Sunday, September 11, 2016

Doubt Your Doubts, Have Faith in your Faith

Sacrament Meeting talk, September 11, 2016

It’s one thing to have faith when the sea is still and calm, and it’s clear that God is there, since His peace,  protection and blessings surround us. It’s a whole new challenge to have this strong faith when our lives seem tossed upside down, and not sailing at all how we imagined them to. It is then when faith falters, and doubt knocks on the door of our heart and mind.

I use this terminiology because the story of Christ calming the waves is one of my favorites. I’ve had the great blessing of spending a semester at the BYU Jerusalem center, and that included 10 days on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. One day we took a boat across the very waters that Christ calmed. The sea was as smooth as glass.  We read the story in Mark 4:

37 And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.
38 And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?  39 And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  40 And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?
As we read this story, in the very place where it happened, my heart was full of faith and the Spirit, and I vowed to never let the storms of life toss me away from that belief. I promised myself I’d remember, that if it appears Christ is sleeping and doesn’t care that I perish, He is there, aware, and in control.

Fast forward 5 years, and my life had gone mostly as I had hoped:  I had gone on a mission, graduated from BYU, gotten married, and was on my way to my ultimate dream of having a happy family and 12 kids. I’ve been saying I want 12 kids for as long as I can remember. I don’t know where I got the idea but it seems that God has given me an extra dose of the desire to have children.

A year ago, I was almost 5 months pregnant with our first baby.  You couldn’t have known a couple more excited to be parents. We had just had an ultra sound and found out we were having a boy, and we had an amazing ultra sound picture of our little baby sucking his thumb and flexing a very distinct becep muscle.  Everything was going perfectly and we felt like January 2016 wouldn’t come fast enough. We were so in love with our baby, and we were only half way through the pregnancy.

And this is where it is significant to me that we were asked to speak on doubt on the anniversary of the day that I was tempted to doubt more than ever before, last September 11.

One day last September, I began to have symptoms of labor at 20 weeks of pregnancy. We were extremely worried but had lots of faith that everything would be ok. After all, my name is Faith because I was born early, and through much faith on behalf of my parents, I have been very healthy my whole life--this is the reason for my name. I believed the same could happen for us. For 3 days doctors tried everything to keep our baby in, hundreds of our friends prayed for us, Carson fasted without stopping. We have so much faith in fasting and prayer and believed that we would see a miracle.  I felt at peace that everything would be ok. And yet,  last September 11 at 10:06  a.m., our baby Luke was born and only lived a few minutes.

It was the most shocking, heart-breaking course of events I’d ever experienced. It was like the light in my life turned off. The rug was pulled out from under all my plans. The 5 months worth of dreams I had of being Luke’s mother seemed to vanish in a matter of hours. Aside from immense heartbreak, I wondered, “Why wasn’t my faith strong enough to keep our baby? If God’s will will always be done anyway, do our prayers and fasting even make a difference? Was my feeling of peace even from God, or was it just my own conscience telling me what I wanted to hear? Was God even involved in this at all?” I suppose I was saying, “Carest thou not that I perish?”

And yet, these questions did not last long, because Heavenly Father calmed the raging storm in my heart by reminding me of the truths I hold too close to be shaken.  There have been too many answered prayers and too many blessings to deny some of these pillars of testimony.  While there were some things I didn’t understand in those moments of excruciating emotional pain, I did know that God loves me and wants me to be happy. I did know that he wants me to be a mother. And I did know that He knows best. I relied on those truths, even though I didn’t understand everything. I can truly say I never felt anger towards God. I recognized my tremendous blessings and chose to have faith that this would somehow, someday be a blessing, even though it felt like the cruelest punishment at the time.

Ironically, I think my faith has developed more through this experience than it would have had my prayers been answered the way I wanted them to. I began to be grateful all I was becoming through the loss of our baby. My testimony of the gospel grew, my compassion for others expanded. My relationship with God and my husband shot roots even more deep. My doubts about prayer and God’s involvement left as I recognized God’s hand in the big picture and acknowledged His greater plan.

Long story short, three months later I was expecting again which gave me a lot of hope. I had a procedure done to prevent an early birth from happening again, and had full confidence that this baby would make it. We were ecstatic to pass the milestone of 20 weeks, then 21 weeks, then 22 weeks. We again were over the moon excited for August 10, 2016 when we’d finally bring home a baby boy. We felt like the storm had passed, and here was our promised rainbow.

To our deepest shock,  I got an infection that sent me into labor early again, and even though it’s still hard for me to believe, our second baby was born at 22 weeks on April 7, and lived about an hour. I never, ever would have thought that I would bury a  baby, let alone two. But we have two little headstones in the Mesa, Arizona cemetary, one that says Luke Ralphs, and the other Samuel Ralphs.  

The day our second baby was born and died, I remember thinking about a quote that had just been shared in General Conference a few days earlier. Elder Holland said, “You can have what you want, or you can have something better.” When I had heard that, it really rang true to me. And then, a few days later, as I held our dying baby, I wondered how that could possibly be true. I wanted our baby to live more than anything. How could any other plan be better? God was testing my faith even harder this time. It was very confusing to me that He would let us go through this again, we we had felt such confidence that our second son would live.

I don’t share this story to seek sympathy, but rather because I gain a lot of strength from the personal experiences of others, and I also want to point out that Satan will tempt us to doubt God throughout our life, again and again. Whether it be personal tragedy, or persecution of your beliefs from friends, or current events that make you wonder--we will begin to question. We will question our beliefs. I believe that it is ok to question, because honest questions build faith when we seek answers from God. In fact, we have questions because we don’t have a perfect knowledge. And that is exactly what faith IS--faith is choosing to believe when we don’t KNOW.  As it says in the Book of Mormon, “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”

While sincere questioning can build faith, doubt can destroy faith, hope, and even family.

What is the difference between doubt and questions, then?

A sincere questioner is still obedient while searching for answers. A doubter gives up on living the commandments of God until answers are given. A questioner says, “Even though I don’t understand right now, I’ll act in faith.” A doubter says, “I will suspend my commitments and covenants as I wait for a resolution to my doubts.” This approach, of course, only leads to further loss of faith, since faith is created by obedience to God.

With the internet and rising persecution of our beliefs, we will most likely be confronted with ideas that challenge what we believe. Our personal experiences will also challenge our faith as God tests us.  When our strongly-held beliefs are attacked or tested, it’s normal to feel uneasy or concerned. What matters is not letting that uneasiness turn us from our covenants during our search for answers. It takes faith to continue keeping the commandments while our uncertainty is being resolved. It may be tempting to withhold or limit our obedience until we find a resolution of our concerns, but that is not God’s way.

As Elder Neil Anderson has said, “When faced with a trial of faith—whatever you do, don’t step away from the Church! Distancing yourself from the kingdom of God during a trial of faith is like leaving the safety of a secure storm cellar just as the tornado comes into view.”

I share this because it’s what has saved me not only from severe doubt, but from severe depression. God doesn’t ask us to stay faithful to HIm through thick and thin for some benefit of His own, or for control over us, or for more participation in the Church. He asks us to because He knows that’s the only way we will have the strength to overcome our hardest moments.

Faith is a reaction that we choose. When your boat is sailing along calmly, happily, and then winds of doubt and storms of contradiction nearly capsize you, you can choose faith or you can choose doubt. Faith is a choice. A choice with tremendous blessings as a result.

Doubt can creep in when we feel we have exercised faith, fasted, and prayed, and still do not see the blessings we desire. It seems that our faith is in vain. The Book of Mormon has many instances that teach us that our faith is never in vain. Faith in God includes faith in His timing, and the greatest of all blessings sometimes have to wait. A prophet in the Book of Mormon compares our growing faith to a growing plant, and he says, “And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience,..., behold, by and by, ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure, and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.” I believe that as we continue to nurture our faith through obedience to God, we will one day partake of the blessings we desire so much--and they will be sweeter than ever because of the wait and sacrifice it took to receive them.
The moral of my talk is the moral of most talks--we must keep on keeping on. Keep trusting. Keep praying. Keep submitting our will to His. Keep remembering Christ and His atonement. Keep our promises to Him at the forefront of our mind. Keep trying to be like Jesus, and following HIs commandments, no matter how many questions we have. As Christ himself said,  “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).

I testify that as we keep obeying with trust in God, answers to our questions will come. Personal revelation straight from above will come right to you. God does not want us to live with confusion or be unsettled. He does want our faith to be strong, and faith is developed when we act in obedience without fully understanding. Obeying without understanding is not blind faith--that's real faith.

I bear my testimony with every fiber of my being that God knows best. He knows what’s going on in your life. He knows your desires. It breaks his heart too, to see your righteous desires ungranted. I know He weeps with us and mourns with us. I promise you, HE LOVES YOU. Everything He asks you to do and to go through is out of love. We MUST obey Him. We must wake up every day determined to serve Him. We must do all we can to keep our covenants--there is nothing greater. I know there is power in obedience. There is power in covenant keeping. There is power in reaching outside ourselves. I have found that remaining obedient during our hardest times is what helps us to be happy, strong, and faithful when our boat seems to be capsizing. I believe Christ is in control. He knows what He’s doing when He lets terribly hard storms rain on good people. May we trust in Him forever by always remaining faithful--no matter what.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Healthy Dinner Ideas

I've had several friends ask me what I eat, since I don't cook with meat. I understand their question. I mean, how many mouth-watering Pinterest dinner recipes do you see without "chicken" in the title?

So many "homemade" dinners are full of pre-made, processed ingredients, like "cream of whatever" soup, canned sauces, frozen or packaged foods, and of course, chicken or ground beef. I try hard to not cook with those things.

I rarely make up my own recipes, but I do make things that require no recipe, such as:

Roasted vegetables- Tossing cut up cauliflower, zucchini, sweet potatoes, peppers, beets, carrots, or squash with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasting at about 400 degrees until golden brown. By far the most flavorful way to eat veggies. Alone or with hummus makes a great meal in and of itself.)

Wraps-Tortillas or pita bread with beans, rice, avocado, cheese, tomatoes, salsa, spinach, lettuce, roasted veggies or whatever you have in the fridge.

Paninis- My brother gave me a panini press many years ago, and I love it. Whole wheat bread with cheese, mustard, hummus, pesto, tomatos, spinach...grilled and melty. So quick.

Quesadillas- Black beans, tomatoes, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, sauteed onion, zucchini, or mushrooms with sprinkle of cheese inside a whole wheat tortilla.

Pasta-- Whole wheat of course. :) While the pasta is boiling, add shopped peppers, squash, zucchini, or broccoli to the water for the last 3-4 minutes so they boil together. Drain all of it, add a jar of pesto, spaghetti sauce, or alfredo sauce (one of the processed ingredients I do buy for busy nights).

Taco Salad- Salad greens, crushed tortilla chips, ranch style beans, salsa, sour cream, gauc, cheese. I never tire of such foods.

Here are links to some of my favorite recipes. They may not sound amazing, but all of them really are keepers! That means I have made them more than once and my husband and I both think they're delicious. I love that most of them have lentils, beans, or nuts, which are absolutely supreme to meat (as far as nutrition goes) in countless ways. They're full of micronutrients and phytochemicals that meat has none of.  We love all of these!

Lentil Loaf
Black Bean Sweet Potato Burritos
Sweet Potato Quinoa Cakes with Avocado Lime dressing
African Bean Soup
Southwestern Quinoa and Black Bean Casserole
Black Bean Avocado Enchiladas (all the recipes on this site are fantastic!)
Walnut Meat Tacos
Spicy Coconut Kale Stir-Fry
Black Bean Cakes
Dal Makhani
Vegetable Pot Pies
Spicy Peanut Noodles
Spinach Tomato Tortellini Soup
BBQ Sweet Potato Pizza
Pesto Pizza using this Whole What Pizza Crust

I have more where that came from, but that will have to do for now. Happy cooking!



Friday, July 1, 2016

When Life is Unfair

I help take care of three sweet boys right now, and a few weeks ago I was eating lunch with two of them, who are 5 and 8 years old. The older boy mentioned, "Yesterday, I got FIVE cookies at Carol's house!" The younger boy's eyebrows furrowed and he exclaimed, "What?! There were cookies?!!!!" He had been outside playing when the cookies got passed around, apparently, and when he heard that he had missed out on something he values very much (sugar), he went into hysteria and threw himself onto the couch, his little body wracking with sobs.

I thought this was pretty extreme, and rather ridiculous. It was over and everything was fine, now. He wouldn't still be enjoying those cookies the day after. Shouldn't he just be happy that his brother, at least, got to enjoy something? It was so irrational to throw such a fit when everything was fine now.

Unfortunately, I have seen some of that ridiculous irrationality in myself. I have been more like this 5-year-old than I want to admit, and I think many of us have been, on occasion. We balk at unfairness. We want the good fortune that other people have. We get caught up in comparing ourselves in the NOW, instead of remembering that in the end, it will be fair.

I haven't been throwing 5-year-old type fits, but I have had to fight the urge to when I've seen pregnancy announcements and posts of new babies, born at the end of uncomplicated pregnancies. I'm truly happy for them, but it's a kick-in-the-gut reminder of what I want so bad that I didn't get. It's a reminder of what I'm missing out on.  However, I'm constantly improving, and now I'm at the point where I don't feel envy boil inside me. I truly don't. I feel a lot of love and excitement towards the people I know who are expecting babies or have babies, and I want them to include me in the excitement.  It hasn't been easy to get to this point, and I need to constantly work on it, but God has helped me. I share this because He can help you, too.

Today I was reading Elder Holland's talk, "Laborers in the Vineyard." He says, "Envy requires us to suffer all good fortune that befalls everyone we know! What a bright prospect that is--downing another quart of pickle juice every time anyone around you has a happy moment!"

"There are going to be times in our lives when someone else gets an unexpected blessing, or receives some special recognition. May I plead with us not to be hurt--and certainly not to feel envious--when good fortune comes to another person? We are not diminished when someone else is added upon. We are not in a race against each other to see [who gets the most cookies, who has the most children the fastest,] or even who is the most blessed. The race we are really in is the struggle against sin, and surely envy is one of the most universal of those."

This logic makes sense in the head, but it can have a hard time reaching the heart. Yes, in my head I know that I am not diminished when someone else is added upon. I know that life is not a race. I know it does me no good to be envious. I know that comparison is the thief of joy. And yet, my heart has had a hard time getting that. I would still feel hurt to see other couples' plans unfolding as planned. It caused confusion. Am I not trustworthy to have children? What have I done wrong? Why do other couples have everything going for them, and our life doesn't go as planned?

But God has helped me feel better, thank goodness!  In many instances He has calmed my heart and urged me to see the bigger picture. One example was in March, right before we lost Samuel, and I was still healing from the loss of Luke. I was at church. Many struggles were on my mind. I was still heart broken we had lost Luke, even though I was pregnant again. I was thinking of my friends in Paraguay and India, and the sheer misery of poverty they endure. My heart was also heavy as I thought of some of my friends and family here, and the many challenges they face. Just lots of hard, earthly circumstances weighed on me.

We sang the hymn, "The Spirit of God." I was overcome with the Spirit as we sang, "How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion, shall lie down together without any eyre....and Jesus descends with his chariot of fire..."

The image of a lamb and lion, lying down together really spoke to me. It means complete peace. It means that all the struggles of today, the constant burdens of life, will one day be....over. They will be conquered by Jesus Christ! I was so full of gratitude for the Savior and the hope for peace He provides.  The struggles of my friends in Paraguay, my own heart ache, the financial, health, and family problems of people I know---it is so hard now, but at least we can look forward to a day when it will all be over. Thanks to Christ, all that is unfair about life will be made right.

Knowing this, but most importantly feeling this and remembering it, helps me not to be envious, or hurt at the good fortune of others. Someone else may get the job you wanted, someone else may get the boy or girl you crushed on, someone else's life might go exactly how you wanted yours to go. Our natural-man, knee-jerk reaction to unfairness is to be bitter and toss ourselves onto the couch in sobs. But God can help us feel and remember that He knows best!  We will all get lots of cookies and everything will be fine, one day, if we endure this test of life well. When all is made right, we'll remember any animosity and think we were pretty ridiculous.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What Lies Ahead

A little background: This is Hermana Nery. She is one of the most faithful women in Paraguay. I just really love her. She fed us missionaries lunch every Sunday after church. I don't know how she always had it ready within minutes of getting home from church, especially since she worked in the temple all day Saturday. Anyway, her son and his wife and their 1-year old baby boy lived with her.

I read this entry in my mission journal today (100% un-edited, except for translating the Spanish parts):

April 17, 2013

"Today during companionship study, Hermana Nery called. I answered and said, "Hi, how are you?" and she answered, "Bad." Her grandson who lives with them who is one year old died in the night, without warning. His heart just stopped. I am heart broken. I know this little boy. I saw him happy and healthy last week. And in that healthy condition he went to bed last night and never woke up. His parents are members but inactive. But Hermana Nery has a testimony like a rock."

"But the whole ordeal made me think a lot. Every heart beat truly is a gift from God. Every breath. Every day. He can take us without explanation and without warning any second. We truly have to always be ready to go, don't we?"

"Just this morning, before all of this, my companion and I were talking on our run about how, thanks to the gospel, we're not afraid to die. And I am really not. But I am a little nervous about living, and all the pain I will have to endure. Who knows if I will lose a baby, or two? Or a grown child? Or a husband? Who can ever anticipate the trials that await? The decisions that have to be made, the hard times endured? But truly the gospel is the ultimate consolation--that no matter what, God is over all and will help me. I will never, no never, no never forsake.

But to visit Hermana Nery's house today, full of sad people and seeing the mom sobbing over her son's body non-stop, in so much pain and confusion....oh man. It makes me realize how much suffering is in the world, and how much Christ has suffered. It is incomprehensible, really. How badly I want to reduce the suffering suffered."

Reading this journal entry was crazy for me. I hadn't thought about this experience in a long time. I see it all now through completely different eyes. Little did I know, that in 3 years exactly from the day I wrote that, I would have just lost two babies, just like I jotted down as an example of an hypothetical excruciating trial?

No one really knows what lies ahead. Not to be a Negative Nancy, but your worst nightmare just might come true. It just might. And the beautiful thing is, that it's all accounted for in part of the plan. It will be downright miserable for a long time, and you'll feel you simply can't go on, but then it will all be ok. This part of life was never meant to be easy, it was meant to have opposition (why is that so hard to remember??). But this life isn't the end, thank goodness!

 As Joseph B. Wirthlin said, "While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude." To those of you in the valleys of hard times, I say, let's be patient together for that happy day that lies ahead, when all that is unfair will be made right, through the atonement of Jesus Christ. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Life Story of Samuel Ralphs

To some, a baby at the mid-point of a pregnancy isn't a real human yet. To me, they've been a human a long time. Here's the life story of one of my favorite humans ever.

On September 11, 2015 our baby boy Luke was born and died at 1 day shy of 20 weeks of pregnancy. It was hard. I assumed that trial was a unique one. We'd never bury another child.  Losing Luke taught us that I have an incompetent cervix. To those not familiar with female anatomy, the cervix is what kept you inside your mother until you were ready to face the world. When it's insufficient, a baby is born suddenly and without warning, when he or she has become heavy enough to weigh on the cervix, usually between 18 and 22 weeks.

We knew what to do to prevent it from happening again--get a cervical cerclage at about 3 months of pregnancy. So we began praying that we would be blessed with another baby soon. I felt overwhelmingly empty and missed Luke so much. I wanted another baby to look forward to, while knowing that another could never replace Luke. We prayed and prayed and on December 3rd I nervously took a pregnancy test and was SO happy to see it was positive. I believe every pregnancy is a real miracle, and never to be taken for granted. See those two lines? That's when Samuel's known life began. Maybe my tummy didn't grow very fast, but my love was growing exponentially from that moment on. I told Carson later that night and I'll never forget his excited reaction. We were so happy.

Here is his first picture--the baby is the diamond of the ring (which is the sac). I kept all his ultra-sound pictures to one day show to him. Wouldn't it be amazing to see YOU when you were the size of a lentil?

From the beginning I was able to see the doctor that my mom saw when she was pregnant with me. Since my mom had the same struggles keeping babies in, Dr. Tutt was very familiar with what to do. He did the cerclage that kept me from being born too soon, so I felt I was in pretty good hands. He'd known me since I was just a flicker on the ultra sound screen and he took really good care of me. In early February, when I was 14 weeks pregnant, I spent a day in the hospital and Dr. Tutt did a cerclage, which stitches the cervix closed and blocks off our baby's only way of escape. It was an awkward, uncomfortable and very expensive ordeal, but I was so happy! It was a small price to pay for our baby. This was a red-letter day for him. It meant that he would stay in, sure thing! This baby was making it, and I had full confidence. 

 At 15 weeks, it was apparent he was a boy.  Just as my mother instincts had suspected all along. 

At about 17 weeks I started to feel our baby kick. Every time, I was thrilled. Those kicks never got old--every one just sent me surging with gratitude and excitement. During those months, it seems nothing can get me down.

19 weeks. Scratching his head. So cute.

At 19 weeks I couldn't contain the excitement any more and had to spill the beans. After all, this pregnancy was for sure. Samuel got over 600 likes in a matter of a day or so. Very popular fellow!

The day we passed 20 weeks was a relief. We were in uncharted territory. Every Wednesday as I would reach another week mark, I would celebrate by reading all about my baby's development on my pregnancy apps. I was obsessed. 

Then, on one such Wednesday, April 6, we were celebrating 22 weeks of pregnancy and 2 years of dating (we started officially dating on April 6, 2014 and plan to celebrate every April 6 after). We went to a movie and I could hardly pay attention because I started to feel awful. I couldn't quite remember what contractions felt like, but I began to realize that I was having them. We left the movie and I called some people, and it was decided I should go to the hospital. We went to Banner Desert--the same hospital where our little Luke came. 

At first they gave me some anti-contraction medicine. It was a huge relief, for about 30 minutes. I had an ultra sound and my cervix was shortening, so they told me I'd be at the hospital for at least a couple weeks on bed rest. Sign me up. I was willing to do anything to keep this baby. If I had to live in the hospital for the next 4 months, I'd do it in a heart beat. I spent a sleepless night in the hospital.

But in the morning the contractions wouldn't stop. My body seemed to be insistent that this baby come now. The doctor at the very top of high-risk pregnancies came in to my little antepartum room.
He said they'd do an amniocentesis--where they draw some amniotic fluid to test it. The results were flooring, shocking to everyone. My amniotic fluid and surrounding placenta and uterus were severely infected (called chorioamnionitis), even though I had felt no symptoms. It was only a matter of time before the infection spread to my blood stream and be fatal to both me and Samuel. When the doctor told me this, and I connected the dots that this infection meant the loss of our was like the light of my life turned off. My world seemed to end. The cause of my daily, hourly happiness was suddenly...over. What about August 10? What about all the hours I couldn't wait to spend with him, just us two, in Alabama this fall while Carson was in school? What about the near future, and what about the long-term future that had taken up my thoughts the past 5 months?

The stitches were cut. I was taken to the Labor and Delivery room (please no!) and after what seemed like an eternity of excruciating contractions and wishing I'd said yes to an epidural, our precious baby was born. April 7, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. We held him tight for the hour that he lived and marveled at his perfect little frame and features. Just like Luke, he resembled Carson already. Unlike Luke, he weighed a whole pound and was 11 inches long, and had little sprouts of peach fuzz on his head. My heart wanted to burst with love for him, and break with sadness.

Why, oh WHY couldn't my body keep him in? Why can't we be a normal couple that gets married and has kids? Why can't I be as normal as all the teenagers who get pregnant and have healthy babies? Why did I get the infection that happens in less than 2% of all pregnancies? Why did this have to happen again? How much can I really take? Not this much. This was too much.

Just like this experience 7 months ago, we hadn't chosen a name yet because we thought we had four more months to decide. We had a couple ideas, but Samuel was not one of them. In the hospital before we knew this baby would be born early, I remembered the story of Hannah in the Old Testament. She prayed for a son for years. She promised that if God granted her a son, she would dedicate his life to serving the Lord. She was blessed with a son, who she named Samuel, and he did serve the Lord his entire life as a prophet. The thought occurred to me that maybe this baby wouldn't survive, but as I had done before, I told Heavenly Father that if He would just let this baby live, I would raise him and teach him to dedicate His life to the service of God. However, God's ways are higher than my ways, and we still give our baby's life to Him. We believe He's serving God from above. Since Samuel was always God's to begin with and never ours, we have to give him back willingly. Samuel Jay Ralphs. He's His.

On April 15 we had a little funeral for him, with all four of his grandparents and all his cousins present. He's buried next to his older brother, and on top of my grandfather.

April 15, 2016

All of my parent's grandchildren.

We love our boys, Samuel and Luke, more than we can say. We are so grateful for them, and for the joy they've brought us. We have no doubt they're complete persons. They have souls, spirits, personalities. They came. They lived. They're God's, but they're also ours and always will be. While hard to type it now, we believe life is beautiful. God is good. I've felt Him weep with me. He is the true light of our life every day. He knows best.  That brings us the most comfort of all. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2015--Our Year in Review

Let's play "Choose your Own Adventure Blog Post." You pick the adjective.

This year for the Ralphs was

extremely happy
very expensive
overall amazing
the hardest year of their lives

Pick any one of those, and you'll be writing an accurate blog post. The nice thing about getting married on December 30 is that your years of being married and your calendar year sync up nearly perfectly.  Our first year together, 2015, was anything but monotonous. We've made so many decisions, and I know that when we got married last December, neither of us could have imagined all we'd do, where we'd go, and what we'd experience this year.

January 1st found us on our honeymoon in beautiful Rocky Point, Mexico. We rode ATV's, ate delicious food, walked the beach, fed seagulls, and enjoyed the warmish weather while our home in Provo, UT was being blizzard-ed.

We made our way back to BYU where Carson had one more semester of classes to complete. We moved into our first apartment at Union Square, and made wonderful friends there. I was called to be in the RS presidency, and Carson was called to help with Elders Quorum activities. We loved that ward.

February brought my birthday, which Carson outdid himself for and threw me a surprise party. Later that month my car completely died beyond hope of repair, making us a one-car family forever more. I continued working for a nutrition education program called Food $ense, which I loved. I taught classes throughout Utah County about how to eat and cook healthfully on a low budget. Carson also got the idea to take the GRE on a whim, only having two weeks to study. He did well though! We went ice fishing one weekend with Carson's uncle, and Carson caught a fish.

March included our one-year anniversary of our first date. It also brought very long work weeks for me, since I picked up a second part-time job at the health department. We were also very stressed about finalizing our summer plans. Carson had to do an internship to graduate, and had to decide where to go by March 21.  We had both talked about doing it internationally since before we were married. We looked everywhere for opportunities that wouldn't cost us an arm and a leg. We skyped with people in Paraguay and India, and looked into lots of options that just didn't seem to work. We just wanted to help people, fulfill Carson's internship requirements, and not pay more money than we had. We finally chose to go to India with Rising Star Outreach, and went out to Indian food to celebrate!

April General Conference had us reminiscing about the year prior, which is when Carson first met my parents. A little story from my journal on April 12, "Carson and I went to Costco a few days ago, and I had picked him up so I was driving. I got out of the car and locked it before turning off the car and taking the keys with me! So it was locked with the keys inside and running! I felt so stupid and was freaking out. Carson was calm, as always. I thought to go into Costco and see what they could do, but on my way in, I saw a policeman sitting in his car. I explained my thoughtless actions and he said he'd be right  over. He had it unlocked within 4 minutes and for free. God sure is prepared for our stupid mistakes." Pretty much sums up our year right there---the hand of God always there.

We both walked at BYU commencement in April--I had graduated in December and Carson would be graduating in August, but were able to walk together at graduation in April. It was amazing to "graduate" hand in hand with the love of my life, and shake hands of our public health professors we knew so well and love.

May meant no more classes for Carson and the end of his time teaching at the MTC. We made a surprise trip to Idaho to surprise his mom for Mother's Day (she thought she wouldn't be seeing us again until after our summer in India--and let's face it, everyone was wondering if  we'd come back alive). On May 14 we packed up our entire apartment and moved it in several trips to Carson's grandparent's basement in Salt Lake City, where our belongings would stay while we were in India. We then drove to Arizona where we got to visit one of Carson's convert families from his mission who were getting sealed in the temple! We flew from the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport on May 18, India bound!

We arrived safely to the small village outside of Chennai, India where the Rising Star campus is. We were so excited but also nervous. After our first meal, I wrote, "I can see I'll be eating a lot of white rice." We were forever grateful for the air conditioning in our bedroom, the only relief from the unrelenting humid heat. We went to several leprosy colonies those first few weeks before volunteers arrived. I was SO grateful we were there--treating some of the poorest of the poor, DOING something about poverty instead of just talking about how sad it is. We learned so much from the kind, grateful, sweet people in those leprosy colonies. It was an amazing time.

The other volunteer coordinators we would be working with began to arrive and we loved getting to know them. The end of May also brought a positive pregnancy test in hands trembling with excitement. We were so happy (and nervous!). For several weeks, Carson and I kept the best secret we've ever had.

June 1st meant Carson's 24th birthday!  Our first session of volunteers arrived, 40 all at once! We loved getting to know the students at Rising Star and becoming great friends. I led a little singing group each Sunday afternoon and I hope I will always remember those times in that hot, stuffy classroom, gathered around the piano, enjoying the relief of music with such precious spirits. Dear Dr. Susan (the main doctor and also managing director of the entire Indian side of RSO) took me to a hospital in Chennai where I saw our baby for the first time via ultrasound and heard that incredible heart beat. I cried with joy. That little hospital room in faraway India all of sudden became holy ground to me. It seemed too good to be true that that little life was ours!

June 30th was our six-month anniversary, and Carson was either throwing up or sleeping that whole day and night. I was very worried about him. However, somehow between rushed trips to the toilet, he managed to make a paper heart with a sweet love letter and tape it to a chocolate bar he sneakily bought. I was continuously amazed at his strength and resilience in India. The rough circumstances made me able to see just how strong he really is. He fasted often while where there, but it would be hard for me to know because of how cheerfully and energetically he interacted with volunteers and kids.

July brought a new session of volunteers, all of whom were youth and their chaperones! It was an awesome session and we loved getting to know the youth and seeing them work so hard out of their comfort zones. I continued to spend my days leading volunteers in tutoring and educational activities with students at the RSO school, and Carson was the main officer over all the volunteers' activities. We continued eating lots of rice and vegetable curries (delicious, albeit un-varied) day after day. Our daily routines were interrupted only by weekend trips to the ocean and to church in Chennai. Near the end of July, political issues began to arise. When one of our fellow volunteer coordinators nearly got arrested, but made it on an airplane by the skin of his teeth, we had many talks in our tiny hotel room trying to figure out the best plan for the next session of volunteers that was scheduled to arrive, and how to get home ourselves, since our flights weren't until the end of August. We didn't want to leave our friends in India. It was a rough time of decision-making.

August found us on a lake in Washington state. Yes, back in the U.S. On a houseboat. You'd think I was writing a movie script, right? But this was our life this year. One expensive, expensive flight change was made to get out of India three weeks earlier. First to London, where our flight got delayed a day, then straight to Seattle, Washington, where we met Carson's family at a big family reunion on a house boat. We surprised nearly everyone there. After all, we were supposed to be in India for three more weeks. It felt good to be back in the land of normal toilets, food besides rice and curry, and surrounded by family and familiarity, having fun on a lake. I had a little baby bump in my swimming suit and everyone was so excited we were having a baby. I love Carson's family, and we both were happy we could make the reunion we had planned on missing, even though we were simultaneously sad to leave the children in India we had come to love.

In August we found the perfect basement apartment in Mesa to live in (we decided to move to Mesa at some point during our time in India) with a lot of help and divine intervention, since we were practically homeless. My dad helped us pack a small U-haul of our things in Salt Lake City and bring them to AZ. Carson started a job that a friend of ours helped him find, and I began looking fervently for a job and praying so hard to find one. I felt like I couldn't commit to a job, since I'd be leaving in January to have our baby, so I was looking for something temporary. After what seemed like months but was really one week,  I found a job as a nanny just down the street from us. It's been perfect, and God really put that one in my lap, too. Our neighbors are pretty much the best part of living in Mesa.

September came, and we enjoyed our new proximity to my family and went camping and hiking in Sedona with them and Carson's brothers who came to visit for Labor Day. 

Two days later, I was watching the boys I nanny while their parents were out of town for a week, when I started to have symptoms of labor. I was 19 weeks pregnant and didn't really know what those symptoms meant. I talked to a nurse on the phone at my doctor's office who said it was probably nothing, since I was only at 19 weeks after all. The next morning I got a hold of my doctor who said he'd see me immediately. I sent the boys to their neighbor's house and asked Carson to not go to work, but drive me to the doctor's across town. After an exam, he sent me straight back into our car and to a hospital that handles high-risk pregnancies. I knew everything would be ok. Babies are born healthy and fine all the time, and with the miracles of modern medicine, I just knew they could make it all better. I had had an ultra sound the previous week (found out it was a boy, just like we thought!) and was told everything looked very healthy and normal. We had just announced it to the world that we were expecting and nothing was going to get us excited parents-to-be down.

Three nights in the hospital later, after a failed surgery to stitch me closed and keep our baby in, our baby was born and lived only minutes. He was perfect, all 8 inches and 10 ounces of him. I'd never experienced such heart-wrenching sorrow. We'll never be the same. 

October. October. What to say? All I have in my journal is tear-stained entries of all my feelings, and this scripture: "And now my beloved brethren, seeing that our merciful God has given us such great knowledge concerning [life after death, eternal families, the purpose of life], let us remember Him and...not hang down our heads.  Therefore, cheer up your hearts....reconcile yourselves to the will of the power of the atonement." 2 Nephi 10:20-25

And that's what we've been trying to do ever since. Accept the will of God, remember Him, be grateful, and use the atonement to carry on.

November, already? We visited Carson's family before sending off his brother, Bryan, on a mission to Colombia. I finally found a second part-time job that fit with my schedule as a nanny, at a non-profit called Feed My Starving Children. We went to Salt Lake for Thanksgiving and enjoyed seeing Carson's family. We also spent a few days with my family on our way back. Carson finished applying to graduate schools (he's going for a Masters of Hospital Administration, MHA) and began to hear back. He had a Skype interview with Cornell and was notified of his acceptance only days later, he flew to University of Utah and had an interview, and was accepted with a generous scholarship. He turned down a few other interviews, but will be having an interview at the University of Alabama in February.

December meant a whole year of being married to my amazing husband. He's been one of my only true comforts, a spiritual strength to lean on, an example I admire, a hard-worker and a positive attitude when I couldn't offer one. As Christmas approached, I began to feel like there was little to look forward to. Hardly any of my family would be together, I had to work the day before and the day after Christmas, presents aren't important to me, and most of all, Christmas this year was going to mean I'd be 8 months pregnant. But then I really began to think about what Christmas is. It's the celebration of the greatest gift I could ever ask for. The Gift that fills the void of other things I lack, the Gift that allows us to be with our baby Luke again, the Gift that has filled me with His love so much lately. Because of Him, all things that seem unfair will one day be made right. Why was I thinking about things that I wished for, when I have already been given the greatest gift of all? He is reason enough to be happy, even if nothing else seems to be going as hoped. I truly felt joy this Christmas. I felt full.

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