Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Goodbyes Begin

So today I had my farewell for church and later a goodbye party at my house! I'm so blessed to have these amazing people in my life who care about me and make me feel so loved. My family is spectacular, my friends are great, and I couldn't ask for more than that. Around 90 people were able to make it over to my house, and I know there were a bunch who wanted to come but 2000 miles is a long way to travel for one Sunday, so I understand!

I love my family!!!! I'll miss them more than words can describe.

My final church meeting at home for 18 months struck a wide range of emotions. I was nervous preparing my talk, and waiting to go, I was the last speaker in the meeting. I kept seeing my family look up at me, my mom getting teary eyed and my dad trying to hold back his emotions also. I had amazing friends who came to see me, and I know I'll have them around forever. The song that was sung before I spoke was I Am A Child Of God. This song was the last song that my cousins and I sang for my Granny before she died after a battle with Leukemia, a couple of days before 4th grade started. More than 10 years later, I could feel her love and presence in that Sunday meeting, and I almost lost control of my emotions walking up to the pulpit. Feeling all that love is overwhelming, and I can never be grateful enough for my family.

This is a copy of the talk I gave. I didn't follow this word for word, but it's the general idea of my words:

Good morning Brothers and sisters! Over the past week I was reviewing Elder Cook’s General Conference talk from October 2012. As I was scanning through Elder Cook’s talk, his second sentence reflects his thoughts on President Monson’s prior announcement, that: “This historically significant announcement with respect to missionary service is inspiring.” Then I realized that this was the session where President Monson made a life-changing announcement for many young men and women in the LDS church.
Conference morning, my roommate, Adelynn, and I had woken up late, so I opened my laptop to tune in to conference as we were both still attempting to become fully conscious. As the internet stream finally started playing, I only caught the last part of President Monson’s talk. I had heard him say something about missionaries, but then again I wasn’t really focused at that point and made a mental note to come back to it later. Being the attentive college student I am, I opened up a new tab on my laptop and was looking on Facebook, where I saw a huge posting of amazement from fellow Mormon friends. They were all describing their feelings of shock and awe at the announcement just made! I figured I better set the conference video back a little so I could see what everyone was so excited about.
By this point, Adelynn had tuned in and so we started Conference from the beginning. As we were listening, the announcement of a temple in Tucson, Arizona sent Adelynn off the wall, since this was right around where she lived. I didn’t particularly care about that temple, I wanted to hear the missionary announcement! As I was sushing Adelynn, I heard President Monson say that boys were now eligible to serve at age 18 and my stomach did a flip-flop. This was amazing! The next thought that crossed my mind was, “Well, what about the girls?” Soon after, President Monson announced that “able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21.” That moment was when my heart leapt! I could hardly believe it. I then joined Adelynn in crying and laughing as we hopped around our room.
Late one night over the summer, I had been reading my patriarchal blessing and felt a strong prompting that I needed to serve a mission. I don’t normally get feelings like the one I felt urging me to serve. I was all for the idea, but my only reservation was the age factor. I didn’t want to wait until I was 21! I felt like I would be so old then…not that 21 is old! But it seems old in Mormon years. So, as soon as the announcement was made, I was thrilled!
In Alma 5:26, Alma says “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” When I read this scripture, I immediately knew I could relate. I know that when I feel something and truly believe in a cause, I feel the passion in my innermost core. This feeling of passion or change isn’t something we easily describe. It’s an internal emotion we have to personally experience to understand the power and drive that it can give us. The issue is finding the means or willpower to have such an experience.
In today’s world, there are so many advertisements aimed at how we feel, or ways to make ourselves and others feel better. Whether that is a flashy new car or a designer wardrobe, the marketing and advertising executives on Madison Avenue try to convince us that we need to feel and experience all that life has to offer. But are we seeking out the true ‘feeling’ that we should be? Or are we exploring these different opportunities in search of an internal assurance that is much deeper than the momentary joy we get from worldly objects. Maybe we are using all our efforts to find that ‘spark’ we are missing, but we don’t know where to look.
            According to Elder Cook, “It is not surprising that some in the Church believe they can’t answer Alma’s question with a resounding yes. They do not “feel so now.” They feel they are in a spiritual drought. Others are angry, hurt, or disillusioned.” He further councils, “If these descriptions apply to you, it is important to evaluate why you cannot “feel so now.” For those of us who are not very religious, I think it is understandable why we have not experienced this “feel so now” moment. When I think of the times in my life that I have felt this powerful change of heart, it is usually spiritually related. Times like when I have gone to the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, or other times when I have struggled personally with my thoughts about my faith – it is my conclusions and feelings of resolve that make me have this change of heart that I need. Without this change of heart, I know I wouldn’t feel the assurance and peace that I need to get through different and difficult situations. Especially for someone like me, who dwells on past things and it’s hard for me to forget and forgive myself, I know this total change of heart would not be possible without the help of my Heavenly Father, and the knowledge that Christ has felt every ounce of doubt and pain that I have experienced.
            Another important point Elder Cook makes is that often those of us “who are in a spiritual drought and lack commitment have not necessarily been involved in major sins or transgressions, but they have made unwise choices.” Whether that be casually observing sacred covenants that we take part in so often – like the sacrament -, or spending the majority of our time focusing on events that should not be such a priority, these small actions draw us away from feeling our Savior’s love, more than we realize. I notice this especially when I am reading my scriptures, or rather not reading them. You probably wouldn’t think this is an issue for someone who is heading into the MTC in less then 2 weeks, but it is often hard for me to sit down and just read the scriptures! Especially while I was at school, I always felt like there was some test I could be studying for or some project I could be planning ahead on. A couple weeks into the semester, my morning prayers and all scripture study had completely slipped my mind. Then one day, my older sister Ruth made a comment on how she really noticed a difference in her life when she made an effort to read her scriptures every day. Even if she felt like she didn’t have enough time, or she would fall asleep while trying to understand what she was reading, she always found that she had enough time in the day to get done what she needed, and she found herself less stressed in general.  For someone who was spending many hours a day on organic chemistry and in anatomy labs, this was a big thing for Ruth. I decided I would give it a shot, and started waking up 10 minutes earlier each morning to read. I found that I was less tired when I was in my classes, and like Ruth said, I seemed to be able to better prioritize my time to fit in everything from schoolwork to running to spending time with the and I don’t think she knows that the reason I started my scripture study again was because of her. It is the daily reminder of the basics, that we need to put our trust in God, regardless of the situation, and that we are loved unconditionally – these reminders are what I think make life more bearable and more joyful.
            I know most of you have probably heard an analogy like this before, but our faith and our testimony are like plants that we need to constantly care for. The plants need all the different elements of sunlight, nutrients, air and water. Similar to the plants, our faith and testimony need the constant nourishment from scripture study, daily prayer, and taking the sacrament each week. Each of the elements by itself is good, but it is the combination of them that allows our faith to really grow and flourish. Combining all these elements is what allows us to set ourselves up to ‘feel so now’. If we want to be open to receiving the feelings of confirmation, so that you we may have a change of heart, we need to have the basics in place first. Without the knowledge and assurance of the basics, how would there be a path for us to recognize the change of heart that we need? How do we know and feel that we need that certain element we are missing, if we aren’t even looking for it.
            Not only do we need to be looking for ways to have a change of heart, but we need to be humble enough to accept and act upon our promptings. Alma 5:28 says, “ 28 Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.” If we are set in our ways, and refuse to change our habits, then our pride will hinder our ability to find what we are ultimately seeking for. Alma 5 just has a lot of really good counsel in it. The doctrine there seems like common sense, but at the same time it is easy to forget the common things.
Alma 5 is like CS Lewis’ writing. I’ve been working through Mere Christianity for a long time now, a lot longer than it has probably taken anyone to read any book. I think I’ve had it since 2 Septembers ago, and it’s only like a 250ish page book, so I really have no excuses. Lewis often puts into words the thoughts that we are pondering, but that can’t articulate ourselves. In a sense I think that is what Alma 5 does. This chapter talks about the basic things that we assume we remember, but that we often forget. For example, if we are prideful, envious or mock others, then we are not prepared to meet God. We tend to dislike admitting our faults, and so to realize our personal issues is a humbling experience in itself. Alma 5:33 says “ 33 Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.” To sincerely repent we need to have a change of heart. I said before that to “feel so now” we need to personally experience this. Sadly, we often don’t recognize the comfort that the light can offer until we know what the darkness feels like. I think we understand this best when we have felt the lowness and despair of thinking we cannot feel any worse. Like a child touching a hot stove, we can tell them all we want that the stove will burn them, but they often won’t really believe us until they feel the heat themselves. CS Lewis stated, ”When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor.” Once we realize that we need the Savior’s help, we will listen to Him. Elder Cook also refers to one of my favorite scriptures from Isaiah, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” I whole-heartedly believe this scripture. Even when we feel like nothing can change, and that we cannot be forgiven for what we have done, we CAN. This is why I love the Atonement. Well it’s one of the reasons I love the Atonement.  As I said earlier, I know Christ felt each pang of pain, stress, disappointment and every other emotion in the book. How else could we be saved if it were not for his ultimate and selfless sacrifice? Through Christ, we can be made pure and white again, even though it felt like we were stained and ruined previously. I am eternally grateful for His decision to suffer like he did, so that we could have eternal happiness. Once we have the necessary change of heart, we can understand how much the Savior loves us, and wants us to succeed. It’s an indescribable feeling, and I wouldn’t trade my knowledge of His love for anything. Once we do this, we CAN sing the song of redeeming love with all our hearts, and we will feel like we never have before.
If we know we are seeking the Savior’s love and we know that He will help us out of the darkness, wouldn’t we want to be that source of comfort for others? Perhaps the change of heart that someone is seeking for can be found through us. We never know the impact we can have on someone. I love those TV commercials, where one person does something for someone in need, and then either the person being helped or another bystander continues on this pattern of helping people around them and it creates a huge chain reaction of people helping strangers. And each time someone is helped, you can tell it is just what he or she needs at that moment. The helper did not know it, and neither may we when the time comes, but we could be the answer to someone’s prayers that day. This all ties back into my idea about needing to be reminded of the basics. In order to know that someone needs us, or to recognize the feelings prompting us to go to the person who needs our help, we need to be familiar with the promptings of the Spirit. Reading our scriptures, saying our prayers, all those good things help us to be more in tune with the Spirit. An increased familiarity with the Spirit opens so many doors for personal help. And who knows, helping another person could be helping ourself when we didn’t even think we needed it.
I noticed this about myself when I went to London on a study abroad this past spring. However, I was on the receiving end of the spectrum. College is stressful, and it’s easy to lose sight of ourselves while we are competing with students in our classes for top grades, trying to fulfill our church callings, but at the same time trying to have a social life and remembering to take time for ourselves. My study abroad still had a decent amount of work, but I was closer to nature, and was forced to focus on the basics of things once again. I took a drawing class while on the trip, and it was very simple. We learned about the importance of shading, negative space, and angles, and what the combined effect had on a piece of art. There were some art majors on the trip, and watching the progression of their pieces was an amazing process. I can say that I ‘felt so then’. I’m not the best artist out there, but as I gained a greater appreciation for the basics of the art, my appreciation for the masterpieces I studied in the museums grew as well. Then from the museums, as I got to travel to the actual landscapes where these artists worked, and as I got to hike in the beautiful Lake District, I developed a renewed appreciation for the world that I live in.
It was an interesting feeling. Here I was, this 19 year-old red head from Massachusetts who doesn’t yet know what she’s majoring in, trying to take on Europe and all the beauty it has to offer. I felt so insignificant compared to the massive landscapes and famous art I had at my disposal. How could I be considered important when there were these other AMAZING things out there? However, while hiking and feeling insignificant but at the same time enjoying the scenery, I felt a resounding assurance that I am loved, I am important and that I contribute my part to this world. Even if I don’t know my role now, if I can help someone feel the love that I felt from my Savior, what more is needed?
There were certainly some students on the trip who were struggling, whether that be fitting in on the trip or family problems at home, everyone had their issues. By the end of the trip though, I can say that we all felt something. We had a final testimony meeting near the end of our travels, and I realized we had become a big family. It was a very emotional meeting, there were 40 girls and 4 boys who had been accepted on the trip, plus the professors and their families, so there were A LOT of tears. But, somehow, we had grown together, we felt each other’s happiness and sorrows, and we had become a family abroad. Like Christ, we were feeling each other’s needs, desires and happiness. Being able to do that allowed us to grow like we never thought we would, and it made a potentially lonely trip much more meaningful.
I didn’t go into the trip thinking that I had doubted my Savior’s love for me. Once I was there though, I realized what I had been missing, and it hurt. Thankfully, being with the people I was with, I was able to assure myself again, and I have tried since to acknowledge the little things so I don’t lose sight of His love. I didn’t realize how necessary and important it was to me until I noticed I was missing it. Once again, I had the change of heart I needed, and I reprioritized life again, to make room for what I really needed.
Brothers and sisters, I’d like to thank you for helping me become the woman I am today. I know I wouldn't be here without the influence of all of you. Everyone from my dedicated primary teachers: Sister Lally, Sister Doane, and Sister Howe to my fabulous Young Women's leaders: Sister Esco, Sister Gregory, Sister Openshaw, Sister Blanchard, Sister Smith, Sister Erickson and Sister Landrith, and many more amazing adults, you have all helped me progress from a chubby 3rd grader to a 19-year-old future missionary. Nearly all of you, in some way or another, have impacted my life in the 11 years I have been here in this ward. I have strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, that it is true and that it's history helps guide us today if we can apply it to our lives. I am so grateful for the priesthood, and the power and comfort it gives me. It provides more blessing than I am sure I will ever realize, and I will spend the rest of my life enjoying the miracles it offers me. I am also extremely grateful for my knowledge of eternal families, and that I know I can be with mine forever. I don't know what I would do without mine, I wouldn't want to imagine a life without them though. The power of the Atonement is real, and I am ever indebted to Christ for his sacrifice for me. His action of selfless love is an example I can only hope to follow, and I know without Him life would probably be impossible. Obviously I love missionary work, and I cannot wait to go and serve the people of Xalapa México, no matter how much I may stand out with my crazy red hair and height. I don't know where I would be without this Gospel, it has helped me stay on an amazing path throughout my life, and it has kept me safe at times where there could have been trouble.  I love temples, and the blessing that they provide for us and others. I'm eternally grateful for amazing parents who have given me more everything I need, and who support me in my decisions. I love this church, I love my family, I love my friends, and I look forward to seeing you all in 18 months. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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