Thursday, December 1, 2016

Lessons from the Grinch

Last December we planned a family outing to go Christmas shopping.  For years we have taken the kids to the dollar store to buy presents for each other and the parents.  It has become a favorite family tradition--dinner at McDonald's, and shopping at the Dollar Tree across the parking lot.  But I'd grown weary of receiving dollar store gifts to try and treasure.  I decided that perhaps we had "graduated" to a "nicer" discount store where we could have a bigger selection of gifts.  Yes, our budget would need to increase, but the gifts would be better!  So we tried Big Lots.  Meh.  Yes, bigger gifts.  Better--maybe.  This year, instead of Dollar Tree or Big Lots, we would go to our favorite local big box store--Shopko.  It would definitely be better here.

Ugh.  Worst family activity night!  The store was so big that it was hard to keep track of everyone. The selection was so big (and the prices) that it was difficult for our littles to stay within their modest budget.  They needed a lot of help from mom and dad.  And the kicker--the coupons that we brought to use had all either expired the day before, or were not valid until the next day.  We had confused the dates as we looked at them before leaving the house, so this was a check-stand discovery.  Andy was fuming, mostly about the coupons, but also over the frustration of the shopping trip.  Everyone else was ornery, and I suddenly remembered a line from How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!  "Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.  Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

Had I really made the same mistake as the Grinch?  Had I really become so selfish that I couldn't see my children's gifts to me for what they were?  All they wanted was to share in the joy of giving, and to see a smile on my face when they gave me a heart-felt gift.  And, at least for a few years, I had been more focused on the gift than on the giver.  I was embarrassed over this new discovery.  And with everyone else's unhappiness over the "fun" family activity we had just (not) enjoyed, I asked some questions.

"Did anyone have fun tonight?"  (The answers were mixed, but there was definitely whining involved.) "Was it more fun tonight?  Or was it more fun when we used to go to the dollar store?  I don't ever remember coming away from the dollar store with this feeling."

Everyone agreed.  We had spent more money and time, and had less fun.  Andy had considered taking everything back and using the coupon to re-purchase, but I had a different idea.

"We used to have fun doing this activity.  What if we take back all the stuff, and re-do our Christmas shopping at the dollar store?"  There was some disappointment, because these girls had worked hard to pick nice gifts.  But instead of having to draw names and buy for just one sibling, they would be able to buy for everyone.  And the fun we used to have with this activity would return.  The feeling in the van changed.  Everyone calmed down.

A few days later, we went to the dollar store.  The girls wandered around, dropping hints about what they would like as they worked to pick the perfect gifts for their family members and stay out of sight.  Everything in the store fit into their budget.  They all got their own money to take and pay by themselves.  No coupons were involved.  And it was a small enough place that they could wander freely without getting lost.  The fun was back.  I got a puzzle, a dishtowel, a fancy bar of soap, and some floral patterned pens.  And a truly fun family memory.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Some Things Are Worthy of Quitting

I have always loved to write, and fancied myself as a professional writer from a young age. (I imagined myself on a successful book tour at the ripe old age of 12.  I could just see myself on talk shows answering the hosts’ burning questions about my incredible book, and my amazing talent.  Oh, I planned to be so famous!)

I must not have been as talented as I imagined, because my dream of success at 12 didn’t happen then, and still hasn’t happened (not for the writing dream, at least).  But the dream persisted, and led me to take a correspondence writing course where I was mentored by a published author.  I had to submit a writing sample as part of the application process, and I was very flattered to be accepted.

It was fun, at first.  But it got hard pretty quick.  I wasn’t used to having someone find fault with my work.  I had a difficult time coming up with plots for stories.  I felt so unable to relate to kids or teens—the audience I was writing for—that I became discouraged.  And then I had a baby.  Trying to find time for writing while taking care of a newborn was a real challenge.  I got to the point that I dreaded the class work.  I no longer enjoyed writing.  I no longer wanted to get published.  I just wanted to be done.

So I quit.

I didn’t think I regretted it, until a few weeks ago.  I received a letter from the writing school, offering to let me back in to their class to finish what I had started. 

Again, I was flattered.  They wanted me back!  They saw potential in me!  Maybe I had quit too soon. 

Maybe I was a quitter.

That was the idea that took hold in my brain and wouldn’t let go.  I have certainly had other experiences where, when the going got tough, I quit.  The writing class was only one example.  I didn’t want to be a quitter.  Didn’t I want to teach my children to do hard things?  Didn’t I want to push through the hard times to get to the reward of success on the other side?  Aren’t those important life skills?

I convinced myself that they were, and I signed back up.

My first assignment was due this week.  I tried to write it.  The words would not come.  And when I finally sat down to put some real effort into it, I realized that I no longer had time to put together a good attempt.  That’s okay, I told myself.  I’ll just submit something from the blog.  But there was a nagging question—why do I want to do this?  DO I want to do this?  What is the end game?  What do I want out of this?

Answer: I am not a quitter.

That was my end game?  I am not a quitter?  That was why I was adding unnecessary stress to my life was to prove that I was not a quitter?

Lightbulb moment: I am not a quitter already, and some things are worthy of quitting.

There is a vast difference between quitting because something is hard, and recognizing that persisting in something will not help you to accomplish your goals.  I am a big advocate of doing hard things.  I am a big advocate of personal development.  Sometimes developing character means doing hard things that don’t have a fiscally measurable return on investment.  Sometimes it will be hard to remember why we are doing the hard thing in the first place.

And sometimes, we need to quit.

Seeing value in doing hard things doesn’t mean that we need to do ALL hard things.  We don’t need to sign up for something just because it’s hard.  Life is generous in that way—we’ll get plenty of hard things to do just by virtue of being alive.  We don’t need to pile it on ourselves.  Conversely, having a goal, a really hard goal, even, can be a great and important thing. 

So how do you know when it’s time to quit? 

Honestly, I don’t know.  But I do know that my biggest goals, my eternal goals, are to return to live with my Heavenly Father some day.  To be with my family for eternity.  To make and keep covenants.  To be truly united with my husband as we lead and love our family.  Any goal that distracts me or directs me away from those things is not in keeping with my chosen destiny, and is not worthy of my time and effort.  And sometimes, it requires the assistance of the Holy Ghost to know when that is the case.

Those are the things that guide my steps every day.  There are a lot of opportunities that come along in the course of this mortality, and I’ve attempted to pursue some of them.  More often than I would like, I feel a nudge away from the things I have chosen, with an oh-so-subtle whisper that what He has in store for me is so much better than what I am attempting.  So I retreat.  I let go of my dreams, hoping that His plan for me will be as fulfilling as my plan would have been.  Letting go of my dreams has been heart-wrenching.  Every time I do it, there is a mourning process to go through.  It is as much a loss in some ways as my miscarriages have been.  But, as with my miscarriages, there is a peace that God is in control, and He knows what He is doing.  And He knows far better than I do. 

In the last week, especially since General Conference, I have had the feeling that if I will take care of things here at home, these experiences will prepare me in exactly the ways I need for what is ahead.  My job now is to be okay with that, and to trust God to direct my steps.  I don’t need to rush things.  I just need to be willing to follow.  And He will lead the way.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Beautiful Easter

(I started writing this for on Easter Sunday.  It is no longer Easter, but the blessings of the Resurrection are not only for one day.  So I'm posting it late, because the blessings of the Atonement and Resurrection are for every moment, every second.  And it's my blog.)

Beautiful Easter today.  My toddler woke at 4 a.m. and wouldn't go back to sleep.  My husband and I took turns for four hours, trying to keep him occupied and quiet, so that our sick daughter would be able to stay asleep.  It was a valiant effort.  I tried to pour out my tired soul in prayer, but I got as far as, "I'm just so tired.  Please help me understand what my children need, and give me strength to get through the day."  At least toddler napped for an hour or so before church.

We made it to Sacrament Meeting, and we were almost completely settled into our pew before toddler started wailing for his milk.  We did manage to make it almost through the Sacrament with him before Dad took him out.  *Sigh.*  I struggle with Sundays.

The ward choir sang.  It was lovely, but a little bittersweet, since my sick 15 year-old was supposed to accompany the choir on her violin.  I love to hear her play.  Just as the music ended, Dad returned with toddler.  My turn.  We tried walking around the church.  Several times he flopped onto the ground and just lay there, letting people step over him, and I think he was licking the carpet.  Gross, but he's a boy.  I've stopped caring so much about the things that go into his mouth.  It takes way to much energy to worry about most of it.

A friend of mine was also in the hall, and started to chat with me, but toddler was having none of it. "I don't know why I'm here," I confided.  "You should just go home," she said.  "I'll sub for you in the nursery."

I didn't even think twice, not letting the guilt in, even though I read through the Ensign about parents who are diligent with their fussy children, walking the halls for most of the three hour block, but at least they are in the right place!  I should be one of those diligent parents.  Instead, I take my little one home for a nap.  But we try.  Every week we try.

It doesn't sound like such a lovely Easter, does it?  But it was.  I prayed in anticipation of a family dinner, knowing that some of our family members are struggling with heavy burdens.  It breaks my heart that they have chosen a path away from the church, away from faith, and away from the Savior, but it is what it is.  I prayed to be able to say something to one family member in particular, and to have the words given to me.  I didn't have the opportunity for a conversation with this person, but I was asked to say the blessing on the meal.  I wasn't sure I was in the right frame of mind, but I prayed.

I wondered as I prayed whether or not I should mention the Resurrection and Atonement on this Easter Sunday.  How would such a prayer be received by those in our family who don't believe?  On the other hand, how could I pray and NOT express my gratitude for my Savior?  I had to say what was in my heart, regardless of how the other members of the family would feel about it.

It wasn't until I left that I realized that the Lord had answered my prayers.  Usually Grandpa calls on someone to pray.  This time, Grandma suggested that I say it.  I haven't prayed at one of these family gatherings in a very long time--usually it's one of the grandchildren.  But I was given the opportunity to bear my testimony through prayer to family members who wouldn't hear it any other way.  I don't know if it will make any difference to them, but it did to me.

I left wanting to shout my testimony from the rooftops.  HE LIVES!  Hallelujah!  He lives!  Because He lives, all of the difficulties of my day are fleeting.  Because He lives, all the pain, sorrow, exhaustion, turmoil, confusion, and strife can be overcome.  It can all melt away as I strive to be still and listen to what He is telling me.  And not just me, it can be that way for you.  He died for YOU. He suffered for YOU. He LOVES YOU.  He is there, waiting, for YOU.  The more I let Him in, the more my life changes for the better.  The more I change for the better. And if you will let Him in, your life will change, too.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Get Behind Me, Shoulder Devil

My kiddos are huge Studio C fans.  Our Monday night Family Home Evening schedule is pretty strict, to make sure that we are all ready to watch Studio C at 8:00.  It's fun, clean humor, which I really appreciate.  Recently, though, it had more than just a humorous application for my family.

One of my daughters has a particularly difficult time controlling her temper.  She is extremely sensitive, and very spiritually mature, but get her in a bad mood and none of that matters.  I try to calm her to the point that she can make better decisions, but when she is mad, she seems determined to stay that way.  She expresses a desire to not feel so out of control (when she is in a contrite state of mind), but how to help her with that has been somewhat of a mystery to me and my husband as we try to love and teach her.  Finally, my husband expressed that perhaps she is more than just sensitive to THE Spirit, maybe she is sensitive to all manner of spirits.

I had had the same thought.  This girl is strong.  She is powerful.  She has a faith that is unusual for a child her age.  How to help her put off these negative emotions?

Enter Studio C and the Shoulder Devil.

I asked my sweet daughter if she ever felt like there was someone trying to persuade her to do wrong or feel badly. She answered that she did.  I then reminded her of the Shoulder Devil skits, and told her that these menacing emotions were like the Shoulder Devil.  Most importantly, she could identify them and command them to leave.  We have worked to identify these spirits by name--the spirit of contention, of belligerence, of vitriol, of discouragement, of rancor--and then she commands them to leave her in the name of Jesus Christ.  When she does this, her countenance changes immediately. She feels great relief, and is once again in control of herself and her actions.

Another blogger I know of, Tamara Laing, writes about "chasing darkness," and how it has helped her daughter.  Her Mental Health First Aid page talks specifically of this, and contains helpful tools she has used to help her family members (it also describes some of the other tools that have been helpful to me and my family).  Her book, Healing Arts, has been especially helpful to me in understanding energy healing from an LDS perspective. Get more information about Tamara's book here.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Moving Forward with an Eye of Faith

I've always had a bit of a tendency to worry.  I remember in high school going to my mom in tears, spilling all of my worries to her about how overwhelmed I felt by what was required of me (I also had a tendency to feel overwhelmed), and she would gently talk me down from my hysteria, helping me to identify the things that really needed my attention at that time, and setting aside the things that were either out of my control, or so far in the future that they didn't matter in the moment.  I needed to eliminate the distracting and worrisome thoughts of the future, and focus on what I could do in the here and now.

Years later, I found myself swept up in watching FOX News (because that is fair and unbiased, right?), born out of my good desire to be informed and a good citizen.  I liked a few of the news programs, and wanted to keep watching, but they got me all riled up about the state of the world, and I didn't like that feeling.  The more I continued to watch, the more I felt the Lord teach me gently that I didn't need to worry about those things.  They may be true, they may be important to be aware of, and they may even be important for some people to worry about, but they were not the things that I should devote particular attention to.  I had other things I needed to focus on.

And then came the end of the world.  Well, a lot of people predicted that the end of the world  would happen on a certain day or week.  But I'm still here, and so are they.  The important thing I learned from that experience related to what happened before that day came and passed.  There was a great increase of posts on my Facebook newsfeed about prepper sites and food storage.  I have always been interested in emergency preparedness.  I am CERT certified.  I have had varying amounts of food storage in my pantry ever since I was a newlywed, and have recently felt very under-prepared in that category.  And since it has long been the counsel of our prophets to have a year's worth of storage, well, I felt that I wasn't obeying the Lord's counsel.  

I remember starting to get caught up in the prepper craze, reading blogs, reading predictions, and then expressing my concerns to the Lord in prayer.  "I don't even have food storage!" I lamented.  The answer that came was powerful, "I will give you food storage, but you MUST learn this lesson now!"

It brought me up short.  I knew I was in the midst of some serious learning.  I knew it was important. But it was at that time that I realized I had been distracted.  And because of the distraction, I was unaware of HOW important that learning really was.

The thing is, the adversary knew how important my lesson was.  And if he could distract me with worries and fears about coming events--real or pretended--then my essential spiritual learning could potentially be cut short.  And if that were cut short, I would be less effective in the battle being waged against good and evil.  I would be less effective in teaching my children those things that are of CRITICAL importance for them to not just know, but to understand, practice, and KNOW with every fiber of their being.  I would be less prepared to serve my Heavenly Father's children.

The world is full of distractions.  And the adversary is good at using them.  There are some people that (I believe) the adversary knows he will never be able to persuade to commit grievous sins.  But if he can DISTRACT them?  Just as good.  And what are some of those distractions?  Uncertainty. Worry. Fear.  Doubt. Questions.  Anxiety.  Depression.  Keeping up with the Jonses.  Overwhelm. Inadequacy.  If he can keep righteous, covenant-keeping men and women focused on those things rather than on the power available to them through our Savior, Jesus Christ, then our effectiveness in the battle will be reduced.  

One of my favorite stories in the Book of Mormon is that of the Stripling Warriors, found in Alma chapters 56 and 57.  In chapter 57 verse 46, this band of young men says to Helaman, their leader, "Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth."

What optimism!  What faith!  Can you imagine the difference in the outcome of those key battles if these faithful young men had been distracted by doubt?  About their inexperience in battle?  About their lack of physical strength against well-seasoned soldiers?  (I have a tendency to believe that they were not all as buff as the picture suggests). But distracted they were not.  Alma 57:27 tells us, "Their...minds [were] firm, and they [did] put their trust in God continually." They knew where to put their focus.

I have also been recently reminded of the optimism of our prophets, and how they encourage us to be optimistic as well.  Is it because they live in a bubble, out-of-touch and unaware?  I am here to tell you, kids, they know.  They know far more than you or I understand. That doesn't mean they know everything in detail, or that they know now everything that they will know in the future. But a lot of what they know is not taught, because it is not the time for the church as a body to know these things yet.  That also doesn't mean that the members of the church are not being taught by the Lord. Many of our good brothers and sisters are catching glimpses of what the future holds, and how their gifts will be used to bless Heavenly Father's children.  In fact, in recent General Conference talks we have been counseled to up our game and seek this kind of personal revelation.  We are being taught to take our spiritual learning to a higher level.

I watched this devotional address from Sheri Dew yesterday.  She has long been one of my all-time favorite speakers.  Her talk had such an impression on me that I want to watch it again and again, because there is so much good and important information there.    You can watch it here (and I HIGHLY recommend you do!).

Our world is changing at a rapid rate.  The question is not whether we can keep up with the newest technology, or with the demand for STEM knowledge, or with the rate of inflation.  The real question is whether or not we can keep up spiritually with what is required of us, and with the blessings the Lord is ready to pour out upon us.  And that is much easier if we recognize the distractions, and let the Lord guide our focus.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Parable of the Tiny X

I enjoy cross stitching.  Sort of.  Actually, I enjoy the end result of cross stitching.  Sometimes I enjoy the process.  I certainly enjoy picking out the patterns, the fabrics, the threads.  And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of hanging a beautifully framed, completed piece on the wall for all to enjoy.  But in between all the fun stuff, there is the pesky problem of the actual stitching.

It’s not difficult.  In fact, it’s really quite easy.  Needle up, needle down, needle up, needle down, and a tiny little x is created.  Repeat.  A lot.  And there you go.  Project complete. 

It is the repeat a lot part that tends to get me down.  Sometimes it’s soothing.  Sometimes it makes me feel more centered to focus my efforts on this gentle art.  Until I have to unpick some misplaced stitches.  Or until I get bored.  Sometimes the piece I’m working on takes so long to finish that the promise of the finished piece is not enough of a motivator for me to keep going.  Then I put it away, sometimes for years.  Every once in a great while I’ll pull out my unfinished projects and see what I have started to create.  I recall the vision of what I had intended when I began such a project, and I begin again.

 I’m in the more positive part of the cross stitch cycle.  I found some patterns that I loved, and they were small enough to keep the motivation high, so I’ve actually completed them.  As I sat stitching these projects making tiny x after tiny x after tiny x, the similarities to building a testimony snuck into my consciousness. 

On its own, a tiny x is insignificant.  But in a completed project, every tiny x is important.  Every tiny x works to create a beautiful piece of art.  A larger x randomly placed in the pattern will never accomplish the same effect as repeating the tiny x’s over and over and over.

In building a testimony, every small spiritual act is important.  Every prayer adds to it.  Every verse of scripture that is pondered and internalized adds to it.  Just as a larger x in cross stitch cannot compensate for dozens of tiny x’s, in building a testimony, great but inconsistent efforts will never produce the same result as days, weeks, and months of consistently praying, studying, and serving, even if the number of pages read or the number of hours in prayer is less than the great and mighty effort. 

As my daughters have entered the Young Women program, I have taken the opportunity to work on Personal Progress goals with them.  A few years ago I completed the first value experience for faith, and wrote about it here and here.  Somehow, I was unsatisfied with it, and decided recently to try again.  This time, I made myself pray every morning and night, regardless of how tired I was.  When I missed morning prayers because of my five little distractions running around, I knelt down as soon as I remembered.  I changed my habits.  The quality of my prayers was not always stellar.  Sometimes it felt a little like I was just going through the motions, but I was sincerely trying to make a positive change, and most of my prayers were very heartfelt.  I also prayed more during the day, at times when I was struggling.  And I noticed a difference.  I noticed that my previous experience of less frequent, more “perfect” prayers was not as spiritually refining as less perfect prayers with more focused frequency.  I discovered what the purpose of that value experience was—to actually develop faith, and to USE that faith as a power to change my life.  That kind of faith didn’t—couldn’t—come with random grand efforts (although I know that God hears and answers EVERY prayer).  There was a very real power in making more consistent, albeit imperfect, efforts. 

We are living in a time when we NEED the very real protection that comes from personal spiritual habits.  The more consistent our efforts, the greater the power and protection these habits can provide, even if our efforts are less than perfect. 

I have a lot of links throughout the blog leading to other blogs with articles that I’ve really enjoyed and that have changed my perspective.  Here’s one more. 
And a follow-up article by the same author:

I love that there are so many people increasing their spiritual learning and their capacity to follow the promptings of the Spirit.  We are here to learn from each other and to help each other.  I hope my small insights are enough to give someone hope.  The Lord knows and loves YOU!  As I was reminded yesterday in our stake conference, “Keep going.  You’re doing better than you think you are!”