#LDS #Primary #Nursery – Sacrament Lesson

Kyrie is still missing nursery because of medical precautions, but we are continuing her lessons at home!  This week we talked about taking the sacrament, which was extra tricksy since she only gets hers through her gtube.  But we continue to give it to her that way – well, now she pretty much gives it to herself – because it matters to her, and that way she can still participate.

Maybe that’s why we continue doing her nursery time at home, too, because it matters to her, and it’s a way she can still participate.

That’s the kind of thing we learn about from palliative care.

And I am so grateful for every one of these moments.

Kyrie Fan Club T-Shirts

Our friends at Re;Design have donated tshirts as a fundraiser for our family!

Nathan got to design these limited edition shirts of awesome!

CLICK HERE to get yours!

They are only $16, and they will take orders only until December 1st.

Then share pictures of you wearing them for us to show Kyrie on hard days and hospital days!

Thank you for loving her so much!

Talk: Chaos – Women’s Meeting at Ranch Creek

Genesis 1:1-2 reads:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

In Hebrew, there is one word that means the entire phrase of “in the beginning” – בְּרֵאשִׁית b’reishit – and it literally means “in [the] beginning [of]”.  In context, this could be read as “when”, and is used elsewhere in the scriptures for the beginning of a new reign of a new king, as in “when the new king began to reign…” as in describing a new dispensation, rather than a single moment of all things suddenly starting.

So in the beginning becomes when it was time for… but for what?

Creation, which is intricately and intrinsically related to chaos.

When in the beginning becomes when it was time for creation, it is implied that creation is in reference to a new world, or dispensation, even a new world patterned after an old world, or a previous world, in a way that was done before, thus setting apart this world as new. This world is new, not as in young, but as in comparison to where we were before, the way the reign of a new king comes as new dispensation rather than being qualified by age.

So if we have a new dispensation in a new world compared to the old world from which we come, who has declared it to be so?  Who is doing the creating of this creation?

The Joseph Smith translation emphasizes that the word for “God” – אֱלֹהִים elohim – is plural, and so his translation reads “the Gods” instead of just God.  The Hebrew word for “created” is ברא bara and implies a masculine “he”, which is why the rest of the world translates it simply as God and refers to that God as he.

However, when we dare to step aside from that tradition and simply read the text itself, literally, it does read as if a group (plural) of “gods” are doing some new work in some new place, because the word is explicitly plural.

It never meant “one god” until it began to be interpreted as such collectively during the time of Babylonian captivity, when “the gods” of the Israelites had to be distinguished from “the false gods” of the pagans around them.

Further, nouns in Hebrew grammatically agree based on the gender and number of people being referenced – so any plural word maintains its masculine form even when women are present as part of the group.   The feminine form of the word would only be given if not a single man were present.

This changes our understanding of the scriptures a great deal, when we understand that almost always the implied application is also to women – except for female specific passages that actually exclude men, rather than the other way around as is often assumed and misunderstood.

Going back to ברא bara, the word for what we read as “created”, we can also understand a great deal more than traditionally assumed.  First of all, the word is in present progressive rather than past tense.  It is not written as “In the beginning, God created” so much as it means “when the gods started this new and specific creative project which is even now ongoing”.

Even then, the creative project is not some kind of making of something new from nothing, so much as organizing what already was into what will be in this world – including differentiating between things:

Light and dark

Land and water

Food and shelter

Animals and People

This differentiation between what is what is also an allocation of roles, giving both assignment and purpose to each, “even gender roles to male and female” (John Walton, see references below).  Light isn’t just daytime, but in opposition to darkness.  Land isn’t just separated from water, but necessary for the next period of creation so that food and shelter can be found.  Once there is sufficient food, animals roam through this intricate ecosystem, each with a unique role and purpose, all living off the land and water provided them.  And all of this was for the physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment of people – who came with their unique and complimentary roles.

Even when Adam names the animals, he is searching for his wife already, and names each one for the purpose.  He doesn’t name the animals because he has nothing better to do in the garden.  He names the animals because that is progression, discerning who each one is and what purpose they serve and learning ultimately of his own need for a companion like unto himself – that nothing else can meet his needs in the same way she can.

Further, ברא bara is always only used as a verb when God is the subject noun doing the creating, meaning that only God can create, meaning that only God can assign purpose and roles, meaning that our purpose here on Earth and the roles we have been given were assigned before we came here, by God, or in agreement with us as gods (little g) with Him as His children already.  So even in this little word, a premortal council is implied, both on a grand scale as well as in an individual ordaining and already prepared kind of way.

Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God
(Acts 17:29)

That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.
(D&C 76:24)

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
(Romans 8:17)

Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.
(D&C 138:56)

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God.
(Alma 13:3)

From this, “in the beginning, God created” becomes “when the gods were organized and authorized to start this specific creative project which is even now ongoing”.

The next piece also comes from the Hebrew, where the particle אֵת (et) is used in front of the direct object of the verb, answering the question of “what creative project?”   The answer, of course, is “the heavens and the earth”.

In Hebrew, this does not mean God appeared from nowhere to wave some kind of Harry Potter magic wand and create everything from nothing.   That concept of ex nihilo wasn’t even around until the 3rd century, and only came about because scholars argued a tension between world-formation and omnipotence of God.  But I argue that these are not in opposition, but rather world formation is evidence of the omnipotence of God – even in the very words of “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.  The original writers were not concerned about limiting God by arguing about the way He created this world into a habitable place –

But were explaining who created the world

And by what authority.

Abraham 3:22-25 reads:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;

Thus, latter-day revelation is entirely consistent with the original meaning of that very first text.

Joseph Fielding Smith said,

The beginning was when the councils met and the decision was made to create this earth that the spirits who were intended for this earth, should come here and partake of the mortal conditions and receive bodies of flesh and bones. The doctrine has prevailed that matter was created out of nothing, but the Lord declares that the elements are eternal. Matter always did and, therefore, always will exist, and the spirits of men as well as their bodies were created out of matter. We discover in this revelation that the intelligent part of man was not created, but always existed.

He also said,

During the ages in which we dwelt in the pre-mortal state we not only developed our various characteristics and showed our worthiness and ability, or the lack of it, but we were also where such progress could be observed. It is reasonable to believe that there was a Church organization there. The heavenly beings were living in a perfectly arranged society. Every person knew his place. Priesthood, without any question, had been conferred and the leaders were chosen to officiate. Ordinances pertaining to that pre-existence were required and the love of God prevailed.

So when we are asking “God created what?” and answering “the heavens and the earth”, we see that we must go back again to ברא bara, because it is more about organizing than the way we use the word “created” today.  Just as we were organized before we came to earth, the earth itself was planned ahead of time and organized out of available matter and energy, rather than it was spontaneously brought forth.  As Joseph Smith said, the world was organized “the same as a man would organize materials and then work to build a ship.  Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos–chaotic matter, which is element.”

This leads us to the next verse, Genesis 1:2, which is actually the second part of the first verse, and tells us more about these elements.

and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

(And Moses 2:1-2)

yea, in the beginning I created the heaven,
and the earth upon which thou standest.

And the earth was without form, and void;
and I caused darkness to come up upon the face of the deep;

and my Spirit moved upon the face of the water;
for I am God.

Collectively, if we consider what we learned about the first verse, then when he says “I created the heaven” we understand it to include creating us, premortal spirit children of Heavenly Parents.   When he says “I created the earth,” we understand it to mean planned and prepared and organized for us – the people who would one day live upon it, even when that same earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

But without that paradisiacal glory promised, the earth and all she has endured would be wasted.

And without the unfolding of those promises, the earth without be without purpose.

And without purpose, the earth would be empty, lonely even, devoid of the meaning of her existence.

And the earth was without form, and void;

That’s the phrase from which we get our word “chaos”.

Well, when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, or what was called the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this phrase was tricksy to translate and even trickier from the Greek into English (Strong’s 4045).

Chaos, in this sense, was more than just disorder or confusion.  In fact, you could argue there wasn’t any confusion at all.  Instead, it meant something more like a period of waiting for order to be brought about, the way the cold ground waits for snow to melt before the Spring flowers burst forth.

So when I first told my husband that I was asked to speak about living my faith despite the chaos of our lives, we had a pretty good laugh.

But it turned out to be one of the most profound topics I have ever been assigned.

Because of what chaos really means.

Chaos means that when life rages against us, like your mother being killed by a drunk driver after your father died of cancer, like having one miscarriage after another before finding out it’s because of ovarian cancer, like your home being filled with more foster children than you can chase down – even then, there are boundaries the adversary cannot cross (Psalm 104:9, Proverbs 8:29).

Chaos means that when your husband is drowning in a chemical depression from which you cannot rescue him, when you have to choose between paying your mortgage or your daughter’s medical equipment, when you have six preschool voices clamoring for baths and meals and homework help all while you are trying to get out the door to your night job just so everyone can eat again tomorrow, even then a firm foundation will be found beneath your feet, sufficient for your needs (Psalm 69:2).

Chaos means that when life is harder than you ever thought it could be, like fighting to keep you baby alive even though she was born unable to breathe, like taking your adopted children on visits with their biological families because it is the right thing to do, like sitting down as a family to plan the funeral of your daughter while she dances in the living room – even then, our spirits are strengthened like a fortress wall against the crashing waves of the sea (Exodus 15:8).

Chaos means that even when Heavenly Father allows you to be tested, and even gifts you with difficult experiences, it is only so that you can progress, only to teach you to swim.

You are not forgotten.

You are not alone.

You are loved.

(Psalm 69:15).

Even the disciples thought they would drown, and the Savior said,

“Why are you so afraid?”

Chaos means being “chosen in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10),

But it is also knowing that you were chosen for good.

The Hebrew word for “chaos” implies a sinking into obscurity as if forgotten, a becoming nothing, failing to fulfill duties, falling prey to weakness.

It is a time of judgment.

But judgment does not have to mean condemnation, not if we have fulfilled who we were created to be.

Chaos is a waiting to be brought into order, with a capital “O”, as in Order of the Priesthood.

Chaos is a waiting for promises to be fulfilled, as in the way we cannot reach our full potential without the increased capacity that the atonement offers.

Chaos is a waiting for promises to be fulfilled, as in the way we cannot reach our full potential without the increased capacity that the atonement offers.

Chaos is a waiting for covenants to be kept,
so that judgment is not brought against us,
but rather ruled in our favor –
not because of who we are,
but because of Who He is,
Who our Parents are,
Who that means we will be.

It is a recognition of His power to do that, even claiming “The Son” in the bold approach we make toward the throne as Prodigal Children into the waiting arms of our Father (Hebrews 4:16; Luke 15:11-32).

Chaos is not disorder or confusion, but a “waiting for” and a “covered by” in the same way we talk about the atonement.

We see this more in the Hebrew than in the Greek.  The phrase ‘without form and void’ appears as תהו ובהו (tohu va-vohu) and is so difficult to translate because it is a play on words.

It emphasizes the extreme waste of the situation, like saying “a desert without water”, while also emphasizing its potential, like saying “a glass waiting to be filled”.

Chaos refers to how desperate our situation is without purpose or meaning if we do not have access to the power of the priesthood, while emphasizing our ultimate potential to progress as individuals and as families with access to the power of the priesthood.

We are the land waiting beneath the deep abyss, the great lifeless sea.

And the earth was without form, and void;
and I caused darkness to come up upon the face of the deep;

But He caused, He created, He organized us then to prepare us for now,
just as He now organizes us to prepare us for what is yet to come.

And what is to come is what we have been waiting for: to return home to our Father.

So that’s what happens in Mark chapter 6:  the Savior sends the disciples across the Sea of Galilee during the storm, straight into chaos.

But then he comes to them, walking on the water itself, demonstrating His power over the chaos.

This is the decisive moment in chaos, when the Savior models how to confront chaos with intentional action.

We must choose to either act in faith or be acted upon (2 Nephi 2:26).

We know there is chaos when we feel overwhelmed, but chaos is also the culprit anytime we feel negative, at a loss, or unqualified.

These are the moments we must press forward in faith, intentionally.

And we are able to do so, because He has not left us alone.

and my Spirit moved upon the face of the water;
for I am God.

Our lives, no matter our circumstances, are not tragic accidents.

Even when we make mistakes, it does not mean we have failed.

Our stories are still being written, in a present progressive way, just as “in the beginning”.

The atonement applies to us today, but also applies to our yesterdays, and even to our tomorrows not yet unfolded but already known.

Even in the presence of chaos, the Spirit of God exhibits purposeful action.

There is a reason to live.

There is a reason for life.

There is a reason to keep trying.

The very moment we try, the very moment we exhibit purposeful action, even with the smallest act of faith, He is already there, arms outstretched, pulling us from the water, rescuing us from the chaos.

The very moment we try, He declares, “Let there be light!”

He knows darkness is part of the deal.

But He doesn’t leave us there, in the dark, alone.

His plan is to separate us from the darkness, to chase the darkness out of us, that we may be filled with light because we are children of Light.

He does not condemn us for living in a world of darkness, nor does He shame us for the difficulties and challenges that come our way because of it.

He simply offers us Light.

And He says the light is “good”.

And it is after the light is “good” that it must be separated from darkness (Moses 2:3-4).

He calls the darkness what it is, just as we must be brave enough to face hard times for what they are and even name it out loud.

Because that’s how we are separated, or set apart from, or distinct from the darkness, by choosing “light” which is “good”.

And we know from Abraham that “good” means “obedient” (compare Moses 2 to Abraham 4).

And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered –

Ordered, with a capital O, as in Order of the Priesthood –

until they obeyed.

(Abraham 4:18).

This is “the joy of our redemption,
and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient
.”

(Moses 5:11)

He knew – even we knew – the entire plan of salvation “in the beginning”
but it could not be completed without our opportunity for intentional action,
even choosing faith,
even choosing faith despite the chaos,

Or maybe even in spite of it.

Because chaos means “without bones”,
like a spirit without a body,

And chaos means “not connected”
as in without the relationships we have through the sealing powers of the temple.

We were “without form, and void”,
which means not yet formed physically
and not yet sealed spiritually.

This was our work to be done, as we stepped out of the boat of premortality
and sent across the cold and painful depths of mortality.

Because “in the beginning” is not about a timeline.

It’s about who we are.

And who we are becoming.

With an eternal perspective, like walking on the celestial turf at the temple, there is no time or space.

Everything is seen in one widescreen panorama.

All the details of Creation, from “in the beginning” all the way into the eternities, all of this is superimposed into one brilliant thought, with lifetimes witnessed in decades that play out in less than a second.

There is no before or after.

This is only who we are.

Or, rather, only who He has said we already are. He says to us:

Peace, be still, and know that I am God.

(Psalm 46:10).

Peace, in Hebrew, is shalom.

But those layers of Hebrew meanings tell us more, when you look at each letter of the Hebrew word individually.  Originally, the letters formed pictures, and each picture represented meaning.  Words were formed when you put those pictures together to express meaning.

The first letter in “Shalom” means “strong teeth” such as “to destroy”.

The next letter is a shepherd’s staff, which implies authority.

The next one is a tent peg, like a stake, meaning “to attach”.

The last one is a picture of the abyss from “in the beginning”, or the water that symbolizes chaos.

When you read the word this way, the picture that you see is a word that means “to destroy the authority attached to chaos”.

Or, rather in modern English,

Peace comes through progression.

That’s what Heavenly Father does for us, through priesthood power.

That’s what the Savior does, through the atonement.

That’s what the Spirit does, through promptings that instruct and correct and comfort.

That’s what we do, every day, as we act in faith and raise ourselves and our families in a world of chaos, waiting for a world we will yet call home.

I have three third graders, and two kindergartners, and a toddler on palliative care.

How do I live my faith despite the chaos that surrounds me?

Like everything else on Planet Earth,
Like every other mother in this world,
I follow the Second Law of Thermodynamics:
I create order out of chaos.

I wake every morning before the children are up, so that I can have my own scripture study and prayers.

As the children stumble out of their beds, I greet them and start their rotations of bathroom breaks and toothbrushing and showers and scripture studies and morning prayers.

When we finish our breakfast, we have family scripture study and kneel at our chairs for family prayer.

And then we go about our day, doing the best we can.

In the evening, after dinner, we read the Book of Mormon together,
so very painfully slow with new readers
that it took us four years to get through for the first time –

But we did it!

And we have started it over “in the beginning”.

And each night, after they are tucked in and allegedly sleeping,

Nathan and I read our scriptures together
and say our couples’ prayers

So that we can be brave enough to step out of the boat again the next morning.

And before I go to sleep, I kneel again to say my even prayers for myself.

That’s how I create order from the chaos.

That’s how I create order from the chaos.

Because it doesn’t matter so much what happens in between,

As long as we can keep trying.

But it is from our prayers and scripture studies and temple trips

That we have the willingness and capacity to do the keep trying part.

 

In the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen.

  1. ) Chaos (definition) – Oxford Illustrated American Dictionary, 1998.

(b) Chaos (definition) – Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2000.

  1. Schmitz, John E.J. (2007). The Second Law of Life: Energy, Technology, and the Future of Earth as We Know It, (pg. 6). William Andrew Publishing.
  2. Examples include: Rudolf Clausius, Mechanical Theory of Heat (1865), James Maxwell, Theory of Heat (1871), Willard Gibbs, On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances (1876), Ludwig Boltzmann, Lectures on Gas Theory (1895), Max Planck, Treatise on Thermodynamics (1897), etc., all checked using Google book keyword search (and physical index searching).
  3. Lewis, William and Rice, James. (1920). A System of Physical Chemistry, (pg. 48). Longmans and Green.
  4. Mixed-up-ness (in the collected Scientific Papers of J. Willard Gibbs (Longmans), the reader will find on page 418 of the first volume a number of unpublished fragments, one subject bearing the title: Entropy as mixed-up-ness, a planned, but never finished, chapter).
  5. Jordon, Michael. (1993). Encyclopedia of Gods, (pg. 55). New York: Facts on File, Inc.
  6. Chaos (etymology) – Online Etymology Dictionary.
  7. Perrot, Pierre. (1998). A to Z of Thermodynamics, (pg. 123). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Lerner, Lawrence S. (1997). Physics for Scientist and Engineers, (pg. 411). Jones & Barlett Publisher.
  9. Levere, Trevor H. (2001). Transforming Mater: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball, (pg. 51). JHU Press.
  10. Van Helmont, J.R. (1663). Oriatrike, pg. 106. London.
  11. Boltzmann, Ludwig. (1964). Lectures on Gas Theory, (pgs. 9, 74). New York: Dover.
  12. Villani, Cédric. (2003). Topics in Optimal Transportation, (pg. 224). AMS Bookstore.
  13. Bentley, Richard. (1963). A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World, Part II, 7. (as found in the 2005 Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations).
  14. Greenberg, Gary. (2000). 101 Myths of the Bible – How the Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History. Naperville, Illinois: SourceBooks, Inc.
  15. (a) Ibid, Greenberg, section: “Myth #1: In the beginning everything was without form and void”, (pgs. 11-12).

(b) O’Grady, John, F. (2005). Men in the Bible: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, (pgs. 3-4). Paulist Press.

  1. (a) Oakes, Lorna and Gahlin, Lucia. (2002). Ancient Egypt – an Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids, and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs, (pg. 286, 300). Hermes House.

(b) Image of the god Heh: as he kneels on the hieroglyphic sign for gold, and clutches notched palm branches, symbolizing the passing of time, 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BC); as found on the back of one of Tutankhamun’s thrones.

  1. Quote: Today, the theory of chaos can help with the answer. The second law of thermodynamics is, according to Arthur Eddington, the “supreme law of Nature”. … (Source: New Scientist, 1971, pg. 41).
  2. Angrist, Stanley W. and Helper, Loren G. (1967). Order and Chaos – Laws of Energy and Entropy. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Prigogine, Ilya. (1984). Order Out of Chaos – Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Prigogine, Illya. (1996). The End of Certainty – Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature. New York: The Free Press.

Alter, Robert (2004). The Five Books of Moses. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-33393-0.

Bandstra, Barry L. (1999). Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Bandstra, Barry L. (2008). Genesis 1–11: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text. Baylor University Press.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph (2011). Creation, Un-Creation, Re-Creation: A Discursive Commentary on Genesis 1–11. T&T Clarke International.

Dumbrell, William J. (2002). The Faith of Isarel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament. Baker Academic.

Hamilton, Victor P (1990). The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2521-4.

Knight, Douglas A (1990). “Cosmology”. In Watson E. Mills (General Editor). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. ISBN 0-86554-402-6.

May, Gerhard (2004). Creatio ex nihilo. T&T Clarke International.

Nebe, Gottfried (2002). “Creation in Paul’s Theology”. In Hoffman, Yair; Reventlow, Henning Graf. Creation in Jewish and Christian Tradition. Sheffield Academic Press. ISBN 9780567573933.

Walton, John H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Baker Academic. ISBN 0-8010-2750-0.

Wenham, Gordon (2003). Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch. Exploring the Bible Series. 1. IVP Academic. p. 223.

Further reading

Curzon, David. Modern poems on the Bible: an anthology. Phila: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.

Full translation of Rashi on Genesis 1:1

“Genesis 1:1.” Online Parallel Bible. [1]

Jewish Publication Society. The Torah: The Five Books of Moses (3rd ed). Philadelphia: 1999.

Kselman, John S. “Genesis” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary.

Rosenbaum and Silberman. Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary.

The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha

Torat Chaim Chumash. Mossad HaRav Kook. 1986

Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: the world and wisdom of the rabbis of the Talmud.

Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A commentary. Phila: The Westminster Press, 1972

Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:401)..

(Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, 50–51).

[1] Foerster, ktizo, TDNT, Vol. III, p.1001.

Beading Our Best

These are Mary’s new beads, which I braided in only an hour and a half.

It’s a new record for me.  Usually it takes me closer to four hours.  Even for bigger braids like these, it normally takes me between two and three hours.  So I am getting better than when I first started learning three years ago!  Can you believe we have had this girl for three years?

Her braids are still not perfect, but it is tighter than what I could do in the past, and I know now how to weave around her cochlear implant magnets on her head, and her hair itself is healthier than when she came to us.  Her beads aren’t exactly the most awesome design, but they are the design she picked out for herself.  All in all, I could that as progress for both of us, as we learn together.

While I was braiding her hair, I was thinking how it feels so much like life.  We think something is too foreign to us, so we don’t try.  Or we think something is too hard, so we give up.  Or our mistakes are too public, so we cover ourselves with shame instead of holding our heads high.

But it seems like the only thing that really does is betray ourselves.

We have received such encouragement and positive feedback for the TED talk draft, and we are so grateful.  It’s terrifying.  But the most meaningful comments have come from biological parents whose children have been adopted through DHS, and adults who were themselves fostered and adopted and had to navigate those hard waters.  Their stories and their encouragement means so much as we keep trying, even though we don’t always get it right.

We do make lots of mistakes.  Sometimes our most well-intentioned plans for a tender day still turn into a shouting for everyone to quiet down.  I know, right?  How is my own shouting going to help?  But we are better, and we have many – not all, but many – days now without any screaming at all.

Or sometimes there are things we cannot help, like the time we didn’t get the message about a bio-grandmother’s funeral.  That was important.  We had planned to be there.  We had planned to donate for other people to be able to be there.  But Kyrie got sick, their plans happened last minute, and when it was all said and done, we didn’t get the message about the funeral day and time until the evening after it happened.  I will never forgive myself for not being more vigilant that day, because being there meant everything.  It’s not about being forgiven by the family, or them letting it go and loving us anyway.  It’s about missing an opportunity to show them that we love them for real, and not being able to get that moment back.

Other times it’s bigger than that, these kinds of circumstances you can’t control and aren’t anyone’s fault, but damaging none the less.  Immediately to my mind comes the example of me getting life-flighted with Kyrie just a few short weeks after Kirk and Barrett moved in with us.  That wasn’t anyone’s fault, and we did our best to stay connected, and no one ever blamed us (to our faces!), but that was the last thing those little boys needed, and it took an extra long time to heal from that.

Some of them are even more neutral, but still get marked as a stressor (because your mom is a therapist, so she knows better).  Like when we had to move to Tulsa so Kyrie could be closer to the hospital and for me to be close to the family while I did the chaplaincy residency.  Kyrie needed that to be safe, and there were many days I would not have seen the children at all if we hadn’t lived so close.  It was the right thing for us as a family.  But it was still a move, which still therapeutically counts as a change in placement, which for children adopted from foster care is pretty much the last thing they needed.

But it was the best we could do.

Like moving back to our yellow house once Kyrie was released from the hospital on palliative care.  In some ways it would have been better to move back to Bartlesville then, but Owasso was closer to more job opportunities for me and kept Kyrie closer to the hospital – which ended up saving us when she got her g-tube.  And there was no reason to stay in our tiny house by the river, all crowded in there together.  It was the right thing for our family.

Now we have to decide, probably by the end of the year, if we are staying in the yellow house, or letting it go so that we have better funds for caring for Kyrie and getting a nearby place (same ward) with a little extra room (even outside) for these children who are suddenly turning into tweenagers.  It’s a big decision, even if the children just think it is the latest adventure in the series of treasured unfortunate events that has been our life together.  I moved so much when I was growing up, so I don’t know if I am overly sensitive to it or desensitized to what normal is or isn’t.

And I do not at all mean to complain about any single day Kyrie is alive.  We are so grateful for every miracle, and do not take a single day for granted.  We love the nurses and doctors who care for her, who have fought for her, and who believe in her.  She is changing the world, that little one, one snarky smile at a time.

But she is also one expensive little baby, and we need a better plan in place as we meet the requirements of mortality even while moving forward in faith.

Especially as she continues to exceed expectations.

But never will we blame her for it, because while it may be the circumstances in which we find ourselves, that is a very different thing than causing them.

I also refuse to be afraid.

Because when you ask for miracles, you first have to act in faith as if you are expecting miracles.

I also know that every little shift – whether us trying harder, or learning new skills, or moving to meet the needs of our family – every little pathway opened up to us is given to us by God, even provided for us.  I know what it is to live the life of Job, and I know what it means to understand that opposition against us is not condemnation but the proving grounds of covenants.

And I trust Him, as my Father and as my God, even when the winds surround us and seem to take everything away, whirling around us so loudly that I cannot even hear my own prayers because they are only tears.

Like when my sweet babies, who have been through so much, have only two weeks of counseling left because the state wants to delete it.

Mary’s hair is like that, you see, a hot mess out of control if it isn’t cared for and moisturized and kept combed through.  But giving up doesn’t make it better. That just tangles it worse, and makes it all matted until it has to be cut off.

Know what helps?  Dealing with it.  Combing it out.  Oiling it up.  Braiding tighter, smoothing down, sliding those beads on and securing the ends so they stay a while.

It’s like praying, even when everything seems impossible.

And reading your scriptures, even when you think you are tired.

And going to the temple, even when you don’t even know how to pull that off.

And doing your best as a family, even when none of you are even close to perfect.

Because together you are whole.

Because those babies are angels, I tell you, and we are honored to have their special little spirits in our home, where ever home is.

That’s what we think, so that’s what we do, because that’s who we are.

And when you can do that, buckling down spiritually just like putting in some really good braids, even if it isn’t as good as the fancy lady at the black beauty shop, it at least keeps everything safe, and healthy, and strong – with enough shiny beads to make a nine year old girl smile.

 

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.