Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Christmas in Russia

Eighteen years ago this week I arrived in Siberia as a brand new missionary.  The comfort of the Missionary Training Center was nearly 6,000 miles away.  Those first days were hard, really hard.  At this time of year the sun rises in Novosibirsk around ten o'clock in the morning and goes down around five o'clock in the evening.  Temperatures ranged from -20 degrees Celsius during the day to something even colder during the night.  Newly arrived in a foreign place at the beginning of a two-year sojourn, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

As I struggled through each of those first days I wondered what it would take for all of it to feel normal.  With Christmas only days away homesickness started to settle in more deeply.  At some point we decided as a district to go Christmas caroling.  None of us were certain the last time, if ever, someone had sang Christmas carols in public in Novosibirsk.  With our Russian hymnals in hand four of us set out looking for places to sing.  Besides myself our group consisted of my companion from Helena, Montana, our district leader from Finland, and his companion who also was from Utah. 

Culturally, Russians tend to be very closed off in public situations.  The sudden appearance of four foreigners, singing what we're likely unfamiliar songs, had an interesting impact on those passing by us.  We sang for a time outside a store and then, in an effort to be a little warmer, we moved into one of the Metro hallways.  Some people, unsure how to react to us, simply put their head down and walked by, pretending that we didn't exist.  Others looked at us with obvious disapproval.  A small handful gave us a short smile.

There in the Metro, as we were singing "Silent Night" in Russian (Тихая ночь, дивная ночь), I looked around at my fellow missionaries.  Despite the unfamiliar surroundings and despite the unwelcoming reactions of those passing by, I saw on their faces a sense of peace and love.  The same feelings came over me.  I felt my frozen cheeks surrounded by a large, wool scarf and covered by a fur shapka, break out into a smile of joy.

That same week we attended the branch Christmas party.  We were joined by new Saints in celebrating the birth of our Savior.  Together we sang the beautiful Christmas carols in a new language, a language that I would come to love.  After two weeks of eating unfamiliar foods I was rewarded with a meal consisting of a small beef steak and mashed potatoes.  Outside of the companionship of fellow believers, I don't think the Lord could have given me a better gift than that meal. 

Celebrating Christmas that year, in 1994, I received the assurance from the Lord that I was doing his work in the right place.  A small gathering of Saints showed me the promises the Lord had in store for those in Novosibirsk.  My perception changed from wondering if I could survive two years in Siberia to that of considering the possibilities of what I could do, experience, give, and learn during that time.  I thank the Lord for the tender mercies offered me in that season as the celebration of His Son's birth brought me the comfort I so desperately needed.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Spiritual Feast in the High Desert

The last month or so has been eventful for our family.  My father returned from his deployment to the Middle East.  I was called to serve as bishop of the Whitney Ranch Ward.  All of my side of the family came out for our third running of the Las Vegas Ragnar.  We capped the visit off with an early Thanksgiving dinner put on by my mother.  Emmalee went to a marching band competition in California.  Wrestling season started for Elijah and he already has his first tournament under his belt.  Isaiah finally convinced his mother to let him start wrestling.  Gracee played in her first few lacrosse games.  She even scored a goal in one game.  Clara started walking.  Elizabeth is just busy all of the time.

In the midst of all the exciting events I managed to come down with a cold last weekend.  The timing wasn't great since I had to take a road trip to San Bernardino on Wednesday and Thursday.  As my departure time on Wednesday evening approached, I felt less and less happy about the prospect of making that drive out and back with the cold and my lack of sleep.  The trip was to provide some initial services to some very large clients for work making the trip difficult to cancel.  At the last minute, thinking of the drive through the high desert, I grabbed a set of CDs from the October 2002 General Conference.  What started out looking as a very depressing trip became a spiritual and educational trip.

Below are the links to a few of the talks with some excerpts that I particularly enjoyed:

"Rise to Your Call," Elder Henry B. Eyring
"The person who called you did not issue the call simply because he learned by interviewing you that you were worthy and willing to serve.  He prayed to know the Lord’s will for you.  It was prayer and revelation to those authorized of the Lord, which brought you here.  Your call is an example of a source of power unique to the Lord’s Church.  Men and women are called of God by prophecy and by the laying on of hands by those God has authorized.

"You are called to represent the Savior.  Your voice to testify becomes the same as His voice, your hands to lift the same as His hands.  His work is to bless His Father’s spirit children with the opportunity to choose eternal life.  So, your calling is to bless lives.  That will be true even in the most ordinary tasks you are assigned and in moments when you might be doing something not apparently connected to your call.  Just the way you smile or the way you offer to help someone can build their faith.  And should you forget who you are, just the way you speak and the way you behave can destroy faith.

"Your call has eternal consequences for others and for you.  In the world to come, thousands may call your name blessed, even more than the people you serve here.  They will be the ancestors and the descendants of those who chose eternal life because of something you said or did, or even what you were.  If someone rejects the Savior’s invitation because you did not do all you could have done, their sorrow will be yours.  You see, there are no small callings to represent the Lord.  Your call carries grave responsibility.  But you need not fear, because with your call come great promises."

"There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed.  One of the ways you will be attacked is with the feeling that you are inadequate.  Well, you are inadequate to answer a call to represent God with only your own powers.  But you have access to more than your natural capacities, and  you do not work alone.

"The Lord will magnify what you say and what you do in the eyes of the people you serve.  He will send the Holy Ghost to manifest to them that what you spoke was true.  What you say and do will carry hope and give direction to people far beyond your natural abilities and your own understanding.  That miracle has been a mark of the Lord’s Church in every dispensation."

 "That They May Be One in Us," Elder D. Todd Christofferson
"Surely we will not be one with God and Christ until we make Their will and interest our greatest desire.  Such submissiveness is not reached in a day, but through the Holy Spirit, the Lord will tutor us if we are willing until, in process of time, it may accurately be said that He is in us as the Father is in Him.  At times I tremble to consider what may be required, but I know that it is only in this perfect union that a fullness of joy can be found.  I am grateful beyond expression that I am invited to be one with those holy beings I revere and worship as my Heavenly Father and Redeemer."

"Encircled in the Arms of His Love," Elder Neal A. Maxwell
"In the churn of crises and the sinister swirl of global events, true disciples will maintain faith in a revealing, loving God and in His plan for redeeming His children, which plan is the why of all that God does!  Furthermore, God’s character, as revealed to us, tells us that He has the cosmic capacity to ensure that He really is ‘able’ to do His immense work."

"The restored gospel is buoyant, wide, and deep—beyond our comprehension.  It edifies whether concerning divine design in the universe or stressing the importance of personal chastity and fidelity.  Only meek disciples can safely handle such a bold theology."

"How can we know that God is aware of us and loves us?  He tells us by the scriptures—likewise, by our honestly counting the blessings and bestowals of His grace in our lives.  Most of all, He tells us by the still, small voice of the Spirit!"

“…brothers and sisters, what keeps us from knowing and loving Him more?  Our reluctance to give away all our sins—thinking, instead, a down payment will do.  Likewise, our reluctance to let our wills be swallowed up in His will—thinking, instead, that merely acknowledging His will is sufficient!”

A normally long and boring trip through the desert became a spiritual feast.