Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Speak in Stake Conference? ... Me?

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I was asked to speak in Stake Conference this past Sunday.
I have given talks in church before, in my own wards, where there are only about a couple hundred people at the most, and they are people that I see each Sunday... and even in that setting, I am always scared to death, get sick to my stomach for days, so super nervous. But Stake Conference? I have never given a talk there before, so when I was asked to give a 15 minute talk in Stake Conference... in front of probably at least a couple thousand people... multiply that fear and sickness to my stomach by a million then throw in difficulty taking deep breaths for days and a terrible headache.
I. Was. Scared.

BUT... I asked friends and family to pray for me. I prayed as well. I needed help and guidance from the Lord, so I asked for the Spirit to guide me and inspire my thoughts and words. The night before I was supposed to speak, I still had not started typing until about 11:00 at night. That was only 11 hours before I was supposed to speak in front of all of those people. Once I started typing, a few things started to flow... 
but I was still feeling like I was lacking inspiration about how to present the information, so I prayed again and again... and it finally came together. I was up until about 4:00 in the morning and I was up at about 8:30, so I didn't get much sleep, but I felt pretty good about the words that I was about to deliver... it was the delivering part that I was so nervous about at that point. I sat up there on the stand in front of everyone and I couldn't catch my breath, I felt like I would throw up, but when it was my turn to stand up, I felt like the Spirit took over. I felt a little more relaxed and I just spoke from my heart.

I didn't stick to the script exactly word for word, but I followed this really closely. I want it on my blog so I have it safely with the rest of my 'journaling'. I think I want to put my other talks I have given in church on here as well... if I can locate them. Here's hoping.

 This is a photo my sister sneakily took with her phone while I was sitting up on the stand.

Anyway, here is my talk that I gave in Stake Conference, complete with my opening joke to break the ice...
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Leslie Harkness talk for Stake Conference – September 7, 2014

When I got the call on Friday morning from President Lake, he seemed to be preparing me for what he was about to ask me and the thought crossed my mind “oh no, is he going to ask if he can set me up on a blind date?” but the fact that I am standing here today proves that was not the question. I still can't figure out which question I would have preferred though.

My name is Leslie Harkness. I am the daughter of the Higginsons in the stake and the daughter in law of the Harknesses, who are also in the stake.

The topic I was given is: How your life experiences relate to the scripture "all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good" (D&C 122:7)...what you have learned, what tender mercies have you observed, what have been your greatest challenges and how has your faith been strengthened?

Before I begin, I wanted to start with a disclaimer by mentioning that in no way do I think my challenges are harder or more painful than anyone else's, but the things we learn from our challenges can help us learn from each other if we are all willing to share those things.

This kind of topic is not something you can research to prepare it, it is a topic that can only be prepared by reaching into the tender feelings of one's heart. As I thought back on my life experiences, I decided to share 3 of the challenging times in my life and what I feel helped me through each one.

When I was 8 years old we were living in Missouri at the time. I had just been baptized and within a month after my baptism, I was in a car accident with 4 of my siblings, a car accident that took the life of my brother and put me in the hospital with a broken femur. That was a difficult time for my family and our hearts were broken from the loss of my brother... The challenge I want to share with you was my experiences as I was healing from my broken leg. I was in traction in the hospital for nearly two weeks. My brother had been there for the first few days and shared a room with me, once he got to go home, my oldest sister would come and stay with me at night, but there came a time when the doctors told her she would not be allowed to anymore. So, there came a time when I would get visited every day by family, but at night I was alone. 8 years old, grieving the loss of my brother, sleeping alone at a hospital about 45 minutes away from my family. It was hard and I was lonely. After I got out of the hospital, part of my summer was spent in a body cast that covered one of my legs completely and my other leg down to the knee and came up to my chest with a bar extended from leg to leg holding them apart. When I look back on that time in my life, I remember a girl who felt tougher than she probably was and felt like nothing could keep her down. I remember an 8 year old girl who had the courage to face difficulties with a smile on her face and had a cheerful countenance. She saw that body cast as just an obstacle that could and would be overcome. I learned to run around our farm in that body cast trying to keep up with my siblings. I was quite a sight. I couldn't bear the thought of missing out on life and experiences, so I ran around in that body cast as though it wasn't even there.

There are so many places in the scriptures that tell us to “be of good courage” and to “be of good cheer”.
In Psalms 31:24, it says, “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.”
In Proverbs 17:22, it says “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
I am sure it does good for us in our physical AND spiritual challenges to be cheerful.
I look back on that time and I am so grateful for the courage I was given to face that challenge and the cheerful attitude I was given to help me endure and to heal.

When I was 10, we moved back to Utah. The next challenge I wanted to share was something I struggled with for years, but didn't realize at the time that it was something I needed to overcome. After I got home from my mission, I struggled with this challenge more than I ever had and finally, a little over a year after I had been home, through the encouragement of a friend, I stopped denying the fact that I had an eating disorder. I confided in my family and asked for their support. As I faced that challenge head on, the adversary worked harder on me than ever to try to keep me from freeing myself. It was a painful process and I spent a lot of time praying for help. I remember a time during that process when I called my parents to let them know that I had felt hunger pains that day. It had been years since I had felt hunger pains and it felt like small triumph. I still struggled though and one extra difficult day, I ended up going to the temple because I needed to receive a boost of strength from the Lord. In the Celestial room in the Provo Temple at that time, there was a painting of the Savior at the Second Coming with his hands out stretched. As I sat there praying and seeking help in the Celestial room, I looked up at a mirror across the way from me and all I could see of the painting in the reflection of the mirror was one of the Savior's hands reaching out. I got the distinct impression that I was being told to take Him by the hand and to let Him lead me. The comfort and peace that brought to me that day was such a tender mercy and it gave me great strength.
In 2 Nephi 4:20, it says: “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep.”
I was so grateful to know that the Lord was on my side and with Him by my side leading me along, I could overcome the challenge I was facing.

That next year, in 2002, I dated, got engaged to, and married Aaron Harkness in the Salt Lake Temple. The life I always wanted as a wife and mother seemed to finally be coming true. I was a wife and now all that was left to fulfill my lifelong dream was to become a mother to a bunch of kids. Marriage was not without its challenges. There was unexpected turmoil that I hoped one day would be worked out. Then in 2005, I became a mother when our son, Aaron, was born. He was perfect and it was the happiest day of my life.
In November of 2007, at the end of a very tough year, Aaron had been in an accident and because of his injuries, he was in a weakened condition physically. Because of that and complications with the medication he was taking, he passed away just two days before our son would turn 2 years old.
Here we were... in a place that I never expected to be. A widow at age 30 and a single parent to an almost 2 year old who would only remember his Daddy through photos and stories he was told. Our world was shattered, completely turned upside down. I missed Aaron and I didn't want to be alone.
The grieving process was very painful. Being alone has been very painful. Helping my son through his own grieving process has been difficult and painful. Some days, I felt like I couldn't possibly survive the pain of it all, it cut to the core and I wondered if it was even possible for my wounds to be healed. Those have been the days when I know I have no other choice than to turn to the Savior. Those are the times when I plead with the Lord to help me be strong, to help me endure, to take my burden and carry it for me.

In a quote by Elder Joseph B Wirthlin, he said:
"Each of us will have our own Fridays--those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays. But I testify to you in the name of the One who conquered death--Sunday will come. In the darkness of our sorrow, Sunday will come. No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come. In this life or in the next, Sunday will come.“
(Joseph B. Wirthlin, "Sunday Will Come," Ensign, Nov. 2006, 30)

I put that quote in a journal entry of mine just two months after Aaron passed away and then I wrote:
“Those 'Fridays' that it speaks of... I have had so many of those days. Days where I don't even feel comfortable in my own skin. It just seems like there is something terribly wrong in the world. The world doesn't feel right, it feels like a nightmare, where nothing seems to make any sense at all. Days where I feel like [this life I am living] just can't be real. Right now, my future seems bleak... but this 'Sunday' that is spoken of... I know it will come... it has to come. I know that this much pain and sorrow can't overshadow me forever. I know that the sunlight will start to peek through as I cast more and more of my burden upon the Savior. It seems so far away right now, but I know He is there ready and waiting.”

In Psalms 55:22, it reads: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee.”
I have felt the Lord sustaining me through this trial. I have felt my burdens become lighter as I called upon His name for help and for strength.

There is a story I love and it illustrates a point that I had hoped to make today:
“A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.
So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.
The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.
What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.
–Author Unknown

There have been many times during my most difficult challenges when I have wished the struggle could be over, when I have hoped for it to end because it is just so painful and hard. But if the Lord took away all of the pain and all of the struggles that we face, we would be missing out on everything we would be learning from those experiences, we would also miss out on the strength we would gain as a result of our struggles, a strength that we need as we go on to face other challenges and a strength that allows us to become more like our Savior. Each challenge helps to prepare us for the next and even greater challenge we will face.
These trials we go through are molding us, shaping us, refining us... not only into what the Lord NEEDS us to become, but what the Lord KNOWS we CAN become. He is helping us to become more like Him. The question is, why would I want to short change myself? Why wouldn't I want to gain the full potential that the Lord sees in me?

It has now been 6.5 years since Aaron passed away. I still have my difficult days, I still feel like the storms in my life are raging, but my tender mercy through these years has been my son Aaron. He has definitely helped me to see the sunshine amidst that storm. He has brought me joy even through the sorrow. He has given me a purpose to press forward each day.
Now, the most prominent challenge in my life now is trying to have patience while being single again. Trying to have patience while I wait for my opportunity to get married again someday and receive the blessing of having more children. I still have that dream of being a wife and the mother to a bunch of kids. My sweet son hopes and prays for it as well. He wishes for us to have a family. There are so many singles that I have met in the church who hope for this, who struggle as they wait for this righteous desire of their heart to come to pass. It is a lonely road and that loneliness can be very painful.

I want to share a poem that I love so much:
"Pain stayed so long.
I said to him today, 'I will not have you with me anymore.'
I stamped my foot and said, 'Be on your way,' and paused there, startled at the look he wore.
'I who have been your friend,' he said to me. 'I who have been your teacher - all you know of understanding, love, of sympathy, and patience, I have taught you. Shall I go?'
He spoke the truth, this strange unwelcome guest; I watched him leave, and knew that he was wise. He left a heart grown tender, he left a far, clear vision in my eyes. I dried my tears, and lifted up a song - even for one who'd tortured me so long."
-Author Unknown

My challenges have taught me so much. I have become stronger, I have learned patience, I have learned compassion, I have drawn nearer to the Lord. I have gained a stronger testimony of and come to understand more facets of the atonement of our Savior. The atonement is real. He suffered pains, afflictions, and even loneliness as he endured in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was left alone, he endured it all for us. Jesus Christ's atonement not only allows us to repent, but it can also change our hearts. It has eased my sorrow, my pain, my insecurities. It has helped me turn my weaknesses into strengths. It has calmed my troubled heart, and healed my broken heart, it has given me the power to overcome, it has given me the power to forgive those who have hurt me. It gives me peace in this troubled world. It does this and so much more for all of us. We can turn to the Lord at any time for any thing. He loves us so much.

In John 16:33, my favorite scripture, the Lord says:
“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

We can have peace because of Him. Be of good cheer, he says. He wants us to be happy. He wants us to be able to have the joys in the midst of the sorrows. He has overcome the world. He suffered all things for us and He has overcome all of life's challenges (physically and spiritually) so that we, too, can also have that power to overcome them.
We CAN overcome all things because of Him.

He gives me hope for even brighter things to come...

He is everything and I love Him so much.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Momza said...

Thank you for sharing your talk here; so full of hard-earned wisdom, Leslie. I've never heard the butterfly story before...that is some powerful imagery.
Your testimony is borne from trials and it continues to grow as you earnestly, purposefully, live the Gospel. May you be blessed with the righteous desires of your heart. ~Sr. A

Kristi said...

I'm so glad you posted this since I couldn't be there.
Great talk. I cried.

Mindy said...

Beautiful talk! I'm so glad you shared!

Ceri said...

Leslie, I so enjoyed your talk. Thank you so much for posting it here. So beautifully shared, and you have such a precious testimony from your experiences.

I wholeheartedly agree with you. Though I feel like my own trials are too much to bear, and many times have prayed for them to end, I do know that through them I am growing, through them I am learning the lessons and becoming the person that I need to be to serve and love others more and be a blessing in their lives, and to be prepared for the future growing opportunities that will come my way. I do still pray for that sometimes, but more now I pray that for the Saviour's strength and to be able to learn all that Heavenly Father wants me to from each trial, and be able to do His will. I guess I'm growing. ;o)

I love that I can sort of be sitting in conference with you from all the way over here. I love you Leslie! Ceri xxxxx