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And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. John 17: 3.
I have thought, not infrequently, that we all create God in our own image. The idea of God we carry around is comprised of truths, half-truths, childhood memories and misperceptions, and whispers of promises to come. But, when life gets really hairy and hearts break, we can receive an invitation to come to know Him as He truly is. I’ve found that to navigate the valley of death, I must put aside the incorrect pieces, even if dog-eared with repeated use, and make space for a bolt of truth to slide home into the God picture in my heart and mind. It’s the only way through.
The last week of September was such a week.
That week, I walked the shoreline trail, pondering an event in our family that was an abrupt and unexpected end to a spiritual journey we believed had God’s blessing, even encouragement. My sister messaged me that she was thinking of us and hoped we could find the help we needed. I told her I was puzzled. Her response: “That’s life, hey?” I thought about her comment, and her absolute lack of judgment as to the unexpected outcome. There was no undertone of whether we were disappointed, of whether we thought God was disappointed. No search for meaning, no wrestling with the larger picture, and seeking for the answer to the ultimate WHY. Only a genuine concern for the wellbeing of all involved. In the face of her equanimity, I could more clearly see my own lack of internal composure, and acknowledged the fear of disappointing God the Father that ran through my perspective and therefore my reactions.
When I was a child, I prayed every night, kneeling down by my bed. I also brushed my teeth. Paid my three cents tithing, after carefully filling out the envelope. Brought my one cent coin for the cardboard Primary Childrens’ Hospital on a Wednesday afternoon. One day my mother commented she was grateful she could count on me to do what was required; that she didn’t have to worry. I distinctly remember wondering, “But what else would I do, what other way is there?” As eager as I was to be obedient, I was also a little afraid to do otherwise.
Forty years later, up there on the trail, looking out to the Oquirrh mountains, I sensed I still carried vestiges of that childhood belief that God kept tallies; that He was the little man in the woodwork who watched through the knothole to take note of when I didn’t say my prayers. To pervert Rabbi Kushner, I had a distorted sense that “life is . . . a trap set for us by God, so that He can condemn us for failing. Life is . . . a spelling bee, where no matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are disqualified.”[i] That belief still colors my relationship with Him, and the way I was now navigating the recent turn of events. I stopped and stared out at Utah Lake, contemplating how liberating it would be to not carry that idea. What if I could parse out of my image of God, his narrowed eyes and pinched lips of disappointment? How would my perspective change if I could move to center stage the truth that God is the “Father of lights,” unvaried, generous and the perfect gift giver. James 1:17.
The village of Coatepec lies as far out from the Mexico City Southeast mission home as one can get. One Sunday afternoon in early September, a few weeks before my walk on the shoreline trail, I walked with my husband Kevin and our son Seth through its dusty streets, all five of which lead to a towering, slightly crumbling but still majestic Catholic church where a First Communion is taking place. The nave and transepts, pews and aisles, are filled with villagers turned out en masse to support their children. The crowds stand at the open doors and fill the entry. Schubert’s Ave Maria, sung by the youth choir, floats out of the open doors and into the afternoon. It’s a grace-filled moment. This is where Seth spent the first nine months of his mission.
Earlier that morning we attended church in San Francisco, the village three kilometres away. We are dropped off by the Uber outside a tall brick wall with an iron gate. Seth tells us that Hermana Jasso, a widow, who lives here donated her garden for the building of a prayer hall where the local branch meets. She’s an angel, he says. She single-handedly saved the church in Coatepec and San Francisco.
We enter a garden filled with fruit trees, a little brick home, and a bigger L-shaped prayer hall. We’re 30 minutes early. We enter the building, which has two wings. Later, the folding chairs will be set up in about seven rows in each wing. The moveable podium is set at the junction so that each wing can see the speaker. No need for a microphone. The sacrament table is just that–a small table. The floor is concrete. After sacrament meeting, the young men and women will carry their chairs outside for class on the grass under the lemon trees. But for now, Hermana Jasso sits in the sun streaming through the large window and reads her Liahona. Seth enters, approaches her. “Buenos dias Hermana Jasso.” She looks at him, and looks again, “Santiago,” she says. “Santiago, Santiago.” She takes his hand. He sits next to her and talks intently with her until people start to arrive.
We watch as people enter the building. Each person approaches Hermana Jasso, takes her hand in both of theirs, kisses her on the cheek, and says “Buenos dias.” Then they shake the hands of every other person, even us strangers. “Mucho Gusto.” Seth is greeted with delight. There are perhaps forty members in all. There have been six baptisms in the preceding week. The bulk of the meeting is taken up by the confirmations. We do not speak a word of Spanish. Seth is translating quietly for me. President Cervantes invites Elder Gilbert, newly arrived from Oregon, to do one of the confirmations. Elder Gilbert pales visibly. “Me?” “Yes, you. You can bring your book.” President Cervantes smiles and, speaking to Seth while Elder Gilberts goes to get his books, says, “Remember Elder Santiago, this is how you started, me with my hand on your shoulder.” Seth nods and smiles. His first confirmation came three weeks into the field, where Seth knew perhaps one hundred words of Spanish and learned of the gift of tongues. Seth’s testimony, born at the end of the meeting at the request of President Cervantes, is soft and lilting. I don’t understand a word but I can feel, without words, the love flowing between my son and these saints. This was where he learned to speak Spanish, to love Mexico and the Savior’s gospel, and was loved so abundantly in return.
We spend two days visiting Seth’s people.
Time after time, Seth pulls a peso from his pocket and taps on the metal gate. His smile matches the smile on the face that looks through the metal bars. “Santi, Santi, Santi.” Maru takes Kevin’s hands in hers and looks into his eyes. She’s speaking rapidly in Spanish. It’s heartfelt, her eyes never leaving Kevin’s face. Seth translates: “She says that God sent Santiago to me when I was in a deep depression and suffering from cancer. My mother had just died. Santiago and Faumisili taught me about Jesus. They brought joy and hope into my life. He was sent by God just for me.” Kevin says that he could feel her spirit speaking to his.
Santiago, the baker, is not at his bakery. Seth gets directions from the neighboring merchant to his home several streets away. He tells us to walk quickly, put away our phones, take off our fitbit and Apple watch. When he gets to the house, he taps on the gate then pushes it open. Three young men standing in the courtyard look curiously at him. “Santi?” one says. Then, jubilantly, he shouts out, “Santi, Santi, Santi!!!” It’s been 18 months since Seth was there. From the house comes Santiago the baker. He is laughing with joy.
The whole family comes to greet our Santi. We talk and gesture. We dance to Santiago’s music (He wants to be a DJ). He sends his son to the store for supplies, and then leads a Pied Piper procession of family, neighbors and Santi and his parents back down to the bakery where he and his son-in-law fire up the ovens and start making dough which will be turned into pizza, cinnamon twists, pepperoni sticks, nutella buns, more than we can eat. We are joined by his daughter, and grandson, and two other sons and his employee. We spend an afternoon in a bakery filled with flour, and food and streaming Spanish. The love between Seth and Santiago and his family is so obvious, we don’t need to speak Spanish. We are sent on our way with bags of baked goods. The entire family watches from the bakery door, waving until we turn the corner.
We ring the doorbell and a dog barks viciously. “She’s friendly,” says Seth. He’s disappointed when there is no answer and turns away. From across the street, a small, impeccably dressed man with deep brown eyes, walks curiously towards us. He recognizes Seth, and runs to embrace him. They both hold on tight. We are led back to his in-laws home where we sit, with Daniel and Patty, and Patty’s’ parents to talk, in Spanish, for an hour. They feed us and laugh with Seth, and cry a little. Seth taught Patty’s son, while he was falsely imprisoned, visiting him in jail, and taught Daniel and Patty. Daniel offers a lift down to the taxi stand, where he speaks sternly to the driver to take us, without any highjinks, to a bigger town where Ubers actually pick up rides. As Seth is getting into the car, Daniel turns to Kevin and me and says, pointing to Seth, “This my friend, this my brother, this my son.”
The God of the Old Testament did decree that no man shall see the face of God and live. There’s pieces of that God I carry with me still. But, there’s a more recent invitation to “see my face and know that I am.” D&C 93:1. I sensed that late September morning as I walked through my questions and heartache, a divine invitation to come to know the Father more fully and in a different way, to set aside the ideas that prevent me from comprehending His true characteristics, and, in turn, from being able to develop those characteristics in myself. Specifically, I felt invited to root out the idea that when life doesn’t work out as we believed God wanted it to, that God is disappointed in us and withdraws.
couldn’t imagine scenes more pleasing to God than those days we spent in
Coatepec. Seth’s months in Coatepec was the love of God made manifest. Did I
mention that none of Seth’s people have yet been baptized? Yet, they love my son and he loves
them. They all know the source of that
love is God, our Father, and his son Jesus Christ. I saw the truth that God
loves all his children, that He sends people to tether us to Him through bonds
of love, that our life journey stretches on both sides of this earthly experience,
and that God the Father plays the long game.
[i] Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be, Little, Brown and Co., 1996: 180-81