The Finisher

light

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.

And Again, I Say

Wasatch Mountains September 2015

Wasatch Mountains
September 2015

God never said “be happy all the time.”

What He said was “rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, Doctrine and Covenants 98:1).

And there’s a difference that, yes, perhaps I only noticed because Dad drilled a love of language into me, or because Mom launches Latin roots discussions around the dinner table, or because I’m rather a pessimist at heart and thus have devoted long hours to hashing about through the seeming paradox presented by commandments to take up a cross and follow the Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief, while personally never allowing bereavement and trials to nick at a positive outlook on life.

Until recently I had always taken the twice-repeated quintosyllabic commandment to mean that I should be unflinchingly happy regardless of whatever trials I might endure. “Rejoice evermore,” to me, seemed to equal: “don’t let anything get you down,” or “stay happy always,” or “if you have even an inkling of understanding of God’s plan, then this death or that rejection or this injustice or that major breakdown of everything that felt solid won’t bug you in the least.”

And that seemed a crummy way to plough through life in a world bent on smashing things into shards that are too small and devastated to piece back together. I hurt. It’s a fact of my life. And I happen to know that all human beings hurt when the black blood of disappointment courses into their hearts, which it does on a regular basis. And what kind of a friend or sister or roommate would I be if I didn’t allow others the privilege to recognize the real human trueness of pain?

So “rejoice evermore” never really made sense—not the way I was trying to fathom it.

But one afternoon as I reviewed one of the two spots in Canon where the directive occurs, my internal linguist whispered, Well goodness, I’ve never thought of that prefix before.

Re.

As in, repeat, or renew, or resume, or recur.

Or rejoice.

Re is shorthand for do again.

And at that thought, the dust of paradox settled to show a truth that my mind, heart, and soul could embrace.

Perhaps the purpose of the Gospel is the promise in the prefix—namely, the notion that when hurt and hate and despair crack our dreams and extinguish our hope, if we work toward and trust in and hold hands with God, then the joy that is not quite perpetual will at least be regainable. That is, we can joy again. Rejoice.

I’m biased. I’m writing this from a highpoint on the joy-disappointment-grief-healing-joy cycle, and things that I cursed in weeks and months and years past now seem to fit a pattern that resonates with reason and leaves room for me to sit back and thank the Father for leading life to happinesses I’d never have found if He’d let me do the steering all along like I asked Him on a number of fitful nights. Frankly, I don’t know how I got here. I certainly don’t know how I made it here heart intact. What about all those times I swore I’d numb myself, shun all feelings, turn off sensors to keep from withering under the weight of it all? I honestly thought I had done that, sometimes, because how else could I have lived through the pain?

Yet somehow I still feel. What’s more shocking still, I even feel good, though not always, and happy, though not irrationally, and joyful, though still bearing in mind that some wounds haven’t healed yet and are out of my power to fix because other people can make their own choices no matter how ardently I may oppose what they choose.

So all right, it’s delicate. But it’s real. This happiness I sense now is real. I’ve experienced it before in life, differently, thenly. And now it’s come back, an unexpected guest visiting on errand to remind me that God knows that life shouldn’t always be good, or else we’d never learn, but it shouldn’t be endless sorrowing either. It’s a slow dance rounding corners of trial, passing moments of joy, led sometimes by hurt and then sometimes by bliss, all while ebbing and flowing to the kind of songs souls can hear if they listen real close.

Point is, God never asked us to be happy always, but to hang onto His words and be happy again. Endure, He said. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Don’t quit walking just because the patch that you’re stuck in right now is exactly what it oughtn’t to be and you hurt.

Always go on in spite of doubts, fears, and discouragement.

Always trust that some things might get better sometime.

Always clutch for the punctured palm of that Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief.

And He’ll always help us to be happy again.

To rejoice, and rejoice, and rejoice as often as it takes, evermore, cycling on through eternal agains that God grounded in the promise that His plan makes againing possible to those who believe in His Son and endure to the end.

“Rejoice in the Lord alway,” quoth the scriptures—then to emphasize what that means, the writer penned next: “and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

And then do it again and again.

I Didn’t Ask for This

From the steps of my apartment 21 March 2015

From the steps of my apartment
21 March 2015

Hast thou not seen
How all thou needest hath been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
— Joachim Neander (trans. Catherine Winkworth)
“Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” LDS Hymns #72

For forty days I didn’t ask for anything in prayer.

That’s theologically ridiculous, and I know it. In the scriptures, prophets repeatedly urge us to ask God “for whatsoever things [we] stand in need” (Alma 7:23). Jesus Himself even set the example when He asked God for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), and for His disciples’ salvation (John 17:24), and for the bitter cup to pass (Matthew 26:39). Asking is a part of prayer. It’s a sanctioned, encouraged, even commanded aspect of the line that links us to Heaven.

But on Ash Wednesday (18 February) I sat on an upholstered seat, scrawling Russian notes-to-self in the upper margin of my notebook, sorta-halfway-not-exactly paying attention to the lecture in my religion course. As the professor expounded principles in the Doctrine and Covenants, I racked my brain for Lent ideas; I still hadn’t decided what sacrifice to make that year in preparation for Easter.

I wanted it to be good—real good. Not my typical abstinence from sweets for forty days. That’s fine and all, but this year needed to be different. It needed to mean something more than self-control.

It needed to mean healing.

I’d been grumping more than usual, and that’s saying something coming from an inborn grump. Things had been rough—with academics, social situations, family, physical conditions. Everything. You name it. It was rotting or dissolving or falling victim to my clumsy no-good wreckingness. And I failed at masking my inner disillusionment with life right then. My attitude soured, my speech increased in sarcasm, and I worked my tear ducts like a 1900s sweatshop master.

Clawing to escape despair, I concluded that this year’s Lenten fast would need to be a last-ditch fight to shake off the Greer I saw myself becoming—the wretch who burdened parents, roommates, and teachers with perpetual reminders of the soul sores she was nursing. It’s gotta stretch me, I resolved, staring at the spiral-bound notebook on my lap. It’s gotta help me chip away at all this nasty outlook.

Cutting into my moment of reflection, my religion professor called on a student to read a verse out loud. “Section 98,” Dr. Fredricksen clarified, “starting at the top.”

A baritone voice from one of the rows behind me sounded out the words that snapped my private musings into line with the class discussion:

“Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord . . . ” (D&C 98:1-2).

For just a moment I let my mind replay the phrase “in everything give thanks.” In everything give thanks. In everything—even in the crummy times when life is going wrong.

A surprise flicked from neuron to neuron, gaining mass until the thought had meaning and could settle, discernible, with all the other bits of light that lodge inside my brain from time to time. It was clear and Spirit-led, and so I wrote it down, solidifying my commitment with the black ink of my BIC pen: For Lent this year, only pray in gratitude.

I promised God that, until Easter, I’d fast from asking Him for things.

And—crazy as it sounded—I felt really good about the decision.

The purpose of the Prayer Challenge seemed clear to me at first. I wanted to increase in gratitude. It was a logical choice, considering what scriptures and modern prophets and social scientists have said about the correlation between thanksgiving and contentment—and, conversely, between ingratitude and bitterness. President Thomas S. Monson once said: “We can lift ourselves, and others as well, when we refuse to remain in the realm of negative thought and [instead] cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”[1] President James E. Faust called gratitude “a saving principle.”[2] Both prophets referenced in their talks the Lord’s reminders to His children that ingratitude is really the sole foundation for offense to God. Ingratitude begets every other sin. It shows a disrespect for all the Father’s given us.

So gratitude, I thought, could cure me from the funk I wallowed in. Of all the virtues I could learn and study, surely thankfulness—in spite of lousy circumstances—was the one I needed at that moment in my life.

But as the forty days progressed, I discerned God’s Hand at work in ways I hadn’t anticipated when I first resolved to put a bit more thought into my prayers, censoring out requests in place of thanks.

The lesson came as I continued to face situations that tried and tested me. The hardships didn’t disappear the moment I committed to learn gratitude. In fact, sometimes it seemed they doubled.

In the days leading from Ash Wednesday to Easter I faced challenges in which I’d normally beg God for help. Like the violent stomach flu that hit me the day before a midterm. Or the first 10K I ran. Or the stabbing sear in my left ankle that meant I damaged something during that 10K. Or the papers, conference presentation, social awkwardness, family tensions, impending unemployment, prep for graduation, uncertainty, disappointment, failure, envy, anger, pride.

The crumminess of life continued, even as I worked on learning thanks.

But in every situation, although I didn’t ask for help, the Lord still pulled me through. Which shocked me into a new self-realization.

I think I cling too much to the idea that everything hinges on my actions, work, desires. Too often when I kneel next to my mattress late at night, pressing my palms against my face, I talk to God as if I need to prove my faith by begging Him for blessings. If I really mean it, my spiritual subconscious seems to think, if I can get my heart to yearn just that much more, if I can sense His will and yank my own in line with it—then everything will turn out fine. He’ll make it all work out.

The “pray hard for blessings, otherwise you don’t deserve to have them” line of thought.

But by silencing my requests for forty days, I learned the truth of what Christ taught when He reminded His mountaineering disciples:

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not: and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass . . . how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? . . . [B]e ye not of doubtful mind . . . [for] your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.” (Luke 12:27-30; see also Matthew 6:25-32)

Perhaps sometimes my prayers show fear more than faith. Perhaps they show a prideful it’s-in-my-hands-and-I’d-better-not-muff-it kind of scramble to secure the things I think I need.

Perhaps they show a focus on self, rather than a glory in God’s grace.

God always gives us blessings we don’t ask for or deserve. I never once asked Him to make the sun come up, to accompany its rising with pink and orange and yellow streaks, to cue the birds to sing, the buds to open, the breeze to whisper that it’s morning. I didn’t ask for mountains or rivers. Or for a heart that pushes oxygenated blood throughout a web of veins. Or for the bumpy-smooth texture of cherry tree bark. I didn’t ask for constellations, or for a dad who taught me how they got their names and stories. I can’t remember praying for hot chocolate after sledding, or for the instinct to laugh at puns, or for a tingling in my cheek when I lie down on a cool pillow.

For joints and nerves that function. For emotions that react. For creativity. Tenacity. Historical heroes. My niece’s dimples. Shining specks in quartz. Eyelids that blink. Taste buds that savor. Aspen leaves that rustle in the northwest corner of my family’s backyard.

I never asked for any of these things. Yet God knew that I’d need them—or at least that life just wouldn’t be the same if they were absent.

If there’s one thing my forty-day Prayer Challenge hammered into my attention, it’s that I need to trust the Father for the things I need. I’m learning to ask in faith rather than in fear of what will happen if I don’t ask hard enough. I’m learning to believe that God can unveil to my soul what to ask for, and what He gives without my asking. It’s a trust that’s building up between a frightened, failing, striving girl and her patient, loving Father.

And that trust—wrapped up in gratitude—is starting to heal me bit by bit and pain by pain.

God is good. And He’s omniscient. He knows our wants and needs and hurts and hopes and fears and overcomings. He lets us pray to ask for things, and gives us what will mean the most. Even if we don’t know just what that is. Even if we don’t know just what to ask for or expect.

He knows that we have need of things to pull us through the aches of imperfection.

And if we wait on Him, remembering to voice our thanks, He’ll wrap us up in the grace that makes mortality as beautiful as the lilies of the field.

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[1] Thomas S. Monson, “An Attitude of Gratitude,” April 1992 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1992/04/an-attitude-of-gratitude?lang=eng

[2] James E. Faust, “Gratitude as a Saving Principle,” April 1990 General Conference. See https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/gratitude-as-a-saving-principle?lang=eng.

Stupid Flowers

wick

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * * * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

daffodil

 

Keeping Watch: A Christmas Confession

View from the courtyard of King's College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

View from the courtyard of King’s College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

The name Greer, according to most sources, means something about being watchful or observant. Those who know me well might be tempted to assume, therefore, that my given name is somewhat of a misnomer. I try not to think about how often I’ve misplaced or neglected important items—like the time I was preparing to leave Ukraine and thought I’d scoured the apartment to locate the belongings I needed to take with me on my journey home to America. I’m embarrassed to say that several months passed before I realized that I’d left my Social Security card on one of the shelves in that Crimean apartment. I’m even more embarrassed to say that I likely would never have noticed the card’s absence had it not been for one of the missionaries who took my place after I’d left. She found the card one day and mailed it to me in an envelope we’re both grateful the postal workers kept track of.

So much for great powers of observation.

But my name has another meaning too, and it’s one that I find particularly interesting around Christmastime—especially this year. If etymologists are correct, then the roots embedded in the name Greer (a variant of Gregory) tie back to words related to shepherds and flocks. Something about the name implies a person guiding herds, watching over them, leading the sheep. And that makes sense. After all, shepherds need all the watchfulness, vigilance, and observation that Greer apparently connotes. How else could they keep track of the lambs, or prevent predators from attacking the flocks? Watchfulness defines shepherdry; it’s the hallmark of the profession.

Or, at least, in my limited experiences with sheep, that’s how it seems to me. But growing up in a suburban town known more for orchards than livestock, I can’t actually say that I’ve seen many herdsmen at work. In fact, a good portion of my exposure to shepherds has come just once a year when my family and fellow church-goers spend some time reviewing Luke 2 in the Bible to celebrate Jesus’s birth.

“There were in the same country,” we’re told, “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

The shepherds—all those greers gathered in the field with their sheep—likely sat or kneeled or stood in wide-eyed wonder as the “multitude of the heavenly host” started shouting Gloria in excelsis Deo! Then they scrambled off to see the Newborn, and after that they told everyone they could about the miracle they had witnessed and the salvation they had seen lying asleep in a stall.

When the angels arrived, the shepherds had been “keeping watch” over the sheep. They’d been living up to their names and their job titles, calmly doing exactly what they’d done every night without fail. I like to think that they had kept watch over their faith just as much as they had over their flocks. Perhaps that’s why the angels appeared to them—the shepherds had “eyes to see” and believe in God’s might (Deuteronomy 29:4). They had learned vigilance, and that was the trait God sought in the first, humble witnesses He selected to testify of the birth of His Son. Let them be poor, let them be frightened, but let them be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let their tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the stable, the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the Infant. “And this shall be a sign unto you,” the angel had told them (Luke 2:12), as if implying: “Remember these details. Watch for them. God’s giving you proof of His wonders and power. You’ve learned to keep track of each sheep in your fold—now remember the Lamb of God too.”

The angels’ appearance was almost certainly unexpected, but the shepherds were ready. They were keeping watch. Their eyes were open to notice the mysteries of the Creator of heaven and earth. But that doesn’t mean that they were anxious or impatient in waiting for signs and blessings; in all probability, not a single shepherd had agonized that night over the fact that God hadn’t yet sent the Messiah. They believed enough to wait and watch, and they trusted enough not to worry or waver. Without developing any ulcers from the angst of perpetual, impatient expectation, the shepherds kept watch, and in that way they were prepared to see the Hand of the Lord. Their watchfulness was proportionate to—or perhaps indicative of—their faith.

In the title of this essay I noted that these thoughts constitute a confession, and this seems like a good point to transition into that portion of things. I confess feeling bitterly jealous of the shepherds for enjoying a visit from angels. I confess worrying that my faith isn’t as strong as it ought to be, and certainly not as strong as the herdsmen’s. And I confess that it’s sometimes hard to “keep watch” for the Hand of God when it’s night and it feels like I’ve been sitting alone with my flock in a field with no heavenly hosts and no stars and no signs.

This past year has been exceptionally difficult for me. It might not have seemed that way to others who’ve watched me; on the surface it looks like a whole lot of stuff has gone right, with absolutely no catches. I lived in Washington DC doing research for the Smithsonian Institution—a dream come true for many history majors. I traveled to Britain where I studied at Cambridge University, explored the streets of London, hiked in the Highlands of Scotland, and encountered some of the world’s best examples of art, theater, and literature. I snagged a second publication. My résumé grew, and—more importantly—so did my circle of friends. To top it all off, I became an aunt and spent time with my beautiful niece once a week, watching as she learned to roll over, smile, and “sing.”

And trust me, I really am grateful for these (and dozens of other) marvelous blessings. But woven throughout all the moments and miracles, there’s been a higher-than-usual level of uncertainty, worry, concern. I’ve faced some pretty big decisions lately, and in each decision-making process I’ve studied and analyzed, planned, pondered, and prayed, wanting nothing more than to do God’s will, fearing nothing more than to make a mistake.

And in every single decision, I haven’t felt so much as a nudge from the Spirit regarding the paths I should take. No inklings, no promptings. Certainly no angelic visitations or heavenly choirs. Time after time I’ve just had to jump in, blind, begging God not to let me wander too far without the comfort and peace of being able to slip my hand into His and walk without wondering where I stood in relation to the Father Whose guidance means more to me than anything else.

A few months ago I wrote about one of those trying decisions—the process of choosing to go to Cambridge despite how illogical it seemed, despite my fears, and even despite the fact that it meant missing my grandmother’s funeral. (See “Remember Your Vera!”) I wrote the bulk of that essay on a plane jetting over the Atlantic Ocean, finished it up in a hotel in London, and posted it to this blog as soon as I reached my hostel on Fitzwilliam Street in Cambridge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. At that moment I was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, trying to commit myself to have faith that everything would turn out all right.

And it did. But only after several of the loneliest, homesickest weeks of my entire life. Sometimes the pain was so intense that I couldn’t focus on my studies, so I’d abandon the books on my desk, or the outlines of research papers on my laptop, and walk a few blocks to the River Cam—the only place where I felt somewhat peaceful. I don’t know how many times I strolled the banks of the Cam, but the tally is likely in the dozens. Sometimes I’d go running there, and once I even skipped out on a formal dinner just to take a run along the river, preferring the solitude of a two-mile jog to forced chit-chat with others when I felt so crummy inside.

I recall several nights when I cried in my bed, praying—out loud or in thought—for God’s help. I felt that I had no clear purpose, which made me wonder whether I’d really made the right decision in choosing to go on the study abroad. The choice had been hard, and I’d had so many doubts. Maybe I was just wasting my time. Maybe I wasn’t where I should be. Maybe my internal distress was divine confirmation that something was desperately wrong.

What I wouldn’t have given then for an angel to show up and say, “Fear not!” or “And this shall be a sign unto you.” Or perhaps a more colloquial, “Buck up—everything’s going to be fine. Keep your eyes peeled, and soon enough you’ll see God’s Hand unfolding the plan and the mercies He’s preparing you for.”

But of course no angel ever appeared in my small room, and those tearful prayers generally ended with my fading into sleep before waking up to another day of struggling to find meaning and purpose and drive.

During those seven weeks of waiting, God heard my prayers, although the answer He sent was just as unexpected to me as the seraphs must have been to the shepherds. But perhaps if I’d been just a little more watchful I could’ve prepared myself better to receive it. I hesitate to share many of the details, since the story isn’t just mine; it doesn’t seem right to outline someone else’s ongoing experience, especially when it involves personal matters. But I can explain that a feeling overcame me as I stood in front of King’s College on one of the last nights of the program, talking with a friend who opened my eyes to the glory of God because, she claimed, I had done the same thing to hers over the course of our interactions during the study abroad. Apparently our daily, quotidian conversations had more purpose than I’d ever realized. Somehow they’d helped my friend consider—for the very first time—that she might have a Father somewhere in the vastness of Heaven.

My friend cried and I cried, and the Spirit, at long last, whispered to my mind: See, Greer, everything’s working out. There really is meaning in all of this. This isn’t the only reason why God willed you to come here, but it certainly is one, and it matters a lot. There’s been direction and guidance all along—you just haven’t seen it. You haven’t let yourself see.

I hadn’t been keeping watch, too blinded by fears to pay attention to miracles. But God had mercifully laid out a blessing that changed me and calmed me. That night I cried as I talked with my family on Skype and explained that my time in Cambridge had not been in vain.

I wish I could say that every uncertainty in my life has panned out as clearly as this one. What’s more, I wish I could say that since this experience I’ve made impressive strides in showing more faith, watching more carefully for evidence of God’s Hand at work, trusting more fully the Father I know will never forsake or desert me. But I guess I’m too stubborn, too faithless—which has brought me to tears many more times since then as I’ve prayed in confusion and fear. I reckon that there are still many more tearful nights lurking in the near future. – And I reckon that God will be there with me too, just as He was out in Cambridge.

Which brings me to another confession—this one a bit more the way Jesus meant the word when He turned His apostles into full-time witnesses, giving them the role of the shepherds who had witnessed His birth (see Matthew 10:32).

I confess the reality of a Savior I can’t see. I confess the “man of sorrows” Who is simultaneously the “high priest of good things to come”—and I confess that it’s no mistake for those two titles to go together (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 9:11). After all, the Child all those shepherds scurried through the streets of Bethlehem to greet grew to be the Man Who “[went] forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind . . . that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).

I confess that He has succored me according to my infirmities. And I confess that I still need His succor.

At the close of what has to be one of the hardest, best, teariest years of my life, I thank God for the mercies with which He sustained me, even when I was worrying instead of watching. And I pledge to try a bit harder to be more like the shepherds who witnessed the birth of the Lamb, calmly “[doing] all things that [lay] in [their] power” as they kept watch over their sheep “with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:17).

I have no idea what next year will bring as I face the decisions and changes that swarm graduation, grad school, job hunting, family, finances, housing, moving out, moving on, growing up. More than ever, I need to live up to my name—to be worthy to witness God’s miracles through vigilant faith even when things seem dark and no angels show up to proclaim the glad tidings my heart aches to hear.

For strength, I look to my namesakes, the shepherds, the greers. Like them, let me be poor, let me be frightened, but let me be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let my tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the world God saved by sending His Son to a cradle of hay.

And all this shall be a sign unto me.

 

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)