Whenever I wonder if God is in the details of my life, I think back to a nearly unused telephone on the wall of a dark hall in a church building in Chicago.
We are assured in scripture and by modern prophets that our lives themselves are a divine conversation with Him, and that far from being a distant God who lets our lives play out randomly, He is personal, aware and in the details more than we see or understand.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband said, “Our lives are like a chessboard, and the Lord moves us from one place to another—if we are responsive to spiritual promptings. Looking back, we can see His hand in our lives.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, for whom this was a theme said, “So it is, amid the vastness of His creations, God’s personal shaping influence is felt in the details of our lives—not only in the details of the galaxies and molecules but, much more importantly, in the details of our own lives. Somehow God is providing these individual tutorials for us while at the same time He is overseeing cosmic funerals and births, for as one earth passes away so another is born (see Moses 1:38). It is marvelous that He would attend to us so personally in the midst of those cosmic duties.”
Yet, with all these assurances, which we could multiply, we still sometimes wonder and we can’t always see it. If He were in the details, why are so many of our best-laid plans frustrated? Why do we get that sudden bad news at the doctor’s office that will change our lives forever? Why do we not get what we hoped for? One of my young friends at BYU said that she had told the Lord that what she hoped for when she graduated was a job and a husband. “And I have no job and no husband,” she said.
So, I return to that inconspicuous phone on the wall in the church building.
When I moved to Chicago, I was a newly-minted graduate student and about to become a mother for the first time. I wanted very much to find a job as a writer, and I hoped that job could transition into a something that I could do at home when my newborn came.
But where would I begin to find such a job in Chicago where I had no connections, no in’s, and no prospects? Because our little family needed the money, I began substitute teaching in the inner-city schools, a tough job indeed. Still I continued to look for a writing job, and because there was no Internet, and no LinkedIn in those days, I did the only thing I could think of. I turned to the Yellow Pages.
I remember vividly sitting at a table with that fat yellow book open and scanning every book publisher, every newspaper, every magazine, every advertising company, every marketing firm, every company that I thought might need writing help. In a city like Chicago there were a lot of these. Then I cold-called every one where I thought there might be a job, a process that took hours and hours and then days and days.
It was intimidating, and I have to confess, it was also a bit humiliating. I called the hiring offices, hoping they couldn’t hear the pleading tone in my voice. “Do you have any openings for a writer just now? Are you looking for someone?” The answer was, as you might expect, uniformly no. No, no, no. Journalism and writing jobs were not passed out so easily in a town where people knew how to hire those they already knew and had seen their work.
One man did say that they had an opening for a writer coming up, but when he told me the pay, I almost choked. “Is that all?” I asked. “You can apply or not,” he said. “It’s nothing to me. We already have hundreds of applicants for this job.” I think that’s the moment I finally gave up on the Yellow Pages.
Then one Tuesday afternoon, our Relief Society had an enrichment activity and luncheon at church. I stayed to help clean up, and finally there were only two or three of us left. I volunteered to take out the large garbage to the dumpster in the back parking lot, so I was wheeling this overflowing garbage down a fairly dark hall toward the back door, when I passed the phone on the wall in the hall.
To my utter surprise, the phone rang. I had never seen one of these phones ring before or since, but the biggest shock was who was on the other end of the line. It was the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the city’s two large daily newspapers.
They must have found this as the only phone number for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and they said they wanted to do an article on Latter-day Saint women. Who could they turn to for good information? Who should they interview? I took a deep breath, and summoning all the courage I could muster, I told the editor that I could write that story and would know just where to turn for good sources.
The editor and I chatted for a few minutes and, then I was utterly astounded that he actually gave me the assignment to write the story they wanted for their Sunday supplement. To her I was sight unseen. He hadn’t seen my work
The chances that this would “just happen” are staggeringly low. What are the odds in the whole world that this perfect orchestration would occur? If I had spent months trying to organize things to be at that exact place when the phone rang with a big city editor on the other end of the line, I could not have arranged it. I could not have called a committee made up of lots of people with connections to arrange it. It simply would have been impossible left to my own strength.
Any other Tuesday afternoon no one would have been at the church, let alone me. The Sun-Times editor would have called a vacant building where no one answered. No one would have heard that phone ring in that empty hall, if I were not taking the garbage out at that exact time. It wasn’t a hall we were using for the Relief Society activity that day.
In fact, to add one more bit of divine elegance to this tender mercy, I was directly in front of the phone when it rang. I didn’t even have to run down the hall to get it. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have run down the hall to get it. That’s a little like the Children of Israel getting to walk through the Red Sea on dry ground instead of through the mud. This miracle was made perfectly convenient for me.
I think about this moment when life doesn’t seem to be going well and I wish God would intervene to make it easier for me or for those I love. In fact, I have pondered on it this year with COVID 19 and a nation in tumult, as I’ve wondered how to navigate this strange world.
When I have told my children this story, they are amazed because the Lord’s hand is so obvious and clear. One of them said, “I wish things like that happened to me.”
In fact, things like this do happen, and the Lord is in the details for his faithful, covenant- keeping children. We have to train our eyes to see and notice as He works often quietly in our lives. Ironically, it is easier for us to see these workings looking back, than in the blindness and pressure of every day.
Even with a miracle as pronounced and vivid as the one I have described, I am not sure that I understood at the time how significantly the Lord had reached out to me and against what great odds this phone call had happened in just that way, at that precise time and place.
You would have thought when I hung up from that call that I would have been running through the hall like the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof singing “Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles”, but surprisingly I didn’t. I am not certain I realized at the time that I had just seen God’s hand in the details of my life.
That sounds unbelievable, but I was so caught up in the demands of that moment that I was myopic. If this phone call had come in the middle of that Yellow Pages marathon when I was calling every newspaper in Chicago, I might have seen that heaven and earth had been moved for me, but that had been three or four months earlier. The miracle wasn’t proximate to the desperate prayers I had been saying. I had accommodated myself to a world where my hopes hadn’t materialized—and, surprisingly, I didn’t see when they were that God had just given me a gift.
More importantly, my joy at this suddenly extended opportunity was eclipsed by a more primordial emotion—fear. I wanted to write for the newspaper, but I didn’t want to write this story. This was at a time when to be a Latter-day Saint woman was to fly in the face of feminism which was preaching that both being a wife and a mother was a kind of bondage. Embracing family as a center of life for a young, educated woman was at best naïve and at worst subversive to progress, so this was a dicey subject. I had to handle it with kid gloves, a certain amount of sophistication and also be loyal to my values, knowing that the article would be read by many hostile eyes.
I prayed about this and hoped the Lord would be in these details of my life and let sentences and concepts flow smoothly to my mind. I hoped for fluency and power. What happened instead is that every word and sentence was hard. I worried and strained, wrote, crossed out, and wrote again. I was miserable writing this story as I inched my way through instead of flowed like I hoped.
I have harked back to that phone on the wall and the subsequent writing assignment many times as I have felt my way to understanding how the Lord is in the details of our lives, and I have learned many things.
First, sometimes it is remarkably easy to see when the Lord has given you a tender mercy. If you pray to find your keys and suddenly you think to look where they are, you feel blessed and gratified. Yet if you see life’s roadblocks everywhere, sprinkled with irritations, it can ignite questions about the Lord’s interest and care for you.
We can find ourselves swinging from one place to another, feeling loved when we see the Lord’s hand and forgotten when it is not so obvious. We can get lost if we are always taking our spiritual temperature about whether we are loved or not, whether God is in our details or not. This is what it means to be tossed as on the waves of the sea.
It is corrosive to our faith to always wonder if God is there for us. It takes mindshare and energy when we could instead be empowered by faith. We must learn to say, “I trust thee Lord, even when thy hand isn’t clear to me. I know that though hast prepared blessings for me, not just in the eternities but right here and now whether I can see them or not.”
We can ask to develop eyes to see the Lord’s silent working in our life. We can walk in gratitude instead of distrust. We can see in the moment if the phone rings on a wall in a church hallway with the Chicago Sun-Times on the other end, that God was in that detail.
Second, I have also learned that God being in the details doesn’t always make it easier for us. Sometimes easy is not His design.
We assume that if He loved us that He will take us out of the construction zone and on to the smooth freeway where we can travel quickly and all obstacles fall aside. In fact, He sent us to a world purposely where we are sometimes taxed to our limit. He is in those details too, where we are asked to expand our souls and capacity. He is in the business of turning our weakness to strength. He has told us we cannot know the fullness of joy and be with Him as we currently are in this state of weakness. We had to not just submit, but be grateful for the experiences that change us.
So, while I knew He was supporting me, that dreaded article I had to write did not just flow, it was so, so hard. Yet, as I scrambled, huffing to find my way to say important things, I learned to exercise new skills of diplomacy and clarity. I learned something more about fitting ideas together and crafting paragraphs. The Lord was being kind to me to let me struggle to a new level of fluency and confidence. In that instance, it was a better gift to me than if the Spirit had just dictated the entire article to my mind.
Did the Chicago Sun-Times print my article? Yes, they did and hired me to write many more. In fact, I did get what I hoped for. I had enough freelance writing jobs from the newspaper and others to help my family, while my baby slept not far away.
When I am tempted to wonder if God is there, I think of that phone on the wall, and I learn to say, “I trust thee.”