Man...you know when you start off your family e-mail and you are already crying, it's not a good sign...it's really hard to type through tears! :) My heart is literally bursting at the seams right now. I am so grateful for everything in my life, but especially all of you! I have been looking forward to writing this e-mail for a long time. I wrote in my journal in the MTC, "I wonder what kind of a missionary I will be when I have been out for a year." Man...I don't know how great of a missionary I am, but I do know that my life has been changed forever. Being a missionary and having the opportunity to serve my Heavenly Father has been the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I can't believe I left you all 1 year ago this week. Today is the anniversary of my farewell. Retrospect is the most incredible thing. I just love the life that Heavenly Father has blessed me with. He has taken a broken vessel...aka...me...and helped me get on the right path. Through the Atonement, I have changed. I have SOOO much more to do, but holy cow, talk about the greatest year of my life. I just love being a missionary and I love all of you so much! Thank you for who you are!
I am just going to warn you all, this letter may be a bit of a monologue...shocker! :) Each Sunday night after we plan, I write out a list of all the things I want to talk about in my family email the next day. I really love doing it. It helps me to be grateful for all the things that have happened each week, but I also get SUPER EXCITED to talk to you guys and to tell you about all the wonderful things that have been happening. Well, I was writing my list last night and I was bawling. I have been pretty emotional this week. I feel like all the thought, feelings, impressions, experiences I have had on my mission have shot into my memory. Man...I have just cried and cried. I am surprised I am not dehydrated...sidenote....I actually was dehydrated this week...who knew you have to drink water in the cold too? Go figure :) Anyways, I am better now, so don't worry. But for real, it's just been the most amazing week. I started my missionary journal the first day I went into the MTC and I am planning on finishing it on October 16, 2014. Exactly one year from my departure date. My journal is one of my greatest treasures. I am so grateful I forced myself to write in it at the beginning of my mission. The things I wrote make me laugh and cry every time I read them. I am just so grateful for all that has happened!
Mom, you asked me to share some experiences about seeing Love change people on my mission. Man...where to begin? How much time do I have? :) Love is the essence of the gospel, just as President Monson said. It's incredible how it changes people. The first example I have of it is love towards me...when I was in the MTC, my companion, Sisar Thayne loved me so much. I don't know why she did, but she did. I never doubted that once and in my darkest days there when I felt like no one loved me or cared, I always knew she loved me. She helped me feel of my Heavenly Father's love. Although I didn't understand why I was serving a mission, he sent me a companion who loved me and through that, I knew that He really did want me to be happy and that everything was going to be ok. Sister Thayne is one of my best friends. I love her so much!
The second lesson I have learned about love is the power that the pure love of Christ has to change our individual hearts. I remember I had been in the country for about 4 weeks. I was so frustrated with everything and wondered if I was ever going to be able to love all the companions I would have, if I would ever love Finnish and if I would ever be able to understand and communicate with these people, if I would ever love the dark, cold, winter..still working on that one :)....if I would ever love the finns, and if I could ever love myself and all those around me. Honestly I just felt like death. I felt like my heart was frozen over. I fasted and prayed SO hard and as I was sitting in sacrament meeting in Tampere, I remember the exact spot in the chapel, I was sitting there praying and the thought shot into my head, "Love your companion." I remember being totally shocked and asking out loud...in a whisper of course..."What? How on earth does that solve all my problems?" I sifted it over in my mind a few thousand times and then I decided, "Ok...what do I have to lose? I am going to focus on loving my companion." It wasn't always easy...not because my companion wasn't easy to love, but I was so consumed with myself. I was consumed with MY problems, MY challenges, MY insecurities...it was all about me. I learned then, very clearly, that important lesson that Christ taught us that when we lose ourselves, we really find ourselves. Everything changed after that day. Not immediately...boy oh boy...it was quite the process, but I felt myself beginning to change. I looked for little ways to serve and love my companion. I complimented her, I did what she asked me to do #trainee, I did the very best that I could to love her. That simple thing changed EVERYTHING. The winter wasn't so dark, the people weren't so rude, finnish wasn't so hard, but most of all, I felt my heart "melting" in a way. I felt like Heavenly Father was taking out my old, hard, cynical heart and replacing it with His. I haven't been the same since that day.
Another lesson about love I have learned is how love can save people. My friend Annastina from Tampere was less active when I first got there. No one had ever really put forth the effort to go and help her, so the bishop asked me and my companion to work with her. We were actually going to contact a former investigator and we saw her name on the teaching record as one of the "fellowshippers" of this person. We called her up and asked if she would like to come with us. She agreed and we went to this lady's house. The lesson was super sketch...the lady ranted for hours...literally...about how poetry is God to her and how poetry is her means of salvation. Man it was nuts. I remember sitting there and thinking, "What the heck? This is the biggest waste of time in the world." I was way frustrated. We left the lesson and I had the thought to ask Annastina about her family. She and I and Sister Jones were walking back to the bus stop just talking about all the things and as we are about 20 yards from the bus stop, our bus zooms past and doesn't stop because no one was there to flag it down. I ran after it for about 15 seconds, got frustrated, plus I almost slipped on the ice and killed myself, and then I came back to Annastina and Sister Jones. I was so mad. I thought, "Great, now we are late going home, the next bus doesn't come for 45 minutes...what are we supposed to do?" Man, as I look back now, I can't help but laugh as I think of how perfectly this all worked out. Because we missed the bus and because Annastina needed to take the same bus back, we were able to talk to her for a good solid 1 1/2 about her life. We talked about her mission, we talked about her family, we talked about her goals, we really just helped her feel loved and important. After that day, she came to church every single week. We always went and talked to her. I remember complimenting her on her clothes and just telling her how much we loved her. We took her on lessons with us, went with her to lunch, and made her feel important. My last Sunday in Tampere, she was being interviewed for her temple recommend. I took a picture with her and she said to me afterwards, "Sister Bitner, I have always known that you love me and because of that, I know that God loved me enough to send you here. Thank you." Wow. Crap...I am crying again. I will never ever forget Annastina and the powerful lesson I learned about love. It is one of my greatest joys of my mission!
I think I have learned more about Heavenly Father's love through intently studying the gospel than any other way in my life. As I have come to understand and apply the principles of the gospel and the more I look at the church and the prophet and the Book of Mormon and temples and family history and mostly the Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ, I am just floored EVERY TIME by the love Heavenly Father has for us. Every single thing in the gospel is evidence of his love. In finnish, the word "todiste" means evidence and the word "todistus" means testimony or testament. So on the front of the Book of Mormon in Finnish it says, "Mormon Kirja: Toinen Todistus Jeesuksesta Kristuksesta." Each time I look at that book and particularly the word "todistus" I just think, man, Todistus and Todiste. The Book of Mormon is evidence of God's love Everything is evidence of His love. God loves us SO much that he has given us literally every thing we need to know to return back to Him. He is not leaving anything up to chance because he loves us that much. His love has changed me so much during my mission and I will never be the same because of His love for me. I am so grateful that love is the essence of the gospel!
Sorry mom, I don't know if that answers your question, but I am so grateful for all the love that I have felt and learned about on my mission. I love being a missionary!
Anyways, I better get started on this week....there have been a lot of good things that have happened this week! The first thing is I was able to go on splits with my BEST FRIEND Sister Lund. She was trained by the one and only Sister Fronk, who by the way, I am so happy you all love...she is wonderful! But anyways, Sister Lund and Sister Hubner came down on Monday night and we were on splits on Tuesday. Sister Lund and I stayed in Vaasa and went around by bike all day because Sister Pace and Sister Hubner were in Seinäjoki with the car. Sister Lund is seriously the greatest person I know. She reminds me SO much of you, Mom. That's probably why I love her so much. We had such a great day. We talked with everyone and had really good conversations with people on the street.
There was this one girl we talked with who, after about 1 minute of talking blurted out that her best friend committed suicide about a year ago and that it was super hard for her. It's amazing how Heavenly Father helps us to be where we need to be as we follow the spirit, because we both had felt like we needed to go a certain direction. Nothing really happened other than that girl being there, but it was so worth it. We had a great conversation with her. She said she is way busy with school and work so she didn't want to meet, which is a bummer, but it was just wonderful to leave someone better than we found them! Sister Lund and I just talked all day about how wonderful it is to meet the amazing people that we meet on our missions. It is so easy to talk with Sister Lund and we came to the conclusion that she and Sister Fronk and I are "kindred spirits" to quote my favorite red head! :) Oh, funny sidenote: We were laughing and joking as we rode our bikes down the rode and this guy, about 25ish was running and he stops right in front of us. I was a little shocked, but I awkwardly tried to stop and my foot got caught as I was turning so I kept flying down the road, but Sister Lund was able to compose herself a little quicker and she stopped and talked to this guy. I came back to them and this guys says, "You two are very bright happy people. It's nice to see smiling girls." hahahaha a little awkward, but still really nice. It was a good reminder to me that people really notice us and pay attention. It kind of changes how you think about things! :)
So I have told you a little bit about Ha, our Vietnamese less active. We have been trying to organize a cooking night for her with the young women FOREVER where she could come and teach them how to make food...she is a chef. Well, it hasn't worked for a long time, but this week, the stars finally aligned and it WORKED!! She came and taught us how to make shrimp salad with rice vermicelli and fish sauce! YUM. It was way good and she had such a great time. It's funny, because I have thought so much how she needs to get involved with the members here. The members are awesome, they are just so tight knit, it's hard to break in. But she made such good friends with Sister Linna and Sister Pärkkä. It's been so great to see them take her in and help her feel loved. It was just a really good night with good people and good food! Talk about recipe for success right there :)
Sidenote: So I guess the longer you serve in a ward, the more comfortable members get with you...well duh...but this week, Sister Nåsman and Sister Linna asked me when I was going home. I told Sister Nåsman and she said, "Ok, there is a boy I want you to talk to when you go home. He served here as a missionary and is really cute." Uh...ok....awkward. I mean, don't get me wrong, I appreciate the gesture, but still awkward. Then Sister Linna comes up to me at the cooking night...she is my way good friend...and asked me when I was going home. I told her and she said, "Ok, I want to set you up with one of Mikko's," her husbands, "mission friends." She was super excited to show me his pictures on Instagram. It was really awkward, but nice! I have heard that everyone and their dog tries to set up returned missionaries when they go home, but I thought I had a little bit longer before it started...anyways, I thought it was funny. No one else should do that to missionaries though...not cool! :)
So this weekend we had district conference again...it's like stake conference. Pretty crazy, I was here for the last district conference, 6 months ago and I was pretty 900% positive I wouldn't be here again, but hey, I'm not calling the shots here! :) Anyways, It was a really good experience. We were able to drive to Pietarsaari from Vaasa which is my FAVORITE DRIVE OF ALL TIME. The road is completely lined with trees and then when they part, you can see the ocean. It's beautiful!! Especially in the fall. Definitely a tender mercy I was able to see that! Oh by the way, it has gotten REALLY cold here the past week. Man...raining and dark and all the good stuff. It's funny because Sister Pace is freaking out because it is so dark and cold and I feel like I am coming home. This is the Finland I know and love...this is the Finland I was born in! Dark an cold! Man, I love it :)
President and Sister Watson were at district conference and President gave a couple really good talks. I love them both. They are great! But I have to tell you, Mom and Dad, your emails last week really made me think a lot about my expectations for myself. I have never thought I was hard on myself, but this week, I realized I am and it's not good. Dad, I really appreciated all the wonderful things you said about me...gosh, you know how to make me cry, and Mom as well. Both of you are wonderful and I am so grateful you are my "primary gospel teachers" to quote Elder Callister from conference! :) But anyways, I have noticed recently that I have not been feeling too great about myself. I was just getting really down on myself and feeling frustrated beyond normal when I would make a mistake. I prayed about it and read the scriptures and read my parent's emails again. I realized that I was being hard on myself and that my expectations were higher than Heavenly Father's. I prayed to know what His expectations were for me, and one morning during personal study, I realized that I have been focusing so much on overcoming my weaknesses, which are innumerable, and I have neglected to serve as a missionary using the gifts and talents that I have been given. I was looking for the bad, in myself, and I found it. I realized that I can't be the missionary my Father in Heaven wants me to be if I feel sad and depressed all the time about my abilities. Sooooo I decided to shift my focus.
I read my patriarchal blessing, I read through a bunch of letters from family and friends, and I wrote a list of all the things other people say I do well. Some of the things are way not true and way too nice, but I realized that there was a common theme to what people say. I kind of found the "nuggets" so to speak and I have been praying to know how I can better serve people from my strengths. Each of us are individual and Heavenly Father has blessed us with certain combinations of gifts and talents so that we can further the work of salvation. We should never compare ourselves to others, although its tempting and is way natural. It really is completely unfair and unrealistic. We aren't supposed to be the same. I just have found myself being incredibly grateful over the past few days for the gifts and talents I have been given. They have become even more sacred to me this week, especially the ones from my patriarchal blessing. I think we all forget a lot that we really are special. Not too special...don't want a bunch of big-headed people, :) but Heavenly Father puts us in places specifically because we are who we are. We have things to do that only we can do. I have felt so much love from Heavenly Father this week and I have really noticed that I have been a lot more happy. It's been great! Granted, we always need to improve but we can't get so caught up in that that we forget to "enjoy the journey" as my mom said. We need to enjoy what we have and be grateful for it, not feel guilty because we aren't good enough for what we have, at least in our own minds. Anyways, I am just grateful for this realization I had this week. Man...I love being able to study the gospel everyday. I know life gets busy, but we HAVE to make it a priority in our lives. It's the only thing that will keep us safe!
Anyways, the church is true. God is our loving Heavenly Father. He hears and answers every prayer we give, whether spoken or not and He wants us to be honest with Him when we pray. Jesus Christ is God's Son and the Savior of the World. He loves us. He knows us. He understands us and He is with us every step of the way. His love can change people. It has changed me. Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. Through him, the Church of Jesus Christ is back on the earth. President Monson is our prophet today. The Book of Mormon is absolutely the word of God. It is the most wonderful book in the world. I love it with all my heart. There is power even when we open the book. I have felt it countless times on my mission and have come to love it with all my heart. I know that we can be together as a family forever. That knowledge brings me more joy than anything else in the world. I know this is God's work. It is because imperfect, teenage kids like me can do it. We all can do it. We all must do it. I love being a missionary with all my heart, but the best part is, I didn't start being a missionary one year ago, I started when I was 8. I took Christ's name upon me at baptism. This never has to end and thank heaven for that. This love and peace and joy I feel every day never has to go away. I know that there is more joy to be found in the service of the Lord than in any other way. I love the gospel. I love my Father in Heaven. I love my Savior. I love this church. I know it is true. I am so grateful for everything that I have. I have had the best year of my life and I am so excited for 6 more months of this wonderful life! It really has been and always will be the greatest blessing of my life! I love you all and hope you have the most wonderful week! I will talk to you soon! :) Heipä!
Sisar Olivia Bitner
P.S. Something Finnish...all the finns have these books called "Vieräs Kirjat". It's a big deal here and whenever they have a guest, the guests write their name and a little note in it. Well, this is something the finnish missionaries have adopted so I have a "V-book" and all my mission friends write in it. I am way excited to show you all one day! I love you!!!
P.P.S.S. Dad, do you know LeLand Bitner? I have had like 345 members ask me if I am related to him...apparently he served a mission here! Just wanted to know! I love you!!
|Kebab with the district...except I got a burger...kebab is grow|
|Two of the young women from the ward at the cooking night|
|The church in Pietarsaari for disrict conference|