Sunday, February 10, 2013

Farewell Talk

A little over two years ago I stood in this very spot, speaking at Jacob Calaway’s farewell as he prepared to serve a mission on Chile as well. But the ironic part is, I was speaking on the same topic that I will speak on today: conversion.  Two years ago, when I got this topic, I was a little upset.  You see, I like giving talks, mainly because I like to talk.  But after receiving my topic, I thought, “Well, that’s dumb.  I’m not a convert.  What am I supposed to say?”  Of course, I knew that everyone had to be converted to the Lord, wether they were born in the church or not.  But I had no cool “Alma the Younger” story to share.  Jacob had plenty say on the same topic.  He talked about his excitement to serve the Lord, and how he hoped to play a role in the conversion of God’s children in Chile.  Brother Homles also gave a great talk on the same topic.  He shared his personal conversion story.  I was upset to say the least.  It was unfair that I had gotten a topic that I had little experience with.  

Now as I look back on the girl I was two and a half years ago, I can see that I was just in the midst of gaining a testimony.  I look at the challenges and trials I have faced over the past few years since then, and I still have no Alma the Younger story for you, but I can see that the Lord has been shaping and molding me into who I am today.  Little by little, I am converting to the Lord.

Often gaining a testimony and becoming converted are seen as the same thing.  If you gain a testimony, then you are converted . . . right?  Well, David A. Bednar gave a very interesting talk this past general conference where he differentiated testimony and conversion.  He said, “ Knowing that the gospel is true is the essence of a testimony.  Consistently being true to the gospel is the essence of conversion . . . a testimony is personal knowledge of spiritual truth obtained by revelation. . . . Testimony is the beginning and a prerequisite to continuing conversion.”

So testimony and conversion are two separate things, but you cannot have one without the other.  It’s like President Uchdorf and Airplane analogies, or Bishop Robertson and basketball analogies.  They go together. 

Now I want to give you my own analogy.  I want to compare conversion to writing an essay.  For those of you who know me, you’ll know I’m an English Nerd.  Essays, literature, grammar . . . oh my!  No, I love it!  I have taken it upon myself to make sure that my family uses correct grammar when speaking.  Just the other day, after I corrected Wilson’s use of the indirect object pronoun when he should have used the direct object pronoun, he said, “It’s no fair.  We don’t have freedom of speech in this house.”  I said, “Oh you can say whatever you want; you just have to say it correctly.”

As an English major I have written a lot of essays.  I think I’ve written five essays on Hamlet alone, and they were all about different aspects of the play.  But, as an English tutor I have read more essays than I can count.  In college I worked at the reading writing center, and basically I got to help my peers write essays.  It was the best.  A lot of times, I would find myself tutoring someone who had no idea how to write an essay.  Often these people came from other countries where their curriculum is so different from ours.  I would start theses tutorial with teaching the basics, and the most important element of writing an essay is the thesis statement.  Without a thesis statement you have a bunch of facts with no purpose, an argument with no point.  It’s like eating a chocolate-chip cookie without the chocolate-chips.  A thesis is the main idea of your essay.  It is what you build your essay off of––the starting point.  From there you can start developing topic sentences, transition sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences.  You can start to sketch out your essay.  
Like a thesis statement, a testimony, I would argue, is the most important part of your conversion.  It’s the foundation––the start––the base that you can build on.  Once you have your testimony, then your conversion begins, much like an essay.  Once you have the thesis you can start putting together the rest of it.   Composing a thesis, I have been told, is often difficult, but once you have it, the you got to stick with it.  Expand on, support, and prove it.

This is the same relationship between a testimony and conversion.  You research, you study, you ask question, and then you develop a testimony.  But it’s not over there.  After that you gain experience, go through trails, and continue to build on your testimony.  This is conversion.  All of us are writing our essay of conversion.

Now the beautiful thing about writing an essay is that you are never done.  I have yet to read the perfect essay, and let me tell you, I have read a lot of essays.  I have never sat down with a tutee, read their essay, and said, “Wow, that’s a perfect essay.” True, some essays are better than others, because everyone is at a different stage of writing.  Some are still developing a thesis, some are working on finding supporting details, and others are perfecting their grammar, but I can always find something for them to improve on.  Even if they have all the elements of a good essay, they can still make it stronger.  

Likewise, in our essays of conversion, we can always improve.  We are all at different stages, but we can all be better. So you write you essay, you get a testimony, then you get experiences, overcome trials, throw in some transitions, and add a beautiful conclusion, so beautiful it makes you cry.  Then you take your essay to the ultimate editor, the perfect tutor: God.  You give him your essay and say, “Look, I did it.  I got a thesis, I got my topic sentences, and transitions.  It’s all there.  I did everything you asked.  It’s done.  Now if you could just read it over, maybe check the grammar, and the commas.”  You hand Him your paper, and takes out His red pen.  He starts marking things, crossing out sentences, circling others, writing comments in the margins.  You wait.  You shuffle our feet.  You sweat it out.  Then He hands you back your paper and it is covered in red marks.  Your hearts drop, and you look at him with a question in your eyes . . . “Why?”  The he says, “This essay is good.  But I know you can do better.”  So you take your essays back to your dorm room, and you sit at your computer until 2am, fixing all the problems.  The Lord is trying your faith through trails.  Then you take it back to God, and he says, “This is better.  You have fixed the parts that I asked you to.  But now look at this paragraph.  It is weak now that you have strengthened the other one.”  He takes out his red pen, marks it up and then hands it back. You rewrite, You rewrite, and You rewrite.  
Often times we don’t understand why we must rewrite, but we do, and our essay is strengthened.  Paragraph by paragraph we improve.Through all the hardships of life we are strengthened, and we draw closer to the Lord.  We become converted to him.

Now, I have tutored many people, and each tutee is different, but I have placed them in three categories.  There are the trusters, the questioners, and the refusers.

The trusters are the ones who take my advise without question.  They trust that I know what I’m doing, and that I can help them improve.  If I tell them they need a present progressing verb instead of a past tense verb, they put a present progressing verb.  These are my favorite people to tutor.  They work with me to improve their paper.

The questioners are the ones who want a reason for everything.  If I tell them they need to use and active voice instead of a passive voice they want to know why, and how.  Now the questioners aren’t bad, they are just more difficult to work with than the trusters, and we often can’t get as much completed.  Sometimes I feel as if I am working against them rather than with them.

Finally the refusers.  They flat out refuse to take any of my advice.  These are often the students who are forced to come in by their teachers, and just want a stamp to prove they came so they can get the credit.  If I tell them that their thesis needs to go at the end of the first paragraph instead of the end of their paper, they tell my why I am wrong.  Then they take their paper, a leave the same way they came in.

I think, when dealing with God, all of us fall under one of these categories.  Some of us say, “God, I don’t understand why I have this trial.  But I trust you.  I know it will make me stronger.”  Others of us question Him.  We ask, “Why must I do this?”  “How will this help?”  “And when will this be over?”  And sometimes we refuse his help, and think we can make it on our own.

Throughout my life, I have fallen under all of these categories.  I’ve been working on becoming a truster, but the Lord keeps sending me back to rewrite.  

Upon graduating from high school, I had my life planned out.   I wanted to go to BYU-Idaho, date a lot my freshman year, meet the perfect guy my sophomore year, date him, find out he’s more perfect than I thought, then get married in the summer, and ride off in the sunset of wedded bliss.  After graduating with a degree in biology, we would start our family, and I would be a stay at home mom, never burn a meal, never miss soccer practice, cut the crust off all the sandwiches, and smile through the sleepless nights. Well, the Lord had different plans for me.

He took out His red pen and said, “I don’t think so.”  He sent me to a little island in the middle of the ocean where my conversion began.   I attended BYU Hawaii, where my budding testimony was tested and tried by His red pen.  I had a really difficult first semester.  But I learned to trust in Him.  Nothing happened as I had planned, and I just wanted to go home.  I continued to be a questioner.  I asked Him why?  I didn’t understand why I had to be in Hawaii.  I would get on facebook and see all my friends at BYUI or BYU provo, and they all seemed like they were having more fun than me.  I felt lost.  I felt alone.   

When I am helping someone with an essay, it’s not all red marks.  Often when I find something in their paper that I like, maybe it’s an awesome thesis statement, or if someone was struggling with grammar and I come across a grammatically perfect sentence I give them a star.  I take out my red pen and say, “This is awesome.  You are doing great!  Here, have a star.”

I think the Lord gives us stars as well.  Amidst all the trails, all the red marks, he blesses us, and scatters are paper with stars.

After a difficult first semester, I met three amazing girls who changed my life.  Well, I didn’t really “meet” them for the first time.  One of them was my roommate, and the other two lived across the hall from us.  But, it wasn’t until the end of my first semester that we started hanging out.  It all started with a long-grueling hike to Laie falls.  We got lost, it was muddy, Jenny hiked bare foot, Mary almost fell off the mountain, Rachel was the only one who brought food so we all passed around her apple, and I was the first one on the frigid water.  A hike that was supposed to take two hours, there and back, ended up taking four hours.  By the end, we were tired, covered in mud, and blisters covered our feet, but a beautiful friendship was born.  Those girls have been stars in my life.  In my hardest time, the Lord said, “You are doing well.  Here, have three stars.”

I expected my second year at BYUH to be easier.  I thought I had gotten through the hardest part of learning to live on my own.  But those three girls didn’t come back.  They are still my best friends to this day, but I had to start over that year.  Again, I brought my plans to the Lord, and He crossed them out.  My second year was harder than my first.  I didn’t understand why the Lord was testing me, or what the point was.  Why did I have to keep rewriting?  But through the hardships, the Lord sprinkled stars along my path.  I kept bringing back my essay, and he’d find something else to test me on.  I learned to work with Him, instead of against Him.  

This past summer, I had the opportunity to go to Mexico and teach English with Mary.  This was something I never thought I would do.  I didn’t plan it, and to date, it has been the hardest thing I have done in my life.  I can’t remember ever feeling more alone than my first night in Mexico.  I was in a strangers house, surrounded by people I couldn’t communicate with, and the streets below my window echoed with foreign sounds.  I sat on my bed feeling completely alone.  I asked myself why I was there, and if I could really do this.  
I turned to the only one who could understand me.  I poured my heart out to the Lord, because through my previous trails I had learned to trust Him.  He comforted me, but He didn’t take away my trial.  When I woke up the next morning, I was still in Mexico, and I still couldn’t understand anything my host mom said.  Day by day, I got through.  When things got hard, Mary would tell me “You can do hard things.” 

I can’t pin my conversion to one moment, but over the years I can see the Lord has been shaping and molding me.  He has made me rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite.  David A. Bednar said, “For many of us, conversion is an ongoing process and not a one time event that results from a powerful, or dramatic experience.  Line upon line and precept upon precept, gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, out thoughts, our words and our deeds become aligned with the will of God.  Conversation unto the Lord requires both persistence and patience.”

My life didn’t turn out how I planned.  In a lot of ways, I think it is better.  I’ve learned so much.  I’ve become better.  I have become converted.

Just three weeks ago, my friend, was going through a hard time.  She text me one night, and asked me if God is really there, and if He really hears and answers prayers.  When I received the text, I had no idea how to respond.  So I waited, and I prayed to know what I should say to her.  Almost twelve hours later I responded.  Here’s what I said, “I know how you are feeling.  I’ve asked the same question a million times.  Why?  Why this and why that?  Over the past few weeks I have struggled to find answers, and felt as if my prayers were going unanswered.  Yesterday, I couldn’t sort out my thoughts and I felt so lost.  So I went on a long run to clear my mind and just think.  As I was running and freezing, struggling up a steep hill, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? Why do I put myself through this pain? Why don’t I just turn back?’ The answer is simple.  I run because I want to make myself stronger.  I push through the pain because I know the reward will be worth it.  Why does the Lord ask us to do anything that He does?  Because He knows it will make us stronger.  He is building us to more than we can see.  Often we fell like just a tear drop in the rain, but God can see the ocean in us.”

I know through my life I have been in this situation a lot.  I have asked why, and I have wondered if the Lord was really there.

A scripture story that alway comforted me at times when I would start to feel like this is the story of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. Often, when I think of the story of Joseph, I think that he endured all his trails with patience.  But do you ever wonder if he too asked why?  When he was in that pit, do you think that he looked at the sky and asked: Why do my brothers hate me?  Why am I in this pit?  When he was sold into Egypt, do you think he stumbled on a rock and couldn’t get back up?  Then when he was on the ground he looked up and asked: Why did they sell me to Egypt?  Why did you let me become a slave?  Why am I in prison for a crime I didn’t commit?  Why Lord?  Why?  But look at what the Lord made of Joseph.  I don’t think that as a lowly shepherd in his father’s house, Joseph could ever picture himself second in command of Egypt, but the Lord did.  He sees more in us than we can ever see in ourselves.  No one in the congregation can see what the Lord sees in you.  We just have to trust.  Even when it’s hard.

When I was in Hawaii I didn’t understand why I had to learn to live on my own and rely on the Lord.  When I was tutoring someone and they didn’t understand a concept I was teaching, I didn’t understand why I had to learn to teach it a different way.  When I was in Mexico, I didn’t know why I had to learn Spanish..  I didn’t know why I had to learn to love my students even when they were driving me crazy, or how to plan lessons, but I do now.

I never planned to go on a mission, actually I am supposed to be in Spain right now, and this summer I was going to go to Scotland and then Ecuador.  But, again I took my plans to the Lord, and he said, “I something different in mind.”  When President Monson announced that young women could now serve at age 19, I knew what the Lord wanted me to do. I have come to trust Him, and I know He will be with me, even when it’s hard.  

I’m excited to go serve the people of Chile.  I’m excited to continue my conversion.  I can’t see what the Lord has in store for me.  But I will go and do, trusting that He knows better than I.  

I don’t have an Alma the Younger story, but I have done hard things.  The Lord has been preparing me step by step for this.  I know that going to Chile will be harder than Hawaii or Mexico, but I go trusting in the Lord.

Conversion for me has been learning to trust in the Lord.  Knowing that he can make more of me that I can make of myself.  It hasn’t always been easy.  In fact, it’s never been easy.  But it’s been worth it.

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