Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Week 8: MTC Wrap-Up

Hello world,

So I'd like to start this email with a few matters of business and announcements:
-I leave THIS TUESDAY OCTOBER 1 for Kiev! Not that I'm absurdly excited or anything. That means that this is my last email in the MTC, and that you won't hear for me from the next 12 days, until my 1st Monday P-day in the field. (Sorry Judy!)
-My last day to receive letters/dear elders/packages at the MTC is Sept. 29, so everything has to come by then! Dear elder still works in the field, but not very well. So it's better to use mail or the church's pouch mail or email (Judy can give you all this information if you so desire it.)
-Everyone log onto LDS.org on Saturday night at 6:00 to watch the Relief Society General Broadcast. Specifically, the choir in the RSGB. There may be a certain Cectpa you know wearing jewel-toned blouse and a Russian name tag in the choir. You know. 

Alright, that's all the business I have (I think). Since it's my last MTC email, I think I'm going to do something a little bit different today. I hope that's okay with everyone. Instead of telling you what happened this week, I'm going to write about what I've learned during my time here. If I've already written about these things, forgive me, I kinda just decided to do this. There really aren't the beautiful or profound or earth-shattering things that I read or heard spoken. These are the things - the thoughts and beliefs and knowledges - that have sunk into a little MTC-shaped space in my heart. I hope this doesn't get to preachy. But in no particular order, here we go:

1. His hand is in my life.
For years, I have been known to say, "I don't know why, but the universe just favors me." Throughout my life, inexplicably and consistently, things have worked out for me. Whether it is the most wonderful people who have walked into my life, or good things (that I clearly didn't deserve) happening to me, or success coming or problems fixing themselves for me, things just work out for me. I realize how abstract that sounds, but even during the times of intense doubt in my life, I have had faith that the universe would be kind to me. 
Well, as my faith has grown, I have come to see this a little differently. Now, it's not so much that "the universe favors me" as that "my Heavenly Father loves me and has a hand in my life." An enormous hand, whose trace I can clearly see as I look at my life. The universe doesn't just favor me; my God loves me. I know I can rely on that love. 
This has completely changed my relationship to prayer. When I ask for something, or tell him I need something, or say I need help, I know it will come if it is in any way, even a petty way, the right thing for me. It's not that I think I can demand a laundry list of blessings and get them. It's that I have complete faith in His involvement in my life. I cannot look at my life without seeing His presence blessing me at every turn and I cannot offer a prayer without knowing that His answer will be the one that blesses me the most. I feel like I cannot even slightly adequately express how intensely I know He will take care of me. I rely on that belief as much as I rely on anything as a missionary.

2. Love is more important than lipstick.
There isn't necessarily a good way for me to tell this story, so I'll just tell it how it is.
My first Sunday (as every sisters' first Sunday), I went to New Sisters' Orientation, in which they discuss the dress and grooming standards for sister missionaries. The woman who let this meeting is a "higher up" at the MTC. And the meeting was pretty superficial (because dress and grooming standards usually are), but it got the job done. The most notable part of this meeting was the 2 or 3 minutes spend emphasizing the importance of lipstick because it helps people focus on your smile so you look more inviting so they're more likely to talk to you. It was sort of weird, but mostly just funny emphasis on the old-school value of lipstick.
So I didn't really think much about the lipstick until several weeks later when I found my companion and I having dinner in the cafeteria with this woman and her husband. And it was one of the most uncomfortable dinners I had at the MTC. This woman was so cold and so formal. It literally felt like I was letting her down - like she thought I was a failure as a missionary - because my details - lipstick and posture and formal, dignified language - weren't up to her standards. My companion asked her, "so what's your favorite part of serving at the MTC?" This woman responded "Oh, the missionaries." But it sounded so flat and heartless and empty I wanted to ask, "you sure?"
So I thought a lot about this woman. And I know that I've painted her in a very bad light and that's really not fair of me because I don't know her really at all. But, based on those 2 short interactions I had with her, she taught me something important: love is more important than lipstick. We frequently say that the most important thing a missionary can do is love, but this woman taught me more. She taught me that without love, all that other missionary stuff - lipstick and language study and obedience and wearing the tag - is completely useless. Being a representative of Jesus Christ is first and foremost about loving. Jesus was about love. So while all of that other stuff matters, it doesn't compare. No one care about how nice you look or about how on time you are if you don't love them. But if you do love them, it makes all the difference. As Elder Holland said, "If you can love them today, maybe you can teach them tomorrow." So on those days when I get bogged down in the details or the language or anything else, I take a moment and remind myself: love will always be more important than lipstick."

3. I have a voice.
This is something that I've been told a couple times in my life, usually by writing teachers, And I know this doesn't really seem like something I needed to learn - we all know I'm obnoxiously outspoken already - but it turns out it actually was. What I've learned is that having a voice is not about being different. I used to feel like having a voice meant being outspokenly different - not agreeing with certain things in the church, being a crazy-what-have-you liberal, going to a fancy liberal arts college and studying  completely useless, highly interesting things. And all those things still matter to me and are still part of who I am. But they neither comprise my identity nor characterize my voice. Having a voice is about integrity, certainly - being true to who you are and what you think - and it's about being willing to share that, but at it's core, having a voice is about knowing how and when to use your voice. Because a voice that isn't heard isn't a voice. I've learned that I have a voice, not just because I have thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc and not just because I'm overly-willing to share them, but because I'm learning how to speak so my words will be heard. 

4. Turning out is the answer.
Elder Bednar has written and said a lot about the Character of Christ and how that character is manifest by Christ's consistently turning outward in love and compassion and service when an ordinary person would turn inward in selfishness and suffering. Which is lovely and profound and maybe difficult to really apply to myself. But here's what I've learned: turning out is not just good because it's good; it's good because it makes me happy. My hardest days at the MTC were the ones I spent thinking and writing and focusing on myself. It was when I got over myself and out of the way that life got brighter. I don't think this is a missionary or a Mormon truth, I think it's just true. Turning out is always the answer. It seems to me that the purpose of life, on the most basic level, is to have joy and to learn how to love. I think these things are inextricably linked. As I love, I have more joy, and as I'm more joyful I love more freely. It's a glorious cycle. Sometimes, I get selfish and interrupt it (and let's be honest, by sometimes I mean at least daily), but I really have come to believe that turning out is always the answer.

5. Sometimes, love is streamers, plastic sunglasses, and cardboard American flags.
Until this Sunday, Elder O'Brien from my district (who you'll remember from the JS story episode), had never had a birthday party or gotten a birthday present. He grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive family in Serbia, and they didn't do birthdays. So when our district found out his BD was during our MTC stay, we started saying "Elder O'Brien, we're going to have such a HUGE party." And he was always like "no don't... I don't want anything. Don't." Up until his birthday, he continued to insist that, but we decided to plan something anyway. Now, something you need to know is that Elder O'Brien inexplicably loves America more than any human I have ever met. I literally do not have the words to express to you how much he loves the country. I could write an email full of Elder O'Brien and America stories, but I have other things to say. So anyway, Judy was kind enough to send me a box full of the most American stuff she could find at Zurchers. And on Sunday, while the elders were at priesthood, Sister Gomm and I decked out the room in American swag. It literally looked like Uncle Sam threw up in there. WE even had "America the Beautiful" playing on repeat from LDS.org. And, or course, we had gifts of plastic USA sunglasses wrapped in streamers, sitting on his desk.
He walked into the room after priesthood and his eyes got wide and he said, "Woaaaaah, it's all USA in here, woahhhhhh." And he opened his presents and put on the sunglasses and seemed happy enough. We had to run to our Sister Training Leader Meetings, but we left feeling like "well, that was good thing to do for him. I'm glad we did that little thing. I think it made for a good birthday." And neither Sister Gomm not I thought much about it as we went about the rest of the day. But about 6 hours later when we walked into the classroom, things were different. Elder O'Brien was there and even though I'd seen him every day for 8 weeks, I think that was the happiest I've ever seen him. He said, "Sisters,  I love you. If I could give you a hug, I would. You are the greatest missionaries in the world." Later, his companion told us that Elder O'Brien had been going up to every person he saw saying, "It's my birthday today and the sisters threw me a party."
The thing that was miraculous about this experience to me was that Elder O'Brien felt our life. For weeks we have been trying to help him know that we, as his district, love him. But he has a really hard time accepting love and always responded with, "No, I am stupid." But because we put ups some petty little streamers and plastic sunglasses and cardboard American flags, he knew he was loved. That's a miracle. 
If there's been one "theme" of my MTC stay, I think it would be love. I have studied and pondered and wrote and prayed about love every day that I have been here. I have understood and felt my Heavenly Father's love more powerfully than ever before. I have started to understand how and why we are commanded to love one another. (Emphasis on started). And I've found out some beautiful and profound and intricate things about love. But this might have taught me more about love than anything else. Because what this taught me is that love isn't about me. Love is about the other person. It's about meeting their needs and touching their hearts and losing track of myself in the process. Sometimes, that comes down to things as simple as streamers and plastic sunglasses and cardboard American flags.

6. I turn to prayer.
If love was the biggest "theme" of my MTC experience, then prayer was my most meaningful growth-space. At a certain point, fairly early on, I realized I didn't have the relationship with my HF that I wanted and needed as a missionary. So I set about changing it. At first, that meant getting out of the Mormon Prayer vernacular and into "okay Heavenly Father, here's where I'm at." And that was good but wasn't enough. So I set studied some talks and wrote some journal entries and made some goals. I started praying aloud every night and morning. I started pondering what I needed to say when I showed and brushed my teeth. I started leaving myself 10 minutes so I wouldn't rush. And I started carrying a notebook to write down what I needed to pray about - both to keep my prayers deliberate/sincere and so that I would know what things I was look for answers to. In essence, I was trying to change my prayers from things I sent off into the universe to a daily communion and conversation with my Heavenly Father. And here's the miracle: my prayer have forever changed, and I am as well.
I have become someone who turns to prayer. When I'm happy or sad or anxious or excited or frustrated or worn our or proud of myself or grateful or whatever, I now turn to prayer. When Elder Scott came, he said, "how we face challenges and solve problems is critically important to our Heavenly Father." Let me just say that I have found that to be true. I have seen that truth in my life. It amazes me and nearly breaks my heart I find it so miraculous. Prayer is one of the most awe-inspiring gifts I have ever received. It has already changed my mission.

Alright, that's not all I've learned but it's all I have time for. Wish me luck as I'm off and away next Tuesday!

All the love,
Hannah



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