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.

 

 

 

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[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.

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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.

Leaning and the Limits of Logic

If you’ll pardon a bad scriptural pun, “lean not” really made a whole lot of sense “unto [mine] own understanding” as I tried not to peer over the lip of the 170 foot cliff I was supposed to rappel down in Moab as a first-timer. Seriously, though—I was standing there, clutching desperately to the rope that everyone assured me would bear up my weight and allow me to scale the sheer wall of sandstone, and all of the veterans kept telling me to lean back, keep my backside low, my legs perpendicular to the rock face.

I wanted to shout to them, “Excuse me, but have you seen how big this drop is? And how thin this rope is? And did you not hear the dozens of times I’ve insisted that I have never ever done this before?” Leaning back contradicted every rule of safety Mom and Dad ever drilled into me. Upon encountering a vertical drop, one ought to scoot away from the edge, not lean toward it and beg gravity to take over. It’s pretty basic stuff. My mind filled with lists of reasons why I should run up to the tree that was serving as the anchor for the rope, unlatch my harness, and book it back to safety.

But instead of ejaculating my protests in exactly the way my mind formed them, I just giggled a lot and made sarcastic jokes and tried to talk myself through it—the top three ways I instinctively indicate fear. And in the meantime all the others just kept instructing me to lean back. They said that the carabiner and belay latched onto my harness would provide friction to prevent me from falling too quickly. They said the guy down below would tighten the rope to stop my descent if I lost control. They said everything would be fine. But first and foremost, I had to lean back, position my body exactly 90 degrees from its normal upright angle, and walk off the edge of the cliff.

It all seemed terribly illogical.

My mind grasped for anything that might make rappelling make sense. Hadn’t I just watched an entire tour group—all newbies except for the experienced guide—lower themselves down the cliff one by one? They’d all gotten down safely. No accidents. No screams. No snapped rope or broken belay. And several members of my own group had also already gone down without incident.

So I knew it was possible. But I really couldn’t see how.

It was too late to change my mind, though. I’m too proud to display so much weakness in front of my peers, and plus, I was already hooked up to the harness, attached to the rope, and standing at the edge. I don’t know that I actually shrugged, since I was trying at that moment to move as little as possible. But I resigned myself to the commitment and took tiny steps backward, leaning into the mouth of the canyon.

I’ll spare you the details of the entire descent. It wasn’t the most graceful rappelling maneuver known to mankind. In fact, the skin between the thumb and pointer finger on my left hand still (over forty-eight hours later) bears the boil-like and still-growing blister from when I let my hand get so close to the belay that it got stuck for an agonizing half-minute between the rope and the metal. This essay will be short because typing hurts too much to permit my typical wordy philosophizing. You’re welcome for the brevity and for not including a picture of my bulbous, pus-filled injury.

But consider this: The fact that I’m writing means that I made it down alive. Actually, I made it down two other cliffs as well on that hiking trip—one 30 foot drop (piece o’ cake), and a 100 foot one that had a glorious view.

Everything that seemed so ridiculous to me now makes much more sense. I don’t pretend to understand everything about rappelling; there’s much to the physics of it that still baffles me as I consider how on earth such minimal equipment could sustain a grown woman for such a long, sheer drop. My mind still can’t quite fully wrap itself around the experience of feeding rope through a small metal trinket as it holds up my wriggling frame in midair. Logically, I don’t entirely understand how anyone could have thought up the sport, or how a fireman’s belay works, or how I convinced myself to take a step off the cliff, leaning back, trusting that I’d be okay just like all the people who went down before me.

All that I know is that it worked. And it worked again and again on that trip. And I actually had fun once I’d gotten my hand out from its pinch in the belay and allowed myself to take a look at the stunning nature that surrounded my dangling body.

Hands-on experience appeased my mind’s demand for logic, although it never fully answered the questions about how or what or why. I learned to lean toward the edge, not away. It made as little ostensible sense as many decisions I’ve had to make in my life, like leaving home for eighteen months to live in Ukraine when I didn’t know the language, or moving to DC to accept an unplanned-for internship, or going to Cambridge for a study abroad that I didn’t think I could afford.

In each of those situations, everything worked out fine—not always terribly gracefully, and not always without an injury or two. But they worked, and I lived, and I actually enjoyed the experiences.

I still have a few chasms to face that seem just as real as the 170 feet of sheer sandstone I scaled in Moab, and I have to hope that I’ll be able to swallow my fear—or at least impulsively giggle and sarcastically joke my way through it—to the point where I can take a step back, forcing myself into all sorts of unreasonable angles. I guess it’s worked before. I’ve seen faith pan out in others’ lives and my own, even under the most illogical of circumstances when it looked like nothing could brake a rapid fall. And there are veterans all around me who have done it themselves, and they swear that everything will be fine. All I need to do is let go of my demand for full comprehension, cling to the ropes, and lean into gaping nothingness. It’s counterintuitive, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work and be worth it. In fact, perhaps the mystery accounts for some of the beauty and thrill of the experience. Perhaps we sometimes have to teeter at the brink of a gap in logic, and lean hard—not unto our own understanding, but against the invisible hand of God, trusting Him to sustain us throughout the descent.

Trust, Love, and Peanuts

Although I don’t have statistics to back up the claim, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that I am one of very few people in this world who can say that they’ve gotten an EpiPen 2-Pak for Christmas. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to be one of those hot-topic items that jump off the shelves in the days leading up to 25 December each year. It’s not a common stocking stuffer. And what kid in his right mind would climb up onto Santa’s lap in the mall and say, “I’ve been real good this year—can I pretty please get a portable allergy medicine injection device?”

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really ask for it either; it was one of those gifts of necessity. My mission president’s wife told me—in no uncertain terms—that I was not allowed to conceal from my parents the severe reaction I suffered one evening almost a year after I arrived in Ukraine. For twenty-two years I had managed to live with my peanut allergy, toughing-it through the nausea, asphyxia, and hives by sheer grit or through Benadryl, no EpiPen needed, thanking heaven that my allergy was not as severe as some people’s. As the years went by I became more sensitive to the presence of peanuts, and soon I learned to prevent reactions from escalating too far.

But one night in a secluded village in Crimea a dear friend made dinner for me and my mission companion. She knew of my allergy, and swore up and down (even saluting for emphasis) that the cake balls she’d baked were nut-free.

They weren’t. I could tell as soon as the soft treat touched my lips. But I couldn’t bear the thought that poor Lyuba would know she had caused an allergic reaction, so I hid it from her, pretending everything was just fine. We had an hour-long lesson, and I even played the flute when Lyuba insisted on having a concert of hymns. My swelling lips stung as I pressed them into the correct embouchure, and my stomach heaved as I struggled to take breaths deep enough to supply the instrument with sound.

After a ninety-minute bus ride back to the city where we lived, my companion and I went straight home where we noticed the hives for the first time. My face and neck were visibly swollen, and my trachea was starting to close off. I lost control of my stomach. Ultimately, after prayers, a Priesthood blessing, and a phone call to the mission president for advice, I gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep. The next morning my poor companion admitted that throughout the night she had woken herself up just to see whether I was still breathing.

Sister van Bruggen told me that I absolutely had to tell Mom and Dad about the reaction and ask them to send me an EpiPen. Reluctantly, I provided an account of the experience in my weekly email home, and a few weeks later I found a small box wrapped in silver/candy cane paper tucked among the clothing and sweets that filled the Christmas package my family sent. Taped onto the shiny wrapping paper was a poem my parents had written for the occasion:

epipen

Not a typical Christmas gift, to say the very least.

To this day, nearly two years later, I’ve still never used an EpiPen. I’ve had nut encounters in that time, but the idea of stabbing myself in the thigh with a needle is less appealing than the thought of just willing my way through the discomfort and hoping for the best. And besides, the recent reactions haven’t been quite as severe as the one out in Nizhnyaya Kutuzova.

But the allergy is always with me, forcing me to pay close attention to the foods that I put in my mouth, insisting that I read menus and ingredients carefully, or requiring me to ask friends to taste a baked good before I become brave enough to give it a try.

One of the side effects of a food allergy is a strong element of distrust. In order to survive, I’ve got to be careful—I’ve got to employ every effort of caution and I’ve got to take matters into my own hands. The safest foods are the tried-and-true ones that I’ve eaten before with no problem, or the ones that I’ve made on my own. Control is also a big issue; the more I can control the production of a food, or the more knowledge I have about it, the more willing I am to trust that it’s safe, that it won’t hurt me, that I’ll be okay if I let it inside.

Which makes me wonder, sometimes, if there aren’t other allergies I’ve struggled with all my life. After all, food isn’t the only thing that gives cause for concern as I contemplate the consequences of letting something in.

I think I’m allergic to boldness. I think I’m allergic to love. I think I’m allergic to hopes, wants, and dreams—to anything that could break down inside of me and spark a crippling, painful reaction called fear or disappointment—and last I checked, there’s no medication to save me from anaphylaxis in these types of allergic attacks.

I tend to treat life much the way I treat food—that is, dolloped with heaps of doubt and distrust. The people and situations that earn my confidence are the ones about which I have the most knowledge, or the circumstances that yield to me the most sway. Place me in tried-and-true social settings and I’m comfortable with chatting and making new friends. Give me detailed descriptions of how things will turn out, and I walk forward boldly, with courage and pluck. Tell me how to best behave in a situation, and I’ll exceed expectations. I thrive in carefully monitored environments in which I can control all the variables. I yearn for clear guidelines. I seek for direction, like reading the ingredients listed on the side of a cereal box before placing it in a shopping cart.

But there just aren’t clearly marked allergy warnings in life. Not for inedible things, anyway.

Consider, for instance, another “allergic reaction” I suffered as a missionary. My companion and I had been teaching Sasha for months, and I loved her so much. She had confessed to us her belief that our acquaintance was not a coincidence, and I agreed. She had opened up to us about her past and her desires for a new start, a clean slate, a rebirth, a baptism. In so many ways, Sasha seemed like an answer to the prayers I had poured out to God, asking Him to lead us to those of His children who were seeking the truth of His Gospel.

Shortly before Sasha was scheduled to be baptized, however, she disappeared. She never answered the phone. She stopped coming to church. My companion and I were baffled, and we tried to reach her a number of times, even stopping by her home to deliver fresh-baked lemon poppy seed muffins.

It took a long time, but one night we finally found her. We had stopped by her house in one last effort to invite her to attend a special conference with us. The street was dark, so we almost didn’t see her standing near the curb. She was drunk, disoriented, she hadn’t eaten for days. She told us that she had planned to take her life that evening, sick of living with an abusive son who beat her and stole from her and starved her.

Feeling uneasy about being alone in such an unstable situation, my companion and I phoned some of the elders for backup. They arrived shortly before Sasha’s son came home—which was really poor timing. The presence of the elders sparked a conflict with Sasha’s son, who called his friends to come “take care of us.” Eventually the police became involved, and we spent hours standing in the cold outside a decrepit Ukrainian police station, ultimately being released on the condition that no missionaries would visit Sasha’s home ever again.

When my companion and I returned to our apartment at nearly 2:00 in the morning we were emotionally drained. We had prevented Sasha’s suicide, but now her son had a restraining order against us. We would never see our friend again.

I was too hurt to cry. My heart ached, my head throbbed, and a lump gathered in my throat. Despite intense exhaustion I found enough strength to pray, begging God to explain why the situation had unfolded in such a terrifying way. Why had Sasha—His daughter—suffered so much? Why had He not warned us earlier? And why, why was Sasha now forced to avoid the one thing that could have given her the comfort and peace that she sought?

In the weeks following our experience with Sasha I found it very difficult to hope for the best with the other people my companion and I taught. After all, I had poured so much faith and love and happiness into the relationship we had painstakingly built with Sasha—and for what? Just to have everything dashed apart in front of our eyes? Was that really worth it? I felt guilty for causing Sasha so much pain (since, after all, one of her son’s complaints against his mother was her involvement with “Mormons”). And I felt too battered and bruised to open my heart readily to anyone else.

My love for Sasha had resulted in a bitter reaction. I wasn’t too keen on the prospects of loving again.

Sometimes it just seems easier to avoid anything that might cause heartbreak rather than to endure the reaction when things don’t go well. If only each situation, relationship, or dream came with ingredients posted in bold on a side panel:

WARNING: Contains uncertainty.

ALLERGY INFORMATION: This product was processed on equipment that also processes disappointment.

MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF DISCOURAGEMENT AND FEAR.

Instead, we’ve got nothing. No warnings. No guidelines. No guarantee that everything will work out all right. – In fact, sometimes it just doesn’t.

But there’s one other lesson living with a nut allergy has forced me to accept: Sometimes survival requires a bit more than simply avoiding the things that could hurt.

If I were to insist on eating only those foods that I’ve tried once before—well, I’d probably only ever eat Ramen and Cheerios, which cuts out of my diet newly-acquired favorite meals, in addition to foods rich in nutrients needed to keep me hiking and running and thriving. If I demanded total control over my own food production, then I’d never have gotten to eat out at the new Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, or order pizza from Little Caesar’s, or enjoy home-cooked meals from Mom on weekend visits. I would have to live in fear every moment. And what kind of a life would that be?

Similarly, if I were to live life avoiding any possible pain, disappointment, or sting, I would give up the relationships that make me who I am. I’d stop loving and caring. I’d stop hoping and praying.

And what kind of a life would that be?

To truly survive, we must learn to trust. It’s hard. It hurts. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for even daring to write it. But I really believe that it’s true.

Every time I put food in my mouth, I’m vulnerable. Every time I reach out in love, my defenses are down. Sometimes these efforts have turned out poorly, launching me into painful, suffocating reactions that put me on guard and make me question whether I can ever open up again, try something new, and expose my weaknesses.

But I believe that God planted in each of us a surprising amount of resilience—enough to pull through heartache or to wrestle with doubts. Enough to keep dreaming after our hopes have been sunk. Enough to convince us to pray yet again after searching in vain for an answer. And although there can never be medication to stifle our spiritual allergic reactions, at least God gave us other vulnerable, susceptible, weak human beings with shoulders to cry on and lean on and grow on as we all feel our way through the pains and discouragement of living a meaningful life.

Somewhere between caution and risk comes trust. It’s what makes new experiences possible. It’s what makes life worth living—not free of fear but coping with it, and bearing uncertainties, sorrows, and pain. I hope to develop the trust I’ve neglected in favor of safety and ease. I hope to lean more on God than on what I can see and control. In the joys, trials, peace, and fear of my life, I hope to rely on the One Whose hand formed the world and the structures that make up my frail, vulnerable body—the One Who inspired life’s breath in me and sustained me through my sickness, sin, and pain.

Like the prophet Alma, “I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; [and] God has delivered me . . . yea, and I do put my trust in Him, and He will still deliver me.” (Alma 36:27)

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.

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.

third (1)

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).