I finally feel ready. I have my passport. I've applied for my visa. I've gotten my shots. I've been cleared by my dentist, physician, and lasik surgeon. I've been through the temple. I have all my outfits and shoes. And I feel prepared. I'm finally ready to be a missionary! Per tradition, I gave my farewell talk last Sunday. I always thought that when I left for my mission I'd be surrounded with my friends and family who were by my side through it all. Seeing as I'm not in Rexburg, Utah, or Kansas, that wasn't the case. I've still felt immense love and support from my family and church leaders during my time at home and I'm so grateful for it.
For those who are interested, here's the talk I gave. I was the last speaker, so it's kind of long. I'll be impressed by those of you who read all the way through it. Only a few more days and these posts will be letters!
My heart is full. I pray that the Spirit will be with you and me as I attempt to effectively share with you the message I’ve prepared. I’m going to be using Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy’s talk from this past General Conference to share with you the importance of both the gospel and the Church. His talk is entitled “Converted to His Gospel through His Church.” He starts out by saying, “Sometimes we use the terms gospel and Church interchangeably, but they are not the same. They are, however, exquisitely interconnected, and we need both. The gospel is the glorious plan of God in which we, as His children, are given the opportunity to receive all that the Father has. This is called eternal life and is described as ‘the greatest of all the gifts of God.’ A vital part of the plan is our earthly experience – a time to develop faith, to repent, and to reconcile ourselves with God. The Church [is the organization] established by Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.’ Jesus Christ is the head of His Church, represented on earth by prophets holding apostolic authority.”
It’s the Church that brings people to a full conversion to the gospel. It’s the habits we teach and the culture we embrace as part of the Church that allows us to experience that “mighty change of heart” talked about all throughout the Book of Mormon. Alma reminds the people of what a true conversion feels like in Alma 5. There’s a series of questions he asks them and they’re questions I like to ask myself. “Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth? And lastly, 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?"
Sometimes I’m jealous of the people we call “converts.” They have a different perspective on the gospel. Sometimes I think they are more grateful for the blessing it is in their lives. Or maybe they’re just grateful in a different way. They can tell you when, where, and how they decided to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They know the day-to-night difference that is life without versus life with the gospel. And you can feel the pure, innocent love they have for this treasure they’ve found in the truth. I, on the other hand, have been a member of the Church all my life, as I was born to parents who were sealed in the temple. I recognize how blessed I am to have had the Church be such a huge part of my life always. Even though I am a life-long member, I don’t discredit the idea that everyone who fully comes unto Christ will experience their own conversion. I’d like to talk a little about mine. I don’t recall ever having one of those “aha!” moments where I had an experience or felt a feeling and knew just like that, that the Church was true. Instead there were times along the way where I became more sure and confident in my testimony of the gospel and conversion to its truth.
It wasn’t easy being the only Mormon in my grade, or even in my school for that matter. But it was a great blessing as I grew and matured in the Gospel. I think had I been born or raised in a place like Utah where I would have felt more comfortable and a little less peculiar, my testimony wouldn’t be as strong or refined as it is. I wouldn’t have experienced the same conversion to the Gospel that I did. As it was, I couldn’t stay on the fence long. I had to quickly decide whether or not I knew the Church to be true. I gained a testimony at an early age and couldn’t go back on what I knew was right, no matter how alone or different I felt.
One of these conversion moments happened for me when I was 14. My friend Morgan had been spending a lot of time with my family and had come on some of our vacations. She started to show some interest in the Church and accepted my invitation to come to Girls’ Camp with me. I remember one night in particular when we were sitting on my bed in our cabin. It was the last night of camp and all the other girls in our group had gone to play games by the campfire, but we had stayed behind. Morgan asked me to tell her about Joseph Smith so I got out my scriptures and we read the Joseph Smith story together. I remember how impressed she was by the faith and strength of a boy who had been just our age at the time. She told me that the things she’d been learning and feeling during that one week at Girls’ Camp had seemed more right to her than all the things she’d ever learned at her own church. A few days later after my week of spiritual highs had ended I found a note Morgan left me. In it she said that she knew Heavenly Father sent my family and me to her. She could feel His love for her when she was with us and she knew what she had learned at camp was true. She thanked me for my friendship and for opening up to her about what I believed. That experience brought me closer to my Savior, increased my love for the gospel, and strengthened my testimony of Joseph Smith and his key role in restoring the true Church to the Earth.
Quoting Elder Hallstrom again, “This is a magnificent Church. Its organization, effectiveness, and sheer goodness are respected by all who sincerely seek to understand it. The Church has programs for children, youth, men, and women. It has beautiful meetinghouses that number more than 18,000. Majestic temples – now totaling 136 – dot the earth, with another 30 under construction or announced. A full-time missionary force of over 56,000 comprised of the young and less so, are serving in 150 countries. The Church’s worldwide humanitarian work is a marvelous display of the generosity of our members. Our welfare system cares for our members and promotes self-reliance in a manner unduplicated anywhere. In this Church we have selfless lay leaders and a community of Saints who are willing to serve one another in a remarkable way. There is nothing like this Church in all the world."
With Mitt Romney as the Republican Presidential nominee, David Archuleta on a mission, and several LDS athletes who just finished competing in the Olympics, we are in the spotlight now more than ever. When people hear I’m Mormon, they typically have a pre-conceived notion in their head about what that means. They’ve either been taught something about Mormons as part of what they’ve learned at their own church, or they’ve known a Mormon themselves. Typically after the initial “Oh, you’re Mormon?” there’s a series of questions like, “How many wives does your dad have?” or “Are you allowed to dance?” Then there’s the “Oh you’re the people who keep more food in your basement than in your actual kitchen.” or my personal favorite and one I’ve never really understood, “You’re not supposed to wear the color blue, are you?” The people who think they know most about me as a Mormon are those who proudly claim their atheism. I had another one of those “conversion moments” with a proud atheist named Daniel last fall.
I had met him last August in Salt Lake City and we went on one date. The topic of my religion came up almost immediately after finding out that I go to school at BYU-Idaho. It didn’t take long to gather that we were on completely different wavelengths when it came to religion and God. Any conversation remotely related to the two ended in an argument or hurt feelings. Fast forward a few months to November and my friend Juelaine and I were driving from Rexburg to Las Vegas for our mutual friend’s wedding. We picked Daniel up in Salt Lake on the way. Now looking back, I honestly have no idea what I was thinking bringing Daniel to Vegas for an entire weekend. I could barely stand being around this egotistical, strong minded, free thinker who I had literally nothing in common with. For the most part our weekend was okay. We kept talks light hearted and basic. And then began our five hour drive from Vegas to Salt Lake.
I’m not sure why, nor do I remember what we were talking about before this, but during a moment of comfortable silence I turned to him and asked, “So, um, what do you think will happen to you when you die?” and it triggered a three hour conversation about the purpose of life, what happens to us after death, eternal families, faith, prayer, and agency. We took turns going back and forth about our beliefs, feelings, and doctrine. We cleared up confusion he had and I think even opened his eyes and made him rethink some things he had before been so sure about. Not once did I feel like things were getting heated or argumentative. Juelaine jumped in when she could tell I needed help and we were quoting scriptures and prophets that we didn’t even know we knew or remembered. The spirit was so strong. That conversation was unlike any other I’d ever had, not just with Daniel, but with anyone, about the gospel. This time I was on the verge of tears, not because my feelings were hurt, but because I could feel the Holy Ghost there with us. Talking with Daniel and Juelaine made me realize just how grateful I am for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It reminded me how big a part of my life it actually is and made me appreciate how incredibly blessed I am to know the things I do. It gave me a renewed desire to be better; to daily immerse myself in the scriptures, to fall on my knees in prayer, and to constantly be seeking for moments and opportunities to share what I know, whether through conversation, or simply by example. That one experience is the reason I gave going on a mission serious thought. I believe I became more converted to the gospel that day.
Elder Hallstrom says, “Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed. By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance. For example, how much faith do we really have? How repentant are we? How meaningful are the ordinances in our lives? How focused are we on our covenants? We need the gospel and the Church.”
The whole purpose of the Church is to assist us in living the gospel. It’s hard not to wonder how a once fully active member of the Church can slip into inactivity and stop coming completely. Elder Hallstrom suggests that it may be because “they were not sufficiently converted to the gospel – the things of eternity.” He then outlines three fundamental ways to have the gospel be our foundation.
The first is deepen our understanding of Deity. “A sustained knowledge of and love for the three members of the Godhead are indispensable. Mindfully pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, and seek direction from the Holy Ghost. Couple prayer with constant study and humble pondering to continually build unshakable faith in Jesus Christ.” We can’t know God and follow His plan for us if we don’t understand His role as our Master, as well as our Friend.
Next is focus on the ordinances and covenants. “We need to establish the discipline to live faithful to our covenants and fully using the weekly gift of the sacrament. Many of us are not being regularly changed by its cleansing power because of our lack of reverence for this holy ordinance.”
Lastly, unite the gospel with the Church. ”As we concentrate on the gospel, the Church will become more, not less, of a blessing in our lives. As we come to each meeting prepared to ‘seek learning, even by study and also by faith,’ the Holy Spirit will be our teacher. If we come to be entertained, we often will be disappointed.”
In the last few weeks I’ve learned that it’s going to take courage to leave the world behind. When I first received my mission call the only thing I felt was pure joy and excitement. I knew my call came straight from Heavenly Father, through His servant President Monson. I was eager to learn everything I could about Spain. As someone who has always struggled to get up in the mornings, I became especially excited when I learned that I would wake up and go to bed an hour later than the missionaries in the rest of the world due to the highly celebrated Spanish tradition of “siesta.” Shopping for mission clothes was fun, renewing my passport and applying for a visa was stressful and all this waiting and working I’ve been doing for the last six months has been tiring. Now, though I’m still so incredibly excited, I'm starting to get nervous. Parts of me feel inadequate and incapable. I’m anxious about the MTC and getting my first companion. I'm scared that I won't do, or be, or say the right things. I’m overwhelmed. But despite all that, I know now more than I ever have that serving a mission is exactly what I want and need to be doing at this time in my life. I know I’ve made the right decision, that the Lord’s on my side, and that I’ll have the Holy Ghost there with me the whole time, especially through the challenging moments. The anxiety seems to slip away when I put what I’m doing into an eternal perspective, and I feel calm.
I’d like to close with a quote called "The Fellowship of the Unashamed" by Dr. Bob Moorehead. "I am a part of the fellowship of the unashamed. The dye has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I’m finished and done with low living, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need pre-eminence, positions, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith, lean on His presence, walk with patience, live by prayer, and labor with power. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven. My road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions are few, by my Guide is reliable, my mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won’t give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, and spoken up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I must go until he comes, give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until he stops me. And when he returns for His own, he will have no problem recognizing me. My banner will be clear. I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed."
I want everyone, especially my family, to know that I know that this church is true. I've known it all my life and I can't wait to share that truth with the people of Madrid. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.