Shattered Silence

Shattered Silence

Thursday, May 25, 2017

God Will Send Rain

When we find ourselves stuck in the deserts of life,
how can we find our own oasis of hope?
During a Church meeting several months ago, there was a discussion among the brethren in my Elder’s Quorum on the topic of hope. The teacher that day used an analogy that I liked about taking a cross-country trip in a vehicle from Point A to Point B, and how hope is the courage, faith, and trust in God to keep going even if you break down along the way, which often seems to happen in the worst places; his example was having car problems in the middle of the desert. Do we abandon our quest and return to where we started, or do what we can to fix the issue and journey on to our destination?

A young man in my ward—a somewhat-troubled soul who has seemed to have experienced the lion’s share of hardship and disappoint in his life—brought our metaphorical trip to a screeching halt with a loaded, but honest and searching question: What about when hope runs out? What if there is no hope? It was a bleak proposal; my first thought, I ashamedly admit, was “Here we go again.” This wasn’t the first time this young man (and gospel novice—he was only recently baptized) entreated the class with his desperate, yet humble questions.

It came to me one day that life is like a plot
of grass, and we are the caretakers.
After a brief pause in the collective spirit of the room, hands began to shoot up as my brethren came to his aid, giving their views on what to do—or perhaps what they did once upon a time—when the waters of hope ran dry in a desert of despair (or maybe when the fuel of hope was not initially a driving force for them). As I pondered deeply on the analogy, hoping to contribute a relevant comment, I saw a familiar scene in my head—at least, it seemed familiar to me, though I’m not entirely sure it had ever entered my head so vividly as it did that day.

What I saw was a modest stretch of green, supple grass; in the middle of the grassy lawn, from the height at which my mind’s eye rested, could be seen an ugly, crudely-dug hole, akin to a grave. There were rocks protruding in spots from its dirt walls, and stringy, frayed-out roots exposed and hanging loosely among the stones. The sky above the scene was a terrible but majestic purplish-black, and stormy clouds in the distance seemed to break just enough on the horizon to show the stars glimmering above them; and from the gathered clouds poured a torrential rain.

As this vision in my mind’s eye was displayed before for me, I zoned out of the classroom chatter and went into my own place where this image began to take on meaning, right then and there. Readers familiar with my posts will know that I have a keen ability to conjure up metaphors and analogies, with relatively no effort on my part, that often carry deep meaning to me. As a very visual thinker, these types of symbolic picture-stories make a lot of sense to me. This situation was no different. My mind raced, quickly but peacefully, about what meaning this image and its story could have for me.

Life with anxiety and depression sometimes
feels like digging myself into a hole of misery.
Here’s how it all came together for me at that time. That hole became another metaphorical description—a place, really—of my state of living with depression and heavy anxiety which robs me of motivation, drive, and initiative. Sometimes when these struggles are at a peak in my day-to-day living, it becomes difficult to make small talk with well-meaning people who ask me how I’m doing, or how I’ve been.  Invariably, I just smile and say that I’m doing fine, because I don’t want to compel anyone to offer me sympathy or say, “Oh, I’m sorry!”—a phrase that is becoming increasingly hollow to me.

Not liking to lie to people, but also wanting to just be polite and concise, when I am really not well, I have just grown accustomed to telling people, “I feel like I’ve dug myself into a hole that I can’t get out of.” It’s more honest, but it’s also easier to play off as normal stress; living around other young people who are working and going to college, it’s not hard for others to relate to what I’m saying. That’s why that hole in the ground was familiar to me because I sometimes picture it hazily when I have to report to others on my wellbeing.

But how did I get into the hole in the first place? I have pictured this at some length as well since pondering the analogy in class that day. It begins with a pleasant, soft patch of grass that can be easily maintained with diligent upkeep and regular, responsible care; we are the gardeners, entrusted with the role of caretaker for this little gem of botanical beauty. I thought the patch of grass represented my life, my existence—this mortal journey from day to day and year to year, in every season—which is nothing short of delicate and complicated, and sometimes vulnerable. 

Tending to my mental health and wellbeing
is much like caring for a lawn, requiring
constant upkeep.
Unlike my remarkable mother, for instance, I have no green thumb; even a simple houseplant is doomed in my care, and I don’t think tending to a little lawn would be any easier for me. Too much water can drown; not enough water can shrivel. The sun can scorch; the grass must be clipped and fertilized and protected from persistent, vicious weeds and vermin. One wrong move can set a course for destruction. Finding balance in one’s life is not always easy.

My greatest enemy in caring for my little lawn of life—the gophers, maybe? dandelions? anthills?—is my kneejerk reaction to all things that stress me out, or which may stress me out (present and existent or supposed and fabricated): To avoid them all. I’ve recently learned that anxiety is a repetitive process that an anxious person like me goes through when presented with uncomfortable or potentially uncomfortable situations—things that haven’t even happened yet. I avoid the causes of stress to avoid the anxiety of it, which alleviates short-term anxiety, but contributes to much larger and much more destructive long-term anxiety over unresolved conflict (or potential conflict).

It is not easy for me to live my life—taking care of my little lawn—happily each day when watering seems too scary or difficult; when clipping is too tiring and too complicated; when fertilizing and weeding is too agonizing or can be put off for a little bit longer before it really becomes “necessary.” The grass doesn’t need to be watched unceasingly; but it’s good to check in every day to assess how things are going. Get enough rest, eat good foods, get a little exercise and sunlight, and spend time with others. It seems like a simple process, which, if adhered to, can help us to enjoy the grassy space, and be content with it—to have a happy life.

Avoidant anxiety is probably my greatest enemy
in caring for myself; as I avoid stress, the weeds
and molehills begin to surface in my life.
However, when I am depressed—which festers from the wound of anxious avoidance—I stop caring for myself properly.  I am also extremely critical of myself.  I suppose somehow that I ought to be stronger than I am, and that any continued mourning or melancholy is uncalled for. I don’t allow myself to slow down sometimes, and I push myself harder than I probably should at times. I would rather ignore the grass and assume that everything is fine; “I took care of myself enough yesterday, so that should suffice for the week. Suck it up; you’re just being ridiculous now.” 

After all, isn’t it selfish to always be thinking about oneself? Other people are caring for their lawns just fine, and they have far more troubles or responsibilities than I do. The plague of self-comparison can be debilitating for me. The harder I push myself, the more I actually feel like just giving up; it’s too much to bear, this lawn, my life. And as I neglect my self-care and compassion by refusing to tend my life, the grass loses its emerald sheen, and the dismal brown patches creep in, threatening even more to overtake what’s left of my life.

By not practicing self-compassion, those brown spots spread into my days, my weeks, even into months. Weeds pop up here and there, then everywhere; and pretty soon my life is in shambles. I no longer have happiness in caring for my little plot of grass. Just looking at it makes me ill; it gets easier to talk myself out of repairing the neglect every time I give even a casual thought to picking up a hose or rake. I can’t see how I can possibly catch up with all I have yet to do, and taking a break to breathe and think things out will only waste precious time.
The brown patches in my lawn of life only grow
and multiply as anxiety and stress turn to depression.

After all, who decided that I should have this little plot of land for a season anyway? Who would trust a person like me with the priceless vessel of mortality in such a turbulent world? I find myself stuck with difficult choices that could’ve been easier if I had thought them out better. Pacing myself would’ve helped—a long time ago. Doing that assignment for school early or preparing that lesson for church before Saturday night would’ve been helpful—a long time ago. I am faced with the drought of hope, and my choices seem limited—but giving up altogether is the most appealing option. 

When work and tasks pile up like this, I can lose all control; it doesn’t matter what it is (but it is usually housework and homework). Sometimes all I can see is the disgusting, unkempt plot of a gardener who should have known better—the caretaker who didn’t care. Sometimes this affects my mood dramatically; I begin to wonder if I even want to be in charge of so much! Do I even want to be in college? Do I even want to have a job? Do I even want to put myself out there and meet new people? Outside of my analogy, in real life, I might sometimes think that death would be a welcome way out, an easy exit plan—do I even want to be alive? How I wish then that I could tear up everything, down to raw, bare dirt, and start over again with fresh sod—heck, I’ll even resort to reseeding the soil myself if it just means all this grief will go away. 

Stuck deep in a hole of depression, hope seems
lost, and life becomes an unwelcome burden.
Though suicidal ideation is rare for me, I am no stranger to it; it is not something I have ever gotten close to actually carrying out, but the thoughts of ‘leaving it all behind’ are disturbing, unnerving, and almost sickening. The frustration with my situation and the tiresome persistence of even being a human, in some moments, can be debilitating. I beat myself up for what I see as constant failure, and my little patch of decrepit lawn so often becomes a frustrated handful of grass, ripped out in anger. I hate the grass. I hate my life.  Anxiety has led to depression and depression has led me to the end of my figurative rope.

I can see myself taking the tools that I once used to care for my little patch of lawn and turning them against myself—faith becomes faithlessness, testimony becomes cynicism, belief becomes burden, religion becomes rejection, and hope becomes hopelessness. And why stop there? How much more hopeless could my situation become? With shovel in hand, I pierce the ground like I am putting to death the enemy of my soul. Then it’s a shovel full of sod, then soil, and soon rocky dirt. With every minute, day, and week that I avoid my duty in caring for the plot—for myself, my life—the hole can only get deeper. 

As stress and work pile up, the easier it is to
just abandon all responsibility and isolate myself.
Frustrated with life, I dig and dig—putting off homework, household chores, text messages, emails, phone calls, work shifts, class attendance, and even eating and personal care sometimes. Everything becomes burdensome in the looming uncertainty of my present and my future. I soon find myself in a deep hole that I cannot claw my way out of. In my anger and frustration, I was focused so intently on dwelling upon and enlarging the problems that I couldn’t see the pit I was digging myself into. Disparagingly, and realizing I’m about as low down as I can go, I tend to curl up in a figurative ball and force myself to ignore my environment, and the person whose fault it is that I am there—mine.  I also tend to isolate myself from others at this point.

This is when the depression is deep, the hurt is powerful, and there is nothing worse than realizing that you’ve brought it all upon yourself. Not to say that I can help the biology that causes my depression; but I can help to avoid the circumstances that cause the crushing dips into its abyss. These are the times when, though I am physically present at school, work, church, or with friends and family, yet I am emotionally detached and psychologically numb. The weak smile I put on for everyone is as fake as Astroturf; a false portrayal that everything is okay. But like the Astroturf, my façade is artificially produced by me to cover difficult emotions, rather than grown from roots of true contentedness with life.

From the bottom of my emotional holes, my
view is is bleak.  How will I ever get out?
No matter how bad things are, I can recount numerous times when I have received miraculous second chances (and third, fourth, fifth …). I have an understanding boss at my job, and he knows what I deal with. I have been blessed with instructors at my university who are the epitome of compassion and cooperation. And as the ones closest to me, my friends and family have long been patient and forgiving as I’ve struggled with many disorders and mental health issues from my childhood. 

When another of my trespasses is forgiven and forgotten, I can often catch a sudden glimpse beyond the smoky fog of depression, and for a moment, there is some hope! But what can I really see, then, when I have pushed back so much emotion and responsibility for weeks and weeks?—only the rugged walls of the hole that I am now in. As hopeless as this scenario sounds, whether as a parable or my occasional reality, I have learned something from it. 

The beauty of this analogy that came to me in my Elder’s Quorum class that day was not that I figured out a way to figuratively claw myself out of the hole. It was not even that someone came along to rescue me by reaching out a strong, helping hand. Neither did I perish in the ground while pitying myself and casting relentless self-blame. The beauty came unexpectedly—not as my present situation improved, but as it worsened.

The regular storms of life can seem like a watery
death sentence when you are stuck in a hole.
What can be worse than being stuck, alone, in a deep, cold hole? To my mind, it was that ensuing darkness from the skies high above, and the threat of a sudden downpour. As if I’m not already in a predicament by digging myself into a hole of avoidance and procrastination, a storm enters my world—the world above the ground—and the rain begins to fall. It could be anything distressing that befalls me in addition to the predicament I am already in—family concerns, financial stresses, spiritual failings (more likely supposed failings), arguments, disappointments, shortcomings, illness—whatever may keep me indifferent to or uninterested in solutions that I might seek under normal conditions. When you’ve dug yourself into an emotional hole, there’s not much that can be done about the rain as life carries on despite your already-loaded troubles.

Back at church, I no longer heard my Elder’s Quorum brethren commenting on our young friend’s question. I only saw myself gazing up from the hole, and the rain coming down in sheets. Simultaneously I also saw flashes of myself bending over my desk under a hot lamp, papers strewn about, as I typed furiously on the keyboard to make a deadline (a typical state of last-minute panic I encounter a lot). As I slip easily into this live metaphor playing in my brain, suddenly I cannot ignore where I am anymore, and I cannot pretend that this isn’t my fault or that someone else is to blame. 

When the courage to simply try strikes,
the fog of depression disperses just enough
for me to catch a glimpse of hope again.
Courage often strikes out of nowhere, like lightning piercing through the clouds of my hopeless depression.  Like the homework example, I sometimes decide at the last minute that I am going to try to get out of my hole, even if the forecast is bleak and the odds are against me.  In the hole, my feet are already covered in muddy water, and I am certain that I am going to drown in this miserable pit. The surface seems so far away, and my deadline, or class time, or work shift looms ever closer. But as the storm rages on, I try desperately to claw myself out. Initially, it always seems like it’s just no use. Doubt creeps back in; the water is now at my knees and rising.

The anxious attempts at getting myself out of the hole only remind me how deeply I have dug myself. I realize then that perhaps I should have thought harder about my possible solutions before consigning myself to a lifetime of pouting underground. These are the times that I finally care about what I’ve gotten myself into—long after any plausible, relatively-comfortable solutions have passed. I am still in the hole, and it's not looking good, but I continue to try.  The water reaches my waist. Not long now.

Sometime after the initial project is started, or I decide that I will go to work or class after all, the anxiety of beginning is gone and the anxiety of finishing is now what fuels me. Once I reach this stage, I am determined to complete my task no matter what it takes. I avoid the clock face, and just try to make it through the day. Those ominous deadlines I’m often racing against make the dread even more palpable. This process includes periodic pauses to breathe deeply, psyche myself up, and offer prayers for mercy. The whole situation is nonetheless precarious, and there is no certainty that I will make it out alive. Will work ever end? Will the teacher ever wrap up their lecture? Will this social gathering ever end? WIll I finish my essay in time?  Back in the hole, the water has reached my shoulders, and I still don’t know what will become of me.

When all seems lost, Christ's grace descends
gently to buoy me up and out of my darkest places.
The water level crawls up my neck slowly, and the storm will not quit. I’m scrambling, but also so close to just giving up and drowning in my stress. Perhaps if I had been more responsible and diligent in caring for my life, the worst I would be dealing with right now would be the raging storm of unexpected issues and personal concerns atop the green grass. When my anxiety is high and my depression is thick and cloudy over my mind, I would so often like to accept death (that is, missing that assignment, that deadline, that work shift, a class, or social event) by drowning in the hole—in other words, for me, sleeping through the impending doom, my chosen depressive poison.

But as the water reaches my chin, and I take a final deep breath, the beauty of the storm is realized. Suddenly, my feet are not touching the muddy bottom of the hole, and my head is still above water. I am not drowning! As long as I put forth the effort to tread water, I stay afloat. This is the moment of serendipity, usually when I notice, partway through my task or responsibility that things are working out. Maybe it’s not as bad as I initially thought. I am getting the answers right, I am nearing the end of my essay, only minutes remain of work—my mood is improving, I am closer to finishing what I began—I can see a way out of the hole if I hold strong.

Even when stuck in a hole, humility and patience
can help us "tread water" until we are delivered
from the abyss.
As the storms of life thunder and flash above me, I am so often brought to humility by a sudden and instantly-discernible grace. When we are above ground, experiencing a mostly-happy life, the storms that come along to put a damper on our day can seem so difficult to bear. But when you’re already 10-feet under, sometimes you need to be reminded that there is a reason for the rain. The storms of life come, I have found, not to hammer the last nail in my coffin, but the lift me back to life by helping me to understand the need to constantly be humble and to trust in a higher purpose for some challenges.

If I can just be patient and continue to “tread water,” things will eventually be okay. And sure enough, the water lifts me high enough to finally grasp the edge of that terrible hole and pull myself out of it. Each and every time it leaves me in shock that I actually did it—I finished the essay; I made it through my whole class or my entire work shift; I made it to my date with friends; I finished the semester; or whatever it is that I had gotten stuck in. In reality, my shock is probably unfounded, because I know that the water falling from the sky in this analogy is not a coincidence or just good luck. In my real life, it is the grace of the Lord sent to buoy me up and carry me out of my sorrows and troubles (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The rain can sometimes be an inconvenience,
but it is meant to replenish and refine us.
I felt these moments as a child, long before I ever knew who God or Jesus Christ were—years before I ever found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the gospel. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in the home I grew up in, laden with homework and on the verge of tears at the threat of losing my 4.0 GPA. And suddenly, as I cast my eyes hopelessly upon everything I still had to do, I would feel a sense of peace enter my heart. 

Instantly the doubt and confusion and unfairness of my situation diffused, and I could no longer feel troubled by my present responsibilities. I was touched by the Light of Christ within me, and His grace flowed over me to calm my fears and give me the push I needed to carry on and finish my tasks. And I always did in the end; and on those nights my bed never felt so comfortable as I lay down with the burden of work lifted from my mind and the assurance of continued academic success.

Knowing what I know now about the sacrifice of the Savior and the grace offered through His atonement, I can see that the Lord was with me even before I actually found Him. And still I know He is with me, because I experience this washing over of the Spirit often when I am at my wit’s end, crying out in my heart for help. He answers my pleading by sending the rain to teach me that His love and blessings can reach me even in the bleakest of places. And if we have an eye to see His glory and an ear to hear His voice, He can raise us up out of whatever miserable holes we’ve dug ourselves into (Matthew 13:9-17; Ezekiel 12:2).

We won't ever be perfect caretakers of our lives,
but God fills our days with moments that help us
to better appreciate what we've been entrusted with.
Blessings can come in disguise; but the Master Teacher can help us learn to see them in their true light. Just like the rain flowing down into what seemed might become my grave, the blessings of hope and humility amidst the storms can carry me slowly up to the edge of where my struggles began, and lend me the strength to grasp the solid ground of faith and pull myself out. And never am I more grateful to be safely back at the top, even while the rain may continue to fall upon me for a time. 

Somehow I recognize that if things hadn’t been so tough, my spirit may not have been contrite and my heart perhaps not broken enough to see the purpose of the rain (Moroni 6:2). When all things realign in my life and I see the hand of God in correcting the chaos, I am usually a little more grateful for life—my little plot of grass—and more willing to “act well [my] part” in order to avoid digging more holes (see this video for more). Additionally, the cleansing power of the rain—the refiner’s fire of tests and trials—can nourish and renew us where we have failed to take care of ourselves, giving us another chance to start over and make things right.

Although we can prepare for life's storms,
none of us will escape them.
Indeed, when life seems to be going my way is when I am often compelled to be humble by experiencing a setback—some kind of stumble, trip, fall, or a suddenly-cloudy sky. I don’t feel that it’s God’s way of “kicking me when I’m down,” so to speak, but His way of showing me that things are not always as they seem—that things can always be worse. But perhaps more than that He is showing me that things will usually get better. No storm ever lasts; the sun always breaks the clouds in the end. What need is there of a roof unless you know that the rain could eventually come?

God’s intention is not to teach us how to avoid the storms of life, or to know when we should anticipate them coming and going. But His purpose is, I feel, to teach us that the storms will come throughout life, and although we can do our best to prepare for them, we cannot escape them. What we can help is how we care for our little plot of grass—ourselves; and we can also choose how we let the rain affect us. He wants us to learn to appreciate the rain, not to dread it. 

He wants us to get ourselves wet now and again so to better appreciate the warmth and comfort He provides. As the Lord has said in modern revelation, “If they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39). Even though we may not mean to start digging in the first place, inevitably we will all do it, and God can encourage us to make the best of the holes we end up in. I think that’s why He sends rain. He wants us to discover that it is He who sends the sunshine and the storms when He knows that our little plot of life is ready to grow a little more. A favorite quote of mine, from Latter-day Apostle Richard G. Scott (1928 - 2015), reflects upon life's storms in this way:

          “Just when all seems to be going right, challenges often come in multiple doses applied simultaneously. … [T]hey are evidence that the Lord feels you are prepared to grow more. He therefore gives you experiences that simulate growth, understanding and compassion, which polish you for your everlasting benefit. To get you from where you are to where He wants you to be requires a lot of stretching, and that generally entails discomfort and pain.” 
          ~ “Trust in the Lord,” October 1995 General Conference; see also Ensign, Nov. 1995, 16-17.

We neglect ourselves constantly, in my opinion. Many of us feel we are the one exception to God’s infinite love, or Jesus Christ’s ever-reaching atonement. When we don’t care for ourselves, our little plot of grass can become dry and lifeless; even if we have not broken the ground with our shovels through our avoidance, our rebellion, our silent pain, or our procrastination, and are still firmly planted on the ground, there is no living happily when our little plot has lost its health, vibrancy, softness, and glow. We are meant to enjoy lying in the grass that we have cared for, and be proud of our efforts to maintain it as best we can.

A tidy plot is not always a sure sign of an
expert gardener; when we compare ourselves
to others, we only see what's on the surface.
But even if we don’t know how best to tend to our lives—let’s face it, who does?—God does know. That’s why He sends rain. Though challenges are difficult, they are not without purpose; they can be revitalizing to our lives by bringing back the meaning to why we were given this little plot of grass to care for in the first place. We are here to enjoy life, to live happily and abundantly (2 Nephi 2:25). Not everyone will be able to immediately see their personal storms as a good thing. It took a long time to convince me, and there are still times that I curse the drops that fall on my happy picnic. But I usually recover more appreciative of the sun—the Light of Christ in my life—and less worried about the next downpour.

One trap that I get myself into is to assume that as I sometimes suffer silently, I am suffering alone. I commonly forget that everyone around me is their own caretaker of a plot similar (but not identical) to mine. Maybe their plot is the blue-ribbon-best, or maybe it is sloppy, but healthy. Others might be feeling the prickles of dead grass between their toes and longing for a time when they were better at gardening. 

Our lawns don't have to be perfect to be enjoyed;
life is never idyllic, but with regular upkeep,
we can be content with the plots we've been given.
Still, some are merely surviving with both feet still planted on the ground, but trying to pass off their Astroturf lawn as the real thing. And others, still, are no longer living above ground, and are sulking in their own miserable holes. And all around each of them, storms are raging from time to time. What a comfort it is to know that no matter the climate in the lives of others, we all witness storms. Some are more powerful than others, but likewise, those individuals may also be better prepared to face them, according to Elder Scott. 

And while the sun may seem to shine endlessly upon some from our view, internally some of them are living with darkness, and they are sometimes the ones who keep their plots the tidiest so that no one discovers their pain. Similarly, I have learned that even those whose lives’ seem a little unkempt can still be extremely fulfilled in caring for the plot of grass that they’ve been given, even if they don’t do so ideally. 

God will send rain upon us all, the just and unjust;
whether we let the rain drown us or discipline us
will always be our own choice.
For this reason, it is best that we learn not to think unkindly or be critical of those whose gardening techniques are different from ours, because we are all called to the same task, on the same earth, underneath the same ever-changing sky; God does not expect us to keep our plots spotless, but to endure until the season and harvests are over (James 5:11; D&C 14:7). As Jesus said of His Father, “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

As I mentally came back into the classroom that day in Elder’s Quorum, my mind was set at ease, while also being alive with personal revelation and wisdom from God, though I did not end up sharing my experience with the others. I do not know why He sends me these parables to help me understand my life, but I am intensely grateful for them; and I expound upon and share them in the hope that they may connect with someone else’s soul or mind in a way that will help them know their Father and their Savior the way I feel I do.

I have found that life's storms can often be a
gesture of the Lord's mercy, whether lost
in the desert or stuck in a hole.
I’m not sure if my quorum brother’s predicament in the figurative deserts of life was ever resolved. I don’t know if that troubled young man ever found the well of hope he was seeking for. He stopped attending our ward a few months after I had this experience. Certainly there is much still from his past that he desires to resolve and work through; I have a prayer in my heart that he will. 

I don’t think I really have an answer either to the analogy that was presented in that class of a trip from Point A to Point B. It’s true, as we carry on with life, we make many different journeys; some are more pleasant while others can be extremely difficult. And like stumbling upon a lone mechanic’s shop when you are broken down on a highway to nowhere, or finding a true oasis when you have wandered the Saharas of mortality, I have found that serendipity often comes just when you are about to give up. The Savior’s grace arrives just in time, like “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

We all find ourselves off track sometimes on our way to where and whom we want to be, and we might remain there longer than we anticipated. But occasionally those stalls in our progression are what we need in order to better recognize divine intervention in our lives. So my hope is that when this young brother finds himself stranded in the metaphorical deserts of life—lost and alone and not knowing what will become of him—that God will send rain.

"Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows
not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger."
~ Saint Basil the Great, Greek Bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia
(AD 329 or 330 - AD 379)

Friday, October 7, 2016

To Learn the Healer's Art

Ten years ago I forsook homosexual activity,
and returned to my Mormon faith.
September this year was a special anniversary for me. It marked ten years since I broke up with the one and only boyfriend I ever had, and came back to my ChurchThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonsand began rebuilding a broken faith (See my posts, “The Greener Side” and “The Best and Worst of Times”)  Ten years of growing, stretching, struggling, discomfort, rising, falling, learning, and failing. In some ways it seems like it has been the longest decade of the three I’ve been alive thus far; in other ways, by the grace of God, it seems to have flown by happily and blessedly.

Sometimes I can hardly remember myself as a struggling twenty year-old young man, attempting to reconcile my feelings of attraction for the same sex, and the religion I had joined only four years earlier. Other times I ponder those dark days of resuming my religious activity, nurturing my weak spirit which felt barely existent inside me, and I wonder how I made it through alive. 

It certainly wasn’t easy; it was the hardest decision I have ever made in my entire life, yet I still feel so young and naïve in this world. Truthfully, I feel that no one should ever have to make such a monumental choice—faith or feelings; family or fear; heaven or hell; happiness or misery. To me at that time—to so many young, LGBTQ Mormons still— it is black and white; no in between that is still righteous, no middle ground that isn’t sinful. I never encourage anyone in the same position to take the same path I took; but I cannot say now that I am unhappy in my choice.

I have wondered, if my choices had been
different, if I could've made a relationship
with a guy work.
Sometimes I think about how things might have been different if I had happened to find someone I really wanted to be with that first time dating men, rather than taking the first person with whom I found mutual attraction and trying to force love. The world that I can build in my head of my “other life” is interesting, even if not very detailed. Mostly I wonder if I would’ve had the guts to defy Church and family, and bring home a boyfriend for holidays and special occasions. I wonder if the one and only girl I ever loved would be my wife now, if I hadn’t broken up with her to venture into the gay dating world. I wonder if there would be someone, anyone, lying next to me at night, or if my bed would still be just as small and empty as it is today.

I ponder what I might be doing now if I had a hardened, indifferent conscious that kept me from feeling God’s gentle pull on my heartstrings as easily and powerfully as I do—and which I always have, even before I knew there was a God. I do not suggest that to leave the faith means one can only be heartless and unfeeling; to the contrary, it is because I feel so deeply and intensely that I, personally, could not pass on the eternal blessings that my Father in Heaven offers me if I govern myself according to the bounds which He has set.

It's easy for me to feel left out of the
blessings I want most, or outside the
scope of the atonement.
I wish that I could say now that the past decade has been free of all sin related to my homosexuality; but I can’t. I have done my best to keep the covenants I made not just at my baptism, but when I entered God’s holy house and covenanted further and deepened my commitment to Him and the Savior, Jesus Christ. But some of the bounds were loosened, so to speak, even if not entirely broken. Like all of us, I am not without my mistakes, even though I would love to lie and tell you that the past ten years have been as clean and pure as the day I was born, or the day I felt reborn as I was raised up from the waters of baptism.

Pornography has always been a vice, since a young age, and I bet it always will be. I struggle to keep that toxic influence out of my thoughts and life. I know that it affects me greatly and I hurt from the feeling of helplessness it plants in me. I hear often that the atonement of Jesus Christ has the power to save us and change us from anything to which we fall prey; I usually, ashamedly, scoff out loud at the idea. Because in my mind I see a paper attached to a clipboard, reading, “Wade’s List of Atonement-Cured Struggles,” and far at the bottom of the already short list is the asterisked disclaimer, “Pornography not included in this offer.”

Still, the list of greater sins is very short; I am thankful for that. But more often than not, if I am not striving to be a positive optimist, I am playing the part of a pessimistic perfectionist. The space of a decade doesn’t shrink those regretted encounters, it only magnifies them. Huge is the calendar in my head documenting every single day of the last ten years, and all I see are a handful of huge, black blemishes splattered in random places on the pristine, white sheet. 

I think I know that I can't be perfect all the 
time,but I certainly strive tirelessly to be so 
Ironically enough, I just happened to trip and fall flat on my face just days before the month of September began and my milestone was reached. I’ve thought of the irony of it since then, and I wondered if there was something God was trying to teach me. In my mind, His feelings on the matter usually hover between, “Ten years; you’ve come a long way,” and, “Ten years; you were so close.” Likely, those are the black-and-white thoughts coming from my own head, and not from His Spirit. God, I’m sure, is much better than I when it comes to being emotionally and psychologically reasonable.

Unfortuantely, it’s just a part of my nature to see small mistakes as major failures; heaven forbid I ever get an A- in a class, because to me it might as well be an F. “Oh, I got 90/100 on my test; I can’t believe I missed ten questions. I am such a moron!” There is no middle ground in my view of success and failure—either I excelled above and beyond what was expected of me, or I crashed and burned with not even my pride left intact. It doesn’t matter what the real measure of my success was; if it’s not perfection, it’s all for naught. I’ve been this way all my life. I’ve struggled to change for years.

I tried to carry the weight of guilt for too long; significant changes in my mood since then have brought me to my knees, both figuratively and literally. For some time I was angry with God; I wanted to punish Him by refusing to offer myself as a servant. I skipped Church, I ignored promptings to pray. Other times I was so overcome with grief and tears that I couldn’t kneel quickly enough and get the words out without stumbling over them. I delved into the scriptures and words of the prophets seeking comfort. My frail faith would buoy me up for a while, but I would soon start to sink again. The month of September came and went with me just keeping my head above water, and that included work and school as well.

I needed a remedy for my emotional and spiritual
anguish; but I was looking in the wrong places.
I often turn to music as a release and a relief. Music has immense power. I believe that God can speak through music, even the kinds of songs you wouldn’t expect He would have part in or approve of. The Lord Jesus Christ taught in the scriptures, “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me … I am the same that leadeth men to all good” (Ether 4:12). So why not the song on the radio, or playing in the grocery store, or on your iPod, or on your phone? 

I can recount many times in my life when lifesaving music has come at just the right moment—and a recent experience was no different. The words of a song hit me strongly while driving one day, amidst all these anguished anniversary feelings, and the Spirit whispered to me that running away from God to find peace was never going to work. I needed to come to Christ in order to be healed by repenting and seeking forgiveness.

“When the pain cuts you deep,
When the night keeps you from sleeping,
Just look, and you will see
That I will be your remedy.

When the world seems so cruel,
And your heart makes you feel like a fool,
I promise you will see
That I will be your remedy.”

~ “Remedy,” Adele. 25. XL Recordings | Columbia Records, 2015.

The Lord had my remedy. He was my remedy. As I drove in my car, listening to this song, I pondered the meaning of it. When I got home, I was still thinking about it. How is Jesus Christ my remedy from all things with which I am laden and may struggle? I began to recall titles that I had heard which referred to the Savior as the Healer, the Great Physician, and the Balm of Gilead. I was intrigued by these for some reason, the latter particularly; so I decided to study the subject. What I discovered (and what was opened unto me by the Spirit) was beautiful, and I wanted to share it here.

Pistacia lentiscus. 
Otherwise known as the mastic tree.
The illustration to the left is of the plant Pistacia lentiscus, or the mastic tree. It grows all over the Mediterranean, from the islands of Greece, to Turkey. It is largely prominent in Palestine where many of the events recorded in the Bible took place. This large shrub bleeds an ivory-colored, resinous sap (called mastic). It has been used for over 2,000 years as chewing gum, perhaps the first in the world. In ancient times, the resinous mastic was allowed to drip naturally from the bark, or from slits cut into the branches, onto strategically-placed strips of cloth or prepared ground. After the mastic had hardened to the cloth, it was collected and washed in water to get rid of impurities like dirt and bugs, and the cloth was pulled away. The hardened mastic was then ready for a variety of uses. 

Most often, it was pulverized into a fine powder—along with other aromatic spices—and combined with animal fat (tallow) and/or plant-based oils into ointment, or "balsam," like the kind famously known as the Balm of Gilead. It could then be traded and sold throughout the region. This highly valuable and expensive medicinal salve gained its name from the mountainous region of Gilead, located in ancient times just east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, where mastic trees and a variety of other balsam-bearing trees grew in abundance. Balm made from the mastic tree in this region of Palestine is believed by many botanical scholars to have been the original, trademarked, “brand-name” ointment to be mentioned in Biblical scripture and to travel the incense trails of the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world and beyond.

Commiphora gileadensis.
Otherwise known as the Arabian balsam tree.
The illustration on the right is of the plant Commiphora gileadensis, or the Arabian balsam tree. This large shrub (and many trees in the same genus) also bears a valuable, aromatic sap which was collected in ancient times in similar ways to the mastic tree, and made into the more common, more affordable (but still pricey) “store-brand” version of Balm of Gilead. The Arabian balsam tree takes its scientific name from the land of Gilead because it was believed for many centuries (and still by some experts) to be the most popularly-used by balm producers and merchant traders. It is thought that over time, the cheaper version of this balm became more widely used in the ancient world because it was more affordable, and the source trees were more plentiful in the region; thus, the original Balm of Gilead made from the mastic tree lost some of its consumer appeal.

The saps from the mastic and Arabic balsam trees have been used for centuries for gastrointestinal ailments, and were commonly administered by chewing the sap like gum. The sap is very bitter at first, but as it is chewed it turns from gold to white, and has a fragrant, smoky or piney taste. In powder-form, the saps also have proven antifungal and antibacterial properties, which is not coincidental in their use as topical ointments. Balm of Gilead was used on wounds to prevent infection and foster healing, and in lotions to stem illness and disease while also making its privileged users smell great. 

A bead of soft resin flowing
from a balsam tree.
Over the ages of time, there grew a disambiguation of the term “Balm of Gilead,” which could refer to the original mastic kind trademarked by growers in Gilead, or the copycat Arabic balsam kind; there are even versions made in the America’s today from balsam trees in the genus Populus. In the ancient world, however, Balm of Gilead was known for having special properties that could supposedly cure many ailments. Often times only physicians could acquire the balm, or could actually afford it; and once they obtained it, they advertised far and wide that they were in possession of the miracle-cure ointment, and they charged their patients accordingly to use it.

Balm of Gilead remained anciently a kingly gift to anyone who received it. Father Jacob (Israel) convinced his sons to return to Egypt for food, taking with them many precious commodities, including Balm of Gilead, with which to persuade the keeper of the granaries to sell them corn (not knowing that the keeper was their brother, Joseph, whom they had sold) (Genesis 43:11). Some historical and religious records aside from the Bible record that when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1 Kings 10), she not only brought with her Balm of Gilead, but also “the root of the balsam” tree to plant in his kingdom—a very prized offering, indeed.

A dish of  dried mastic drippings,
often called "tears."
Commiphora gileadensis is in the same genus as the plant from which myrrh comes, Commiphora myrrha—another tree whose resin is highly valuable, and has been for many centuries; myrrh was among the gifts that the three wise men from the east brought to the young Jesus; Incidentally, frankincense also comes from tree resin (Matthew 2:11). Pistacia lentiscus mastic is still collected today for use in aromatherapy oils, food dishes and candies, medicinal substances, and incense.

So, in the end, why do I care about these seemingly insignificant facts? I didn’t—until the Spirit of God, Who testifies of all truth (Alma 5:44-45) guided me, who “[had] not faith” to “seek … diligently … out of the best books words of wisdom, … learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 109:7). I needed to expand my knowledge in this way so that God could expand my heart and make me receptive to the Holy Ghost.

Sins and transgressions will never make us
permanently unclean; we can always repent.
I have been in need of healing recently; I have been in search of healing. I have had wounds that have been opened through poor choices, and I have not cared for them in proper ways. They have slowly festered and poisoned my soul and weakened my heart. I delayed repentance for a time, and allowed Satan to convince me that I was beyond repair. I have also slackened in my duties to worship God on the Sabbath, and to be worthy of the Redeemer’s flesh and blood offered at the sacrament table.

But the mercy and compassion of Christ the Savior have beckoned to me through my stubborn grief. He has spoken to me when I am alone with my thoughts; He speaks through my music, and manifests Himself in my dreams; His pierced hands are stretched toward me through the reach of beloved friends and family who care. I have been reminded that I am missed when I am gone, and that I am loved by people more than I know, and by more people than I know.

"Temptation of Christ" 
by Eric Armusik
Copyright © Eric Armusik
I had the agency to choose to sin; we all do. I still have that agency, and I still choose the mists of darkness too often (1 Nephi 8:23; 12:17). Each time I stained that huge, almost-spotless calendar with mistakes that ruined my “perfect record,” I also used my agency to delay repentance and to try to make it on my own. That is perhaps a worse mistake that I make even more frequently: To believe that I am outside the scope of Christ’s atonement. I thought for a time that I did not need a Redeemer. I thought for a time that I did not need His grace. Sometimes the god of this world cries out louder for me to follow him into the darkness, even when I have been so long accustomed to living in the light.

All while the adversary tugged my wrist impatiently in the direction of Babylon, I looked longingly over my shoulder for one more glimpse of Zion. My stance was one of uncertainty, and I dug my heels into the ground. Satan’s powerful pull recently inched me over the line that I thought I would never cross again. For a while, it seemed as if I was hesitantly straddling the divide between eternal life and eternal death, and that those were my only two choices. The aura of the atonement was almost visible, like a halo of light stretching far across the universe; and I felt then—like I often do still—as if the light stopped short just before it illuminated me. This is wrong! It is not true! 

If the atonement were a force we could behold, it would have no edges or ends; it is all-encompassing in every way, shape, and form—in every direction! This is the most important thing I have needed to learn in my recent trials—and I am still struggling to learn it. Satan wants me so much to fall, because he and I both know that to let go and fall is so much easier. But I am learning all over again, after many years of peace, how to climb. Climbing is harder; it is tiring at times. But it is getting me closer to home; it is taking me back to where I came from. And there are little moments along the way where I see my progress, and feel the angels nudging me gently up the eternal ladder.

Jesus Christ offers peace, forgiveness, 
and salvation to all; He does so freely 
and without price.
That’s what happened when I heard that song in my car—the ladder appeared. That is what happened when the Holy Ghost guided me to several encyclopedia articles on trees in distant lands—I began to climb. Taking time to study a title of the Savior—one of many—not only filled my brain with fun knowledge, but filled in some of the holes in my heart that have kept me from feeling like myself lately. It all reminds me that the Balm of Gilead is still offered to me at all times, without cost; it has already been bought and paid for, at the highest price, and I am already in debt to the Purchaser. That’s when the angels appeared and pushed me on, helping me get farther away from the devil and into a brighter sphere.

Like the lifeblood of the mastic and Arabian Balsam trees, there is great value in the divine blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Though, like the branches of the trees, He was pierced to let that blood run freely, He gave it still for us as a gift of immeasurable worth. And as we take the gift that His blood affords us in mortality—the love and forgiveness of our Father and Savior—there is need still to wash ourselves clean of all our impurities by repenting in sincerity, penitence, and all humility, that our garments may be clean, and so we can partake of that gift in full measure and potency.

A grove of mastic trees on the Greek
island of Chios, where mastic is still a
popular export. 
Like the bitter taste of the balsam sap, repentance is uncomfortable. It is never easy to approach our leaders and admit to wrongdoings. It may be even harder to approach God in prayer and confess our sins and ask for help and forgiveness. As the sap of the balsam tree is chewed, it turns white. As we exercise faith in God and our good leaders, the bitterness of making repairs to our broken hearts and contrite spirits becomes a little sweeter, and the blemishes we have taken on begin to lose their color. Slowly, with continued obedience and diligent work and study, our spirits can finally become clean and white, and the bitterness of the past can become the fragrant aroma of peace in the now, hope in the future, and gratitude always for the redemption that Jesus Christ offers.

The prophet Jeremiah asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). Though I need to be often reminded of this, my answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ Jesus has the miracle cure in his possession; He holds the keys to our salvation, He paid the price for the healing balm. He does not charge for it; He offers is freely, saying “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Christ’s healing does not run out, nor does it expire. It was as powerful and effective in ancient times as it is today. It is as everlasting as the cruse of oil and barrel of meal that fed Elijah, a widow, and her son in the place Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:7-16). It remains, forever, a kingly gift from the Prince of Peace.

"Bind Up the Brokenhearted"
by Sandy Freckleton Gagon

Copyright © 2016 
by Sandy Freckleton Gagon
Where sin, hurt, unkindess, judgement, or abuse have cut us deeply, the Balm of Gilead can be applied to cast out the pride, depression, guilt, and guile that would cause our wounds to fester; when by choice we allow these negative things to linger, there can be more pain than is necessary to learn the lesson that Heavenly Father wishes for us to learn. If our wounds are already infected with these destructive emotions and feelings, the blood of Christ can still cleanse the wound, and He, the Balm of Gilead can cover the open, vulnerable flesh so that it may rest, soothe, and heal. 

There will always be scars; even the smallest wounds can come back to haunt us just by the reminders that are attached to them. But by applying the healing balm of Christ, the scars can be less noticeable, and more constructive to our understanding of ourselves and God. With hope and an eye toward the future, healing through the Balm of Gilead can be permanent. That doesn’t mean that we won’t commit the same sins again—certainly not. But if we bind up each wound as best we know how—as if it were the first time—and apply the Healer’s ointment while asking and expecting to be changed, that chapter in our life can be closed, and we can be better prepared for the continuation of our eternal story, which, for this time on earth, will still have its cuts and bruises.

I have needed to internalize that the most. Being caught up in the whirlwind of a few particular “temptations and … sins which do so easily beset me,” (2 Nephi 4:17-18) I have a hard time feeling like my repentance is ever complete, and that I am just counting down the hours until I commit the same sin again. But I am learning to see each scratch and dent in my virtue, my patience, my kindness, or my righteousness not as old wounds that never heal, or which I keep opening up through bad choices—but simply as small reminders that I was healed by the Balm of Gilead offered by my Redeemer Jesus Christ, and that “He is merciful unto the children of men, and that he has all power to save every [person] that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance” (Alma 12:15).

"Balm of Gilead"
by Annie Henrie Nader

Copyright © Annie Henrie