"Miracles are never wrought without prayer, felt need, and faith...they are the natural result of the Messiah's presence among men."
Bible Dictionary

Monday, November 21, 2016

Building Faith by Sharing the Gospel

I wrote out what I planned to say in entirety, since I had a firm 10 minute time limit. I had aspirations to lightly refer to my notes and confidently throw my gaze across the crowd and seize their hearts. Instead, the sea of 1200+ faces ended up sucker punching said confidence, and I’m honestly not sure how much of what’s written here actually came out of my mouth. But in a perfect world, this is how it would have gone.

Five and a half years ago, like every other freshman guy at BYU I received my mission call, and I was called to the Buenas Aires North mission in Argentina. And like everyone else, I thought this was the first step in what I think of as the five M's of Mormon maturity: mission, marriage, acadeMics (you got the M there?), eMployment, and last but not least, money.

This is corny.

I'm not sure what order those go in, or where maturity happens (if ever), but that's the traditional path that most of us are somewhere on. And that's the path I thought I was headed down as well. Just three weeks after I got my call the course of my life changed dramatically. I suffered a C-5 burst fracture in my neck in a freak accident at a local gymnastics facility. My spinal cord was damaged severely, and I became paralyzed from the chest down. I don't have time to relate all the details of the aftermath of my accident and my recovery or express all of the emotion that surrounded that time, but it suffices to say that my plans, priorities, and outlook on life changed quickly and dramatically.

I went from worrying about if my hometeachees were cute or not and thinking about how many points Jimmer would score in his next game to hoping the muscles in my chest would strengthen enough to get the fluid that was building up in my lungs out on its own so I wouldn't need a tube stuck down my nose to suction it out. Most painful thing I've ever experienced by the way. Instead of entering the MTC, I spent the next two years in either a hospital, doctors’ office, or physical therapy clinic. Just as soon as I was entering the part of my life full of freedom and growth, it was gone, replaced by a frustrating grind of trying to get my body to do the simplest things, things that I had always taken for granted. Not only was I not going on a mission, but I now had doubts and fears about all the M's on the list. I had always been a great student and quick learner, but how was I going to continue in school without being able to write or use a computer? And what about finding a job? Or getting married?

Time passed, and I have been able to work things out, with the help of so many small miracles. I've been able to get out and live on my own, I'm on the verge of earning my Master’s degree in Statistics from BYU (not crazy!) and I've accepted an exciting job offer. Those were difficult goals to reach, but maybe more difficult was dealing with the emotional demons that have plagued me since my accident.

From the beginning, I felt different, unable to do things that other people were doing, and separated from the rest of the world. These were difficult things to deal with, and at first I tried to cope by denying I was any different than anyone else. I stayed as far away as possible from conversations about my accident and limitations and became frustrated and depressed by feelings of emptiness and difficulty connecting with other people.

Searching for answers, I came across Christ's words to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 12:16 "Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" I realized that my efforts to be no different than anyone else was dimming my light and suffocating who I was. Paralysis was a part of my life now, and I needed to own it, despite how debilitating and just plain difficult it was. I also realized that I have a unique platform to empathize with others and share the gospel. I wasn't able to serve a mission, but because of the trials I've been through I have been able to connect with others that have gone through similar things and been left with a broken heart and contrite spirit. So I took a leap of faith and began to put myself out there by sharing my story on social media.

Years ago my family had a blog we would use to post updates on my recovery. I decided I was going to get back on and reboot it and I started sharing the gospel through personal experiences. And just to be clear, I'm not plugging my blog in stake conference.

This is also corny.

Now, I said before that my mission experience has been different than most. While my peers were preaching the gospel, I was literally going through the refiner’s fire and being shaped for a different kind of mission. As I've shared my story and my experiences seeing miracles from God's hand in my life, I've been able to not only connect with others, but also build my own faith.

Clayton M Christensen said "We share the gospel because we know it will help others become better, happier people. But the blessings for us are priceless"

As I've shared the gospel, I've been able to more clearly identify the Saviors hand in my life, and know that he loves me and that I am a child of God. And I've been able to strengthen the personal relationship I have with my Savior, which is truly the most valuable relationship we can build.

If you are looking for a way to grow your own faith and testimony, might I suggest sharing it with others?

As I've done this, I've been amazed at the personal strength and confidence I've gained in the gospel and in myself. The church is rolling out a new social media missionary program, and since my roommate is one of the co-chairs and the meetings are at my apartment, I attend. I know sometimes we feel silly sharing messages of the gospel on social media, and I'll be honest in saying that in the past I've been dismissive of messages I've seen on Facebook but lately I've developed a testimony of it. Honestly, we should all do this. If the excuse to not be a missionary in Provo is that everyone is already a member, isn't sharing the gospel on across the world on the internet the answer? And even if it is just your LDS friends that see your message, don't we all need those messages from other people to help us be converted again and again?

Now, final point, I talked earlier about how I felt different, unable to do things that other people were doing, and separated from the rest of the world and that I had to come to terms with all of these things in order to let my light shine. But as members of the church, don't we all feel these things? Don't we all feel different? Unable to do what other people are doing, and separate from the world? Satan would tell us that these are restrictions, and there is more excitement in life in pushing these restrictions as far as they can go. He would have us fight against these supposed boundaries the church puts around us. However, like my process of coming to terms with paralysis, true happiness comes when we know we are different than the world, and choose to abstain from those things.

As Christ said in Matthew 16:25 "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it"

When we fully commit ourselves to the gospel, we are taking the shade off our lamps and allowing our light to shine unhindered. Not only does this draw others to the light, but it helps us purify ourselves and have a greater measure of the spirit to be with us. I testify that this is true for each one of us and despite the darkness or despair that trials can bring into our lives we are being watched over and guided along. We are being molded into what our Heavenly Father would have us be, and he has greatness and joy in mind for each of us. All we have to do is trust him. And really try. Honestly, earnestly try.

Brothers and sisters, I know of no better way to strengthen our faith than by sharing the gospel with others. It doesn't matter who they are, family, friend, member, non-member. Any dialogue we have about the gospel is a positive thing. One of Satan's most clever lies is that the gospel is just for Sunday, and it's not cool to get preachy outside of church. Don't believe that! It is cool! Share the gospel and others as much as you can. It will be a blessing to yourself, and everyone around you.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Calming the Storms of Life

Early in the first century AD, a small group of men fought for their lives against the unbridled forces of Mother Nature. Although making just a short journey across the Sea of Galilee, they quickly lost control of their small vessel. The unloosed wind and rain and sweeping waves combined to create a tempest that was both singular and deadly. It was, perhaps, a testament to the awesome force on display that the men, many of whom were fishermen by trade, were swiftly reduced to cowering, crying out, "Master! Carest thou not that we perish?"

The Savior had been sleeping, unaffected by the impending doom. He arose, stretched forth his hand, and rebuked the very forces of nature, saying, "Peace, be still." I imagine that he spoke the words quietly, but with an intensity that turned a whisper into a roar. Quietly commanding, and impossible to disobey. And obey the sea did, for the tempest instantly ceased and all was calm.

Crisis averted, Christ turned to his young disciples. "Why", he asked, "is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" For some time, these concluding remarks have troubled me. Did they not call upon the Savior in the midst of their troubles? I imagine they had previously been exerting their considerable skill towards navigating out of the storm. Surely they had done all that they could do, and then supplemented their efforts with an appeal to the divine. Why then were they rebuked?

"Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" - Mark 4:40

The answer of course, is that they were not. Jesus Christ was teaching them the same lesson that he's been teaching me the past five plus years and counting. It's just that sometimes, it can be an awfully hard lesson to learn.

About a year and a half ago, the seas of my life, after so long and unexpectedly being in turmoil, had calmed. Things were going for me, and going well! In doubt for so long, I had identified what I wanted to do with my life, and it looked like I had the means to do it. I had just been accepted not only into a top-notch graduate program, but also for an internship with a high caliber company. And best of all, I was feeling great physically (which is saying something). Clear skies, and calm waters ahead! But that's not life. And the storm hadn't abated - I was just in the eye.

It wasn't that it all went wrong. It went right - in the wrong direction. My internship was a great experience, an intellectually stimulating career builder. But it wasn’t necessarily all that I expected, and I struggled to maintain the excitement I’d found life could offer while living some distance away from friends and family. Nevertheless, I made it through my time there and performed admirably. The sea was still relatively calm, but dark clouds were massing on the horizon. School was starting soon.

School has never been anything new to me; its been a constant my entire life except for the year I took off immediately after my injury. However, since then I had been going primarily part-time to account for my limited physical ability. I knew that wasn't going to be an option in my graduate program, and I knew the course work would be rigorous. So for the first time in a long time, I found myself a full-time student, and for the first time ever I found myself a completely overwhelmed student. The difficulty of the curriculum was compounded by my inability to take notes in class, type more than five or six words per minute, and write with more proficiency than a slow and laborious scrawl.

But I was making it. There were late nights, less than perfect grades (hard for me to accept) and awkward moments. The tempest was rising, but I had trimmed the canvas and stowed extra cargo belowdecks in order to meet the challenge. Until a wave I hadn't seen crashed into me at full force.

I was on my way out of attending a BYU soccer match when I first noticed my right arm wasn't responding the way I was accustomed to. Now, I don't have much strength (understatement) but what I do have is primarily in that arm. Driving my chair, eating, writing, using my computer and phone, everything. But as I attempted to drive my chair out of South Field, I found that I could barely manage. My arm felt sore and weak in unprecedented ways and I was fraught with worry and frustration during the slow, jerky trek back to my van.

Looking back now, I’ve realized that the symptoms had been building for some time, but I’d been stubbornly refusing to admit that anything further detrimental could possibly be happening to me. My muscles had been spasming with more severity for months and my ever-present nerve pain had been getting worse. The diagnosis was the development of a syrinx in my neck, essentially a build-up of spinal cord fluid that was putting pressure on my spinal cord and slowly causing my worsening symptoms. To put this in the stark perspective that only numbers can offer, there are about 282,000 people in the U.S. living with a spinal cord injury. Of those, 13.3% are classified as complete tetraplegia (my condition, which characterizes the high level of paralysis and low chance of improvement), and of those 3-4% develop a symptomatic syrinx. You don't need to be a statistician to work this one out, but I'll tell you that that amounts to me being one of about 1300 people in the U.S. with a similar prognosis. That's about a .0004% chance. It's impossible to say how often a syrinx develops in the middle of masters' coursework, but it's safe to say that in the span of a few months a storm the like of which few others ever see had developed in my life.

Surgery was the only option. And it was surgery of an intensive nature that was not without risk. Worse still, there was a minimum period of two weeks through which I would be incapacitated. So treating my insidious and progressive condition would have to wait at least two months until there was room in my schedule for it to elbow Christmas break aside. The hit on my strength slowed my pace on assignments from turtle to snail pace. I was already barely keeping my head above water at times, but at this point the storm reached its zenith.

I don't think I can adequately explain how difficult things were for me at the end of that semester. I lived a day and an assignment at a time. Nonessential tasks like part-time work and most of my social life were dropped. Were there still good times, miracles, and the invaluable support of friends and family? Yes, yes, and undeniably yes. Did I smile throughout most of it? Probably. But for better or for worse I tend to play most of my issues close to the chest.

Like Christ's disciples, I turned to the other passenger on my boat, the Savior. "Master", I cried, "Carest thou not that I perish?" Unlike the storm on Galilee however, not every tempest in our life is dispelled immediately. Some burn intensely and then are suddenly quenched, while others wax and wane throughout our lives, raging fiercely and then softly retreating. My trials are generally of the latter nature, and knowing this, I asked my Father for the same thing I do every day. Simply, the strength to endure. The response I received was the same that the disciples of old heard. "Why is it that ye are so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?" There was no rebuke, or impatience with my weakness. Only love, coupled with a gentle reminder of who I was. I am a child of God. My Father in heaven has blessed me tremendously, despite my many trials which at times can be overwhelming. My journey through life of late hasn't been smooth sailing, but when is it ever? For anyone? It has not included miraculous healing or even substantial improvement, despite my fervent longing for such blessings. But that's okay. Jesus Christ is in the boat with me, sailing through whatever life may bring. As we trust in him, he will not let us fail completely. For has he in the past?

This was the same lesson that Christ was teaching his disciples so many years before. It's a tough lesson to learn and once learned sometimes even harder to maintain, because when the storms of life rage fiercely it can become tempting to think we stand a better chance with one fewer passenger. Fortunately, no matter where we are in life, he will never give up on us. Our Savior wants so desperately to help each of us, individually, that he died for our sakes. Because of this sacrifice, the very creator of heaven and earth can and will guide each of us through the storm, if we just allow him on board.

I know that this is true. But he doesn't lead us around the storms of life, rather, it's a course straight through them. My first semester of graduate school was full of trials that had both everything and nothing to do with actual school work, but it was not impossible. I didn't fail. (Except for one test. Complete disaster.) The surgery went well, I was able to recover some strength, and 2016 started with calm seas. Of course, more trials came up pretty quickly. But that's life right?