Thursday, October 4, 2012

Update on Josh and letter from October 1, 2012

As many of you know, Josh had surgery last week in Slidell and was cleared today to go to his new area.  So many people took great care of Josh as he recovered; the people in Louisiana and Mississippi are incredible and we, as a family, are very grateful.  Here are a couple of notes from Josh.

Well, cabin fever doesn't even begin to cover it. I am just reading and writing non-stop every day. By the end of today, I will have finished the entire gospel of Matthew in two days, which doesn't begin to cover all of the other reading (Jesus the Christ and Increase in Learning by Elder Bednar) I've been doing.

So surgery. What an experience that was. Surprisingly, it was actually spiritual. As I sat all alone in pre-op waiting for the nurse to come put my IV in, I just sat and listened to all of the conversations going on around me - nurses, loved ones, doctors - and I kept getting this overwhelming feeling of love for everyone there. Strange, but true. Normal people trying to do their best in life who are very willing to talk to you because you aren't wearing a white shirt and tie. I genuinely felt like the gospel could bless each of their lives so much if they would only open up and provide an opportunity for the gospel to be shared with them.

When I woke up, I was experiencing a whole new level of pain.  Crazy. But the cool thing was this - whenever I would start to shake from the pain, I would say a prayer asking for it to stop, and the second I would say amen, everything, pain included, was gone. It was mind-blowing. Our God is a God of miracles who answers prayers, that is for sure.

Yes, I had a couple of missionary experiences with my nurse after the surgery. As I was in all of that pain, I felt really strongly that the Savior loved her, and so I told her "Jesus Christ loves you and appreciates what you do to help people." She stopped and looked at me and replied, "thank you for saying that," but I can only imagine what was going through her head as a drugged up and groggy 19 year old kid tells her that Jesus loves her. Looking back on it I couldn't help but laugh at the way I must have looked. It was funny because about 6 minutes later I said "I'm a missionary for my church" (as part of our conversation) and she said, "I could tell." Haha it was good. But then I asked her if she would say a prayer with me and grabbed a hold of my arm and I prayed and mentioned her in the prayer and she was so appreciative.

As of now, the pain is fine, but I'm still not 100% back. Hopefully I'll be there soon. I'm just excited to get up to Coushatta and get to work.

Here's a thought from "Increase in Learning" before I close:

"Spiritual knowledge cannot be given by or borrowed from another person. Shortcuts to the desired destination do no exist. Cramming for the ultimate final examination on the day of judgement is not an option. In this eternally important endeavor, the Lord's pattern is 'line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more' (2 Nephi 28:30) . . . With multitudes of secular influences trying to counteract the truth about and from God, no one can thrive by attempting to borrow light from the spiritual lamps of other people." (p. 16,70)


"Praying, studying, gathering, worshipping, serving, and obeying are not isolated and independent items on a lengthy gospel checklist of things to do. Rather, each of these righteous practices is an important element in an overarching spiritual quest to fulfill the mandate to receive the Holy Ghost. The commandments from God we obey and the inspired counsel from Church leaders we follow principally focus upon obtaining the companionship of the Spirit. Fundamentally, all gospel teachings and activities are centered on coming unto Christ by receiving the Holy Ghost in our lives" (From "Receive the Holy Ghost" Oct. 2010)


Letter from September 24, 2012

Well, this is the end of my proselyting in Slidell, and it is such a bittersweet moment. I genuinely feel as if I am leaving my family behind all over again. The people here are so loving and caring, and they have truly been a great strength for me as I would go out to work each morning - they deserve my best. But, I'm excited to move out to Coushatta and begin a whole different adventure. It is crazy to believe that as of tomorrow I have been gone for 5 months. Time is moving way too fast.
As I have reflected on the plethora of experiences that these past five months have held for me, I have been searching for a measurable degree of growth within myself. The Lord provides us with trials and adversity through our experiences for our growth, and I have been pondering in what way that has been realized. What has become clear to me is this - faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a power so great that, when exercised to its fullest, can bring about miracles. This has been my crutch throughout the varying circumstances I have found myself in, and truly, I have come to understand what faith can do. Proverbial mountains have been moved, difficulties overcome, and strength found in times of weakness, and from those experiences unique lessons have been learned, lessons that could not be learned in any other situation or circumstance. This is why I believe very strongly in the fact that, as Elder Holland has taught, "God never leaves us alone, never leaves us unaided in the challenges that we face." Speaking on the ministry of angels, he continued, "Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private... But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times." ("The Ministry of Angels", Elder Jeffery R. Holland)
The Prophet Mormon echoed this in a statement to his son Moroni:
“Has the day of miracles ceased?
“Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?
“Behold I say unto you, Nay; for … it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men." (Moroni 9: 35-37)
Whenever one lives worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost and honors the covenants they have made, angels will attend them in their time of need. Often times, those angels are the same people that we surround ourselves who, unbeknownst to them, act as emmisaries from our Father in comforting and guiding His children. Similarly, we find that when we act upon spiritual promptings, we too can become angels sent to our fellow men. The tender mercies of the Lord are everywhere in our lives - especially in the life of a missionary. Miracles abound in the work of the Lord, and those miracles come by faith. As we increase our own faith, we can find that "the very experience of enduring chastening can refine us and prepare us for greater spiritual privileges." ("As Many as I Love, I Rebuke and Chasten", Elder D. Todd Christofferson) So let us all reflect upon what we can do to grow stronger in our faith.
This has been evident in the past week for me. Following weeks where the work was slowed by the hurricane and other factors, we finally met success. Two young families are seriously investigating the gospel, and have committed to attend church and begin to take the steps needed to come closer to Christ. While true, I will not be present to see the progress of these families, it has been a wonderful opportunity to see success come following the "trial of [our] faith." (see Ether 12:6) In fact, one of those families is a referral that came from the relief effort corresponding with Hurricane Issac. As I have previously mentioned, service creates opportunites to share the gospel. Through our own service we have found opportunites to testify of the plan of salvation, and those opportunites have turned into people investigating the church. Like I said, miracles through faith has truly been evident this past week in Slidell. 
On a random tangent, we did service for a lady for 30 minutes and I got 18 mosquito bites on my legs. Boy mom, you were right all along, there's just something in our blood those stinkin bugs like. Lesson learned - always wear jeans when doing service haha.
But, time is running short. I love you all and hope you have an amazing week! The Chruch is true, I promise!
Elder Thomas

Last pictures from Slidell

Letter from September 17th, 2012

Well, what a week this has been. We have finally been able to get back to full-time missionary work on a consistent basis, and it has been a strange adjustment going back to wearing a shirt and tie every day again haha. But, it has been interesting because a lot of our longtime investigators have dropped us and a lot of people who had no potential before have sparked an interest. However, we unfortunately had to drop our cajun investigator because she wasn't progressing and had flat out begun to ignore us. That is what it means to truly feel disappointed because of the actions of another - where there was once potential for her to bring happiness, joy, and salvation to her soul there is now emptiness and, seemingly, bitterness. I only pray that her heart is softened and she finds opportunity to accept the gospel again in the future.
And, I'm getting transferred  Well, kinda haha. Transfers for the whole mission are this week, but because I have a couple of important doctor appointments here in Slidell, I will be staying here for an extra week or so to get things sorted out, after which I should be moving to my new area, Coushatta, LA. When people talk about a rural town, this is what they are talking about - I'll be going from a city of 70,000 to a town of 3,000. Slidell will truly be missed and has had an immeasurable impact on my growth as an individual, but nonetheless, it is time for a change. My new companion will be Elder Green, an experienced missionary that likes to work hard, so hopefully we will be able to work well together.
An interesting experience for me was yet another one tied to Hurricane Issac. Because we had spent a significant amount of hours in the past weeks contacting in affected areas searching for those who needed assistance, we amassed a work load large enough that the Church called upon members in Georgia to come and help in Slidell. They were given a few days notice, and had a full crew of a hundred people present - talk about consecration in action. A true testament of ordinary members doing all they can to live up to and fulifll their covenants. The stake called upon me to play the piano for a special sacrament meeting we were holding for them early Sunday morning. When we arrived, there were only 5 people in standard church-going attire (counting ourselves), and instead we faced a sea of yellow "Mormon Helping Hands" shirts. It was truly humbling to watch these men, dressed to go to work, unshaven, and lacking sleep, passing the sacrament to one another. The spirit was so strong in the meeting, and the Holy Ghost testified to me of the importance of the sacrament, service, and humility. It was a uniquely spiritual experience that I hope to never forget.
Also, you might find it funny to know how we have attempted to find people to teach this week - Mitt Romney. True, missionaries are told to avoid politics, but the opportunity that we found before us was too good to pass up; the Romney/Ryan campaign recently opened up a campaign headquarters here in Slidell, and at the same time we heard a statistic that interest in 'mormonism' was at its highest because of him. So we grabbed a stack a pass-along cards and headed in. Through talking to the lovely ladies there, we were able to leave the cards right in plain sight next to the merchandise, and they even took down our phone number and said they would put it in the county Republican newsletter, along with a link Talk about a golden opportunity. Even if we don't find a hundred new investigators from it, I feel confident that at least a few people will follow the link and learn something about our faith and beliefs. If that's all that comes from it, it was a success. 
Lastly, I finished the Book of Mormon today!! I started two days after entering the MTC and read consistently over the past three transfers, and what an experience it has been. My testimony of Christ has been strengthened by studying the testimony given of him therein, and I have learned how Christ himself would have us live. As a result of my efforts to study it, I have become a better person and a better missionary. To quote the Prophet Joseph Smith, "the Book of Mormon [is] the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man [will] get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” This became clearly evident in my experience over the past months, and the same opportunity is present for all who are willing to do their part and prayerfully seek to know of its truthfulness. If the evidence of the Savior's divinity and existence is available for each of us to read, ponder, and pray over, why wouldn't we do so? Heavenly Father is a God of promises, and he has always and will always keep his promise to provide a witness of the authenticity and truthfulness of the book to all who diligently seek it. The promise is clear - "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." If it's that simple then, once again, why wouldn't we do so?
Elder Jeffery R. Holland has said, "one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject [the Book of Mormon] . . . then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived; and if he or she leaves this Church, it must be done by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be: 'a stone of stumbling, … a rock of offence,' a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe in this work." We must gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon if we are to fully believe in this latter-day work. It is the keystone of our religion, and as such, all depends on it. Our claim to divine authority, modern day prophets, and all other beliefs, hang on the validity of one book. So to gain a testimony, we must read it, and I would encourage all of you to do so - as President Spencer W. Kimball would say, "Just do it." There is no truer saying than this - the Church is true and the book is blue!!
Elder Thomas
PS - sorry to hear about the Holy War.... but I did hear rumor that Bronco Mendenhall stood up to a Utah fan heckling him. Atta boy Bronco, atta boy. Those "classless" Utah fans ;P (Hey, Max Hall said it, not me hahaha)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Letter from September 10, 2012

Hello there!

Well, this past week has been quite a unique week in the life of a missionary, and the work has literally exhausted me every single day. I definitely didn't expect all of this when I received my call or when I was submitting my papers, but nonetheless, it has been such a learning experience which has allowed me to grow in many ways that wouldn't have been possible in other circumstances, and I am very grateful for that.

From last Monday to Saturday night, it has been work work work. Gut this house, remove this fallen tree, clear this debris made up the first couple of days, and then Friday and Saturday turned into us "tracting" in our yellow "Mormon Helping Hands" shirts and looking for people who needed help in all of the affected areas. It has been really cool to see barriers broken down as people realized that we were simply looking to help. People whose door we had knocked on months ago only to meet an abrupt rejection allowed us into their home and showed great love for the effort we were putting forth simply because we were looking to serve them. I have never felt like the work I was doing was as appreciated as I do now. It makes me wonder what I could do to help people see that our normal proselyting activities are of even greater service to them and thereby break down those barriers that unfortunately exist.

One of the great things that has come about because of our disaster relief efforts is an increased teaching pool. We have now received eight referrals to contact once they have rebuilt their homes, all from service opportunities. People naturally are curious to know what it is that motivates others to sacrifice their time to help a stranger in such a significant way, and as we have served others, that has become clear by us receiving these referrals. I am thankful to our Heavenly Father for providing us with such great opportunities to help others, and He has blessed us significantly.

We will be spending the next two days blitzing the affected areas seeking more work orders because the Church has offered a lot of member work crews from surrounding states to come and assist us this next weekend, we just need to know how much work we will have to get the right amount of crews brought in. To accomplish this, we are having our zone and the Gulfport zone come over and all 26 or so missionaries will do everything we can to get this done. What an effort. Just in the projects I've participated in thus far, we have seen over 300 man hours put into serving non-members, and that doesn't even begin to cover all of the other projects that will and have been done in Slidell alone. I can't wait to hear the final number of hours of service rendered (they are preparing a report to give to the Brethren - maybe they'll share in General Conference??).

One funny experience that we did have was while we were "tracting" in one of the hardest hit areas, Palm Lake. As we were walking, a young man approached us and inquired what we were doing. After a brief conversation, he proceeded to offer us both jobs on the spot with his demolition and renovation company. Apparently they had received contracts for over 120 homes and only had 15 employees. To give you an idea, it would take 12 hours for a crew of 6-8 people to do two homes. So we laughed and told him that we were full-time missionaries and not allowed to participate in commercial activities, and he awkwardly apologized and shuffled off. Man, maybe I should have seen how much they were paying!!! Hahaha.

So there you have it - a busy and exhausting week that will only continue. But I can testify that service is the best missionary work possible, because "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." Hearts have been softened, doors have opened that we never imagined, and lives changed as we have extended a helping hand. The beautiful thing is that it doesn't take a hurricane for this principle to become evident in each of our lives, because service opportunities are all around us, for members and non-members alike. Even with what might be considered a small act of kindness, we can brighten both our own lives and the lives of those we surround ourselves with, and opportunities to do so are everywhere we go - it is up to us to do our part and recognize them. As we do so, opportunities to bear testimony, through word or deed, will naturally come, and our own testimonies of the gospel will truly be strengthened.

 Although it is sometimes to forget, Christ's is a gospel of kindness and compassion, and it is only after we master the eternal principle of selfless service that we can progress in all aspects of the gospel. To quote President Monson, "'Love thy neighbor' is more than a divine truth. It is a pattern for perfection." He continues, "As we look heavenward, we inevitably learn of our responsibility to reach outward. To find real happiness, we must seek for it in a focus outside ourselves. No one has learned the meaning of living until he has surrendered his ego to the service of his fellow man. Service to others is akin to duty, the fulfillment of which brings true joy." May we always remember that we are all beggars (see Mosiah 4:19), and therefore it is our responsibility to assist others when God has provided us with the resources and ability to do so. As we do so, we can and will find true fulfillment in our lives.

Have a great week! I'm praying for you all!

Elder Joshua Thomas

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Letter from September 4th, 2012

Well hello there! 

What a week it has been for us here in Slidell. Hurricane Issac was an unpredictable storm, that's for sure. No one expected the damage that it caused. The odd thing is that some areas of town escaped unscathed and some were at flooding levels equivalent to Katrina. Crazy. 

I will start at the beginning of the story so you can get the whole picture - All the way to Tuesday the mission leadership told us that we were to stay put in our apartment for the duration of the storm, so we just went about helping people get ready for the storm. We were helping some members who own a jewelery store to clear out all of their goods in case of flooding when we got a cal telling us to get back to our apartment, pack up anything we cared about, and get to the bishops storehouse where we would be staying until further notice. So we did as told and made our way up to the storehouse with all of our valuables and clothing for a couple of days. Immediately we went to work inventorying all of the emergency supplies that the church had on hand with the Elders Quorum President, and boy, it sure was a ton. They have the supplies to clean houses, gut houses, cover holes in roofs, tents, cots, clothing, and emergency food. Hundreds and hundreds of each item. After that we were handed a cot and sent off to a room to sleep as the storm began to hit. 

The beautiful thing about staying at the bishop's storehouse is the fact that we had unlimited food, and let me tell you, the church's granola is amazing. :) And the applesauce. And the beef stew. And everything else. We sure do take care of people. Working with all of these supplies and seeing how the church was involved in coordinating supplies and making sure everything was taken care of has definitely helped me to gain a testimony of the welfare system of the church. Daily the representative of the church was on the phone with members of the seventy and area authorities to coordinate efforts and receive updates. Within 24 hours of the storm's departure, trucks arrived with more supplies. Holy cow. Without a doubt, it is an inspired program. 

But from where we were in the city, the storm was kinda a bummer. Nothing that I haven't experienced before. The problem was the fact that it slowed down significantly when it came over Slidell, allowing for water to accumulate and therefore cause flooding. However, I will say that I was sent outside to get something during the storm and the wind gusts did stop me dead in my tracks haha. 

Don't believe the news is one of the greatest things I learned from this experience. National outlets were exaggerating things beyond belief. They made it sound like Slidell was a battle zone that was completely under water. Only parts were. And no, the whole city was not ordered to evacuate. However, Old Towne was, which is where our apartment is. Bayou Bonfouca, which is right across the levee/railroad tracks from us, picked up so much water that it overflowed the levee and caused water to rush into our part of town. Our complex was flooded 9-12 inches, but since we are on the second floor, everything was fine with our apartment. The only we lost was all of our perishable food because the power was out. :/ It was crazy because we drove up to the beginning of Old Towne the day the storm passed and saw submerged cars and people canoeing across streets in areas that we tracted just weeks earlier. 

The big problem was that the Bayou is right next to the sewage plant, and so when that flooded, sewage was mixed in with all of the water that flooded us, leaving the area smelling suspiciously awful. And, there is a drinking water advisory, so we have to boil any water we use for drinking/cooking. How lovely. 

Our area had the section of town that was hit the worst - Palm Lake. The Bayou that overflowed runs straight into a little lake that is next to an area that is way below sea level, and when it rose, it caused 4 to 6 feet of flooding in all the homes. Driving our bikes down the street (which is a story in and of itself - the neighborhood is protected by police and the national guard. Thank heavens we are recognized as ministers) was such a heart-wrenching experience. Every single house had a massive pile of things out on the curb that were ruined beyond repair. Appliances  furniture, Sheetrock, flooring, clothing, and basically everything. An investigator there in the area tearfully told us that she lost everything again, and that she couldn't do it again after Katrina. Homes are completely gutted through there. Seeing that much devastation and suffering is something that will forever remain vivid in my memory - you can't fully understand it until you experience it yourself. 

But we have had a few opportunities to help others in their efforts to recover from the storm (we were only able to return to our apartment Saturday night). We have helped a couple of less active members gut houses and businesses effected by the storm. Everywhere we go we have offered service to others, and they appreciate the offer. It is difficult to try and return to normal missionary work when the people around you are suffering, and so we will continue to look for any way to help. FEMA has their command center set up right across the street from us, so maybe we can find people there that need some assistance. Church was an interesting experience because we only had sacrament meeting and then assessed the known needs of the ward and assembled a plan on how the members could help in the recovery efforts. It was an amazing thing to see - members stepping up and sacrificing of themselves to help others. 

I wish that I could have filmed the whole week that I just experienced, because there are so many little stories that I wish I could share. For example, the military patrolled our apartment complex with fully loaded assault rifles because of looting. Things like that can't fully be communicated through writing. Even the stories that I have shared have even greater depth. Issac has provided us with quite a few opportunities to realize how blessed we truly are to have the gospel and the church in our lives. Without it, we'd be lost and in great despair. I know without a doubt that despite the great suffering that many here in Slidell are experiencing, they can find greater hope for the future and joy in the present by turning to the Lord and inviting him more fully into their lives. The church is true and the book is blue!!

Elder Thomas

Monday, August 27, 2012

Letter from August 27, 2012

Howdee my friends!

This here's the wildest ride in the South!! With the approach of Hurrican Issac, the city of Slidell is going crazy. All of the Walmarts are out of stock, water is hard to find, and people are evacuating.  During Katrina, Slidell was literally destroyed, and so it makes perfectly reasonable sense that the people here are extra-cautious about hurricanes. According to all of the recent projections, it will make landfall just west of Slidell, meaning that the damage won't be severe here, but, two parishes over is currently facing a mandatory evacuation order, and ours is faced with a voluntary one.

As for now, we have been counseled to gather all of our valuables and neccesary items into one place and be ready to evacuate if needed, but in all likeliness, we will remain here in Slidell at the regional Bishop's Storehouse, which is built to withstand a Cat. 3. It's crazy to think that this is real, and that in two days I might be experiencing a hurricane.

As for success this week, yesterday was a great day. There wasn't a single moment available to tract because we had an entire list of people to go and contact, most all of whom were potentials we found through tracting. We taught 3 lessons to 3 houses in a row, and found some new investigators through those opportunities. A lot of people who we had thought simply said come back to be kind turned out to have real potential. The greatest part of the day was stopping on the side of the road to see if a guy needed help with his landscaping, which turned into him and his wife asking us all about prophets, allowing us to testify, leave a commitment, and secure a return appointment. The principle of going about doing good is what I believe to be one of the best ways to find others to teach because it is emulating the Savior's example at its fullest.

Another great experience that we had was our Zone Conference held in Gulfport, MS. No one really knew what to expect because it was President McDonough's first conference with us missionaries, but it was one of the most amazing experiences that I have had this far into my mission. He pulled out the scriptures and taught with power principles that any missionary could use and apply in their lives and companioships. The spirit was very strong and I had many promptings about how I can improve.

Following our lunch break, President taught a great lesson about the keys that a mission president holds and how they are meant to be used to lift missionaries up. He testified that he would do nothing to bring us down that would not build us up stronger in the end, exhorted us to be honest in all of our dealings with him and all others, and invited further diligence in obedience to a few simple rules that would strengthen the mission. It was a powerful address that was unscripted. We talked about "binding ourselves to act" and doing something to improve ourselves to be able to better help the people of the South. (D&C 43:9) I think that is a principle of the gospel that we often readily overlook - when the spirit testifies to us or prompts us to do certain things, when commandments are given to us, we must then promise to the Lord action, upon which many blessings are predicated. (D&C 43:10)

The zinger experience was what happened afterwards. President and I sat down together to discuss the logistics of some upcoming events, and afterwards, he began to ask about how I was doing personally. There has been a lot of stress that I have had because of multiple circumstances which he did not know about, but he discerned my needs and addressed them perfectly. Anyone who has served in a Preach My Gospel mission knows of the principle of asking inspired questions, and this was a shining example. He then asked if he could give me a priesthood blessing, to which I responded in the affirmative, and while I won't share the sacred counsel and promises made therein, let me just say, it has been a long time since I have felt the spirit so strongly. Without a doubt I know that he has been called of God and that he has power in the Priesthood. To have a man with keys given by an apostle lay his hands on your head and speak in the place of our Heavenly Father is a humbling, edifying, and inspiring experience. I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve under his direction and to serve the people of the South. May the Savior's peace and blessing be in all of your lives this upcoming week!


Elder Thomas