Pages

Monday, August 15, 2022

Talks

Andrew and I spoke in church on Sunday. I've only been stressing out about it since March or so. Whenever we were asked (which was March or so). Grandpa came to hang out with the kids during sacrament meeting (they zoomed in), not because Rachel and Miriam aren't capable of handling the little kids on their own (they are), but just because it's nice to not always have to be responsible for the little ones. And because Phoebe can be a handful. 

My topic was "God's Perspective is Greater Than My Own," which felt a little huge. Even with so much notice, I don't feel like the talk ended up where I wanted it to be, but...it is what it is. 

Andrew's topic was something easy like: "Isn't the World Pretty?" but he worked the complication of stewardship into it. You can read his talk here. Mine is below:

I’ve been participating in sacrament meeting via zooming the past long while, so for those of you who may need a refresher course on who I am, I’m Nancy Heiss. I’m married to Andrew Heiss, who plays the organ so beautifully for us each Sunday. If you’re lucky, you’ve also had the privilege of hearing our twelve-year-old daughter, Miriam, play on occasion. They’re both very talented musicians and I appreciate the time and effort they put into making music. 

We have five other kids watching from home with my father-in-law—Rachel, who is 15; Benjamin, who is 10; Zoë, who is 7; Alexander, who is 4; and Phoebe, who is 9 months old. 

We homeschool our children, which, ironically, has included my giving introductory piano lessons. I say ‘ironically’ not because I can’t play, but because I play at a much more rudimentary level than my husband does, so it would make more sense for him to teach the children piano. To her credit, Miriam has recently started to help with piano lessons, but before that I’d managed to pass on my basic skill set to some degree of success. 

I grew up taking piano lessons from various ward members who practically donated their time to tutor me. One of my teachers was my friend’s mother. She is a wonderful woman, who I adore and admire, but we did not see eye-to-eye when it came to piano lessons. She felt it was important for me to learn to play from the hymn book (which it no doubt was), and selected hymn #285 for me to learn, which was unfamiliar to me. But I was up for the challenge. I practiced and practiced and the following week when I went to my lesson I…didn’t pass the song off. It was not up to my teacher’s standards. So I practiced it for another week and…again didn’t pass it off. This went on and on, week after week after week. It was very discouraging.

And—my sincerest apologies to William Bradbury—I grew to despise that hymn. 

No matter what I did, it seemed I would never be able to play it well enough. I begged to simply drop the song and move on to a different piece, but with equal adamancy, my teacher insisted that I pass it off. The result was that my passion for piano languished, which I’m just as much at fault for as my teacher. She could have easily selected another song for me to learn, that’s true, but I’m sure I could have practiced more diligently as well. 

So, in short, I am not a great piano player. 

However, a secondary result of this experience is that the words to hymn #285 have lived rent-free in my head for decades now. And I’m not entirely mad about it.

In our hymn book, this hymn is known by its first line—“God Moves in A Mysterious Way”— but William Cowper (COOP-er) originally titled this beautiful poem “Light Shining Out of Darkness.” I will read it for you now:

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

Cowper (COOP-er) wrote these words while experiencing profound depression and no doubt trying to make sense of this world and his place in it. 

He describes the pain and trials and even abject horrors we experience on earth as clouds that are “big with mercy,” eventually breaking forth with blessings. I suppose his light shining out of darkness is his faith in Christ’s atonement, and the belief that his earthly experiences will ultimately “work together for good” (Romans 8:28), despite his mortal frustration at not understanding God’s mysterious ways. Having faith that God will “make” things “plain” can certainly be difficult, especially when the clouds feel oppressive and ever-present. 

Like Cowper (COOP-er), I also often turn to poetry—whether reading it or writing it—in moments of despair, and with good reason! The Come Follow Me manual notes that “poems can be wonderful friends because they help us understand our feelings and experiences” (2021, p. 141). Many inspiring poems can be found in the scriptures. Psalms and Proverbs are two obvious examples, but perhaps the most noteworthy book of poetry in the bible is the book of Job. Alfred Lord Tennyson referred to Job as “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times” (Austin, 2014, p. ix). Over 42 chapters Job explores the same themes Cowper (COOP-er) attempted to tackle in six short verses: (1) the nature and mystery of God, (2) the intensity of and intention behind human suffering, as well as (3) the purpose and power of faith.

Job is, by all accounts a faithful, “perfect and upright man” (Job 1:1), who had never “withheld the poor from their desire,” (Job 31:16), or saw “any perish for want of clothing,” (Job 31:19), who “opened [his] doors to the traveller,” (Job: 31:32) and supped with the fatherless and widows (Job 31:17). And God is immensely impressed. He says to Satan, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” (Job 1:8). Satan questions Job’s loyalty. 

Perhaps Job doesn’t love God at all; perhaps Job merely seems good because he’s been, seriously, so blessed. And so, the story goes, everything Job had ever been blessed with—his comforts, his family, his health—are rapidly stripped away in order to see whether or not Job will remain faithful to God. And, in my opinion, he does. When his wife begins to complain about their circumstances—and with good reason! They’d just lost their wealth and all of their children—Job simply asks her whether they are justified in receiving only blessings from God, and never enduring hardship.

Unfortunately, when Job said this, he wasn’t yet aware of how long he’d be left to endure. And isn’t that the way it is sometimes? Though we’re assured our afflictions last “but a small moment” (D&C 121:7), there are times when those small moments seem to stretch indefinitely and it can be hard to continue enduring. So Job, knowing that he’s lived a good life and feeling like he deserves to suffer a little less and be blessed a little more, eventually questions God’s sense of justice. 

He says to God, “Thou knowest that I am not wicked…” (Job 10:7); “Hast thou eyes of flesh? Or seest thou as a man seeth? Are thy days as the days of man? Are thy years as man’s days?” (Job 10: 4–5). Do you even know what I’m going through right now?!

And of course, God does see what we’re going through, but—for better or worse—“The Lord seeth not as man seeth” as we learn in Samuel 16:7, nor are His thoughts our thoughts or His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8), or His timing our timing. Elder Maxwell pointed out that it is strange that “we who wear wristwatches seek to counsel Him who oversees cosmic clocks and calendars” (“Hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 63). 

Indeed, God is unfathomably great and in response to Job's continued complaints, God answers out of a whirlwind with a resume of his creation and majesty, and Job acknowledges that, compared to God, he is nothing. And the story is wrapped up with a neat little bow, with everything being restored to Job, who lives happily ever after, or, as the Bible says, until he dies, “being old and full of days” (Job 42: 17).

So what does Job teach us about the nature and mystery of God, the intensity of and intention behind human suffering, or the purpose and power of faith? 

In Rereading Job, my friend Michael Austin attempts to answer these questions, saying, “We cannot use our human reason to determine what God will do, nor can we use our human notions of morality to determine what God should do. The poet shows us that we can do nothing to reconcile human and divine nature. Only God can accomplish such a reconciliation—and the only way He can do so is to become human Himself. Becoming human is how Job’s Redeemer does live after all” (p. 117). Christ came to Earth and experienced mortality and human suffering, completely uncoupled from his goodness. Christ was perfect, yet suffered death for me, a sinner. Why, then, should I imagine that I should be blessed for my righteousness? 

The two aren’t connected. God is no respecter of persons and will never choose to bless me, for example, over anyone else. That isn’t to say I will never be blessed; however, life will never be fair, either. Innocent people suffer grave injustices while wicked men flourish. One part of me wonders, as Job did, why God allows that to be so. Another part of me knows that it is not God who allows these injustices, but mankind. 

Archibald MacLeish once delivered a sermon wherein he theorized that “without man’s love, God does not exist as God, only as creator, and love is the one thing no one, not even God Himself, can command” (Austin, p. 134). In Rereading Job, Austin explains this quote further, saying that “God permits good people to suffer because, if He followed the so-called Law of the Harvest and rewarded everybody according to their faithfulness, then he would never experience the unconditional, freely given love that allows Him to be God. And Satan would then win the universe” (p. 134).

Interestingly, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus proclaims that the first and great commandment is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” but, paradoxically, this love is something that must be given freely. And the way we can offer our love to God is explained in the second commandment, which is to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).

We need to relieve human suffering. Like Job, we need to be sure we never “withhold the poor from their desire,” (Job 31:16), or close our doors to the fatherless and widows (Job 31). We need to protect the powerless and not wait for authorization to intervene in cases of obvious abuse. We need to love one another as Jesus loves us, and as we proclaim to love God. In so doing, we act as God’s instruments to bless others. In return, Elder Uchtdorf tells us, “Our own spirits become healed, more refined, and stronger. We become happier, more peaceful, and more receptive to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit” (April 2010). Miracles beget miracles, and very often in my life miraculous moments aren’t obvious until I’m looking back at them.

This is also the case for Elder Holland, who once reminisced about a hard time he had as a young father when the family vehicle broke down during a cross-country move. In his mind’s eye he imagined he could see himself leaving his wife and two young sons in the car on the side of the road, to walk the long distance through the desert to seek human or heavenly help. He says, “In that imaginary instant, I couldn’t help calling out to him: “Don’t give up, boy. Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead—a lot of it—30 years of it now, and still counting. You keep your chin up. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come” (Holland, October 1999).

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been living without an oven for the last few weeks, but as I was reflecting on the help and happiness ahead, I had a Holland-esque flashback of myself as a younger mother. I had just been in a car accident that totaled our van, which was our only vehicle at the time. Everything in our house was breaking all at once. Andrew had flown to Georgia, actually, to interview for the same job he has now, though he didn’t get the job at the time, which was crushing. The academic job market is brutal and he experienced many, many rejections.

Anyway, my friend (and ministering sister) offered to drop off dinner for me and the kids (my hands had been burned by the airbags so she just wanted to make things a little easier for me while Andrew was away, which was so sweet of her. But her day had also been chaotic, so she stopped by earlier than expected with a frozen lasagna for me to pop into the oven. I thanked her, closed the door, and sank to the floor sobbing. 

Because our oven…was broken. 

It seems like a trivial thing now that I’m looking back on it, knowing that, by the grace of God, we would figure everything out. But at that moment, it felt like a very heavy burden.

Our oven was broken, we had no vehicle, no job, and, to quote Jane Austen, “no money, and no prospects.”

I’m only six years out from that moment of despair, but already I can assure my former self that there is help and happiness ahead—a lot of it! It has come in the form of frozen lasagnas and steaming hot baked ziti. It has come in the form of prayers being offered around the world for a baby born too soon. It has come in the form of the kindest home teacher dropping off a set of ukuleles for the family. It has come in the form of a text message arriving at just the right moment. It has come and continues to come in many, many forms. 

It comes as we ponder the nature and mystery of God, the intensity of and intention behind human suffering, and the purpose and power of faith and how those questions inspire us to “live well in the world that exists” (Austin, p. 143), as flawed and unfair as it may sometimes be.

Perhaps sometimes you’ll complain. That’s okay. Perhaps you’ll lean against your front door and weep. Perhaps, like Elder Holland, your shoulders will slump a little as fear or despair threaten to undo you. Perhaps, like William Cowper (COOP-er), you’ll suffer through doubt and depression. Perhaps you’ll feel the need to cry, as Job did, “My soul is weary of my life!

But eventually, the clouds will break and a light will shine out of the darkness. 

So keep walking. 

I’ll leave you with just one verse of another hymn that I love (but cannot play), written by Marvin K. Gardner and set to music by Vanja Y. Watkins:

Press forward, Saints, with steadfast faith in Christ,
With hope’s bright flame alight in heart and mind,
With love of God and love of all mankind.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing that great talk. I also love Marv and Vanja's "Press forward, Saints."

    ReplyDelete