Saturday, December 24, 2016

Back to Hope

Back to hope.  
I love this title, “Back to Hope.”  It’s the most beautiful Christmas message I could give.  Christ’s entire role was, and is, to give hope; hope to a world, to families and to individuals.  My journey to understanding the hope Christ offers has been intense the last few years.  “Back to Hope”, implies a loss of hope and that is regrettably something that I went through last year, and something I constantly work at keeping this year.  For this Christmas message of hope I need to lay some ground work.  I will do that on speed dial.

I never fully understood hope when it was taught in our Sunday School class when I was young.  I remember thinking, “I don’t get this, why do we even need to teach this.  We all have hope; it’s just a part of life.”  I didn’t understand than how vital hope is to a happy, satisfying life and that hope really can be lost.

About 2 years ago, when we still had about 6 months left on our mission, so many things in our family were going wrong.  We found out the reason Nathan was struggling so much was because of drugs.  Jordan was coming home from his mission because his back pain and anxiety had gotten to a debilitating level.  Meghan and Mitch were not happy living in our basement and wanted to move out, leaving us with no one to take care of our house or yard.  Ryan’s job couldn’t work with his class schedule during his last year of school so he had to quit his job when he was newly married and just had his first child.  And, our basement flooded!

It sounds weird to have all of those things happening at the same time and that’s exactly how we felt, “This is weird!”

Regrettably, I started telling myself a story.  I tried to get rid of it, but the little whisper kept coming into my mind over and over, “God won’t bless Us.”  It sounds like such a simple statement, no big deal.  But it lead to such a feeling of hopelessness.  I fought against the feelings constantly.  I was on my knees constantly.  But the story kept coming into my mind.

Some of the problems worked out.  Our basement was miraculously healed of mold and water damage.  (I wrote about that miracle and this time on the mission in an earlier post titled, God: “I’m here, hold on, you’re going to be ok.”).  We decided to rent the basement and with that money was able to hire Ryan to do yard work so we were able to give him a job.  The move for Mitch and Meghan turned out to be an amazing blessing for them.  But the struggles Na and Jo were having were just scratching the surface and the situation got brutal for us.

I know that, “man does not comprehend all that God comprehends”.  So, I put my trust in the Lord and kept working while we were serving.  I found a prayer that really helped and I prayed it literally 10 times a day, “Please help me see the blessings.”  Again, such a simple statement, but it really helped me so much.  In the mist of huge trials I had my eyes opened to the little blessings that were there.

Health to Jordan and Nathan wasn’t miraculously restored.  But, I literally saw miracles that helped us help them.  (I would like to write about those miracles someday, but not today. But I will mention one miracle we saw over and over): 

The Lord worked through us on our mission in a way we couldn’t deny. When you’re strong and things go well, it’s easy to think, it’s you.  But when you’re weak and things go well, you know, it’s all Him.  Our lives were falling down around us and yet, whenever the time came to speak, train or teach we would literally feel a calm come over us and words and thoughts come into our minds and a literal power come into our bodies and minds that left no doubt for us that we were just vessels for the Lord to do His work.  I would often get done with some talk or training and look to heaven and think, “Wow Lord, you did great, that was awesome!”  Then I would quietly whisper my thanks, because I absolutely knew it wasn’t me. 

The Lord took over and in a very real way made our mission His.  I couldn’t bear a strong enough testimony of the Lord’s power to help us do His work, or a strong enough testimony of his mercy and kindness to us when we aren’t quite up to the task at hand, even though we would like to be. 
 Even though the Lord got us through the mission, when we came home it all got worse.  (I’ll just keep it short and say that.)

I struggled with that little voice whispering, “God won’t bless US.”  I also struggled with thoughts of, “Why, Why, Why.”  Why was Nathan born gay?  What a hard thing to live with.  Why was he given that?  Why does Jordan have anxiety and depression that is rocking his whole world?  Why did Don develop health problems days after coming home?  Why couldn’t we find a project or a full time job?  Lots of little whys went along with those big whys.  (I have a very strong testimony that “why” questions take us away from God.  They are a barrier between us and Him.)  
I humbly admit I was in a bad way.  I prayed, I served at the MTC, we went to the temple, I read my scriptures, I focused on pulling our family back together, and I still felt such a feeling of loss and hopelessness.  I discovered how vital hope is in feeling happiness, motivation, and a sense of well-being.  Hope is everything!  It really drives us and you never know that more profoundly than when you don’t have it.

Even though my world was upside down and me with it, I didn’t lose my desire to pray.  I knew God was the answer.  I just had to figure out how to let him help me.

My journey back to hope was foundational and built in layers. It did not happen all at once.  I had to learn, get rid of hardness and be patient.   As I prayed I could hear the spirit of God whisper, “Hold on, I’ll get you there”, when I would ask the “why” questions.  When I would feel the struggle of serving at the MTC it was, “I know what you need, more than you know what you need.”  With the questions about Nathan and Jordan I heard, “Respect each person’s journey. This is not about you.  Trust me.”  When I felt, “This plan stinks!  I can’t wait until this pain and suffering is over. Why did I ever agree to this?!”  I felt God say to me, “This pain and suffering will help you understand a little of your Savior’s pain and suffering and others pain also.”  When I would go to that dark place of, “how is this ever going to be ok.  How am I ever going to feel happiness, peace or joy again?”  The spirit would whisper, “It will be ok.  You’ll be ok.  Everything will be ok in the end.”  Man, I would reject that one fast.  I couldn’t hold on to that.  How could anything ever be ok again?  My heart was so heavy, I couldn’t really hold on to any of these spiritual messages for very long.  I couldn’t keep them in my heart.  But I kept hearing them and I kept praying and I kept holding on and trying to stay with him.  I prayed, I read, I served, I repented, and gradually I started to work; work on moving forward and not just staying afloat.

My journey to hope and faith and strength and motivation and energy and power in God’s strength and healing is so multi-faceted:

It was discovering gratitude for what’s been given.

It was purging and repenting of any kind of negativity towards myself, others and God.  The refiner’s fire is such a painful experience but so amazing too.  When you are in survival mode you can’t hide things you didn’t even know you were hiding.  Every negative, dark thing inside of you has to come up and out.  Then the Savior can take it away and you’re left with a better version of self. 

It was becoming humble enough to see things in a more eternal perspective: God really will wipe every tear, make all things fair in the end, and turn all things too good for those who love him. 

It was letting the “whys” rest. 

It was coming to a place of recognition of untrue stories I was telling myself that kept me from coming to God and truly turning to Him. 

It was choosing to stay with Him; to keep listening to Him, holding on to his promises and whisperings the best I could.

And, it was working, accomplishing and creating energy every day by focusing on the little successes.

I still don’t know the answers, but I know God knows.  I trust my Heavenly Father, my Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  They know and so I don’t need too.  That is true trust.  I feel like I am on a tight rope, balancing, moving forward slowly, totally focused on God who stands straight ahead of me, across the space.  I can feel that if I look to the side or down I lose my way instantly.  If I think of why this was given to us, I fall.  Or, if I think of how will this ever work out or be fair, I fall.  If I think of the “what ifs”, I fall.  By, fall, I mean I feel discouraged, depressed, anxious, worried, doubtful, etc.  I fall to the thoughts born of the adversary, the world and my own natural man. 

But I know and have felt over and over that when I focus on God and trust in his perfect knowledge and plan I move forward with happiness and peace.  When I am able to focus on God and His messages of hope, I live.  I have energy.

Christ makes it possible to not just survive, but thrive.   I know this is true.  I feel whole.  I feel confident and not worried.  That’s amazing.  It’s like a miracle……

I am so full of hope now.  I can’t tell you what a miracle that is. Nothing has changed.  Not one thing is different.  But God has done a work in my life to change me.  I know we can all feel strong, confident, hope and peace because of Christ.  He is hope.  His message is hope.  I trust that because of Him we will receive mercy in this life and in the next.  Things really will be ok.

Our journeys are individual.  They can be amazingly hard and painful.  But the Lord will bring us to love, faith and knowledge of Him if we let Him. I know He truly is the way.  I encourage staying with God.  Try gratitude, humility, listening, repenting, and trusting.  Lay to rest the whys, what ifs and how’s.  

Elder Uchtdorf said in October Conference, “We will not only be satisfied with the judgment of God; we will also be astonished and overwhelmed by His infinite grace, mercy, generosity, and love for us, His children.”

The most beautiful Christmas message I could give is that He lives.  If we will pay attention to what is keeping us from God, and get rid of that, He will do a work in our lives that is a miracle.  He can change our heart, He can strengthen us, and He can give us peace.  Our beautiful Savior, saves. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

My path to deeper faith.

At our mission reunion a few months ago I wanted to share a message.  I didn’t really feel like it went very well though. It was a big group, we were outside, and there was some other distractions going on.  What I really wanted to communicate was something about faith that is deeper than I have ever understood before.  It’s personal and important to me so I thought I would write it to you in hopes that you will read it and understand.    To make it as meaningful to you as I would like it to be, (because I think the message is important), I need to be honest about what we’ve been going through.

I am realizing in my life I secretly thought everything would always work out; like even though you know life is full of struggles and trials my secret heart had a plan that went something like: all my kids would be physically, spiritually and emotionally healthy, get good grades, go to college, and get married and have kids.  I thought we would always be financially blessed and have a job.  I thought we would be physically healthy and always be able to fix anything that came our way.  You know, the usually stuff, right?

I don’t think we know anything really until we experience it for ourselves.

I never thought I would have a gay son who would become addicted to meth.  I never thought I would have another son have depression and anxiety so bad that he would feel abandoned by God and us and leave the church.  I never thought Don’s health would deteriorate within days of us returning home from our mission. I never thought my mother would die weeks after returning home from our mission.  And I never considered it would be so hard to find full time work after coming home from our mission.

I have been in a world of hurt and in a refiner’s fire that seems to have been going on for years now.  It felt like we were in the frying pan on our mission as we dealt with a lot of it while we were serving, but then we jumped right into the fire when we got home.   I didn’t even care what I was supposed to be learning from all of it for almost the first year after returning home.  My energy was in surviving and holding on, certainly not in learning anything from it.  But in the last 6 months I have adjusted a little and have been seeking after what the Lord wants me to gain from all of this life stuff; to bring meaning to it all. So here it is:

I feel I’ve been learning a layer of submission to God’s will that is very deep and requires a great amount of faith and trust.  I haven’t been pleased about it, perfect at it, or graceful through it.  I think I have screamed, cried, begged, blamed, and even withdrawn through it all.  This layer of submission has required a price from me that I could never have understand in those easier days when I prayed, “Thy will be done” and “Please help me be what I need to be to live with thee again.”  In the very deepest times of my sorrow I couldn’t even believe I ever prayed stuff like that.  I obviously had no idea what kind of price that would entail.  I certainly know I didn’t have the slightest understanding of what I was raising my hand to and shouting about when I wanted to come down to earth and experience all these things for myself.    But here I am experiencing what I asked for.

I thought I was doing good at being good, obedient, serving, loving and trusting. But as I look back even that was easy, when things were easy.  But what I’m coming to understand is there is a different level of obedience, serving, loving and trusting required when things aren’t going well.   It’s a refiners fire to trust when prayers don’t seem to be answered, obedient when expected blessings don’t happen, serving when everything you’ve worked and sacrificed for falls apart, and loving when loved ones who are free to choose, chose something so opposite than what you stand for.

I think God has been trying to teach me a different layer of understanding of His plan and His will.  I read a book by Neil A. Maxwell called “Not My Will, But Thine”, (The Christ like path of submission to God’s will).   He said something that hit me so hard, “Faith is strongest when it is without illusion”.  This speaks to my very heart and soul.  He says in these few words what I would try to say in volumes and still not speak very well about.  It seems to me my whole life is being wrapped around this principle.  “Faith is strongest when it is without illusion.”

I think my faith was kind of na├»ve before.  It’s easy to have faith when prayers are answered, you can see blessings, things fall into place like you think they will.  Looking back I kind of think I have been in a bubble my whole life. Prayers were answered, things turned out, stuff fell into place, problems were solved, I thought something and it seemed like I could make it happen.  Yes, I had trials and challenges, definitely.  But I faced them, worked on them, prayed for help, and got through them, and learned stuff along the way.  Elder Maxwell calls that kind of life, K-12, lessons and experiences.  In 1 Corinthians 10:13 it says, “We undergo afflictions such as are common to man”.  That was what I think I was living; afflictions that were common to man.  But Elder Maxwell says, “God will deliberately give us further lessons and experience which take us beyond the curriculum common to man and on into uncommon graduate studies or even post-doctoral discipleship.  These trials are often the most difficult to bear.”

I feel like that!  I am not in elementary school anymore.  I hope this is post-doctoral work in my life though and it won’t get any worse! 

Hold on tight because, if “Faith is strongest when it is without illusion” then we can know that is what the Lord wants to take us all too.  Faith without illusion.

So my message to you is this: Faith is not in a certain outcome happening in your life.  Faith is not in people, things, events or blessings.  You may not get married.  Will you still be faithful?  You may not get that certain job.  Will you still believe?  You may not be able to have children, your parents or siblings may die, your health may fail.  You’re belief in a God who loves you cannot be based on those things happening in your life!  He does love you.  He is real and knows you.  But He won’t always babysit you through life.  He won’t always make it easy to believe.

My testimony has become this and this only: My Faith and Hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ that all things will work together for good to those that love Him.  I am learning that that is the sure foundation.  Any other faith will fail.  You will be tossed to and fro if your faith is on something happening in your life the way you think it should happen. 

My message is: You can trust Him.  You must trust Him.  He is the way for all things to work for your good, no matter what you go through.  Hold on, He will get you there.  If you will ask and Listen, He will speak and you can receive guidance and direction that will get you back to peace, strength, confidence, happiness.

Elder Maxwell says it like this, “We submit to God because He is God.  We may safely and rationally do so because He is perfect-perfect in the attributes of love, mercy, justice, knowledge, patience and so forth.”  

I think the path to faith without illusion can be devastating, heart breaking and full of anguish as to what is happening to us and around us.  But we can still know that God loves us, we can communicate with him, and he has given us a Savior and the Holy Spirit that will help us in all things. 

What we become will be the evidence that we were, “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon the children of men, even as a child doth submit to his father: (Mos 3:19)   
I haven’t been able to write in this blog for 16 months.  I have had a block against it.  It has had something to do with surviving, no energy, no desire, nothing to say and my old pal, fear.  But I have learned so much along this journey. I believe the Lord with all my heart.  I know that I believe Him.  He has told me a thousand times in the last 3 years, “Hold on, I’ll get you there.”  And He has. 

Nothing in my situation has changed. At least nothing on the outside has changed.   But I have changed.  I’m not surviving anymore.  I’m good.  Life is so good.  I’ve actually learned a lot.  And He has done that.  I can finally hold on to the whispering in my heart that says, “It will all be ok in the end.”  That is exactly what Christ’s promise is: With Him we won’t have to suffer as He suffered, His chastisement will bring us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.  I’m not saying it is always easy.  I would never say that.  But I’m saying, “If you will hold on He will get you to peace, understanding and healing.  And that is everything.”