My “Why” of Missionary Work

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Dear APG Readers,

Today’s Sunday school lesson was on missionary work.

It was surprisingly hard to teach.

I struggled, standing there trying to keep the tears at bay, my heart full as I talked with my little Gospel Principles class about sharing the Gospel. There were so many thoughts and emotions and memories going on in my heart and head that I had trouble wading through them to articulate the points of the lesson outlined in the manual, to direct a focused discussion, to not bore people to death with stories of my mission and the people I love and miss so dearly that at times it hurts.

But it’s not about the full-time mission I served, that badge I wore for five hundred and sixty precious, incredible, unforgettable days. It’s more than that. That’s part of it, but not nearly the whole of it.

I try to challenge my class each week to do something different. To act on what we learned in that room for that one hour during Church. The week the lesson was on charity, we set out to love people a little better, to love ourselves a little better. The week we learned about service, we set out to serve someone who we might otherwise pass by. Today we left class at the end of the hour with the charge to share the gospel, to spread the love of Christ a little further, and to see the people the Lord puts in our paths.

The elders beamed at me from their seats.

As I prepared the lesson, going through the gospel principles manual, searching the scriptures and Preach My Gospel, rereading entries in my mission journals and planners, I began to think about why I love sharing the Gospel.

There’s a lot of little reasons why. So many that I can’t count them – I find new ones each day. But my “why” really comes down to a few things:

It’s because of what Christ did for me. My finite mind can’t even comprehend the enormity the Atonement, but those glimpses I do catch drive me. They push me to be better. They provide light in the midst of sometimes overwhelming darkness that comes with my depression. Those glimpses, those little moments of clarity, provide me with stillness in the middle of chaos, peace in the midst of turmoil, confidence even as I am baraged by people who seek to destroy truth.

It’s because the Gospel changes lives. A fisherman became a prophet, rabble rousers became the greatest of men, the prodigals returned, all because the Savior saw more in them than they saw in themselves.

It’s because His love can’t be contained or confined to a single person. It presses forward into hearts, surrounds and fills us like the sun bursting over the hill on a foggy morning – burning away the gloom with light and warmth. It’s an infinite sunrise. It’s peaceful stillness even as it feels like the world is crashing around us into a cacophony of violence and temptation.

Father asked us to go out and share the good news. He asked us to open our mouths, knowing He would give us the words. He asked us to get to work, knowing He would give us the tools. He asked us to walk, knowing that He would put people in our path. He asked us to take a leap of faith, knowing that He would be the one to catch us. He asked us to keep pressing forward until the whole world hears, knowing that He wasn’t waiting for us at the end of the road, but that He was with us every step of the way.

That’s what missionary work is about for me. That’s what motivates me. That’s why I write this blog. It’s not perfect, but it’s me trying. Because at the end of the day, I want to sit down with all my brothers and sisters and reflect on how much our Father and our Brother love us.

It’s because I love Him so much I want to be like Him. God sent one Son. And that Son was a missionary.

We all have a different why, but that’s mine.

Love,

A Peculiar Girl

Identity Crisis

So if you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a closet sports fanatic. I’m that leaping off the couch and screaming at the television sort of person. I realize I should never be a coach of any sort – I’ve threatened the US Olympic team loudly in my living room so many times and it’s not even been a week in Rio (“we will trade you! I don’t care if it’s an international competition – we will transfer your citizenship so fast!”). I get invested in the athletes, in the team. But it’s not just about the Americans. It’s those athletes from the world over that come to compete with an incredible story, who have defied the odds, who have fought to get to that opening ceremony. I love the underdog, I love the champion. They all have different stories, different things that define them and make them who they are. They’re all driven to compete by different things. And they give it their all.

One of the American divers this past week said something to the effect of “my identity doesn’t come from a medal. My identity is rooted in Christ.”

I love that. My identity is rooted in Christ.

In the span of thirty seconds, I heard that and realized I was in the middle of a massive identity crisis.

So often we identify ourselves by mortal and societal means – “I am ___.” That blank is sometimes filled in by a nationality, a religion, a profession, a defining attribute. And that is a big part of who we are. More often than not, however, that blank is filled by our shortcomings or our mistakes. It is filled by the trivial because our finite-for-now minds can’t even fathom being rooted in something bigger, something so vast that it transcends the daily struggle that is mortality.

Why? What is it that keeps us in this identity crisis, that keeps us from recognizing and declaring who we truly are? That’s something I believe to be intensely personal, part of our own individual journeys of faith and of understanding. It takes a lifetime.

We regularly say, “I am a child of God.”

This is truer and more powerful than I think we often realize. We say it, and it doesn’t sink in. We see it on Pinterest, and rather than thinking, “I am a child of an eternal and loving Heavenly Father,” we think, “oh, what cute typography” or “that would look great framed in the nursery.” We hear it, and our minds immediately go to the opening notes of the Primary song, then drift off into the recess of who-knows-where in the mind.

But what if it did hit us? If it sank into our hearts in such a way that we knew, without any doubt, hesitation, or justification that we are children of God? That Christ is our brother, and that we as men and women are rooted in who He is? What power would blossom within our souls? How would our outlook change? How would we see our victories, and more importantly, our trials? Rather than lamenting who we aren’t, who would we become?

Carl Sagan once said, “we are all made of star stuff.” What if we realized that we were not just made up of star stuff, but also of the stuff that created that stardust,  that drop in the ocean, that perfect little infant, that ray of sunshine, that blade of grass, that giant boulder, that comet streaking through the sky, that grain of sand, that vast universe, that made that exquisite person who is reading this obscure blog post right this very moment?

(That exquisite person is you, by the way)

Having our identities rooted in Christ means rooting ourselves in eternity. It means we are embracing His Atonement at every opportunity. We humble ourselves. We forgive and are forgiven. We are never alone.We find peace in the midst of chaos and hardship. We fight – we aren’t passive about what we believe and what we know. We understand that we call God our Father because He made us as His children, as His sons and daughters. We understand that every day we have the opportunity to start fresh and to build on a foundation that is immoveable – Jesus Christ. We begin to seek not just the hand of God, but the face of God. We walk hand in hand with His Son out of the bondage of our own minds and temptations, are washed clean, and stride into a path that is straight and narrow. We work beside Them, we seek Their example and Their direction as we go about our Father’s business. We learn to love our brothers and sisters regardless of who they are, what they have done, or what they believe. We bind up those broken hearts and lift up those hands that hang down. We step from mortality to eternity.

Why do we need to know Christ, and strive to root our identities in Him? President Ezra Taft Benson said it best, in my opinion. He was talking about parents teaching their children about divine nature and celestial origin, but I think the title “children” is even more important when we’re talking about people who might not be considered children by society’s standard. Because that’s who we are to God and we need that reminder. This is what He wants us to know.

“Children need to know who they are in the eternal sense of their identity. They need to know that they have an eternal Heavenly Father on whom they can rely, to whom they can pray, and from whom they can receive guidance. They need to know from whence they came so that their lives will have meaning and purpose.” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, pg. 187).

God wants us to know that because we are of Him, we can always rely on Him. We walk beside Christ, and when we mess up, fall down, strike out, or just can’t move any further, They are right there, hands outstretched, arms open wide.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy, trying to root ourselves in Christ and forge our identity out of eternity rather than mortality. It’s exactly the opposite of what the world tells us to do. Discouragement comes. Trials appear. Setbacks occur. Sometimes we can’t get out of our own heads to see where we are and how far we’ve come.

It’s a process. A daily one, at that. I’d even go so far as it’s a minute-by-minute, stroke-by-stroke, step-by-step venture that requires more heart than we think we have.

But we can do it.

Because when push comes to shove, being rooted in Christ means that we understand that while we might be imperfect today that we are, with the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the love of an eternal and merciful God, perfectable in eternity.

rd_image (3)When we root our identities in Christ, our hearts expand. Our view is opened. Our capacity is expanded. We are bold. Love and peace become our battle cry. Obedience becomes nearly effortless. Our weakness is overwhelmed by the strength of the Atonement. We become unwavering in the face of adversity. We are steadfast as the waves of mortality crash around us. We work hard and rest easy. We are not bowed by fear, but built by hope. We hold our heads high knowing that because of Christ, we have won the victory – over death, over pain, over sin and temptation. We see the hand of the Lord more clearly. He is our first thought and our last thought. Our sights are heaven-bound as our knees are bent to the earth. We become more confident, more joyous, more humble, more Christ-like. We are unified. Things come together.

Instead, we tend to get caught up in the dust of the world, in those fill-in-the-blanks that get us distracted. We forget that we truly are wonderfully and fearfully made for something bigger than this earth. That forgetting gets us down, it keeps us from our potential and from assuming the role that we were made for. It keeps us smaller than we are.

That’s our identity crisis. It’s a great big one. Forgetting who we are meant to be in favor of who the world tells us we ought to be.

Figuring out how we root ourselves in Christ is a personal thing. We can learn from each other and support each other, but we have to do it on our own, with just God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost beside us.

Ofa, the sister-of-my-soul and fellow passenger  on the struggle bus of mortality (we’re both full-fledged RM members), posted this quote on Instagram the other day by Howard W. Hunter: “There is within each of us a giant struggling with celestial homesickness.”

Within each of us.

Celestial homesickness.

We are each a giant who gets caught up in thinking it’s small, struggling because we are homesick, because somewhere deep down, we know this isn’t the world we are meant to be in forever. Each of us.

In short, when we root our identities in Christ and in eternity rather than the things of this earth and of mortality, we become the very people that God created us to be.

Eternity.

That’s where our identity really lies.

 

 

Modern Pioneers

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak in Sacrament meeting in my new ward, and didn’t realize at the time that I was agreeing to speak on ‘Pioneer Day Sunday’ – the day that Mormons celebrate the entry of Brigham Young and the first group of pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. June 24. Today. It’s not nearly as big of a deal here in the East as it is out West, so I didn’t think much of it until the Bishop sent me the email with the details for my assigned topic. In honor of Pioneer Day, I thought, why not? And decided to post the written form of the talk I gave today for anyone who’s interested. I was asked to speak about what it means to be a modern pioneer as well as give a sort of mission report about my time in California (yes, Bishop knows that I got home over a year ago and his comment was, “well, they don’t know that, do they?”). It’s rough and unpolished, because I tend to go off-script in my talks, so forgive me.

The kingdom-builder theme is one that I plan on expanding in the future (it’s hard to encompass it all in just one 15 minute talk), so if you have any thoughts, feel free to share!


When I was a sophomore at SVU, I had the opportunity to spend my spring break in Nauvoo with a few classmates in a travel study led by our Institute teacher, his wife, and two other couples. On our 15+ hour drive from Virginia to Illinois, we talked about where we were from, how flat Illinois appeared, what we hoped to gain from the week, and our backgrounds in the Church. I learned that most of my traveling companions were of what you might call “pioneer stock” – their ancestors were the early Saints who left New York, who left Ohio, who left Missouri, who then left Nauvoo and traveled to settle the west.

Brigham Young once said, concerning the seemingly continual exodus of the Saints, “We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire and into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay.”

Many of my traveling companions were going to Nauvoo to see the proverbial “frying pan” that their ancestors had experienced. When we arrived in Nauvoo, it was empty but for the senior missionary couples who greeted us with cookies and the brothers and sisters in the temple who greeted us with work to do. We spent the week touring the sites, attending the temple, traveling to Carthage and to the quarry from which they took the stone to build the temple, and wading into the cold Mississippi river. Many of my friends were able to track down the plots of land their ancestors owned and examined the documents they had written or signed, and read the journals that their moms had sent them specifically for the trip, written by their grandparents.

The night before we were to return home to Virginia, we had the opportunity to gather in the Seventies Hall where the early missionaries were taught, to hold a small testimony meeting. I listened as my friends shared stories of their ancestors and bore testimonies of those same eternal truths that they held dear that gave them strength as they travelled west. To be entirely honest, I felt a bit like an outsider because I did not share the same connection to Nauvoo and the early Saints – as a convert to the Church, I had no pioneer ancestors. In fact, my ancestors were likely a compelling force as to why the ancestors of my companions had been forced from their homes in the east in the first place.

Thankfully, I was reassured that there were no long-harbored ill feelings, and several people noted that as a convert to the Church, I was a pioneer myself.* I recognized that “there is no aristocracy of birth in [the] Church; [that] it belongs equally to the highest and lowliest,” as J. Reuben Clark taught, but the lesson from Nauvoo that has stuck with me was the realization that as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we lay claim not only to the genealogical and ancestral roots of the pioneers, but also are able to lay full claim to the spiritual heritage and inheritance of the early Saints.

This realization was powerful for me. All of a sudden, instead of feeling like a newcomer to the gospel, I felt that I was grounded the rich spiritual legacy of the pioneers, and threw myself into learning more about the early men and women who joined and shaped the church.

While my interest in the early history of the Church never waned, I honestly forgot about that singular moment until I was a missionary in San Fernando, California. I served in a diverse area with unique wards, members, investigators, and friends of the Church, as well as incredibly diverse missionaries. To give you an idea, I had the opportunity to work with the Korean branch as I trained a sister learning Korean, a few members of the local deaf branch (as well as being companions with 2 deaf and/or hard of hearing sisters), and served and taught people in English and people whose native languages were mostly anything but English despite their attendance in English wards. They were remarkable. Some had been born and raised in the same house where their grandchildren now played. Others emigrated to the United States from countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Jamaica, Pakistan, England, and Samoa. Some had been served in the military and had been deployed overseas, others were former mission presidents. I met and grew to love deeply former gang members, medical professionals, actors, musicians, FBI agents, writers, men and women who had been members of the Black Panther party, teachers, people who were homeless, rich, down on their luck, or recently arrived in Los Angeles. They were the only members in their family. They came from a strong, “pioneer stock” families.  They weren’t members at all. They were newly baptized, they were prodigal sons, they were the Nephis and Sams and Mary and Marthas. Sometimes, they were the doubting Thomas, sometimes the Peter.

Despite how different we all were, we were bound by our beliefs and our covenants, but also by that spiritual heritage of the early pioneers, even if it wasn’t a conscious influence. I sat in sacrament meetings, in living rooms, in parks. I stood in dusty streets and knelt on bare concrete floors. We taught in libraries and on street corners. I realized quickly that I was watching people in California become or continue to be pioneers – people who forged ahead and made a path, people who shaped and moved an entire culture forward. They embraced the lessons of the early Saints and emulated their examples, largely without even realizing it. They were loyal, dedicated, faithful, and filled with belief.  They were fueled by the Atonement on Jesus Christ as they yoked themselves to Him, as well as to their brothers and sisters  as they strove to move the work in Southern California forward. They built on the foundation of those early saints who crossed the plains with love, sacrifice, and hope in their hearts. They exemplified, over a hundred years later, the description that President Clark gave of the men and women who crossed the plains:

“Back in the last wagon, not always could they see the brethren way out in front and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of dust from the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.”

I love the phrase ‘by their faith that God loved them, that the restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.’ My favorite principle to teach as a missionary was that God is our loving Heavenly Father. I believed, and still do, that if we can help people come to an understanding that God loves them so perfectly and individually, regardless of sins or flaws or shortcomings, that we have made an incredible difference in their lives and helped them to begin to understand the purpose of the Gospel. The knowledge that God is our Father, and that He loves us, is the foundation to every principle in the Gospel. Coming to understand the ‘why’ of the Gospel helps us to understand the ‘what’ of the Gospel, or the principles and doctrine, and the ‘how’ of the Gospel, or the prophets and apostles, both modern and ancient. The love of God is that very first ‘why.’

When we look at it that way, we see that we are not so different from the early pioneers of this dispensation. We realize that rather than that long wagon train being an abstract idea that we struggle to connect to, we are just another part of the caravan of this dispensation that has been called upon to help the Lord build the Kingdom of God. We are called upon to be Saints and kingdom-builders.

Before I graduated from SVU, I sat down the same institute teacher I had traveled to Nauvoo with. I talked with him about how I was concerned about not having a clear purpose in the Church for the first time since I was baptized. As a youth, my purpose was to learn the Gospel, to learn as much as I could, and to help to strength my brothers and sisters in the youth program. When I had first moved to Virginia, the first YSA stake east of the Wasatch front was organized, and we had a lot of work to do in establishing a stronger foothold for the kingdom of God in what was once an area hostile to members of the Church. As a missionary, my purpose was incredibly clear – to bring others to a knowledge of Christ and help them not only prepare to be baptized, but prepare to go to the temple. As a returned missionary in the same YSA stake, I had been called to be a gospel doctrine teacher and a member of the Relief Society presidency, and kingdom-building for me at that point was helping to create a strong and loving auxiliary that would help our sisters to move forward in the Gospel and in covenant-making as individuals.

With graduation ahead, I was worried about continuing to be a kingdom-builder.  I’ve realized in the past few months that being a member of the church is entirely about being a kingdom builder and continuing to be a pioneer & wanted to share with you a little of what I have found that have helped me to start being a more conscious kingdom-builder and latter latter-day pioneer.

The first is that belief in God’s love President J. Reuben Clark talked about. When we come to understand that God loves us more than we can imagine, and that we call Him Father because He first called us sons and daughters, incredible things happen. We are happier. We are more focused. We are more obedient because we want to be obedient, not because everyone sitting beside us in Sacrament and in Sunday school is. We are filled with joy. The other principles and doctrines of the Gospel come more easily, and we understand them with more clarity. Understanding that God loves us is crucial.

The second is an understanding of and a love for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We read in 3rd Nephi of the Nephites welcoming Christ with honor and with awe as the prophesied Messiah. But it isn’t until they have one by one touched the scars in His hands and feet, gaining a personal and powerful witness of His sacrifice for them, that they shout “Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!” and fall down to worship Jesus Christ. It’s crucial for us to gain an understanding and love of the Atonement, one that drives us to our knees in worship and in prayer as we seek to use and be molded by Christ’s sacrifice. I have come to understand over the years that the Atonement is for cleansing us of sin, but it is also for transforming our weaknesses into strengths, helping us to forgive and be forgiven by those we have hurt, it is for sorrows and wounds and for worry and fear. It is for every step of the journey, not just for when we step into mud puddles or venture into dark canyons along the way. When I think of the Atonement of Christ I think of one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” where we sing a line we often glance over – “Though hard to you, this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day.” Relying on the atonement every single day helps us to be pioneers and kingdom builders.

As the early pioneers pressed forward across the plains, so do we. The building of a temple nearby here in Connecticut and the recent creation of a new stake is a big deal, and it serves as a reflection of the Saints in the area. It proves that we have endured and thrived, that we are here in the middle of the floor to stay. We need to keep enduring and keep pressing forward “with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.”

A love of God and of all men. Love is so crucial to our journey, especially as we press further into the last days. All around us is uncertainty and temptation, and we see “wars and rumors of wars” every single day. But striving for a Christ-like and Christ-driven love for our brothers and sisters is what defines us not only as Christian people of faith, but as members of the Church. Countless times as a missionary I would ask people who we taught why they let us in the door, and just as many times they would tell us that they let us in because they somehow knew we loved them.

Loving God and all men requires hard work and strength. Heavenly Father isn’t asking us to build cities or pull handcarts thousands of miles. That part of our history has been finished. What He is asking is that today we build others up, that we work hard to provide for our families, and that we reach outside ourselves to help Him reach other people. He asks that we work hard on our relationship with Him, with our families, and with our friends and neighbors. This all requires strength, but we should remember that strength of mind, heart, and character all require training and persistence. No one is born a spiritual giant, and strong homes don’t appear overnight.

Becoming a kingdom-builder rests in discipleship. It is not simply following Christ, but following through with Christ – it is about obedience and faithfulness. When we are obedient to the covenants we make, we find greater strength than we ever thought possible. It is about covenant making and covenant keeping, both our covenants with God as individuals and our covenants with one another that we make at baptism to “mourn with those that mourn, yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness at all times, and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in, even until death, that [we] may be redeemed of God” (Mosiah 18:9). Obedience isn’t easy, but it becomes second nature over time and helps us to increase our faith as well as our faithfulness (there’s a difference). Obedience draws us closer to God and to our Savior, and it provides refuge when the storms come.

Discipleship, then, draws together all these things as we strive to be the modern pioneers the Lord has asked us to be, and as we seek to be kingdom builders. Discipleship encompasses love, hard work, obedience, an understanding of God’s love, embracing the Atonement of Christ, and so much more. Discipleship leads us to the temple, which was the pride and joy of the early Saints. The first thing the Saints did upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley was to begin drafting the plans and building a temple. As modern pioneers, our hearts and sights need to be focused on the House of the Lord, just like our ancestors.

As a missionary in the San Fernando mission, our motto was “exalt the valleys,” a reference to Isaiah 40:4-5, which reads “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked place shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” We took that to heart as we strove to help people not only feel the love of the Christ, but to be baptized and prepare to enter the temple and make eternal covenants. That was where I saw the vision of the pioneers of old the clearest – when we were able to walk through the temple doors into the house of the Lord.

Our temple being built nearby in Hartford gives us the opportunity to continue in the footsteps of the early Saints and pioneers as we strive to be dedicated and loving disciples of Christ, and as we help Him build up His kingdom here in New England. We don’t need to go west, we simply need to embrace the doctrines and principles of the Gospel that we have been taught and get to work, knowing that although we don’t always have the opportunity to see that big sky, that we are fulfilling the words that President Monson spoke as he dedicated the grounds for the temple here in Connecticut:

“When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.””

In closing, I wanted to share a question from President Uchtdorf concerning being a pioneer and a kingdom builder from his April 2014 conference talk.

“When our time in mortality is complete, what experiences will we be able to share about our own contributions to this significant period of our lives and to the furthering of the Lord’s work? Will we be able to say that we rolled up our sleeves and labored with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength? Or will we have to admit that our role was mostly that of an observer?”

 

*The Lord chastened me the morning I gave my talk via email. I opened my inbox about thirty minutes before Church to find a familysearch.org email outlining about a dozen of my ancestors who had been pioneers, including their handcart company details. Just goes to show that you never know til you’ve looked. And that Heavenly Father likes to say “yeah right, little girl, lemme show you” to me.

 

Light, Amid the Encircling Gloom

{warning: this is a lengthy, wordy one, folks}

May is Mental Health month, and considering it’s nearly June, I’ve had roughly the entire month to think about it. I’ve had a lot of thoughts and debated posting anything at all about mental health and mental illness. I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling and thinking could be properly written out, or if I wanted it written down and shared beyond the pages of my own personal journal. Mental health is a sensitive topic simply because it is so incredibly personal and individual. The diagnosis might be the same, but the experience is entirely different.

Part of me didn’t want to write anything simply because I don’t necessarily like talking about my weaknesses (no surprise there). I don’t like the stigma that I’m faced with. I don’t mind answering questions or sharing experiences, but I don’t like the judgment that comes with people knowing. I know a lot of it is entirely subconscious – society has conditioned us to fear mental illness, to not talk about it, to distance ourselves from those who have it like we ourselves can catch it, to grit our teeth and get on with life.

I have clinical depression. I’ve had it since I was a kid. I’ve been through the cycle of trying to find a medication that works, then the right dose, only to find that it wasn’t right for me and starting over again. I’ve done the whole counselor thing, and in all honesty, it’s not my jam. It is for other people, and I support it passionately, but for me – not my thing. I’ve dealt with the questions, the prolonged conversations, the awkward silences, the ignorant and cruel remarks, the assumptions, people distancing themselves. I ride the roller coaster that is mental illness. If we were to talk in comparisons, my experience is worse than some, better than most. But that doesn’t really matter, because the experience is entirely my own. No one else can claim it, no one else can really define what it feels like or looks like, no one can else can truly understand it. Because it’s mine. My depression. My mental illness.

We can empathize. We can ask questions. We can be supportive. We can listen. We can be honest. We can be patient. We can love.

But it’s our own thing. I have mine, they have theirs, you have yours. It’s how it goes.

You see all over the internet and in magazines and newspapers various articles about depression. I’m sure you’ve seen them before: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Depression.” “This is What Depression Really Looks Like.” “How People Treat Others with Mental Illnesses.” There are numerous scientific articles, posts on maintaining positive mental health, sympathetic letters, confessions of struggle.

I’ve literally had years to reflect on my experience with mental illness – both my own, and as a witness to the experiences of friends and family. I know I’m young, fairly inexperienced, and haven’t been asked to bear my struggle nearly as long as many others have born theirs. But, over the past several years I’ve come to a powerful and personal realization.

I’m actually pretty thankful for my struggle.

Before you think I’ve ridden my high horse straight into the deep end, hear me out.

I’m thankful  because it has given me the opportunity to see and experience both light and darkness. Because I’ve struggled and pushed and fought and nearly given up so many times, I’ve also been able to see more clearly the light that can flood a life. The days that are good and ‘easy’ are made that much sweeter because of the harder days I’ve already experienced. And those darker days are somehow tempered, because I remember that hard times don’t last forever. I remember that there is a light somewhere along this tunnel that I’m traveling through.

I’m thankful because it gives me the chance to develop deeper and broader empathy for my fellow journey-mates. We all are here, and we all struggle. Knowing a deeper emotional and mental struggle, and having a few challenges overcome beneath my belt helps me to reach out and say, “hey, I don’t know exactly how you feel, but this is my experience.” It makes me a more empathetic listener, my advice is more authentic and constructive, and my capacity for compassion is deeper.

I’m thankful because my struggle with mental health has given me an opportunity to rely on my Savior in a way I don’t think I would have had otherwise. In the stillness of it all, I remember that Christ, too, dealt with depression. He felt that hopelessness, that sorrow, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on that cross on Calvary. He’s the only person who knows exactly what I am feeling and what I am dealing with. And He never walks away. He doesn’t skirt the issue, He doesn’t avoid talking about it, He doesn’t say, “well, this is your cross to bear.” Because He bore it for me, and all He’s asking is that I take a leap of faith right into His arms. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it’s better, knowing He’s right there and that the load is a lot lighter than it could be.

I’m thankful because it makes me fight. Having depression is a daily fight. It’s not a matter of failure or victory, it’s a matter of every single breath and every single moment being a victory. You become a fighter. It becomes part of who you are, no matter what your experience is. If you’re here, you’re fighting. And that translates into actions, if only in little ways, or in ways only visible to you. When I crawl into bed at night after a particularly grueling and dark day, it’s a great comfort to hear that little voice say, “it’s alright – you fought today, and that’s what really matters.” And that’s something I can be proud of.

I’m thankful because I know that when all is said and done, when all of us are resurrected, that for the first time, my mind will be completely clear. No lingering shadows, no dark recesses. And it’s going to be wonderful. It gives me hope. It keeps me going. I cling to the promise that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shared a few years back, for myself and for my loved ones:

Whatever your struggle, my brothers and sisters—mental or emotional or physical or otherwise—do not vote against the preciousness of life by ending it! Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful,nonjudgmental, and kind.

I testify of the holy Resurrection, that unspeakable cornerstone gift in theAtonement of the Lord Jesus Christ! With the Apostle Paul, I testify that that which was sown in corruption will one day be raised in incorruption and that which was sown in weakness will ultimately be raised in power. I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally “free at last.”

While I was a missionary in California, I went through a particularly harrowing few months when the circumstances weren’t in my favor, and my depression was worse than it had been in years. I had finally humbled myself (read: I had finally been humbled) enough to reach out to my mission president and seek his counsel. It was hard. I think I gritted my teeth through that entire meeting, feeling ashamed and weak and angry that I had ended up in his office, despite my desire to go it alone, just me and God.

I don’t remember much of what he said. I’m sure it was great (thanks again, President Hall, if you are somehow reading this), and filled with love and a little bit of chastening and a lot more love. One thing I do recall, however, was him leaning across his desk and reminding me of a hymn that I had liked, but have since come to truly treasure. It reminds me of my own struggles and victories, of the role of my Savior in all this:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.

I’m thankful for this struggle, because it means that one day it won’t be a struggle any longer. Because it’s hard. Indescribably hard (but this man has done a heck of a job). And it’s going to be something I wrestle with for my entire life, even with a cocktail of Jesus and Prozac.  I’m thankful for my depression because it helps me to be compassionate, to be grateful, to know and feel the difference between dark and light. It’s given me the chance to know my Savior, and to develop a deeper faith and a more resilient hope. It’s a chance to take one step at a time, one day at a time, one prayer at a time.

It’s about the light amid the encircling gloom.

Lead Kindly Light

 

The Heart That Matters

As a recent 20-something college graduate, as a Christian young woman, as a millennial American, the world has a lot to say about who I ought to be.I should be a go-getter, bold, aggressive and relentless as I pursue both dreams and a career, I should keep my head down, my chin up, my voice quiet, my opinions politically correct, my hair perfect, my clothes stylish, m20160512073404y makeup (especially my brows) ‘on fleek,’* and my opinions simultaneously conservative (because I am a Mormon) and liberal (because I am a female 20-something).

Media, even as it declares that today is the age of women, tells us that we are an image to look at, a body without a brain or purpose. The only way to be a ‘successful woman’ as defined by the world is to be seen as someone who is a leader, a boss, an entrepreneur, or a mover and shaker, someone who commands attention and respect.

I look around me, at friends and mentors, women who I respect and admire, and I see that very few of them fit the bill of a ‘successful woman’ by the standards of our modern society. Yet, they are rich not with money or property, but with the blessings of the Lord. You see on social media the steps to “becoming a woman after God’s own heart” or “the markings of a Godly woman.”

Over the past couple months, as I’ve studied and observed and discussed, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a 20-something Christian woman. I’ve sought to know what my place is in the world as a single member of the Church who has served a mission and graduated from college. I’ve pled with the Lord to know what my role in His kingdom should be. And it wasn’t what I expected. These conversations took place in classrooms, at the homes of friends, in Church, over the phone and messaging platforms, via TED talks, videos, status updates, tweets, Instagram posts, and through many other means. It’s been a lot to process, a lot to pray and ponder about what the world was telling me.

And I realized that what the world was telling me was exactly the opposite of what the Lord was asking me.

Where the world was telling me to become a “take no prisoners” boss lady, the Lord was asking me to become a nurturer.

When the world was telling me that it’s okay to “throw a little shade,” the Lord was asking me to be a little kinder.

The world said I had to have “squad goals” or a “tribe,” but the Lord asked simply that I love them well.

I was reminded, while I was on my knees asking God what kind of girl He needed, who I needed to be in His Kingdom right now, of a conversation I had on my mission with Esmeralda, a girl we were teaching who was about 10 or 11. I had asked her, not thinking much of the question, how she thought Heavenly Father saw her. Her answer has stuck with me – she spoke of how He must know that she was trying, that she loved her family, that she knew she wasn’t perfect, and that was okay. He knew she was imperfect, but she was trying.

Being a woman in this world means trying. Trying your very hardest to be the kind of person the Lord needs, relying on the Atonement of Jesus Christ to make up the difference, and realizing that perfection isn’t what’s needed. Heart is.

The Lord wants a willing heart, one filled with desire for discipleship. Imperfect, but willing to trust and take a leap of faith. One willing to make sacrifices, even when the blessings aren’t yet in sight. One willing and wanting to be obedient, even when it’s harder than it has ever been.

The Lord wants a nurturing heart, one that sees the harshness and crassness of the world and rather than responding in kind, responds in love. Responds with love that overwhelms the darkness of the world. A heart who is not afraid to extend a hand and a kind word, who fosters growth and peace.

The Lord wants a servant’s heart, a heart that is willing to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light… and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). One who is willing to do as Christ would do, love as Christ would. Who isn’t afraid to ask, “Father, where shall I work today?” and gets to work when the Lord asks use to tend a tiny spot (remember – “Nazareth was a little place, and so was Galilee“).

The Lord wants a repentant heart, one that is quick to turn to Him and to seek to be better, rather than to stay mired in pride and arrogance. One who is willing to kneel and ask for forgiveness and guidance.

The Lord wants a humble heart, a heart that turns to Him first, not last. One that seeks to put Him first, and who recognizes who He is to us, and who we are to Him.

The Lord wants a tender, kind heart. It’s okay to be tough – that’s what this world requires, in all honesty, when you look around you. But that toughness, that resiliency demanded, needs to be tempered with tenderness and kindness.

The Lord wants a broken heart – that “broken heart and contrite spirit” (3 Nephi 9:20) that He can mend and mold and make into a wonderous soul.

There are so many things that the Lord wants our hearts to be. It’s overwhelming sometimes, trying to decipher where and how we need to improve, or the things we need to let go of. Especially with the world telling us its opinion every time we turn on the computer, phone, radio, or television.

I’ve spent hours pouring over scriptures and talks and reading blog posts. I’ve spent just as much time on my knees, praying and pondering what kind of woman the Lord needs. What kind of heart need to have. I had this idea of a beautifully written, inspiring blog post, one filled with examples of women in the scriptures, women in Church history, teachings from the Savior, prophets, and apostles. I wanted to quote General Conference, broadcasts, BYU devotionals. I’ve got lists, references, screenshots. All with what I wanted to incorporate.

Maybe one day I’ll have it written. Someday, I’ll find the words, the perfect references, the best photo to pair it with. I’ll let you know when I do.

But I sit here, and realize, what the Lord really needs is simply our heart. It doesn’t matter what kind of heart, just a heart. A heart that chases after Him. Maybe that’s what they mean when they talk about a woman after God’s own heart or the heart of a Godly woman.

It’s that leap of faith that matters. In the face of society and the world practically shouting at us at what kind of women we need to be, what kind of person, it’s that leap of faith in giving the Lord our heart that counts. No strings attached, no clauses, no “but if not” promises. It’s not the fanfare, not that big testimony over the pulpit, not that eloquent declaration that matters. It’s that simple act of giving Him our heart that makes us who we are – women that, despite our weaknesses and even because of them, the Lord can be proud of.

It’s in giving our heart that we start on the path to becoming that girl with the heart filled with kindness, that woman with the heart of a nurturer, that lady with the servant’s heart. That’s what womanhood is about. It’s about heart and trying and being and becoming. It’s about who you are in this very moment and who you’re becoming – not about who you were or who you might have been. It’s about knowing who has your hand and never letting go. It’s about telling the world to hush, and listening to the Lord – striving to see what He sees.

Yes, He sees your weaknesses, your shortcomings, the things you wish you could change, the wounds, the mistakes, the sorrow, the scars.

But He also sees the hard work, the tenderness, the care, the compassion, the hope, the faith, the light.

He doesn’t care about what kind of woman the world is telling you to be. He’s saying that He’ll show you who He needs you to be as you go.

It’s the heart He cares about. Being a woman, no matter how young or old, no matter the background, the life experience, the nationality or race, is about heart.

In all its glory and sorrow, triumph and trial, strength and weakness, faith and doubt, it’s your heart that matters most.

Your golden, precious heart.

 

 

*I’m honestly still not sure what qualifies as ‘on fleek,’ so do with it what you will.