When I first joined the church, and saw all the banquets or fancy awards for the Eagle Scouts and Duty to God, I wondered what there was like that for the girls. I found this quote from President Ezra Taft Benson (“To the Young Women of the Church”, Ensign, November 1986, page 81):
Recognize with equal prominence the presentation of the Young Womanhood Recognition Award as you do the awarding of the Duty to God Award and Eagle Scout badge.
I realized then that while often not recognized as it should be (which I plan to change and improve upon now that I am called to that duty to do so), the personal progress program really was important to and significant for our young women.
Important enough, and significant enough, that I felt I should do it, too, even though I was old (compared to being 12 years old) and a convert rather than growing up in the church.
President Benson went on to say:
Yes, give me a young woman who loves home and family, who reads and ponders the scriptures daily, who has a burning testimony of the Book of Mormon. Give me a young woman who faithfully attends her church meetings, who is a seminary graduate, who has earned her Young Womanhood Recognition Award and wears it with pride. Give me a young woman who is virtuous and who has maintained her personal purity, who will not settle for less than a temple marriage, and I will give you a young woman who will perform miracles for the Lord now and throughout eternity.
That’s a big deal.
Performing miracles is a big deal.
Miracles are always performed by the power of God, through the atonement and by Priesthood authority, but miracles most often manifest themselves through the love and care and service we give each other.
Miracles are not always big things; sometimes they are small things, line upon line, that bring about great things – great changes in us, as we become the daughters of Heavenly Father we were created to be.
That’s what personal progress is about: becoming. It’s not a checklist, or one more textbook, or more lame homework to overwhelm us. It’s a process to help us become more ourselves. It is organized by character trait with checklists of ideas only to be sure we don’t miss any particular area. I have some strengths, positive traits, and spiritual gifts that others don’t have; others have strengths, traits, and gifts that are not mine. We each need the book to be sure our weak places are made strong, and our strong places are magnified. Personal progress is not just a program, but about us progressing personally.
When I started the Personal Progress program, I started with Knowledge. I thought this would be easy because I am good at knowing things. I like learning. I have my doctorate. I thought I would be good at this one. But even this one was not just about knowledge, but about becoming. It wasn’t about facts, but about learning to become more and better based on what I learn and how I am refined in the process.
The best example of this is wanting to be a writer. I love writing, and I write everyday no matter what. I need to write like I need to breathe. It is my passion, and it is what I do. But there is a difference between writing just to write, and writing with a voice to change the world. If I want to be an effective writer, then I have to write in a way that resonates with my audience and meets their needs. It’s not about what I want to say; it’s about what they need. To do this best, I need good editors that keep me focused on the audience and refine my skills so that I can best deliver the message for which I am responsible.
If that is my temporal lesson, then my spiritual application is that the Holy Spirit is my editor. The Holy Spirit corrects, instructs, and guides me as I live each day. The Holy Spirit improves me, refines me, comforts me, and encourages me. The Holy Spirit teaches me what I am doing well, and what I need to do differently. It is only through this corrective process that I become better and become more – more the me I was created to be.
The more me I become, the more integrity I have. When I first saw that Integrity was one of the values for the Personal Progress program, I was intimidated. Because of my past, I did not perceive myself as someone “good” or as having anything “good” to offer. That was my most honest moment: that I was nothing and no good at all. Except that is false: by the power of the atonement, the Savior has made me perfect.
Nathan taught me about “justification” by showing me a word document and book pages where the margins were all even. Perfect borders lined up on both edges, but funny spaced words in the middle. That’s me, he said. By what the Savior has done, I am justified and made perfect – not finished, and with messy parts in the middle – but within the bounds Heavenly Father has set, and perfectly able to present my Self to Him for acceptance into His presence. This is why I can boldly approach my Heavenly Father in prayer, in praise, and even in supplication.
But it is the editing, the Holy Spirit, the sanctification, that smooths out the messy words in the middle. This happens over time, with practice, and it is the exercises in the Personal Progress program that helps me do this.
When I got my patriarchal blessing, I could not believe it said I would “come forth in the resurrection with integrity….” I knew there was much work for me to do to learn to speak and live in truth and wholeness and “perfection”, being good enough to be raised up with the gift of integrity. But that’s exactly what the atonement does, by justifying my margins and bringing me within the bounds the Lord has set, so that I learn to be obedient – not to have so many rules that I am pressured to be “good” and less myself, but by being more myself and within the bounds that keep my life happy and safe, life becomes good and I become happy.
Living within the bounds means Choice and Accountability. The best example of this is when I was dating Nathan, with both of us having already made covenants to be chaste until we were married in the temple and faithful ever after. The standards in For Strength of Youth applied to us, even though we were “old”. This meant we had to specifically make choices that enabled us to keep those covenants, and hold ourselves accountable for the choices we made.
Chastity is an easy covenant to keep when your fiance is a thousand miles away. But when he was in town, we had to be really conscious about our dating practices so that we would make good choices that kept our love pure and our happy lives intact. Instead of just “hanging out”, we planned structured activities. Instead of staying out late, we kept a reasonable curfew (even though we were “grown-ups”). Instead of being alone after dark, we planned dinners with friends and families so that we could spend time together in safe environments that made covenant-keeping simple.
We also held ourselves accountable. Our parents knew if we were home on time or not, even though we were in our mid-thirties. I texted the Bishop after each of our dates, just to hold myself accountable, saying what we activities we had done and proudly reporting that we had behaved ourselves. We had frequent personal priesthood interviews to report our virtue, worthiness for the temple, and progress towards making an eternal marriage be a celestial one. These were simple things, some would even mock them, but these things kept us safe and it is why we are so happy now.
Having Nathan in my life has made me very happy. He has a spiritual gift for kindness, and I am not really nice at all. I do not mean that I am hateful or mean or ugly, I just mean it is not a gift for me like it is for him. He has a pure heart and a sincerity about him that shows the pure love of Christ. While I have other spiritual gifts, I have to more consciously work at kindness and consideration.
It was through Nathan’s gift of kindness that I finally began to understand Good Works. Doing good deeds does not earn our way into Heavenly Father’s presence, nor does it buy His approval. However, doing good deeds and acts of service does very much express our love for Him, confirm our dedication to Him, and provide examples of our devotion. It is a response that bursts forth out of our faith, and gives evidence of it.
I tried for three years to get my mom to come to Family Home Evening. She would leave the room if we opened the Book of Mormon, and she would not sing “those mormon songs”. I would work so hard just to get her to come to church with me on special events, if I was talking or one of my nieces or nephews was singing or getting a calling.
But Nathan had a kindness that softened her, and softened me, and taught us to love each other into a softening. It was amazing. He charmed her with sincere service, so that the very first time he asked her to come to Family Home Evening, she said yes, just like that, as if I had not begged her for three years. Soon after that, she started coming to church, on her own, without us asking her or driving her or begging her. She would just show up and stay for the whole service. It was amazing. It was Faith.
A few weeks ago she stayed for Relief Society for the first time, and the lesson was on forgiveness. At Family Home Evening the next night, she testified of the atonement and her understanding that it did not just cover her sins – but also injustices caused by her or that she experienced at the hands of others. She announced she was doing being angry and resentful, and sincerely apologized to me for all kinds of things. It was an incredible and astounding moment, most sacred, and transformative for both us. It was healing. We were at peace and at-one in a whole new way, and it was a miracle, right there at our dining room table.
It is the atonement working in me and working in my mother that began to reveal to both of us the Divine Nature which we shared. We are both children of Heavenly Parents, and we are loved so much that part of our plan to return home to them guaranteed a way to make it possible. The atonement was always part of the plan, and it was for her and it was for me. The atonement was big enough for us, daughters of our God.
As we began to see each other in this way, we softened toward each other even more. I began to notice the many ways she was a “goodly parent”. I began to thank her for these things, noticing them, acknowledging them, pointing out her strengths and positive traits that contributed so much to our lives. I began to love her not just in my head, knowing she was my mother and I loved her, but also loving her by the way I treated her and in the ways we interacted and by the things I did for her.
She always wanted her sheets changed on Thursdays. Because of a previous car accident, changing her sheets was really hard. She wanted them changed once a week, but could not do it by herself. So I always helped her, and recently Nathan helped me help her. We figured out that Thursdays was irrelevant, and that it was really about getting us to her house before we went ballroom dancing so that we would invite her to go with us.
There was no reason to fuss about the chores, because they had to be done. It just is. There are always chores around the house, same as your parents tell you that we have to dust or vacuum. It should never be a surprise or big fuss that it needs doing, because it always needs doing. So we need to just do it, and get it done.
I finally learned that if I did it without fussing, that was good. But it was better if I did it because I knew it needed doing. Then, after these years of practice, I began to experience times where the Holy Spirit revealed to me ways I could help her that He knew she needed but that I would not otherwise be aware. This was a gift to me, a mercy, that I would be more sensitive to her and try harder in new ways. It was also a gift to her, so that she could get her needs met, and know that He loved her, and feel His comfort around her.
It’s all about love.
The day she died was the last day I went to her house to offer service. I did not know she was going to die that day. I went over to her house to let out her dogs and see what else I could do to help. Nathan and I had recently put away her Christmas decorations, and we had cleaned thoroughly then so there was not a lot I could do. But I wanted to do something.
When I was at the store buying the youth the notebooks for the Family History project, I saw some of her favorite cookies by the checkout. I got those, and one of the Cadbury eggs that were out early for Easter. I know people love them or hate them, but she loved them and I wanted to surprise her.
I went to her house and spilled the cookies out on the table, making a big mess to tease her.
I stacked the cookies in a pyramid, because she she had been teasing about mayans and mormons.
I put the cadbury egg at the top of the pyramid, like a prize, knowing it would surprise her and delight her and make her laugh and give her a smile.
It was like a hug.
That’s what she would say when we did surprises for each other.
So that’s what I did for her that day.
I didn’t know that she wasn’t coming home.
I didn’t know that she wouldn’t see it.
I didn’t know that was the last chance I would have to do something for her in mortality.
Except for the temple. We will go to the temple next year.
But this was a gift, to her and me, that we both felt, because we had progressed personally, and we had loved so much. We had always loved, but Personal Progress had given me the skills with which to express and demonstrate my love in more effective ways, more mature ways, more sincere ways that meant something to her.
Personal Progress is not a checklist; it’s about progressing personally.
I testify that the Personal Progress program, if you do it sincerely and with real intent, will change who you are. It will not make you into someone else, or into some other idea of what someone else thinks you should be. It will make you into the daughter of God that Heavenly Father created you to be, and help you fulfill that calling.
You will become, and the Personal Progress program will give you the skills to “stand in holy places and be not moved”.
I share this with you in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.