Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 27: Errand of Angels

This week. HERRROOOO! Miracles. Fattest tender mercies of my entire mission, right here, right now. (I feel like I want to start this post by mentioning that it's negative FORTY OUTSIDE. Hahahahah BYE. Dead.) But anyway. Miracles. I'll try to budget my time WISELY this time so it's not long-winded and suddenly GAME OVER like every other email I've ever sent. Sorry about it. Thanks. Thanks for playing. I should probably pick two.

Every Tuesday, we go and we work at CEAP - Community Emergency Assistance Program. It's wonderful. I really love teaching people the gospel, but sometimes it's also just as satisfying to see people's temporal needs met as well. That takes about four hours every Tuesday, sorting food cans, packing food orders and delivering them to cuties in the waiting room (Oh... how'd that card fall in your Wheaties... Oh. It has our number...? I can't... wait. Oh? I guess?) and so on. (They let us label the boxes for the cans when it's our shift. I always write captions like, "Tomato THINGS" and "Pasta Stuffs" and "Bea...ns...?") It's a great time. So, we are allotted about five service hours a week as missionaries, ten if our area is slower. Welp, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center is not what I would call slow. Rather, there are people everywhere, every day, all the time. It's the best. (I feel like we can't go anywhere without teaching or contacting someone! Sometimes I tell Sister T that I picture us in overalls, just... throwing seeds out in the snow. We are sowin', WE, are sowin'. Word.) So even five hours a week can feel like a stretch, because we need every minute we have here.

Well, in our ward, our ward mission leader's wife was putting on Gifts of the Heart Exchange. It's an annual event that she's done since college where she collects donations upon donations of clothing (sans underwear. Ain't nobody want nobody else's DRAW'S.) and household goods. Then, all sisters on her committee or members of the ward who sign up come and sort them into tables and racks by size and gender. It's all set up in the church gym, and Sister J puts flyers out in shelters, immigrant-populous apartment complexes (so, the whole area). She has pastors of other faiths advertise it over the pulpit, and people from all walks of life come by. Anyone can come take anything they need, totally for free.

Turns out, we prayed and felt prompted to sign up for both the set up and the actual event. It felt like a lot of time, but we knew it was also a way to serve, and if our goals weren't met this week and our number of lessons was crap, at least we were where we needed to be.

And then we go. And we start with a prayer and read a little about service as a group. And then we're setting up tables and sorting through donations and rubbing shoulders with the wonderful women in our ward, and this feeling of joy just bubbles up in my chest. Just total joy to be serving side by side with our sisters. And we're sorting through donations and I'm picturing all the people who will be blessed. Serious, straight-up happiness rolling through us as a companionship being there.

Next day? 200ish people file through. Kids hungrily grab at Dora the Explorer coats and moms get misty eyed holding up pairs of jeans. It was the most intimate, beautiful, tender thing to observe. I loved hearing each of their stories and seeing each of their easy joy and sincere gratitude. There was so much humility and just total faith and charity up in there. Turns out that combo is a lot like onions, because my eyes were a-mistin' like it was my JOB. 

So the event ends, and all the leftovers are boxed up haphazardly to go to Goodwill or Africa. And that's that.

Fast forward to Sunday. We get a text from the Hermanas that we live with (who are our very best friends) and they tell us that one of their investigators, who has five children under the age of 12, had a house fire. Burned to the ground. Lost everything. They ask us about sizes and ask us to look. We ask Sister J, and I can tell she is exhausted to death of sorting and packaging and repackaging. She tells us the boxes are getting hauled off right after church, and that nothing is sorted, so we'd have to dig through fifty or so boxes and bags to even look, and it's probably not going to happen... Which is totally legit. Fast forward five minutes. We were sitting behind her in Relief Society, and you could visibly see her listening to the Spirit and discerning direction. All the sudden she passes back her planner with a little note. "What size and what ages? I'll see what I can do." We check the text, write back, and she's gone without a word. We look at each other, make sure our investigators are with their fellowshipper friends, and peace out right after her. We find her in the gym, on the stage, shoes kicked off, just rifling through the boxes with the remaining half hour.

We take off our boots and start digging as well. About four more sisters from the Relief Society walk by, and ask what we're doing. Sister J relates the story of this investigator family, and each sister, without a word or further comment, slips off their high heels or boots, checks the sizes, and digs in as well. And I was just overwhelmed by it. It felt like pioneer times, when people help push each others handcarts. Just by the sheer goodness of all these sisters, who were no doubt sorted and serviced out, we ended up with about twenty bags of clothing for this family with nothing. Miraculously, pretty much all of it left was in the specific sizes and ages and genders that we needed. All of us wanted to cry. I was amazed at what we accomplished and the good things we found. The Spirit of love and urgency for this family, who were strangers, was exquisite

And what are the odds of that, you know? Of that clothing exchange, that weekend, when they had that need. Of those sizes, being the only ones left. I'll go ahead and tell you, the odds are impossible. Because they aren't odds at all. They are evidences of a loving Heavenly Father, who has a plan of personal relief and healing for each of His children. Not one of us is lost to Him. Not any trial we have is insignificant. 

Our eight o'clock fell through, and we were able to go with the hermanas to deliver the clothing to the family. The drive over, most of our vision was obscured by blowing, drifting snow at 40-45 mph winds. Wind chill was in -20s. The hermanas were packed into our backseat by bag after bag of donation, frozen and totally cramped. And none of us could've been happier. 

Until we actually got there.

These beautiful Hispanic kids were hopping up and down, and holding dress after dress up, just giggling. They stomped around in their new shoes and teased each other as they couldn't zip jackets fast enough. And watching them absolutely devour that show of mercy from the Lord testified to me that God knows us and loves us. His plan and His love are so perfect. So individualized. There is nothing we can do to lose that love and that help. Even when we make mistakes. Especially when we make mistakes. It is there for us. It does not change. It does not end. 

We met a woman this week who I know without a doubt I was supposed to find. She's part of why I was sent to Minnesota and why I have stayed in this area. I know it. After the initial contact, we had Relief Society sisters, each of whom had a perfect experience for her concern and pain in the lessons. AHhhh. Like how does this even work out?! But it does. Lakisha is going through the process of a divorce after ten years of marriage. Her husband shows no interest in her or the kids, and comes home when he has no place else to stay. We knocked on her door by total inspiration. We had passed it many times. And we visibly SAW the Spirit prompt her to let us in. Usually she's very private and protective. But Heavenly Father told her she could trust us.

 She has two young children and is going to school to become a midwife, while also working as a CNA. She was unable to come to church because her replacement didn't come in, and her babysitter brought her kids to the hospital while she was still on shift. Right?! I wanted to go help. Gall. She texted us and was heartbroken about missing church! But so excited for the lesson Sunday evening. Seeing her embrace the gospel so quickly and seeing how very much she needs the Atonement has been a huge blessing to me. She is hungry for the truths in the Book of Mormon. She GETS that it is how God is trying to heal her. We left her with Mosiah 24 and listening to her apply it to her pains and testify that the Lord could make her burdens lighter was incredible. She is working towards baptism March 1. She is incredibly humble and good. All her friends and family are in Chicago and she feels so alone. The Relief Society sisters have just circled around her already. There is so much good going on in this ward!!! I am SO excited about teaching her! Being able to help someone come closer to Christ, in the midst of a divorce, is a huge testimony and gift to me that Heavenly Father knows the pain of those we love and how badly we want to help them. I love all of our investigators, but I can see His hand in helping me better understand and empathize with Sister L. I can feel her pain, and I can see the Lord help her. I love that. I LOVE how the Lord works. It is a privilege to be a part of His great work. We are so blessed!

With all these extra things, we somehow increased our average lessons per week by 50 percent and had four cuties to church. The Lord has been so good to us! I testify that this is His work. I love it. I can't believe this is the last week with Sister T. I love her! 

And I love you GUYS. Happy week, eh?! Stay warm.

PSYCH YOU'RE IN UTAH. Gall. Love you!!

January 13: We Did Not Stand Alone

I'm just going to start this email with the pre-cursor that I have been a tenderhearted, cry-baby mess this week. Cool? Cool. But literally, soooo cool. So cold. No worries, I didn't cry on the inside days. We just got weeeeeird. We were inside due to dangerous cold from SATURDAY NIGHT TO TUESDAY AT NOON. Oh HECK no! Hahaha. Thank goodness we live with the hermanas, so it was more of a party... It was all area books, deep doctrine discussions, and phone calls as far as the eye could see. Also, we ate an entire batch of no-bakes and learned about SCIENCE. For INstance. If you blow bubbles in -30, they freeze immediately, and clank together like little golf balls in the air. Next science experiment. If you boil a large VAT of water, and throw it in the air in -30, it turns to powder upon impact. Yes, sir. These are the life lessons I'm learnin'.

But really, this week was wonderful. On Sunday, since we live close, we got invited with a few other missionaries to have a sacrament service in the mission home. (SINCE CHURCH WAS CANCELLED.) It was so intimate and special. Each missionary shared their testimony and the Spirit was so strong. I am so thankful that I was able to have had that moment, with my fellow missionaries and with my Savior. My GASH. My heart is so full of joy and gratitude today. For the past 3 months of not-quite baptisms, for the weekend of wild cold, for the week of warmer temps, for my companion, and for the African people. 

I found this video today, and I just cried. This is my area. These are my people. This is their story:

The part I want to talk about today is the part where she holds up the torn blanket, and says, "And so, I've decided to keep it. As a remembrance. So whenever I have important visitors, this is what I will show to them. That I am not finished. I am still alive.

That faith, that belief, that hope, was within us." 

The past three months of my mission have been incredibly difficult. I'll be straight-up. I've improved as a missionary and as a person (you hope, right...? Eh.), and worked harder than I ever have in my life - harder than I was when we were baptizing once a month. And yet, things still fall through. Wonderful new investigators turn into eternal stop-bys and date-sets turn into hostile conversations and dropped investigators. And it's heartbreaking. Because whether you teach someone once or one hundred times, you feel the love Christ has for them. And you want this for them more than absolutely anything else. And you have this urgency, that the words you are saying, however humble and simple, are backed by eternal truths - by an all-knowing God who loves this individual child so much. You know that it's the most important opportunity they will ever have placed in front of them, and when that doesn't so much as register for them or go anywhere, it is heart-breaking. Every single time.

This week, as I slide waaaaay too close to having used half of this time already, I've been reflecting on the parallels between my earthly mission and my 18-month mission. In almost every way, it is the same. We were shown this opportunity to learn and to grow, and we were so excited at the prospect of being able to grow closer to God and closer to the people He needs us to be. We knew it would be miserable at times and joyful at times, but we had absolutely no clue just how gut-wrenchingly miserable and how soul-alteringly joyful it would be. And then we get here. And there are challenges and tasks so much bigger than us, lots of learning and growing to do. And the only way we can accomplish them, the only way to stay hopeful and full of light, is by calling on the name of Christ. By using His Atonement. You work your absolute hardest, do all you can to be faithful and obedient, and when your mission is completed, you "die." And based on how you used that opportunity, you are different. But so much better. 

Our cute investie J, who was supposed to get baptized on the 25th, had a whole landslide of doubts and discouragement. (Which is pretty typical before a baptism, but stay with me here.) Her main fellowshipper is my friend A. Another one of my African mamas. She's from Zambia and is the sweetest, best person in the world. Honestly. (She'd never heard of hand-warmers and doesn't own a real coat or boots in this weather. Therefore, some of our dinner hour this week was spent sliding handwarmer after toewarmer after handwarmer under her door. ALWAYS CREEPIN. Buuuuut. She knew it was us. Hahaha. She thinks we're hilarious.)  Her faith is incredible. Her family is half in Zambia, half here - and the half here have mostly distanced themselves since she joined the church. And yet there she is. Every activity. Every Sunday. In our lesson at her home, when J said she couldn't be baptized because she didn't have a job anymore, Sister K threw down with her. (Old African lady throwdowns are the literal best thing. Better than anything on TV.) 

She testified about not having a job when she joined two years ago, and staying faithful and still not having a job now. She told J it was a flimsy excuse and quoted the Savior. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you." She told J she was chasing the spirit away by focusing on spiritual or temporal problems. She said, "If you go tomorrow, does it matter to God if you had a job or if you were cleansed and promised something to Him?" ... Hi. I love her. 

Well, J shared more concerns, and every one of us - the Relief Society President, A, Sister T, etc, walked away saddened. (We're still working with her, but the date is pushed back again.) The next day, we get a call. It's A. She is asking for J's number because she's out and about looking for jobs for J. Let me reiterate, A is jobless herself, and they're both seeking the same nursing position. But she called and said, "I found some places that are looking for help and other places that could help her with her resume. I don't think it's a good reason, but if it is holding her back, I want to help. I want to call her today, so we can get to be good friends. So I can help." 

Naaaaturally, I started crying. African people, guys. I literally can't put them into words. I said, "You are wonderful." She said, in her little Zambian accent, "'Eeeeeey, Sista Balleh, you are wonderful TOO." 

And then after that show of true discipleship, of true conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, literally no discouragement mattered. All we could see were miracles. And I felt like my African friends, who start every prayer and every testimony and every Sunday School comment with, "I just want to be tankful to GOD." 

A member had the courage to refer her friend and their whole family and we met with them twice this week.

An older member who had his records removed about 12 years ago has been reading the Book of Mormon with us, and keeping his outside reading commitments. We started through the discussions with him, and we had an incredible lesson last night about the Atonement and the restoration of the gospel. We talked about how his cancer had humbled him and brought his heart back to God. 

We've been promised that as we increase lessons with members there, we will increase church attendance and baptism. This week, we worked our butts off and more than doubled the number of member presents.... And had one fifth the church attendance, none of which were our progressing investigators. And rather than be discouraged, I felt so joyful. Because rather than watch the door, I watched Brother B bless the sacrament for the first time. 

These are only a few, and maybe seem small, but I was filled this week. And when Brother B blessed the sacrament, I just started crying. And it wouldn't stop until I got up and shared my testimony. Yes, I just want to be thankful to God. 

And going back to that video, when the woman held up the tattered blanket, a small gesture that represented something so much more, I thought of all my weathered and beat up missionary planners. Things I will not throw away for the world. Because those lessons planned, those goals set, those days spent... I will keep them in remembrance. I want to show them to everyone. (I won't really. I won't BE THAT GUY.) That no matter what happens today or tomorrow or however long it takes until the Lord is ready to bless us, because of the Atonement and gospel of Jesus Christ, I am not finished. I am still alive.

And that faith, that hope, that belief, lives within me. 

And I will wake up tomorrow and with the Lord's help, fill that next blank page with lessons taught and received.

I love this work. I love this beautiful area and for the incredible training ground for life it has proved to be. I love my mission president. I love my companion. She has grown SO much. I feel like a mama. My mission is everything to me. I have loved so much seeing the changes in people's lives. But I have loved just as much the beautiful privilege in loving those who weren't ready to change. 

I testify that no matter the opposition, no matter the discouragement, no matter the mountain before us, the Lord is over all. These things are tailored individually for our profit and learning by a Father who loves and knows us perfectly. And Jesus Christ, our brother and friend, has overcome. He will take us by the hand and help us do the same. 

January 4: Freeze your FLESH?!?

Oh heeeey. Just your frozen sister from the same heavenly mister, taking some time to drop a line. Whenever I say drop a line here, I immediately think of ice-fishing. Which is what I compared to eating fondue as a group the other night. You bet. I fon-DID. Fondue jokes. Fon-DON'T test this message. 

Welp. Monday is supposed to be 28 degrees. Oh, that's fine. NOPE. It's not fine. Let me tag on the tail end of the sentence. 28 degrees BELOW ZERO. Hhaahahhahahaha OH MY GOSH NO. How do we even...? What? They say if you're outside for more than ten minutes, you will freeze your flesh. FREEZE YOUR FLESH. But really, it'll be okay. Except that church is cancelled and we're not supposed to go outside for the next two days. Hoooooh, man. I will probably go crazy. And/or write out lessons and testimonies and train some sort of ice-lovin' critter to deliver them to our cute investies. Nah. No worries. I picture this a lot like the scene in Star Wars where they just like cut open the weird animals and get inside them so they can survive the war. I don't know what the Minnesota equivalent would be, but... by all means. Let's do that.

Despite the frigid weather (coldest winter in 20 years), this week has been warm with miracles. And in a miracle maybe most enabling and tender of all, all jokes aside, I have really and truly not felt very cold. I don't know how to explain it. I just don't feel it. I don't pretend to know how it all works, but I know Heavenly Father has the power to do all things. And even though I am hardly a pioneer or of early-saint-calibur, feeling completely warm (even running out to the car in -2 in a t-shirt) at all times has been an incredible miracle this week. Heavenly Father loves us, knows us, and is ready to bless us so individually so that we feel his love.

I think my favorite miracle this week was when we were pretty hopelessly lost on New Year's Eve, and my GPS gave up the ghost. Picture that, if you will. Especially those of you who have ever suffered at my hand in the receiving of directions (I still check my finger-Ls for which is right and which is left) or learned the heavenly virtue of patience as I attempt to decipher a road map.  We were in a random neighborhood in North Minneapolis, in a part of the area I haven't worked as much. The weather was about -4, and gusts of glittery, blowing snow were just a-blowin', obscuring the heck out of our vision.  We pulled up a random street to stop and examine the paper map (a totally foreign concept) and figure out the way to our scheduled stop-by. As we looked, my attention was drawn across the street and up two houses, to a little house with a light shining through the curtains. 

The Spirit impressed upon me that we had to knock. I started to unbuckle my seatbelt and wedge on my gloves even as I suggested it. I knew we would! We had to. We've been working on Sister T's door approaches, so she leads out in all finding situations now. No sooner had she sweetly said her name and asked the woman at the door her's than we were invited inside! P and J, the couple living inside, had lived in Ogden for 20 years, with many friends who are members of the church. In Utah, they were strongly involved in a church, but since coming to Minnesota, they haven't found a church they like or feel comfortable with. As we shared the message of the restoration, both got a little emotional. They've been worried for their children and unsure of direction they should take. In FACT, it was their anniversary and they had just been talking about that concern.

We testified, "God sent us to your door tonight. We got hopelessly lost, only to look up and know He sent us here. Just to you. Do you believe that?" The mom, a little sheepish and teary, nodded. "Stranger things have happened." By the time we left, she was just hugging us like we were family. We scheduled a return appointment congruent with their work schedules, and as we drove back to our original route, we called the member who had come to our mind as we visited with them. She was free to joint-teach the evening of the return appointment. That's a miracle!! We've been trying to be much more proactive with the phone to improve member presents and people are progressing accordingly. Investigator and member hearts are softening to the message. Yeah, LISSSten. If you have missionaries in their area, please go joint-teaching with them. It's not horrifying like you think. Literally, you will change their missionary work and their investigators, simply by coming and being a normal person who believes what we do. We're NOT REAL to them. We wear name tags and skirts and suits on bikes. Come on people. Help us out. Come and share your testimony. Pretty please and thank you.

But how wonderful is Heavenly Father? That He has the power to get us lost in exactly the neighborhood on exactly the street in front of exactly the house of people searching, and familiar, with the message? That is not a coincidence. That is compassion from a loving Father. 

EC continues to be softened by the service of members. We stopped by for our appointment this week and were countered by a crying baby and out-of-town family visiting, but E - the member of the family who has been most hesitant, came out in the hall and talked to us about the Book of Mormon and about her desire to come to church. It was an amazing miracle! Seeing this family progress and being able to love them and learn patience through their ups and downs has been a wonderful blessing of my mission. I know they will be baptized. I know they will have these blessings. And I am determined to creatively do all the Lord asks, with everything we have, to help that happen. I know the Lord will guide us and bless us. JA is still progressing well towards baptism January 25th, and KW and her daughter L, are on track for February 1st, due to her finally changing her work schedule and having the Sunday day shift off!!! HURRAH FOR ISREAL. But, really. 

I've seen big changes in the area and in investigators we've worked with for a long time, and as selfish as it seems, the difference is in me. I had to repent of the frustrations and disappointments I've held onto and held onto for the past five or so transfers here. And I think that's true for all of us in our different situations - relationships, jobs, school, everything. We get bitter. We do. And even if we don't verbalize it or even consciously acknowledge the hardening, it goes against human nature to keep trying and trying when we're turned down or when things don't work out. Which is exactly why we have a Savior. It is exactly the reason God sent His son Jesus Christ to enable us to overcome our natural tendencies. The divine and the beautiful in this life do not come by yielding to momentary, or monthly, or yearly setbacks. The best blessings come by redeeming persistence and perspective! Easiness cheapens the gift. All things worth having require work, repentance, and diligence in obeying the guidance of the Lord. We may not see results right away. We may not see them at all in this life. But we persist in doing the things the Lord asks of us. And that is not hopeless or deranged and euphemistic. It is gospel truth. We need to fight through. We need to choose. Because we can. Because that is why we are here.

I just love these people so much! I want this so badly for them and it crushes me when it doesn't work out, whether we taught them once or sixteen times. I needed a fresh view of the area and these individuals. And that freshness comes through repenting! (Bible Dictionary definition of repentance has been a big fascination for me this week. Plllllease give it a gander.) 

And as we have changed our attitude, the area has changed. The investigators are changing. The ward is changing. It really is as simple as increasing our faith. And everyone keeps saying it, but it's only because it's true. We can't make someone keep an appointment or keep their commitments for them, but we can control our attitude and our trust in God during the setbacks. If something falls through, we have a conscious choice through the gift of agency to either say, what are we doing wrong, what's wrong with these people, and on and on. But it's selfishness. It's pride. It's doubt, and it's a lack of faith. It's so much happier to choose the Lord's way. To realize, okay, if not that appointment, if not that investigator, if not today, then tomorrow. Then the next door. Then the next appointment. Things work out. He has it in hand. And He is so much more powerful than me or any of us attempting to do this work. 

It's the same for you, friends. Okay, if not that job, the next one. If not this success, a different success. If not my expectation, something better. We choose our happiness by choosing our faith. 

It's interesting, because I've always been a grumpy guy in the winter times. And here, in the coldest place I can imagine, I haven't. I've felt happy; increasingly so. I love this area. I love this work. And even though it's the coldest winter in 20 years, I love this state and this winter. Because as the days grow colder, my heart feels warmer. I feel it changing into the heart Heavenly Father needs it to be. I know that change is possible because of my Savior Jesus Christ. And it makes me happy. And I want all my brothers and sisters to feel the same. :)

I love you all! Thank you for your cutie-pants support, your Christmas cheer, and your charity. Seeeeee you this fall!

... WHAT. :/

December 30: Look Not Behind Thee

Hello! Happy NEW Years, you cuties! I wish I could give you 9,008 big hugs. Sometime soon, people. No worries. It was so great to see you all on Skype! Gall. Warming my heart in this -11 degree weaTHA. P.s. Windchill last night? -30. Nope. Dead. Hahaha. Ugh.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the sweet Christmas packages and cards. You people are the actual best. Hi.

This week has been wonderful. Christmas in Minnesnowta was tender and wonderful and something I'll never forget. We spent all day with my favorite family in the ward. Prrrretty sure the R's get an honorable mention in each email, but. They earn it. They're the best friends we have here. And when we're in their little house - either on Tuesdays for dinner, or being together on a holiday, I feel like even though.. by all rights, we are third-wheeling their magical young-married-with-a-new-baby-life, we are part of a family. I feel safe there. So, all Christmas Day, we got to just talk and be with friends. And eat. We didn't do anything huge or spectacular and it reminded me so much of our cute family when we all get together. That just being together is the best part. (Also, they have a terrific album and book collection. They have agreed to send me a large list of musical love for when I go home. And, I wish I did art like either of them. Everything on the walls of their home is gorgeous and personal. Cool. Sign me up.) It was so comforting to be able to spend my Christmas in the mission field with my mission family.

ALSO, we spent the evening with one of Liberian RCs, who left all her children in Africa. We read Luke 2 and 3 Nephi and sang up a storm. Also had a full meal of fufu and hot pepper after a full lunch and dinner at the Ramseys. All in a days work, eh? 

I guess I loved this week so much because not only does it remind us of the journey the wise men and the shepherds made to see Christ, but it reminded me of the journey God wants us to take. It reminded me that no journey is too far, no distance too great for the Savior to come to US.

Let's talk about the principle of the fourth watch, right? In Matthew 14, we read the story of the disciples out at sea. The story tells us that the wind was contrary, and the storm was only growing. The anxious disciples see a figure walking out on the water, and it only adds to their anxiety, causing them trouble and fear. Christ encourages them, "Be of good cheer; it is I; Be not afraid." And Jesus invites Peter out onto the water with him. Peter, filled with joy and faith, takes his first few steps. But the winds don't cease. The water doesn't settle. And though Christ has reached out to him, Peter begins to fear - and lacking that faith, he sinks.

No sooner than he begins to sink, Christ reaches out a hand and saves him, chastening him for doubting, for losing faith. They make their way back to the ship together, and when they arrive together, the storm ceases. 

Friends, sometimes the past few transfers have felt like a stormy night. Missions are hard! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's so hard in the most beautiful way. I love my Heavenly Father for making it hard. 

We have seen so many miracles, and likewise, we have seen so many heartbreaks. And staying in the same area, seeing, meeting, and falling so in love with so many people, who don't quite make it to baptism, or aren't quite ready right now, I have felt anxious. Some days the winds seem to great. But time and again, a single image breaks through our doubt and our fear. And that image is our friend and our brother Jesus Christ, with his hand outstretched. With a calm and peaceful smile amid the surrounding storm. 

And every time I fix my sights on him, I can move forward. I can walk on water, so to speak. And every time I give into the temptation of discouragement or fear because of the growing storm, I fall. And Jesus Christ, the greatest friend I have come to know and love in Minnesota, reaches out for me again - no doubt disappointed, but ready to help me with the peaceful arrival back on board. 

This week, things with the C family got even more complicated. We love that family so much, but we have had some difficulty in teaching the mom. We have as much fellowship as we can and individual fellowship plans for each member of the family. We have served them. We pray for them. And yet, things aren't quite lining up just yet. Their time is not just yet. And when I look behind me, at where things were, or look around me, at the growing flurry of falling complexities, I begin to sink. 

But the simple truth is that the Savior is there. His hand is outstretched. He sees us giving our best effort. He sees us doing all we can. And when we have given everything we can to weathering the storm, He will appear. We will see His influence and feel His mighty blessing. This week, we had an extremely discouraging day with the C family. Our evening appointment was with J, my friend from Ghana who has been taking the discussions since July. No matter what we teach her, read, pray about, fast about, she hasn't felt ready to be baptized. 

So this week, after some prayer, we decided to take it back to basics. The first principle, of the very first lesson, is God's love. And how effective are we as His servants if we haven't absolutely done everything conveying that love? Welp. J knows we are friends, but this week, as we did all we could to serve her, J knew we were her sisters.

And just like that, her heart changed. She agreed to baptism January 25th. 

It humbled me like nobody's business. And even though the difficulties of a mission are still  there, the storm still raging - investigators dropped, appointments cancelled, baptismal dates not met - it made me re-focus my sights on Jesus Christ. On His willing sacrifice and His outstretched hand, to help each and every one of us accomplish the seemingly impossible. And the storm inside me quieted, and I felt calm. I felt love for my Heavenly Father, and I also felt strongly that that feeling is something He wants all of us to feel.

 In life, and especially on a mission, the times we are sinking are the times we are thinking we walking alone. We are looking at the crashing waves around us, hearing the thunder above us. But it is my testimony and fervent belief that in those times, we are not seeing the Friend who walks out to us in the fourth watch. We are not recognizing His ability to make us more than we are - to calm the storms we experience personally and poignantly. 

We can be as still as the sea on a sunny day, or we can feel storm-tossed and lost. All depending on where our sights are fixed; where the Savior is in  our perspective. Is he far away and unattainable? Or is He walking beside us and helping us achieve the unthinkable? The choice is ours.

Also, this video, for New Years. Quality. 

December 16: "Fear not, I will pilot thee"


Hahaha. No. Like it's SO cold outside. Translation? We get weirder by the MINUTE. Donner Party wasn't even out of food. They were just COLD and looking for some laughs and it got crazy. I'm 86% sure. (Twisting church history? Eh. Sorry.) 

Today is TRANSFERS. SPOILER ALERT: I am ghetto-fabulous yet again! Still got a wicked case of the Shingles over here in Brooklyn Center. Hahahaaha. Shingle Creek. So many good jokes. Just still here, being an STL in SHINGLE CREEK. That sounds so much like a disease. Anyway, I get to finish Sister T's training. I'm so happy. :) I've been praying. 

This week was one of heavy-lifting, I'll be honest. The Lord is very determined we develop those muscles, and I feel so grateful.  This week, Satan has been fighting us hard. Which... we have to take as a compliment, because something great is coming, am I right?! He doesn't bother with sticks-in-the-mud. So. THANKS, Satan. Kindly escort yourself out, now. Sister T and I have had great opportunity to rely on the Lord and feel His love many times this week. I'm happy about it! Missions are hard! Missions are great! Everyone says it because it's TRUE. I guess more than anything this week, I just want to tell everyone ever that I am so absolutely positive that we have a Heavenly Father who loves us. He's aware of us in every adversity. He knows the quiet things we carry, and He also knows when we're bent to breaking. And every time, His hand is outstretched to us. 


This Monday, we went and stopped by a media referral we've been stalking for a month. She's in a real sketchy part of the area (I mean like, the ghetto of the GHETTO, people.) Her last name is spelled a lot like junk, so I always ask mi companera if she wants to stalk SISTAJUNKKKK. You just have to hear the voice to think it's funny. Anyway. We could have lost faith in this woman in the past month, but because the Lord directed us to keep trying, we were there again. And this time, she answered. And on this night, it was the ten year anniversary of her mother's death, and her stillborn son. And within the first minute of meeting this sixty-year-old woman (who has the most dazzling smoker voice I have EVER had the pleasure of hearing), she was crying in my arms. I kid you not. Solid five minutes just sobbing like she was a baby. And I felt so much gratitude that the Lord let me, an absolute stranger from Utah, represent Jesus Christ for her in that moment. I know that the Savior would take each of us in his arms, and cry with us. And I don't know why or how I got so lucky to be able to do that for my sister. 

Allllso, she accepted baptism and also used to do hardcore drugs and also felt comfortable talking to us about STDs and things. And her neighbor, T, who was inebriated and terrifically thuggish and half her age, came into the kitchen and WE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A DRUG DEAL BUT IN ALL SERIOUSNESS HE WAS COMING TO TALK WITH HER AND HAVE COOKIES AND I JUST CAN'T EVEN TALK ABOUT HOW MUCH I LOVE EVERYTHING SHE IS. Keep you posted on that little rogue-cutie.

I exchanged with my Elm Creek sisters this week again, since one just went home. :/ The new sister was Sister M's trainee! She was a lot like her. Super focused, super hard-working. We spent the day in North Minneapolis, and I was so happy. There I was, in a simultaneous winter wonderland/Tupac music video, and the Spirit was as strong as General Conference. And the cold didn't feel cold. And two gangsters in leather jackets got teary-eyed on the street, telling me they were jealous of Joseph's Smith experience because they wanted to know God and Jesus, too. HI. This is my LIFE. :)

Now, the sadder stuff. We were unable to see the C family at all this week - because they've just welcomed little M - who is incidentally the cutest baby in the world. Whenever we dropped by, they were busy or unpleasant. This complete 180 in behavior was so hard to cope with after having seen such strong confirmation of the truth. We've had daily contact, either through our efforts or the ward members. We've extended specific commitments. We've served them. We've done absolutely everything we know how to do, and given our hearts to these people.  When we went to our Saturday appointment - which Brother C himself had set up - the family was irritated and told us there wasn't time. That was the appointment we were going to teach word of wisdom and be able to move forward with an official date-set. I had been looking forward to it all week and praying for it about 40 times a day.

 I was so discouraged afterward. We had scheduled the next hour that afternoon to print some talks from for a less-active visit that night. As we drove to the library, and the discouragement was just washing over me in waves. I wanted to sit and bawl. Instead, something just rose within me, and all the sudden we were driving to another former investigator - the Hmong referral we told you about two months back. SNAKE MAN. I felt exhausted of Satan taking wonderful people and incredible spiritual experiences and stopping them short. And I think, when I started my mission, I would have gladly taken the hour to refuel and cool off. I would've seen it as a tender mercy that we had scheduled it that way. This week, we saw that time window, and the bad setback, and we listened to the Lord's will and worked with a vengeance. We had an incredibly bold, spiritual lesson as we stopped by the former investigator. Inspired questions and concerns were coming out right and left, and afterward, Sister T and I had absolutely no idea what we had said to them. We had an adrenaline rush. We finished the lesson with Sister T singing "I'm a Child of God." Everyone in the room had goosebumps. I am so thankful for my sweet companion, for her faith and her obedience. Her talents touched their hearts.

And the thought came to me, as I looked back on the day, and on the week, Satan might've won an inch, but when we used those feelings of discouragement to go out and serve and love with that much more passion, the Lord helped us take back a mile. I got a blessing earlier this week, and it said that every day, the Lord is happier with my efforts. And every day, Satan gets a little angrier and little more determined to stop us. I know that's true of anyone pursuing a good life. I also know that with Christ's help, we overcome that. All his little tricks and tools, discouragement and pride and confusion - they fall away.

 I love the difficulty of a mission. I love the mercy of Heavenly Father who caters these burdens and obstacles to exactly what we need to change, and grow. I feel so much gratitude to my Savior Jesus Christ, and all that He enables us to do. We can't do this work without him. We need our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. This work is impossible without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I know they love us. I know this gospel is real. He shows me all the time. Just this Sunday, when none of our investigators would commit to church, four investigators who haven't responded to calls or stop-bys for about a month showed up OF THEIR OWN ACCORD. I was honestly astounded. After church as we ate lunch, we found the following verses in 1 Nephi 21 particularly comforting:

4 Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.

5 And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.

6 And he said: It is a light thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give thee for a blight to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.

7 Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nations abhorreth, to servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord that is faithful.

8 Thus saith the Lord: In an acceptable time have I heard thee, O isles of the sea, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee; and I will preserve thee, and give thee a servant for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages;

9 That thou mayest say to the prisoners: Go forth; to them that sit in darkness: Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places.

10 They shall not hunger nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them; for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them.

11 And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.

12 And then, O house of Israel, behold, these shall come from far; and lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.

13  Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established; and bbreak forth into singing, O mountains; for they shall be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.

14 But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.

15 For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have bcompassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.

16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. 

All our efforts, and all our love of the Lord and His will were not in vain. He had not forgotten us. He is pleased with our efforts, and He has shown us that by the encouraging and numerous daily miracles, that let us know that He is in this work. What a sweet show of love that He allows us to participate.  I love my Savior Jesus Christ. I love my companion, for her obedience and love of the Lord. She is so meek! She teaches me so much daily. I am also grateful for the opportunity I have to serve those in my sister group. I exchanged with Sister T this week and marveled at her consecration and appreciation for the Lord's time. I love this mission. Every ridiculous, hilarious, happy, heart-breaking, humbling minute of it. There is nowhere I'd rather be. 

In the words of one of my newly favorited hymns, Jesus, my Savior, is truly piloting me. Anything I can do is because of Him. :) 

I AM SO HAPPY I GET TO TALK TO YOU NEXT WEEK! See you all in a Minne. Cuuuuuuties.

P.s. A little preview of the coming Christmas card. Love you!!

December 9: Lewis and Clark were correct

Greeeeeetings from MinneSNOWta! Hi, hi, hi!

Today, there is a wind chill of -20 to -30. Snow big deal, guys! It's fiiiiiiiiine. As an interesting fact, every time the temperature drops, we get a degree more hilarious. We are having so much fun. Hahahah. It's UNREAL. Also. I've never been more painfully aware of each individual nose-hair in my LIFE. Why? Because each has its own icicle after the first inhale outside. Giddy on up!

A Minnesota fun-fact is that when Lewis and Clark paddled on up the good ol' Mississip and SAW this place, they declared it uninhabitable and turned their canoes back around, paddling the HECK out of here. My roommate Hermana P really likes telling that one. It was her birthday this week! We bought her a majestic tiger print fleece-blanket a la WALmart and told her to "Stay regal." Yes sir. She and I spent the whole day together at Mission Leadership Council to celebrate! Aaaaand, that's basically how we've spent the whole week. In MEETINGS. My gash. They've been wonderful meetings, but three conferences in one week? Not a quicker way to a stir-crazy sister. I don't care if it's -9 outside. Get me. out. doing. missionary. work. So weird to sit inside for that long! 

So, in all the cold weather and meetings, there were about 5 million miracles and tender mercies. And tender mercies, I'm coming to realize, are what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. It's how the Book of Mormon starts, remember? (Come on. We've all been through 1 Nephi chapter one more times than we'd like to admit. We're friends here.) After describing a trial, the prophet says, "But behold, I Nephi, will show you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith..."  Elder Bednar and I are on the same page about them. He said, " I have come to better understand that the Lord’s tender mercies are the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, the Lord suits “his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men.”

So, let's review tender mercies this week. Wednesday this week was New Missionary Training in Bloomington. It was also an incredibly big storm, which kept even lifelong Minnesotans inside and home from work. Me? Nope. I was the designated driver for a group of five missionaries to Bloomington. Ask me if I sharted myself. Well. I didn't. But. I wanted to. So, the tender mercy about that was, even though we had absolutely zero traction and even though a 20 minute drive took an hour and ten, we had a super spiritual drive there, and drive back. I was so nervousy, so I made every elder in the backseat tell us their favorite mission stories - horror stories, hilarious stories, and heavenly stories. The Spirit was so strong, and as we all prayed for safety in the storm and sang hymns and shared stories, I just felt the Savior's love and presence. Where two or three are gathered in my name. It's a real thing, people. It was honestly prrrretty horrifying, and I felt totally calm by the end of the drive. (Once we reached home, we were grounded for the night, as the rest of the mission had been for the whole day. Roads were wild. We also found out that there were four fatalities on the road home that we took. We are SO blessed to have had that experience, and to have come out okay.)

Another tender mercy about that day? Driving home, we stopped at a Subway. There were SO many missionaries in that Subway. There was a little girl in line just crying and whining, and I felt so much love for her. I mean, it was totally our fault that her wait was long. So I went over with a pen and paper and just kneeled down and asked her if she would color me a picture. She colored me two! She ran across the restaurant so excited. Her father came over and thanked me after, and we were able to talk about the gospel and how it strengthens families. I gave him the assistants' number, but it was one of my favorite contacts of my mission. It was blessing to me, to feel love from that little person, to feel gratitude from him, and to feel love for their family from Heavenly Father. 

Tender mercy again? One of the less-actives I've been working with my entire time in this area FINALLY CAME TO CHURCH ON SUNDAY. I about jumped out of my skin. We had such tender lessons this week about repentance and prayer. She trusts us now. And listening to her share experiences with us this week, it was such a tender gift to us. Her heart visibly softened throughout the lesson. I love our soon-to-be-actives. (Optimism. Pass it on.) There is absolutely no point in doing missionary work unless we retain the fruits of our efforts. The end. Amen. As a sidenote? If you are reading this, please, please grab a ward list and go hit up some less-actives. It's not weird like you think it is, I promise. These people are starving for love and for spiritual uplift. They're missing something. There's a REASON they stopped coming, and no matter who they are or what they say, it's not just laziness. Go love them and figure it out. Please and thank you.

We were in meetings all this week when the C family was available, so we don't get to teach them again until Wednesday. Aw, man. We stopped by with cookies, and little A, who is six, was like, "Sista Ballif, I forgot to TAYELL you. That crumble cake you dropped off last week, that stuff was fanTAStic. Did you put the gospel in it?!!" Hahaha. WHAT. I shrugged and said, "Well... the secret ingredient was love." He said, "Mmmmmm, I know DAT's right." Hahahah. This FAMILY. I love them!

We are also working with a Hispanic family. We've been meeting with them for about three weeks now. They came to church Sunday! THAT was a tender mercy. Yeeeeee-hooooooo. So happy. The V family has some of my favorite kids in the world. They always draw us thank you notes for coming. ALSO. Their baby wears onesies and gold chains on his neck and wrists. I can't even do it. I was in the middle of teaching about the Law of Chastity this week, and he comes over and grabs my nametag with one hand, my face with the other, and swoops in and KISSES ME ON THE MOUTH. How do I even TAKE that? Hahahaha. We were all so weirded out. He's TWO. Get outta here! So funny. Laughing about that together was a tender mercy.

There were lots of little things. Aaaand, I'm running out of time. Curse these long-winded tendencies. OH. Okay. Biggest miracle though, was yesterday. We were behind on restorations and we wanted to find some awesome new investigators. We have two well-progressing families and we're SO happy, but helping two families doesn't somehow help everyone else out there waiting and aching for this in their lives. SO. We felt prompted to stop by Sister K - a RC, and one of my favorite friends. She's in her sixties, and she's from Zambia. We had a good visit, and she went to walk us out, and we said, "You know, we actually want to try knocking your building." She got so excited, and clapped her hands together, just beaming. She wished us good luck.

We walked up the hall, and I asked if we could pray. In my prayer, I asked the Lord to open hearts and open doors. We literally weren't done saying amen when the door to our right opened. Two little African kids said, "Did someone knock? Thought we heard a knock?" Yeah. NO ONE KNOCKED. But we were about to! And we said that. They went and grabbed their mom. We talked for a little about Jesus Christ and about God's love for us. Then we sang I'm a Child of God. The Holy Ghost was going to town on her. (Thank goodness, though. Have you heard me sing? Yikes a million.) She got a little emotional and invited us in. She said her family has been searching for a church. Her sister has tried to get them in her church, but it hasn't felt right. Everything we said, she just said, "AMEN!" After the first vision, we just let the silence simmer. The Spirit is a much better teacher than I am. She just smiled and smiled. Everything about the Restoration made sense to her. She asked how soon we could come back. She agreed to baptism. She can't WAIT for her husband to hear the message. As we knelt for our closing prayer, she both asked to know if it was true and thanked God for the confirmation from the Holy Ghost that it is. WHAT. 

We were literally flabbergasted. I wanted to cry after. I had so much joy in her! As we left, she seriously just held us in long embraces, like old friends and kept thanking us. I feel so much gratitude to the Lord for allowing me this experience, in letting me assist in my small and humble way, in His mighty work. He knows who is prepared. He knows what doors and hearts are open. He could do this work on His own. He doesn't need my efforts, but oh, how I need to give them. This time is the biggest blessing to me. There is no where I'd rather be than here, in Shingle Creek.

And as we walked back to the car, with my companion trudging in front and paving the path through the feets of snow, I got teary. Or I would've, if they hadn't frozen. She walked first because her boots are taller. She showed me true charity, and as we walked to the car, Sister K showed true discipleship by calling out, "Deed you fin' someone?" We said, "Yes, a family!" She shouted, "GOD BLESS YOU SEESTAS!"

I love my Africans. I love their view of the gospel and on Jesus. It's about the joy. They understand that.

I love you allllll! Happy Christmas season.