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.

Chaplaincy for LDS Women

November 2016

Since I’ve been in survival mode, I’m slowing down and reevaluating my life’s direction. Rather than move forward with a summer internship in air force chaplaincy, I’m going to take this upcoming summer off. This was a hard decision to make because I love to work and I want to get all the experience I can, but I need to do this. Maybe pain is the only thing that could slow me down because I was pushing too hard and wouldn’t listen otherwise. I don’t know. I try not to make meaning of the pain—to figure out why—but I can’t help wonder what I’m supposed to learn from this. I want to wisely listen to the Spirit and to my body. Throughout my life I’ve ignored pain signals and other issues in my body and have just had a lot of anxiety held in there. So I’m working on looking into that and listening on a different level. This requires a mindful slowing-down process.

However, over the last few months I’ve been in touch with some people in Salt Lake about my request for the LDS Church to endorse female chaplains in the military. A few weeks ago I had a second phone conversation with the director of military relations and chaplaincy for the LDS Church, and also his colleague. These men were kind and we were on the phone for over an hour. I could tell they care, which means a lot to me. They did, in their September committee meeting, bring up my question of endorsing women for military chaplaincy. The committee still recommended “no” in their report to Elder Holland (because of the issue of a non-priesthood holder chaplain getting deployed). However, the director told me that things may change in the future, and that this is a historic moment because I’m the first LDS woman enrolled in divinity school, officially qualified to do chaplaincy, who has made the request. A woman requested it before but she wasn’t in divinity school so it wasn’t a possibility. It might seem hard to imagine it taking this long for a female Latter-day Saint pursuing chaplaincy to make this request—but then again, there are not many female LDS chaplains and the Church only started endorsing women for other chaplaincy roles a few years ago.

I was persistent in the conversation. The director encouraged me to write a letter to Elder Holland requesting a policy change that would endorse women for service in military chaplaincy. I haven’t had time to write that letter yet, and now because of my health, military chaplaincy isn’t looking like an option (at least not immediately), but I still plan to write the letter because I think it will benefit my sisters in the Church.

Leymah Gbowee

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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.

Chaplaincy, and a cyst

July 31, 2016

Friday I completed my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, nearly finishing my summer chaplaincy internship at Saint Vincent Hospital! I’ve got a bit of time to make up. After my surgery, I missed 6 days of work. I’ll make the time up in August. My supervisor’s been merciful with this health bump of mine and I’m grateful that I was able to receive my level 1 CPE certificate even with the unexpected obstacle. Back in May, the morning of the first day of my internship, I had severe pain in my lower left abdominal area. I made it through work and then went to a doctor who advised me to go to the ER, so off I went. I drove myself since Waldir was out of town. Ultrasounds showed that I had a large ovarian cyst (over 5 centimeters). Cysts bigger than 4 cm can cause the ovary to “torse” (twist) around itself and block blood flow; that’s a medical emergency and needs to be taken care of surgically in order to save the ovary. By the time I finally saw the gynecologist that night, though, I felt better. She said the ovary was likely on the verge of torsing but the cyst probably moved, which is why I felt better. She decided not to do surgery because usually the body takes care of cysts by itself. After that day I started feeling better and thought the cyst was disappearing.

But on the eve of July 12, a sudden pain wave caused me to cry out. Not wanting another hospital bill, I stuck it out an hour and a half, thinking I’d be fine. Waldir gave me a priesthood blessing for healing; in the blessing I was promised that although the pain would not leave, there wouldn’t be permanent damage. After the blessing and a prayer, I knew I needed to go to the ER. I vomited on the way out (but made it to the toilet!). I finally went into surgery around 5 a.m. the next morning. During that time, the pain didn’t let up, even after two doses of morphine and a dose of dilaudid. Finally my nurse gave me more dilaudid and I relaxed, but by then I was about to go in for surgery. When I came out of it, one of the doctors told me they saved the ovary! I wasn’t surprised (because of the blessing), but I was grateful. I’m always emotional coming out of anesthesia, and I cried tears of joy. The ovary was twisted around itself, along with the fallopian tube, not once but twice. But once the doctors untwisted it, blood flow came back immediately.

I’m nearly all recovered now and feeling much better! Thankfully, Waldir was home to take care of me—huge blessing. Recovery was a setback but it didn’t ruin much; I still “graduated” with the other CPE students on Friday; yesterday I still got to throw the baby shower a friend and I planned for another good friend; and I will still get to go to girls camp this Tuesday-Saturday, which is good since it’s stake camp (girls from multiple congregations come together to attend) and there aren’t many leaders. I’m one of the four leaders assigned to the 1st-year campers. There are 33 of them. I was thinking this would be easy (because 12-year-olds will love you, right?). 

In other news: Waldir and I went to the temple yesterday and accidentally ended up in a Portuguese group, which was FUN! I loved it.

Today in church, Waldir made a special appearance in the primary (children’s class) as David from the David/Goliath story. He came out of a “time machine” and told the kids how his faith in the Lord helped him defeat Goliath. 🙂

Veganism Keeps Coming Back to Me

When I was growing up, my mom only cooked meat on special occasions. She’d been a vegetarian earlier in her life. In high school, after my friend Molly introduced me to The China Study, I decided to commit to vegetarianism for ethical reasons. Vegetarianism wasn’t hard for me since I didn’t like eating meat anyway. In college, I had a brief stint as a vegan and eventually abandoned the effort because I felt awful. I had put myself on a highly restrictive weight loss diet (I’d been obsessed with losing weight since age 13, after I began menstruating and my previously skinny body became extremely curvy within just a few months). Now, of course, I realize the reason I felt sick as a vegan was because I wasn’t eating enough. After stints of not eating much at all, I’d binge and eat sugary junk like Reese’s Puff cereal–a product that’s technically vegan (no animal products in there) but certainly isn’t healthy. After that miserable phase, I convinced myself I couldn’t be vegan. Eventually I convinced myself that vegetarianism wasn’t working for me either. It was easier to eat chicken once in a while and feel full than to expend the effort and money needed to buy, prepare, and consume enough quality foods in my diet.

But over the past few years, vegetarianism–and now veganism–keep coming back to me. I try to deny it; I’ve even recently told people (I’m pretty sure I said this last week): “I eat meat now.” I’ve felt relieved saying that, because in some ways, the declaration makes me feel like I fit in better. I’ve told myself that I definitely can’t be vegan because it will be difficult socially–what will I tell my family and friends?

I don’t want to make excuses any longer. I can’t push away the ethical implications that keep coming to mind when I think about human consumption of animals. I can’t ignore the feeling I had two weeks ago in the grocery store, walking along the meat isle toward the produce section and then veering my cart away from the sight and smell of flesh. I thought, “I’m walking around in here with dead creatures sealed in packages in the fridge. How is this ‘normal‘?

I’m no longer obsessed with losing weight (that’s a post for another day. I’m grateful God helped heal my attitude toward myself). But I am seriously considering what I consume and what that means. The more I think about the miracle of life, about people, about animals, about our planet, and about God, the more I want to live deliberately. I want to take responsibility for my lifestyle not only for myself but also for the planet and the species with whom I share Earth. After I die, I don’t want to face the Creator and tell Him that, while living on Earth, I consumed thoughtlessly, purposelessly. I don’t want to support industries that verbally and physically abuse, and kill, God’s creations. I don’t want to support that form of violence.

Coming to this conclusion has taken a long time, research, prayer, thought, and struggle–and a lot of food experimentation (including juice fasting–the two weeks of my life I felt more spiritually enlightened, more closer to God, and more connected with the Earth and with other beings than ever). I’ve been inspired by books, by documentaries like Food Inc., and by people like “Fully Raw” KristinaPaul and Yulia Tarbath, and a BYU professor and her husband who told me why they decided to quit eating animals. But what finally woke me up–what finally led me to choose to quit making excuses–came because of this short video from Ellen DeGeneres.

After forcing herself to watch the film Earthlings, Ellen said, “It’s inside footage of factory farms and dairy forms. You just see that and you go, I can’t participate in that.” Ellen’s commentary got me curious, so I googled “Earthlings” and then, I forced myself to watch the violence. I cringed, cried, covered my eyes. The thoughts and feelings I’ve had about animals over the past few years of my life culminated in a moment of overwhelming sadness. Forcing myself to watch the grotesque footage from hidden cameras–a real life horror film–I, like Ellen, came to the conclusion: “I can’t participate in that.”

The question of what species do to each other is not merely a question of ecology. Of course it’s about ecology–but I also believe ecology is inseparable from theology. As a Mormon who who believes that animals have souls, I commit to better respect the inherent value in all creatures. In an effort to live a more compassionate life, I commit to veganism.


 

Mormon teachings on the treatment of animals: this 1972 article. 

Interpretation of the “Word of Wisdom,” a revelation on health and wellness taught by Joseph Smith: this short film.

Sustainability: Cowspiracy.