Friday, July 26, 2013

Coming Home

Following is the transcript of the talk I gave when I came home from my two-year mission on July 14th, 2013 (pictures taken from a special exhibit at Thanksgiving Point of statues of Christ):

If there’s one thing I love, it’s being able to witness people making covenants. If there’s another thing I love, it’s being able to witness people renewing those covenants. I love sacrament meeting. I love sitting at the front, getting to watch people as they rely on the Atonement. There’s nothing more important, more fundamental to the gospel—to our lives—than the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As Isaiah taught, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” I testify of that.

I’d like to thank the youth speakers. Thank you, for setting the tone, for inviting the Spirit. Thank you, also, to the young women for that beautiful song. I have gained an undying witness that that is true, that He will not fail us. And that is exactly what I want to talk about today.

Before I do, I want to apologize in advance. Today has already been a very busy day. Three hours ago we were pulling out of the MTC. Three and a half hours ago I was still in my mission. And here I am. But I’m grateful to be here. I love speaking in church. I love sharing my testimony. And I love each and every one of you and I want you to know that more importantly, your Heavenly Father and your Savior love each of you. If I've learned nothing else on my mission but that, I've learned enough.

As serving in the MTC we had the great blessing to be able to hear, every Tuesday night, from a General Authority and about once a month from an Apostle. I heard from Elder Holland I think three or four times and every time, among the things that he said in his introduction, he said that his mission has meant everything to him. And I want you to know that my mission has meant everything to me. Everything that I thought I knew before pales in comparison with what I know now; what I've experienced; who I've become.

Part of the problem with being into mathematics as I am--being so analytical--is that it is hard to articulate yourself. There is so much going on up here (in my mind), so much in here (my heart) that I don’t have the words to express. So please bear with me today as I seek to express these thoughts and these feelings that are so poignant and so important to me and which I hope are important to each of you.

To start off, I want you all to think back to the covenants you have made. Think back to when you were baptized, whether you were eight years old, whether that was eighty years ago or eight years ago or eight months ago. Think back to that. Think back to what you promised. Among those covenants is that of taking Christ’s name upon us. To me that has become one of the most sacred as I have literally done that.

As we learned from the worldwide broadcast three or so weeks ago, missionary work isn't reserved just for the fulltime missionaries. It’s not reserved for each of those—each of us—who wear a tag, but it’s reserved for each of us who have been baptized, even those of us who aren't members of the Church but are followers of Christ have a responsibility to share His gospel, proclaim His word. I love what Elder Anderson talked about in his conference talk about painting a name tag on our heart, not with paint but with the Spirit. I invite each and every one of you, as you continue forth in your day to day lives, to do the same, to figure out how you can individually paint that tag on your heart and how you can be a missionary.

I've spent a lot of time pondering and praying about what I wanted to share with you. If you are looking for a lot of stories about my mission, this is the wrong place. I’m not here to share stories, I’m not here to tell you about all of the places I've served (partially because there was only one; I sat at the same cubicle for two years. So it’s not that exciting.) But what I will try and do today is to help you feel the Spirit, to help you be taught by the Spirit, and I pray that that’s what happens. I pray that I am able to speak by the Spirit and that you are able to learn by the Spirit because He is the ultimate teacher.

Growing up I made, as each of us have, I made some decisions that I shouldn't, took some paths that I shouldn't have taken and eventually it took me to the road of repentance, getting back on the straight and narrow. And as I repented, as I cleaned up my act and put my life more in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ, a greater joy than I can ever describe and have ever since experienced consumed me. And with that joy came a desire to share the gospel, a desire to help somebody else feel that. I thought “If I could have been this low and transitioned to this high, why would I want to keep that to myself? Why would I not want to help somebody else feel that?”

And that to me was really the point where I wanted to serve a mission, where I wanted to help complete strangers; strangers who had driven across the country from North Carolina to Utah for who knows what reason, strangers who had fallen away from the Church who were seeking to develop a testimony. I wanted them to experience this. So I started the application process. I started seeking to come on a mission.

As things progressed, things went well. I knew I wouldn't be able to serve a regular mission; there was no way I was going to be able to do all of that walking,  tracting, bike riding, and all of that stuff. But I knew there had to be some way, some way for me to fulfill this desire to share the gospel. And when I got my mission call, it was, to say the least, disappointing.

I was called to a mission that nobody knew. At the time I opened it, I had three brothers-in-law on Skype and one brother on Skype and as I talked with them they shared what they knew about it: that the referral center was part of the MTC experience, that you go there, you answer phones and help people get in contact with local missionaries, send them copies of the Book of Mormon and finding faith in Christ and stuff.

I thought “Well that’s great for an hour a week, but as a mission, that sounds like torture.”

I was confused. I was heartbroken that to the extent I knew, my one righteous plea had not been answered. For about a day, I was mad at the Lord. I knew that I should pray to know if that was where He wanted me to go but I was too mad at Him. I couldn't do it. I felt like He had abandoned me so I distanced myself from Him. But then after about a day I realized “This is pathetic. This is going nowhere. All I’m doing is getting more upset. I can’t do this anymore.”

So I finally got down on my knees and I prayed and I begged the Lord to show me if that was really where He wanted me to go. Before the words finished leaving my mouth, with a power that I cannot explain, a power that I cannot describe, I knew without any question that He needed me to serve there and that I needed me to serve there.

So, I put my trust in Him. I followed and I did what He had called me to do. And from that day—from that day that I knew that that’s where I was supposed to go—my life changed forever. And I came to understand a concept which I wish to speak about today. It’s found in 1 Nephi 21:15-16 which says, Nephi quoting Isaiah, the Lord speaking saying, “For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.”

The question becomes “Why? Why can a mother forget her child, but the Lord not forget us?” Well, we have the answer in the next verse. “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.”

Were it not for His infinite love, His infinite compassion that is described so frequently throughout the scriptures, the fact that Christ had a constant reminder in such a common place makes me think that it is literally impossible for Him to ever forget us. Think about if you have gotten a cut on the palm of your hand. How often does that bother you? How often are you reminded of that by your day-to-day labors? Now imagine being crucified and having a nail driven through your hand. How much more then would you remember and remember why you did it?

Brothers and sisters, I testify with all that I am, without any question, that the Lord will not fail us. He will not forsake us. He cannot forget us.

I loved Elder Ellis’ talk from general conference. There were a number of great insights that he shared, but there is one section, well two sections that I want to read. He says
“Nothing is more basic to all of us, and our doctrine, than the truths of the first article of faith: ‘We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost’.
“Further, He is our Heavenly Father, who knows us, loves us, and wants us to return to Him. Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer, who through the Atonement made it certain we will overcome death and live again and possible for us to be exalted and have eternal life. The Holy Ghost is our comforter, revelator, teacher, testifier, and guide.
“Think of it, brothers and sisters—we are not spiritual orphans! We are not alone.”
As I was preparing my remarks, I read this and I thought, “What is an orphan?” Obviously the first thought is someone whose parents abandon them, who leave them at a curb or somewhere else, someone who is left. I thought, “Okay, so we can be physically orphaned but what about other things? Can we be spiritually orphaned? Can we be emotionally orphaned? Can we be mentally orphaned?” Yeah, of course we can!

Through the course of my mission I met people who had been emotionally orphaned by those around them, who had been left completely alone emotionally, even emotionally scarred because of those who were closest to them, those who shouldn't, of all people, have done that. And there were people who were raised in homes that were so against God that even the mention of His name brought rage and abuse and violence. They were spiritually orphaned by their parents.

We are not orphans. God is our Father and He has not orphaned us in any way: physically, spiritually, emotionally. He is always with us. He never left us alone.

I never realized how great my parents were until my mission. Up until then I knew that they were wonderful, I knew that they loved me, but I always took advantage of it. Then when they weren’t there I realized how much they had done for me. I realized that they had never, ever, ever made me feel like an orphan in any way, shape, or form.

My mom and I, through email, discussed this a number of weeks ago, but it’s an experience that I have thought back on every day of my mission. It was the hardest experience for me, of my life and possibly will be the hardest experience of my life.

At the beginning of my junior year in high school I had surgery on my ankles and feet hoping to help things improve. The pre-op was good, from what I hear that surgery was good and I woke up from the anesthesia in the most excruciating pain that I could ever experience, far beyond my imagination. For the next two hours as I writhed in pain, with doctors and nurses running in and out trying to help in some way, I watched my parents—always right next to me, constantly praying, hoping, helping to the best of their abilities to get things figured out, to help me be relieved from this pain.

Of course they didn't know what was going on. In the grand scheme of things there wasn't a whole lot that they could do to get me out of this pain. But they were there. To this day I still remember my mother sitting in the chair next to me with my father standing close by with sorrow and compassion in their eyes. How much they wanted to help me, but couldn't. I don’t know, but I assume how much they wanted to take that pain for themselves so that I wouldn't have to.

Through my mission I realized that that is exactly, exactly how our Heavenly Father feels. He wants to help us, but He can’t. It is possible for Him to do so, but He knows that there is a much greater reward for us enduring and experiencing these trials on our own. He knows that with everything we endure—every trial, every hardship, every affliction—growth will come from it. Or at least growth can come. He is not willing to sacrifice our growth for a few moments of pleasure and a lack of pain. That’s not what He’s about. He is there to help us eternally, not just in the moment, not just for a minute or two, but for the eternities.

I think back on the mission and how incredibly hard each and every day was. My mission was the hardest experience of my life but, as I have recently heard a general authority say, it was the best experience for my life. Not a day passed by that I didn't think about some way that what I was going through was going to bless my life. Whether it was the struggles with my trainer breaking my pride or trying to help missionaries who wouldn't listen, who wouldn't receive guidance and counsel. How frustrating that was, but how much growth came out of it.

A few days ago, my companion and I taught two girls in California who are best friends who are learning of and loving the gospel. Every time we talk it blows my mind how spiritually mature they are, how much they are taking from the scriptures. And the other day we read from Mosiah 24 with them and we shared about the people of Alma, their experiences, their growth, their faith.

I've realized as I have thought back on my life and on those verses how much that applies to me and how much that applies to each of us. How many times are we going through something difficult and we pray and beg the Lord—whether verbally or in our hearts—to take away the pain, to take away the trials and to help us? Then we receive an answer. However the Lord speaks to us, He speaks and He lets us know that it will all be okay, that He’ll take care of it.

So in the moment we say “Great. I trust you, I believe you, and I’m going to press forward.” And then a day later or a week later the problem is still there. We get so frustrated, thinking “Why? You said you would take care of it, why is it still here?”

And on a number of occasions as I have thought that and felt that and prayed that, a response has come. “I am here. I always have been here. I always will be here. Please trust me.” That’s all the Lord asks; He asks that we do our best and trust Him. Trust that He is there. Trust that He has our best interest at heart.

Two years ago I don’t think, I don’t imagine that I would have ever thought about sharing these things. I don’t imagine I would have even known these things. I am so eternally grateful for the opportunity that I had to serve a mission as it has change my life and as it will change the lives of those that I interact with because I spent two years learning how to become like the Savior, learning how to become like Him.

I know that the Lord will not fail us. He will not leave us comfortless. He will always be with us and all we have to do is turn to Him. I testify that He will be there. I say that in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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