Thursday, August 29, 2013

Miracles Happen

"There are two ways to live your life.  One as though nothing is a miracle.  
The other as though everything is a miracle."
Albert Einstein

Mostra on the Bastione

We had another Mostra on the Bastione this week.  Very gorgeous! But a highlight of my week up to today was on Saturday night after our Mostra.  Sorella O'Connor and I decided that we could use something of a relaxer for our evening, so after we cleaned up shop on the Bastione and got some kebab (yum!), we hurried back home and put in a movie that Presidente Caravagna gave us.  The movie: 17 Miracles.

Back Story
So, back in the MTC, the one movie I heard mentioned more times than any other was 17 Miracles.  I had never even heard of this 2011 movie before, but apparently I was the odd-man out as far as that was concerned because EVERYONE knew of it.  Movie buzz stirred even more when a song, Savior Redeemer of my Soul was performed not once, but twice during my stay at the MTC.  Then I came here to Italy, and I still continued to hear about it.  An Elder translated the song into Italian and sang it for his last Sunday here.  Sorella Cojan (my trainer) loved the song so much she played it on the piano every chance we had in the Church.  It is a gorgeous song, and I really only wanted to watch the move the more because of it.

This week, Presidente Caravagna mentioned that we should see the movie and then handed us each our own copy!  So, Saturday evening we finished our studies, changed into our PJs, and put in the movie.

17 Miracles
17 Miracles is the story of the 1856 Willie Handcart company and the miracles they saw.  It follows the journey of Levi Savage, a sub-captain of the ill-fated company.  Levi kept a journal as he came west toward the Salt Lake Valley.  Many of the miracles depicted come directly from his record, while some miracles portrayed were added into the mix from other companies that crossed the plains, but all of the events actually happened.  It shows, in a beautiful and stirring way, the immensely difficult trials these pioneers faced - but more than anything it shows the sustaining influence of the Lord during their darkest, most impossible situations.  What many of the pioneers come to realize in their journey is that for every tragedy, there are also miracles.
Photos: Excel Entertainment Group

 The song, Savior Redeemer of My Soul comes at the apex of difficulty for these pioneers, but also at the climax of the Lord's support of these good souls.

Heroes and Champions
The pioneers were good people, but what made them incredible was not that they endured hard things, but that they endured in their faith, despite everything.  For every bad, unfortunate, or tragic occurrence on that trek, the Lord was there to assist and comfort, to give aid and cheer - because of faith.  And, the power of faith was two-fold.  It allowed them to summon Heavenly help, and also to recognize Divine deliverance as it occurred.  All I could think in watching this film was - 'Well, shoot, I think I need to work on my faith.'  What a spiritual booster!  People are imperfect, people make mistakes, people can be weak and petty at times, but under the power of the Lord, they become heroes and champions, even in the lowest of circumstances.  That's the legacy and beauty of the pioneers, and that's the beauty of this film.  So inspiring.
"It's not miracles that generate faith, but faith that generates miracles."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Your Legacy as a Missionary
Last Thursday we had Zone Conference and were reminded about how our legacy as missionaries will be to fill the Rome Temple with people.  Working on it!  This is what I came here to accomplish.
The Sardegna Sorelle
Vediamo, We Will See
Maria Rita is doing fairly well.  She was sick the second half of last week, so we weren't able to see her until yesterday, but she is still contemplating baptism.  We emphasized the commitment that is baptism, just to make sure she understands what all of this means, and she seems very willing.  Vediamo.

Last week, most of our appointments cancelled from Thursday onward, so we returned to our old favorite
activity:  FINDING.  We did some casa in the rain - but the rain was short-lived (sadly enough).  The clouds here have been very pretty.  We went to parks, we contacted referrals, and we tried pass-backs we have been sitting on.  Unfortunately, nothing came of it.  But I know that the results of faith always take time to measure.  Despite little contacts and few lessons, I see miracles on the horizon.

Miracles Happen
Miracles happen every day, however, most people don't notice them.  People don't notice them because they're not looking, or not believing, or not realizing that miracles have not ceased.  The good news is that miracles are alive and well.  Listen to what the prophet Mormon taught:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased
because Christ hath ascended into heaven...?
Behold I say unto you, Nay;
Neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men.
Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me
ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me.
And now, my beloved brethren,...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 miracles are wrought;
and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men.
Moroni 7:27, 29, 33, 35-37

Isn't that great to know?  We don't have to refer to ancient text to see that God is current and active in our lives.  Miracles have not ceased.  And I've come to understand that we all get our portion of miracles - large and small.  I don't need to sail on an ark, or get swallowed by a large fish, or even have my life saved as a member of the Willie Handcart company crossing the plains in the dead of winter, to see His hand in my life.  My miracle is simply this: Of the 75,000 missionaries dispersed in 405 missions worldwide, I was called to serve in the Rome, Italy mission - the home of my ancestors.

In the years preceding my call, my family completed temple work for thousands of Italians on my mother's side of the family, and many miracles attended that genealogy (see family blog March 2014 Hearts of the Children to Their Fathers, Reluctant Genealogist, and Guardian Angels).  Shortly after completing the majority of their work, it was announced that a Temple would be built in Rome, Italy.  And now, just prior to its dedication, I was called as a missionary to find and prepare individuals and families to fill that Temple and receive its sealing blessings.

Miracles: Signs of God's Presence
Sorella O'Connor and I were carrying groceries home today, waiting at the bus stop in the sun, and both of us were sooooo thirsty.  We pulled a water bottle from our bag and started sharing it.  Got me thinking about Zion's Camp (June 1834) when 205 men were marching in sweltering heat and they had no water (the water they had been carrying was poisoned) and some of the camp started to complain.  So the Prophet prayed, grabbed a spade, walked to a random spot on the prairie they were on, dug a few feet deep, and struck water!  The Prophet had found an underground well.  Told this to Sorella O (we like swapping stories randomly), and she added - you know, that just goes to show.  God can provide us with anything we need.  If God can get the Prophet to find water underground for a camp in the middle of nowhere, He will get us whatever we stand in need (as long as it is what is best for us, and we have faith).  Great insight!  Miracles are signs of the Lord's presence in your life.  All you have to do is watch, pray, and believe.  God awaits to send a heavenly surprise to bless your journey.  Just look.  You'll see.

So, while we continue to do our Finding, I continue to believe that it is no accident I am here, now, in Italy, with an almost completed Temple.  As long as I have faith, the Lord will guide me to the faithful who will fill His House.

Miracoli Accadono.  Vediamo!
Sorella Ashley Nef

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ferragosto in Agosto!

Ferragosto has a religious connection with the Assumption of Mary (I don't know what that means), but Ferragosto is basically just like an Italian version of Thanksgiving where no one works, everything is closed, and everyone eats A LOT while hanging out with family and friends.  For missionaries, it means one thing: DEEP CLEANING.  Sorella O and I spent something like 6 hours cleaning.  Our apartment looks great.  But in the afternoon, we were invited to pronzo at a member's home, Sorella Seu, who lives in Villasimius (GORGEOUS beach town).  Sorella Seu is the only member in her family.
Ferragosto at Sorella Seu's House
A lot of family and friends were there.  The food was good of course - pasta, maialetta, bruschetta, and tiramisu ice cream (with cocoa instead of coffee, of course).  The most interesting part of the afternoon was when Sorella O and I got kissed - NOT OUR FAULT.
Eating watermelon at Ferragosto
A slightly drunk member of the family decided he was going to get kisses from the missionaries as a gratuity for his cutting of the watermelon.  So, he cut the watermelon, asked for us to kiss him, we said, "Sorry, it's against mission rules," and he yelled, "Well, you can't, BUT I CAN!" and then planted a big ol' baci on both my and Sorella O's cheeks (luckily it was just the cheek).  Sorella O turned bright red.  The elders just looked at us like, 'Your problem, not ours!'
with Fratello Locci (Ward Mission Leader) and family
"When is the Soonest I Can Be Baptized?"
Maria Rita and Giuseppina came to Church on Sunday!  I was so happy.  Maria rita wore a dress for the first time.  She looked lovely.  The members really welcomed them.  Giuseppina made some great friends among the Relief Society sisters, who invited them to the ward BBQ they are having this Friday.  Then Tuesday we had a lesson with them.  Normally, we meet them in the park, but a strange bout of sprinkling rain caused us move our discussion to the Church building instead.  Turns out, it was a tactical move on Heaven's part because of what happened during the discussion.
Chapel in Cagliari
Sorella O took the picture. That's me in the green
Maria Rita asked, "When should I be baptized?" We turned it around and asked her what date she felt good about (since she was uncomfortable with the last set date).  Because we were at the Church, we decided to show her the baptismal font and baptismal clothes, and walked her through what to expect.  She loved it, saying it made her feel really happy.  "I'm convinced," she said.  "When is the soonest I can be baptized?"  The soonest is September 1st, which is the last Sunday before transfers.

The member who was at the appointment advocated caution (the Branch has had several newly-baptized members go inactive for various reasons).  She emphasized that this was a big commitment to the Lord of time and effort, as she explained callings and visiting teaching etc.  "Pick a date," we told Maria Rita, "and pray to Heavenly Father about it."  Giuseppina was advised to do the same, but we think she needs a little more time.  Maria Rita is basically ready.  She has a testimony and is being very thoughtful about this.  She is living the things we have taught her, and is committed to do so from now on.  The Lord knows better than any of us what is right for her.  Sorella O is concerned about being transferred away before the baptism happens, but, in the end, she knows that it doesn't matter if she is there or not.  But, it's still difficult - we have so little time left!  Anyway, the next scheduled date with them is Thursday evening when we'll watch The Restoration and testify about the Prophet Joseph Smith.  We are hoping that seeing the story of Joseph Smith take place will help flourish Giuseppina's testimony.  We just love them so much!

The Nef!
For some reason, the nickname "The Nef" has followed me and my siblings throughout school years.  I simply attributed it to the fact of brothers and sisters with a brief last name attending the same schools.  The nickname, however, became a Twilight Zone-ish kind of thing when, out of the blue, my District in the MTC began calling me "The Nef."  They didn't call me Sister Nef or Sorella Nef.  No.  I was lovingly given the title of The Nef.  Now, somehow, the phenomenon has followed me to Italy.  Again, not my doing.  Maria Rita calls me "Questa Nef" (This Nef).  So funny!  I grammatically went from an article (The) to a determiner (This).  Is that a promotion?

English Course Students
with English Course student, Sandro
Sicilian born, he speaks great English (with a Brooklyn accent!)
with English Course Students
English Course Students
The Miracle of English Course
I must tell you about two new investigators that came from our English Course, Rita (a mom) and Sara (the 14 year-old daughter).  In class, we passed out a survey to the students, asking if they were interested in any of our services, and had listed a few options, including "Approfondimento e applicazione delle scritture nella vita" (Explanation and application of the scriptures in life).  Sara, the daughter, checked this one.  So we had called her up, set up an appointment, and met with them for the first time last week to get to know them better and see what they had in mind for these meetings.  Both Rita and Sara showed up, and we talked a little about the bible and its purpose, and connected it to the Book of Mormon, testified about it, and asked if they would like to know more.  "Sure," they said, "but can you bring more people to the meeting so it won't be just us?"  I think we could arrange that!  So we set an appointment for Monday this week and we invited a member and her daughter (who is also 14 years old) to join us :) .

So we have this lesson, still not really knowing Rita and Sara's intent, but we planned a powerful Lesson 1 on the Restoration of the Church.  We gave the complete lesson, as it says in Preach My Gospel, emphasizing the importance of prophets and how we can know for ourselves through the Book of Mormon.  The members we invited bore great testimonies about how they came to know the Church was true (the Spirit was strong).  The Spirit was probably the most powerful as we told the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the First Vision, which I had the privilege of sharing.  Rita and Sara were riveted.  Rita also talked about how she has been a faithful Catholic, but the church she usually attends has recently changed priests, and it just isn't the same.  She can't pay attention, no one likes to come anymore, and there really isn't anything she feels tying her there anymore.  At the end of the discussion, we gave them their own copies of the Book of Mormon (which they were happy to get), and asked if they would read and pray to know of its truth.  They said yes.  Rita agreed to say the closing prayer, and in her prayer she said she believed everything we said, including the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but she would read it to know for herself.  Sorella O and I were astounded at her faith to already believe!  We really hope for the best for her and Sara!  The members also invited them to the Branch BBQ - GO MEMBERS!  FELLOWSHIP!

Mostre on the Bastione
This week we had our Mostre (display) on the Bastione St. Remy, which has the most GORGEOUS view ever of the city!
Here are a couple of our displays:
"Where did I come from?"  "Why am I here?"
"Where am I going after this life?"
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"

Ragazzi at the Mostre
The first night we were really nervous because the Bastione is very tourist-dense, and though I speak Italian really well, I don't speak Spanish or Polish or Romanian or German - which is where most of the tourists were from.  But after a little bit, a giant crowd of ragazzi (teenagers) who had been drinking and smoking came up and started asking questions.
Ragazzi on Bastione St. Remy
Speaking with ragazzi.
Those are our legs behind the picture of Christ

Legit questions - they were interested.  In the end, we gave out every copy of the Book of Mormon we had, which still wasn't enough, and got the phone number of one girl so we could stop by her home and give her one directly.  Super cool!

Paparazzi While Proselyting
So, while at the Mostre, there was a photographer who began taking pictures of us.  Here they are:
He said, "Wow, you two have beautiful eyes," as he parked his lens a few inches from our noses and began shooting (uncomfortable).  He gave us his business card and said he'd post the pics on Facebook.  I think we made a friend.
The Photographer created this Advertisement
"The California Sisters at the Bastione"

Sunset at the Bastione
From the Bastione you can witness some of the most gorgeous sunsets with sky hues of purple, orange, hot pink, red, and the bright moon shining over the sparkling sea.  Stunning.

It's been a week of celebration, of getting together with family and friends for laughter, fun, and eating. The week has also brought a spiritual feast:
     •  Less-actives who we've been working with are now coming to Church again regularly.
     •  Visiting members, we had lessons with their family who are not baptized.
     •  Mostre on the Bastione was fruitful.
     •  Two new faithful investigators.
     •  Maria Rita and Giuseppina are praying to know when to enter into the family and fold of God.
Now, that's something to celebrate!  Buon Ferragosto.

Questa Nef,
Sorella Ashley Nef

Monday, August 19, 2013

Faith and the As-If Principle

Welcome Back Maria Rita and Giuseppina!
Maria Rita and Giuseppina called us last Monday to see if we would meet with them.  I sounded ominous, like it was going to be a final meeting - exchanging contact info etc.  But we showed up on Thursday to the appointment, and they began asking about Tithing and Fasting...what?  So, we talked
Giuseppina, Maria Rita, and Sorella O
about it a little, while Sorella O and I exchanged glances like, 'Did we just misunderstand them on the phone?'  Finally, we asked them straight out, "What happened?  Why did you back away?"
     They became a little timid and said, "Well, it was because we didn't think we could be ready for baptism by the August date you set."
     "That's completely fine," we said.
     "Really?" they looked surprised.
     "Well, of course!" we said, "We thought it was clear that the date was just a goal and not something set or fixed."  They were relieved.
So, they are meeting with us again!!

The Trenino Verde to Sassari
Trenino Verde
Thursday evening we headed north to Sassari for our scambio!  Yay!  Sassari is, again, a beautiful city.  Small, but beautiful.  The ride by train is about 3 hours one way, which means we could actually go to Rome and back by plane quicker than a trip to Sassari.  To get there, we take the Trenino Verde.
     Author D.H. Lawrence said of Trenino Verde, "It's a strange railway.  It shoots up hills and down into valleys and races around sudden curves with the greatest nonchalance..."

It's a very long ride, but the plus side is we got to see the GORGEOUS Sardegnan countryside.  Lots of sheep, lots of farms, lots of cattle, and lots of green.  Really beautiful!  Here are some pics:
Cactus, typical in Sardegna
It was even stormy during some parts of the ride.  The dramatic storm clouds made me think of Zion's Camp, beside the Little Fishing River when God sends a storm to stop the malicious mob from attacking the Saints.  In a dramatic video rendition I once saw, the brethren gather in a little cabin and Joseph says to them, "Brethren, God is in this storm."  And He was - protecting them through their journey.  Nothing terribly dramatic happened on our trip up, but the reminder was a good one; the Lord is always with His servants.

Sassari was nice.  We did a lot of less-active search, with not much success.  But we were quite successful in lightening the attitudes of some people on the streets.  Some people walk around and look as if they'd kill you as soon as look at you.  However, when you smile and say 'Hello,' then the mean expression dissolves instantly.  Love it!  At least we were successful in that.  We ended the day by helping ward members clean the Church for an activity.  They needed extra hands - sisters to the rescue!  By evening, we headed back  to the apartment and discovered that just below, on the street, was a band playing.  They were singing songs in Sard (the language of the island - but this was specifically in the Sassari dialect called Sassarese).  It was sooo cool!  Folksy, with Spanish flavor, and a dancing cadence.  So we danced!  A neighbor peeked her head over and started translating a few songs for us.  One was about his first love, Catarina, and another was about frying eggplant.  Ah, the songs of Sardegna!  We slept on the sisters' giant balcony, felt the cool night air, and awoke to gorgeous cloud masterpieces.  It was the best.
Mostly, I feel like Sorella O and I were there to help the Sassari sisters feel better about themselves.  They are both fairly green (two on far left), struggling with the language, and we could see that they were a little giu (down) when we joined them for this scambio.  Attitude is all a matter of focus.  So, we attempted to turn attention away from what they thought they could not do, and shift it to focus, instead, on the many blessings the Lord was handing them every day.  We all need these types of reminders.

If You Could Ask God Any Question, What Would It Be?
Saturday and Sunday, we had another Mostre - this time in the Park.
The Secci Family helped with the Mostre
Sorella O and I went through the park conducting surveys to promote a little conversation.  Questions were:
Our Pass-Along Card
     1.  If you could ask God any question, what would it be?
     2.  If there were a book that answered this question,
          would you read it?
The second, of course, was a lead in to the Book of Mormon (because it does answer every question).  We ended up having some interesting conversations.  One lady actually accepted the Book of Mormon and said she would read it.  Another lady (with whom we had almost exactly the same conversation as the first - the Spirit was so strong, and both Sorella O and I testified as powerfully as we could with that Spirit) - this second lady rejected the book and our message entirely.

The next day we did the same thing, and one young man accepted a copy while his girlfriend said, "I promise you this book will not change my life, but I am happy for you."  Isn't it interesting the various ways people respond to this message?  Exact same Spirit. Exact same message.  Exact same missionaries giving the pitch.  Different responses.  Sorella O and I did everything we could to testify and invite with the Spirit, but in the end, people have their agency.

Sharing and Agency
To be a great missionary does not mean people will listen, it only means that we share and allow people a choice.  People didn't listen to Jesus or His Apostles.  They didn't listen to prophets throughout the dispensations.  People decide what they will allow into their hearts and what they will send away.  It's simply our job to offer truth and give them the opportunity to choose.  If we didn't share, we, in essence, interfere with another's agency.  Any time we hold back what we have, we are essentially making the choice for someone else.  So, our job is not to judge who will or will not accept, but to open up with everyone.  Bottom line: my success does not hinge upon whether or not they accept.  I am a success every time I share, because as I do, others are handed a chance to use the greatest power gifted to us in this life: agency.

Ci Sto - I'm Down with That!
The past couple of days have been pretty peaceful.  Not too much to report, really.  We have received 3 referrals.  The assistants in the mission office laugh at us every time they call with another one.  Apparently, only we and the sisters in Rome get referrals.  We have no idea what is happening with the women in southern Sardegna, that they are all requesting copies of the Book of Mormon, but ci stiamo (we are down!  I like these Italian expressions that really only translate into English slang.  There's no other way to translate it in English.  Ci Sto - I'm down!)

Faith...As IF
I gave an addestramento (Lesson) on Monday for District Meeting.
The topic I chose was Faith and the 'As If' principle.  Faith is a principle of Action and Power, meaning, we must Act and then Power follows.  Which basically means that Faith is tied inextricably to Obedience (no wonder obedience is a Law of heaven).  If we want the Lord's help, then we must live what we believe to be true.  But how do we obey if our faith is not great?  How do we act on faith when we are not sure of things?  We ACT AS IF we were sure.  We set goals for where we want to be, and ACT AS IF we already possessed that gift.

For instance, I want to be able to hold a conversation with anyone and everyone by the end of my mission (except in teaching, I am downright shy when it comes to casual conversations).  How do I get to the point of holding conversations with anyone and everyone?  Answer: I must talk to everyone.  I must do (right now) that which a person at that level would do.  Obviously, I won't be good at it.  Obviously, I will mess up and fall short.  But that's why the Lord wants humble people.  We just do what we can, and He makes up the rest.  He's our wing man.
     FIRST, we Act on Faith (even if it's the smallest effort).
     THEN, the Lord fills us with Power.
And by His power, He not only magnifies the gifts we seek - He ends up magnifying word, in conversation, in deed.

Benedizioni a Tutti,
Sorella Ashley Nef