired childhood, I love it still more for the role that it’s played in binding my heart to the Father.

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of peace

Where God can calm my sorrows

And bid my aching cease.

For the temple is a house of faith,

Of hope and joy and healing.

I’ll do all I can to live my life

To keep this sacred feeling.

*

I love to see the temple,

It is a place of light.

God gives His children wisdom

And arms them with His might.

For the temple is where we prepare

To serve with consecration

I’ll go forth in faith because I know

This is my sure foundation.

*

I love to see the temple

It is a place of love

Where we can give our futures

And hearts to God above.

For the temple is where we begin

This journey to forever

It’s the center of God’s purpose for

The life we’ll build together.

 

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[1] “Receiving one’s endowment” is when a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends the temple for the first time to make special promises to God, Who promises special blessings in return. This typically occurs before an adult Latter-day Saint either leaves on a mission or marries in the temple, though members can work with their Church leaders to adapt to individual circumstances. The ceremony is beautiful and surprisingly simple. You can read more about it here: https://www.lds.org/manual/true-to-the-faith/temples.p1?lang=eng.

[2] After we first began considering marriage following our temple trip, our engagement and marriage both took place at the Provo Temple (in October and January, respectively).

[3] Doctrine and Covenants 109:22

[4] Words and music by Janice Kapp Perry. You can find the lyrics/sheet music here: https://www.lds.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/i-love-to-see-the-temple?lang=eng.