Saturday, 12 April 2014

I can't think of a way to title this without being irreverent...

So, today I want to talk about faith.

To give context to this post, I am a proud member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  As much as I would love an opportunity to share the church and its teachings with you, the game plan for this post is actually to talk about my own spiritual journey, as it has certainly been an interesting one.

I joined the church when I was about six. My neighbour was a member and I was playing outside one Sunday morning when I saw her heading to church and (as far as I remember it) literally heard a voice say to me "You should go with her", so I did and that was that.

When I was eight I decided I wanted to get baptised, and it was then that Dad decided there might be something to this whole Mormon thing. He got baptised and baptised me when I was nine. I left the church gradually between the ages of 13 and 15 and returned about six months ago.

So now that the quick version of the back story is over, here's the real story of the day!

I am what my friend Rachel would call an "experiencer" and thus, for a very long time indeed, faith did not come naturally to me. I wanted more proof, some definitive answer, something to assuage my doubts. I wanted what Gideon got; a straightforward, clear cut sign. It is only looking back now that I realise I had a lot of signs, but never really appreciated them.

The stepping point to getting over this sounds a lot simpler than it was at the time: I had to ask for faith. When I first went back to the church, there were so many things I disagreed with, so many questions I wanted answers to before, or so I told myself, I would even consider going back.

Some of those questions have been answered. Most have not. Most I don't even remember now. But it was a challenging journey for me. After that first Sunday I remember kneeling, for the first time in a long time, and asking sincerely for help. Help to believe, help to have faith, help to put aside my doubts. That was a big step for me, and one that I think has been pivotal to my spiritual progress.

That doesn't mean I didn't struggle coming back. But it made it a lot easier, or at least I think it did. And I still have doubts (very occasionally), and a lot of questions (luckily I have Levi around to answer them), but I've learned that it's okay for some questions to remain unanswered and that, in the famous words of Pres Dieter F Uchtdorf, "Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith."

One of the reasons I left the church as a young teenager was because I didn't feel like I would ever be able to live up to the standards the church has. I now understand that this was nothing at all to do with the standards themselves, and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to do it by myself.

Without scripture reading (it was never a big thing in my home, but it's a big thing for me now), without conference talks (general conference was just "that weird video version of sacrament" to me back then) and, most importantly, without praying and asking Heavenly Father for help. We are taught to lean not on our own understanding and that's exactly what I was trying to do.

When I returned to church, this was what I perceived to be one of the biggest hurdles, as I was far from living within church standards at the time. But with help from friends, family and the Lord, I was able to overcome and resolve these bad decisions that I was making and learn to live within a different set of standards. And it wasn't nearly as hard as I expected, plus I feel so much better living righteously.

Which is not to say that I am all the way done yet, not by far, but I am temple worthy and no longer deliberately breaking church rules and laws. My current mission is to clean up the standards of the media I consume in terms of content and language used. This has included cutting a lot of the content I view online (such as blogs and webcomics) and making sure that all media I consume is both legally obtained and church appropriate. Whilst incredibly challenging (I knew how to illegally download music before I knew you could buy it legally), this has also been an incredibly rewarding experience and I have found my thoughts, language and communication have been uplifted because of it.

Another thing I'd struggled with for a long time was the idea of communicating with God, particularly the idea of God answering my prayers. The idea of Him communicating with me through the scriptures seemed laughable; here was this big, crazy, sometimes general and sometimes weirdly specific book that billions of people are reading nor have read and I'm meant to find individual communication from God to me in it?

Not too long ago, I decided that the reason I wasn't feeling fully engaged with the Gospel was because I wasn't fully engaged in actively communicating with Heavenly Father. I also realised that it wasn't just about how often I prayed, but how I prayed, and how I listened and searched for answers after praying. Again, I prayed for help. Help to engage, help to listen and to hear what it is the Lord wants to tell me.

Pretty soon after that I started getting pretty strong feelings one way or the other fairly often when I prayed for answers, so that was really affirming, but more than that, I found that I was engaging more with the scriptures and actually finding answers in them. It's almost indescribable, and I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, but the minute I asked humbly and sincerely for answers, I started getting them. Which isn't to say they came easy, I still often had to search for them, but they were very clear and easily identifiable, and I can definitely say I feel like I am building a relationship with, rather than just talking at, God now. And it's a beautiful thing to be feeling. I am eternally grateful for that feeling.

For the longest time, I have struggled with the whole concept of being a Child of God, of His unconditional love for me as an individual. It was something I hadn't really felt before (I swear I'm getting less eloquent and coherent as this post goes on. It's only 8:30pm, I promise), and something that seemed like a really foreign concept to me. Here I was, feeling like the world's biggest screw up, feeling totally unlovable, not even liking myself, and there was this perfect being that took time out of loving all the good, kind, obedient people in the world to love me?

The answer to this came about a week ago and has already had a profound impact in my life. It was another situation where I had been asking for a while for help, this time help to feel God's love for me. I was reading the scriptures late one night (or early one morning, either or) and I was quite suddenly overwhelmed with this sort of purity or whiteness inside my head, and I felt so loved and so peaceful and I knew in that moment that I was indeed a child of God, a beloved spirit daughter of my Heavenly Father.

In that moment I understood that I was so loved, and that despite any trials and tribulations I might be going through, despite any doubts I might have, despite myself, Heavenly Father truly does love me and have a plan for me.

This experience is already starting to change how I feel about myself. And, more than that, I've discovered an easily accessible source of inner serenity and love that I've only ever been able to scratch the surface of before now.

I guess the recurring theme here is "ask and ye shall receive" which is funny because I didn't set out to put forward a particular message or motif. However I can confidently testify that the church is true, that God is real and loves each and every one of us, and that no sincere and humble prayer will go unanswered. (That isn't my full testimony, that's another post for another day.)

I am incredibly grateful for these experiences and several others I have had recently (such as going through the visitors center with Christian) that have helped me to strengthen my testimony and also to see that it was pretty strong to begin with.

God is good.

Love and hugs,
Jessica Howatson

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Dear Seventeen Year Old Me...

So last year I was eighteen and I wrote a letter to my sixteen year old self. You can read it here.
This year I am nineteen and thus am writing a letter to my seventeen year old self.

As background context: Seventeen was my last year of high school. Seventeen was the year my father passed away. Seventeen was a rough year for a number of reasons.

Dear 17 year old me,

First thing's first. No more scars, honey. You're done with that. You know you're done with that. For the most part you're gonna do pretty well but don't let yourself fall back into old habits. You're stronger than that, strong enough to ask for help and to accept it.

This coming year is going to be rough. It will be harder than anything you've ever experienced. You will come to understand the true meaning of the words 'pain' and 'grief'. You will come to understand that pain demands to be felt. You will come to understand that sharp blades and running away won't help, that some things you jut have to push through.

While we're on that subject, running away is a stupid idea. You can't sleep up a tree. You're scared of spiders and still a little bit scared of the dark (and quite rightly too. Keep it that way). It's not going to end well for you (although you will look back on it and laugh).

Never give up. You're brave, you're strong, and you've made it this far. You're going to make it even further, but you've gotta keep going. Don't sit down. Don't stand still. Keep moving, keep fighting for yourself and your beliefs.

Believe in yourself. I mean it. I know you're overwhelmed. I know you're drowning. I know you don't like yourself at all. I know you blame yourself for a lot of things that aren't your fault, but you've got to let it go, honey, you've got to stand up for who you are and what you want. Be assertive. It gets easier with practise. Maybe if you start now you'll be super good at it by the time you're my age.

Don't take your friends and family for granted. Call them. Make an effort to spend time with them. Relationships take work and the sooner you figure this out the better your relationships will be.

Work hard in school. I know that for a long time, just getting out of bed and pretending to smile is going to feel like it's enough of an achievement, and I know that, if you were to read this, my voice would be lost amongst all the others telling you the same thing, but the sad fact of the matter is that even though you're falling apart, even though your world is imploding, life goes on. And you have to go on with it or you'll get left behind.

There are going to be a lot of black days, sunshine. Just do your best. Yes, you could be doing worse, and yes, you could be doing better, but take the time to pat yourself on the back for the fact that you're doing anything at all.

Be grateful. You're bad at that, but you'll get better. Start now.

Keep writing, whatever you do. It's valuable and it's therapeutic to boot. You're going to wish you wrote more during the dark times. Write as much as you can and FOR GOODNESS SAKE WRITE THE DATE ON IT!

Presuming that you don't take any of my advice (you won't, I know you), you're going to make some pretty awful decisions in the next couple of years. You're going to compromise yourself and your values and you're going to have a lot of regrets. I wish I could tell you not to do it. It wasn't worth it. It isn't worth it.

At the same time, nothing is unforgivable. Remember this. Always.

What else? Well, singing Christmas Carols in July probably isn't the best idea. Don't share drinks, you'll end up with a tummy bug on your eighteenth birthday. Not fun.

Let's talk about faith for a minute. Faith is a bit of a foreign concept to you at the moment. You still believe in something but you're not sure whether you think God is indifferent or just a sadist. He is neither. He loves you fully even though you don't feel it right now. Even though you don't feel like you deserve it right now. The sooner you find you faith again, the better. The church is true. Remember the signs. The voice telling you to go to church that first time. The butterflies on your baptism day. Your testimony is stronger than you think and it's only going to grow.

Don't shun God and religion because of bad experiences. Life is a school and you're here to learn, and sometimes (well, it is you, so most of the time really) you're going to have to learn it the hard way. Don't begrudge yourself the chance to learn and grow from the pain and anger. Move on. Let go.

You've got a long way to go, sunshine, but you're going to be okay. Keep your head up. I love you, and so do a lot of other people. Let them.

Be brave, little one.
Jessica Howatson, aged 19