Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Week 8: Due Season

I don't mean to sound prideful in this - indeed, I boast not of myself but of my God - when I say I've given some pretty bomb-diggity amazing spiritual lessons in my head.  I was pondering on the possible needs of this one part member family, in which only the father is a member and he's not active, and suddenly a rush of inspired questions and accommodating doctrine came to my mind, and it's as if I could see them all sitting before me.  I'm pleased to announce that the desk chair in my living room knows who it is and its relationship to God and is getting baptized next month.
Last Tuesday, we racked up a whole lot more potentials for which I hope these in-my-head lessons will prove useful.  We walked to the apartment complex where we'd always had some sort of luck before, and handed out three books of Mormon, and got five return appointments, one of them being from a woman we swear is golden - she had questions for us the second I brought up the Restoration and it's clear that she's looking for something her churches before were lacking.  And all this before lunch.  It was our greatest day yet.  Most of the return appointments were made tenatively for sometime Friday, so of course that's when we went back.  Let me tell you a thing about Friday.

Everyone had been readily and gleefully predicting rain, and lots of it.  Thursday night was rocked with thunder and a little bit of lightning, and we all hoped it would continue.  And boy did it continue.  Despite a flash-flood warning we'd recieved via text, Sister Haviland and I went out, her with an umbrella and I in a rainjacket, to walk to the apartments because of course the other sisters had the car that afternoon.  The precipitation was refreshing at first, and Sister H was okay tiptoeing around puddles in her flats while I hopped through them in boots like a preschooler, but then the drops swelled and gained speed.  Minutes later, we were sloshing through an inch of rain on every sidewalk, cringing and fleeing onto strangers' lawns whenever cars went past through the pools that flooded the gutters and streets.  The worst was a city bus, speeding and relentless, that sent a tsunami over our heads as it flew past.  Not an inch of me was not wet.  I had to literally pour water out of my apparently-not-waterproof boots.  Fortunately, our miserable state invoked the sympathy of two previous contacts who let us in to teach them a bit.  Here we discovered that despite our efforts to protect our bags, a few Books of Mormons suffered from moist bindings, and several pamphlets perished.  But we got 1 and 1/2 lessons out of it (the half because we had to leave one early when the kid's family texted from the next room, probably saying "stop talkin to them Mormons!").

I want you to know that the fact that we still haven't gotten any second lessons with anyone (any of which would have moved "potential" to "progressing" investigator status) has not had any negative effect on me, i.e. has nothing to do with the fact that I've maintained the diet of a pregnant woman for the last week or so.  It probably had more to do with the cake and Oreos I got for my birthday.  I celebrated my golden on Sunday, the 22nd, and it was wonderful.  I can't think of a better place to spend my birthaversary than in the mission field, doing something meaningful with my young life.  (Irony of the moment: I'm the oldest person in my apartment and the youngest missionary in my apartment.  22 years old and I've been out the least amount of time, six weeks.)  We spent most of day after church visiting teaching with a sister in the ward, and then at dinner (tender mercy!) they happened to have cupcakes left from their son's birthday the day before and lit one up for me with 22 candles so they could sing to me.  It was fabulous. 
All my love and thanks to those of you who remembered me this week and sent gifts or cards.  I felt so loved!  And my whole apartment was blessed by the Oreos to indulge in, new CD's to play while we clean, and flowers for our table.  Yesterday, my dear companion and roomies threw a mini combined birthday party for me and Sister Harker, who's birthday is on Thursday, at the church in the cultural hall - pinata included.  Then upon returning to my apartment, I learned that stringing your room with streamers, stealing your mattress and shoving it in the bathroom, and leaving candy on your mattress-less bed is the common elder's way of saying "I love you and happy birthday."
my gift from the elders
transfer calls
Today is actually transfer day, so I'm currently in limbo, companionless.  I said goodbye to my "mother," my trainer Sister Haviland this morning, and am awaiting my follow-up trainer Sister Brimley to arrive in Shreveport, whom I know nothing about except that she's got the personality of a Disney Princess straight out of Enchanted.  I'll bet she's got her own Happy Tracting Song and all.  I'm hopeful for what this change will bring, and I know that if we continue in obedience and trust (despite the awkward early stage of every new companionship) that we will get those second appointments and I won't have to do the majority of my teaching to empty desk chairs.
"If ye walk in my statutes and keep my commandments, and do them;
Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yeild their fruit."
[Leviticus 26:3-4]
Remember how it was unbearable hot and gross not too long ago?  Well the weather preceding that stormy Friday has been beautiful and perfect and a testimony to me that all good and promised things come in their season from He that keeps the earth turning.  Wish us luck!
Sister Valdez


Monday, September 16, 2013


They say a point comes for every missionary when you suddenly realize the gravity of the choice you've made and the things you're doing and you compare your life to what it was just a few months ago and snap.  None of my roommates thought it at all odd last week when they found me both sitting in my chair and doing a headstand at the same time (picture it long enough, you'll understand how that worked) and laughing uncontrollably while my skirted legs tried to walk on the ceiling.  My trainer just pointed and said, "She hit the breaking point."

That one might have been extreme, but it was not the only one of its kind.  Once in awhile I think about where I would be if I hadn't gone on a mission, or worse yet if I wasn't a member of the church.  That makes for one chilling discussion between missionaries, let me tell you.  And then I think about all those who don't know what this is like, to have the answers to life that men and philosophers have speculated for centuries and centuries, or to know who you really are and what simple things one must do to find true happiness.  So many are kept from the truth "because they know not where to find it," and when I think on their state as compared to mine, my purpose become all that more urgent.  So yeah, I know I'm doing a crazy thing, making a weighty sacrifice, and trying to do a work that I would never have considered myself qualified for, but - I know that the knowledge I have is most valuable and precious above anything else and someone out there wants it so, so bad, they'd go so far as to let two complete strangers into their home, inexperienced and barely adults at that, to teach what they know.
I also know that I am not doing this alone and that I of myself am nowhere near qualified.  I just do the studying, go out, and open my mouth, and God's got it from there.  Indeed, I don't so much as pick up the phone to make a call without this my most commonly used four-word prayer, "Father, be with me."  And once in awhile, He throws us a bone, as my district leader promised.
Last Tuesday, we stopped by the apartment of a woman who'd seemed promising, but to no answer.  So we decided to tract more of the same apartments.  No joke, the first door we knocked on, the man behind it invited us in.  That never happens.  His name was Jerry, and he was an older guy, old enough to have worn his share of chapel pews and been jaded to the idea of high-profit superchurches.  We shared a bit about the restoration of Jesus Christ's church, and about the Book of Mormon.  He then told us he'd read a bit of it before, met missionaries before, and even been to our church before, back when he was dating a girl who was LDS.  Any of you that know my personal history will understand why in my heart I promptly exclaimed "Prepare to enter the waters, Mr. Jerry, for I WILL finish what that young woman started!  Her heartbreak over your non-conversion will NOT be in vain!"  And though we haven't gotten our second appointment yet, it will happen.  I am determined.
The Sister Training Leaders came to our area this week, which meant splits and a sleepover.  I went out with Sister Mongie who had been in Shreveport before and thus knew a bunch of members already who she wanted to see.  Here's the thing - not only does she know these members, she's basically best friends with them.  We chatted for half an hour with one sister who happened to be home (and she's never home, let alone with time to chat) just about life and family and things.  Then another sister drove all the way over to where we were to pick us up and take us back to her home to teach her family.  I am nowhere near a point where I can ask for favors like that;  "Oh hey, we want to come teach your fam tonight on zero notice, and also can you drive out here and pick us up first? Cool."  It was amazing how much they adored Sister Mongie, and I realize how vital not only trust is between members and missionaries, but friendship.
I'm working on that, I really am, but my thing is that I find it so much easier to be friends with members that are half my size, i.e. the children.  I don't worry about saying the wrong thing or about impressing when I'm talking to five or six or twelve year olds.  On a visiting teaching tag-along (part of our initiative to get to know members) I spent the whole appointment throwing paper airplanes with three-year-old Autumn and her brother.  Max, who just turned eight and got baptized on Sunday, became my bud the day we played charades in the car from here to Bossier.  I have a drawing on my wall from my fave little artist Ivy, who made me two more when I told her how much I like her depiction of an orange bird of an obscure species.  Taylor, Cabri, and Cameron, however, abused our friendship when I was sitting in the car the other night at the Sonic and they snuck up behind me and banged on my windows, just so they could laugh when I hollered and jumped a mile.  But they're adorable girls, so I'll find it in my heart to forgive them.
I've wondered if it's doing me any good as a missionary to form such tight bonds within the confines of the local Primary, but then I think that if my love for the little ones eventually translates to a positive impression of missionaries, then someday they'll want to serve missions too, or at least introduce their friends to them.  And if this positive impression occurs for their parents as well, all the better.  In the meantime, me and five-year-old Ashling have found that drawing pictures in sacrament meeting can be a most uplifting activity at any age.  I draw scenes from Christ's life and ministry while she draws stick men and bubbles.
In closing, I have to tell you this story because it was such a bizzare moment in my life.  So, it's a Friday, like any other.  Study, weekly planning sesh, and then go out.  We met with a returning member at the church, gave her Nephi's pep talk (2 Nephi 4) because her life sucks right now, and were delighted to see that her faith was still strong and she's been reading in the Book of Mormon, even though she hasn't made it to church yet.  We toured the building with her too, and I showed her the photos of the all the children in Primary, because let's face it, kids are awesome.  But then Sister Haviland and I went out to do some contacting and things started to get... off.  We contacted a list of potentials, who either weren't home or weren't interested, all the while feeling strangely tired and sluggish.  Then we decided to tract in our own apartment complex, stay local and whatev, and the first building we entered smelled strongly of weed.  More than one door was all but impossible to approach with all the fake potted plants in the way, and others had dead roaches in place of a placemat.  Not a single door approach was not freakishly awkward or with a normal-looking person.  I honestly don't know how to describe it, but after that first building, Sister H took the words right out of my mouth - "I feel like I'm on drugs."  Neither of us have ever been high, but we're fairly sure that tracting experience came pretty close.  We both felt sluggish and confused and couldn't stop laughing at the fact that neither of us knew what was going on or if this was even real.  Our last attempt was a member referral close to home, and again it was horrendously awkward because the couple was eating dinner and said "yeah, you can come back another time, bye" so we handed them their escaped dog and went back to the car.  She was hit by a fit of laughter, and I by unstoppable, unexplainable tears.  The other sisters took one look at us, a giggling and weeping mess, and said "I don't know what happened, but you two are not okay" and forbid us from trying to proselyte any further.  They dropped us at the apartment where we crashed. Hard. The worst feeling was realizing that I could barely muster the energy to pray - what I did muster was something like this "Father, whatever evil this is... please deliver us."  Two hours of heavy sleep and fever dreams later, we felt a little more normal.  Nothing a milkshake and ice cream flurry couldn't relieve.  Thank goodness, 'cause it was getting scary.
My companion and I came to four theories on this incident:
1. Multiple rejections are psychologically damaging.
2. Heat exhaustion.
3. Something Sister Harker calls "hotboxing" and I call "secondhand stonage."
4. Heavenly Father decided we need to experience what its like to be high, so when we get an investigator that's a drug addict, we can empathize and promise that the Spirit feels so much better than this.
Just as in those moments where we merely speculated what a God-less life would be like, I can tell you that the nothing the world has to offer even begins to compare with having a member of the Godhead as your constant companion.
"If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you...
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me:
And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning."
[John 15:19, 26-27]
It's amazing what a few words sent heavenward can do in times of panic.  Whether it be "Father, deliver us," or "Father, be with me," I know that "whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you" according to His will and timing.  So "be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee, withersoever thou goest." [Joshua 1:9]  I keep that scripture on my mirror and I refer to it daily as needed.  There is no better medicine for conquering our constant battle with the world.
Sister Valdez

Week 7 Pictures

So one time, Sister Haviland got a package of weird stuff, including mustaches. An impromptu photoshoot unsued.

This little chica is Ashling.  I love her to bits.  She sat next to me in sacrament meeting yesterday and we drew the following pictures together.

So...we don't talk about this.  But let's just say some keys got locked in a certain car and a certain pair of elders had skills that need not be mentioned but were of great assistance in reclaiming those keys. (Disclaimer: I didn't do it.)

Here's the thing about a zone of missionaries all in one place.  We really like taking pictures of each other.

This is most of us right before a break the fast.

This is my roomie Sister Ray. We are basically the same person.

Me and Sister Martin were buds in the MTC and I love her.

And Elder Tanner just can't take your picture without putting himself in the next one.

Our ZL's insist that Elder Tanner is Aladdin and I am Jasmine.  I'll let you decide.

We're gonna pretend this is me showing you our apartment and not from that time something weird overcame me that resulted in fifty selfies.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Week 6: My Voice Shall Forever Ascend

Tracting is like flossing.  After several days it does stop putting you in horrible pain, and you do it because you know it's necessary, but you will never ever enjoy it. It's all good, though!
As all men have agency, it is a choice to obey all commandments, including this one: "Be of good cheer."  If you're walking through sweltering heat with blisters on your heels and a load of books on your back after having someone persistently accuse you of being a wandering cultist, it is still up to you to decide what face you'll wear on the way home.  It would be very easy to sulk and complain and let a raincloud follow your steps (which would actually be very much a relief in this heat), but when you remember who you represent, who's name you wear on your shoulder, you suddenly have a very good reason to force your chapped lips into a smile, or at least to raise your voice in a refrain of "There is sunshine in my soul today" until the irony makes you smile for real.
As a representative of Christ, I've come to find that wearing his name is the only way I could do any of this, but not just on the outside.  It has to be part of who you are.  To be a true representative, you must come to know Him by doing the things you think He would do and you know you're doing it right when you begin experiencing the things He experienced, which is the most blessed and most challenging part of this work.  Our Savior experienced the greatest of joys, and the greatest of pains, was both greatly loved and harshly reviled.
Everytime someone insists that they don't need you, or don't want you and what you have to offer, when they close their doors to you with so little regard, or even become accusatory, calling you false and hellbound, and even those you thought would hear you inform you instead that they would rather you not come back, you hear the words of the scriptures "He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" and understand.
But then, when you find yourself called early one morning to the aid of a less active sister, and suddenly you're kneeling beside a couch, grasping the hand of a woman writhing and crying out in pain as you wait for help to come, and feel a strange and strong desire to weep with her and take that pain away though you've hardly known her a minute, you hear the words of the scriptures again, "My bowels are filled with compassion toward you" and understand.

Instances like these must surely be the work of my Savior, confirming to me that this is what it feels like, in some small part, to be like Him, to be a witness of Him, to be His hands, to represent His church.  More important is the peaceful feeling the Holy Ghost fills me with, assuring me that I am not doing this alone.
I realize a lot of my writings home lately make it sound like this is all pain and suffering.  I apologize and assure you, it's not, though they are my moments of significant learning.  But you learn to find beauty in every day.  In cooking one of my favorite recipes from my mother, and having a dinner that tastes like home.  In having an impromptu sing along with a member of the ward that knows Saturday's Warrior songs on the piano.  In a boisterous game of ultimate frisbee with ward members and other missionaries, skirts and ties and all.
As Nephi says in 2 Nephi 4, "Why should I be angry because of mine enemies?  Why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow?  Awake my soul!  Rejoice, O my heart!  Oh Lord I have trusted in thee and will trust in thee forever.  I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh.  Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God."

Sister Valdez

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Week 5 Pictures

Psych anyone?
Sister Haviland and Sister Ray and I
reenacting the Holes movie poster.
A pretty park me and Sister H found here in Shreveport.  Gotta love all that greenery.
Apartment movie night!
Literally everyone here is an LSU Tigers fan.  I hate football, but I thought the shirt was cute.

Week 5: Bear With Patience

My testimony is thus: Heavenly Father knows what He's doing.
Broad and obvious?  Yes.  Permit me to elaborate.
The longer I'm out here, the more I can see how my careful and intelligent Father in Heaven has prepared me for this mission, this place, these people.
In the MTC when my roommate was lying miserably ill in bed one night, she asked me to sing to her.  I immediately began to fill that dark room with the lines of "Be Still My Soul," a song that brought instant peace to our hearts and I was grateful to have had the thought, months ago, to memorize hymns.  There have been at least five other instances when I was able to make music part of my missionary work, whether it be starting a lesson with a hymn or singing in nursing homes as a service.  Never before have I been so grateful for the gifts my Father has given me and allowed me opportunity to develop.
Another moment was when a young man allowed us to talk to him because he'd had a dream about the Mormon church and wanted an interpretation.  I admitted I'm no certified interpreter, but from what I've learned in studies of art and literature, I was able to make sense of a dream about snakes, baptismal water, and loose pages (being that it was a sign that God wanted him to read the Book of Mormon and be baptized, in spite of Satan's efforts to deter him.  We didn't get a return appointment yet, but maybe somewhere down the road it will have done some good.)
At the farmer's market last Saturday (the first place that's felt even remotely familiar or close to home, since you can't find natural anything anywhere else), my companion and I struck up conversation with the guy selling gourmet popsicles.  He sold me a handmade mango popsicle and we sold him (figuratively speaking) on the Book of Mormon, which he hopefully will read.  As he expressed his beliefs, which were again that all encompassing "all people around the world strive for an ideal, religion is just a vehicle with multiple models, indoctrination causes you to lose your identity, etc." I felt totally able to speak with him because of others I've had relationships with that engaged me in similar conversations.
In a more general sense, I feel I was prepared for what the work would be like - few interested folks, and fruitless tracting - because that's what my experience was when I went out with the Sister Missionaries in Anaheim.  Knowing what to expect made the rejection much easier to swallow.  And don't even get me started on my experience as a counselor at Especially For Youth - I'd be twelve times more nervous about teaching if I'd never had that blessed opportunity.
These may seem small things.  But each is a testament to me that I was not put here at random.  All these things have pointed me back to one vital thing: hope.  It is easy enough to express faith, because I've had a lot of practice with it.  But we still haven't any investigators to teach, and it's disheartening at times when our potentials drop us, doors are closed, those we'd begun to teach change their minds, and I wonder if all I'm learning will ever come to fruition, if this will ever feel like true service.
But then "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us." [Romans 8:18]  This because I have seen that every seemingly random or independent thing my Father in Heaven placed in my life has ultimately had a purpose in the longer run.
"For we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it... And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose."
Just because I don't have an investigator right now does not mean I am useless as a missionary.  Perhaps I am needed elsewhere.  Or perhaps a test of my commitment or of my faith is required first.
"Now when our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, behold, the Lord comforted us and said: Go amongst they brethren, and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success." [Alma 26:27]
Work will be provided by His hand and according to His timing.  Every little thing contributes to whatever is to come.  And I may then be of good cheer, because I know who's really in charge.
May we all embrace a perspective that shows us our part in the beautiful bigger picture.  The Master who paints it truly knows what He's doing.
Sister Valdez 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Missionary Photos so far!

Zone Leaders and Sister Training Leaders.  This is us observing the "don't get to close" rule.
My wonderful district on our temple walk the day before we ship out to our separate lands.   Arrival in Jackson Mississippi!

The Mission Home on transfer day.
My assigned area and me geeking out about living in an apartment for the first time .