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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halfway through divinity school

Well friends, I haven’t kept this blog updated so–as you will notice if you scroll down–I just posted a bunch of excerpts from letters (emails) I’ve written friends and families over the last few months. I don’t know why I didn’t think to post these earlier! It’s so easy since I already wrote these updates to simply add them to the blog.

Updates in a nutshell:

1.5 YEARS

into my master’s degree now. Early on in the program I decided to pursue chaplaincy and switch to the master of divinity (MDiv) degree, which is a three-year program. At some points in life things have just felt so right that I know they can’t be wrong, and that’s how it was when I made the switch from the master of theological studies to the MDiv. I changed programs and never looked back.

CLASSES

started a few weeks ago. I’m taking “Archaeology of the New Testament” taught by Laura Nasrallah, which includes a trip to Greece and Turkey in May and is funded by scholarship. I AM SO EXCITED! Prof. Nasrallah is brilliant and inspiring in so many ways. I wish I would have discovered her earlier in my program. I’m also taking Intro to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament part II with Professor Andrew Teeter, which is a blast. Class with Prof. Teeter is always entertaining: he gets so excited while teaching that he runs out of time because he has so much to say; he uses different colored markers to draw rapidly on the white board; he wears cool bow ties; he plays video clips; he uses funny analogies that help you remember things; he gives straightforward study guides before exams. What more could you ask for in a teacher? Other than those two classes I’m continuing with two year-long courses: “Religions and the Practice of Peace” and “Meaning Making” which is a required course for MDiv students and is theological reflection about your field education (internship) during the academic school year.

CORNELL WEST

is back at Harvard! With Roberto Unger, he’s teaching “American Democracy” which is cross-registered as both a divinity and a law school class. In the first class of the semester, the room was so full people were sitting on the floor around the desk where West and Unger were teaching, and people were standing up around all the entrances. I had a front row seat. 🙂 That lecture was moving. The lectures are filmed. Check out this first one here.

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HOCKEY

is so fun to watch. Waldir and I, along with some friends, recently went to a Harvard women’s hockey game against Cornell. If you’ve never been to a hockey game you should sometime–it’s a blast! Also Waldir and I went to see Harvard vs. Brown women’s basketball last weekend and that was fun, too.

a BLIZZARD 

came last Thursday. Some classes were canceled. More snow on Sunday and church was canceled!

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Walking home in the blizzard–brrr
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Post blizzard. The Charles River is beautiful this time of year–sorry for my cellphone snapshot, which doesn’t do it justice. Also my hands were freezing.
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I cross this bridge every day on the way to school and I just love it. Love the Charles River!

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.

Pain

November 2016

I’ve had chronic neck pain the past five years. In 2014, I canceled a summer internship to Mexico because of my neck pain, got an MRI, and found out I have a herniated disc and my neck is straight rather than having a healthy curve. I was supposed to get a cortisone injection to alleviate pain, but the doctor didn’t go through with it, because he said my blood vessels blocked the way. I started physical therapy, met Waldir, got married, moved to Boston for grad school. In the past two years, though, my neck has been in intense pain. Even though I’ve done PT, it hasn’t gotten better. A few weeks ago, before midterms, my neck muscles seized up and I immediately lost movement—I couldn’t look to the right or to the left. Muscle spasms continued for days, I had to stop PT, and I met with a spine specialist and got another MRI. The results are the same: herniated disc w/ straight neck.

This time, however, I went in for a cortisone shot at Massachusetts General Hospital and the doctor did a great job, and my pain immediately went away and my muscles relaxed. That was 9 days ago. The left side of my neck felt so good afterward that I requested another injection on the right side, which I had 2 days ago. I’m grateful to have some relief! It’s a miracle! I can only have 3 injections per year, though, and I definitely don’t want to come dependent upon those. Unfortunately the left side of my neck is already having tension again, so I’m diligently applying ice and then heat and doing gentle stretches every day. I also began seeing a chiropractor here who works on Harvard athletes.

Constant, intense pain wears on a person so much, and it’s required me to depend on the Lord. He has carried me. Even with all this pain, before I had any relief, He helped me focus and study for midterm exams. I got As, and that was because of Him. I studied hard and fasted and prayed for help and attended the temple. I have seen and felt Him work through me and carry me. Waldir has also been a constant rock of support, giving me blessings in the night when I can’t sleep and when I cry in pain, asking about my pain, listening to me, praying for me, taking me to doctor’s appointments for not only the neck issue but also other things (if I didn’t know myself, I’d think I were a hypochondriac).

Leymah Gbowee

leymahOctober 2016

This week I had the incredible privilege to attend workshops and hear speeches at HDS by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women to demand peace during Liberia’s long and devastating civil war. After Gbowee heard a voice tell her in a dream to bring women together to pray for peace, she went on to play a major role in helping end her country’s conflict in 2003. I can’t do justice to Gbowee’s powerful presence. Leymah’s influence lit a passion inside me to stand for sisterhood. This may sound strange, but in the past I didn’t spend much time thinking specifically about the power of sisterhood. And I hadn’t considered the power of uniting women to demand men to stop torturing, massacring, and raping fellow women and children. Leymah planted seeds in my mind and she buoyed me up and empowered me as she led me to further consider my identity and influence as a woman. She reminds me of President Nelson’s October 2015 General Conference Address, A Plea to My Sisters: “We, your brethren, need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices. The kingdom of God is not and cannot be complete without women who make sacred covenants and then keep them, women who can speak with the power and authority of God!” Nelson then quoted President Packer: “We need women who are organized and women who can organize. We need women with executive ability who can plan and direct and administer; women who can teach, women who can speak out…We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that, however popular, are shallow or dangerous.” Then Nelson adds that we need “women who know how to call upon the powers of heaven to protect and strengthen children and families; women who teach fearlessly.” Leymah is one of those women. She risked her life to protect children and families; she taught and today continues to teach fearlessly and to boldly testify of God.

As I prepared for Leymah’s visit, I watched a short documentary about her movement (Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and also read her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers. (I highly recommend both of these, especially her memoir. Heads up, though: the book is full of war descriptions, including explicit language and sexual violence.) While I was preparing for Leymah’s visit by learning about her life, at some point I felt like I should give her a Book of Mormon. I decided to bring the book with me to school and write a message in it for Leymah. I started praying to have the chance to hand her the book as a gift. When someone famous comes to campus, it’s a high demand event with lots of people, and I anticipated it might be difficult for me to have a chance to interact with Leymah. On Wednesday when she came and gave a special workshop for students in the Religions and Practice of Peace course, I just so happened to get a seat in the front, as close as possible to Leymah. She even came up and put her hand on my shoulder and asked me a question during her workshop (“What keeps you up at night?” she asked. She was teaching us the importance of doing what we are passionately called to do—the thing that keeps us up at night). Immediately after the workshop, though, before I had a chance to approach her, she was whisked away. By then I was even more excited about Leymah’s work than when I went into the workshop, because she was such a thrilling speaker and gifted story-teller, and so passionate and bold.

After hearing her story in person, and having her as a teacher for a few hours, I loved her even more than I thought I would! She is a true soul sister; I even said to myself and wrote in my journal, “I think I knew her before this life.” I felt like she is a soul very close to my soul. The Lord answered my prayers; after the second (and final) workshop of the day, I managed to get a quick photo with Leymah before she was called for a group photo. Then as she quickly made her way to exit the room with an escort (before people could grab her for individual photos), I ran up behind her and handed her the Book of Mormon. Definitely not the most graceful moment of my life—I practically shoved the book into her hands (just kidding, but it was definitely a quick move!). I hope she opens it and reads the note I wrote. Most importantly, I hope she reads the book! In my note, I thanked her for her life and for testifying of Christ. I told her that the book teaches about peace.