Mormonish

You should have seen me as a youth: reading my scriptures every day, going to seminary, being the stake scripture mastery champion, going to church when my parents were inactive. I was a fine little example of commitment to religion.

Of course, as life went on I wasn’t perfect, but I knew the church was always there in case I wanted to go back.

I’m not perfect. I don’t read my scriptures every day now. Church is a struggle to attend sometimes. At times I find myself rolling my eyes at talks or silently criticizing lessons, though it’s a nice surprise when I enjoy church because of an especially sensitive talk or balanced discussion.

I was very recently Primary president in two different wards, and I still struggled. I wasn’t perfect, but I worked hard at being the best Primary president I could be.

I don’t know. These feelings creep up, and I don’t know what to do.

As of now, we’re not super devout Mormons. We believe all the fundamental Christlike things. I love people, and I want to serve and help them. I want to be an awesome friend, mother, and wife. An awesome May.

It’s a combination of things, really: personal trials, policies, politics, raising our daughter to be able to make good decisions and be a kind person. Asking “What if?” all the time.

Yet we’re sticking around. Why, if there’s so much grief, so much struggle between the spirit and mind? Part of me needs to wait it out. Something’s going to change, and it possibly could be me, and it could be another bunch of things. Part of me needs to have faith for my loved ones.

I’ll push myself. But when it gets hard and I don’t feel like pushing anymore, I might pause until I feel like pushing again. Maybe one of these days the church I thought I believed in so much as a youth can be a church I can fully commit myself to again.

Sacrament Meeting Today

A lot goes on in a sacrament meeting in my ward. Babies cry and parents take them out of the room to calm them down. Toddlers toddle in the aisles or between pews. People play games with their smart phone. There are always a lot of announcements and someone is always in the hospital or had a baby or received a mission call. We sustain and release people to and from callings. With everything that happens, we can certainly appreciate the quiet moments during the meeting.

Today, people used the 70-minute block to bear their testimonies of the gospel. We do this every first Sunday of each month. The same things that happen every week in the congregation also happened today. Two rows in front of us, a dad took his fussy son out. I exchanged smiles with a flirty baby while watching a little boy waddle up to the podium to join his father. I caught glimpses of few people sending texts or playing games on phones and tablets.

Everything amused me and at the same time edified me. But in a distracted way. However, I also tried to focus on the meeting. I brought my French hymnbook to church and compared French hymns to their English counterparts. In an effort to learn the names of people in the ward, I wrote down the names of people who bore their testimony. The only people whose names I didn’t know were visitors. I was grateful to be making some progress.

The testimonies themselves were quite impressive. They were heartfelt and inspired. One in particular struck me in a way the others didn’t. The bishopric reminds the congregation that you can come up and bear your testimony as long as you can do it by yourself. Because of this, not many children have born their testimony, at least as long as Reilly and I have been in the ward.

A little girl and her visiting cousin came up to the stand. The cousin bore her testimony first, then the little girl. The little girl had just gotten baptized yesterday, and she expressed her feelings with such confidence and calmness. It occurred to me how virtually sinless she was, and her simple and powerful testimony heightened the spirit in the room. A palpable sweetness swelled and touched my distracted little heart, and tears flowed instantly from my eyes.

Even though this girl wasn’t the first to bear her testimony today, I’m grateful that she set the tone for my Sunday experience. I’m grateful for her example and especially her parents who strive constantly to give happiness to their family.

I hope to have this kind of influence someday.

Senegal Sundays

Whenever I hear the song of a bird
or look at the blue, blue sky
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
or the wind as it rushes by
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
or walk by a lilac tree
I’m glad that I live in the beautiful world
Heavenly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
the color of butterfly wings
He gave me my ears that I might hear
the magical sound of things
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart
I thank him reverently
for all his creations of which I’m a part
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.

Someone played this song on the piano during church yesterday. I cried.

I can’t stop thinking about Senegal. Not that I would want to.

Sundays were special, because that’s when we held church. We were the only group of our kind holding the kind of service our church holds. It was us and a lone family who lives in Dakar, the Smylies. When we’re not there, it’s just the Smylies, in their home. We were glad to spend two Sundays together with them.

The first Sunday was our arrival in Dakar. We agreed to have church in the conference room of the hotel at 2pm, after getting some rest. It was also the first Sunday of the month, which means testimony meeting.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church meeting so small. We sang hymns in French, we prayed in French; we passed the sacrament around the conference table.

Church in French when one doesn’t know the language well takes extra concentration. The rest of the meeting was spent bearing testimonies. I listened hard. People got emotional, and perhaps the more intentional focus helped me to feel the Spirit. I wrote in my journal at the time that the Spirit is stronger in French. I know if I put as much mental and emotional effort into an English church meeting, I could have the same experience. As classmates bore their testimonies, I couldn’t contain my tears. I knew the next five weeks would change me.

We toured Dakar after church. Madame Thompson led us down city streets and past markets and various restaurants. We took pictures and wandered for two hours, dodging occasional vendors and walking through neighborhoods. A little boy gave me a tap cinq.

We ended up in a restaurant where the program paid for the meal. It was a strange meal with strangely plated foods with beef or fish and brown sauce with either rice or millet. It tasted fine, but other people were a little bit squeamish about the meal. I shared some of my rice with Sarah, because the millet with its strange sauce tasted like strangeness. The tv broadcasted lutte, which is a type of wrestling and the most popular sport in Senegal.

Then, the power went out.

The second Sunday was Mother’s Day. The Smylies invited us to their home for church and brunch. They have a piano and we sang hymns with accompaniment. There was a special musical number by Melanie and Stephanie. Stephanie and Spencer gave excellent talks. Brunch was amazing with quiche and scones and fresh fruit and cake and delicious juices. I had been looking forward to it all week. People gathered around the piano and sang hymns. I played with the Smylies’ toddler. Their home was beautiful and clean and they were gracious. I got to speak to them about a common NYC friend, Ned. They love Ned, as everyone does.

This would be last time we’d see the Smylies on our trip. After an hour or so, we shook hands and gave thanks and boarded our trusty white school bus.

We went to an orphanage.

It was Mother’s Day.

We waved and smiled at the kids, and they smiled as us. Sometimes they were shy. We walked through buildings where they slept. Sometimes kids peeked around corners and I waved. I tried to imagine my life without parents, and my heart became heavy.

We stood outside, and a group of children stood facing us, and they taught us a version of “If you’re happy and you know it.” Their rendition uses joy in one’s heart and then shouting “Merci, Dieu” on the last verse. Those children were happy, and they knew they didn’t have to be unhappy, and I wanted for them to have even more happiness. I prayed it for them as I whispered through a tight throat, “Merci, Dieu.”

The following Sunday, the 15th, was our first in Saint-Louis, an old town in northern Senegal. I said the opening prayer for sacrament meeting that day. Don’t ask if I wrote it down and memorized it, because I won’t answer you.

I wrote this in my journal that day, in actual English:

“I’m thinking about capitalism and governments and organizations that promote and educate and encourage. I wonder if any of these institutions wil ever synchronize. I saw a news headline that said that Mitt Romney thinks ‘Obamacare’ will result in a complete government takeover of healthcare. This is such a huge issue in the United States, and elsewhere in the world people struggle with clean water and good schools.

“Schools! Why aren’t all the kids in school and not off the streets? This is a problem everywhere, but when little beggar boys wander around at night asking me for money and/or food, it’s very disheartening.

“How is this trip strengthening my faith? How is it touching my heart? It certainly enrages me in several ways.

“Dinner was lovely. Conversation was fun, though we got gently chided for talking in English.

“I think I’m gaining weight, which is totally lame.

“Another week is over. That’s so hard to believe. Yet, in some ways, I can’t wait to go home.”

Then, in French:

“Where is my heart? What do I love? How do I understand people? How do I devote my life to God?

“I don’t know how to read more quickly. Continue. Persevere. My brain is broken. Please, help me to fix it.”

We spent another Sunday in Saint-Louis, the 22nd. Those in the loop know this date is my birthday. Before sacrament, Madame Thompson announced there would be a “surprise” after church. Professor Lee’s birthday was on the 2nd, and Andrew’s birthday was on the 20th, and there was talk about having a combined birthday party for the May birthdays.

After church we met downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, and Madame Thompson led us into the restaurant, where tables were decorated with confetti and stars and little angel figurines. There were delicious drinks that I know the names of but I do not know how to spell. And then, there was cake. And three candles. And “Joyeux Anniversaire” piped in frosting and Professor Lee, Andrew and I blowing out the candles.

And then the cake was something like tiramisu. I don’t want to say for certain.

After cake, everyone who bought a boubou posed for pictures.

Then we strolled the town for our last Sunday in Saint-Louis.

Also, there was studying for an Anthropology midterm, but we can gloss over that.

Sunday the 29th, we rode a fancy, air-conditioned charter bus from a nice hotel in the middle of nowhere to another nice hotel in Saly, Senegal. (I will tell you another time about the hell-hole hotel in the middle of nowhere prior to the nice hotel in the milieu de nulle part. It was so many types of awesome.)

I took a nap on the bus and woke up with the worst headache ever. I drank some water, and I tried going back to sleep. It hurt so bad I turned my head toward the window and away from my dear friend, Kylie, and cried. Probably for a solid twenty minutes. Then I calmed down and Kylie shared cartoons on her iPod with me.

We arrived at the nicest hotel I have ever, ever, ever, ever stayed. Church was going to be at 6pm, and since it was our last Sunday together, it was also going to be a testimony meeting, in addition to Andrew speaking. Since it was a testimony meeting, and since it was the last one, the culmination of all our experiences in the past month, and since I already had a headache, and since classmates were saying beautiful and touching things and men were crying and I knew them so much better than I did just a month before – their spirits and their hearts – I sobbed the entire meeting.

This did not make my head feel better. At all. However, I was sitting next to Andrew’s wife Rebecca, and I told her I had a headache. That was when she placed her fingers at the base of my skull and applied a moderate, massaging pressure, and I felt instant relief. I had given shoulder rubs to eight or so people on the trip (because that’s how I make friends), and thought nothing of being touched in return, because I know not everyone is touchy, but this was what I needed. Also, Excedrin.

Then Sunday, June 5, I didn’t go to church because I was too busy being on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. So yesterday was my first Sunday at church back in the United States. I thought about the part of the world I’ve been blessed to see and experience in Senegal. I reflected on its beauty and richness of culture. I brought my French scriptures to church yesterday, and I thought especially of the children and how much God loves them. How they seem to know. I want to keep a deeper, more meaningful focus, and the eyes of the children are my lens. Their innocence, not just in French, not just in Africa. They are the difference I will never forget, happiness unrestrained and nondiscriminating. I spent five Sundays all over Senegal to realize, to see with utmost clarity, that God truly loves us all.

Merci, Dieu.

Hosanna au grand Roi

I was flipping through the French hymnal, trying to figure out the tunes and to see if I could recognize the hymns along with the words, because sometimes the translations are a little bit different.

Given today’s holiday, maybe this hymn seemed especially appropriate. I have been humming it all day.

1. Hosanna au grand Roi! Adorez le Seigneur,
Objet de notre foi, Rendez-lui tous honneur!

2. Il règne à tout jamais Le Dieu de vérité.
Payant pour nos péchés, Sa vie il a donné.

3. Son royaume est parfait, C’est lui qui règne en tout.
Il a reçu les clés, Vainquant la mort pour nous.

Ouvrez vos coeurs, offrez vos voix, laissez éclater votre joie,
Ouvrez vos coeurs, offrez vos voix, laissez éclater votre joie.

Professor/Brother Marsh spoke to us today at a special stake conference. His message instilled hope and joy, he invited the spirit of Easter to the meeting, and it continues to abide.

He recounted the story of Elder Holland observing a family awaiting their son from his mission at an airport. He noticed the anxious and eager faces on the girlfriend and the parents. He saw how their faces lit up when the plane landed, and the father ran onto the tarmac and waited for his son to deplane. When the son stepped onto the ground, he saw his father, and the two of them walked up to each other and gave each other a big hug. It was all they could do; they couldn’t speak for several minutes because they were so happy to see each other.

Elder Holland wondered if the reunion between Christ and the Father was anything like this, when the Son was alone for those agonizing moments, and when He was able to finally ascend up to his Father. Would they have been able to speak, or would they embrace and weep and not feel like letting go?

Brother Marsh told a personal story of his best friend,  from his mission days. His friend would call him up, wanting to pay a visit, and each time the both of them would hike the Y and reminisce about old times. This last time, the friend called. He visited, but he said he didn’t want to climb the Y, but talk with Brother Marsh. In his office, the friend announced that he had cancer, and that the doctors said he only had six months to live. The friend said he didn’t though he was going to make it even that long, but he wanted his best friend to know. For the next two hours they talked and reminisced and enjoyed the closeness of their friendship. When it came time for the friend to leave, they stood up and hugged each other, and the friend told Brother Marsh that he forgave him. Knowing that there was never any contention between them in the course of their friendship, Brother Marsh understood that if there was anything that would hinder their eternal friendship, all would be forgiven.

The friend passed away just a few months later, after his birthday.

The Atonement continues to amaze me in the many ways it works in people’s lives. I’ll never fully understand it, but because it works in my life, I am grateful for it, and maybe that’s all I need.

Happy Easter.

Sometimes I Keep Comments to Myself in Church, Which I Tell People Privately, Which I Then Broadcast on a Public Blog

From a past Sunday:

Dear [Person],

Just wanted to let you know I really appreciated your lesson today. The gifts of the Spirit or so important and truly testify to God’s knowing exactly what we need to grow as individuals and help build His kingdom.

I was thinking during class about your gift of believing other people’s testimonies. It’s a crucial gift, because what good are testimonies that have been born without those who can hear them and believe them? It seems those who have this gift have an inherent ability to sustain and strengthen those especially who have been called to testify of Christ. It seems that those with your gift can sustain with even greater conviction our church leaders. Not everyone can give support with that kind of power. The kingdom cannot thrive without your belief; it seems to complete the formula of faith required in general to receive and exercise all the gifts of the Spirit. And, it shows how the Lord blesses us with each other, and that we really do need one another for strength and encouragement. It’s super cool. Therefore, you’re super cool.

That’s all.

Have a great week.

I think about the gifts of the Spirit (Moroni 10, D&C 46, 1 Corinthians 12, and those are just the ones listed) all the time. I like to see people use theirs. I’m always trying to cultivate an awareness of what mine are or what I can receive and develop. And it’s always in the context of being able to help others. And yet, it’s always about potential and faithfulness that these gifts can rest upon me. I know I have the potential to be a good teacher; I can tell when I’m in a physically or spiritually dangerous place; I have an exceptional ability to listen, to internalize and empathize. So when I hear people explain why they don’t understand something about themselves, I can usually offer a different perspective, or at the very least, a competent ear and an open heart. When I’m good at this, I’m really good at this. I’m not boasting, but merely stating an observation, which, incidentally, is very humbling.

My Apologies to Dr. Hawking if My Doubts Were His Tipping Point

Open-mindedness. Tolerance. Acceptance. These are very important to me, and I’ve made a concerted effort in my life to exercise these concepts. Such assertions of late have caused doubts and questions to emerge that I haven’t considered about religion and church and God and spirituality. And my relationship to people who don’t believe the same things I was brought up to believe.

Life is a process. It’s learning and progressing and striving for happiness. And I’ve always taken this seriously.

I deeply appreciate and admire the great minds of our time and throughout history. I’ve lauded the reverence they seemed to have for higher powers or whatever they couldn’t understand. To me, they’ve always allowed room for God. Something. Something that encompasses infinity and eternity, speaking the language of numbers and natural laws, languages they’ve only taken the span of a lifetime to comprehend. Intrinsically, it has to take longer to grasp what infinity and eternity mean.

And then one of the great geniuses of our time up and says stuff in his upcoming book.

Now, he doesn’t deny God’s existence; he just says that the Creator didn’t create the universe.

And if anything should rub me the wrong way, it’s something like this.

Now, my mental capacity is nowhere near Dr. Hawking’s. I haven’t devoted my life to trying to calculate and compute and empiricize and theorize in order to understand.

But, I have prayed.

And God has told me.

So, I know.

Dr. Hawking’s claims were my tipping point. Spending the summer questioning and struggling and researching and trying to reason wasn’t making me happy.

Faith isn’t a rational device: There are no existing extrapolations for it.

I have to thank him, though, one of the greatest minds in history.

Instead of being an apologist for everyone else, he helped me turn into a defender of myself and my personal beliefs.

Things aren’t perfect yet, they’re not quite balanced, and it might take a while – even forever – but they’ll get there.

Some Christmas Thoughts

I’m supposed to be working on a talk for Sunday. I’m also supposed to be writing a toast for a friend’s wedding reception. But I just keep thinking about the past couple of days I spent with friends and family. Then I consider the past ten weeks I’ve been able to spend with these loved ones. I play a scene over and over in my head that hasn’t even happened yet, but will happen early Monday morning. It involves my mom and brother and the airport and, inevitably, tears. Gentle sobs catch in my throat now as I think of it.

Change is constant. Christ is constant, because he has endured all change, for all mankind. His birth and life and resurrection carved an example, forged a path for us to follow. A steady, strong, strenthening path. A clear, comforting, consistent path. It instills hope and fosters peace; it carries love. This love is unfailing; it inspires and uplifts and extends beyond mortal might. I’ve felt it especially here in Florida and from miles away. We are children of God. Stretched out still, Christ’s arm reaches down from the firmament and relieves my soul, teaching me all that I must do, so that I can grow from the change that awaits me, so I can continue to be grateful for friends and family who so ably and amply … love.

Merry Christmas, everyone.