Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Farewell

I'm off. Off and away to be Sister Pugh for the next 18 months. Here's the farewell talk if you missed it. All the love, dear readers.

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Lately I’ve fallen in love with the hymn “Come Thou Fount,” because the line “bind my wandering heart to thee” is one of the most astute things I’ve come across. I feel like I’m the owner of a wandering heart. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve been getting ready for a mission, and trying to figure out what to do with this wandering heart of mine. And the hymn gives a suggestion; it continues, “here's my heart, o take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” While the image of literally offering one’s wandering heart to God is lovely, I find the logistics of what that actually entails somewhat slippery.

The best way I’ve found to offer a wandering heart is to act in faith. Terryl and Fiona Givens recently published this wonderful book titled The God Who Weeps. In it, they say that, “the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts” when “we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom between knowing a thing is and knowing a thing is not.” I love this concept, because in my life faith does feel like a choice. Faith for me exists where there are reasonable but not certain grounds for belief, where a choice has to be made.

One of the things that can aid the choice to believe is spiritual gifts. In fact, the first gift discussed in D&C 46, which is the section that deals with spiritual gifts, is the gift of faith. However, spiritual gifts have a much larger spectrum, and the scriptures promise they come “to every man” according to what we need most. Elder McConkie taught that “spiritual gifts are endless in number and infinite in variety.” The list of spiritual gifts from the scriptures, conference talks, and other writing is enormous. Some of my favorites include the gifts of listening, of being able to weep, of seeing the best in others, of seeing the best in ourselves, of a tender heart, of forgiving, of having compassion, of healing, of being healed, of not passing judgment, of looking to God for guidance, and of caring for others. One thing they all have in common is that they often act as manifestations of grace. Now, grace is an incredibly complex doctrine that I don’t have much grasp on, but I learned a little bit about it from a yoga class I ended up taking last semester.

I took this yoga class to fulfill a PE credit, and I really liked it, even though I wasn’t especially good at it. Theoretically, you’re not supposed to be “good” or “bad” at yoga, you’re just supposed to do it, but I was bad. In fact, my instructor frequently referred to me as “the one with the weird right leg” because, according to him, I carry my stress in my right hip socket, which makes my right leg weird. Whatever.

The reason I liked yoga despite the right leg situation was that it taught me something important. I would generally describe myself as a goal-oriented person, because I think that’s the nicest way to say achievement-oriented person. Sometimes, this is a good thing, but sometimes it’s not. I learned this semester that one of the times it’s not good is in yoga. To quote my somewhat Zen-mastery-y yoga instructor, “yoga is not about getting there, it’s about getting.” If I’m being honest, when he said this during the first class, I rolled my eyes and started mentally listing all the things I was going to accomplish. However, once the actual yoga started, it promptly became clear that was the wrong way to go about doing yoga. Not only was I miserable trying to be perfect through every class, but I quickly realized there would always be another thing to work on – I was not going to master every aspect of yoga in one semester. Once I accepted that and took the trying-to-be-perfect out of the practice, I started enjoying it, because my only purpose for the whole 90-minute class was to show up in the best way I could and find something meaningful there.

My experience preparing for a mission was very similar to my experience in yoga. When I first got my call to the Ukraine, I was like “I’m going to read the entire Book of Mormon every week and I’m going to memorize every page of Preach My Gospel and I’ll become fluent in Russian from youtube videos!” And very soon I was dreading mission prep every day, because in making it something I had to achieve, I had made it into a chore. I didn’t feel the Spirit as strongly because my head was in it, but my heart wasn’t. So I cut down to a more reasonable amount and focused more on feeling the Spirit and drawing closer to God. And even though I haven’t read the Book of Mormon a hundred times or memorized Preach My Gospel or learned Russian, I think I learned more of the things I needed to by taking away the destination and focusing on the actual process.

I’ve thought a lot about this process-oriented way of going about life in the past couple months, as I’ve been deciding what kind of missionary I want to be, and I’ve come to the conclusion that grace works in a similar way in my life. Grace compensates for my weird right leg and says “it’s okay that you’re not perfect right now, because you’re slowly getting better. Just show up in the best way you can and find something meaningful in the practice.” In real life, grace covers the mistakes I make while learning and progressing. The Bible dictionary discusses grace as a “means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ.” Elder Bednar extrapolates that “grace, the enabling and strengthening aspect of the Atonement, helps us to see and to do and to become good in ways that we could never recognize or accomplish with our limited mortal capacity.” Grace takes away the impossible destination of striving for perfection, because when we offer the best we can, Christ offers the rest.

As I said before, grace is oftentimes manifest is through spiritual gifts, given by the spirit to help us become better. Elder Oaks taught that one of the primary purposes of spiritual gifts is to “compensate for inadequacies and repair imperfections.” In this way, spiritual gifts are one way that the Lord fulfills His promise to “make weak things strong” given in Ether 12:27. This is a scripture and a process that, for me, illicit a lot of faith. I have days when I look at myself and struggle to believe that those terribly weak places might really become strong. It’s awfully humbling to think of the Creator of the Universe bothering with my weak places. This scripture always makes me think of one of my favorite lines of poetry, from a Franz Wright poem, that says, “But if You can make a star from nothing, You can raise me up.” It takes more faith for me to believe God would bother to make my weak things strong than to believe He’s able to.

But, this past year helped me to learn that He does in fact, care about my weak places, and by extension me. I ended up the one and only Mormon at my college. To be fair, it’s a tiny college outside Philadelphia, and when I say tiny, I mean there are 1500 students there. I love my college, and I had a really great experience there, but it was somewhat of a shock going from Sandy Utah to the only Mormon in my whole school. Every once in a while it felt like I was living in the Great and Spacious building, but by and large, it was really good for me because it put me in the position of having to both figure out what I believe and live that testimony for myself. It required more faith for me to be a Mormon, because I was going it on my own. And while there were those days when I was coasting on the faith fumes, it also strengthened my testimony in ways I’d never anticipated. It was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make it on my own. So as tried to do those things that came my way that were harder for me, whether it was the 45 minute commute to church, or the caffeine-free all nighters, or explaining why I’d chosen to take 3 semesters off for a mission, I learned that when I asked for what I needed, I was blessed. And because of that, I learned to start relying on the Lord for things I used to try to do myself, because I have learned that He is really, truly mindful of me. As that has happened, I’ve developed a different relationship with my Heavenly Father.

I think that certain aspects of this new relationship may be best described by my very favorite moment in one of my very favorite books. This book has a letter that a father writes to his daughter simply because she asked for one. The letter ends, "I hope one day you will have the experience of doing something you do not understand for someone you love." I find this so apt in conveying my relationship with God and The Church because there are many things that I still do not understand why I’ve been asked or commanded to do. But I’m learning to put my trust in Heavenly Father and proceed anyway. And usually, a confirmation eventually comes that I’m doing the right thing, though not necessarily an understanding every aspect of the why. I've learned to be okay with that, because I can do something I do not understand for someone I love.

For me, the decision to go on a mission required a lot of this kind blind faith. While it was a surprise to everyone when I decided to go, I don’t think anyone was quite as surprised as me. When I heard about the announcement I was struck with a powerful feeling that I needed to go. I remember feeling like, “Wait, what? Me? On a mission? Me?” But for some reason I prayed hard about it, and allowed myself to contemplate and sincerely consider more seriously than I ever had before. I got my answer and decided I would go. In that moment of decision I felt peace such as I've never felt before. I felt aligned. I knew it was right. And yet, I still think that deciding to go on a mission is the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I know the right thing for me at the moment, and I’m willing to put all the trust in God that I need to, to I’ll be able to do it.

I think the word that most closely explains how I feel not only about going on a mission but about the process leading up to it, is the Hebrew word Hineni, which is found several time in the Old Testament. It roughly translates to "Here I am" and is used almost exclusively by humans addressing a divine presence. But it’s not so much a physical "Here I am" as a moral and spiritual "Here I am." It means "This is where I am. What do you need from me, Lord? I am ready." Right now, it means that I’m ready to do whatever I can - learn Russian, live in the Ukraine, be cold for 18 months, have a companion, cover my knees 24/7 - and I hope that doing all I can is all that God asks of me. I think it is.

But it might apply even better to the period of time in my life between when I decided to go and when I got my call. When I decided I would go, I was sure it was right, but I was also acutely aware that the path ahead wasn’t easy. For a while, the idea of my mission felt much more abstract than concrete, because it felt so far away time-wise and spiritually. It was during that time that I had to say, “Here I am, Lord. I know what You want. I am ready.” There was a lot of leaning into the discomfort. “I am ready” meant “I am ready for the process ahead, which I know will, at least in certain aspects, be very hard.” And it was. But it was also so rewarding. I grew a lot, and I think that growth was possible because it was so hard. And you know what? Even if something terrible happened tomorrow and I never made it on a mission, my decision to go would still be the best decision I’ve ever made.

Standing here today, leaving for the MTC on Wednesday, I feel somewhat reminiscent of the scene at the end of The Hobbit. Gandalf and Bilbo get back to the Shire after their great adventure and Gandalf says, “My dear Bilbo! Something’s the matter with you! You are not the hobbit you once were.” The past year or so has been a long journey for me, but I’m very grateful for the hobbit I’ve become. It’s such a privilege to be gong on a mission. I’ve had a lot of help from family, friends, teachers, church leaders, and many others who’s subtle, simple gathering of kindnesses stretched out over months and years have been the kind of love that has been most meaningful in my life. Thank you all so much for your support and for helping me get here. I’m especially grateful for Lorin and Judy and Sam. Getting to spend the past two and a half months of mostly family time has been incredibly valuable to me. We joke about how I’m the favorite daughter and sister, but I really feel lucky to have been raised by parents and grown up in a family where I’ve always felt intensely loved, and to the point that I maybe kinda actually believe I am the favorite. Regardless of where I’ve been at in life, I think I’ve always known and felt that I was loved, and I think that’s the greatest blessing you three could have given me. I love you guys, I’ll miss you so much, and I’m very glad I get to be part of our weird, occasionally-dysfunctional, wonderful little family.

My best friends and I have this saying: “you fill up my bucket.” It means that at the end of the day or week or year, someone puts more water into your metaphorical bucket than they empty from it. It kinda means I love you. Right now, I feel like my bucket is overflowing, and I hope that I’ll be able to go fill up some buckets in the Ukraine, with this gospel message that has come to mean so much to me.

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