Tuesday, December 24, 2013

With the dawn of redeeming grace.

Well, I'm home! The past week has been a whirlwind of preparations for Christmas, and sometimes I still can't quite accept the fact that I'm home. I'm no longer in Hong Kong; I'm no longer a full-time missionary. The work will continue, but I won't be there for it. The adjustment is hard. Sometimes I make little comments in Chinese that no one understands. There are times when I just wander around the house, wondering what to do. I'll turn on a song and then turn it off five seconds later because it reminds me of the time before my mission and it makes me feel uncomfortable. But what a blessing it is to come home at Christmas! And what a blessing to be surrounded by the people that I love the most.

I've been meaning to share a special moment I had on my last night in Hong Kong, but, as usual, I'm struggling to put it into words! I'll try my best. President and Sister Hawks took all of us departing missionaries to Victoria Peak over on Hong Kong Island. After dinner, we walked a ways to a quiet stretch of road overlooking the city. It was dark and cold and windy, so few people were around. We stood there, lined up against the railing, talking and reminiscing; but after several minutes, conversation gave way to silence, and a reverence came over us all as we pondered all that had happened to us here in Hong Kong. 

As we looked over the city, the millions of dots of light, I thought about the people that each light represented.  I thought of the 7 million people in Hong Kong, the vast majority of whom I've never met. I thought of the people I had met, whose lives I've influenced and who've influenced my life. My heart felt a deep sense of completion, of mourning, and of gratitude--the feeling was heavy and surreal. Without really thinking, I broke the silence with something like, "We should sing." So there we were, a small group of old, tired missionaries, singing Silent Night to an entire city of people whom we loved,  people who were going about their lives, quite as usual, completely unaware of the sacred moment taking place 1800 feet above them. I've sung that song a hundred times, and will likely sing it hundreds more throughout my life, but never will it be quite as beautiful or poignant as that time on the Peak. 

That song seemed to put into words our whole reason for being there, the reason for all that has happened to me in the past 18 months. It all comes back to the birth of our Savior. Christ, the Savior is born--the dawn of redeeming grace. Because of the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, hope is kindled. We can hope for change, for a better world, for the future. We can hope that good will win and that light will overcome darkness. Luke 1:78-79 says, "The dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." 

Let me tell you, very rarely were the nights silent in this bustling, loud, bright city. As we walked back to catch the bus, I thought about Bethlehem and what it must have been like on that night when Christ was born. It was probably much like Hong Kong in some ways--filled with people from all over, each with their own problems, their own reasons for being there. Most were likely unaware of the miracle that was taking place within their city walls. But that miracle would change their lives if they'd let it. And that miracle, the humble birth of the Redeemer of the world, can change our lives, if we let it. Believe me, it is changing mine. It doesn't matter where we have been or how dark it seems right now, because when we let Christ change us, the future will be filled with light and hope and heavenly peace.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Week 76, in which I resent the impossibility of accurately capturing in words what I'm feeling right now.

Well, this is it. I just had my final interview with President Hawks, and I can't believe that this is my last email, but it is. I don't know how to say what I want to say. I don't know how the prophets did it, spending their lives trying to describe what God has done for them. It would just get exhausting after a while! And no matter how many times you rephrase or rewrite what you've written, it's never quite the truth. But you have to keep trying, because you've just got to tell people about it. 

We met with Brother J, our hobbit investigator, this week, and oh how I love this man. He told us all about his childhood as we were reading together in 1 Nephi 3. The Book of Mormon has a way of opening people up and touching their hearts. He said, "I was born in Hong Kong, but during the conflict with Japan we moved to Mainland. During the Communist revolution, we moved back down and settled here in our village. I've lived in this house since then, but because of my childhood experiences, I've never felt like I'm home. I've never been able to put down roots and feel at home where I am. But I hope... I hope that your church can give me a place to put down my roots deep. I think it could be here. It could be like..." Me: "A family?" Him: "Yes, that's exactly it. Family." That's the miracle of the gospel. It allows you to bloom where you're planted, wherever you're planted. We can't always change our situation. But we can always change ourselves and meet the expectations of our Maker. Oh, Dearest Brother Jdoesn't know how high he can grow, what he can be, what adventures his Father wants to take him on. 

We had a hilarious encounter on the light rail train the other day that just sums up the ridiculousness of being a foreigner missionary who speaks Chinese in Hong Kong. A crazy-looking, extremely smelly man comes on the train and as soon as he sees us, his eyes light up. He makes his way over and I mutter something like, "Okay. Here we go again." He opens his mouth, which contained approximately three teeth. His front tooth was SO long. Then, with a rather insane smile, he spoke in relatively good English.

Old Man: Where are you from?
Sister Morgan: America. 
OM: America... You should have stayed there. Obama is there.
SM: Yes.
OM: (looking at our name tags) I believe in God.
SM: Good.
OM: But I don't believe in Jesus. 
Me: Well, we believe in God and Jesus.
OM: In Hong Kong, money is important.
Me: Mmmmm.
OM: YES, money is the most important. Then health is second.

At this point, a young, chubby boy in a school uniform looks at us and says, determinedly,

Boy: Good. Afternoon.
SM: Good afternoon!
Boy: You come from where?
SM: America.
Boy: America... New York is in America. (As you can tell, Chinese people like to show us that they're familiar with things from America.)
Me: Yes, that's right.
Boy: The buses are like buildings.
OM: (in a tone of disgust, mutters to himself) The buses are like buildings... Money is important! It would be great if you could give me some money!
Boy: The weather today is cold.
Me: Yes, it is. It is great. (I thought he said 'Good,' not 'Cold.')
Boy: No, it's cold. Because December is winter.
OM: (realizing that we're not even paying attention to him, turns to the little boy) Money is important, little boy!
Boy: (squaring his shoulders in a determined, heroic manner) NO.
Me: How old are you?
Boy: Twelve. 
OM: (as the train stops at the next station, and they're alighting) Money is important!
Boy: Bye bye.

The entire train watched this exchange with mixed amusement, confusion, and annoyance. Oh, need I even say why it is that I love and will miss the Hong Kong people?

Quote of the week, from a recent district meeting: "Sometimes when I'm in the shower, Elder F wants to put on his face cream, so he knocks on the door and I get mad and think, 'This has nothing to do with his face, he just wants to get on my nerves.'" Thanks, Elder P.

I attended my last mission leadership council on Wednesday, and at one point in the meeting, President Hawks talked about his call as a mission president. He said, "Elders and sisters, as your mission president, my primary goal is for you to be changed. I want you to leave this mission a completely different person from when you came. And I don't want you to ever be the same again." As he said this, tears came into my eyes. It has happened. I'm not the same as when I came. I'm far from where I want to be, but I'm where I need to be, and I'm not going back. Heavenly Father is a miracle worker. I don't know how he does it, but when we let him, he changes us. 

Sunday night we had My Conversion Fireside, where every departing missionary is allowed to invite a recent convert to share their testimonies, and lots of investigators and members come to listen. I'd asked Sister H (from Macau, she's working here in Hong Kong now!) to speak for me, but then her employer wouldn't let her. I didn't know who else to invite, but when I walked into the Mission Office on Wednesday, I saw Sister N, a recent convert from Macau! She's moving to Russia, but she said she'd be here until Monday morning! She was baptized before I got to Macau, but I worked with her a lot and I absolutely love her. She spoke and shared the most beautiful testimony about trials and the mercy of God. It sure was a tender mercy for me. I'd really wanted someone from Macau to speak, because Macau has so many special memories for me, and the Lord provided a way. I got to see Sister C (my companion when I was in Kwun Tong) and S, one of the members that I worked with a lot in Kwun Tong, and wow was it hard to say goodbye to Sister C. I will miss her so much, she will always be a dear, dear friend to me. All in all, it was a perfect evening. Just icing on the cake.

The last experience I want to share is one of the most humbling, special experiences that I've had on my entire mission. A month or so ago, we visited a family in the ward who hasn't been to church in a long time. We ate dinner with them, and I loved them right from the start. I feel like I love each person that we work with, but this family was different. I felt like the brother was my brother, that the sister was my sister, and wow do I love their little children. I wanted so much to help them, but I did nothing. We just shared a little spiritual message and ate dinner and left. Didn't ask any questions, offer much help. As we walked to the bus afterwards, I felt like an absolute failure, like I'd just wasted our chance. I prayed so hard for weeks after, just asking God to forgive me for being selfish and scared, and I did feel a lot more peace after that. But Heavenly Father didn't stop there. He gave me another chance.

I prayed and fasted so hard before we visited the sister, just hoping that God would tell us what to say. We spent a while planning, but it was so hard, nothing was coming. In the end, we just decided to each think of some personal experiences to share and some scriptures, and we each wrote down a couple. When we got there, she was so nice and sweet. She's so worn down by taking care of her children. Her husband works long hours, and she is just endlessly patient with him and their children. But from the moment we sat down on the floor, I had no idea what to say. I felt so stupid, everyone kept looking at me, and I just could not speak to save my life. I felt like I was a brand new missionary, and kept thinking, "Good grief Sister Cutler, what is wrong with you? Have you been a missionary for 17 months or haven't you? And you don't know how to fix this?" I just kept telling her that we loved her and her family. Then I opened up the Book of Mormon, trying to find the scripture that I'd been thinking of, one that I share all the time, and then all of a sudden, I couldn't remember if it was in 1 Nephi or 2 Nephi, and then I just opened up to a different one, 1 Nephi 21:14-16. We shared it, and then the Spirit just filled the room. I asked her what they were struggling with, why they'd decided to stop coming to church, and she explained it and was so grateful for our love and concern. She said that those verses were a good reminder that they haven't been forgotten. It'll take time for them to be able to start attending church again, but she is so happy to have us come visit and share all the missionary lessons and help them. She felt the Spirit, and she knew she was loved. It didn't matter that I was likely the most ineloquent person in all of Hong Kong at that moment, because the Lord took over. He sent the Spirit and taught all of us in that moment. I don't know how he filled me with so much love for this family. I don't know how he touched her heart the way he did. I don't know what the future holds for this family or for Tuen Mun or for me, but I know it will be glorious. I know this because I know God lives. And because he lives, the future is glorious. Things are better than ever before, and things will be better eternally. 

President Hawks said that some returned missionaries look back on their missions longingly and say, "Those were the best two years of my life." He said, "That makes me sad. The best two years should always be the last two years of your life." I'm determined to be that way. This has been the best almost 18 months of my life, but the next 18 will be better. And I know that's true because I know God lives and loves his children. I don't know the meaning of all things, but this much I do know. And that is enough. 
Good bye Hong Kong