TED Talk

Today was my prep day for TED.

As it turns out, you get invited to give a TED talk (I don’t know how), and then that invitation is like your ticket to a sort of audition and group interview.

You answer questions, give your draft of a presentation after only a week’s notice, and then wait to hear from the selection committee.

If you are selected, you then spend three to four months preparing and editing and rehearsing, before performing the actual talk in front of a live audience.  That’s when they make a video of your talk and put it up on the internets for all the world to be inspired.   No pressure, right?

There were eight thousand things I could have spoken about, I guess, and many people gave me suggestions.

But after as much praying and pondering as I could do in only a week’s time, I figured the best thing I could do was testify about families.  Because maybe that’s more important than anything else, right?  That’s what I decided.

Here is the draft version of the TED talk I presented this evening to the selection committee:

My name is Emily Christensen.  My doctorate is in Marriage and Family Therapy, and I have been a licensed professional counselor for twenty years.  I’m also a chaplain, and I help families.

I love my job because I think there is something special about families, even difficult families, something that teaches us the kinds of things we can’t learn anywhere else.

I think there is a reason, developmentally, that we are organized into families and wrestle our whole lives with what families mean, how we fit into them, and how we are distinct from them.

It’s also true that nothing is harder than families: getting along with them, running away from them, grieving them, reuniting with them again.

Some families are safer than others, some families are louder than others, and some families are more affectionate than others.  Every family is a little different, with its own flavor of cultures and traditions, and we grow up wondering about families who are different than ours.  We dream about what our own families will some day look like when we grow up.

I grew up in a divorced family, and always wondered what it would be like to have a two parent family like my husband had.  And it’s true that having divorced parents did make me a little skittish in trying to find my own life partner, but my husband was worth the wait.  He was a New Yorker with a Master’s Degree in writing musicals, a gentle man who played violin and enjoyed crafting, and his parents still lived together in the rural Oklahoma home where he grew up with his scientist father and stay at home mother.

On the contrary, my parents never shared a bedroom during my lifetime, and divorced when I was in fifth grade.  They worked with veterans, and we moved about every six months or year or so.  My father was an IT guy and my mother was a medical librarian, and all those frequent moves meant that most of my childhood friends came out of books.

So that’s how we found each other, my writer husband and me.   He grew up knowing who he was looking for, and just kept waiting until he found me.  I grew up knowing who I wasn’t looking for, and spent years weeding through potential candidates until I finally recognized him.

He had always thought he would get married right away in college, and I had hoped I never would.

He dreamed of starting a family and having children, maybe even fostering as his family had done, while I spent years half-convinced that my genetic material should probably not be passed on to the world.

Regardless of our differences, I am glad he waited for me, and I was entirely delighted when I finally found him.

Ironically, it was family that brought us together.   I worked with his cousin who introduced us, and we had a whirlwind romance of epic proportions, and were married seven months later.  Because it took us so long to find each other, when we finally married he was 36, and I was 35.  We decided that if we were going to have children we would need to start right away.

But at the same time, I was struggling at work with trying to discharge foster children from the hospital who had no foster home to go.  I decided that I couldn’t keep complaining about the lack of foster homes if I didn’t try to become part of the solution, so my husband and I naturally spent our honeymoon filling out paperwork to become foster parents.

It takes a long time to get approved to be foster parents, and we lived our first months together in the bliss of most newlyweds: me still grieving from the death of my father, my husband getting caught in Hurricane Sandy, and then my mother being killed by a drunk driver.

We had been married only three months when I found myself to be a 36 year old orphan.

So much for family.

That’s what it felt like.

And so I distanced myself from my husband’s parents, whom I had initially adored, but now needed space from simply because they weren’t mine.  They had done nothing wrong, but the natural intrusion of in-laws was not something I could bear in the wake of losing my own parents.  I needed time to grieve, and didn’t want my parents replaced, even by Nathan’s parents who were nicer.  It was all terrible timing.

And then, in case our new life together wasn’t hard enough, the miscarriages started.

The first one was a surprise, and painful, and shocking, and traumatic, because we didn’t know what was happening.

The second one was painful and heartbreaking, but at least we understood what was going on.

The third one was painful and frustrating and gut-wrenching, but we knew it might happen.

By the fourth one, we had tried not to expect it, but then when it happened again, we grieved the loss of hope as much as the loss of our child.

We had tried so hard to start our family, and done everything they told us to do, and endured the most intrusive testing you can imagine.  Knowing we were older and racing the proverbial clock, we hadn’t waited long between pregnancies and just tried again as soon as we were cleared to do so.  Ultimately, we found out I had ovarian cancer, which sent me to surgery for a full hysterectomy – plus some – which saved my life, but meant there would be no more miscarriages, and certainly no more hope of having our own biological children.

Now, let me be clear: you cannot foster just because of fertility issues or to replace children you have lost.   That won’t work.  It’s not fair to the foster children and it’s not fair to you.

But, it was something my husband and I had already committed ourselves to before all that happened to us, and with time and healing, we were ready to move forward in re-designing what family meant to us.

Or so we thought.

We fostered more than seventy children in four years.  Some of them stayed only a few hours, and some of them stayed for several months.  The most we ever had at one time was nine, and that was when we had two extra pairs of twins while their foster parents were on vacation.

When the children came to our house, they came with nothing.   It would take about $1500 to get them the things they needed: clothes, underwear, pajamas, shoes, and school supplies.  That doesn’t even count things like toys or birthday gifts or trying to pull off Christmas with children who land in your home in the middle of the night right before the holidays.  Then, when the children left, they took everything with them, so it wasn’t like all those supplies we had built up were an ongoing investment for ourselves.  Everything went to the children, and they left our supply closets as empty as a field devastated by locusts.

It was a near-impossible task, providing for these children, much less trying to function together as a family.  Many of the children who came to us did not know how to sleep in beds, or use utensils to eat their food, or even how to take a shower.  There were practical challenges, like laundry for ten people, or keeping the dishes done fast enough we could eat the next meal, or tying six pairs of preschooler shoes, or cutting 120 tiny nails every week.  Besides that, there were more appointments than could fit on our calendar, between physical therapists and speech therapists and counselors and medical specialists and caseworker visits.

Fostering was exhausting.

But those children changed our lives.

We thought we knew so much, and had so much to give, but it was them who taught us.  They taught us what sacrifice means.  They taught us what nurturing means.  They taught us what love means.

And six of them stayed.

Alex came first, with long red curls down his back.  He was picked up from the local casino, where he had been found wandering naked looking for food.  He slept for three days when he first came.  He was four, and only spoke with echolalia, repeating everything we said but not being able to converse on his own.   That was our first clue that he had autism.

Anber came next, a little brown baby on our doorstep in the middle of one night. She came from the casino, too – my little casino babies – where she had been locked in the trunk of the car while her mother was inside prostituting and buying drugs.  She had never had consistent caregivers, so she didn’t trust us even though she was just a baby.  She arched her back away from us when we tried to pick her up, and when we made her bottle she wouldn’t let us feed it to her.  She did it herself, even pounding herself on the chest to burp herself when she was finished.

At first, these two little ones were other people’s children who came to us to be cleaned up and fed and taken to visits while Nathan and I continued our married life.  But as other children came and went, and those two stayed, they very slowly began to feel more and more like family.  When I went through another round of chemo, they endured the experience with us, just as children would have if they had been born to us.  These kinds of experiences over time helped transition us into feeling more like family, because that’s what families do: they endure hard things together.

About two years into our fostering experience, I was at the DHS office to do some paperwork for some clients, and I was approached with a question about how to help a little deaf girl.  I’m Deaf, if I forgot to mention that.  ASL is my language, and I was completely reliant on interpreters until I got cochlear implants, which opened a whole new world for me.   That’s why the workers came to ask me about how to get this new foster child into services and what she would need in a placement.  All I could think of was how hard it would be to train an entire family to sign so that regardless of services, she would have access to language and culture that she needed at home, too.

Except my family could sign.

And so that’s what I told them:  bring her to my house.

That’s how we got Mary.

Her mother had been picked up for shoplifting again, and had medications she was abusing that weren’t hers, and had neglected Mary’s medical care and getting the help she needed for her ears.  Mary lost her hearing when her father threw her against the wall as a toddler.  When we got her at age five, she had almost no language.   She didn’t smile, and they thought she was cognitively delayed.   But I knew language was everything.   We taught her sign language, and we got her hearing aids, and then cochlear implants, and put her back in Kindergarten again since she hadn’t heard anything the first time.  I sent her to the deaf school to be immersed in ASL, and to the mainstream school to experience the interpreted environment, and took her to Deaf culture events like Silent Dinner.  Everything changed for Mary, and her face lit up, and she turned out to be a very smart little girl who wasn’t cognitively delayed at all once she had language.

We didn’t know we would adopt any of them.  That had never been our plan, even after the miscarriages.  But when you fall in love with children, and when they are already home after living with you for two years, how can you send them away?  When we found out Alex and Anber, and then later Mary, were not going to be able to return to their biological families… of course we said we would adopt them.

Oh, and that’s how we got Kirk and Barrett.   We were signing adoption papers for Alex and Anber, and the worker told us about two boys her office was worried about because one of them had cerebral palsy and one of them had fetal alcohol syndrome, so they would be hard to adopt.

They were worried about the brothers being split up, and about them growing up in shelters because of their disabilities, and they had already been moved several time to different foster homes.   It was a sad story, and they only needed a family.

Of course we said yes.

How could we not?

Now, I know when you hear this story it sounds like we were just suckered into so many children, but I promise we didn’t just bring them home like puppies.  We know they are not Happy Meal toys; we can’t collect them all.   Seriously, I promise we said NO.  Every. Single. Day.   We said yes to seventy-plus children for fostering, and we said yes to the six we adopted, but we said no to more children than I can count, some children I met, and some I never met, and all of them I still dream about for leaving behind.  It haunts me. We set the boundaries we had to for the children already in our home and for our own self-care, but there are so many more children waiting for families.

But that was the day we said yes to Kirk and Barrett.  Here’s what was different about them:  they were the only two we didn’t foster.   We took Kirk and Barrett directly as an adoptive placement.  I mean, we dated them first, to be sure they matched well with the other children we already had.  It meant we found ourselves with three six year olds and two three year olds, somehow suddenly becoming a family with a set of rainbow triplets and mismatched twins.

That’s how, Nathan and I – married only two years – found ourselves with five children.

Except that the same week Kirk and Barrett moved into our home for trial adoption, Anber’s little half-sister was born.  That’s how we got Kyrie, who is adopted child number six.

Because of the alcohol and drugs her mother did while pregnant, Kyrie was born without an airway.  They told us she wouldn’t live, and her twin sister actually passed en route from the jail where they were born to the hospital where I was working as a chaplain.   I was paged to the NICU to bless a deceased baby, and to hold the other baby while she died.  I didn’t know then that the baby I was holding was my own, the little sister of Anber whose adoption had just finalized, until the mother arrived from the jail.  I had to call for another chaplain because of the conflict of interest, and watched from the parking lot as little Kyrie was life flighted away from me to another hospital.

But that’s how she was the only child we have that I got to see on the day she was born.

And she didn’t die.

I mean, not yet.

I mean, she’s on palliative care, and it’s a hard thing we have done as a family.

She has oxygen and a gtube, and has had one surgery after another, spending most of the first year in the hospital, and still more surgeries every six to twelve weeks.  She has endured more than what any adult could handle, and that has been her trauma.

We have grieved because we thought since we got her at birth, she would be our one child who didn’t have the trauma issues the others have had to face because of what they have been through.  But trauma can start before birth, and she has had medical trauma since birth.

That’s the thing about adoption, though: it brings a new child into your family, but it doesn’t take their family away from them.

Even Nathan with his still-married good parents, and me with my divorced (and now dead) parents, and our children who have other parents besides us – all of this is part of what family means, part of the attachment that makes it possible for us to connect with others, part of who we are no matter what we have endured in our circumstances.

And we’ve tried to remember that.

Because when you have foster children come into your home, they have hard questions about the experiences they have endured and the biological parents they love regardless.

It’s a lesson that teaches you to truly separate who a person is from what a person does.

But if we are going to tell the children their parents are good – so that they will believe they themselves are also good – and that their parents love them – so that they will believe they are love-able – even if they made bad choices – so that they believe their own mistakes don’t condemn them to repeat the past – then we have to act like we believe it.

And that means connecting with, modeling for, and inviting their biological families into our family the same way we invited their children into our home.

So, with careful boundaries and safety always paramount, we got creative with how to include their biological families as part of our family, safely.

They are extended family to us, just like Nathan’s parents.

We mourn the passing of them, just like my parents.

We include them in ways that are appropriate and healing, giving our children opportunity to maintain healthy attachment while navigating the rough waters of accountability and forgiveness as part of their development – rather than dumping it on them when they suddenly turn 18 some day.

That means we have continued playground visits with Alex’s father just as he used to have when he was our foster child before he was our adopted child.

That means Anber sometimes talks on the phone to her mother in prison.

That means when we are driving downtown and see Mary’s homeless mother walking around, we pull over and give her some food.

That means that when Kyrie’s grandfather is driving his big rig through town, we meet him at a nearby McDonald’s so that he can hug the miracle toddler we share, the one he held in the NICU while we waited on placement papers to have permission to get to be with her during those impossible days.

That means that we invited Kirk and Barrett’s mother to their adoption, and honored her for the courage it took to show up that day.

It would be easier not to do any of it.  It would be easier to pretend that adoption cuts them off from those people and gives them to us, as if it were a transfer of ownership.

But these children are not objects.  They are people.  And they are people who had families even before they found me.

We are just the foster – now adoptive – parents.   We didn’t have anything to do with why the children came into care.   We haven’t lived their hard lives and can’t judge why they didn’t get their children back.   But we know families, and we know that matters more than anything.

Just because the children can’t return to them to live doesn’t mean they stop being family.

It matters.   Attachment, which we can only get through those kinds of ongoing relationships like with our families, is everything.  It affects our development, our interactions, and our future relationships.

We keep our children safe.  To have visits, just like when the children were in custody before being adopted, the parents must agree to be sober and clean during a visit and we also ask them to be supportive of our parenting since the children physically live with us.  It’s not easy, this kind of co-parenting.

But as the parents are able to do this, they have more and more access to the children we share, and that is a beautiful thing.

It breaks my heart, I’ll be honest.  It’s a painful thing to watch children you love run to the parents who got to carry them in their bellies and birth them and smell their baby hair those years ago before any of them had me.

It hurts.

But those “other parents” – who were the first parents – they hurt, too, when the visit is over and the children come running back to me, when they hear the children call me Mama, when they see their children climb into my van to go with me to my home.

It hurts.

But they do it, and we do it, because it’s good for the children.

We do it, together, as one large family, because it is good and right.

That means, when I hate the holidays because my parents are dead, and because I am too introverted for that much public celebration, and because I am exhausted from working the ER full of people who also hate the holidays,

then I will look into the eyes of these children I love, and give them the only present they want: their family.

I will carve out a day in the busy-ness of the holidays to prepare our holiday meal, and we will transport it to a building other people rent for wedding receptions, and we will drag in holiday decorations.

And then I will watch, as my children put up decorations with their other parents.

I will watch as they set a long table with food we brought to feed all of us, together.

I will clear the table and do the dishes, while they scamper off to play games and do crafts and sing songs.

I will serve dessert while they exchange presents.

I will cry while I watch them laugh.

Because it is a beautiful thing, this miracle we call family.

Nathan’s Talk: Perfect – Eventually

Nathan was assigned to talk about Elder Holland’s October 2017 General Conference address “Be Ye Therefore Perfect – Eventually”.

I served as a missionary in South Korea. There are four missions there: two in Seoul, one in Pusan, and then the one you haven’t heard of. That was mine.

There are some languages where missionaries seem to be fluent before they leave the Missionary Training Center. Korean is not one of those. There are those other languages where it takes you the whole two years to reach fluency. Korean isn’t really one of those, either. I used to joke that, at the time of the Tower of Babel, the Koreans must have been doing something terrible. They never found that as funny as I did.

During my first year, the time finally came for me to become the senior companion. Except it was one of those transfers where the junior and senior companions who are serving in an area are both transferred out at the same time. So here I am, still trying to figure out what people are saying, and now responsible for leading a missionary who had even less of a clue than I did. Not only that, we didn’t have bikes or cars in our mission, so I had to figure out public transit in a new city. In Korean.

The outgoing elders told us how much they loved this place. The members were always inviting them over for dinner. They were getting lots of appointments to teach about the church. It’s gonna be great.

Except that was not our experience. Not a single member invited us over. The few investigators we had cancelled appointments or stopped talking to us. Week after week, we had nothing but an empty calendar and lots of time tracting in massive apartment complexes, where everyone had a camera doorbell and could tell they didn’t want to talk to us without even opening the door.

Until finally… a church member invited us to lunch. It was like a beam of sunlight shooting through the clouds. This family lived a ways outside of town, but he told us where to catch the bus, and to ride it until you got to the tool factory, and then use the payphone that would be right there, and they would send one of their kids to come get us. We found the bus, and asked the driver if this went to the tool factory, and he said yes and he’d let us know when we got there. So we got on and rode right down along the coast—it was absolutely beautiful, but we seemed to be riding for a long time. And finally he stopped and let us out in front of the tool factory, and we found the payphone, and called to tell the family we were there. And they said, “No you’re not. We’re looking out our window right now, and you are not there.”

It turns out that they lived across from the tofu factory. The return bus wasn’t scheduled to come for another 45 minutes, and by that time the family would have other appointments. I sat down on that bus stop bench in the middle of nowhere, turned a bit so my companion wouldn’t see me, and just cried. I thought, “Heavenly Father? I quit. I’m not good enough. There is nothing I can do to fix this. I give up.”

And suddenly I felt the Spirit wash over me like a hug, and the words came to my mind: “That is what I have been waiting for. This is my work, and you must step back and allow me to do it.”

My mission was also the first time I really began to understand that I was struggling with depression. I went to a therapist for a while as a teenager, but at the time I figured that was just something teenagers did. It wasn’t until my mission, and going to college afterwards, that depression began to have an adverse effect on my life, and I began to see depression for what it was.

Over the following decades, I tried medication and various kinds of therapies, but that cloud of gloom has always followed me, to a greater or lesser degree, throughout my life and even my discipleship.

So when Elder Holland said this in General Conference, it felt like he was speaking directly to me:

Around the Church I hear many who struggle with this issue: “I am just not good enough.” “I fall so far short.” “I will never measure up.” I hear this from teenagers. I hear it from missionaries. I hear it from new converts. I hear it from lifelong members… Satan has somehow managed to make covenants and commandments seem like curses and condemnations. For some he has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making.

It felt like he was speaking directly to me, and yet that list he gives—teenagers, missionaries, new converts, lifelong members—actually includes everyone in the church. In a way, this makes sense, because if it is true that we have our eye single toward the glory of God, then, because God is infinite and perfect, it is inevitable that we will feel inadequate. Because we literally are.

In Ether 12, the Lord speaks to Moroni, a prophet who struggles with his own lifetime of sorrows and feelings of inadequacy, and tells him that, “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.”

When I hear people talk about this, a lot of times they automatically add a plural, so that God is showing us our “weaknesses”. But I don’t think that’s exactly what it’s saying. The word the Lord uses is “weakness”, the quality of being weak. As we approach God, we realize more and more that we can’t do it ourselves. The gulf between Him and us is too far to cross on our own. Or on a simpler level, he shows me that I am so weak that I fall into the same sin that I told myself just this morning that I was going to stop for good.

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things”—That’s where it becomes plural! Now he’s talking about those specific weakness-es. “…then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

So, if Heavenly Father knows we are unable to fix these sins that stick to us like stickle burs on our socks, and if he has given us visions and commandments that reveal to us our own inadequacy—is He really just setting us up to fail?

No. He is not.

Elder Holland says:

I believe in [God’s] perfection, and I know we are His spiritual sons and daughters with divine potential to become as He is. I also know that, as children of God, we should not demean or vilify ourselves, as if beating up on ourselves is somehow going to make us the person God wants us to become. No! With a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness always in our hearts, I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem. That is not what the Lord wants.

He says that what the Lord asks of us is a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness. That’s it. Everything else is covered by the grace of the atonement.

I think that, in our church, we get stuck on a misunderstanding of 2 Nephi 25:23, which says “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” We think that the phrase “after all we can do” means that we are the ones doing the heavy lifting. We think that, first, we have to prove ourselves deserving of God’s mercy, when, in fact, that’s not how mercy works. That is the opposite of mercy.

But do we really believe that a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness are sufficient to qualify for the greatest blessing of all? Do we really believe that the atonement can heal not just our sins, but also our imperfections? I mean, I think I know what sin is, but there are also a lot of things about myself that aren’t sins, exactly, but that I really don’t like. What if all my sins are washed away, and what’s left underneath isn’t worth saving?

(If you feel that, by the way, you are probably depressed. And it’s okay to get help.)

A number of years ago, I discovered a kind of thought experiment that changed the way I understood the atonement and how it applies to me.

We know that Jesus paid the price for our sins, right? The question is—if Jesus suffered to pay for this discrete unit of bad behavior called a sin, where does that sin actually start? Does it start in the sinful act itself? Or does it start in the desire that came before that act? Or does it start in the thoughts that fed the desire? Or does it start that first time that you didn’t turn away when temptation presented itself, which led to the thoughts? Or does it start with the series of previous choices that weakened your character sufficiently that you didn’t look away when temptation came? Do you see the problem?

Sin doesn’t have a discrete beginning or end. It’s not a kidney stone. Sin is any deviation of your self from its perfect, godly nature. You don’t leave sins like breadcrumbs in the path behind you. You carry them with you as an altered spiritual state.

Accordingly, when the Savior cleanses you from sin, he is not just cutting off the bad parts. He heals you. And if you push that thought to its ultimate conclusion, it seems to suggest that the Savior took upon himself the entirety of your imperfect life. All of it. Every failure, every embarrassment, every sickness, every petty squabble, every broken heart. He can heal all of it. And he understands us perfectly because, in that mysterious God-time way, he has already experienced it as personally as if he were right there with you.

We will be made perfect. Just not yet. We’re not done cooking. And all that he asks of us is a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness.

I want to share one last perspective that has helped me in getting through my times of struggle.

We are often told here in our church that our premortal spirits came down to earth to be born into these mortal bodies so that we could learn. Right? But what on earth could we possibly learn here that we couldn’t have known in the presence of Heavenly Father? He knows everything! We had to have known more there than we will ever learn here. Have you ever thought about that? So then, what’s the point of coming here to learn?

To me, the answer is that the most important learning we are doing here is not book learning, but skill learning. Like learning to play the piano. No one becomes a great piano player by reading all of the books about it. Likewise, no one is prepared to reach their full stature as children of God and inheritors of eternal life without practicing those skills. After all, God is not perfect because he is ignorant of evil, but because he only chooses good. This life is a specifically calibrated learning environment created for us to practice the skills of being like our Father in Heaven. And if you think it’s hard to be godly around some of the idiots you have to deal with here on earth, imagine dealing with billions of us at the same time.

We’re not there yet. You’re not perfect. And that’s ok.

I love the Nelson Mandela quote that says, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” This truly is a church of “Latter-day Saints”. You belong here. Don’t give up, that’s all that is required. Have a willingness to repent and a desire for increased righteousness. As long as we keep getting back up each time we fall, then Satan has already been defeated, because the atonement is perfect, and it can make up the difference.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

 

Emily’s Talk: The Joyful Burden of Discipleship

Emily was assigned to talk about Elder Rasband’s April 2014 General Conference Address, “The Joyful Burden of Discipleship”

When the people began to repent after hearing King Benjamin’s speech, he admonished them, saying that that if their repentance was real, and if they had truly humbled themselves, then (Mosiah 4:13-16):

ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably…
ye will not fight and quarrel one with another

But he gives us more than just what not to do. He also tells us what TO DO:

ye will walk in the ways of truth and soberness;
ye will teach them to love one another, and serve one another.
ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor;
ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need;

This, he said (verse 20), is what would cause that your hearts should be filled with joy, even such joy that there are no words to describe it.

King Benjamin even went so far as to say (verses 26-27) that in order to retain a remission of our sins, we must:

– impart of your substance to the poor,
– feeding the hungry
– clothe the naked
– visit the sick, and
– administering relief, both spiritually and temporally

Adding to this, in his April 2014 General Conference address, Elder Rasband – who had just traveled here to us in Oklahoma following the Moore tornado – spoke about the “personal responsibility to share” the burden of our church leaders, and that only by doing so are we able to “be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

President Monson has also said: “We are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness— be they family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. We are the Lord’s hands here upon the earth, with the mandate to serve and to lift His children. He is dependent upon each of us. …”

“‘… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these …, ye have done it unto me’ [Matthew 25:40].”

We cannot truly follow the Savior without “using our time, talents, and agency in service to God” – which is consecration, or the process of becoming righteous, even holy.

President Uchtdorf said in April 2016 Conference that “There is nothing good unless you do it.” He said, “if our faith does not change the way we live—if our beliefs do not influence our daily decisions— our religion is vain, and our faith, if not dead, is certainly not well and is in danger of eventually flatlining.”

We cannot say we are people of faith without acting like it.

Elder Rasband continues, “Jesus Christ continues to extend the call “Come and follow me.” He walked His homeland with His followers in a selfless manner. He continues to walk with us, stand by us, and lead us. To follow His perfect example is to recognize and honor the Savior, who has borne all of our burdens through His sacred and saving Atonement, the ultimate act of service. What He asks of each one of us is to be able and willing to take up the joyful “burden” of discipleship.”

In Hebrew, the word for “burden” is מַשָּׂא (massa), and it does not at all mean “this is hard to do” or “I resent this because I feel really uncomfortable” or “this better count because I am way outside my comfort zone”.

Rather, מַשָּׂא massa is the word for the peg nailed into the wall for the purpose of holding your coat up off the ground, specifically so that it can stay clean and dry even while you are wet and worn out (Isaiah 22:25).

It is the word for the load placed on a mule or a camel, not because it is heavy in and of itself, but because it relieves the person leading the animal – and offers them company – so that they are not carrying the load all by themselves or having to journey alone (2 Kings 5:17 and 2 Kings 8:9; Compare Isaiah 46:1,2).

It is also the word for service in the temple (Numbers 4:47).

מַשָּׂא massa is the same word that would be used for Moroni’s “title of liberty” because that was more than just a flag, and even more than a political statement. It was a message. The word for that message is not just a word for hard work, and it is more than a word for sacrifice. It is a message, specifically, that gives purpose to the work and meaning to the sacrifice.

When Isaiah talks about his “burden”, he means the message he is responsible to deliver. But it also implies more than just the message itself. It references the purpose behind the work of delivering the message: he is delivering a message that will save them.

Just like the peg in the wall “saves” the coat from being ruined on the floor, and so ensuring the person has the shield and protection they need.

Just like the mule or camel carries a load for the one who needs company on a long journey alone.

Just like our service in temples offers to for others what they were unable to do for themselves.

מַשָּׂא massa is the same word for when the Savior was hung up on the cross, becoming the coat, or “covering”, hung on the peg to protect us and provide for us even while we are overcome with being so weary from our own journeys.

In fact, the “iah” ending of “Messiah” means just that: the one who is מַשָּׂא massa.

He is the one who saves. He is the one who offers a shield and protection. He is the one took upon Himself the heaviness of what we could not carry alone, ensuring our way home to our Father. He is the one who saves us.  He is our Savior.

It is true that the Father offered His Son in part to save us from our sins, and even to give us the power to increase our capacity to do better than we could do on our own. But it also means that the Savior has already taken, is now taking, and will continue to be taking on for us the things in our lives that seem too hard, even the absolutely impossible.

Hugh Nibley said, “The main purpose of the Doctrine and Covenants, you will find, is to implement the law of consecration.” He further taught, “This law, the consummation of the laws of obedience and sacrifice, is the threshold of the celestial kingdom, the last and hardest requirement made of men [and women] in this life.”

That’s why trying to truly live a consecrated life – which means giving to others all of what makes you who you are, and trusting in the Lord for the provision and protection He promised – sometimes – feels like the story Elder Rasband shared about the girl who witnessed being in the tornado:

“I heard something hit the roof. I thought it was just hailing. The sound got louder and louder. I said a prayer that Heavenly Father would protect us all and keep us safe. All of a sudden we heard a loud vacuum sound, and the roof disappeared right above our heads. There was lots of wind and debris flying around and hitting every part of my body. It was darker outside and it looked like the sky was black, but it wasn’t—it was the inside of the tornado. I just closed my eyes, hoping and praying that it would be over soon.”

That’s what a consecrated life feels like, when we are only focused on how much there is to do or how hard it is to accomplish or what a difficult journey has been laid before us.

Maybe it feels like never-ending piles of dishes and laundry. Maybe it feels like the trauma-drama of raising other people’s children. Maybe it feels like enduring long hours at a job that you don’t always like, or isn’t always safe, or sometimes keeps you away from home too long, just because there are needs to meet even while you put on hold the wants and dreams that used to seem important. Maybe it feels like going visiting teaching or home teaching, and knocking on those doors because you know it is right and good, even when no one will open their door. Maybe it feels like holding the child you want to scream at, or putting aside your phone long enough to look into their eyes while they tell you a story you can’t actually follow. Maybe it feels like letting go of justified resentment, old grudges, and the negative energy that comes from other people being so very wrong for hurting you so badly or so often. Maybe it feels like keeping your mouth shut instead of complaining, or giving authentic compliments without pointing out the one mistake, or doing something for someone else without expecting praise or points for being so awesome yourself.

Sometimes living a consecrated life feels like your world is turned upside down, with huge changes you never could have expected, or surmounting huge difficulties you never knew you could endure.

But we are promised help to sustain us as we tackle the impossible (D&C 84:88):

And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.

We have been the recipients of such miraculous blessings as so many have supported and sustained our family, but some of the greatest miracles were tiny things:

There was the time my visiting teacher sat in ICU with my mother so that I could attend the funeral of my father.

There was the morning when a primary teacher took two of our children to breakfast because she was prompted to do so, even though she did not yet know those were the two who had biological family not show up at a planned post-adoption visit, and that the extra attention from extended family was exactly the kind of love they needed that day.

There was the day we were at the bottom of our five-gallon bucket of oatmeal, and the children initiated a prayer to beg the Lord for another day of breakfast, and before they could say “Amen,” someone we had never even met yet showed up at our door with fresh eggs.

Or the time someone slipped us an envelope of a bit of money, saying it wasn’t very much considering, but it was what they had to give, a kind of widow’s mite, and yet as we traveled to Cincinnati Children’s hospital with a toddler suddenly too ill to tolerate her gtube feeding formula, it was that money we used to stop at a random pharmacy in a random town, and found an infant formula that in small amounts settled her stomach enough to keep her hydrated and alive until the hospital could get IV’s in her. That “widow’s mite” was a tiny offering to us, but it saved our daughter’s life.

Or how every week crazy science teacher, who found out our children had to be pulled out of public school and back to homeschool since their little sister was on medical precautions, shows up at our house to take the whole lot of them on hikes and nature walks, making sure they get out of the house, outside in the fresh air – and a fresh face to teach them through such adventures that they now call her jeep “the magic schoolbus”.

Or how when the palliative care team talks to us about not expecting Kyrie to live much longer, and about quality of life and what that means to our family, you are the angels that are מַשָּׂא massa to us, who have offered us provision and protection, who have given days of life to our daughter, and who have accompanied all of us on this journey so that we are not alone –

Or so that our children are not alone, when we have to be with her in the hospital.

Some of you have gone before us, and given us strength and hope as you have shared what your own journey was like through deceased parents, or miscarriages, or foster care and adoption, or even palliative care.

Some of you have been on our right and on our life, holding us up, supporting us, giving us the things our bodies and spirits needed to endure the level of opposition our family has faced.

Some of you have been spirits in our hearts, praying for us, encouraging us, giving us a smile from far away or a hug in passing or a handshake that may have seemed simply to you, but for us was enough breath to keep going another day.

You have been our angels, and through you He has kept His promise to bear us up.

These things, quiet promptings to ordinary but faithful people, among so many other miracles and tender mercies for our family, were small things that meant the world to us and to our children.

None of these were grand gestures, so much as small and simple things offered from what people had to give, tiny acts of obedience to quiet promptings – but for us, these acts of faiths changed our world.

King Benjamin said, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

And it is such service that gives evidence, offers the token, that we are keeping our baptismal covenants as President Monson said: “Often we are given the opportunity to help others in their time of need. As members of the Church, we each have the sacred responsibility “to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light,” “to mourn with those that mourn,” and to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”

And Elder Rasband promised: “Focusing on serving our brothers and sisters can guide us to make divine decisions in our daily lives and prepares us to value and love what the Lord loves. In so doing, we witness by our very lives that we are His disciples. When we are engaged in His work, we feel His Spirit with us. We grow in testimony, faith, trust, and love.”

I testify that we are children of Heavenly Parents, who love us deeply and know us intimately.

I testify that our Savior lives. He advocated for us with the Father, died innocent in our place, was resurrected, and now lives.

I testify that the Spirit will correct, instruct, guide, and comfort me to the degree that I respond.

I testify that He has set prophets as the flaming sword that guards the path to the Tree of Life, and that Joseph Smith was a humble and mortal man but also a prophet of God – as is President Thomas S. Monson our prophet today.

I know that the Book of Mormon is true, and that it is a story of a family, even for my family, and that it changes everything.

I testify that temple ordinances have been restored along with the restoration of the priesthood, and that “Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally” (Family Proclamation).

I know that because of the temple, I am not married until death do us part, but for time and all eternity. I know that I have also been sealed to my own parents, who have already passed through the veil, and that this same sealing power has blessed my very own marriage that was exactly right for me, and has continued to bless us as we adopted our six children – so much that not even hospice gets the final say.

I know that this is the plan of happiness, no matter how hard life is sometimes, and that even when life is hard, we are not alone or forgotten. We are known and remembered and loved.

And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen.

Alex’s Primary Talk about the Priesthood

Today was Alex’s turn to give the talk in primary this week, and he was assigned to talk about how “Blessings of the Priesthood are Available to All of Us”.  Here is his talk:
I am still learning what the Priesthood is.
I know the Priesthood performs ordinances, like being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost. 
I know there are two kinds of Priesthood: the Aaronic and the Melchizedek.
I know you can get the Priesthood when you’re twelve. 
The Aaronic Priesthood holders bless and pass the sacrament.
They can also be home teachers. One of our home teachers right now is a boy who has the Aaronic Priesthood. 
A Melchizedek Priesthood holder can give blessings. 
My father can bless me when I’m sick, and he blesses me when I start school.
When I was adopted, I was given a name blessing like some kids get when they are babies.
I was also sealed to my parents in the temple. That’s another ordinance.
Not just anyone can do Blessings and ordinances. Yo can’t do it just because you want to.
Part of the Priesthood is about having permission to do things.
Part of the Priesthood is about doing what Jesus would do if he were here. Jesus would bless the sacrament, and heal the sick, and go to the temple.
Jesus wants us to do the things that he would do so that we can learn to become like him.
We can all have the blessings of the Priesthood. We can receive those blessings from our dads, or the bishop, or other Priesthood holders.
We feel those blessings in the Gift of the Holy Ghost, in having eternal families, and by following the prophet.
I am so excited to get the Aaronic Priesthood, and I can’t wait to grow up to be like Jesus someday.
GI say that in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

LDS Nursery at Home – Lesson 9: I Have a Body Like Heavenly Father

We continue sharing Kyrie’s nursery lessons from home, as we know there must be other nursery children who are medically fragile and on precautions so unable to stay for nursery class at the church building.   This week we did lesson 9 from the nursery manual, learning about how we have bodies like Heavenly Father has a body.

Anniversary: Five Years of Hell

Someone vomits every year on our anniversary.

It’s true.

It’s not just because every single blessing we get talks about the work Heavenly Father plans for us and the adversary’s attacks to stop us.

We know we get our fair share of opposition, and that just encourages us to keep going.

But the vomit?  That’s more about the timing of flu shots every year.

And this year?  It was Nathan.

Poor Nathan has gotten puked on every single birthday since we were married, and someone has vomited every single anniversary.  It’s like they know that nothing is worse for Nathan about parenting, and so they just save it up all year just for him.

Except now he cannot blame anyone else, except Anber, who was sick exactly a week ago.

So that’s how we spent our anniversary, once again cleaning up vomit.  

Our gift to him was all of us going to the park all afternoon so he actually got some rest, and his gift to me was a short nap afterward.   Now that the children are tucked in bed, we will celebrate tonight with a mean game of Phase10.

Because we live pretty wild around here.

We have been married a whole five years.

People literally say to us, “Your life has been hell!”

Helpful, guys.  Really helpful.

At our sealing, the blessing said that “as you  act in faith by living lives of consecration, Satan himself will repeatedly attempt to knock your legs out from under you because he does not want you to succeed at what you are now setting out to do.”

Yeah.  Happy wedding day to us.

And it’s been that fun ever since.

Five years.

Five years of wedded bliss: hurricanes, job lay offs, miscarriage after miscarriage, cancer with chemo twice, hysterectomy by default, dead parents, crazy church assignments, eight billion thousand diapers, a gazabillion fosters, three moves in one big circle back to where we started, six adoptions, two years in hospitals, a year of overnight shifts away from each other, both of us working three jobs while publishing fourteen books so far, writing two other big ones on the way, plus two musicals, an opera, six plays, thirteen song lyrics, more than two hundred YouTube videos, a violin album on iTunes, an audiobook recorded, homeschooling all six kids, teaching them piano and violin everyday, thirty-seven therapy appointments a week, a baby on palliative care, financial ruin from dead parents and cancer and aforementioned toddler, and a partridge in a pear tree – no, wait, that sweet bird got taken by my nephew when my mother died, and Nathan’s parents have the dog.

It feels like it has been five lifetimes, not just five years.

Our life together these five years has basically been hell, by anyone’s standards.

Except that I have a husband who is authentically good and genuinely kind.

And I have a husband who is tender and soft and expressive.

And I have a husband who is respectful and wise and strong.

And I have a husband who is faithful, to me and to our God, which matters more than anything.

He lives worthy of the power we need to endure what we have, worthy to lay hands on my head and bless me with the vision and strength and capacity to continue this life we live.

He does not cause me pain, or tears, or fear.

He is beyond what I ever could have imagined was possible, and better than I ever could have dreamed up on my own.

He is my greatest blessing, ever, the very best thing ever to happen to me.

And if I am called to walk through five years of hell, then I am glad it is his hand I chose to hold, and I know it is his hand I will still be holding on the other side of this mess of mortality.

But also, we don’t really look at the hell through which we’ve been.

Because it’s irrelevant.

I only look in his eyes, and in them see whole eternities.

That’s what matters.

There is nothing I love more than holding his hand, or snuggling into him, or our late night talks at the end of our very hard days.

He is my best friend, and I trust him.

I love him.

And he says our only problem is that in premortality, when they passed out the forms to sign up for classes we would endure in mortality, we were just so googley-eyed excited that we checked all the boxes, to endure everything, instead of just selecting a few.

But we checked all the boxes because we really wanted to make it all the way back Home, together.

So maybe we used up all our money taking care of other people’s children.  And maybe we have to work so much that we spend more time apart than as much time as we would like to spend together.  And maybe when they say to consecrate even your very lives if necessary, they mean it.

So maybe our life together has been hell.

But at least we are getting it over with.

And if there was ever anyone good enough and pure enough and strong enough and wise enough and kind enough to walk me straight through the fires of affliction, faithful enough just to ensure I came through on the other side… that would be Nathan, who has never shirked from all we have faced, who has held my hand every step of the way, who has changed diapers and done dishes and helped with chores and run children to appointments and held me when our babies died and swept up my hair when it fell out and tucked children in at night when I was doing my calling away from home.

So yeah, it’s been a long and hard five years, an impossible five years.

But Nathan is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I love our little family very much no matter how hard it is.

I can’t exactly say I’m looking forward to another five, but, you know, I am glad we will still be holding hands.

Because eternity is worth it.

Even when mortality tries to smack that silly grin right off your face.

So thanks a lot, Nathan, for more than the adventure you promised, for still being here, and for marrying me in the temple of God for time and all eternity.

Making a Wish

I got it.

I got the picture I needed, the one I wasn’t sure we would be able to capture.

It’s the perfect picture.

It’s a picture of bright, shining eyes, full of light and sparkle the way that only happens when she is feeling well and laughing, those eyes where the left one is never quite as open as the right one since her stroke, those eyes that are open after three comas, almost thirty surgeries, and so many lifeless stares as they pushed on her little chest and pushed helium into her too-small lungs to try and help her breathe again.

It’s a picture of that little button nose, in a moment when they were empty of tubes for feeding or breathing.

I know it isn’t a complete picture of her experience, but it gives me a picture of who she is under all those layers.

It’s a picture of Kyrie just being Kyrie, and not Kyrie being sick.

It’s a picture of that crooked smile.  Oh, her smile!  It’s crooked from nerve damage from two of the surgeries, and even still that too-small mouth from her too small jaw that doesn’t have room for all her teeth – those miracle teeth they said she wouldn’t have, those teeth that don’t even get to munch on food.

It’s a picture of her perfect little chin – too perfect, shaped by plastic surgery so many times in two years, trying to make room for her to breathe.  If she had barely turned one way or the other, you would have to look closely to see the scars on the side of her face, usually hidden by her hair.

Even the bump on the inside of her lip is there, marking where her tongue was sewn to her lip for the first year of her life.  They didn’t cut her tongue back away from her lip until she was one, at the same time they repaired her cleft palate, and even then they pierced her tongue and stitched it to her cheek, just to keep her airway open while she recovered.  That’s how she spent her entire infancy trying to drink from a bottle without actually using her mouth, breathing formula into her scarred lungs, and using more calories trying to suck than she ever actually gained from what she was able to get down.  That’s why the ng tube was always there, taped to her round cheeks until she finally go the gtube.  That’s why her tongue moves sideways only, and doesn’t lift up, no matter what tricks they try in speech therapy.

This picture?  It is is a picture of a miracle.

 

 

It’s the perfect picture of Kyrie, because it captures her and all her stories, but without her looking sick.  Because she’s more than just a sick girl.  She’s Kyrie.

It’s the picture we will use for her funeral if that’s the Winter we have, but it’s also the picture that gives us hope for Spring.

But funeral planning is a thing, when you have a palliative care team, when you are a little girl who can’t breathe.

(Farah Alvin will be singing, by the way.)

But here, in this picture, there is life in her face, and that was the picture we needed, the picture she needed.

She is the picture of hope, of courage, and of life.

That’s what they told us last when her story was submitted for Make-A-Wish.

It was a sucker punch, getting that notification.

I mean, it’s an amazing thing they do, and I have no idea what Kyrie will wish or what choices we will discuss or what will really happen or not.  I know that if she is selected, that it will be a very special experience no matter what she wishes.  We are so grateful for them to even consider her, and it’s an amazing program that strengthens and cheers so many children.

But the selfish part of me knows that making a wish means the end is coming, and I’m not okay with that.

In fact, I am really, really, really not okay with that.

No one would wish that.

In fact, wishes are now off limits for everyone (my apologies to Alex, who has the next birthday).

Except it’s not about being selfish, and it’s not even about a life being over.

It’s about embracing the strength and courage to endure hard things.  It’s about celebrating what life means, and how living life to the fullest helps others live, too, whatever living means to them.  It’s about celebrating a life that has changed thousands of other lives.

It’s about stepping away from hospital life, and just being a family, for a moment, without the stress and worries that are very much a part of everyday life when you have a child on the “chronic death trajectory”.

It’s about comfort, and quality of life, and spending time together as a family.

Because time is all we have, really, until later, when time won’t matter anymore.

It’s about acknowledging that the last two years were hard – really hard – and taking a moment to stop and rest.

Maybe even breathe.

But not wish.  I can’t.  I can’t do it.  It’s too hard for me.

But that’s okay, too, because it’s not my wish.  It’s her wish.  And so we will let her wish.

Because when you look into a face like that, and see eternities in eyes full of light like hers, then there are still adventures to be had, worlds to conquer, and wishes to be made.

Make a wish, baby girl.  Make a wish.