Letter Received January 31, 2015 (we think it was written about December 15, 2014)
Dearly Beloved Family and Friends,
Well, as those reading the hard copy can plainly see, we got packages this week! With big paper! AND MAGICAL INVINCI-LOPES! All our envelopes self-sealed months ago, and those can't self-seal! So thank you! Even better than the packages was more letters! That ACTUALLY finished off everything for October, I think. And holy smokes, that just brought so much joy to my heart. Packages are great and make us all very happy, but letters from the home front bring pure joy to the heart. Congrats to Grandma and Grandpa on their 50th anniversary!
It's been a glorious week! THOMAS AND TIIM FINALLY GOT BAPTIZED! It has been such a hard journey for them. With Elders before, they had all their lessons, but had to wait for their marriage papers to go through. Before they went through, Elders got pulled out. Luckily, when we came back, they were one of the two couples we found in the area book, but his dad had found out that he as going to church with the Mormons and told him that he had to come back tot he Catholic. Thomas is about 30, but in Kiribati, that's pretty serious stuff, especially because his dad could kick him off their land and leave them with no place to live.
So we came, met with him, had a good discussion where he said he definitely felt like he'd had a more Christian life when he was trying to be Mormon, told us he'd probably just be Mormon when his dad died. We taught him about fasting and set a day where we'd fast with him to soften the heart of his dad, bore our testimonies, and left him with the best of wishes. It was a conference that week, and lo and behold, Thomas and Tiim showed up! Said that their hearts told them to come, and they thought it was more important to listen to the Holy Ghost than his dad. There have been even more problems on the way to their baptism, delay after delay after delay, but finally everything got together for Saturday. Then it turned out that the council, where he works, was having their Christmas Party on Saturday. So we were all sitting around talking about it, and he said kind of jokingly, "Well, what if we do it at dawn?" (The car would be going up around 8, wouldn't be back until dark). I said, "Careful, I might take you seriously on that one!" And he replied, "Well, why not?" So we ended up doing a bptism at 6:30 in the morning, just them and their kids and a great member family for witnesses. Just about the best way you can start off a day, except that a 5:30 wake-up time tends to kill a man. Worth it!
Also awesome this week, folks came from the Stake to do Branch Conference in Tabonibara! Holy crud. It was SO amazing! Felt the spirit so strongly during the sacrament meeting, and the Sunday School lesson was spot on and inspiring. It was amazing what a difference a spiritually charged Sabbath makes. I think that part of the reason why I was sent to Kiribati was that I've been blessed grow up in such a spiritually supportive environment, and I didn't really appreciate it or realize what I had. Now I know, and I am NEVER taking it for granted again!
We got to bless a man that was sick with recurring asthma, and we elders were in the circle while the counselors and the stake presidency anointed and sealed. It was such a great manifestation of priesthood power. You feel the spirit whenever you give a blessing, but I definitely felt that I was kneeling next to spiritual giants. It makes me feel blessed to know that I grew up in the midst of such giants, and I just can't believe how much I took that for granted in so many ways. The Lord has blessed me so much, and continues to do so.
That said, I don't think anybody from the stake had any idea the huge uplifting influence they had, and I imagine that most of the folks back home don't either. So here's saying thank you to everybody out there who is just faithfully fulfilling their calling (whether they think they are doing a good job or not), praying every day, reading their scriptures every day, and faithfully attending church. You have a spiritually uplifting influence that you may not even realize.
Special thanks to those who have lifted my life, including family, young men's leaders, bishops, stake leaders, scoutmasters, Sunday School teachers, Primary teachers, and all the folks who have spiritually nourished me. The salvation of Heavenly Father's children absolutely depends on the small, day-to-day efforts of each one of his covenant children, and even though the elders with the nametags may get the spotlight, every member of the Lord's kingdom plays a critical role in this conflict. What e'er thou art, act well they part!
Anyway, it was a super packed week. Looks like it's going to get two pages. When that package arrived, it was an exciting event. I walked out of our bathroom in the morning and saw two imatangs walking down the street with a I-Kiribati. Well, that was pretty exciting in and of itself, but then they got to the gate and turned into the church compound. At that point, I recognized Iotua Tune, former Stake President, and now in charge of the Kiribati LDS Service Center. The imatangs were wearing big floppy hats and big sunglasses, so I couldn't see them very well, so my heart stopped for about five seconds until I was sure it wasn't President Weir and his wife (not that I was being bad, but I hadn't done my wash on p-day because of the rain, had done it that morning, and wasn't sure if it was 8:00 yet. And I was just coming in from showing. Luckily, it was well-before 8:00.)
Turns out, it was Brother and Sister Buckner, and they had a package and a bunch of letters. President Tune showed Brother Buckner around, and Sister Buckner took our pictures and got our mothers' e-mail addresses. (She said she would send the picture back.) Brother Buckner got back, got a brief report on our area (I don't know what his job is, but he used to be a mission president in Switzerland, and acted like he could have been President Weir's brother). Gave us a great little pep talk, and they were off. The whole thing took maybe five or ten minutes, and Elder Smith and I were just in shock the whole time. White people! It's really hard to speak English besides your comp. Between the letters and the pep talk, we were pretty much glowing the rest of the day.
Other news, biked to Tabonibara and back five times this week. Meaning we did about 300 kilometers this week on our bikes. Y'all have Google. You can do the mileage conversion. Once again, we are exhausted for p-day, and only leaving the house for food.
In yet OTHER news, we found cans of powdered milk for $7.50 a piece. Spendy, but put it in milo (the Australian version of Ovaltine that we live off out here) and it is AMAZING. I've had four cups today. Speaking of drinks, the cider [it's the powdered packets we sent for Christmas] we got in package is being saved for Christmas. We laughed at the note on it that talked about letting it cool down. Everybody out here has to boil their water to kill the germs, so we're used to hot drinks, regardless of how hot it is outside. We'll probably drink it hot just for the nostalgia of Christmas.
It was so touching! Some of the stake people asked if we were getting excited to call for Christmas, and we told them there was no internet here, and we weren't getting pulled in, and they got all concerned for us! They were asking the branch president if there was a way we could get internet or a phone call (there isn't) or thinking if they could get something out here from South. Made me think man, somebody actually DOES care about us out here! We assured them that it was fine, we'd just wait for the next transfer, one in January, and the next in February or March. There's nothing they can do for us, bit it was nice to know somebody cared.
Speaking of transfers! On Tuesday, Zone Leaders said that it would be official and announced THIS Tuesday (tomorrow) 5 elders go home this week, and 5 more are coming the first of the new Year, so they're closing down some areas on Tarawa until the New Year and then having a great big New Year transfer. They said that every outer island on the radio would be affected, and that elders who have been on outies for a long time are mostly coming in. Apparently President doesn't like elders on outies for more than 4 or 5 months at a time (which makes sense, it's really hard, and you go a bit crazy.) And there are elders who have been on outies almost all year. So it'll be a big move! it's rough, because things are really rolling here, but at the same time, internet would be nice, so Elder Smith and i are both good, whichever one leaves first. We're setting up training for our auxiliaries before we go, tough, and so whoever stays will get the next elder on board there. So who knows, maybe you'll get an email before you get this letter! If not, you'll hear from me in Feb. or Mar.
Anyway, I love you all! Mom, Dad, Greg, Justin, all the rest of the family, friends, and everybody else! Thank you for prayers, thoughts, and love. I'm sending plenty back from here! Hope that Christmas was great, good luck on the new semester at school, keep doing the little things every day that prepare us to live with our Heavenly Father, who loves us so very much! Best of luck in everything! Hurrah for Israel!
Love, Elder Marks
P.S. I almost had a coconut fall on me last night! Me whole life flashed before me eyes! It was pretty borin. . . .
P.S.S. So now I'm just basically doing my very bestest job to fill space. Like I don't really have anything to say, but I'm just talking because I like to talk. Pioneer c hildren sang as they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked . . . .
P.S.S.S. OK, we'll end it on an even Love you all! Kam na tekeraoi n ami wiiki!
Letter from January 4, 2015
FAMILY!!!! AND EVERYBODY ELSE WHO I LOVE SO VERY MUCH TOO!!!!! So, first, before y'all think I'm maiu buaka, zone leaders gave us permission, if we had a random chance to use internet, to just go ahead and use it. SO HERE I AM!!!!!
I've read a bunch of letters, don't have time to read all of them because there's only one computer, my comp is waiting, and we're waiting for our branch pres to get back from fishing so we can talk about baptism tomorrow. So here's stuff!
FIRST of all, I've gotten all letters up to the beginning of December, I think! Besides being angry that only one of my letters has gotten through (I've been writing every week), IT'S ALL SO HAPPY MAKING!!!! We got a bunch of them December 23rd, and that pretty much just made Christmas for us out here. You folks back home have NO IDEA how much happiness your letters bring to us, NO IDEA!!!! So thank you for the love, and for all the everything! Special shout-outs to all the people who wrote on the letter from the ward, especially to Ryan, who knows that the most important missionary tool is a smile and Christ-like love.
SO GOOD TO HEAR FROM ALL OF YOU!!!! Also, President Ballard said to "start, I mean keep wearing you're retainer." So, President, from that time I have started, I mean I haven't missed a single day my whole mission of wearing my retainer. :)
As far as stuff out here goes, if you still haven't heard since my first letter, a LOT has changed. We baptized I think 8 people, had some amazing less actives come back to church, and have had a TON of struggles. Our biggest problems are that we have entire branches struggling with inactivity. But slowly and surely, things are getting better! And it's a great thing to see!
As far as I go personally, wow, it's been a change. I remember being all bummed out before about not having some glamor assignment, making some stupid comment about being a trumpet player of a missionary. And being here on Tarawa Ieta, well, it really isn't a glamor assignment at all. Really, we wonder a lot of times if the mission even remembers that we exist out here. We've had 70s come to South Tarawa, and we totally could have biked there, but were told to stay in our area, we've missed Zone Conferences, and we've had times where Zone Leaders left the radio while we were still sitting there waiting for them to call us for stats.
We have one branch president who is essentially less active, and one who is constantly trying to nail us for disobedience (I'm proud to say that he hasn't gotten us once yet, because we are freaking military obedient out here) and a branch and a half of less active members. You know how hard it is to get your investigator to come to church when he comes, and then church doesn't even happen because none of the members show up? This may be the most discouraging area I've ever worked in, which is compounded by the fact that we never get to here from home.
Just go read 2 Nephi 4, starting from "I know in whom I have trusted." This has legitimately been the best experience from me in my whole life. I thought I had a rock-hard testimony before. I thought that I knew about sincere prayer, about spiritual witnesses of the truth of the Restoration. I thought that if I were placed in a situation where the whole world told me that my beliefs were wrong, then I could stand strong.
Then all of a sudden, it happened. It's been pretty much me and my companion against the world out here, with people saying that we're wolves in sheep clothing, followers of a false prophet. Our investigators are regularly told that they're going to burn in hell by those who love them most. Throw on top of that the physical stress of working in Kiribati, and I've had times where I wondered if this really was all true.
To all who read this, it is.
I've had times where I poured my soul out in prayer to the Lord, begging to know if this was really what He wanted me to do, and in the times that I've done that, I've received answers through the power of the Holy Ghost. I'm a stubborn guy, I guess, and it's taken more than one time, but each time builds my faith even more. I can testify that I have received a spiritual testament of the truth of the Book of Mormon, of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and even though sometimes it seems so wondrous and amazing that I can hardly believe it, I have no choice because I have had it confirmed to my soul beyond a doubt.
I know that my Saviour loves me, that He has redeemed me from my sins, and that He loves me. There have been times on my mission where I've wondered why I couldn't have served somewhere that I'd have regular contact with my mission president and Seventies who could teach me and help me be some kind of spiritual giant, but I have gained a rock-solid testimony that my Lord knows exactly what He needs me to be, and whatever that is, it's enough for me. I'm not going to say I'm perfect, but I think I've managed to shake my stupid trumpet-player pride and become what the Lord needs me to be, a servant and a soldier in His army. Whatever that makes of me, so be it! I'm happy to serve the King.
We heard about transfers, and I'm staying here on Tarawa Ieta, so y'all probably won't hear from me until February or March. If letters never make it through, I'll have so much to tell you all! But I think I've said what's important. I hope that you all continue to be happy and healthy, that you've all had a wonderful Christmas, and that 2015 is an even better year than 2014 was! Hurrah for Israel!