Thanks as always for the emails and photos and words of love and support! Everyone looks great in the photos you sent this week. All you kids need to stop growing up and having such stunning good looks---you're going to make me look bad!
I appreciate all the words of advice and support regarding my companion. I've also been working closely with my mission president, who decided that what a rebellious new missionary needs is to be whipped into shape right off the bat so they don't struggle the rest of their mission, and he picked me to be the one to call her out every time she steps out of line. You can imagine how fun that is. I won't bore you with the whole thing, but suffice it to say every day is filled with new challenges. This morning I read in the Book of Mormon, "And it came to pass that they did multiply and prosper exceedingly...Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith. Nevertheless---whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day" (Mosiah 23:20-22). I'm really feeling that right now. I was getting comfortable with missionary work and the Lord decided there was room for improvement in my character, so He gave me a huge opportunity to strengthen my faith and patience. I still don't understand why the Lord tests us like that, but it gave me some comfort this morning to know that there's a reason behind pain and struggle. That's one of the hardest concepts I've come across on my mission in Tokyo. There are so many people who find it impossible to believe in a loving Heavenly Father because their lives are so difficult, and they can't believe in a God who would let His children suffer like that. It's hard to accept that hard times result in our growth, and I probably won't ever like it, but I plan on learning every day---especially about the Saviour, who experienced more injustice than man is capable of suffering and dealt with it all perfectly.
I've been reading Elder Long and Elder Duncan's emails the past few weeks (thanks for forwarding those to me!) and I realized my emails home have been pretty devoid of anything spiritually uplifting for months! Which is weird, because I spend all day long trying to uplift people here. But anyway, I wanted to share a quick thought and give you some homework too.
This week we had Stake Conference in Kiryu, and the theme was "真の改心、真の成長” (Makoto no Kaishin, makoto no seicho). It means "Real Conversion, Real Growth." I love studying Japanese kanji; the word for "conversion" literally means "change of heart." Conversion isn't just joining the church; it is changing the way you think and the way you follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Anyway, the theme scripture of the conference was Alma 5:14 from the Book of Mormon, "And now, behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?"
During the Saturday night session of conference, one of the speakers turned the audience into a discussion group and asked us to ponder these questions: Has the gospel changed you? How? (keeping in mind that "the gospel" includes all the teachings of Jesus Christ and God's plan for our eternal happiness). The speaker asked for some responses to be shared, first of all from the missionaries since he figured we would have most recently experienced the most change. He picked on Wylie Shimai first. She said, "I was raised in the church, and so the gospel was always a part of my life, but since becoming a missionary the gospel has become the center of my life. Everything I do now is based on whether it will help me grow closer to the Saviour or not." I was asked to speak next. I said (or tried to, anyway---Japanese is hard), "Just like Wylie Shimai said, I have experienced a change since the gospel has become the center of my life. Before, I went to church and kept the commandments because I figured the gospel of Christ would help me achieve my goals. Since becoming a missionary, living the gospel of Christ is my goal. As a missionary I work all day to help everyone be able to think this way and change their lives for the better." Recent converts, long-time members, bishops, and other priesthood leaders in turn shared the dramatic ways that the gospel has not only changed what they do; it's affected what they have become and who they want to be.
Here's the homework part: in your next email, I want you to answer those questions for me. Has the gospel changed you? How? If you can narrow it down to a single experience, that's great; if your change has come gradually because of daily living (which is probably the more common situation), that's great too. I want to hear your conversion stories, the ones about changing your heart. Write them in your own journals, if you haven't done so already, and share them with your Sunday School class or your children or your roommate. Hearing the word of God builds faith, strengthens friendships, and changes lives.
I love all of you and want to tell you again how much I appreciate hearing from you every week! One more piece of homework: I'm still waiting to hear from everyone what presents you want me to bring back to you from Japan! I only have a few shopping P-days left, so I don't want anyone to be left out! (No, Tyler, I am not bringing you home a katana.)
Work hard, pray daily, and be good missionaries! Love you!