I hope the title of my e-mail is dramatic enough for you! hahaha I crack myself up. No but seriously, that song for some reason has been popping up on my iPod this entire week, but the words are pretty amazing. Now I may butcher these, but these are the words I hear when I listen to it, "Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow, set me free to find my calling and I'll return to you somehow." That's how I feel about my mission. You all, including Heavenly Father have given me the opportunity to serve a mission and to experience a level of joy that I didn't even know existed. You have allowed me to change and become better. I am so grateful to each one of you for the influence you have had on me over these past 18 months. I have thought about each one of you, individually and all the things you have taught me. You may not believe me, but it's true. My parents, my siblings, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, ward members, leaders, soccer teammates, coaches, co-workers, everyone. You have all impacted me in so many ways and now I'm coming back. I'm homeward bound. It's a surreal but amazing feeling. I love you all so much and can't thank you enough.
Well, let's get on to the week, shall we? :) It's been one heck of a last week, thanks to all the members and investigators and missionaries I have come to know and love. I had my last district meeting on Wednesday. Our district leader is also going home in our group. He asked me if I would bear my "final testimony" during district meeting. I was really happy to do it. I bore my testimony about the Book of Mormon and just missionary work in general. It felt so good to talk about how much I have loved sharing the Book of Mormon. I think I may have told you all this before, but I love carrying a Book of Mormon around in my hand. I feel like I have a sword. The Sword of Truth. :) It's the most amazing book. I don't know what it is about it, but literally, you open it and can feel power just pouring out of it's pages. I feel closer to the Holy Ghost while reading the Book of Mormon than any other way. It is amazing and I know that it is God's word. I know that anyone, literally ANYONE who reads the Book of Mormon, ponders what it says, and then asks God if it is true will receive a witness that it is true and contains the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am so grateful for the Book of Mormon.
We had a dinner appointment Wednesday night with our bishop and his family. It was so much fun. He told me that he really appreciated my talk and that the ward really appreciated it as well. He said I spoke Finnish well....all the Finns say that...it doesn't really mean that I am good, but hey, I will take the compliment! :) I have really loved getting to know our bishop and his family. They are such wonderful people and we have a really good relationship. I remember before my mission, well while I was in the MTC, they told us that if we made good relationships with members, our missions would be so much better. I am so grateful for that advice and am beyond grateful for the relationships I have with these members. The Finnish members are the best members in the world. They are so strong in the gospel. When you convert a Finn, you convert them for life! :) They are wonderful. They are shy, quiet, sometimes a little abrupt, and they really don't like to talk with crazy Americans, nor are they "touchy" (that's why I love them haha), but they are also loyal, honest, dependable, kind, generous, hilarious, and honestly the best people I have ever known. I strive to be a member like the members in Finland. The gospel is who they are, not just what they do. I have learned so much from them. I will always remember them and keep them very close to my heart. Minä rakastan suomalaisia!
So this week was the big graduation holiday in Finland, Vappu. Vappu or "May Day" is when all of the students graduate. They all wear these hats that resemble sailor caps and they party all night. It's a good idea...sadly they take the partying a little too far. As missionaries, we aren't allowed to be on the street on Vappu because of all of the drunk people. It's kind of lame, but hey that's ok. We were able to go to the mission home on Thursday night in preparation for MLC. It was fun to be with Sister Watson. She seriously is the greatest person in the world. She told me she will tell her kids that I am available to babysit their grandkids. hahaha totta kai! I would love to do that! :) We have such a special relationship. I feel like I can talk with her about anything. I know she loves me and I love her. She is great.
MLC was pretty amazing. I was just struck as we talked about the mission how far it has come. Now I know I probably just sound like an old fogey...foggy...fogy...fogi....like an old person raving about how things were "back in the day" hahaha but for real, this place is different. Finland is exploding. Numbers don't matter, but since that is how we track progress, our numbers are substantially higher than they have ever been. At this point of the year, meaning May last year, we had around 10 baptisms total. 10 baptisms in 5 months. This year we have had 25 at this point. Wow. That may not blow anyone else's mind but like seriously, that's like a 150% increase. I know that the Lord is pleased with us for taking steps forward in obedience, diligence, and faithfulness. We are better missionaries now and it really is such a special time to be here. Any incoming missionaries to Finland that happen to read this letter, YOU ARE SO LUCKY. Holy cow. Thank your lucky stars that you get to come here. It is the best place to serve in the world. There is no greater time to be here.
The thought came to me during MLC that I need to share all of my stories with you. Like all of them. I know I have written a lot in e-mail, but man, I haven't even covered half of what has happened here. It's a good thing I love to talk. I will just talk all of your ears off if you will let me. I know that is something that I need to do, and I am so excited to tell you all of my stories. We talked a lot about confidence during MLC. People need to see confident leaders, but also leaders who are humble and willing to let the Lord shape them. That is what makes a good leader. Consistency in doing the simple things is what brings about confidence. I have felt and experienced both sides of that coin on my mission. There is no greater feeling than knowing that you and the Lord are on the same page and you are willing to do what He asks you to do. On the other hand, it is really hard to be a happy and successful missionary/person when you are trying to do things your own way and you stop relying on the Lord and doing the little things, consistently. I have gained such a testimony of consistency and I know that will bless my life forever. One of the sisters in the mission has a quote on her wall that I love that says, "If you don't feel close to the Savior, who moved?" Wow. That's so powerful. It really is up to us how much Heavenly Father and our Savior are involved in our lives. The choice is ours. They never change. That is one of the greatest lessons I have learned on my mission. President shared some scriptures from Alma 26 about Ammon as he was "concluding" his mission. This is what he said, Alma 26: 11-16:
11 But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
12 Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.
13 Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice?
14 Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.
15 Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.
16 Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel.
I cannot say the smallest part which I feel. Its not very often when Sister Bitner is speechless, but as we read those scriptures, I felt the words ring true in my heart. No one but the Lord can really know how I feel about my mission because I can't effectively communicate it...only He knows, but that's good. He is the one that needs to know. I love that scripture though, "I know that I am nothing, as to my strength, I am weak..." Wow, that is definitely what happens to you on a mission. You are cut down to size pretty fast. You are backed up against a wall of all of your weaknesses and sins and you get to just sit there and look at them. But then Christ comes into the picture and all the sudden, everything changes. Light comes into your life. You change and become better. You trust Him and give Him the reins and through that, you become a new creature in Christ. "...therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in His strength, I can do all things." I know that is true. I, Sisar Olivia Bitner, am nothing. I have not done anything on my mission. And thank heaven for that. It would not have been very successful or meaningful. But I am so grateful that the Lord has been with me every step of the way. Even when I make mistakes...which happens a lot. He has helped me turn some, but not all of my weaknesses into strengths. I will be working on my weaknesses for the rest of my life, but He has made these past 18 months beautiful. He is always here as long as I want Him here. He doesn't move. He doesn't change. Ever. His love is endless. Who can glory too much in the Lord? Not me. :) It's only just begun!
We had 5 missionaries from our MTC group at MLC. It was amazing to see them all. All of the elders from our group are freaking out because we are leaving. I never realized how weird that would probably be, but I love the elders from our group. They are my brothers. They have been a part of my mission since day 1. They are great and I know we will always be great friends. We were all talking afterwards and I asked them "What has changed most about you since you have been on your mission?" I wanted to share all of their answers with you. They touched my heart.
Elder Hatch from Idaho: "The desires of my heart have changed. The things that I want and the way that I want them are so completely different."
Elder McKnight from Texas: "I have learned how to be motivated by love. I have learned that charity is the only motivation that ever works. I realized that before my mission, I did things because I wanted to do things. Now I do them because I love the Lord and the people around me."
Elder Stimpson from Idaho: "I have learned to let go of things that I can't control. I have learned to give the Lord the reins and to trust in Him and His timing."
Sisar Pack from Logan, UT: "I have learned to trust in God. I have learned to give Him everything. I can't give Him half an offering. I have to put it all on the altar, but He will make my sacrifice into something much more beautiful than I ever could alone."
Sisar Bitner from Kaysville, UT :) : "I have learned how to commit to the Lord. 100%. I thought I was committed before, but I wasn't even close. I know now that I will go anywhere that the Lord asks me to go and I will do anything He asks me to do and I won't ask "Why?" I have let go of the need to know "Why?"
Sorry I threw mine in there, but isn't my group awesome? Holy cow...they have all changed so much. They were amazing before, but man, they are pretty dang special now. They are all such powerful instruments in the hands of the Lord. I feel so lucky to have been able to serve with all of them. They are incredible.
I really have thought a lot this week about the lessons I have learned from my mission. Before my mission, in my farewell talk actually, I quoted my favorite song, "I'll Go Where You Want Me To Go." I am not going to lie, I didn't really feel the way the song portrays before my mission. I didn't really feel like I could go wherever the Lord would ask me to go and everything would be ok. I wondered if He really would take care of me. Honestly, I doubted. I think that is one of the greatest gifts I have received on my mission. I can say, with confidence in the Lord now that I will go anywhere He asks me to go, I will do whatever He asks me to do, and I will say whatever He wants me to say. I know without a doubt that He is always with me. He will never ask me to do something and then leave me. He won't ask any of us to do something and then leave us to fend for ourselves. It's like when we are commanded to love, He gives us the love that we lack. It's the same with a mission. He calls us to serve. Are we all qualified, capable, burning with missionary fire, and loving the fact that we are going to a foreign place for 18 months to 2 years to learn a language and talk to people about Jesus? Not always. But He makes up for what we lack and if we trust Him, he qualifies us for the task. Wow. He truly is our loving Heavenly Father. I love Him with all my heart. I know He lives.
Do you want to know something? There are so many experiences on your mission that are the best and the worst at the same time. One of those examples was church on Sunday. I had to say goodbye to the AMAZING members in the Espoo ward. Holy cow. They are all so nice. Sisar B from the second ward had her arm in mine all during sacrament meeting and afterwards she gave me a Marimekko gift and told me that she knows we were friends before this life. Get this..this lady is like 75 years old. She really is my best friend and I love her so much. She told me she will chat with me on Facebook to help me keep up my Finnish. haha I love her. There were so many wonderful members that came up and hugged me and told me they loved me. Some of them gave me gifts. It was so humbling. I love all of these members with my whole heart. They are amazing. I took pictures with all of them and I am so excited to show you their pictures and tell you all of the stories about our experiences with them. They are incredible and I will be forever grateful that I know them. They all said we could come visit and stay with them. Just more motivation to come back! :)
I had my final interview with President on Sunday night. That was weird. Just the name is enough to make you throw up, but it was really amazing. He has helped me so much, and this interview was no different. He gave me so much incredible advice. He talked a lot about the future and asked me about my plans and my family and what I was planning on doing. It felt weird because I could literally feel in my heart the transition. It didn't happen then, but I saw clearly in my mind what my next "mission" is. President helped me to see that, and I am so grateful for Him. He is an amazing person. He does what is right because it's right. He is loyal to the Lord. I have learned so much from him about what it means to be a good leader. He is the kind of leader that I want to be. I love the Watsons so much and am so grateful for their friendship and love. They have made my mission that much more wonderful! :) I can't wait for you to meet them one day!
Well, it would only be fitting that my last dinner appointment of my mission would be with my favorite little old couple in our ward, the A family. Sisar A made my favorite food...I have been over to their house about 15 times so by this point, she knows my favorites. It was good old meat and potatoes, Finnish style with kiseli...Finnish dessert that is SO STINKING GOOD. Man she is great and we had a great time talking with them. They asked me all about my plans and told me to come back and see them soon. All of the Finns have "Vieraskirjat" or Guest books. They asked me to write in theirs. I just wrote them and told them how much I love them and how grateful I am that I have always felt so welcome in their home. Sisar A wanted to read it after I was done, she told me it was to check on my Finnish grammar...then she laughed at herself and said, "Just Kidding." I think that's one of the reasons I love her so much, she just cracks herself up. It's hilarious! But as she was reading, she looked up at me and had tears in her eyes and we both just started bawling. I don't know what it is about these Finns man, they just turn me into a bawl baby. I love them with all of my heart. I asked her if there was anything I could do for her and she said, "Just write me letters." Oh my gosh. If that's not the cutest thing you've ever heard, I don't know what is. I love them so much. There is just so much love up in here. It's the best! :)
So last night, Sister Rochette and I went and visited another member and then we decided to take the long way home so that we could walk around Finland. And now I start crying...great...I just can't even explain how much I love this beautiful land of Finland. "Something Finnish" for the day is Finland. I love the trees, sky, clouds, hills, farms, lakes, streams, sunsets, sunrises, months of darkness, months of sunshine, snow, rain, wind, fog, flowers, birds, cute little colorful houses and everything else. I love the way the cold winter air wakes you up in the morning after you take a nice big gulp of it. I love the way the clouds come down really low and make it look like you're living in a misty dream. I love that the stars feel so much closer here. I love the smell of Finland after it rains. I love the smell of burning wood as people are cooking or heating the sauna. I love the gravel they put down in the winter so you don't slip and fall and the way it gets in your boots in the spring. :) I love running down buses and trains. I love the cute little European cars. I love the cities of Finland. I love the country. I love driving home from Seinäjoki at 8:30 at night and the sun is still at high noon. I love living next to water. I love how you walk outside your door and BOOM. Nature. I love how much the Finns love Finland and how hard they have fought for it and how well they take care of it. I love that you can pick berries anywhere you want in the summer. I love how everyone rides bikes and how good they are at ringing their bells, telling you to move. :) I love the way the snow crunches under your boots as you plow through the snowy fields in the winter, trying to find that less actives house. I love those moments on my mission when I have stopped, look around and said to my companion, "Wow. We are in Finland." It really is the most wonderful place in the world. It's just amazing. I love it all. I have been so blessed to have lived here. I have fallen in love with Finland. It is the most magical place in the world. This is a special place in the vineyard of the Lord. It will always be a very large part of my heart. I love Suomi!
I wish I could bottle Finland up and keep it with me forever. Mom, you always said that when you serve others, you can't help but love them. I have learned that over and over again. Finland is my heart. I am leaving a part of my heart here, but I have received so much more in return. I have prayed this week that Heavenly Father would help me to remember Finland. I couldn't ever forget it, but I just always want to remember exactly how I have felt here. I have changed here. I have had spiritual, life-changing experiences here. I had to come all the way to Finland to find my true self. I had to come all the way to Finland to find my Savior but there really is no place I would rather be. I love it. I love it. I love it.
Last night after we walked through the forest, we realized that we wouldn't make it home on time if we kept walking, so we hopped on a bus. There was no one on the bus, but I prayed and told Heavenly Father that if He would lead someone to the bus, I would talk to them and give away a Book of Mormon. Well, these 3 people got on the bus at the next stop. One of them was a younger girl and she sat in the row right across from me. I figured, "Ok, this must be my chance" so I leaned over and asked the girl how she was doing. She was about 25 and she looked at me with a huge smile on her face and said, "I am great, how are you?" I continued to talk to her and after a while, she asked if she could come sit by me. We talked about everything...life, friends, Finland, America. She actually was an exchange student in Indiana. I told her why I was here in Finland and brought out the Book of Mormon. I asked her if she had ever heard of this book before. She said no and so I proceeded to bear testimony to her and to teach her about the Book of Mormon. She just sat there and stared at me and afterwards, she said, "Wow. That is pretty amazing. If this book is really from God, I want to know what it says. How can I get one?" I gave her my copy, got her number, and talked about her coming to a temple tour. She was so excited and as I was getting off the bus she said, "Thank you for talking to me." What an amazing and tender mercy from the Lord. The Lord hears our prayers. Whether spoken or unspoken. They have entered the ears of the Lord and He will always answer. I have loved being able to talk with and get to know the Finns. They are incredible people and I can't wait to tell you all my funny and amazing stories. It was such a cool experience. Her name is S. She is going to get baptized!
I have been thinking a lot this week about Jesus Christ. Through many different ways, I have come to know and love Him in a deep, real way that I never could have found without my mission. He is my rock and my Everlasting God. I was thinking this morning, more like reflecting this morning. I thought about all of the things I had done on my mission and in my life. I have made so many stupid mistakes. I have done things I shouldn't have done. I haven't kept all of the commandments, always. I honestly started feeling guilty this morning as I thought about all of the things I "haven't done" on my mission and in my life, as well as the things I have done. I was saying my prayers this morning and nothing was really coming to my mind. I just kind of sat there. But I prayed that Heavenly Father would help me have clarity of mind and the words to my favorite hymn came to my mind:
1. I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
2. I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That he should extend his great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.
3. I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.
In Preach My Gospel, at the very beginning is a message from the First Presidency that I wanted to share with you. Part of the message says:
Dear Fellow Missionary:
We compliment you on the great opportunity you have to be a missionary. There is no more compelling work than this, nor any which brings greater satisfaction.
We challenge you to rise to a new sense of commitment to assist our Father in Heaven in His glorious work. Every missionary has an important role in helping “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
The Lord will reward and richly bless you as you humbly and prayerfully serve Him. More happiness awaits you than you have ever experienced as you labor among His children.
The First Presidency
I love that message. I love that it talks about the happiness that will come as you surrender your will to the Father, trust in the Savior and serve them with all your heart, might, mind and strength. There really is no more compelling, challenging, stretching or taxing work than this, but also no other work will bring you the pure joy that missionary work brings into your heart. I love being a missionary. I will always be a missionary. That's the best part about coming home for me, it never stops. The nametag never comes off. How cliche can I be? :) But it's true. I am so grateful for all the experiences in my life that have led up to my mission. I am grateful for everything, especially the hard times, because those times have lead me to where I am today. I am not perfect. Not even close. Oh boy...I am so far from perfect, but heck...I've still got a lot of life ahead of me. I want to love life. I want to live life to the fullest and I am so grateful that my mission has taught me how to live life and how to love life. It all goes back to Jesus Christ. This is His work and we are all a part of it. I put my real nametag on on August 31, 2002 when I was baptized. My agency and will were turned over to the Father at that point. I am His agent. I represent Him. I am expected to do and say what He would do and say if He personally were ministering among men at this time. It's worth it to fight to become a consecrated disciple of Christ. It's a lifelong process but as Elder Neil A. Maxwell said, "Consecration is thus the only true surrender which also constitutes a complete victory." We are on the winning side friends. This is all real. As Joseph Smith said:
“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done”
The work isn't done yet. There is so much to do. The Lord needs us. So let's get on with it, for His sake. :) I love you each so much. I cannot wait to see you and to share all I have learned with you and I can't wait to hear all your stories. I just want to sit and talk and laugh for hours and hours. We are always going to be a family and that knowledge has kept me up over these past 18 months. God gave us families to help us become what He wants us to be. You are literally the best people I know. I couldn't love you more than I do right now. Thank you for everything and hey, I will see you in 2 days! :) I'll be the one in the black coat with the Ogio bag in hand. See you in good old Salt Lake City, UT! I'm coming home! :)