When the Sidewalk Ends

I vividly remember my first solo bicycle ride. It was a summer evening, and my dad had been doing the dad thing for who knows how long. You know, holding the back of the seat and running along beside me while I learned how to balance. I don’t recall how long it took me to figure it all out, but I do remember the day it all clicked—well, maybe not all of it, but the basics anyway. Dad got me started and then let me go. I was so excited as I cruised along the sidewalk by myself, the wind in my face, my hair streaming over my shoulders. Suddenly, however, I saw impending doom looming in front of me—the curb at the end of the sidewalk. Excitement turned to terror as I realized I had to do one of four things: put the brakes on and properly stop, turn right, intentionally tip over and crash, or run over the curb and out into the street. Now, I don’t know if Dad hadn’t taught me how to turn or stop—I can’t imagine that he would have left this important information out of my education—or, the more likely scenario, if my mind simply froze at the thought of doing anything but going straight down the sidewalk. Whatever the reason, I was afraid to attempt to properly stop, turn, or go out into the street. So I took the only option available—I rode up onto the last lawn of the block and deliberately crashed. I wasn’t hurt, so I picked up my bike and walked it home.curb

We all have times when we run out of sidewalk, when the circumstances of our lives change and we have to decide how we are going to cope with whatever we are facing. Of course, there is always the crash and burn option. However, unlike my bike riding incident, we usually can’t just pick ourselves up and walk back home. As much as we wish we could, there is just simply no way we can undo a cancer diagnosis, a death, a divorce, another’s destructive decision, or any of the innumerable difficult circumstances we confront in mortality that test our faith. Like all choices, the one to simply stop moving has consequences. In this case, we stop moving forward and, consequently, stop growing as a human being. Instead, we end up sitting like a lump on a stranger’s front lawn, allowing the difficulty to overwhelm us. Putting on the brakes and coming to a standing stop still leaves us at a standstill—it’s just a little more dignified.

Of course, we can always choose to turn, trying to avoid the difficult issue altogether. The danger with taking this path is that, although we might be moving, we still aren’t going forward. All we are doing is looking for a way around the unpleasantness. We might be busy, but that’s all it is—busyness. It is just another means of trying to avoid the growing pains that always accompany progression.

So we come to a third possible course of action when the sidewalk ends—going over the curb and into the street. Crossing the streets of life is a scary thing. While the sidewalk is, usually, smooth and free from obstacles, the asphalt of the road is rough. Additionally, there is always the possibility that you might hit some loose gravel and lose control, precipitating a royal wipe out with an accompanying road rash. And, of course, there is always the risk of traffic to consider.

So what’s a girl to do when her sidewalk ends? Fortunately there was one other option that didn’t occur to me at the time. First you have to stop, preferably ending up in a standing position, but intentionally crashing works if necessary. Then, you simply walk your bike across the road and get back on when you get to the sidewalk on the other side. The best part about this choice in an earthly experiential context? You don’t have to do it alone. Because our eternal salvation is God’s greatest desire, he will help us if we call on him. If we listen, he will be our crossing guard, telling us when it is safe to cross and protecting us from oncoming traffic until we get to the other side. Because of the atonement, wherein he endured every kind of suffering mankind might experience, he knows exactly how to direct us to safety.

But what about those times, you might ask, when no amount of imploring seems to penetrate the heavens? How do I safely cross the road before me when it seems the heavenly crossing guard has left his post? How do I know where to go when I’m surrounded by mists of darkness and can’t see my destination? Even when we are doing all he asks of us, there are times when we can’t seem to hear or feel the spirit. This can be discouraging at best and devastating at worst. Like Job we cry out, “Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and holdest me for thine enemy?” (Job 13:24) However, the Lord never leaves the seeker of truth alone. He always provides a way for us to travel the path that leads us back to his side.

When I was in high school, I went on a date with a boy to an awards dinner at a gun club to which he and his family belonged. The road to the venue was unlit and little-traveled. It just so happened that night that there was a fog so thick we literally could not see more than five feet in front of us. As his father drove the car (his parents were going to the dinner as well), his mother opened the door on the passenger side and watched for the yellow line that indicated the side of the rode. With his mother giving directions, we eventually made it to the dinner. (The fog must have cleared during dinner because I don’t remember the drive home being as harrowing.)

Crosswalk cropJust as the highway department paints lines that indicate the edge of a roadway, the Lord has given us guides we can follow when we are engulfed by the fogs of mortality. Unlike the road I traveled with my date, the Lord’s roads are always lit. Although we might not be able to see the sidewalk on the other side, there is always enough light to see the lines of the crosswalk we must adhere to in order to cross the street safely. If necessary, the Lord provides traffic lights to let us know when it is safe to cross. The Lord’s street lights, traffic signals, and crosswalks are found in the scriptures, in earnest prayer, and in sincere Sabbath worship. If we continue to utilize these guides, even when we do not see where they are leading us, the Lord is obligated to ensure our safe arrival at his throne.

Traveling in the mists of darkness is neither fun nor easy. Believe me, I know. Given my struggles with mental illness, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in this area. When this happens, I’ve found that the best thing I can do is just continue putting one foot in front of the other, making sure I stay within the spiritual crosswalk as I strive to reach my ultimate destination. Sometimes the fog-enshrouded road is so wide it seems endless, but experience assures me it isn’t. There is always a sidewalk on the far side. Sometimes those sidewalks last awhile, and sometimes they’re just a brief respite. Sometimes, though not often, I can feel the Lord giving me specific guidance. Most of the time, though, I have to walk by faith. The important thing is that I make sure I’m facing the right direction—and just keep walking.

Curb photo Copyright : Thatsaphon Saengnarongrat

Crosswalk sign Copyright : Susan Montgomery


Changing the World

world cropNot long ago, I was going through the day’s mail and noticed that my husband had received an alumni magazine from his alma mater, Utah State University’s Huntsman College of Business. Splashed across the front of the magazine was a question that really annoyed me: How will you change the world? Speaking to none but the dirty dishes in the sink, I replied out loud and emphatically, “I won’t!” At least not in the way the article’s author meant. According to the author, “In a rapidly changing global economy, identifying opportunities, becoming comfortable with risk, and pursuing your passion can indeed lead to lives of meaning and changing the world.” (Huntsman Alumni Magazine, Spring 2015, p. 8)

So why did this question get under my skin? I guess it was because I’ve run into this mindset more than a few times. This way of thinking implies that the only way to live a “[life] of meaning” is to discover a cure for cancer, design some spectacular technology, come up with a billion-dollar idea for a company, or something else very grand and very public. In other words, the significance of your life depends on what you produce. Really?

The world is changed in millions of different ways each day, none of which is written up in any article. While neither you nor I might do anything that will get published in a magazine, we each change the world in our own ways every day. Every time I hug one of my grandchildren, I change their world by letting them know they are loved. When I watch my granddaughter while my daughter is at work, I change the world by allowing my daughter to go to work knowing that her daughter is safe and in a place where she is loved. The hours of work my husband puts into maintaining our yard changes the world by making it more beautiful. When my dad suffered a traumatic brain injury, my mom changed the world by staying by his side at the hospital all day long, every day. Her continued devotion to and advocacy for Dad as he slipped into dementia changed his world dramatically. When my depression was at its worst 30 years ago, my neighbor would occasionally come to the door around noon with plate of food. Somehow she knew I probably wouldn’t have made lunch for myself. That certainly changed my world. My friend who is dying from stomach cancer with incredible grace, and even good humor, has been an extraordinary example to me of living life with meaning. She has definitely changed my world. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. In the same way, you, too, are changing the world every day.

The biggest problem with believing that to live a meaningful life one must be successful according to the world’s definition is that it rests on the false assumption that we are what we do. In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, author Peter Scazzero points out that this lie was the basis for the first of the temptations Satan presented to Christ.

The devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus had apparently done nothing for thirty years. He had not yet begun his ministry. He seemed like a loser. Nobody believed in him. He was hungry. What contribution had he made to the world?

Our culture asks the same question. What have you achieved? How have you demonstrated your usefulness? What do you do? Most of us consider ourselves worthwhile if we have scored sufficient successes—in work, family, school, church, relationships. When we don’t, we may move harder and faster, go inward into depression out of shame, or perhaps blame others for our predicaments. (p.75)

I really hate to fill out forms asking for personal information. Inevitably there is a box for “Occupation.” I never know what to put there, and it always makes me feel inadequate. My last paid position was as an instructor for an undergraduate Learning Theories class while I was a grad student. That was almost 10 years ago. Just as bad is the making-conversation question “So what do you do?” I am at a loss in both situations. What I do with my days doesn’t fit in a box or qualify as a small-talk answer. I do things like grandmothering, volunteering at church, and blogging. But there isn’t a single label that describes what I’m doing with my life. Mainly I’m just trying to be the best human being I can be, endeavoring to know and follow God’s will for me as best I can. Maybe someday I’ll have the audacity to list “human being striving to do God’s will” in that Occupation box; it would certainly be interesting to see what would happen if I used that answer in a getting-to-know-you conversation!

For me, the what-do-you-do inquiry triggers a question of even greater import—Who am I? Unfortunately, I’m not really sure how answer that question, either. Scazzero writes, “God has shaped and crafted us internally—with a unique personality, thoughts, dreams, temperament, feelings, talents, gifts, and desires. He has planted ‘true seeds of self’ inside of us. They make up the authentic ‘us.’ We are also deeply loved. We are a treasure.” (p.75)

It’s that “authentic” me I find elusive. I fear I am so caught up in what the world declares is a meaningful life that I am blind to my own significance.

To define myself as a [daughter] immensely loved by God, to find my personal worth in my . . . Father, who says of me, ‘You are my [daughter], [Eileen], whom I love; with you I am well-pleased,’ apart from anything I do is revolutionary. [The world] . . . tell[s] me that only possessions and talents and applause from other people are sufficient for security. Jesus models surrender of my will to the love of the Father as the true anchor for who I am.” (Scazzero, p. 77)

In God’s family, success is defined as being faithful to his purpose and plan for your life. We are called to seek first his kingdom and righteousness (see Matthew 6:33). Everything else, he promises, will be added to us. Moreover, God declares we are loveable. We are good enough in Christ (See Luke 15:21-24).

Discipleship, then, is working these truths into our practical everyday lives. (Ibid., p.104)

So how will I change the world? By changing myself. By accepting the gift of good-enoughness that comes through Christ’s atonement. By using the lenses of patience and long-suffering to define myself as God defines me. Now that would be a change of seismic proportion. Who knows what kind of aftershocks might follow!

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Faith Revisited

On the last day of school in May 1985, our children arrived home to an empty house. When I say “empty,” I mean that literally—no furniture, no clothes, no toys, no food, nothin’. That’s because everything we owned had been given away, thrown away, or packed away into the U-Haul moving van parked in front of our house. After eight years of living apart from family, we were going home to Utah. We loaded the kids into the car, a 1977 two-door tan Chevette, made a stop for one last meal at our favorite McDonald’s, then hit I-70 heading west from Jeffersonville, Indiana, leaving behind a multitude of friends who had been our surrogate family for six of the eight years we lived outside of Utah.

I don’t remember praying about whether or not moving was the Lord’s will, I just knew the time was right. And, although I didn’t think about it at the time, the move was a total act of faith; not only were we leaving our friends, we were leaving Craig’s job as well, with nothing lined up for when we arrived in Utah. My poor husband. I don’t know that we ever really discussed the situation; I just pretty much plowed through and heaven help anyone who got in my way. As I recall how I handled things, I wonder who in the world that woman was. Today I would never think of making that kind of a decision almost unilaterally. Somehow, however, I knew that it was the right thing to do and that everything would work out. And it did. Craig had a job within six weeks of our arrival in Utah and, having been guided by the hand of the Lord, we moved into our house in September.

prayerI’ve always believed the move was prompted by the Spirit, but until I began writing this post I didn’t know why. For the past 30 years I thought the reason we were supposed to move was that our children needed to be closer to their grandparents and cousins. As I’ve been writing this post, however, I’ve come to understand that the real reason we needed to be home was for me. God knew the increasing struggles with depression I would be facing, and he knew I would need to be close to my family to help me endure the turmoil and trial ahead. Not only did he know I would need support from my family, he also knew I would need the strength I could get only through frequent temple worship, something that wouldn’t have been possible in Indiana as the closest temple was Washington D.C., a 13-hour drive each way.

When I look back, I am amazed at my faith. There was no question in my mind and heart that everything would be just fine. Though simple and humble, it was, however, untried. That trial was yet to come. My untested faith had not yet battled despair and hopelessness at the battlefield of hell’s doorstep. It had not confronted the great trial of my dad’s brain injury and subsequent dementia, and was untouched by my husband’s brush with cancer. And it was unscathed by the anxiety which remains an unwelcome guest in my psyche. It was a faith that had not yet experienced the stretching of one’s soul that occurs when God’s answer isn’t the one you want.

My faith today is one that is informed and intentional. It hasn’t been an easy process; in fact, it’s been pretty messy. The greatest trial of my faith, without question, has been my descent into the darkness of depression. (See “The Hole in My Soul”.) That “black dog,” as Winston Churchill called it, ravaged my trust in God’s dealings with me, the aftermath of which, quite frankly, still lingers.

Nonetheless, when I step back and look at the facts, I cannot deny that the Lord has been with me and aware of my needs in all things. Although he didn’t take the trial of depression from me, he made it endurable by bringing me home. He made it possible for me to spend many hours in the temple seeking for solace. Although most of the time I came home from the temple without feeling the comfort I hungered for, hindsight reveals that the time spent therein imparted a strength that quite literally saved my soul. Additionally, he blessed me with a husband who never gave up on me, who never stopped doing everything he could possibly think of to meet my needs, even when I responded only with anger and negativity. Likewise, God blessed me with parents who dropped whatever they were doing to come when I called. He blessed me with incredible neighbors and friends who helped raise my children when I was incapable of doing so myself. He blessed me with amazing children who have blessed my life by choosing to live righteously.

While I was oblivious to the tender mercies all around me during those dark days of despair, emerging from that ordeal with my faith still intact, though marred and wounded, has enabled me to maintain a more eternal perspective when challenged by the trials that have followed. The difficulty of seeing my dad go in an instant from brilliant creativity to not knowing who I was was counterbalanced by a familial circling of the wagons to support each other during the months following his traumatic brain injury. Even when he stopped making progress and drifted into the long night of dementia, there was the sweetness of serving him with no expectation of reciprocation. During my husband’s experience with cancer, I experienced that “peace that passeth understanding,” knowing that whatever happened, good or bad, everything would be all right. The profound power of prayers being offered in our behalf was palpable. The early days of my battle through anxiety were accompanied by a keen awareness of being guided step-by-step along the way as the right people came into my life at the precise moment they and their expertise were needed.

That once simple faith has grown into one that is, in a sense, evidence-based. Oh, it’s not the kind of evidence that would be accepted in a scientific arena, but it is sure just the same. It is the evidence of tender mercies that inform my faith today, a faith that is intentional and deliberate. I believe because I choose to do so.  My challenge now is to reclaim that simplicity I once had and add it to the informed faith of today. The journey is by no means easy, but is unquestionably worth whatever price must be paid.

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