When I hear the words, “family trip” I instantly see crowded vans, smelly feet, and roll away beds in a Motel 6 room. But when I hear the word “vacation,” I see something drastically different: exotic places with good weather, exciting umbrella drinks, dazzling sunsets, and, most importantly, enjoying the people you are traveling with
I was about sixteen when I realized that most of the things I with my family would be considered a trip. One of the reasons I love the scriptures is that there are lots of trips going on and very few vacations. Lehi’s journey through the wilderness? Trip. Moses leading the Israelites through the desert? Trip. Noah’s family in an ark? Trip. You get my point.
After teaching his son, Helaman, about Lehi’s journey in the wilderness, Alma says this, “And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow… is there not a type in this thing?” (Alma 37:43-45) Alma makes it clear that the trips described in scriptures are meant to represent our own journeys through earth life. I have a strong testimony of this concept, but admit that I have found myself wondering why this journey usually feels more like a trip than a vacation. God is all-powerful; He could have sent Noah in a submarine complete with buttery popcorn and cable T.V. He could have sent the Jaredites via cruise ship with great weather and Bingo nights. He could let me snorkel, tan and eat my way to the Celestial Kingdom. But He didn’t do any of those things and I guarantee He’s not going to do any of that for you either. This should come as no surprise. Heavenly Father is open and straightforward with us.
In Abraham 3 versus 24 through 25, God says, “We will make an earth whereon [His children] may dwell. And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” He tells us in no uncertain language that we are here to be tested and proved, a process that is at the very least uncomfortable and, more often than not, tiring and painful.
I want to testify that we are here on earth for a reason. We have these few short years of mortality to prove ourselves for eternity. We have these few short years to become like God. Nothing else matters. It really doesn’t. If we fail to do this we will have wasted our time on earth.
I do not want to reach the end of my life with any regrets. I do not want to look back and see a life of ease. I want to look back and see a life of diligent, persistent devotion to Christ. I want to look back and see white-knuckled efforts to use my trials to sanctify and prove me. Like the Savior, I want to be able to look back and say, “It is finished,” and return to the presence of God knowing I did what I came to do.
When we truly understand why we are here, we will make living the gospel our top priority. We will start to understand that we really don’t want our journey on earth to be a vacation. We are grateful it is a trip, because it is our trials and adversities that allow us to prove ourselves and increase our dependence on God and His plan.
About one year ago, my 30-year-old husband was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly called ALS. Most people aren’t familiar with ALS. Until Ben was diagnosed I didn’t. ALS is fatal disease that affects the motor neurons of the body. As the motor neurons stop functioning properly, the muscles in the body die. The ability to move gradually decreases. Eventually, the diaphragm will no longer work. Once this happens, a person is no longer able to breath and death soon follows. Despite tremendous research, doctors have been unable to identify the cause of ALS. They have also been able to find a cure or even an effective form of treatment. Average life expectancy after diagnosis is 3-5 years. Now, over one year later, Ben is in a power wheelchair. His body is weak and he is unable to do many of his activities of daily living. Watching him struggle with the frustration of having a body that no longer works properly is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. Watching him long to hold our 20-month-old or swing her in the air or chase her through the yard or take her on daddy-daughter outings, breaks my heart. This has been the greatest challenge my husband and I have ever had to face. But this past year has also been the most defining year of our lives. We have come to learn exactly where are faith lies. We have come to rely on our testimony of the gospel. We have had to say to the Lord, “They will be done,” when what He is asking of us goes against everything we wanted for our life together.
God has promised that if we make him our number one priority, He will be with us in our trials. He will not allow them to overcome us, but will use them to prove us worthy of eternal life. I know this is true because as Ben and I continually work to properly prioritize our lives, we have found the strength and peace to face the reality of living with ALS. I’d like to share two things that have helped us do this
1. Keep an eternal perspective. Never forget why we are here.
2. Put God first by using personal revelation
First, gain an eternal perspective. I am an obsessive planner. When I was little I used to lay awake at night and plan how I would organize my covered wagon if I were going to move west. It sounds a little pathetic, but trust me, you’d wish you could ride in it. Likewise, I have spent hours planning my life. I now know that what I plan for my life can change in a moment.
A few hours after we left the doctor’s office, our bishop came to our home. He asked us if we had a testimony of The Plan of Salvation. C.S. Lewis once said, "You will never know how much you believe something until it is a matter of life and death." That night, my belief in Jesus Christ, His atonement and resurrection became a matter of life and death to our small family. I am grateful that because Ben and I have spent our lives striving to live the gospel, we were both able to answer that we had a sure testimony of the Plan of Salvation and our Savior. My plans change. Your plans will probably change. But I testify that the Plan of Salvation will never change. It is constant. Once our perspective begins to align with God’s, we see that the reason we are on earth is to become like God. Initially, I felt a lot of fear about Ben’s illness. I felt vulnerable. I worried about what each new day would bring and how hard it would be and if I would be able handle it. Now, one year later, I have found that my fear is gone. There are days of extreme sadness and frustration. But because I know why I am here and what lies beyond death, I am not afraid. As you work to gain an eternal perspective, you will be able to face anything that comes your way. You will begin to see trials as building blocks to eternal life instead of something to be afraid of. You will also see that your time on earth as precious. You will feel an urgency do the things that matter most, letting the less important things fall by the wayside.
I have always loved this quote by President Benson, “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper places or drop out of our lives.” When Lehi’s family put God first and left Jerusalem, good food, warm beds, and bathing dropped out of their lives. Like them, we must have the courage and discipline to let whatever the Lord asks drop out of our lives.
When my little girl goes down for a nap, I take a quick shower and get dressed. And then I face my daily dilemma: how should I spend my free time? I often find myself saying something like this in my mind: “Heavenly Father, I will pray and read my scriptures first, but, if I do this, you will need to make Emmy sleep for a long time so that I can get to all the other things I need and want to do.” I’m sure the Lord raises a celestial eyebrow at my demand. I am ashamed to admit that I have plead: “Heavenly Father, I will do my visiting teaching, work on my calling, pray, study scriptures, go the temple, and be an intentional mother and wife. But if I do these things, please, please, please don’t let naps, reading, watching Once Upon a Time, or eyelash extensions be the things that fall out of my life. Let me keep the extra but non-essential things I really like. After all, I am putting you first. “
I’m sure you can guess how this usually plays out. Most of the time I finish reading my scriptures, cleaning up, and am just getting ready to enjoy some quiet time, when Emmy starts to cry. I feel betrayed… apparently reading my scriptures did not buy me any extra time. Then I think of a quote by C.S. Lewis. I like to substitute the words “Putting God First” for the word Charity so that the quote now says this:
“If putting God first does not at all pinch or hamper us… our efforts are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because putting God first excludes them.”
Sister Julie Beck said this, “When we fail to prioritize we lose power.” We need power that comes from putting God first; it is what fuels our ships on their way to the Promised Land. That said, how do we put God first in our own lives? Sister Beck teaches us that, “Personal revelation…helps us to understand where we need help in prioritizing and what things we most need to work on.” Seeking and acting upon personal revelation is not a fast or effortless process. I am here to tell you that if you wait until the storms come to begin this process, you will be in serious trouble.
Lehi’s family experienced times when the winds blew their ship towards the Promised Land and times when they blew them backwards. The direction they traveled was directly proportional to their level of righteousness. I like to imagine that there were also times when the storms calmed and a gentle breeze pushed Lehi’s boat forward. The sun came out, the waves calmed and Lehi’s family could finally take a little breather. 1st Nephi 18: 9 says this: “and after we were driven forth before the wind for the space of many days, behold my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and also their wives began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing…”
I read that part, and think, “Good for them! Life is finally looking up; they get to have some fun.” Unfortunately the verse doesn’t end there. It goes on to say: “and [they did] speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither.”
Basically, Lamen and Lemual, put their spiritual feet up. When the waves started again, they were not in a position to move forward, instead they “were bdriven back upon the waters for the space of three days; and began to be frightened exceedingly lest they should be drowned in the sea.”
How could they have better used this time? Instead of partying, couldn’t they have inspected their sails, repairing any tears or weak spots? Or covered worn wood with pitch and tar? Or carefully consulted the Liahona to better learn which way they should travel? Couldn’t they have put the things of God first and prepared to move forward when the storm returned.
Sisters, each of us have small daily moments in which our ability to prioritize properly is tested. Like Lamen and Lemual, do we choose to focus on trivial things? Do we waste time on things that don’t matter eternally? Or do we seek after the things of Christ? Do we actively ask the Lord for ways we can strengthen our ships so that we are ready for things ahead. Remember, there are many good things available to us, but when we fail to prioritize them through the gift of personal revelation we will lose power.
I like hearing specifics. They give me tangible, doable ways to start doing something. Over the experiences of the past year and a half, I have found that the distractions of the world have somehow faded away and both Ben and I have had the privilege of seeing and knowing what truly matters in life. I’d like to share a couple of the things that have come to take priority in our lives.
First, I need to focus on creating a home and not just a house. As I mentioned earlier, I am a planner. I am also an obsessive organizer. When we moved into our first home, I was in heaven. I painted and decorated and built shelves and gathered food storage and started sewing a quiet book. But as Ben’s illness has continued to progress, we have had to sell our home and move in with my parents. I miss my house. I cry when I think about it, because now we now live in a bedroom. But I have come to learn that this bedroom is as much of a home as any house or apartment we have ever lived in. There isn’t much to decorate and it isn’t always clean, but within the walls of this bedroom, Ben and I read scriptures and earnestly pray together. We hold each other and cry together when things are tough. We work to keep our faith strong despite our situation. We laugh about things Emmy has done. We plan for things that are coming. Ben exercises the sacred power of the priesthood as he gives me blessings though his hands are very weak and it is hard for him to place them on my head. Our bedroom is our sacred home. Continuing to make it so should be one of my top priorities.
Secondly, I need to focus on being a mom. Parenting is an essential part of God’ plan. I need to take it seriously and see it as the responsibility and blessing that it is. I need to pray earnestly to know how to best help Emmerson become the person the Lord needs her to be. I need her to know I love her because of how I treat her. Do I hold her when she reaches for me instead of pushing her aside to finish dinner; or take the time to dance and jump with her in the living room even though lots of stuff jiggles? I love her. I want her to know that. I want her to know that her Heavenly Parents love her because of my example. I am Emmerson’s mother. Heavenly Father entrusted her to me. I cannot let her down.
Third, I need to focus on having a strong body. Our bodies are a gift from God. He expects us to care for them. If we abuse or neglect our bodies, how will they have the strength to serve and fulfill God’s purposes? Sometimes I get caught in the perfect-body trap. I want to look great. I even convince myself that I can face anything when I’m skinny, tanned and well dressed. President McKay said, “Even a barn looks better when it’s painted.” And he’s right. We need to take time to look nice, to exercise and eat well. But President McKay did not say, “Jena, stay home from church if you run out of eye liner; or, Jena, it is absolutely necessary that your high school jeans fit at all times. Or, spend hours getting ready until your body becomes simply decorative and is no longer a beautiful, powerful temple of God.”
When I get caught up in all those things, I like to take a step back and read this quote by Sister Hinckley:
I don't want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor's children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone's garden. I want to be there with children's sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.
The Lord gave me a body for things like these. I need to be careful not to lose sight of that.
Fourth, I need to hold to the iron rod and never let it go. President Benson said, “I have noted within the Church a difference in discernment, insight, conviction and spirit between those who know and love the Book of Mormon and those who do not,” and Nephi promised that “whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would bhold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the ctemptations and the fiery ddarts of the eadversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction. I love those promises. I rely on them.
Finally, my top priority needs to be to know and become like Jesus Christ. I want to share something I wrote when a good friend died of ALS that has helped me see this.
Today is my birthday. I am turning 29. And I can't help thinking about life. Yesterday, Kreg's life ended. Today is the anniversary of my life beginning. Life comes and goes. It is short. It is fragile. But what is it's purpose? It is to know and become like our Savior and our Heavenly Father. That's it. That's all that matters. And that should be the main event of our lives. Last night as we drove to the Kolb's home, I imagined life as a circus. In the middle of the circus is a Farris wheel. It is high and majestic. It is the main event. On the way to the Farris wheel, we pass booth after booth of games (which are impossible to win, by the way) and treats and toys and interesting things to look at. We buy our ticket to the circus, fully intending to ride the Farris wheel, but sometimes we get so caught up in the booths we run out of time. We miss the Farris wheel. We miss the main event.
Some people look at our situation and feel sorry for Ben and I. Sometimes I feel sorry for us. But the truth is, ALS is like having a fast-pass to the Farris wheel. It lets you bypass all of the distractions and go straight to the real thing. It is forcing us to really think about why we are here and what it is we should be doing and learning. It is showing us how empty the things we tend to fill our lives with really are. It brings purpose and meaning to everything that we are doing. It reminds us of the fragility of life and the importance of appreciating our loved ones each day. I admit that there I times that I miss the funnel cake booth. They taste really good. But I am grateful for the opportunity to know the Kolbs. To know what it is to appreciate life. To develop a tender and sweet relationship with my Savior and Heavenly Father and my eternal family. To enjoy the main event.
I know that as we prioritize properly, as we focus on the main event, we will overcome the storms of life and arrive safely in our promised land where we will live with our families and our Heavenly Father for eternity. I love my Savior, I love His Plan