Today I spoke in church. I was nervous and prayed for calm and the ability to speak from the heart. This is a version of what I said. Only a version because I found I couldn't make eye contact and read what I wrote. And then I stumbled on sentences. Apparently that wasn't super noticeable because I took those opportunities to add in a few unnecessary details. Except they were needed to buy me time to figure out where I was in my notes.
I don't remember the precise time or place when I gained a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It came so slowly I didn't realize it was there. The first time I recognized that I had a testimony, I was 16 and living away from home as an exchange student. For the first time in my life, I didn't have to go to church if I didn't want to. I didn't have family scripture study. I could do what ever I wanted.
Turns out that I wanted to go to church. My host mother found a phone book and with a rough translation of what the name of the church should be, she called the bishop and got directions to the church and took me there the next Sunday morning.
Fast forward a couple years.
After graduating high school, I was determined not to waste any more of my life away with useless education. So I didn't take any college entrance exams and looked for other opportunities. I found out about a program that sent Americans (native English speakers) to Russia to teach English to children. No college degree necessary. Yes! That fit my qualifications exactly. I pretty much signed up to go the same day. Interestingly enough, I had a few months to prepare and immediately registered for Russian classes at my local community college. So much for not going to school. Ha ha.
My father was nervous about my decision and conversations about communism and oppression were frequent in our home. My mother was more supportive and shared her only experience with Russians with me. She'd had her passport confiscated in Berlin by the Russians in the 1960s when the wall was still up and she was going through a check point. She shared her fears and relief with me. I knew my journey might be scary, but the cold war was over. Going to Russia promised to be an exciting adventure where I would learn for myself what life was like in communist Russia.
I arrived in Moscow on a cold January afternoon in 1995. From there, my teaching group got on a bus for what should be a 6 hour journey to the city where we would live. Our host families were scheduled to pick us up at our new school later that evening. Except we didn't arrive when we should have. Driving on the snow had reduced our speed to about 20 miles per hour which pushed our arrival back to nearly 3 o'clock in the morning. We got all of our stuff from the bus and hauled it into the school where host families gathered. A lady took me, asked me my name, checked me off of the coordinator's list and took me home. She had a pot of borscht on the stove for me. It was delicious. I ate and went to bed.
In the coming days, we adjusted to our new lives. There were many differences and even though I'd traveled overseas before, I was ill-prepared for the culture shock that living in Russia brings. They do everything odd. Or so I thought.
For example, not too many people have cars. They take busses everywhere. There don't seem to be enough of them, however, and they pack the people in like sardines. Literally. There are 3 doors in the bus, front, middle and back. When they open you get in whichever one has someone get off. Don't worry about paying for your ride. You just get on. And don't worry about finding a bar to hold onto, you're in so tight there's no way you'll fall over. At first, when we saw a full bus, we waited for the next one. We soon found out they were all like that. So we pushed our way on like everyone else.
There was one night that I was with a small group of friends waiting for a bus to come. Even though we were layered with scarves, sweaters, warm jackets and boots, it was cold. A few of us sat close together and another few sat on us to see if we could generate some body heat. It didn't work. We stood up and moved around to drum up some heat. A sign said the temperature was something like -5 degrees, but that didn't include windchill. My feet were frozen and hurt. The bus was 45 minutes late. Did we complain? Yes, but we were grateful when it finally came.
When I sent a letter home, I wanted to tell my family how cold it was. But I didn't know and couldn't easily find out. Google didn't exist. I could have done the math, but I didn't know the formula. What I did know was how -5 felt. As the weeks passed, I learned how warm 0 felt in comparison. Then how +5 felt, which is our average Washington winter temperature. When the temperature reached 11 I stopped wearing one of my many layers. What I really like is 20-24. Those are my perfect days where the sun warms my face, a cool breeze feels welcome and I don't sweat. At 30 I need a fan blowing on me to cool down and at 35 I seek out air conditioning.
Learning for myself what temperatures feel like without relying on a conversion chart is similar to learning what the Holy Spirit and spiritual conversion feel like. You could look at a chart or in the scriptures to get a pretty good idea. But learning through experience will teaches on a deeper level. One that's hard to forget.
As I write, I'm curious as to whether or not my favorite celsius temperatures match up to their fahrenheit counterparts. I googled them with ease and amazingly enough, I'm right. I don't need the charts to remember what they feel like.
Experiencing a spiritual conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ is much like the relationship I had with going to Russia and being immersed into a new culture.
Likewise, coming to church may be one part scary and another part exciting. One part hassle and one part calm. One part frustrating (mostly with wiggly kids) and one part peace. Sometimes, old traditions and habits need to be put to rest. Taking action and being a part of change is hard for most of us. But necessary for our growth.
So what about our conversion? The scriptures call it a baptism of fire and being born again. In a new setting, like with celsius and fahrenheit, we must learn to interpret our spiritual experiences in a new way with the lens of the gospel. We know that cold makes our arm hair stand on end, but did we also know the Spirit can have the same effect? We know that a hot flash can make us uncomfortably hot, but do we realize our hearts warm when we hear truth? Nerves make our hearts beat faster and so do urgings of the Spirit and calls to action. We cry both when we're sad and full of joy. The depth of our conversion matches the depth of the experiences it took to get it.
Conversion happens over our lifetimes and is not isolated to a single experience. We must build upon our experiences to help us understand our spiritual selves. I didn't understand -5 until I was at that bus stop late one night waiting. I didn't understand 11 until I needed to shed layers. I didn't understand 24 until the sun warmed my heart and soul.
Sometimes, we experience trials we would never purposefully choose. Almost 6 years ago, when our youngest son was on the verge of death and a crew of over 20 ER doctors and nurses were working on him, Tymon and I took an opportunity to pray in a nearby empty waiting room. We prayed for our son with all our hearts and souls. I prayed that he would respond to treatments. Tymon prayed that the Lord's will be done. The sense of peace that filled the room was palpable. I knew that Heavenly Father loved us and that all would be well. What I didn't understand was that love and peace was what I would need to shore me up in the most difficult trial of my life. Our son passed away and we were helpless to stop it.
The scriptures tell us that Jesus rose from the dead. I never doubted the resurrection when my grandparents or favorite uncle died. I just knew I'd see them again.
But my son's death hit me harder than I had ever imagined. Key gospel principles, like the resurrection, were no longer a given. My heart no longer believed what my mind told me was true. All that I knew was that Heavenly Father had given me peace. This peace combined with the love of my spouse, family and friends kept me afloat. I worked through the pain until my heart and mind became one. Many of you here were a part of that. Thank you for your compassion.
Today I stand before you with a deeper conversion than I had previously thought possible. When so much of the eternities seem abstract, I'm grateful for a very concrete link to heaven. I have no idea what it'll be like to be embraced by the Savior, but I know exactly how my Evan's hug feels. I'm reminded each time one of my children wraps me in their arms.
Did Jesus rise from the dead? My heart tells me he did. I feel peace. The gospel gives me a sense of focus in the midst of the many people, activities, opportunities and pursuits that vie for my attention. Challenges will continue to come to test the extents of my faith. I pray that my conversion will deepen with each one.
In the name of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, Amen.