by Bethany D. (From a talk)
I was asked to speak about starting fresh in the new year and finding ways to spiritually assess yourself and recommit. I did not realize how difficult this topic is for me, and I kept thinking about environmental factors that relate to these topics, so I am going to speak about the importance of environment and how it affects our ability to start fresh in the new year, or at any given time, later in my talk.
What can we do to have a fresh start in the new year? The new year is about new beginnings. It is time to put our past behind us and focus on the present and future and what the future may bring. It is a time for change and it is time to strengthen our faith. Starting fresh in the new year is fun and refreshing, yet challenging. It is a time for hope and faith, a time to look towards the future and all the experiences that lie ahead.
Personally, I set three goals for myself this new year – to eat healthier, to exercise more often, and to read the scriptures daily. Well, January first came and went and I did none of those 3 things… I failed, but guess what? I had January 2nd to start all over again….. that is the beauty of each day… it offers you a fresh start. And, each week for us is a new opportunity to remember our commitment to follow Christ and be Christ-like when we take the sacrament. We have a weekly fresh start!
How can one truly know how to spiritually assess oneself? I believe one of the most important factors is to be able to feel the Spirit. Can I feel the Spirit with me at all times? Can I tell when the Spirit is not with me? Am I praying regularly? Am I reading the scriptures daily? Do I truly care about others? Am I monitoring and controlling my thoughts? Am I fostering a loving, welcome environment? Or, am I mired down in what has always been done? Am I afraid to change? Am I stuck in the past? Those are some of the thoughts that came to mind when I considered how to spiritually assess myself.
I thought a lot about making resolutions and making changes in life. And I came across a speech given by Jeffrey R. Holland titled “Remember Lot’s Wife: Faith is for the Future.” During this talk, he shares some ideas about the danger of looking back. And he wrote about Lot’s wife’s circumstance, “Surely, surely, with the Lord’s counsel ‘look not behind thee’ ringing clearly in her ears, Lot’s wife, the record says, ‘looked back,’ and she was turned into a pillar of salt.” So, Lot’s wife looked back to Sodom and Gomorrah, against God’s will, and was turned to a pillar of salt. He then discusses some of the reasons why she may have looked back: maybe she resented what the Lord had asked her to leave behind or maybe, as she looked back, she longed for past days. That revelation really made me think of how often I may wish I lived in the past or have events from the past become part of my current life. I have caught myself saying, “If I only knew then what I know now…” and other similar phrases, and I realized that for every minute my mind was lingering in the past, I was wasting or missing out on the present moment wishing for something that would never be again…like, I will never be 26 again. I will never be able to run as fast as I did when I was 26, and I will never have the same body that I had at that age. And along with yearning for past experiences comes those negative feelings that are married to realization that the past will never ever be the present.
What is wonderful about the past is the precious memories and the life lessons it holds, but to be beholden by past experiences, and wishing them to be today’s experiences is foolish. Jeffrey Holland continues by sharing a little more insight on Lot’s wife, and that her turning back actually showed her lack of faith in God. “She doubted the Lord’s ability to give her something better than she already had. Apparently she thought—fatally, as it turned out—that nothing that lay ahead could possibly be as good as those moments she was leaving behind.” Wow, that is a powerful thought. She perished for her lack of faith. How many of us are figuratively perishing in aspects of our lives due to lack of faith?
A beautiful scripture tells us to, “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” So as we look toward the future, we need to do so with faith.
While so many of us strive to make changes at the start of a new year, each day is an opportunity to create change in our lives. If you are like me, and have already had a rocky start to the new year, don’t worry, we all have tomorrow to look forward to! I would like to share a few stories of how new beginnings can take place at any time and how environment plays such an important role in changes.
In my first year of teaching, 20 years ago, I met Pat. Pat came from a rough background and struggled in life. He was the kid that you see on the street late at night, always hanging around. When he came to the high school, he already had a list of behavioral problems. By the time I had met him, he had been arrested, and not long into his freshman year of high school, he was arrested again. His third arrest happened during his sophomore year. He was the student that was headed for jail. He struggled both at home and school, but what I did not know at that time was that he wanted to change. Over the second half of his sophomore year, the faculty noticed little changes in Pat – his attitude, his appearance. At the start of Pat’s junior year, his proverbial new year, he was ready for big changes. He wanted to start fresh. He started off his junior year dressing nicer. He no longer wore rag-tag clothes. He came to school with a better attitude determined to make himself a better person, and you know what, the people around him, his friends, his family, and the teaching staff allowed him to change. They did not hold him back… they did not hold him to be the kid that they used to know…. the trouble-maker, the vandal. The people around him welcomed the change and helped him become the person he wanted to be. I can just imagine how hard it was for Pat to make the change. Imagine the things in your own life that you want to change. You all already know how hard it is to change. Now take this young boy – this boy headed for jail, and imagine how hard it was for him to change. He had a reputation to keep. He was the tough kid… the class distraction…. the kid that was not afraid of authority… of doing things others would not want to do, yet, he wanted to change and change he did. As a senior, Pat was voted class president by his peers. And he helped run his class through a successful senior year. The changes this boy made were incredible, but the story does not end there. Because of the conscious effort Pat made, he went on to attend Cornell University. After spending a year at Dean College, he transferred to Cornell as a sophomore. For a child to have the will to change and then make the change is remarkable. Pat looked ahead. If he had looked back, hesitated one bit, not pressed forward, he may have ended up like Lot’s wife. Not literally a pillar of salt, but destroyed, none the less.
I want to share a bit with you about a current student who used to live in Viet Nam. Her name is Nga, and with her permission, I share part of her story. Nga moved to America 3 years ago, so as a sophomore, she started high school in the states. Three years ago she could not speak English – she just knew the basic hello or hi. She did not understand our culture, so much so, that she did not realize that she did not have to wear a skirt to be able to use the ladies’ room. Our bathroom doors have images of people – the boys’ lav has a stick figure of a generic boy with slacks on, and the girls’ lav has a stick figure wearing a skirt. She never wore skirts, so she was not sure as to which bathroom to use, so for the first few months of school, she did not use any restroom during school hours.
What I remember most when I think about the time I first met Nga, is her smile. She always smiled. She smiled at everyone. She still smiles, but for different reasons now. She shared with me that when she originally came to school in the U.S., she would smile so people would see that she is friendly. She could not communicate well, but she knew that most people would recognize a smile as a sign of friendship. Nga was creating her own environment. She could have easily projected any other emotion but she chose to smile. When Nga applied to the honor society last year, as a junior, she wrote the following in her essay, “When I moved to the United States, I had many struggles in communication and culture. Everything seemed strange to me. I was scared and homesick. I did not know where to start. Once school started, I felt comfortable and I loved school. I motivated myself to believe that nothing would be impossible if I tried hard. I knew that my future was waiting for me, and I could not be late.” Nga did not look back. She did not wallow in the past. She embraced the future! I cannot begin to tell you how hard she worked to accomplish what she has done in the past three years. Three years ago she was the one who could not speak a lick of English. Now, she is the one who mentors new English language learners in our school. She is a member of the National Honor Society, an organization that I co-advise, and she is the one who is the lead NHS tutor in anything math related. She is the one who changed her environment. She is the one who still has lots to smile about.
I close by leaving this challenge with all of us:
In this new year, will we foster environments that are accepting of change? Can we show the people around us that we are accepting of their changes? Can we do our best to make the people in our lives feel safe to change from their “given” roles to new roles if they want to change? Can we make positive changes in our own lives? And, will we look toward the future with hope and faith?
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.