Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THE GRIND


Jiating!

How is everything going?

I have been great so far. It is just about what I expected. It is actually less structured than I thought. We get these multiple hour blocks where we just sit in the classroom without specific direction, which we assume means we are just supposed to teach ourselves stuff. I think we will all get more productive with our time as we get used to the routine.

This language is "a grind" according to my district pres. It certainly seems that way so far. First day I walk into my class and several teachers just talk chinese at me. This continues for several hours, then again later in the day. None of us really have any idea what is going on half the time, they don't speak any english at all to us. Apparently we are part of the infamous "pilot program" (or at least, infamous around here) of which one part is no yingwen. This program also includes us being told to teach an investigator in chinese on the second day we are here. I've already taught three times, always in zhongwen of course. This results in a fairly stressful learning environment, but hopefully we are learning faster than we would otherwise. I can already see serious improvement in my own ability to speak.

We spend all day in our classroom, we basically live in there. There are about 70 mandarin missionaries here now, 6 elders and 2 sisters in my district. I am actually one of the worst at chinese right now. Out of the 70 or so of us, there are only a few that had absolutely no previous mandarin. Unfortunately, my exposure to the language was significantly more bogus than everyone else's. For instance, my DL is really pretty good, he took two semester while he did his freshman year at Harvard. He isn't the only elder who went there either. There are a few, which is saying something since I would guess there are only a few lds freshman males at Harvard who went on missions. I really don't think they are lying when they say they send the smart missionaries to mandarin missions.

My comp is great. He isn't very good at chinese either, which makes me feel better. Interestingly, he also comes from a vegetarian family, likes running, piano, etc. We have a lot in common. He is a little weird though. He has a thing for cologne, he probably has several hundred dollars worth. But it's all good, he is a humble guy and is definitely willing to work and has a desire to learn. We all do, we don't really have a choice. At least, not if we want to ever be able to speak well.

It is amazing how powerful the spirit can be when we teach, even though we can barely speak. All we can really do is teach, in very simple, childlike language, the fundamental docrines. No embellishment or fluff. And we know how to pray and bear testimony. Yet, that is all it really takes. We have been able to have a strong spirit as we teach. The spirit can teach directly to the heart in its own language, and it will do so regardless of the eloquence of the language of the tongue. This is true whether you speak chinese, english, or whatever.

The food is disappointing. If it weren't for Grape Nuts I would starve. Nothing else interesting has happened. We all got to collect stool samples today, that was a unique experience. I guess Taiwan needed it for the visas. I wouldn't want that if I were Taiwan though.

I can't believe you sent me my raisin bran shirt. What if it had gotten lost in the mail? I don't want to risk keeping it with me on my mission, I will try to send it back to you. It needs to be at home when I get back.

Oh also, my chinese name is Bai Zhanglao, which literally means "white elder". I actually guessed that this would be my name before I came here. Of course they gave this name to the only redhead in the district.

I don't think I need anything else. Let me know how everything is going at home. I get thirty minutes, so try to keep the letters fairly short. P-day is tuesday.

Wo ai nimen,

Evan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ni Hao!

So, this is the missionary blog my mom will be updating while I am in Taiwan. It will include excerpts from my letters home, as well as current contact information for anyone who might be interested in writing me. Hopefully this will be entertaining and helpful for my friends and family.

I got a few requests for my farewell talk, so here it is. Some parts may have been omitted in the actual talk, and I probably added a few things, so this isn't word for word. I tried my best to remember the wording of my testimony. Feel free to copy it or use it or whatever. Also, this will help make my blog a complete record of my mission, from farewell to homecoming.


Finding and Understanding Truth

I would like to start with a story from David O. McKay describing his experience with gaining a testimony. He said,

“One day in my youth I was hunting cattle. While climbing a steep hill, I stopped to let my horse rest, and there, once again, an intense desire came over me to receive a manifestation of the truth of the restored gospel. I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse’s head, and there under a bush I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith. I am sure that I prayed fervently and sincerely and with as much faith as a young boy could muster.

“At the conclusion of the prayer, I arose from my knees, threw the reins over my pony’s head, and got into the saddle. As I started along the trail again, I remember saying to myself, ‘No spiritual manifestation has come to me.”

Why didn’t he get an answer? It seems like he did everything right; he had a desire, he was humble and asked god, and he even said that this wasn’t the first time he had asked. Yet, God did not give him an answer. At least, not yet. Obviously, this isn’t the end of the story. But I’ll come back to it later.

So often in the scriptures we are told to, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find." (Matt 7:7), or something along those lines. So why does it seem like this sometimes doesn’t work? This man, who later served as a prophet of God, did not receive an answer to his request for spiritual knowledge. I want to talk today about how we can receive spiritual truth and how we can strengthen our own faith in this gospel.

While researching this subject and examining the way my own faith has developed, I noticed three things that seemed to be very important in the process of gaining a testimony, and these are what I would like to focus on. They are: First, Christ-like living. Second, the ability to recognize the answers and truth we receive. And Third, understanding that what is sought must be right according to God, not according to us.

So first: Christ-like living. I don’t think I need to spend a long time going over what this means – not because it isn’t important, but because everyone already knows how to live like Christ. It means living with things like love, humility, charity, etc. This is what we are taught in primary, as children. Yet none of us are perfectly like Christ. This isn’t because we have a lack of knowledge, but because we are mortal and imperfect. So I want to talk about why living like Christ is so important to developing faith in Christ.

Joseph Smith identified one passage as, “the key by which the mysteries of eternal life are unlocked… We may all know the truth; we are not helpless.” The verse of which he was speaking was 1 John 2:3

3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.

What a simple principle. To know Christ, we must simple do what he did.

Jesus himself gives us this admonition if we want to gain a testimony: "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." (John 7: 15-17)

It appears that the key to gaining a valiant testimony of the gospel is actually doing God’s will. We cannot merely ask. Our answer will come after we have tried to practice what Christ preached.

Back to the story of President McKay. In describing his experience in which he prayed and received no answer, he said, ‘If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same “old boy” that I was before I prayed.’

Why should he have expected his faith to change if he hadn’t? He was the same boy when he stood up after his prayer as he was when he knelt down. If we want to have a testimony of Jesus Christ and his divinity, we have to first make the changes in our lives that are necessary to become like him, and only then will our faith grow.

Second: We need to learn to recognize the truth and identify the knowledge that can strengthen our faith.

We are often told that the spirit teaches men “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He likened the kingdom of heaven to “grains of salt”, treasure hidden in a field, and measures of leaven mixed into bread. The spiritual truth in our lives is like this; often difficult to find or identify, sometimes nearly impossible to separate from the rest of the stuff. It isn’t easy to find the leaven mixed into the bread, or the treasure hidden in the field. Yet it only takes a small amount of leaven to raise the whole loaf. Discovering truth is not an easy process, but even getting only a small amount is certainly worth the effort. But it truly will take effort.

I remember a road trip my family took to Mexico when I was in 8th grade. We had all of our stuff packed into our suburban, and my dad was driving through the night on the Mexican freeways while the rest of us attempted to sleep. In the middle of the night, we began seeing repeated road signs over the space of a few miles, but they were in Spanish so we had no idea what they meant. Pretty soon, however, we realized what the signs meant when we hit some speed bumps going about 70 miles per hour. Our first thought was, what purpose would a country have for putting speed bumps on their freeway. But our next thought was, we need to remember what those signs looked like so we can avoid this problem in the future. And sure enough, later in the night, we started seeing the signs again, and were able to slow down before ruining our axle on more bumps.

So, how could we have avoided this problem altogether? As stupid of an idea as freeway speed bumps are, the signs were there warning us; we just didn’t know Spanish. If we had understood the language, we would have been able to recognize and utilize the signs.

In the same way, if we can understand the language in which God speaks to us, we will be able to recognize his influence in our lives, and discover the truth he intends us to know.

I don’t believe there is a formula to understanding the language of the spirit. It is a highly personal experience, and the best way to figure out how god communicates with you is practice. We need to remember the teaching of Christ in Luke 17:20-21:

20 The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

21 for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

If we want to spiritually discern truth, the only place we will ever find it is within ourselves. We need to learn to be perceptive enough to recognize our own personal language of the spirit.

I want to share a poem by Emily Dickinson that has had meaning for me.

 It dropped so low in my regard
I heard it hit the ground,
And go to pieces on the stones
At the bottom of my mind;
 Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less
Than I reviled myself
For entertaining plated wares
Upon my silver shelf.

-- Emily Dickinson

This poem is significant because it plays on the juxtaposition of plated wares and genuine silver. In her day, plated wares, or lusterware, was common; it was a form of ceramic or china that was coated with a thin covering of platinum so that it had the appearance of silver without the durability. Although these plated wares seemed like real silver, underneath their cover they are just as fragile as any other pottery. Luckily, upon careful examination they could be distinguished from the genuine. Likewise, in our own lives, as we carefully examine our own beliefs, perceptions of others, ideas about the world, and even the way we view ourselves, we will find that some things will “go to pieces on the stones at the bottom of our minds”. These were the ideas or aspects of our faith that were not strong enough or true enough. Yet we can be assured that as we use our powers of spiritual discernment, God will help us come to the truth, and we can develop a more valiant faith. We will be able to tell what is only lusterware; what has the appearance of truth without the substance. But in addition, we will be able to recognize the genuine silver. And we know that, ultimately, there is only one foundation that cannot break, no matter how hard it is pounded.

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. – Matt 7: 24-25

That rock is Jesus Christ. There is no other foundation that will do. This is why Christ-like living is so important to gaining a testimony. In the end, everything else is nothing more than sand. Everything else is lusterware.

My third point is this: The truth or faith we desire from God will only be ours if it is God’s will, and we need to remember that he knows what he is doing.

In the book of Moses, we have God’s own self-proclaimed mission statement:

“For behold, this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” – Moses 1:39

If there is anyone that can achieve their goals, it is our father in heaven. We may not understand why we do not receive spiritual knowledge after we have asked. Sometimes, no matter how much we are striving to live like Christ, and no matter how in tune we are with the spirit, our pleas for knowledge, comfort, or guidance from our heavenly father will go unanswered. Yet this does not have to be a bad thing. Elder Neal A. Maxwell has had these types of experiences. He said, speaking of the “door” that must be opened to receive the blessings of knowledge from heaven,

“Sometimes we pound on the vault door for something we want very much, in faith, in reasonable righteousness, and wonder why the door does not open. We would be very spoiled children if that vault door opened any more easily than it does now. I can tell, looking back, that God truly loves me by the petitions that he has refused to grant me. Our rejected petitions tell us not only much about ourselves, but also much about our flawless Father.”

Perhaps this means that we can learn just as much from what God doesn’t tell us as we do from what he does. That it isn’t just important to open the door to heaven, but to learn HOW to open the door. God doesn’t just want us to have the correct answer; he wants us to learn to work the problem and find the answer ourselves.

The story of David O McKay ends with him in fact gaining a testimony. Big surprise, right? But it didn’t come when or in the way he expected. Speaking again of his experience with unanswered prayer, he said:

“The Lord did not see fit to give me an answer on that occasion” Years later, while on his mission in Scotland, “the spiritual manifestation for which I had prayed as a boy came as a natural sequence to the performance of duty. Never before had I experienced such an emotion. … It was an assurance to me that sincere prayer is answered ‘sometime, somewhere.’” (Clare Middlemiss, comp., Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], pp. 6–7).

God loves us: we know what he wants for us. And he will accomplish his purposes in the end: but he will do them in his own way, with his own timing, not according to our will or contorted perception of how things should be. We need to trust him, his love for us, and his involvement in our lives.

Joseph smith offers a great testimony that God does indeed speak today in D and C 128: 19-22

19 Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth…

20 …A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette… The voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna… The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness…

21 And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette, Seneca County, and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! … giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!

22 Bretheren, shall we not go on in so great a cause?

We are probably all familiar with that last line. What is the “great cause” to which he is referring? It is the knowledge that God is involved in the lives of men. That He is not a force foreign to man, but is instead more intricately a part of man than we can possibly comprehend. I love the contrast between the powerful voices mentioned and the common American place names. The voice of the original apostles, heard in the woods in the Eastern US! The voice of Michael the Archangel on the banks of an ordinary river! And the voice of God himself in the living room of an ordinary farmer. This is Joseph’s testimony that the divine can permeate the ordinary; that God can be a part of each of our lives. He will help us find truth and develop valiant testimony. We must simply trust his ability to help us in his own way and with his own timing.

I know that God is our Father in Heaven, and that He loves us and is a part of our lives. I also know that Jesus Christ is His son, that he lived perfectly and set a perfect example for us. I know that His atonement is a reality. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that he restored the true Gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, along with His priesthood and church, and that line of authority has been carried through the years and now rests with our current prophet, President Thomas S. Monson. As long as we build our lives on the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, we know we cannot go astray. And as we implement his teachings and strive to be like him, our powers of spiritual discernment will increase, and we will better understand the way God speaks to us, and will be able to more easily find the “grains of salt” and more easily distinguish between the “lusterware” and the genuine silver. And as long as we can trust God’s love for us and ability to help us, we can be sure that he will give us truth and knowledge as he sees fit, which is much better than getting such truth as we see fit. We will know that what happens is what is best for us. In the meantime, let us remember that we can learn from our rejected petitions too, and that it may not be so important to simply find the right answer; instead, let us strive to learn to work the problem for ourselves. In the end, that is an infinitely more valuable skill.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.