Tuesday, July 31, 2012

God, Young Cecily, and the Art of Listening

My Dear Reader,

I often wonder how amusing my relationship with God is to my friends who don't believe in Him. It must be strange to hear me talk about God the way I talk about other people who also happen to exist. But I've known since I was very young that God is real, and that when I talk to Him, He listens. And sometimes, He answers.

And I think that something that proves God's existence above all else is how little He does what I expect Him to do.

For example, I'm pretty sure that if my sixteen-year-old self could see me now, she would ask me three questions:

1. Did you get into BYU?
2. Did you go on a mission to Australia?
3. Are you married?

And it kind of hurts to realize that at the age of twenty-six, I've only taken care of one of my three biggest life goals. I doubt that showing her a copy of my diploma would soothe her great disappointment in me.

I probably spend too much time thinking about the conversation we would have on the subject. I'm not sure how I would help her understand why I chose to serve missionaries food instead of becoming one myself, and why I didn't find a suitable Mormon mate while attending a university that had around fifteen thousand to choose from. And the more that I think about it, the more I know I would have to tell her that it's just not what God wanted me to do.

And I'd have to tell her all about the thousands of conversations that God and I have had in the past ten years, and how most of them didn't go the way I wanted them to.

Because if I'm honest, I'd have to say that most of the time I don't really want to know what God has to say as much as I just want God to pat me on the back and tell me that I'm pretty smart.

And when I do get answers, they are usually not the kind I want to hear. God, I have learned, does not bother with people-pleasing or patronizing. He just tells you the truth, even when it hurts.

I could tell my sixteen-year-old self about the way I pleaded with the Lord to let me serve Him by giving up everything and becoming a full-time missionary. I could express to her how I had such a great desire that even though I didn't get an answer right away, I started preparing for it. But eventually, I'd have to tell her that even though I took a missionary prep class, even though I had three returned missionaries as roommates, and even though I was working at the Missionary Training Center, and even after asking every night for over a year, I still didn't have an answer.

At that point in my life, I was so spiritually exhausted that I stopped caring, not about going on a mission, but about being right. Instead of telling God that I was going on a mission and asking for His stamp of approval, I actually started asking Him what He wanted me to do, and I actually started listening. I opened myself up to receive whatever it was God had to tell me.

And I got a clear and concise answer: NO.

So I didn't go. So I spent the next six months helping the missionary effort the best way I could, by keeping my job at the MTC and feeding the people who were doing what I couldn't. But then I would have to make my sixteen-year-old self understand that after a few months of full-time dishwashing, I stopped wondering why I wasn't good enough, and started to accept that there was a different way for me to go than the way I'd always planned. Then I had to convince my parents, which presented its own challenges.

Sometimes, no matter what choices you've made, it's a struggle just to not feel like a failure.

And then, when my sixteen-year-old self is satisfied with that, and asks me why I'm single, and why I stay in an environment where the eligible bachelors apparently find me repulsive, I think that answer would be a little harder to give. All I can really tell her is that whenever I tell God I'm fed up with it and all I want to do is leave, He is very clear that I'm supposed to stay put. And I really don't have any idea why, really. I try not to see this whole thing as a punishment for something that sixteen-year-old did. I try not to see my life as a giant waiting room. I try to remind myself that when I was standing at the mouth of Hell, God was the one who pulled me out. I try to remind myself that God has earned my trust a thousand times over, and that trust requires patience.

Because He usually doesn't answer my prayers right away. Not specifically. Mostly, as I pray, I feel the calm reassurance that I am loved. But when I ask Him what to do, or where to go, or if it's okay for me to just give up, it usually takes a while for me to get a straight answer from Him. Sometimes, it literally takes years. And sometimes it takes years because I've forgotten to listen, and I've forgotten that the shortest path to truth is accepting the possibility that I could be wrong.

I wonder how many times I'll have to re-learn that.

And as much as that young me would be disappointed in the person I now am, I would like to hope that I could move past that and tell her that everything in her life is going to work out. I wish I could tell her that the years she has in front of her are going to be hard, and that even though she is already well-acquainted with darkness and pain, things are about to get a whole lot worse. But then, I'd tell her, things are going to work out. Because I know that she will find a strength in herself that she never knew she had. She will fall into the bottom of a pit and manage to climb her way out again. She will find a spark of hope inside a windstorm of despair and manage to keep it burning. And she will do it using the power she will find in prayer. She will do it because she will become desperate enough to listen to God and trust Him. And together, both she and God will get through the next ten years. And she will be much, much better for the sorrow and pain. She will be better than she ever thought she could be.

And really, I would explain to her, that's worth a lot more than a name tag or a wedding ring. Those things can always come later, but her next ten years need to be focused on something else.

But I would tell her that above all, she needs to keep asking and listening. She needs to keep striving for something better and purer. She just needs to keep moving forward, and she'll come out ahead.

And then, after I've imagined this whole fictional conversation with the person I was in the past, I try to picture a conversation with the people I will be in the future. What would my thirty-six-, forty-six-, and fifty-six-year-old selves say? Would they say the same thing? Would they tell me to keep asking, listening, and fighting? Would they tell me that everything's going to be okay? Would they have found a better way to overcome the challenges I face? Are they any better at getting direction and finding purpose? Because as far as I've come, I've got a long, long way to go. There is such a distance between the person I am and the person I want to be that I honestly scares me. Sometimes I'm a little more than certain that I'm never going to make it.

But then, I know a sixteen-year-old who never thought she'd make it, and look how she turned out.

And look at all the things she's learned, and all the skills she's developed, and all of the strength she's gained. Look at the power she gets from the sure knowledge that God is real and on her side.

Maybe the future isn't so bleak after all.

So, you know, we'll see.

Regards, best wishes, and the will to ask, listen, and fight,

-Cecily Jane


just a little bit mo said...

Once again Cecily, I find myself reading one of your beautiful posts from beginning to end. I wonder what my old self would think of me and things I've done and haven't done, what I've become, and things that have happened to me outside my control. Interesting. I wonder if I'd be happy or sad . . . or both.

I value this post and your writing in general because it is so clear and sincere. One of my favorite parts is this: "God, I have learned, does not bother with people-pleasing or patronizing. He just tells you the truth, even when it hurts."

Well said.

Jonathan Northrup said...

Cecily, thank you so much for posting this. I feel like I've been needing to learn to trust God more, and you have given me much-needed wisdom and encouragement.