Monday, February 23, 2015

Homecoming Talk

One last Monday email! Here's my homecoming talk.

All the love,

Finding Joy in the Opposition

Right before my mission, I wrote in my journal the following quote, “I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way she handles these three things: rainy days, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” It made me smile, but also I think it perfectly encompasses what I’d label the biggest thing I learned on my mission: how to be happy. What I learned is that my ability to be happy in life is largely determined by how I respond to struggles, setbacks, and opposition, BUT that happiness is never out of reach.

On my mission, I served in four areas, 3 of which I white-washed, which means my companion and I came in together, both new to the area, so neither of us knew anyone or how to get anywhere, and we had no investigators. So I definitely had a lot of times that plans fell through (or never were), that we were hopelessly lost, and that things just fell apart a little bit. I remember my fifth transfer we taught two lessons with investigators the entire six weeks. Yet that was one of the best times. I think that because I was often starting from scratch, I learned to laugh at the mishaps and take things in stride. I cherish the memory of my first ever Ukrainian FHE because the family spoke a crazy mix of Ukrainian and Russian, I was more than a little jet lagged, and we got stuck in an elevator for 30 minutes. 

In a devotional talk given some 40 years ago, President Hinckley quoted a newspaper columnist who wrote, “Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.” 

I think the ability to be grateful for the ride is vital, but is rarely something we can simply obtain on our own. I am personally of the opinion that happiness is a spiritual gift, which Heavenly Father gives us when we try to be happy regardless of our circumstances. I don’t think it’s always possible on our own to be happy, but I know that if we want it, He will always help us to be happy. D&C 11:13 reads “I will impart unto you of my Spirit… which shall fill your soul with joy.” The Spirit brings a resilience, and is a source of happiness that doesn’t wax and wane with the circumstances.

I had the chance to teach a 22-year old young woman named Katya a couple months ago. When we first met her, she was depressed, completely unhappy, and had absolutely no light in her life. She started spending time with the missionaries, and slowly by slowly started to feel the Spirit. I saw a bigger change in her than in any other person I taught. She started talking more, then smiling, then she’d laugh when we played games. She started to tease people and give hugs. After a few months she decided that she wanted to be baptized on Christmas day and she was as happy at her baptism as anyone I ever saw. When I talked to her about how she made that decision, she said “I just feel good here. My life situation hasn’t changed, but I am happy now.”

If we want it, Heavenly Father makes the difference for us.

As you probably know, the past year has been very tumultuous for the country of Ukraine. A revolution in February has led to a bit of a war that still continues on. Many, many people living in the cities where the war is have fled to Kyiv and other cities. I don’t claim any expertise on the political situation or these refugees, but I did have the chance to work with a some of them in the past few months. 

A lot of those that have left are, understandably, angry, afraid, and hopeless. Their mad their lives were completely uprooted by Putin and co, they fear things won’t get better, and they have no hope that they will be able to build a good life anytime soon or ever again. Among the people who have fled are many members (there were about 5 branches in the cities where the war is the worst). And the difference between them and other refugees is stark. They find reasons to be happy and things to be grateful for. They’re different.

Last July I met a woman named Natasha, who became one of my dearest friends. The city where she and her family used to live, Lugansk, has been completely destroyed by the war, and they literally fled from bombs and gunfire. It was definitely not an enviable situation. Over the next couple months, I was so lucky to spend quite a bit of time with Natasha. She couldn’t find work, so she spent her time either in the temple or with us. Because of her, two of our investigators were baptized. And in all the time I spent with her, I never once heard her complain about anything. What I heard, over and over again, was her testimony, her faith, and her gratitude. She found ways to be happy, despite having her life run over with a bulldozer. That woman is an angel if I ever knew one. 

Her life and the lives of other refugees I met exemplify a statement made my Richard G Scott - “Sadness, disappointment, and severe challenge are events in life, not life itself. I do not minimize how hard some of these events are. They can extend over a long period of time, but they should not be allowed to become the confining center of everything you do. The Lord inspired Lehi to declare the fundamental truth, “Men are, that they might have joy.” That is a conditional statement: “they might have joy.” It is not conditional for the Lord. His intent is that each of us finds joy. It will not be conditional for you as you obey the commandments, have faith in the Master, and do the things that are necessary to have joy here on earth.” 

I know that Heavenly Father really does want His children to find joy and be happy and that He has given us His gospel so we can do so. Alma described the best part of being a missionary, “that perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance... And behold, when I see many of my brethren truly penitent, and coming to the Lord their God, then is my soul filled with joy” (Alma 29:9-10). Being able to see people repent, start living the gospel, and meet the conditions on which they can find joy in this life is the greatest privilege of missionary work. 

My favorite person in all of Ukraine is named Ira. I wish she was here so you could all meet her, because she is truly spectacular. She makes me as happy as any person on the planet. I was very blessed to be able to teach her, see her change, be at her baptism, and come back a few months later when her husband was baptized. Ira spoke at his baptism. She described her parallel journey of meeting and marrying him as well as finding the church. She said, “When Makcim and I were married, life was good. I thought everything was in it’s place. But now, today, I see that everything really is in it’s place.” Ira found the joy which Heavenly Father has prepared for each of us. 

I said earlier that I believe that happiness is determined by how we respond to opposition. Which is true. But I think that oftentimes, the opposition takes the form of human weakness. We are all so wonderfully imperfect. What I realized on my mission is that people are basically good and are basically trying. We all make so many honest mistakes, but they are just that: honest mistakes. Figuring this out made me much happier and really changed the way I relate to myself and to others. It became so much easier to forgive, both myself and others, once I stopped blaming for falling short, and saw that whatever happened, we are all so genuinely trying to do what’s right. Elder Maxwell long ago talked about the importance of doing this. He described the culture he grew up in, in which “we made room for each other to grow, to make dumb mistakes, to repent.”

I served in two very small branches in little cities, one 125 miles west of Kyiv, the other 125 miles east of it. Neither branch was especially big or especially strong; there were about 30 people at sacrament meeting on Sundays, and I had lots of chances to give impromptu talks and Sunday school lessons, because either they weren’t assigned or those assigned didn’t quite get their acts together. I loved serving in these branches. I love my members there. I think I would best describe these branches as wonderful but terribly dysfunctional. There were so many instances of things temporarily going up in flames. At first, it was so terribly frustrating for me to serve in these places. I was like, “can’t you see your doing this all wrong?” But over time, I learned to see how they were really just doing their best. I frequently pondered D&C 46:9, that blessings “are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do.” In all their craziness, they were genuinely seeking to do what they were supposed to. I realized that that should be enough for me because it was enough for the Lord. That made it much easier to love them and help them, and much more enjoyable to serve around them.

This also applied to myself. When I’d make a mistake or mess something up, I initially would be really frustrated with myself. “Fool, why’d you go and do that.” But I learned to look at myself and say “well, I was genuinely trying to do what I thought was right, so it’s okay. I can’t ask for anything more.” I think I learned to be happy because I learned to give myself credit for trying to do good and to be good. I came to really love D&C 100:12 “continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice; for behold, and lo, I am with you even unto the end.” The Savior is with us and has already got all of our shortcomings covered. He just wants us to keep going and to allow ourselves to be happy.

Freedom to be happy is found when we learn to face our imperfections not with anger or frustration, but with the Savior. In general conference a year ago, Elder Bednar said, “the Savior has suffered not just for our sins and iniquities—but also for… our weaknesses and shortcomings… There is… no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first.” I so love the words found in D&C 67:13, “continue in patience until ye are perfected.” Our job is not to perfect ourselves. Our job is to continue on until HE perfects US. 

I can’t say I mastered Russian in any degree. I would describe my Russian as thoroughly mediocre. I can communicate my thoughts alright, but it was definitely not one of my greatest strengths as a missionary. And for a while, it killed me that I couldn’t figure it out. Mid-mission, there was a period of time when I dreaded having to have a conversation, because I hated the blank look on their face when they didn’t understand me and I hated the way it made me feel. I said to myself “I should be better than this by now.” As I worked through that, though, the Lord helped me see that it was okay to have mediocre Russian if I was doing my best. I saw that I was more than my Russian. I will never be remembered by the people of Ukraine for my Russian or for being a super-speaker, but before I left, someone wrote me a note that said, “We’ll always remember your smile” and that meant so much more to me.

With the Russian situation, I had to learn not to have my worth as a person connected to my performance in Russian. Over and over again I thought of the words of an essay I was sent while in the MTC. “You can have worthiness apart from your performance… Your identity does not have to be rooted in accomplishments. You can be loved for who you are, not for what you’ve done.” I’m still working on embracing this, but I can say that to the degree I have, I have become so much happier. I stopped comparing myself to others. I stopped focusing on receiving praise. I was able to much more genuinely love and be loved by those around me.

Another thing I was able to do because of this is let myself fail. My worth wasn’t determined by my success. Consequently, on my mission, I learned to enjoy trying lots of different things, things I would not have otherwise tried because I feared failure. It became a lot more fun to make phone calls (no small feat in Russian), to talk to the woman sitting next to me on the bus, to teach a Sunday school lesson, because I could do my best and be happy with my efforts, regardless of how it actually turned out. I could make a blunder of the whole thing, and still walk away smiling. It became fun just to try.

As I started trying more things that scared me, I learned about faith. I used to think that the spiritual gift of faith was a really strong testimony and beautiful, meaningful prayers. And for some people it is probably like that. But for me, as faith works in my life, it’s much more connected to action. It is the moment when I do something I don’t want to do, or something that doesn’t make much sense to me, because I believe it’s what the Lord wants me to do. It’s the feeling of standing on the high dive and jumping off even though every part of me says not to. It’s living the process which my mission president often described as “conquering fear with faith.” As I have learned to do this, I have seen the fulfillment of the promise found in Proverbs 16:20, “whoso trusteth in the Lord, happy is he.”

One of my favorite quotes comes from Terry Tempest Williams. She wrote, “I learned… that what I love can kill me, knock me down, and threaten to drown me with its unexpected waves…I learned I can survive what hurts. I believe in my capacity to stand back up and run into the waves again and again, no matter the risk.” I am so grateful that I was able to learn similar things the past 18 months, and that I was able to find so much joy doing it. 

Close with testimony.

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