The last few months of my mission changed my relationship to God in a very unexpected way. That’s when it seemed to me God decided to go home early while I finished my full two years. I noticed God’s absence most during personal prayer. What formerly seemed like a welcome opportunity to express gratitude and ask for assistance, or like an intimate confession or reunion, became to me like speaking alone to a bare ceiling.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…
A subtle shift. After a few weeks of my anxiety-inducing attempts to receive some sort of obvious sign that God had returned, my thoughts snuck in questions about whether he was there before at all. I resisted the thought that I could have been wrong about God. I’d spent almost two years inviting people to encounter God through earnest prayer. I felt it was proper to follow my own advice. I knew I had followed the mission rules, so this must be a test rather than an indication of God’s displeasure. It would probably get fixed once I returned home and needed guidance in my next step in life thinking about schooling, careers, marriage.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
It must be healthy, I reasoned, for my spiritual field to endure a fallow season. My faith would precede the miracle of a stunning manifestation of God’s love and presence. My spiritual garden would bloom green, verdant, fragrant. Upon returning home things stayed very much the same with regard to my apparent spiritual vacuum. I reluctantly turned to the work of plucking up that which was planted.
…A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…
And so my faith changes. Any living faith must. My declarations have changed from “I know” to things like “I believe” and “I hope” and “I feel.” This posture keeps me directed toward the gospel as I understand it while helping me negotiate with my own personal temptation to forget my fallibility and limited perspective. My faith in Christ has become less a set of facts to know, more a bottomless mystery to investigate while hopefully being changed or “converted” thereby.
I’m unfinished. My faith is too.
I don’t want to employ the differences between my faith and yours as measures of worthiness or superiority. But I do recognize differences. I recognize my perspective isn’t often articulated openly by my fellow Latter-day Saints in my household of faith. But I suspect it may be more common than you might think. This is why we must be careful in sharing our faith with each other. It can be painful when my perspective is dismissed or viewed with open suspicion. There is more than one reason I carry my witness lightly.
…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…
It’s been more than a decade. The God I knew until the final months of my mission never really came back. Not in the way I expected or hoped. God returns on paths I never knew existed. Stones cast and stones gathered. Plants planted and plucked. There’s beauty in the desert, too.
…God put eternity into my heart, yet so that I cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
The image is “New York no. 11” by Jeremy Mann, 2015 (Oil on Panel).