51: Weak Things Made Strong
Stories in this episode: Bullied most of her life, Julie discovers that the autism that made her different is actually the exact thing that makes her gifted at family history work; A comic book heroine helps Sarah find her own superpowers when it comes to connecting with others; Kurt struggles with the weight of his calling as a bishop until the memory of a red superhero cape reminds him of his true desire to help others.
Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
I can't exactly remember when I first heard the phrase "double-edged sword." It was probably in Mrs. McAfee's eighth grade English class, or maybe Ms. Turse's ninth grade English class. Well, whichever well named English teacher at Rockland Junior High taught it to me, I have never forgotten it. Because a double-edged sword basically describes life.
If your junior high teacher never taught you that phrase, let me explain. A double-edged sword is anything that has the potential to have both positive and negative consequences in our lives. It's that thing that is both a strength and a weakness all at the same time. Need a concrete example? Okay, let's talk about perfectionism. It's the standard answer to the question, "What's your greatest weakness?" in a job interview because it's a strength disguised as a weakness. Or is it a weakness disguised as a strength? Trick question. It's both. And I know this because a desire to get things right is my constant companion, and it spurs me forward in so many cool ways in my life. But it's also the thing that when left unchecked leads to anxiety and deep paralysis. See? A positive and a negative, all in one, a double-edged sword.
I suspect that if we dig deep, it won't take long for each of us to recognize this pattern of strength and weakness coexisting in ourselves. It's what makes us both human and heroic. And today, we'll hear stories from three people who discovered exactly what kind of superpowers were waiting at the other end of their weakness. Our first storyteller is Julie who learned that her greatest challenge in life could be transformed when she focused her efforts in service.
When my daughter was four years old she was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and when I was reading through the symptoms of it, I realized that most of the symptoms applied to me as well.
I was very socially awkward as a kid, and I was often bullied for it. I didn't understand social cues or body language very well, and I would come off as rude because I would interrupt people and I would kind of be silly in a way that they just didn't understand. So it was hard to make friends.
I was really fascinated with names and dates and I didn't understand why. I come from a very big family and I would make lists of everybody's full names and their birth dates and how old they would turn that year, and I didn't understand why I was driven to do this and I didn't want anybody else to see it because they wouldn't understand it either.
It wasn't until many years later that I realized that it was because of family history research that I had that unique quality in my mind. In fact, when I was 16, I had my patriarchal blessing and I was told that I would recognize the choice quality of the mind that my Heavenly Father had given me. And I always thought that maybe I would just realize I was smart, but I think it was more to do with my autism, that my mind worked in a unique way from other people, that I would be able to look at different family records and decipher information that other people had overlooked.
And because of that, I was able to break down a lot of walls that we had come to in our genealogy. I think I was given that because Heavenly Father knew that I would be the one to be able to find these people to have their temple work done for them.
After my dad died in 2001, after a couple of years, I had a dream where I saw him in our backyard, and he was bathed in a white light and wearing the purest white clothing, and he was walking toward me and all of a sudden I could see the veil separating him from me, and it was of the finest material that I had ever seen. It was completely see-through. It was like a curtain hanging down.
And he turned to his right and I could see couples standing just behind this veil. And he would point to them and name them off and I recognized the names in the dream of people that I had been researching, but I hadn't done their temple work for them yet. And they were looking at me with pleading in their eyes, smiles on their faces, but this pleading and they never spoke to me, but I felt that they were saying that they wish that their temple work could be done. And they were like, "Please, please, please get our work done for us." And that is something that I've kept with me for 20 years of just remembering that feeling and it's really spurred me on to be able to find these people.
When my oldest was very young, I started doing family search indexing because I had watched my mom do it. And at that time, it wasn't done on computer, it was done where I would have paper copies of documents, and I would transcribe them over to index cards that I would send over to the temple or to the church office building.
And I really enjoyed that aspect of it because I realized that I really enjoyed the data entry part of it. And it was after we started doing indexing on the computer, I realized that touching the keys gave me a lot of good sensory input that really helped calm my mind. Something about autism is people will really like to have sensory input where that sense of touch gives you comfort.
And because of that gift, I was able to do about 90,000 names in indexing because I can type really fast and it feels really comforting to me, and I can do it with a very high rate of accuracy. And I believe that's a superpower that heavenly Father is giving me because now I can help other people find their family members.
In 2002, I went to the Navoo Temple open house with my husband and our young son. And we were going to be staying in the same city that my relatives came from, and I was really excited about that because I could do research, and I dedicated an entire day to be able to go out and do research, but because of our schedule, I ended up with only an hour.
And so we went to a cemetery and I prayed to Heavenly Father to help me to find my family. Even though I had hardly any time, and I went into the office and I found the information that I needed to go out and find their graves, and I found a branch of the family that I only had very minimal information on. And I was really excited that I found... their oldest daughter actually passed away as a child and I had never even seen her name, and I was excited because I was able to record her and submit her for her temple work to be done when I had never even seen her name before, and this was the only way that I would have found her until many years later when those records were available on the internet.
And I really did feel like that was a miracle Heavenly Father had given me. It was at that point that I realized that family history research is really a treasure hunt, and I knew that my unique mind could help me with that. I have an urgent desire to help these ancestors of mine because I'm doing a work that they can't do for themselves. And I really believe that it is helping me build Heavenly friendships and relationships and deep bonds that I struggle to have here on this Earth.
And I like the fact that I can be a savior on Mount Zion and be a hero for them. I like to tell my daughter who's 14 years old now that her autism can be a superpower for her as well. She has an immense love of animals and ecology, and she has an amazing talent with art. And I know that she can go out there and make a difference. And I tell her that. I tell her that she has a unique quality in her mind that she could get out there and maybe think of solutions other people haven't thought of, and that she can help save the world. And I'm just really glad that Heavenly Father gave me this ability because it helps me to help her to make a difference.
That was Julie.
From the first moment we heard this on our pitch line, one of my favorite things about Julie's story is that as she began to rely on the Lord to tell her who she was, through things like her patriarchal blessing and personal revelation, she could tune out those voices that were telling her that she was awkward and weird, and begin to see her autism as a gift, and a superpower, a superpower that literally helps her to save souls through genealogy, family history, and temple work.
And that's not all. Her autism also helps her to be the coach and the mentor that her daughter needs. I think about that all the time. Wouldn't it be so great if we could all have someone sooner rather than later who tells us that the things that make us feel different might actually be the key to our greatest successes.
And the good news for those of us who are still looking for that reassurance is that it is available to us right now from a loving Heavenly Father. Even if there's nobody here on Earth who wants to tell us that, he really does, and I believe that, and Julie's story helps me to realize that it's never too late to ask and to receive.
Our next story comes from our friend and my fellow producer, Sarah Blake.
Growing up, I lacked confidence in social situations. Somewhere along the way, in my preteen years, I became convinced that I wasn't pretty or fun, no guys would ever like me. And although I was confident in school and the things that I felt like I was good at, I was very unconfident and uncomfortable in standard social situations like parties or dances.
Teenage girls tell themselves a lot of mean things in their heads and I definitely fell into that, and believed in this narrative that I wasn't good at social things, and no boys would ever like me. And so this was how I went into my young adulthood.
I served a mission and then I found myself living in Salt Lake City as a single member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who still believed she was really not good at social stuff, but the greatest desire of my heart was to find love and get married and have a family.
And I began to realize how ill-equipped I was to make that dream come true. One of my survival strategies, actually, pretty much my only trick for getting through social situations was to look around for people who looked more uncomfortable or lonely than me and go be friends with them. I definitely had an identity as a kind person, and so I had the confidence to do that and I still think that's a good thing. I'm glad I learned that skill and that habit, but it did become clear that it wasn't the way to find my people, my match necessarily.
I was living at the time in the Avenues in Salt Lake with a wonderful roommate who was a really good friend who was really pretty, cute, and fun and was really gifted at all the social stuff that I felt kind of inept at. And it would happen all the time that she would get asked on dates and I would be overlooked. And the low point came when I was at a ward mix and mingle, and I look around for someone more lonely and uncomfortable than me, I see this really nerdy guy sitting alone at a table, I go over and sit down and start talking to him, and he barely looks at me, just stares at my roommate and then asks me if I know if she's dating anybody. It was a pretty low blow.
And the next day, I came home from work, I was alone in the house, and I was just pretty bitter and grumpy, and I was saying to myself, like, "How do people even date? How is it even done? Do you have to be like a superhero to date? Because it seems impossible to me." And I had just read a book about the history of comic strips, and so inspired by that and fueled by my bitterness, I started drawing a comic strip called, "The Adventures of Dating Girl."
The plotline was a mild, mannered legal secretary, Mary Shanahan, whose initials were a transposition of mine, was a nice girl, hard worker, smart, funny, spiritual, but just not a dater. And then on Valentine's Day Eve when she's walking home from work, she stops to smell some flowers in front of a florist shop and she is hit by magic cosmic lightning, and there's this huge explosion of roses and her glasses go flying off and when she finally stands up from the pile of sizzling roses, she's been transformed into this mega babe, and her outfit is different. She's wearing boots that say "Dating Girl." And there's a crowd of onlookers, some of them are holding up signs telling her how hot she is now.
That was as far as I ever got with drawing the comic strip, and it was just kind of cathartic and fun that night. A funny thing I thought to do with my bitterness about dating.
But I found I couldn't stop thinking about the story of Dating Girl, and I talked about it with my best friend Megan and it kind of became a hobby of ours to talk about the adventures of dating girl and imagine the continuing storyline. And a couple other friends got into it, and we spent a lot of those dateless nights talking about the mythology of Dating Girl, and the story evolved.
So the rest of the story is Mary Shanahan goes home that night after being struck by lightning and she washes her face and goes straight to bed and she doesn't even look in the mirror or notice that she's become this super babe. And in the next morning, she wakes up and her roommates wake up and discover that they also are kind of magically transformed. And over the next few weeks, they're like, "Something's different. We're kind of looking better," but also they felt like they had some new wisdom or skill in social situations and dating, understanding that they hadn't had before.
As they're trying to figure that out, they find themselves magically transported to this location where they meet a woman, Magda, who becomes their mentor. And Magda tells them that she used to be Dating Girl, but she has since retired and moved on. And there has always been a "dating girl" and there always has to be a "dating girl." And when Magda retired, the new "Dating Girl" had to be risen up and that's why the universe chose Mary Shanahan to be struck by lightning to become the new dating girl. And every dating girl has her sidekicks who are also dating girls, and they all have this power to bring balance to the force I guess or to improve healthiness and wisdom and goodness in dating.
And dating girl also learns that she has power to look out over the Salt Lake Valley and little like heart flares go up and she can tell where she's needed and she can go there and also she can fly, but that's like nothing compared to the power of love that defines her now.
So we came up with a bunch of plot lines for the dating girls. The most significant story arc of which was the rise of her arch nemesis, Matthew Nan, the natural man, who was a very cool, accomplished, smart guy who moved into her their ward who was a natural leader and who should have been an influence for good, but instead used his power for evil to encourage people to be lame in dating, to not try hard, to not take risks, to not think the best of others, to be selfish and insecure. He was just a bad dude and they were constantly trying to thwart him.
So, time went on, and the really interesting thing was that the story began to change all of us. It certainly began to change me. We had a lot of conversations about what exactly is Dating Girl's power? What is the superpower in dating? And I was very insistent that her power was not going on dates, that was stupid, and her power was also not being hot, because that's not a superpower that was just like a random side effect of being struck by magic, cosmic lightning.
But the power that she had was the power that she already had in her that was magnified by becoming a superhero. And the power was Christlike charity or love, to apply that to dating. Thinking about what that meant was really healthy for me to think, "What does that mean for the way you treat the person you're dating or the people you're flirting with or the people you want to know better? How do you Treat yourself, and how do you wish the best and work for the best for both parties in a relationship?"
And out of that came for me what was wisdom and self awareness about the ways that I was kind of competitive with other women and I was embracing my insecurities rather than my strengths. And I was letting bitterness lead me rather than hope, and that I was also really hard on guys.
I realized that if I tried to see my dating scene with Dating Girl's magic supervision, it made me see people more as I think Christ would see them, more for their potential and their hopes, and less their weaknesses and their failings. It made me see that we're all very scared and vulnerable in the scary world of dating and that we all needed people to be kind.
It was interesting to see that I had really gone through a time of thinking my strategy of finding people who are lonelier than me and reaching out to them was a weakness. But in fact, that was part of my strength that I did want to be kind when I dated, but I could also do it with more confidence.
The way the dating girl mythology affected my friends was also interesting. As my friends chose a "dating girl" alter ego, their superpower was something that they themselves thought was a weakness but became a strength.
And I think just the act of sitting around and talking about this, imagining these superhero plotlines, for each of us helped us organically move on to being the daters we had always wanted to be. We thought we were being super nerdy. I mean, we were talking about imaginary superheroes and comic strips but it actually was making us more competent daters, more gifted socializers, and it really made a difference in our lives.
After a while, I found that before I was going to a party or something that had me kind of nervous, I would literally psych myself up by saying, "You can do this. You're Dating Girl. Nobody knows it. Nobody has to know it, but you know it inside and you can do this." Sometimes in dating, I would literally say, "W-W-D-G-D. What would dating girl do?" And I would sometimes make lists of the ways that I thought Dating Girl would handle a certain dating situation, and then realize that that was who I was now, and I could do it.
It gave me so much confidence and comfort with myself, and I think because her superpower was based in something that was a part of me that I'd seen as a weakness, ut through the power of charity was turned into a strength, it stuck and it became a part of who I am.
I think it's so true in life in general. Whatever we believe about ourselves can become true. I'm happy to say that all of the "dating girls" that generation of Dating Girls got married, found love, got married. We all have kids now. And there's a funny ending to the story.
My husband and I run our own business and a lot of our employees have ended up being singleyoung adult members of our church. And I was talking to one of these girls in our home one night after work, she was telling me about her dating woes, and I started telling her the story of Dating Girl and she was really into it, and she's starting to imagine her own dating alter ego.
When suddenly there's this huge flash of lightning and a huge clap of thunder like right on top of the house, the lights go out and everything, and then they come back on and we just looked at each other like, "What just happened?" And we realized a new dating girl has been risen up. I just retired and I'm Magda now and she's the new Dating Girl and the generation continues. Dating Girl lives. She always lives.
That was Sarah. I never get tired of hearing her stories. And I'm also always surprised by the inventiveness of her imagination. And great news, the original Gating Girl comic still exists, and we'll have it in our show notes, so you can take inspiration as you try to find your own inner superhero.
There are a few things worth taking from Sarah's story about how we seek to understand our weakness and our strengths. I think it's really easy to compare ourselves to others, like Sarah did, or assume that all hero stuff happens to other people and not us. But I think something special happens when we open ourselves up to the possibility that we can become the hero of our own narrative.
We find that our capacity is magnified through Christ, and consequently our capacity to see others in their full heroic glory is also magnified. We begin to realize that there can never be too many superheroes and that our work is blessed by the existence of everyone conquering the natural man together. That kind of unity is what it's all about.
Our final story today comes from Kurt, who describes the experience of growing into a new calling as he accesses the only true superpower, the power of God upon the Earth, the priesthood.
It's Sunday, February 6th, 2011, and I've been Bishop for one hour.
I'm sitting in the bishop's office, I guess it's my office, but it sure doesn't feel like that, even though the plaque says that outside the door. I noticed the candy dish that I guess I now preside over, the strange carpet wallpaper, and various pictures that hang in the room, the First Presidency, Christ, and a random temple. And I guess I really am the bishop.
My Ward clerk comes into the office with a stack of papers, "Bishop Francom, I just need you to sign here, there, and one more here. Thank you." I noticed as he leaves the room, that he is going through a group of people outside the office. All these people suddenly look into the office hoping that it's their turn to now see the bishop. Because some for some reason, they think I have the solution to all of their problems.
Do they really understand who they're dealing with? I mean, I'm a 28 year old that was called to be bishop in an inner city ward, not because I'm anything special, but because the list of options was incredibly short. But nonetheless, the responsibility is on me to answer their questions.
It just doesn't sit well yet. I don't feel like a bishop though I am standing there in a suit. It feels like dress up. And believe me, I know a thing or two about dress up. As a five year old. I'm sitting there in front of the TV day after day watching a man I later find out is really named Christopher Reeves flying around on the TV screen, saving people from falling buildings, landing a helicopter that's on fire, and it was remarkable.
This being, this Superman was something to aspire to. I mean, the suit, the cape, I mean the strength that he exemplified. I thought, "I got to be that. I've got to be a superhero." My mother gave me a remarkable home sewn Superman cape, and every day I represented being that superhero and represented becoming that dream by wearing that Superman cape.
And sometimes, sure, my mom needed to go to the grocery store or run some errands. But I protested and said, "I will not leave this house unless this Superman cape goes underneath my clothes because crime could break out at any moment, and I must be ready so that I could become a great superhero." But now as Bishop Francom, that memory, that feeling of being a superhero seems so distant.
I've survived one full year as a bishop somehow because now I'm standing in the clerk's office with the ward clerk. He's busy at the computer printing off checks, one after the other, after the other. This has been such a heavy welfare month. I mean so many requests from so many people. Some I know, some I don't, and everybody turns to me as the bishop to make the decision. "Will I pay the rent? Will I pay the water bill? Will I pay the utilities?" As these envelopes are being in the stack in my hand all stuffed with these checks, going to landlords, going to banks, going to utility companies.
They remind me of another envelope I receive quite often. From Alice Wilkins. Every Sunday she shows up to church, big smile with their bright red lipstick. She's 92 years old and couldn't be a happier person, hands me the envelope every week trusting me that I will use these fast offering funds for the family most in need that needs these funds.
But I don't know, as I stand there, holding the stack of envelopes, it just gets heavier and heavier. I mean, these are sacred funds. These are Alice's funds that she has sacrificed. She skipped meals so that she could contribute. And now it's up to me to figure out how to use these funds? Maybe there's more I could do. Maybe I should think this through before I really place these in the mailbox.
Because what if I'm making a mistake? Maybe I've spent too much money. I've definitely spent way more than the ward's brought in. And should I sign the next check? I mean, I don't know. I don't really know that guy. And so maybe I should look more into it. What if I have disgraced these funds that have been given to me to use through the authority I've been given. Again, the pile of these checks gets higher and higher and higher. And I don't know if I'm being a good bishop.
The weight of this responsibility presses down on my shoulders, and I don't know if I want to do it anymore. I'm so frustrated with it all of the pressure of making the right decision, that I'm tired.
And in the moment, where I'm frustrated, I begin to utter the words under my breath, "I hate this." I couldn't complete that sentence before the spirit rebuked me in my mind with one simple phrase.
"I thought you wanted to be a superhero."
It was in that moment that I realize that capes don't exist or make men fly, but authority exists. Opportunities of service exist. There were so many families in dire need of help. In the sense I was wearing the cape, that could answer their prayers wth one quick, "Yes, cut the check." Suddenly, that stack of envelopes didn't seem so heavy.
Four more years followed of me being bishop, and throughout those years, there were so many decisions that weighed on my mind, so many circumstances, so many situations that were impossible before me, that took me to my knees to make the right decision and to give the right guidance and advice.
And I didn't always give the best advice, and I made a lot of mistakes, but I always went back to those words, "I thought you will wanted to be a superhero," because then I was reminded that I was doing a good work and that I was helping people, even with all my weaknesses.
The authority in which I was acting under as a bishop, the authority of Jesus Christ, the Priesthood of God, the keys that have been restored to Earth that make it all possible to reach out and use his authority as the greatest superhero of all time, where redemption is found, where infinite grace is in abundance. He is the superhero. We can turn to him in the moments when we have to stand in his place and act like the superhero, and he will strengthen us because he is our Savior.
That was Kurt Francom.
You may recognize his voice as the creator and host of the Leading Saints podcast. Kurt's work is focused on building the leadership capabilities of Church members around the world. So it's great to hear his personal story of feeling inadequate and then finding a way to grow into a leadership role.
I'm sure he's not the only overwhelmed disciple to mutter under his breath, "I hate this," and I'm also sure he's not the only person to discover that there is divine instruction, and divine power in the mantle of his calling to help him move beyond that place. We all have access to that superpower here on this Earth as covenant making and covenant keeping people of Christ.
So here's a confession. I probably wouldn't ever go see a superhero movie of my own volition, if it weren't for my comic book loving 16 year old stepson. I can barely keep track of all the franchises and the zillions of characters with backstories. My feeble brain cannot retain it all. And I'm a little bit partial to romantic comedies, but I will also admit that I regularly find myself weeping into my popcorn and Diet Coke at those same movies because they speak to a universal truth about weakness and strength.
In almost every movie, while the battles rage, the good guys are faced with impossible odds, their weakness is exposed, their strengths are many, but they're still never quite enough. They are always up against impossible odds.
And I feel that. I really, really feel it. Aren't we up against some really impossible odds? Aren't we staring down the cresting enemy with our battered and bruised armor and exhausted resources? Every day, aren't you and I praying and praying and praying that somehow our weakness, our insufficient faith, our fear will be replaced with power and strength and fortification from something bigger than us all.
And in the movies, that help comes often in the form of a magically activated forcefield, or the discovery of a new superpower they never knew they had, or perfectly timed dimensional leap from a long missing friend. Well in real life we don't get X-ray vision or super strength, or my personal favorite superpower, the ability to do 40 things all at the same time on deadline.
But there is in fact a real force in the universe that can transform us weaklings and weirdoes into truly spectacular beings. It's that transformative power that the Savior comforted the Prophet Moroni with in Ether chapter 12, verse 27, when he said, "...I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them."
Moroni charged with bringing the Word of God to you and me in these latter days with enough power that we would be convinced to stay faithful. He was convinced that his weakness was going to ruin everything, that he wouldn't be able to accomplish the task place before him.
The odds were against him, but the Lord wanted him to see in that moment that his weakness, his humility would be made his strength through grace. And I think that's what comes through in each of the stories we've heard today, evidence of the Savior's miraculous power to change us, to show us the double-edged sword of our weakness turned to strength, through his grace, his enabling power.
It reminds me of this quote that I love from President Ezra Taft Benson, where he taught, quote, "Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He can deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their mind, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, and pour out peace," end quote.
If that's not superhero stuff right there, then I don't know what it is. At the end of the day, we can feel assured that God wants and needs all of us, our whole selves, including whatever we think is unacceptable or failure -- our overwhelm, our lack of follow through, our social awkwardness, our inability to withstand that one temptation.
What we learn from these stories, from the scriptures, from that President Benson quote, is that if we offer our hearts in humility, he will help us to see our weakness clearly, which isn't always pleasant, but it's necessary, and in turn, he'll offer a hope that is stronger than any superpower we can imagine.
That's it for this episode of This is the Gospel. Thank you to Julie, Sarah, and Kurt for sharing their stories and their faith. We'll have pictures of our storytellers including Sarah's dating girl comic and a transcript of this episode in our show notes at LDSLiving.com/ThisistheGospel.
And if you aren't already following us on social media, there's way more good stuff throughout the week. Find us on Instagram and Facebook at "ThisistheGospel_Podcast."
Thank you so much for sharing the stories that means something to you with your friends and your family. We love to hear all the ways that this type of storytelling strengthens your faith in God and love for his children. If you have just a minute to leave us a review and a rating wherever you listen to this podcast, that's another way that you can share the good stuff. Every review helps us to show up in the search for more people.
All of our stories on this podcast are true and accurate as afirmed by our storytellers. If you have a story to share about living the Gospel, please call our pitch line and leave us a pitch. We often find many of our stories like Julie's from the pitch line, and we love to hear how the gospel has blessed your life. Call 515-519-6179 and pitch your story in three minutes or less.
This episode was produced by Sarah Blake with additional story producing and editing by Jasmine Mullen, Katie Lambert, Ashley Porter, and Casey Blake. It was scored, mixed, and mastered by Mix at Six Studios And our Executive Producer is Erin Hallstrom.
You can find past episodes, we have 50 of them now of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts, at LDSLiving.com/podcasts. Have a great week.