Thursday, January 30, 2014

Week 23: Keep Thou My (Purple) Feet

Shreve district
Did you know that in some remote parts of the world (Antarctica, Louisiana, etc.) it can get so cold that your companion's feet turn purple and then your pipes freeze and no water comes out which means No-Shower Sunday?  It's okay though because if you put all your hair in a sock bun, no one can even tell it's unwashed and hecka grody.  Also, if you wrap your companion's feet in a fleecy blanket and rub em for 20 min, they eventually regain feeling.  Today's errands will include a stop at Kohl's for sweater tights and long socks.

Hula time!
In other news, Happy New Year!  Thus begins 2014, the year I will spend entirely in the South and entirely in the service of God.  It began, interestingly enough, with a ward luau.  Big shoutout to our ward mission leader from New Zealand and the Relief Society sister from Hawaii for making it legit, and our awesome counselor in the bishopric who's enthusiasm made our collective dream a reality.  We missionaries had been pulling for a major ward activity for months and BOOM new year's eve success.  All eight of us missionaries (4 sisters, 4 elders) ran around all night handing out plastic leis, distributing the 30 roasted chickens to the tables, running onstage to provide entertainment.  I was hoping for a firedancer, but instead we got elders and young men doing the haka, sister missionaries and young women doing the Lilo & Stitch hula, Relief Society sisters in mumus singing Tiny Bubbles, a few brethren on ukuleles, and tiny lil activity day girls with their own hula plus major cuteness.  Just as good, right?  Unfortunately a roasted pig takes two days to cook instead of one, and does much better in a hole in the ground than a giant grill, but at least some of it was consumable.  And it looked cool.  And the elders can now say they've killed a live-and-kicking pig.

Actual pig.
(note: I'm seriously proud of my hula skills, can someone find out how to post the video I sent to my Facebook or something?  the world needs to know what a killer luau Shreveport had.)

One of my new year's resolutions is to be more bold.  I think it's actually getting there.  I've also always wanted to tell someone we're teaching "The heavens have opened!  The God of miracles speaks through a prophet today!" to let them know that this is seriously something to be jazzed about.  Why else would we be out in 19 degree weather trying to tell you about it?

By the way - Sister Sellers and I have come up with this running list of things we wish we had a nickel for every time we heard it.  For example, if we had a nickel for every time someone said:

"Ya'll are out in this weather?"
"How old are ya'll?"
or "They let girls do this now?"

New Year, new style. Bangs, yo.
... we would have enough to buy each companionship its own car.  I think my favorite of the moment is, "It's cold outside!"  No, really?  Is it?  Huh, I hardly noticed, only been out here maybe 45 minutes.  Or better, "Stay warm!"  You know, if you let us in, we might actually be able to do that.  In the meantime, we're trying to keep my comp's toes from turning purple and falling off.  Nonetheless, I know all this tracting has a purpose, if only to show our dedication and obedience to the Lord.  His servant, our mission president, has asked us for 7 hours of tracting a week, and by gum, rain or freeze, we'll do it.  Because obedience brings blessings, not always in the way you'd expect, but the blessings do come.  That's the promise.  And we've seen it.  One example was yesterday - we tried our best to get three solid investigators to church and none of them made it - however.  A random nonmember family of three showed up, who said "We're trying out different religions.  Our friend here has been trying to sell us on this one for awhile," motioning to their friend, a member from a nearby ward that they've known for several years.  I almost fell over.  Members are EVERYthing when it comes to missionary success.  Let me repeat in case you didn't get that.  MEMBERS. ARE. EVERYTHING.  :]

Another case of this happened with Dee* just yesterday.  Dee is exceptional.  There's not been one time we've gone to see her and she hasn't let us in, or tried to make an excuse.  Not even yesterday, when she was still a bit sick.  Ever since I first met her, in all her slightly-brash, "I don't care what you think", "I don't take crap" kind of attitude, I loved her.  For reasons I can't explain, I'm probably her biggest fan.  But see yesterday, we were supposed to go with Jess (a member) to see another lady who cancelled five minutes before our set time.  So still trying to make use of our time with Jess (splits with members is rare and precious), we went to back up plans, but all four of them fell through - not home or not available.  We finally decided to stop by Dee's though we'd just been over there - the night before, she'd been sick so we'd sat with her daughter, age almost-8, and exceptionally bright, and taught her a killer plan of salvation lesson, drawings and all.  When we pulled up with Jess, Dee was just getting out the car.  Timing was perfect.  And when Jess told her about her mom, who used to be of Dee's former denomination before she found the LDS church, and described the process, Dee said "That sounds just like my story!"  You bet.  And we're gonna make sure it ends the same way, baptism and happy family.  Her little daughter's on board.  She'd put up my beautiful diagram of the plan of happiness on her bedroom wall, and they're set to read the Book of Mormon together.

Funny how things never go according to plan, but they still work out.  Random three investigators at church, having a member to meet my favorite investigator, finding the chance in a lesson last night to finally introduce the Restoration to someone with "The heavens have opened!" (yes, it finally happened).  Because God has it all mapped out on a scale bigger than I can comprehend, and He makes it work.  He has the birds-eye view of the corn maze, as Sister Sellers would say, and we can only see a step ahead.  All we got to do is ask Him - okay, right or left? - and He'll lead us through.

"And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments [...] and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led."

[1 Nephi 17:13]

And don't I know it.  As my favorite hymn says, "Keep thou my feet, I do not wish to see, the distant scene, one step enough for me..."  May our prayers sincerely be "Lead thou me on," and He certainly will.


Sister Valdez

Week 22: Rameumptom Row

Gimme a P!
Gimme an I!
Put em together and what do you got?


P.I.  Progressing Investigator.  Lex came to church yesterday, which means for the first time since ever I got to put a joyful and triumphant "1" on my weekly report next to "progressing."  Win.  Next step: baptism.  Sploosh!

In other news, another holiday down.  And it was so so so special.  Christmas Eve was fantastic.  I stuffed myself into a pair of jeans that seem to magically shrink every time I put them on and we went out and raked for a sister who lives close by, then again for a less-active brother who's wife recently passed and who loves company more than anything in the world.  He was tickled when he saw us out his window.  Said he told his brother "Hey!  There's a girl outside rakin my leaves!"  "Nu-huh!"  "Yeah!  There's a bunch of em out there!"  Yessir, three rake-weilding sister missionaries, and one in the trash can stomping down leaves to make room for more.  He chatted with us while we finished the job, and when the lawn was pristine I asked, "So we gonna see you at church one of these Sundays?"  and he says "Well yeah!  I'm gonna have to come on over!"  And he hasn't been in years.  Pretty awesome what a little service, conversation, and invitation can do.
The rest of the day was spent at nursing homes.  The first two housed ladies who's records were in the ward, but of course had not been to church due to their current state.  We sang them Christmas songs out of the hymn book.  Francine could barely talk, and labored hard to get out every syllable.  But when we began to sing "Silent Night," she sang every word along with us.  I almost couldn't finish the song, choking on tears.  What a beautiful moment we were able to share, us and this woman in a place often regarded as "where you go to grow old and be forgotten."  "We haven't forgotten you."  "Neither has your Heavenly Father."

The last nurse care facility was the one we often go to as a district to sing hymns to the lot of them.  Some of the ladies there know us missionaries pretty well.  We knocked on Mary's door, and she was delighted to see us, hugging and kissing us, telling us how much she loves when we come as a group to sing and say hi to them, and how we come to her mind when she prays at night.  She's a Christian woman if ever I saw one, and as such she accepted gratefully the Book of Mormon we gave her with a bow tied on it.  You're never too old to learn more about Christ, am I right?

We spent the evening at a member's home in the ward, they gave us presents and played the Christmas devotional with the general authorities, and we read Luke 2 together, after I had everyone close their eyes and visualize the faint lights of Bethlehem, the faint sound of sheep in the fields, readying to hear the story of the greatest gift God gave the world.  Downright lovely.

Christmas morning replaced our exercise 1/2 hour with present-opening around the construction paper tree taped to our wall, and staying in our pajamas til 7:30.  Christmas day was three meal appointments and a dessert appointment, more presents from sweet members who know you can't go wrong with hair accessories, scarves and journals when it comes to sister missionaries.  The Skype-call hour with our families was screams and tears of joy - even when it wasn't my family on the screen.  Goodness.  Frantic talking to try and get several months worth of our lives across the states to reach our loved ones in the West who can only picture all the people we meet every day, all the countless blessings and trials thrown at us by dozens.  I have the best family.  I even got to talk to Cassie, serving in New Mexico, for about five minutes, all her remaining time would allow.  But it's cool.  I got plenty of time with the rest of the fam.  The evening was spent with the Shreveport ward - my second family - at the bishop's house for the Christmas sing-along.  Two solid hours of singing Christmas songs with musical genius Bro Smith on the piano, banging out every song in the book as we followed along til we lost our voices;  I took occasional breaks to rest my voice/chase all my fave primary kids around the house.  I love them to bits.  I've been here so long I can't imagine leaving this ward.  Funny, huh?  The level of attachment is ridiculous, when you're a missionary.

Funny thing about December 26 in the mission, is that it isn't a depressing day.  Not for me, anyway.  It was nice to get back to work and get productive again.  I'll say again, the work has been so incredibly enjoyable with Sister Sellers around.  I told her it's been a brighter place since she's come, and it has - she has this habit of opening all the blinds in our apartment.  Yesterday, we were laughing about the difference between our area and South Shreve's area.  Alma 31-32 describes our contrast to the T.  They have the poor and humble.  We have the Zoramites.  But if that makes us Alma and Amulek, then I have no complaints.  The thing about God, is he can prepare people wherever they live, skidrow or rampeumptom row.  We were on one of the richest streets just a few days ago, and wouldn't you know it, we met a lady who was really excited we had a Book of Mormon for her!  She'd taken her family to Utah, and Temple Square and thought it was all so nice she wants to live there.  I guess those temple square sisters do get some good work done, huh?  Certainly made this lady happy to see us.

Miracles of the moment: We contacted a referral the other sisters met at Walmart.  She let us in, no problem, and we were able to teach to a question she had: "Why do bad things start happening when you try to go back to church?"  Plan of Salvation.  Purpose of life.  Opposition in all things.  Agency.  Boom.  After a little bit (we're getting better at 20 min lessons), she asked another, "How come there are so many churches?" and we were like Booyah, we got an answer for that, stay tuned.  Up next: Restoration. Prophets, dispenstations, Christ's ministry, great apostasy, Joseph Smith.  Holla.  Who got the answers? We do.  Tell your friends.

Second miracle.  Last night, it was 8:30, we don't have to go in til 9:00, and there's very little to do at that hour, but going home early is no bueno.  So we drove around a minute, hoping we were being led by the Spirit, when I finally turned in the direction of home and then realized we'd be passing a less-actives home soon.  So we stopped at Rae's, and while we spoke with her in the driveway, her friend comes out of the house, up to us, shakes our hands and introduces himself.  He's about to ship out to the Navy.  Sister Sellers, who's a walking General Conference archive, remembered all the talks by general authorities who's lives were changed by having a Book of Mormon in the service, and pulls one out to tell him about.  I showed him my fave scripture in Alma (37:36-37) about prayer, she directed that to Moroni 10:3-5, the challenge to read and pray, and Rae, the member, was there to testify.  She was also grinning ear to ear, just like we were, at the prospect of this spontaneous chance to share the gospel with this good friend of hers before he set sail.  And he seemed really grateful for it, being someone who hadn't been to church since he figured his preacher was corrupt, and knew he needed Christ in his life again.  Goes to show, amazing things happen when you follow the Spirit, and don't go home early.

15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, the asons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse bnation, among whom ye cshine as lights in the world;
16 Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.
[Phil 2:14-16]
What we have is truly a light.  It shines above everything else in this world.  It is the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And of it, I am not ashamed, not even a little bit.  The rich can scoff, the ignorant mock, and I'll keep running, laboring.  The day of Christ is near, and I'm not scared: I'm stoked!

Sister Valdez

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Week 20 & 21: Shingle Bells‏

Goodbye Elder Huntsman!

Another transfer gone...
Packing up

Transfers certainly make for a whirlwind of a week, especially the unexpected (i.e. international) kind.  I was mentally preparing to finally be transferred out of Shreveport, getting my tears out, bracing for goodbyes, when my companion gets news she wasn't even looking for.  She'd called the mission office to order some Finding Faith in Christ dvds and the lady answers, "Sister Brimley!  I just got all your papers and it looks like you're all set for Brazil!  Oh... wait, that's not why you were calling?  Didn't President talk to you?  Whoops."  Cat was outta the bag, though.  After waiting nearly half her mission, my companion's visa had arrived.  Too bad she doesn't have a Twitter, so her original mish president could have just tweeted "Plz come 2 brazil."  (I hope you tweeters get my joke.)  We spent a less-than-productive few days shopping for last minute items and three days later, she shipped out to the mission home with Sister Harker (who's been with me this whole time in Shreve, and is now to spend her last months in Hattiesberg, MS) to be put on a plane to Salvador, Brazil.

We waved them off with some good old "Hurrah for Israel!"  and then Sister Benjamin had a couple days to party.  The day before transfers is typically spent deep cleaning the apartment, eating out because we don't want to dirty our clean, clean kitchen, and braiding each others' hair while watching Zion's Camp and other Doctrine and Covenants seminary videos before bed.  Don't worry, we got a solid visit with Sister L, returning member, somewhere in between all that.

Transfer day, we hurriedly purchased and shipped out Christmas presents to California (did I mention Sister Benji's from Cypress? we've been at the same YSA dances and just never met) and hitched a ride to T-point where I met - guess who - Elder Kyle Dalton.  At long last.  He's in my zone now, our first time crossing paths since I've been in the mission, and as you might guess, he ain't much different.  Dresses the same, hair the same, still knows everything :]  He encourages every missionary here to be more bold and straightforward.  I can only assume it's worked out well for him so far.  Me and Sister Sellers are still working on it, though we've yet to straight up tell someone that they're worshipping the devil.

Sister Sellers!

Sisters Sellers!  She's my new companion.  Elder Dalton was her district leader in their last area I believe, so she knows him pretty well.  And I told her he and I were in the same YSA ward back home.  Such a small world among Mormons.  Sister Sellers is fabulous.  She reminds me of a little bird or squirrel.  Happy.  Chipper.  Laughs heartily and loud during down time, which keeps me smiling, and then temperate and focused when it's business time, which is a relief.  She's easygoing and flexible, which makes us very compatible as companions and keeps the stress level to an all time low :]

Before transfers, Sister Brimley and I had asked for priesthood blessings from our elders.  Mine was a blessing of "comfort, and joy" as the elder stated, and I was blessed with all the happines and success that Heavenly Father was ready to give me.  A great weight was lifted from me that day, one that I hadn't fully noticed was there.  I treasure every miracle and moment of learning I've experienced the last couple transfers, but we all sense it was time for a change.  My God had heard my cry, and was ready to deliver me.  It's been a week, and I've already seen great things come to pass in the fulfillment of that blessing.

For starters, I'm really happy.   I smile a lot more than I used to.  I don't wake up depressed anymore.  Which was a straight bummer, but something I didn't know how to cure.  I think my new companion's attitude is infectious.  We've seen three major miracles in our work.  Lex, the only non member in her family, who we've been teaching has been keeping her reading commitments!  So happy.  She missed church yesterday, but I didn't let it get me down.  She wanted to come and just happened to not be woken up in time.  But she's reading the Book of Mormon, and so far the existence of it and the concept of Joseph Smith as the prophet of the restoration makes logical sense to her.  Now, once she gets the spiritual witness, she'll be gold, headfirst into that water.  Well, maybe feet first.  She's still super pregnant (which I think works to our advantage; they say with expectant mothers, the veil is especially thin.)  Lexi is such a sweet girl, and I'm sure it doesn't hurt to have four testaments of the blessing of gospel living walking around her 24/7 (her mother and brothers).

Corn row life.

Sister Sellers and I have had great experiences tracting with Christmas carols, seen many hearts soften as people reluctantly agreed to let us sing for them at their doors, and then sincerely thank us after the strains of Silent Night or Away in a Manger touched their spirits and changed their countenances. Miraculous, what music of the kingdom can do.   We found a family, the dad of which my companion had met on exchanges; his wife was just as interested, just as humble as he. They'd let us in to share our Christmas message: the Nativity story from Luke 2 and three accompanying hymns interspersed throughout the reading. They must have felt the Spirit, because I sure could. We have an appointment to teach the wife, Trishell, next week. They were our main miracle, plus a woman named Andrea, who Sister Brimley and I met right before she left, the day we were treking through rain and had zero success but for this woman who chatted with us a minute and said we could come back anytime, pointing out her apt number.  When we went back to see her, turns out she had an LDS uncle, who passed away, but who's family remains a wonderful example to her of good, Christian people. She wants to take the stop smoking lesson with us. Hopefully we get to do that soon!

I don't know how many of you heard of my recent health bother, but I want you to know I refuse to let it dampen my spirits.  Did I ever mention how I got this sudden ache in my left shoulder area and Sister McDonough (mish president's wife) and I concluded it was from doing push-ups wrong (thank you, Jillian Michaels) so I'd started walking around the apt with a bag of frozen veggies in my shirt?  Well, a few days later that bothersome ache was replaced by a weird red and blistering rash with accompanying shooting pains that showed up on my left side and the doc told me I have a case of the shingles.  Yes, an old people disease.  I don't know if you've ever experienced shingles (which you shouldn't if you're under the age of 60) but it appears along a nerve due to a weak immune system and simply cannot be rid of, nor can be relieved by any topical treatment;  you just have to wait it out, 2-3 weeks.  So for a few days, I was grimacing through every activity, constantly praying to be able to focus on the work, frustrated that no medication was taking effect.  Weird, because I never have health problems. Ever.

This was Heavenly Father throwing me a curve ball, something I'm not used to at all - physical pain. But I endured as best I could, and when I couldn't take it anymore, when the pain was so distracting I couldn't focus on anything, I asked for a priesthood blessing and the four elders in my district together provided that for me, as it was administered by a caring district leader.  When the blessing was given, I immediately felt wrapped in the arms of love, though the pain was nearly as prominent as before. But I was told in the blessing I would be healed according to my faith - as well as given the opportunity to grow closer to my Savior through this experience. So I poured out my heart that night, feeling a strange and new closeness to Jesus Christ as I pleaded with my Father to let this pass... if it be His will. For I knew He'd the power to take away pain. Of that, my testimony was sure. But if not, I painfully agreed to submit to whatever test He saw fit to inflict upon me.   If this was an experience to give me empathy, a test of my dedication, a chance to brush the grounds of Gethsemane, so be it.  However, God is merciful.  That night, I slept better than I had in so long, and when I woke the shooting pains and burdening ache were gone, replaced by a trivial discomfort, not even close to what I'd heretofore been experiencing.

"Yea, [I was] encircled about with everlasting adarkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought [me] into his everlasting blight, yea, into everlasting salvation; and [I am] encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
 Therefore, let us aglory, yea, we will bglory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his cmercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel."
[Alma 26:15-16]

I wish you all the merriest of Christmases, as we remember He who was born to set us free.

Sister Valdez