Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hola mis amados padres!

I really do love you so much. I feel the power of your prayers and the prayers of others in my daily life supporting me. Whenever I get a little discouraged, all I have to do is remember the love of My Savior and the love of my family for me. Really, really, this buoys me up so much every day. I love you :)

We have seen miracles almost every day this week. It is incredible to think that exact obedience and work allow Heavenly Father to work through you to help someone else. I just want to share two of the miraculous days that we had this week.

Wednesday started out extremely hard. One of the consequences of Spanish missionary work is that it can sometimes be hard to keep set appointments. The work schedules of many of the people we teach can be described as very transient at their best and often other commitments in their lives just cause them to forget about us. So on Wednesday we set out to work at noon as usual but one by one all of our appointments fell through. We called and knocked on virtually all of our investigator's houses but no one was home. Then we started just knocking neighborhoods to try and find someone to teach or contact, but no one was interested or didn't know any Spanish Speakers we could contact. This was also the occasion of one of my first "door slams" right in my face :) So in short, Elder Paiz and I went from noon to 4:30 without a single lesson. Sitting in our car at 4:30 and feeling pretty sorry for ourselves we decided to just pray and ask for God to put someone in our path to help. Then we got out of the car and tried to knock a few more doors before dinner. It was proceeding as usual but on the third door we meet a woman named Carmen. Carmen's husband had recently died and she was in a very depressed mood. She didn't want to listen to us either, but we just started testifying to her right on her doorstep about the Plan of Salvation and she listened. As we left that door contact, Elder Paiz and I both felt much buoyed up by the Spirit. It’s funny that what snapped us out of doldrums was not focusing on ourselves but trying to help other people. The only bad part of the encounter with Carmen was that we have to now turn her over to our English Teaching sisters to teach. But we know that Heavenly Father answers prayers and that he wants us to help his children :)

Wednesday night was also amazing. Elder Paiz was called away to do a last minute baptismal interview up north (because he is the District Leader) and so we had to do an emergency split to get to all of our appointments. As it happened, the Elder I ended up going with was not a Spanish speaker. So I was thrust into taking the lead in our appointments for that evening. Honestly, this was pretty terrifying, because Elder Paiz is such an amazing teacher and it is so easy to follow his lead, but the night built my confidence a lot. In one of our lessons that evening our investigator Francisco (who is getting baptized this Sunday!) asked for a blessing of comfort and safety as he traveled to visit his mom in El Salvador. So Elder Wood and I of course obliged, but this meant that I had to offer the blessing in Spanish. Interestingly, I have been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to act as voice in a Priesthood blessing. Even though I was ordained in July, I have only anointed, done temple ordinances, or stood in a circle. I have never actually given a blessing by the Spirit myself. So blessing Francisco was my first opportunity to do so and also to do so in Spanish. Thankfully the Spirit was there and his family appreciated our efforts. What I learned is that I can communicate with these people in a way that is comfortable for them, but I need so badly to lose this fear and get better. Especially because Elder Paiz and I have offered a blessing for almost every day I have been in the field. I have hope because Heavenly Father promises to fill our mouths if we are willing to open them. So really, Wednesday was a really incredible day for us.

But I think the highlight of this week came on Saturday for us. I am just getting the goose bumps thinking about it. On Saturday evening we were driving past a park and scoping out for Mexicans (which we do quite frequently, profiling to do the Lord's Work) and we spotted a Latina woman in the park with her daughter. Both Elder Paiz and I knew we had to stop and talk with her before getting to our next appointment. What follows is a miracle. This mom's name is Nely, and within a minute of talking to her we were testifying of how the Savior's power can help and support us in all of our difficulties and that the way to come unto Him is through Baptism. Nely committed to be baptized right there in the park. We just need to make sure we can keep meeting with her and keep her working towards this goal. It is truly amazing, the power of the Spirit. As we asked her "What do you want to do for YOU Nely, and your family" tears came down her face and she said "No one has ever asked me that before." This moment was really poignant to reflect on. I know the Savior's power can help lift and sustain all of the Children of God. He is the master healer, even for pains that human eyes cannot see. And that healing can come to people in any humble place and situation.

So the last story from Saturday is about a man named Hipolito. Elder Paiz and his last companion had tried to talk with him before about three months ago, but he had many problems in his life and wouldn't let them in. (heavy drug use, his wife was going to leave him, problems keeping work). In the intervening three months Hipolito thought seriously about his life, cleaned himself up, and is now an exemplary father for his little family. So when Elder Paiz and I met with him again on Saturday (after being with Nely) he was a changed and prepared person. Hipolito also accepted our baptismal invitation, and we have him on date for the 18th of March.

Seriously this work is incredible. It seems like every day it tries and tests the best of us, but the rewards come as we are able to talk with and help people come unto Christ. I know that this Church is true, that Christ lives, and that Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration. Every time we share his story with ANYONE, the room is silent and the spirit is tan poderoso. I know Joseph saw God the Father and the Son in the grove, and ushered in the latter-day work. Just listen to his words. "… vi una columna de luz, más brillante que el sol, directamente arriba de mi cabeza; y esta luz gradualmente descendió hasta descansar sobre mí. … Al reposar sobre mí la luz, vi en el aire arriba de mí ados Personajes, cuyo fulgor y gloria no admiten descripción. Uno de ellos me habló, llamándome por mi nombre, y dijo, señalando al otro: Éste es mi Hijo Amado: ¡Escúchalo!” (Joseph Smith History extracts from v. 16-17)
 I know that this first vision was a reality. I know it, and I feel its truth stronger every time I share it and pray about it. This is just the best possible thing that I could share with anyone :)

So seriously, I love you so much Mom and Dad. Thank you for your example and support. Don't worry about me being taken care of; the members out here are amazing :) I love you, and I pray for you.

con todo mi corazon,
Elder Stewart

translation of extract “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. … When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. one of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other---This is My Beloved Son Hear Him!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Find, Teach, and Baptize

Hi Mom and Dad!

Whew, where do I even start? This week has been really incredible. It’s funny for me to think that a week ago today I was sitting in the laundry room at the MTC writing you. But time flies when you have fun. We've found, taught, and baptized all in this first week. Hopefully we can continue to work hard and help as many people as we can in the coming weeks! 

So first things first: my trainer's name is Elder Paiz (yes dad I got permission to use his name.) He is from Guatemala, but was going to school at the University of Utah. He is amazing! He is genuinely outgoing, spiritual, hardworking, and extremely knowledgeable about the area where we are serving. This is his second transfer in our area, and he has the added responsibilities of training and being a district leader, but he always has a great attitude and is excited about everything. I look forward to learning a lot from him.

We are serving together in the city of St. George in an area called "Snow Canyon Spanish", and there is so much work to do! We taught 18 lessons last week between Wednesday and Saturday, and 13 of them were with a member present. This makes me really excited for what we can hope to do this week, and in the 12 weeks that we have together in this area. There really are a lot of people here who are ready to be baptized, we just have to find them and teach them. And dad, you and I guessed correct about the use of Spanish and English in this mission. Basically all of the parents speak Spanish better than English, but their kids are more comfortable in English. So basically anyone under 25 we are teaching in English :) This is both a challenge and a relief, because we all know that I need to polish up on my language skills as much as possible. But the members of the Spanish Branch we are working in (that covers 3 stakes) are extremely supportive and helpful with this. They also cook EXTREMELY well. Our meal calendar is set out for the next few months, and I will seriously need to be careful and exercise a lot. These Hispanics feed the missionaries like it is their job.

A couple of fun vignettes for you to get an idea of what daily life is like. We live in the home of members named the Squires (he was a bishop until this week) and have free use of their dishes, laundry, and many other facilities. Every day I wake up at 6:00 so that I can get a head start on studying the Book of Mormon in Spanish. We exercise at 6:30 until 7:00, then shower, prepare, and eat to be doing personal study at 8:00. Personal study is where we pray and prepare to teach individuals according to their needs. Companionship study begins at 9:00 and goes for two hours because I am being trained. During this time we role play, study and discuss church training materials together, and watch Preach My Gospel videos. Then language study begins at 11:00. We are usually out the door before noon to have lunch and begin teaching people before 1:00. Dinner (always at a member's home...we are SO blessed) is at 5:00 then we proselyte more until we come home 9:00. Then daily planning, writing in journal, and in bed by 10:30. The days are full, but amazing. Organization is an eternal principle. We can get so much more done when we study hard, plan well, and work hard.

It took me about 24 hours before I realized EXACTLY why I was in this mission. We had an appointment to teach two sisters last week (Selene and Alexia) who have been taught the lessons but don't really want to get baptized. I remember strongly the first time I saw Selene, something spoke inside me and I just KNEW that I was here to help her and her sister. It was kind of startling, but I know it was from the Spirit. I hope that our efforts through returning visits with these two will increase their desire to be baptized. That is why we are out here, because there are people that we need to help and inspire. What could be more worthwhile?

Another quick story: Elder Paiz and I try to be really obedient so that we can always have the Spirit to be with us. Elder Bednar said that you can tell if a companionship is obedient the moment they step through your door. They either bring the Spirit, or they don't. We had one day last week where we were just on fire. We taught 5 great lessons, and in each one the investigator opened up to us with their concerns and doubts about getting baptized. Our fellowshipper for that night (the member who teachers with us) commented that something made us different from other missionaries, and he wants to come out with us again. I guess those are just the blessings that come from obedience. But really, the blessings and miracles of exact obedience don't belong to the missionaries. These miracles go to the lives of the people whom we bless. So my disobedience in anyway could literally affect someone else's salvation. Why in the world would we then want to break any rules?

I love this place a lot. The mountains are gorgeous (I will send pictures soon, I forgot my cable in our room), the weather is ridiculously temperate (60s in February), the missionaries are happy and obedient, and the people are ready to come to Christ. Just one more thing that added to my excitement was our first baptism this last Sunday! Elder Paiz baptized a 10 year girl named Nancy Aguilar whom he has been teaching for 3 weeks and whom I had the opportunity to meet with just a few times before her baptism on Sunday. From what I have seen and heard, she is one of the elect who was ready to be baptized. I think that was a good motivation for me to get out there and work.

I think I found a scripture that kind of describes how I want the rest of my mission to go---a creed for myself in a way. Helaman 3:35 says "Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even unto the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding of their hearts unto God"

I think I have prayed with more frequency and urgency over this last week than at any time in my life. I know Heavenly Father hears us and responds to us. He has made that quite obvious to me. If I can but yield my heart to him a little more every day, then I will be the instrument He needs and that His children need. It is so tough some times, and I can see that already. But always He stands with His arms stretched out to help us.

Vaya con Dios,
Elder Michael Stewart

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Let's hit the ground running!

Dearest Mother and Father, 
Our Zone Leaders recently informed us that we are allowed to use email one last time before we head out of the MTC, so it looks like THIS will be the last email you will receive from the MTC. I leave tomorrow at 4;00 AM, and yes, we are flying down to St. George :) I will be able to call from the airport, so I will call both of your cell phones for about 5 minutes if time allows. I'm pretty sure President Leonard will let us call from the mission home too. If my first area is Manti or Ephraim I will have made a circumnavigation of Utah. 

The MTC is a really great place, and I only hope that I will have to opportunity to come back some day. It is a mixed bag to be here for only three weeks; on the one hand I feel really well prepared. I believe that in every way I can be a contributing missionary in the field. But on the other hand, the MTC really does have a unique Spirit and atmosphere and it would be nice to get in some more studying and practicing before hitting the ground running. Just pray for the Elders learning Cambodian, Thai, Mandarin and any other slew of languages: they get 12 weeks to become fully capacitated. 

Last week I got really sick, coughing, head ache, runny nose. It was kind of distracting, but I kept up the schedule and tried really hard not to cough on people during lessons.  One priesthood blessing later though, and I was back to full form. It was kind of amazing. Even though my body was absolutely spent physically, I had strength to concentrate and keep studying and working hard. I think I understand that the Savior's grace can help and strengthen us when we meet our own physical limits. Now though, I feel at 110% (yes Dad, I must've had horrendous math teachers) and I know I can go forward into the field with my limited strength and the awe inspiring strength of the Lord. I'm actually extremely excited :) 

All of our discussions with our investigators this week went really well. Elder Herrera and I have gotten so much better at being unified in teaching and following the promptings of the Spirit. Both of our teachers complemented us on our progress in every way these past three weeks. As we planned too, in our last lesson with Pablo we read from 2 Ne 31:1-12 and committed him to baptism. After we asked him to "follow the example of Jesus Christ by being baptized" it was silent for a good 30-40 seconds, and the Spirit was TAN FUERTE.; you could have cut it with a knife. I actually love just sitting in situations like that, because you can feel heavenly father working on the hearts of the people. Pablo responded that he really does want to be baptized, but he also wants these things for his family as well. It is always incredible to me how practicing can be this real, and how we can actually learn to help resolve the concerns of investigators through the experiences of our teachers. I really want to be able to help real people come unto Christ in this way. Also someday I hope to be a teacher in the MTC as well. 

Friday of last week we had our "In Field Orientation" day at the MTC, and honestly it was one of my favorite days ever. We were shuffled in and out of workshops with former mission presidents and former missionaries featured in "the district" training videos, and we learned soooooo much. We learned about contacting, planning, working with members, the key indicators, and so much more. I was again struck by the centrality of the baptismal invitation to our purpose as missionaries. The truth is that we are the only people that can offer baptism to people of the earth; this is the way Heavenly Father has prepared for others to draw nigh unto him and eventually live with him again. He does the work, not the missionaries, but what a privilege it is to be able to see these changes happen in people's lives. 

On Sunday the MTC showed the recording of Elder Bednar's Christmas talk to the missionaries in the MTC entitled "The Character of Christ'. This talk was the most inspirational thing I have ever heard. Elder Bednar's main point was that the character of Christ is exactly opposite of the character of the natural man. When the natural man would turn in and be selfish, Christ always turns out and thinks of others. Developing this main attribute of Christ is the quest of our lives. We cannot perfectly overcome our selfish tendencies, but through faith, repentance, and covenants we can experience the power of the atonement in our lives. Elder Bednar's talk vindicated my personal sentiment that I am not serving this mission for myself. When I forget my own preferences, my own desire, my own thoughts on the way the work should be done, and focus on my Savior, then I am completing my purpose on this mission. In our district classroom there was a poster of Christ's second coming that was posted right by my seat. Every time I felt overwhelmed at learning the language, discouraged at my ability to teach, or just generally sorry for myself I would look at that picture and immediately feel the Savior's grace buoying me up. Needless to say, I have purchased that poster from the bookstore. It reminds me that, as Elder Bednar said, "The moment you think you can't do this work alone {without Christ}, you are right." 

I love you all so much. Thank everyone for their prayers and support on my behalf. This mission really doesn't belong to me alone, but I am so grateful for the opportunity that I have. Talk to you next from the Field!! 

Siempre Vaya con Dios,
Elder Michael Stewart.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hasta Ver, CCM!

Hello Mom and Dad! 
I love you so much! I cannot believe that this is the last email that I will be sending from the MTC (CCM in Spanish). The days here are full, but the weeks seem to go by so fast. Tell everyone thank you for all of the letters and prayers. I am working hard to respond to them! There is only one preparation day a week, and time is really so precious. This last week has been nothing short of miraculous (again).
The first thing that we come to is how the Spanish is coming along. Well, according to my district I'm fluent. I was able to bear my testimony in Spanish during our branch meeting last week and I felt that I could express everything that I wanted to. Similarly, both of my teachers have expressed great surprise and encouragement over the quick development of these language skills and lessons do go really well now. Most meaningfully to me was after a really spiritual lesson late last week, Elder Herrera turned to me and said "That was the first time your Spanish was totally understandable. I think you are ready to teach Hispanics now." I am very hopeful that over the next few months I will be able to learn more vocabulary, more verbs and complex structures of Spanish so that I can better relate to the people whom I will teach.
Speaking of growth and change, this last week has been dynamite for the progress of our "investigators". My most spiritual experiences now are coming during lessons with these investigators. On Saturday of last week we had a great lesson with Aracely. We were teaching the basics of faith and repentance and the Spirit was so strong. Towards the end of the lesson I got a really strong spiritual prompting and invited her to be baptized, and she said yes!! That was hands down the best experience that Elder Herrera and I have had in the MTC so far. Really in that moment, the Spirit made our teaching appointment feel so real.
But Aracely was not the only one who experienced a major change this week. Yesterday Elder Herrera and I got to meet with Abraham Delgado again and we started teaching him the Plan of Salvation. As we found out during the lesson, Abraham lost a son years ago to cancer and he had strong desires to know where he was, what he could do to help him, and if he could ever see him again. As we look Abraham in the face I felt to open up to Alma 40 and read him verses 11 and 12. These verses read, "Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection- Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home o that God who gave them life. And then shall it come to pass the the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness which is called paradise, as state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow." At that moment real tears started coming down Abraham's face. It is amazing the power that the Doctrine of Christ can have in consoling and comforting people. Christ truly is the Comforter, and there are few more comforting promises in all of scripture that the promise of an eternally sealed family. We left Abraham with D&C 132:7-10 and promised him that he could see his son and again someday, and he said he will be baptized as well! All he wants is to bring his earthy family with him too.
These experiences have excited us so much that we are going to invite Pablo to be baptized during our next visit. I can hardly wait to get out there and meet with real investigators. It is only one week away!
At the MTC they focus on the 8 fundamentals of Preach My Gospel that we should integrate into our teaching, and the most powerful one to me is that we should "Teach people, not lessons". I feel like that is the way the savior worked and taught one person at a time. Our job as missionaries is to bring the doctrines of the gospel to people in a way that is personally meaningful to them. I am so excited to get down south and do it! 
I decided there are some things that I will miss about the MTC. I feel like angels walk the halls in this place, it is so incredible! I will definitely miss the great firesides that we get every Sunday and Tuesday. They often bring general authorities and other church officers, and they really are inspiring. I will miss my great branch and district. Seriously, I am so thankful that I got to be in branch 55 under President Evans. He is the type of man that stresses exact obedience and also works hard with individual missionaries to improve. I will definitely miss all of the familiar faces that I see all around me in the MTC, especially Elders Nilsen and Neff. I am really really excited though to make new lasting relationships and see the Savior work powerfully in other people's lives. 
I love you so much. Thank you for your love, example, and support. 
Working Hard,
Elder Michael Stewart

Thursday, February 2, 2012

His Grace is Sufficient

Hello Mom and Dad! 
I love you all so much. I thank everyone for their letters and packages and thoughts and prayers. I really can feel the love and it makes me feel like I can work hard and be a better missionary. Seriously, getting mail and dear elder letters is better than Christmas. It’s kind of like a parable for me. I feel so blessed that i just want to share all of my blessings with everyone around me. When you give love away, it can only get bigger. 
So like in my first email it is not possible to relate everything that has been happening in the MTC this week. The most exciting thing, that actually started last Thursday, was getting to teach people lessons more often. Our district is teaching two "investigators" named Aracely and Pablo, who are just our teachers acting as people they met on their missions. It’s actually an amazing process. Even though these people are just practicing as investigators, we can really feel the spirit when we plan, prepare, pray for, and teach them. The spirit makes this a truly meaningful learning process. We have taught Aracely and Pablo four and three times respectively, and both have really grown their faith and been receptive to our message. They have both agreed to be baptized once they gain a testimony of the spirit. It’s really exciting to see these changes in people's lives, even if it is just practice.
Another teaching opportunity that we get as missionaries in the MTC is to participate in training resource center (TRC) progressing investigator lessons. We don't know if the people we teach here are actors or actual investigators, so we take these lessons very seriously. Elder Herrera and I have been teaching a man named Abraham Delgado who has a lot of questions about the Book of Mormon. We have shared our testimonies with him along with scriptures from John 10 and Ephesians 4 that testify of our message, and he is consistently reading and praying about the book. We’re pretty sure Abraham is a member because he bears his testimony at his neck line (if you know what I mean.) elders Lopez, Medrano, and Barboza are teaching a man named José who we are pretty sure is not a member. In their last lesson the spirit was so strong that everyone was in tears and José committed to baptism. We were all so excited!! The spirit is the most important part on this work, and it is exciting to see it work in people's lives. 
All of this teaching has been in Spanish. The gift of tongues is real, and I see it all around me in the MTC (pray for the elders learning Cambodian and Finnish). I’ve really gotten a lot more comfortable with speaking in Spanish. In lessons I stick to saying simple things and bearing testimony. On Tuesday of this week I made the transition to studying and reading the training materials only in Spanish. (If I had a dime for every time someone referenced the scripture ether 12 :27 to me...haha.) Well, I know that the promise in that verse that through humility and faith the Lord will make "weak things become strong unto them" is so true. The Lord will work miracles for us if we are about his work and doing it his way. I know that if I keep studying hard and speaking as much as I can, he will magnify my efforts. the spirit is much more anxious to help me than I am to be helped. 
I also realize that I forgot to mention where the people in my district are headed off to on February 15th :) Hermanas Alspaugh and Walter are headed the Guatemala Quetzaltenango mission, Hermana Barrera to Provo UT (woot!!) and Hermana Gonzales to Chicago. All of the Elders (Lopez, Barboza, Herrera, and Stewart) are going to St. George except for Elder Medrano who is headed for Baton Rouge. I am so excited that I don't have to let these friendships go when we head off to the field; all of these elders are so great and they will change so many lives. I also realized that we are very blessed to have hermanas in our district. (The districts that don't have hermanas in them seem much more...strange :)) Hermanas think about the gospel and helping people differently and I’m convinced that they help elders become real people. 
Over this last week I have been really grateful for the tender mercies of the Lord. I am so blessed to be able to see my sister almost every day here at the MTC. She helps me keep perspective and really motivates me. Also, I am blessed to be at the MTC with Elders Thomas Nilsen and Michael Neff who were in my BYU ward last semester. When we met each other in the cafeteria last week the embraso was epic. I am able to run with Elder Nilsen during gym time too, and it feels a lot like old times. It is helpful to have so many good friends in the same place all doing the same thing. The MTC is tough, but we really do have companions and friends to help each other. Also on my list of thankful names, is Elder Shumway.  This elder lives in the residence right next to me and he has come to talk with me every night just to see how I’m doing and to encourage me. If people can show this much love, I just imagine what our heavenly father can do. 
I know this gospel is true. Jesus really does have power to cleanse and strengthen us, no matter where we have been. The Book of Mormon is true. It changes my life every day and I want to share it with everyone. I know we can feel closer to the Lord in his temple, and indeed going in to the Provo temple felt like going home to me. 
I love you all so much! Keep writing and praying for the missionaries!

Working hard,
Elder Michael Stewart