Thank you so much, President Kusch, for the opportunity to speak here today. As I prayed to know what I should say, it became very clear to me that I needed to share a few personal experiences that helped me learn about the miraculous saving grace of Jesus Christ. So, let's start by me taking you back about 40 years or so.
When I was in primary, I loved having my mother as our song leader. First of all, she had the voice of an angel, and she made the most incredible posters and visual aids. In fact, I can still remember some of the pictures she drew to help teach us the songs. For example, for the song Keep the Commandments, I’ll forever associate a lifesaving ring and a dove to the blessings of “safety and peace.” But what really stuck with me from that song was the idea that if I would keep the commandments I would be blessed with safety and peace. That message stayed with me throughout my young life. It made sense to me and it was a formula I could follow--I do the work and He graces me with His blessings.
I think this is why I might have had a little trouble with another song that I learned later in life. I was in high school and our choir director assigned us to learn Amazing Grace for our spring concert. Actually, as we started to rehearse, I felt like I was the only person that didn’t already know it! I was kind of familiar with the tune, but it was the words that were new to me and I was having a bit of a hard time with some of them… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” First of all I wasn’t a wretch. Growing up in Florida, I was “the goody-goody Mormon girl” who went to church for three hours every Sunday! But it was really the word grace that I got hung up on, mostly because I didn't understand what it was. I don’t remember talking much about grace in church, but I had heard friends of other faiths speak of it. Instead of saying prayers some would “say grace” and some friends talked about grace like it was a magic ticket straight to heaven--all you had to do was say “I believe!” That version of grace felt foreign to me, and it seemed to contradict a new scripture mastery scripture we were learning in Seminary: 2 Nephi 25:23 “...for it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” I may not have fully understood what grace was, but I felt certain that I needed to do more than say two words to earn it. And I was sure that “all we can do” included needing to keep the commandments, go to church, read scriptures, follow the For the Strength of Youth, dress modestly, keep the law of chastity, keep the Word of Wisdom. Actually what was amazing to me was all we are asked to do as Latter-day Saints: It’s a lot! But like I said, I was a good girl who wanted those blessings of safety and peace. So I did it. And with my limited understanding of grace, I sang my part for that choir concert and I sang it well, but it wasn’t until much much later that I better understood how amazing His grace truly was, and I finally could sing it with my whole heart!
As the youngest in my grade and the last of my friends to enjoy the freedoms that come with a driver's license, my 16th birthday could not come soon enough! I had planned weeks ahead to get my license and have my first date on my birthday. So when my dad, who was the bishop of our ward at the time, told me that we were hosting a ward party at our house that same day, and that he’d offered my services as part of the entertainment giving pony rides around our property, I was not happy--not exactly the Sweet Sixteen I had imagined. But I agreed to do it after he promised that it would all be over in time for my date. But I never made it on that date. Instead, I woke up in a hospital bed with a broken arm, a couple of broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Apparently while giving pony rides, I was bucked off my horse into a tree. All I knew was that I awoke dazed and confused and very upset. How could this have happened? Hadn’t I been a good girl to wait until I was 16 to date? And wasn’t I just obediently and selflessly serving at the party? Where were my blessings of safety and peace? For the first time I can remember, my formula for happiness did not add up and I felt forgotten. But I was also young and resilient, and as soon as I was discharged from the hospital, my mood lightened as I set out with my bright pink cast on my arm to finally get my driver’s license and go on that first date. All was well again. Until my freshman year at BYU when I broke my leg skiing and then the next year when I broke my back in a car accident. Yeah, I had a bit of an unlucky streak! But despite those little bumps in the road, I recognized many blessings in my life, and I knew they came as a result of making good choices.
Now, fast forward a few years later, I had married my freshman-year sweetheart in the Manti temple, we both graduated from BYU, and now we were living a couple of blocks from the beach in beautiful Southern California with our adorable tow-headed two-year-old son. My husband was working as a management consultant and I was singing, teaching voice and taking care of our little family. We were living the dream! And I was planning how to announce to our families over the upcoming holidays that we were expecting baby No. 2. But then we weren’t. At my 12 week doctor visit, she couldn’t find a heartbeat and after an ultrasound, it was determined that I had miscarried. I was caught off guard and devastated. Again, I found myself asking God, how could this be happening? Was I not a good mother? Was it because I had complained about not feeling well? Did I not deserve this blessing? I fell into a deep depression, and I couldn't imagine ever feeling happy again.
Recently I read a journal entry from this time. We’d gone to visit my family for the holidays in Boston where my dad was serving as mission president, and he’d invited me to sing O Divine Redeemer at their Mission Christmas Conference. The conference was centered around the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ and it was there that I had, what I recorded in my journal as, “a strong and undeniable witness that the Atonement is real and that Jesus loves me more than I am able to comprehend.” I wrote, “I’m so humbled by the love of our Savior and how He suffered not only the sins but also the sorrows of the whole world.” Since my miscarriage, I had felt wretched, but in that moment I only felt the incredible love the Savior had for me. And I had an epiphany--it was through His love and sacrifice that I could be healed, not only from my sins, as I had previously thought, but also from any kind of pain and suffering.
Grateful for this new understanding, I felt an increased desire to show my gratitude and love for Jesus Christ. So I put my faith in Him and recommitted to doing all of the things and I kept going. And I mean literally going--going to church, going to Relief Society activities, going to serve in Young Womens, going to do my Visiting Teaching and going to the scriptures. As I did, I felt blessed and strengthened, even as I later gave birth to six more children, and as my husband and I worked together to raise our busy family, build a business together and serve in the Church together. Of course we’ve had our challenges, but through the years, over and over again, I’ve recognized the promised blessings of safety and peace as I did my best going about and doing good.
But a couple of years ago, my world turned upside down when our daughter Laken, the second of our seven children, came home early from her mission to Montreal Canada because she was having suicidal thoughts. In every email she sent home those first nine months of her mission she shared wonderful spiritual experiences she was having and the joy she felt while doing the Lord’s work. But she had other feelings that she didn’t share--overwhelming and debilitating feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, perfectionism, anxiety, depression and despair. She was suffering from mental illness. She fought hard to escape it until she couldn’t any longer, and after much prayerful consideration, her mission president decided it was time for her to come home to heal. And I was completely shook. I remember how happy she was two years earlier. She burst into our bedroom to tell us she had received an answer to her prayers that she knew that the Lord wanted her to serve a full-time mission. She was so excited and immediately started working to prepare. So, how was it possible that after pouring her heart and soul into her mission that she was now suffering so much--and after working so hard? It didn’t make any sense. She had followed the formula-- she’d been reading, studying, learning the language, fasting, praying, teaching, obeying....Where were the blessings? In my heartbreak and confusion, other questions started to rear up in my mind...How could God let this happen to her? Did He not hear our prayers? Does He not love us?
I felt completely abandoned and I was consumed in grief, but rather than dwell on what I didn't understand, I went to work. Frantically I tried to figure out what to do about a doctor, a therapist, medication, diet, exercise, and I read everything I could get my hands on about anxiety and religious scrupulosity. And unsure at that point, of whether or not God was even listening, I prayed my guts out--begging Him to heal my daughter. Then during one of our darkest nights, a miracle came. I was holding her while she cried with so many confusing things in her heart and head, when I felt a flicker of hope. In that moment, my anger and confusion subsided and I felt love and peace. I no longer felt alone, and in fact, I was sure that God was with us right there and that he had been with Laken all along. I had been blinded to that, but now I could see.
Laken’s illness wasn’t because of something we did or didn’t do. It was just part of mortality, part of life. And sometimes bad things happen to good people trying to do their best. But as I’d experienced years before after my miscarriage, through grace we can be healed of the inevitable pain that we will encounter in life. And life isn’t always like a simple Primary song. Sometimes even when we’re doing our best to keep the commandments -- like my beautiful daughter who had completely dedicated herself to serving the Lord with all her might, mind and strength -- sometimes things don’t always go the way we hope or think they should. But when we need to be saved, He will be there.
Most importantly, His healing and saving grace is amazing because we don’t have to earn it! There isn’t a formula of “do good, get grace.” Instead, it feels like a covenant to me. We receive His grace in the very hour we need it, and as we feel His love, we want to do our best. My young girl and young mother self wasn’t totally wrong in thinking that if I kept the commandments and was anxiously engaged in doing good that I would be blessed. Through our faithful obedience, we show our love and gratitude to God and blessings do come.
But let’s go back to that scripture mastery, 2 Nephi 25:23, “...for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Elder Uchtdorf gave a conference talk titled The Gift of Grace and I love his thoughts on this verse. He says “I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because.’ We are not saved ‘because’ of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we’ve expended every effort before He will intervene in our lives with His saving grace? Of course not!” I was guilty of trying to expend every effort before feeling His grace, but it was always there. I just needed to believe that it was.
In fact, I think that is what Nephi is trying to teach us in his sermon in chapter 25. One of my favorite authors and teachers, Emily Belle Freeman, in her book Grace Where You Are, poses a challenge to look at the entirety of chapter 25 for more clarity, rather than just focusing on verse 23. I took her challenge, and as I studied that chapter over and over again I saw the phrase “believe in Christ.” In fact, it was repeated six times. I don’t think that is a coincidence. I think what Nephi is desperately trying to teach us is, “You have got to believe in Christ.” In fact, that phrase is right there in verse 23. “For we labour diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do”. Believing in Christ is what we have to do to be saved by grace. That is our call to action. All we can do is believe in Christ. Grace isn’t about what we can do. It’s about what He can do.
At the beginning of this school year, our family decided to choose a theme to focus on. A theme that could help us keep on track to accomplish all that would be required of us and also something we could come back to as things got hard (as they usually do in school). We each had different challenges ahead and things we were anxious about, and after much conversation and deliberation, together as a family we chose Amazing Grace as our theme. Since then, as we’ve felt disappointed or discouraged, or encountered any of the “growth opportunities” God has given us, we’ve made a conscious effort to remind one another to slow down and take a moment to feel His grace work on us, rather than work or worry ourselves to death. I have seen each of my children gracefully handle some hard things this year. And now more than ever, with so much uncertainty about the future and mourning for things that have been lost, we all need and can have His grace wash over us, and open our eyes to His unconditional and infinite love.
Brothers and sisters, I testify that our Savior, our Brother and Friend, Jesus Christ is with us through every struggle, hardship, insecurity, sickness and sadness. He knows you and loves you and is ready to meet you wherever you are, in the middle of whatever you're going through. I pray that you will feel His amazing grace and be able to sing the song with me... Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, T'was blind but now I see.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Vanessa Quigley is a mother of seven and co-founder of Chatbooks, a software company with a mission to strengthen families. She holds a degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy from Brigham Young University and worked as a professional singer and actress before becoming an entrepreneur. She was named Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017, authored Real Moms, Real Hacks, and hosts The MomForce Podcast.