Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wife Rule #153: I Am Loved

Work has been hard recently. Several weeks ago I returned home completely drained--physically, mentally, and emotionally. I felt down in just about every part of my life, except my family. My sweet wife--even though I found out later that she had had a hard day of her own--was kind enough to let me come in and crash on the floor with my eyes closed until dinner. I didn't offer to help. I just lay there, completely self-absorbed, trying hard not to think about how frustrated and upset I was, and of course, unable to think of anything else.

I felt stuck. Or perhaps a better word is trapped. It seemed that every option I could think of to get out of my current situation had at least one serious drawback--a drawback that was too big to make the option worth seriously considering.

I could tell that I was in a bad spot and something needed to improve. Since I couldn't think of any way to improve my circumstances, I knew I needed to focus on getting over it. So I determined to do one of the only things that almost always seems to help when I'm down: I decided to awake early the following morning and attend the temple, the Lord's house on earth.

Since I live within five minutes of a Latter-day Saint temple and I was exhausted, the next morning I allowed myself to sleep until the last possible minute. I generally consider waking any time earlier than 6:00 AM to lie within the realm of obscenity, but for the temple that morning, I made an exception. I awoke at 5:50 with the intent to make it to the 6:30 session. Everything went well--no problems, no trouble with the icy roads, no wait once I was there. I hurried up the stairs as much as I dared, only to be met with the kind smiles of the hosts there, telling me that they had just shut the doors for the 6:30 session. I was literally probably one minute too late.

Well, if I've got to wait around until 7:00 and be 30 minutes late to work, I figured I should make the most of the time. I opened up the Book of Mormon to the spot I had been reading the previous night, in 1 Nephi 11. I followed some cross-references into the New Testament, read up on some stuff in the Bible Dictionary, and about 20 minutes later found myself back in 1 Nephi 11. I was reading about the prophet Nephi's vision of the Christ child being born and then read verses 16 and 17:

16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

The words of verse 17 seemed to jump out of the page at me: I know that God loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

This verse, taken in a totally different context than how it was written, seemed to perfectly describe my situation: I didn't know the meaning. I couldn't see the way. I was in a place of ambiguity. A wide assortment of roads lay before me, each as unappealing as the next. I was stuck, and simply did not know what to do.

How much easier it would be, I thought, if God would just tell me which path to take. I would gladly do it. But being where I was, trapped and seemingly unable to move in any suitable direction, I felt helpless and without direction. I did not know what to do, except to be patient and simply keep going.

But despite what I don't know, like Nephi, I do know that God loves His children. I know He watches over me and that he never has, and never will, abandon me. He has always been there to point the way, to give me just one step ahead, when I needed Him most. And since I have not yet felt his nudge to change my course, I have enough experience with His method of gentle guidance to know that I must not be at that point yet. He never gives us more help than we need--for doing so would deprive us of the growth that can only come through experiencing and slogging through life's perplexing ambiguities.

In the midst of these thoughts the time for the 7:00 session came, and I spent the next 90 minutes thinking about the ways that our loving Heavenly Father--for our own good--lets us deal with the ambiguities of life. He does provide direction at crucial points when we need it--I am a witness of this fact. But it also seems to me that often during very challenging times--those times when we're desperately seeking a change in our situation--the path to change seems ambiguous and the answers to our pleas for help are simply to be patient and keep on going.

Sometimes, because the scriptures are so terse, I think some of us get the mistaken notion that the "great ones" walked a golden path from miracle to miracle until they landed in heaven. But a careful reading of the stories in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and other scriptures reveals that even the Lord's prophets walked long, difficult pathways involving lots of ambiguity while waiting for the Lord's guiding hand to point the way or provide relief. The scriptural miracles that inspire us so much are in fact very special--and often rare--points of punctuation in lives that, like ours, would otherwise seem to be just long, run-on sentences.

Consider the difficulty of three of the epic journeys we read about in the scriptures:
  • Sometimes the faults of others cause us delay and pain in our journey. Nephi's journey to his promised land was certainly impacted by his older brothers' constant murmuring and occasional physical abuse and attempts on his life. These difficulties caused even faithful Nephi to struggle (2 Nephi 4:27-29).
  • Sometimes our times of ambiguity are because we don't ask for the help we need. The Jaredites spent four years completely stalled on their journey to their promised land before the Lord chastened their leader for not asking for guidance (Ether 2:14).
  • Sometimes our own failures land us in ambiguous places. Moses and the children of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness--and only a handful of the original bunch were permitted to see the promised land (Numbers 14:33). Moses, the great prophet, finished his life on the doorstep to this goal, but never attained it personally.
However, for many of us patience is required to work through the ambiguities of our journey simply because the distance we must travel is so very far. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; but after a while those steps start to feel repetitive, and perhaps we wonder if we are taking the right journey at all, or whether there might be another, better way. But often the right answer is to simply see it through to the end:
  • Nephi and the rest of Lehi's family spent eight years in the wilderness between the time they left Jerusalem and when they arrived at the seashore where they built the ship to cross to the Americas (1 Nephi 17:4). Most of this long journey is never mentioned--just a few stories. It's probably safe to assume that it was often hard and boring. We often judge Laman and Lemuel harshly for complaining, but I wonder if I would have lasted eight years in a tent, walking day after day, with a cheerful attitude.
  • As for the Jaredites, even after they repented for not seeking the Lord's direction, their journey was still long. They spent nearly a whole year cooped up in barges without windows on a storm-tossed sea before arriving in the promised land (Ether 6:11).
  • The righteous children of Israel who would eventually be allowed into the promised land still had to wait the full forty years it took for the unbelievers to all die off.
Surely these people must have wondered at times whether they were doing the right thing, or whether things could be improved somehow. Despite the varying reasons why these journeys were so long and arduous, the reason for them was the same: the Lord loved these people and had designs--a promised land--specifically tailored for them. Their part of the bargain was to go when He said Go, stop when He said Stop, and have the patience to wait on Him and the fortitude to continue on during the times when He seemed to say nothing at all, despite the hardships and ambiguities they surely faced.

The Lord permitted the prophet Joseph Smith, after being unjustly tried, to wallow in the dismal Liberty Jail--a dungeon with four-foot thick walls, a filthy stone floor, and a ceiling too low to allow standing upright--for six months spanning perhaps the coldest winter on record before being allowed to escape (read more here). Doctrine and Covenants section 121, a prayer and revelation recorded during these dreary conditions, illustrates the ambiguity the Prophet felt so keenly during this difficult time:

1 O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
3 Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?
(D&C 121:1-3)

Consider these scenarios of life's ambiguity, common to our day:
  • A young mother with children seems to spend her entire day picking up after careless toddlers; washing, folding, and putting away an endless stream of laundry that will somehow all end up on the floor again; preparing meals for people who will be hungry again in a few hours; and washing dishes that will be dirty again the next day. She wonders if she will survive and whether life will ever change.
  • A father spends a decade building a career that he hopes will provide a nice retirement someday, only to find himself out of work for a prolonged period of time, eating up the savings he had so carefully put away.
  • A child can't wait to grow up when he is small, only to discover that he doesn't feel ready to face the challenges and decisions required to be a "grown up" when he's big.
  • A widow spends decades alone, wondering how long the Lord will keep her here on earth, waiting for the happy reunion that will someday come.
  • A cancer patient with a poor prognosis tries to figure out how aggressively to fight the disease, trying to balance longevity with quality of life.
  • A woman with multiple-sclerosis battles her disease every day, all the while knowing that there will be yet harder days ahead.
  • A couple with a special needs child tries to figure out what kind of life they can provide for their child, while adjusting their long-term plans to accommodate this unexpected care burden.
  • A man searches diligently to find a woman to love and marry, only to have his purest intentions and best efforts frustrated.
There are no easy answers to the ambiguities present in these common scenarios--each one of which represents someone I know, and so many, many people I don't know. Each of these trials may cause the best of us to ask, "God, where art thou?" Each presents a challenge that only perseverance, patience, trust, and pure love (with a dash of true grit) can overcome. And the solutions always come according to the Lord's time table, which often doesn't align too well with our wishes.

There are many things I don't know, and many answers I don't have, but this much I do know: each of these trials are selected for us by a loving God who knows us and precisely plans the ways He will stretch us and help us to grow. The Lord's response to the Prophet Joseph's prayer in Liberty Jail applies to all of us: "know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good." (D&C 122:7)

Physical growth always occurs one cell at a time, and is almost imperceptible except by looking back over a long period of time. The kind of spiritual growth we signed up for when we voted to come experience mortality is the same, occurring a little bit at a time, one second after another during the long periods of waiting and ambiguity we must all endure. In fact, the very moments when we feel we are stalled in our forward progress may be the periods when we are experiencing our most rapid growth and are poised on the threshold of our greatest blessings.

Another thing I know: our loving God allows us our periods of ambiguity to wear down the mountains of our pride and selfishness the same way the mountains crumble and find their way to the sea: by the sheer erosion that only extended time and rough weather produce.

As I listened to the teachings in the temple that morning about the Savior, I was filled with gratitude that God has a plan and a way to help us in our need, offered through the gift of His beloved Son, the Savior of the world. Through Him we can overcome whatever may befall us. His grace is sufficient for me--and for all of us--and is the very key to surviving life's hardships and finding meaning in life's ambiguities.

As I finished the temple session and made my way into the center room in the temple representing the Celestial Kingdom where God dwells, the morning sun was streaming through the windows. It seemed to me that a new morning brought the promise of another chance to start fresh--that each new day segmented the challenges I face just enough to handle them, one chunk at a time. I felt a renewed confidence that God is in His heaven, that He loves me, and that I can work through my challenges and the ambiguity I currently face.

As I stood up to leave, I noticed someone: Alice, a sweet, elderly woman whom my wife and I knew in the previous neighborhood we lived in. She and her husband had worked at the temple for years, and we had greeted them here from time to time. In one of these occasional meetings we found out that her husband had passed away. It had now been several years.

Alice was seated near me, her eyes closed in fervent prayer. I wondered how she was doing. I wondered how much she missed her husband. I wondered whether being here, in the Lord's house where she and her husband had joined hands and began their journey together so many years ago, made her loss more poignant. I felt like I should stay and say hello, so I sat back down to wait for her to finish. Perhaps the smile of an old friend would brighten her day.

Alice prayed a long time, and I waited. When she finally finished, I paused for a few seconds and then stood up to greet her. She looked up and her face brightened as she recognized me. She greeted me warmly and told me how much she loves my wife, and offered her hand to clasp. I grasped it and we quietly chatted for a few moments. Then I stooped down to give her a hug.

While I embraced her, something very unusual happened. As I held this wonderful, sweet widow in a warm hug I thought of my own grandmother, a widow of over twenty years now. I thought of my dear mother-in-law, widowed for seven years. I sensed how very, very much God loves his widows. His love, which I had been basking in for my own sake, now seemed to stream down from heaven in even greater measure for Alice, and completely filled me. So I kissed Alice on the cheek. Prior to this day, I had only kissed two women outside my family, and I married one of them. I wondered a little at what I had done but was relieved when she kissed my cheek in return. I stood back up and looked at her. "I miss you as our neighbors," she said with genuine affection. "I do too," I responded, my voice nearly choking for the tears in my eyes. "It was so good to see you today, Alice."

We smiled at each other and I turned and walked out. As I left the temple that day, the love that God has for His children burned in my soul like a bright, warm fire. As I drove home to my loving wife (who had prepared a special breakfast, waiting for me when I arrived), I suddenly found myself with tears streaming down my face--not tears of despair because of life's ambiguities, but tears of gratitude because of what I have. It is true that I do not know the meaning of all things, and I don't yet know how my present challenge will turn out, but this I do know: God loves me, just as He loves all of His children, and whatever the problem, I will make it through--He will see to that, so long as I trust in Him. His grace is sufficient. This I know.

When our times of ambiguity seem to stretch on without a foreseeable end, we can remember the comforting words of the Lord to the prophet Joseph: "Therefore, hold on thy way.... Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not ... for God shall be with you forever and ever." (D&C 122:9)


Mom said...

This was written for me. Thank you.

Alan Macfarlane said...

Matt, thanks for that post. Overall, a great message--one that is poignant to me at this time in my life. Thanks for being brave enough and willing to share your spiritual journey so candidly.

I value our friendship very much.

See you soon.