Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Week 73 & 74 : Joy To The World

family photo at Zone Conference
gingerbread houses with the G fam
pore strips and teeth whiteners 4 funz
Lonnie and his kids at his baptism
Lonnie was baptized on Saturday!  Greatest thing ever.  He's the first whom I've been able to find, teach, and baptize (as opposed to doing the first half and leaving, or coming in halfway through the process.)  So that was super special for me.  When the bishopric member gave the welcome to the ward and asked him how he found the church, Lonnie answered, "Sister Valdez" and I wanted to cry.  As usual, there was a unique feeling to the service.  The Spirit was there, but the feeling was different from the past few baptisms.  It felt so much more like a beginning.  Lonnie's two youngest children were there, his 17 year old son and his 19 year old daughter.  Neither had ever been to the church before, but both really loved the baptism.  Even though it was nearly disastrous - our ward mission leader baptized, and his back gave out mid-dunk and we panicked a moment thinking they were about to drown, but it's cool, he caught them and they both came back up.  Didn't even have to repeat it, because the slip had ensured a definite complete immersion.  I talked to his son and daughter afterward and both said it was awesome, they'd never seen a baptism not on TV before.  Sister Matealona is sure she saw the daughter get moist-eyed when we and two of the elders sang A Child's Prayer.  The Holy Spirit of Promise was definitely present.  And with it, this exciting hope that this truly was only a beginning - that Lonnie's children would be next to follow his example in taking that step of faith, joining him in the gospel.  Operation:Eternalize commenced.

I had my first experience re-booting a former investigator.  We went to see a less active family, who's daughter, never baptized, had previously taken the lessons.  We got to talking with her and she opened way up, telling us she feels down all the time and doesn't know how to fix it, she doesn't know what she believes because she only went to church for certain people, it's hard to care about faith when your parents don't, and she doesn't even know if there's a God.  First thought, my goodness, past sister missionaries, how did you teach her that long and she never even had a testimony that God is real, like no wonder she stopped progressing.  Second thought, I'm so glad I get to be here to help her find that.  I've tried praying, she said. Felt nothing.  Tried reading the scriptures, still nothing.  Have you ever listened to a song, I asked, and felt something?  She's a singer.  Loves musically.  Naturally, yes, she answered.  I sent her to Lds.org, youth music.  If that stuff doesn't make her feel something.... well, nothing will.  It gets better.  Her dad who's basically gone anti, goes anti on us, shooting us with questions like "where in the bible does it say you need to go to the temple to go to heaven?" and things of the like and I know better than to contend when my throat feels like a fireball is about to shoot out of it and I kinda "psst! don't say anything!" to my comp who's never been in a bash before, and then this awesome moment where the daughter, who's not even a member but getting equally upset, stands up to her own father and tells him off- er, I mean, defends the faith.  States things concerning the importance of baptism and the love of God, among others.  It's kind of amazing how you don't know how strongly you really believe something until it's challenged by a straight up hater.

Tuesday was my last zone conference, where I gave my departing testimony, a moment that you dream about when you first experience as a new missionary the older and wiser missionaries who bear these powerful testimonies and seem like the most experienced and spiritual people in the world.  Yeah, I don't feel like that.  But I can look back and easily see how far I've come, and how miraculous it is that I've progressed and learned as much as I have.  It's tempting to say as an older missionary "I've been out so long and I still don't know anything" or "You'd think I'd figure out what I'm doing by now" - you know, comments of modesty.  But for me to say so, I think, would be not giving God enough credit.  I don't know everything, it's true.  But I've become so much more than I thought I could in so short a time, so much closer to the person Heavenly Father wants me to be, and so much happier and at peace.  It's all because of Jesus Christ.  That's why He is the gift.  As our Redeemer and our Counselor, he is our chance for growth.  He is our source of hope.  Joy to the world, indeed.

delivering cookies
Christmas eve was wonderful, we baked and delivered cookies and sang Christmas carols.  What
you'd typically expect sister missionaries to do.  And at dinner, I got my fortune told, or rather, prophesied.  Bro G, just as he did for Sister Schulthies, told me how I was going to meet my one and only.  Something about a mall, a karaoke machine, and a duet.  In other words, he was spot on.

It's now four days later.  Christmas was great.  Opened presents with the Walkers' little kids, then we six missionaries got to open our boxes from home.  Sister M got two huge boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts from a secret santa in Utah and nearly exploded with happiness.

 Talking with ya'll was the highlight of my day.  My cool realization of the day was that I have the greatest family on earth, like I can't imagine being eternally linked to any group of people better suited to my personality.  It's like we planned this or something.  We also got to see Sister Tracy, who happened to be having a bummer Christmas and was by herself for the evening - perfect because we needed someone to read Luke 2 with before Christmas was over and we love her and her hyper licky pitbull.

Brother C, who recently baptized his wife, bore his testimony on Sunday in sunday school, in which he testified that he knows the gospel is true and he's thankful for the missionaries for showing up at his house to get him back into a place he never thought he'd return to.  I was rejoicing on the inside.  Greatest blessing of being a missionary is seeing evidence that changes you helped people make are becoming permanent.

At zone conference, I got to sing a duet with the very talented Elder Joseph, a pretty Christmas song called "Peace, Peace, Peace."  We hadn't much practice, but it turned out really really nice-sounding (angelic assistance).  As I read through the words before we performed, a sweet calm came over me as I took these words to heart:

"Peace, heavenly peace
Rests on men at His birth
Peace beyond understanding
Gift of God to the earth
Peace shines in our hearts
Bright as the star that shines in the east
To guide us all as we seek
the Prince of Peace, peace, peace"

Because it's a true thing.  Like, no matter what's going on.  Whether worthy or struggling, firm or shaky, high or low, pure or penitent, when we seek the Prince of Peace, peace he grants.  Every time.  If you pray long enough, with real intent, it comes.  One of the greatest blessings of serving this mission is having such quick access to that peace, every night at the end of a long workday, when I can pray and be close enough to the Spirit to feel so strongly that I'm being heard.  "Peace foretold through the ages, promised peace from on high."  There's nothing like it in the world.

Sister Valdez

Zone Pday at the beach in Gulfport

District Meeting on Faith in the Work me and Sister M taught

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Week 72: Finding Fruit By Feel

For your listening pleasure, I've attached a song I partly re-wrote.  The elders think they can just call me and ask me to learn a song so I can play and sing it for them.  Well apparently they can, because I did it.  The last two verses you'll notice allude to the Book of Mormon, because I didn't like the originals and wrote up new ones.  It's a rough recording, but yknow, it's me.  Merry Christmas!

This week was not what I'd call smooth.  More what I'd call "chastening."  Both by the Spirit, and by the zone leaders and our mission president.  Of course, when the mission president does it, you can't hardly tell because he loves you so much and smiles so much you basically chasten yourself in his presence.  What I learned, is that I need to apply more faith in my work.  Faith to find when we tract, not just tract for obedience sake.  Faith to talk to strangers outside of tracting. Faith to apply principles that are in Preach My Gospel that I failed to continue with just because they didn't work the first time.  Faith to not sleep in for five minutes in the morning (for some reason that makes an actual difference.)  From the zone leaders however, it was a more direct, "Your numbers last month were terrible, find more people."  So yeah.  We're recommitted to finding.  We know they're out there.  We just gotta be more diligent about seeking them out.  When you're teaching one or two elect people, it's easy to forget that you need to be replenishing your teaching pool now, not after the baptisms happen and you're like "ok cool now what."

21 Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.
 22 Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people. [Mosiah 23]

11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.  [Hebrews 12]

Yeah!  Peaceable fruit!  So with this new attitude, we found someone this week!  Really chill young man who agreed to hear our message out on the front step, since we couldn't go in.  He accepted the Book of Mormon with a smile, "Hopefully this will lead me to something fresh and good."  He wasn't actually on the street we'd chosen to tract, but on a little court connected to it.  Lately, I've felt that our work has been more led by the Spirit, as to where we go.  It really helps me feel more at peace while we tract, instead of nervous.  Feels like I'm in the right place.  And then sometimes there's fruit.

So either we've become more sensitive to the Spirit's promptings, or I'm simply remembering to listen more often.  We listened the other night.  Anyone who knows me well knows I run by logic, not by feel.  For me, feelings are hard to trust.  But since the Spirit so often comes by feelings, I'm learning to trust it.  We decided to go visit a sister who comes to church sometimes, when her health allows, and when we got there she told us she'd just gotten out of the hospital the night before and was awaiting two priesthood holders to come give her a blessing.  They came a few minutes later, and administered the blessing.  She asked us sisters to sing her a Christmas song - she loves Christmas more than anyone I know, has an entire movie case full of Christmas movies and her house is cluttered with holiday decor - so we sang a couple Christmas hymns for her.  The room was very still and the feeling very reverent, as the Spirit entered to comfort her.  It was very sweet, and especially for us just to know that we'd been led there at the right time.  The Lord knows His sheep.  Find by feel, and ye shall find.

Last night we got to go to the Gulfport Stake Christmas fireside.  Made me miss going to the one in Anaheim, hearing Dad sing with the Chorale.  In Slidell ward, our choir did our best, probs had angelic help for performance time.  I loved being able to sing with them though, got us super ready for Christmas.  Every ward choir that performed was made up of mostly, if not all, full time missionaries.  I don't know why, we all either sing or learn to on the mission.  Part of the calling, I guess.  There was an amazing trio, two little boys and their dad who played Jingle Bells and Silver Bells, bluegrass style with guitar, fiddle, and banjo.  It was pretty incredible.  And then our extremely dignified Stake President, in the middle of his closing remarks, busted out Cajun Night Before Christmas and read it in his best Deep South accent.  It's about Santa coming down the bayou on a skiff pulled by alligators with French names.  Had the whole stake laughing, esp when he ended saying "I was going to do this two years ago but decided to wait until right before I got released, because what could they do?"  I do love our leaders.  Our hearts were lightened and the Spirit remained with us as he closed with a testimony of the Savior.  Christmas is the best thing ever.

Speaking of Christmas, I'ma call ya'll on Thursday morning, the 25th, around 9am your time.  Then we'll coordinate when to Skype.  I was planning on morning, but let me know when Cassie will be on so we can do what we did on Mother's day.  I won't be emailing you next Monday because we're foregoing P-day in light of the holiday (part of the whole sacrifice/consecration thing).  So await my call :]

Sister Valdez

Week 70 & 71: Shake Heaven

I just want you all to know that I have been working hard - despite the countdown to my death that ya'll betimes remind me of - and the proof is in my shoes.  Another piece of the sole just came off as I sit here and the sides are busting open with holes.  Just the sight of them fills me with joy and satisfaction.

These last two weeks have been stellar.  I told my greenie, "Don't get too excited.  This is beginner's luck.  Normal missions here involved weeks and weeks of fruitless finding, stagnant investigators, and no-shows at church.  Not a baptism your second week and multiple progressing investigators."  But in the meantime, I'm letting her bask in the glory that is Slidell, Louisiana.

Thanksgiving here was a blast.  We spent the day raking our ward mission leader's yard (still fit in my jeans, small victory) and partying at Sister W's house (K-dog's mom).  There was way more pie than even 12 missionaries could handle (that's six senior missionaries and six of us young'ns).  I was assigned to prepare a program, so I played the piano and had the elders sing with us sisters Because I Have Been Given Much, A Child's Prayer, and Silent Night, complete with scripture verses to precede each song.  We're not professionals.  But the seniors enjoyed it. Sister W and K-dog are like my best friends in the whole world, right now.  We called her last night because we wanted to watch the First Presidency Christmas devotional, and she said "Come over!" and she made us hot chocolate because she's the best.  The devotional was wonderful, I recommend looking it up on LDS.org if you missed it.  It lifted my heart.  Come on, Christmas.  We ready.

Sister C's baptism was wonderful.  The Holy Spirit of Promise was there to seal it, and I got the feeling that this was just as much, if not more, for her formerly less-active husband who got himself worthy to be ordained a priest so he could baptize his wife.  When the bishopric welcomed them into the ward at the end of the service, they both ended up talking about the priesthood, the blessing it is to families, and being worthy at all times.  I sensed that Brother C could feel this new responsibility to take his role as spiritual leader of the home and lead his family into the gospel he knew as a child and is bravely returning to.  They're going to be eternal.  I just know it.  #operationeternalize
My trainee was walkin on air all day.  First baptism your second Sunday is not even fair, but you know, whatever :]  I was happy she got to experience this (so when her time comes to go for months with downpour of disappointment and zero success, she'll remember this and that baptisms are possible and have hope).  But then again, with the way this mission is going, this whole "being successful" thing could become the norm.  Imagine that.  It's come leaps from where it was when I first got here.  We as a mission fasted yesterday that we'll reach our mission goal of 300 for the year.  That would mean 50 convert baptisms in the month of December.  Eesh.  We think we can we think we can!

Perks of my new comp:  she's had real world experiences.  Real world problems.  So when we're teaching, say, a woman who's depressed and alone and still grieving the loss of her mother, I'm like "Um, the gospel, it help" but my companion can be like "I know what you're going through" and suddenly what we're teaching is 100% more relevant.  Second, she's still got that fire they instill in you at the MTC and is not afraid to boldly ask in the middle of a lesson on the plan of salvation and agency, "Have you been making the right choices?"  and this less active sheepishly admits that she should be coming to church instead of making excuses and I'm like - Whoa.  That just happened.  High five for calling to repentance.

So cool thing in gospel principles yesterday: the elder teaching is on the subject of missionary work in the millenium, then looks at our two recent converts and says "So you were just baptized, how has missionary work blessed ya'lls lives?"  And their replies are basically what you see in the missionary training videos or read about in the Ensign stories.  "It gave me a second chance, and I feel great knowing that the past is in the past and I can start again.  It's made me excited to share the gospel with others now."  "The sisters knocked on my door and I let them in and I don't know why.  But they helped me find exactly what I'd been looking for, for me and my family, and that sense of belonging.  I'm so glad they knocked on my door."  It was a lot more amazing-sounding in person.  But yeah, I was floored.  They never told US these things!  I guess cause we didn't ask.  Imagine that.  What's better, is that our investigators, Linda (been investigating forever), and Lonnie (currently succeeding in the stop smoking program and on the edge of glory) were both present for that.  You're next!  Into the celestial kingdom we go!

Speaking of Lonnie, coolest thing.  We were teaching him with a member, outside in front of his trailer, and his son Junior comes home from school and kind of lingers by the door while we talk.  We'd met him once before and answered his questions about the afterlife - which only intelligent teenagers take time to think about.  So we invite him to sit with us and he runs to grab and chair and join our lesson.  We turn the lesson more to Junior when he arrives and hand him Alma 7 to read, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind, evaluating the choices he'd been making (peer pressure to do dumb stuff, normal high school) and calculating what he must change to live a more meaningful life.  So naturally, we then invited him to be baptized.  And he accepted.  You know it's been a good day when it includes a moment of you and your companion getting in the car, and right when you shut the doors, screaming and pounding the ceiling.  Pure joy.

 5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

 6 For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.  [D&C 21]

The prophets and those in leadership may at times ask of us hard things.  Increase your faith!  Work harder!  Do better!  E.g. Our mission's leadership in the push to reach 300 by increasing faith, which comes of improvement in four areas: study, prayer, work and obedience (#SPWO)  If we make some improvement in each of these areas, faith increases.  Rather, Heavenly Father grants us more faith, because faith is a gift from God.  And we exercise it, and we push, and we stretch, and we make ourselves do things we don't want to do, but it's an act of faith, and miracles happen.  Heaven shakes and WHOOSH send down more power upon us, so our labor in the Lord's work can be an upward climb.  It'll require daily sacrifice and constant reevaluation.  But it's all worth it.  Pray for us.  I love ya'll, I pray for ya'll.

Sister Valdez

1. me scissoring Lonnie's last bit of tobacco
2. rake warriors
3. Thanksgiving crowd