Our Strength and Refuge

Two weeks ago I gave a sermon at noon service, a weekly interfaith gathering at HDS, which I hosted with two other Mormon students. We are a small group this year and I’m missing my three friends who graduated last year (they did the two-year MTS degree and I’m doing the three-year MDiv degree) as well as a friend who left HDS to take a job for the church. But it was a beautiful service. The choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” Natalie gave the welcome and scripture reading, I gave my sermon, we (the congregation) sang “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” and then Zach gave a moving sermon on forgiveness. We closed with “All Creatures of Our God and King,” followed by one of the most sincere and holy prayers I’ve heard, given by my beloved academic adviser and mentor, David Holland.

My only regret is we didn’t get a picture together after the service. Ah, well. Here I am in the beautiful Andover chapel.

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I cherished being in this space with loved ones. Many friends at HDS, of varying religious and non-religious backgrounds, came to support me. They prayed for me or sent good vibes. Some of my friends from my church congregation came, too. Being in this safe space–being able to share my faith with friends who feel like family–means everything.

Here’s the transcript of my sermon (or, as Mormons say, my “talk”):

Our Strength and Refuge

A few weeks ago I woke up at 3 a.m. in pain with a health issue that caused surgery in the past, and I worried I’d soon be back in the hospital, undergoing another surgery. To distract myself, I decided to read the news—which is probably the worst thing I could have done. I learned about the Equifax breach and that an earthquake had just hit Mexico, a place I love dearly and where nearly all of my in-laws live. Meanwhile, Irma had left a path of destruction and was on its way to Florida, the home of many loved ones and where I spent a year and a half of my life as a Mormon missionary. A cousin had died a few days prior in a car accident. Harvey had left its devastation. Meanwhile, racism and expressions of hatred abound in the world, along with politicians who divide and ban rather than unite and welcome in loving arms.

I didn’t know that soon there would be more earthquakes, another hurricane, and more shootings, including a shooting at a church.

As I sat in pain in the dark in my living room reading this news at 3 a.m., I felt struck by the limits of mortality and the immense suffering of people throughout the world. I thought of the war, famine, disasters, and hatred that devastate the lives of millions of people and touch us all as a human family.

My question today for us as a congregation and as students, staff, and faculty at the remarkable institution of HDS is: How do we find a place where we’re not overwhelmed by suffering but rather propelled and energized to fulfill our vocation?

Trauma has always existed but we feel it weigh on us like never before. Personal and collective trauma continue to build as we populate the world and became more interconnected. Because of access to each other and to information across the world, the trauma can be in our face all the time. I could be reading about it, even watching footage of it, on my smartphone 24/7. In this period of human history marked by connection, my thought today is that we must find time to disconnect from the noise and to recharge—to elevate our sights in order to receive inspiration for how we can best respond to suffering, both in ourselves and in others.

When I say disconnect and elevate our sights, I don’t mean we ignore needs. On the contrary, taking time to look up enables us to better serve because when we access righteous powers bigger than ourselves, we become the best version of ourselves and find strength to do things we haven’t previously had the strength to do.

How can we elevate our sight to do this? Consider this personally for you. If something comes to mind, jot it down. What are your sources of comfort, strength, and refuge? What do you do to disconnect from harsh noise, to make space for subtle quiet spiritual workings in yourself? To find yourself? To remember who you are? To see your potential? When things feel impossible and too big, go back to those sources.

Some of my own sources of comfort, strength, and refuge are prayer, meditation, practicing yoga, reading scripture, holding a child in my arms, journaling, walking in nature, worshiping in sacred temples. These practices connect me to Heavenly Sources. Making this space allows me to commune with God, to feel the perfect, unconditional love of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit—even to feel the love of ancestors who have gone before me and faced immense difficulty—and to feel the love of angels who surround me today, some of whom are in this room.

Who are your angels? Who ministers to you?

You have a unique calling in life that only you can fulfill. You are needed. Your passion is needed, your talents, your skills, your strengths—and even your weaknesses. The good news is: God promises that weaknesses can be made strong. In the Book of Mormon, Jesus tells a prophet:

“If men and women come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto [them] weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all…that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27).

All of your experiences, everything that makes you the person you are, gives you a particular skill set that is needed. You serve the world in ways that other people can’t.

The problems for you to address will always be here—there will always be a need for you to address. We all have work to do. That is why we must protect a portion of our time to do what we often refer to at HDS as self-care—to fill our own cup. To be healthy both spiritually and physically so we can answer our callings in life.

We are not alone on our journey—not alone in our relationships, in our studies, in our work, in our joy and in our pain. The Lord promises: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18).

Wise words in Psalm 46 and Psalm 9 read:  “We will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake … The Lord . . . will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.” (Psalms 46:1–3; 9:9)

And as Natalie read from the Book of Mormon: “Remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds…his shafts in the whirlwind…when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down…because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men [and women] build they cannot fall” (Helaman 5:12).

The mighty winds and storms will prevail around us. But we can be rooted, we can stand on the rock of the Redeemer. And with this foundation, we have a promise that we cannot fall.

When our service is centered, refreshed and motivated by Divine love—and when our efforts are magnified, carried, and given by grace—we see through new eyes. We see people and situations differently. We see ourselves differently. Our work is infused with innovation, humility, energy, charity, patience, and forgiveness—not just forgiveness of others but forgiveness of ourselves and our own weaknesses as human beings. We can be sustained and held up by loving hands—hands that know our worth, goodness, light, divinity and ability.

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Paris temple

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Waldir and I were in France just a few days after the dedication/opening of the Paris temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s the 156th LDS temple in the world and the first in France. Worshiping here was a highlight of our trip!

I love the presence of temples and always feel at peace when I’m visiting one. Once Waldir and I got to the Paris temple and started walking around, even before we went inside, I could feel the presence of the Spirit.

Visiting the Paris temple felt extra special because Parisians kept telling us how thankful they are to have a temple close to where they live. I could feel people’s gratitude and see it on their faces. Before having a temple close by, they traveled to Germany to attend the nearest temple.

For Mormons, temples are the holiest place on Earth. We believe that temples are necessary today as they were in ancient Israel. In our temples, we make covenants and perform ordinances, find space for peaceful reflection, find comfort and strength. The temple centers our mind and heart on Jesus Christ.

To respect the reverence of these worship spaces, we don’t take pictures inside temples after they’re dedicated, but here are some pictures of the Paris temple taken before dedication.

water aerobics

January 29, 2017

Before heading back to Boston, I visited my aunt and uncle in Florida. One of my favorite moments happened during a water aerobics class with A. Kelly (which we didn’t think would be much of a workout but it turned out to be both a workout and entertainment): While kicking around in circles on a ball, I got an episode of the giggles, couldn’t stop laughing, tipped off my ball, and swallowed some water. The older, more experienced ladies liked to show me how to do moves correctly, which also gave me the giggles. If you ever get the chance, go to water aerobics in a retirement park in Florida; you won’t be disappointed (unless you’re a grumpy person and/or embarrassed of looking silly).

On this trip I LOVED driving out to the tiny rural towns of Sebring and Avon Park to visit some friends from my mission. Waldir joined us for the weekend and on Saturday we celebrated his birthday by going to the beach and meeting up with friends. After the beach, A. Kelly & U. George cooked a special birthday dinner for Waldir, we had flan for dessert, and then Waldir opened presents. Sunday, Waldir and I went to church and visited more mission friends. It’s a blessing to still be connected to many people from my mission. As I showed Waldir around places where I spent so many days knocking doors, I felt so much love. Driving by all those orange groves in the beautiful Florida countryside had me waxing nostalgic. I truly loved my mission and I love the people I met. I wish I could go back and live one of those days again.

the duck at zumba

January 3, 2017

Hello and Happy New Year! Highlights of the last week of 2016:

-Visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan with in-laws.

-Visiting a neighbor’s cat, Coco, whom I love dearly. He’s white with one hazel eye and one blue eye. I met Coco after the neighbor rescued him from the street a year ago. He sleeps on the roof of the house and I like to go find him in the mornings to say hello. He can’t jump from the roof to the street because it’s too high, so I hold up my arms toward the roof, he crawls down my arms, greeting me with a kiss on the nose, and purrs as I hold him. After a few minutes, I hold my arms back up toward the roof and he goes back to his spot.

-Attending the Mexico City temple with Waldir and feeling an outpouring of love and gratitude for Jesus Christ.

-Attending El Rey León (the Lion King) musical in Mexico City. We found a deal for tickets and although we didn’t get to sit together, we were in the 5th row! I loved that I could see the details of the costumes and the facial expressions of the actors. The Lion King speaks to my soul, and I was so happy to be seeing the musical that I cried a little during the opening number (I was definitely having a spiritual moment). I loved the performance, and so did Waldir! Plus it was fantastic to hear it in Spanish.

-The Flores side of the family rang in the new year with a BANG. But the New Year’s Eve party only went until 4 a.m. (not 6 a.m. like last year). Around 11:30 p.m. I decided to take a nap but by the time I got up at 2:00 a.m. ready to party, the rest of the crew was winding down. Waldir and I danced salsa and bachata for a few songs but he was exhausted. By 3:30 a.m. the entire family was slumping or sleeping on couches and chairs.

-Speaking of dancing: this morning, my mom-in-law, sister-in-law, and I went to the local park and joined an outdoor Zumba class, which was a blast even though I couldn’t keep up (the instructor started filming us live-stream on facebook and I was not happy—people who saw that gringa in the back must have thought, “What is she doing?” The answer is: I don’t know). Anyway, funny story: Throughout this class there was a duck hanging out right by the speaker. He just sat there and enjoyed the music, I guess. Periodically throughout the class, the instructor used an ipad to change the song. At the end of the class the instructor picked up the ipad to choose a slow song for us to cool down; he set the ipad back down and started dancing, and we followed. Suddenly as we started dancing to this song, the music changed—we looked toward the speaker where the duck was, and low and behold: that duck was pecking the ipad and CHANGING THE MUSIC! Apparently he was content with a faster song by Shakira. He moved his wings as if he were dancing, then turned around to watch us finish our class! I wouldn’t believe it if I weren’t there. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in my life.

Here’s to 2017! I’ll take as many cute cats and ducks and happy musicals as I can get this year.

Listen

December 18, 2016

Greetings from Mexico! Waldir and I are on a plane.

The weekend before my last final exam, by Saturday night, I hadn’t achieved what I had planned to achieve on my to-do list, and there wasn’t enough time to do everything I felt I needed to do (mainly, study for my last exam). I had planned to go to the temple Saturday because earlier in the week I felt I needed temple blessings of spiritual protection and guidance, and Saturday night would be the only time available to go. But as I was running out of time that night, I felt an urgent need to study for this exam. I thought, “The Lord understands that doing well on this exam is urgent for me right now.” So I kneeled to pray and told Him I decided not to go to the temple because it made sense at this time not to go. I thought about how I can go to the temple throughout my life but I only had one shot to do well on this exam and only a few hours to study. So I got up and started cooking dinner, in a hurry to finally sit down and study for my exam.

When I finished dinner, though, I knew I had made the wrong decision. I looked at the clock and realized I’d probably miss the last temple session (7 pm), but I decided to try to catch it. I ran out the door. Miraculously, I made it to the session. I don’t remember anything particularly special about the temple that night except the fact that I felt right knowing I did what I felt was the right thing to do. It didn’t feel easy prioritizing the temple at that moment, but it felt right. I squeezed some study time in early Monday morning and took my final exam in the afternoon, and the Lord helped me. I can’t imagine the exam having gone any better. This is not to say that I didn’t prepare; I’d been doing the work in that class throughout the semester, and then, when time was short at the end of the semester, as I studied Monday morning, I felt the Spirit’s enlightenment giving me motivation to stay focused and helping me remember material.

By listening to the Spirit and by being diligent in seemingly small ways, our work is blessed. We do everything better, and things come together.

I started the semester wondering how and if things would work out—and I thought I might need to drop a class—but it worked. Things haven’t miraculously become easy but I’ve learned how to stay steady during the ups and downs. My own weaknesses have been front and center for me this semester, but as cliché as it sounds, I grew immensely because of recent challenges. And looking back, I wouldn’t change it because I learned (painful but important) lessons.

God blessed me in ways I can see already and also in ways I can’t now comprehend but one day will see more clearly. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I look forward to that future day of knowing, and I’m grateful that today we can know and see clearer as we look to the Light. Merry Christmas!

Protecting the vulnerable

December 2016

Last night at a Religions and the Practice of Peace Colloquium, I listened to a panel on protecting children, specifically Syrian refugees. I heard from a respondent who has been working in refugee camps for many years as a child trauma therapist. I heard statistics and eye-witness reports about the state of Syria and also camps in Greece and in other countries. There is a gross deficit in political commitment to protect children in refugee camps, who are prostituting themselves in the open (in daylight) to earn money for food; forming gangs; going out to work in fields as young as four years old; being sold into slavery; and being forced into child marriage. One specialist told us: “We’re in this situation because we haven’t been politically committed to meeting standards already established” for child protection. The world knows better. Yet here we are.

Of course this is not just a Syrian problem. In the world there are 31 million children living outside their country of birth and 11 million of those are refugees. That’s a 1 to 3 ratio. The ratio for adults is 1 in 20. 45% of child refugees at this moment come from Syria or Afghanistan. Yet internally displaced children are even more at risk than those who managed to flee their country. This is a massive issue not only in Syria but also across Africa and Central America (I’m ashamed of the U.S.’s treatment of the refugees at our door).

One speaker reminded us that “the obligation to generate hope rests with all of us.” She spoke of the “hope that comes from religious faith and a sense of viable future.”

This panel got me thinking about what I can do to work smarter and to be better. What can I do to make the best use of the resources God has given me? How can I alleviate suffering in my sphere of influence? Am I willing, and am I preparing myself, to go where God will ask me to go? These are questions worth coming back to again and again.

election night

November 2016

Ironically, I was with the HDS Muslims (and some other Muslims from around the community) on the night of the election, and it was painful. The past week at school has been even more painful. We’ve been going through stages of grieving. Shock turned to rage turned to deep sadness. I cried in two of my classes—not just a few tears, like, streaming-down-my-face kind of tears. Professors cried. For days, I couldn’t sleep at night…crashed around 4 a.m. to sleep for a few hours.

I’m surprised that the results of this election have been so visceral, raw, and—well, bodily. Post-election discussions at Harvard have addressed the election as a traumatic event, and I really do feel that there’s a lot of community trauma right now.

One of my Muslim friends, who is a first-year student at HDS, has family members in Michigan who have been threatened; as she kept getting phone calls from her mom about these threats last week, she asked her mom what to do. My friend was wondering if she should go home and be with family. Her mom chastised her, told her to get up off the ground (figuratively), and get to work. This response was heartening, full of energy and life. She told her daughter, “Your father and I didn’t immigrate to America for you to quit…”

And so, a fire has been lit—or rekindled—in many of us.