Sunday, February 7, 2016

"How was the mission?" Reflections

In the process of deciding to serve a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, one day I came across this post on a blog I read throughout high school. It’s written by a woman I’ve felt a special akin-ness with as I’ve followed her thoughts and insights through the years. She relates:
"A question I've heard a thousand times since my return to the ‘real world’ is, ‘How was the mission?’ My answer is usually a flabbergasted expression, fire in my eyes, a deep breath and – ‘it was so great. i loved every second.’ and i feel so incredibly trite, awkwardly unrepresentative, almost dishonest, completely unable to give even a sliver of appropriate passion in the response. suddenly, the conversation has moved on and i feel defeated.oh my goodness, how was the mission?? it exceeded my wildest dreams and keenest expectations a million fold, on both the hard and the fantastic ends. i could have never imagined how incredible it was; i could have never dreamed up how significant and wonderful and thrilling and heart wrenching and joyful and gutting and celestial it became. i LOVED the mission. i loved every second." (Charity Eyre)
I remember how moving those words of hers were to me at that time of my life. The night I stumbled upon the post, I felt an overwhelming spirit and hunger to feel the way she did as a missionary. I was in awe of the love and passion she expressed for her mission, and I wanted that. I marveled at what it must’ve been like to feel so deeply about an experience. And now, upon returning from my own mission, I read those words with so much more understanding. I get it. I’ve come to mirror her thoughts: no words can describe, there’s no way to put, what my mission did for me. So understand that this is but a small glimpse of the accumulated feelings and change I underwent in 18 months.    

Those with little understanding of missionary work in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may be led to ask: “So what is a missionary? What does a missionary do?”
I believe a missionary is someone who courageously shares what they’ve come to know as true. A full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints commits 18 months to 2 years of their lives to share, full-time, the truths that have become real and precious to them. They live by a strict standard of conduct and lifestyle, including: time spent away from family and friends, with minimal communication home (just a few emails one day a week and two Skype calls a year), no TV, radio, personal social media, or engagement in worldly affairs. They don't go to school or have a job. They don't get paid to be out there – rather, they pay their way to be there. They maintain a modest, clean appearance and behavior and study intensely for two to three hours every day. They work rigorously every hour of every day to talk to any and every one they can. They push and stretch themselves in every way imaginable. They take seriously the responsibility to bring all souls unto Christ.
I was assigned to serve in the Nevada Las Vegas mission from June 2014 to December 2015. My mission is one of 421 missions in the world, and I was one of 85,147 missionaries worldwide when I returned home in December. Missionaries can be called to serve almost anywhere in the world. My mission had young men and women from hundreds of places, including Australia, Brazil, Africa, Mexico, England, Canada and all over the United States. You’ll hear practically any returned missionary say it, but really, my mission was (is) stellar. Las Vegas is an incredible place to serve; we have a reputation for strong member work and high productivity. Additionally, 11% of the city’s population is LDS, so the Church has a strong presence and standing in the community.

It would be impossible to share all I learned from my personal time as one of these 80,000+ missionaries, but there are a few key lessons that have changed how I see the world. I feel the power of what they taught me in small and large experiences every day.
The crowning gift of understanding I received was my knowledge of why we need a Savior. Everything we teach as missionaries is centered on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Those were some of the first words out of my mouth whenever I’d meet someone new on the street. The Atonement is "the event that enables us to be reconciled to God. To atone is to suffer the penalty for sin, thereby removing the effects of sin from repentant sinners. Jesus Christ was the only one capable of making a perfect Atonement for all mankind. His Atonement included His suffering for our sins, the shedding of His blood, and His death and Resurrection. Because of the Atonement, everyone who has lived will be resurrected. The Atonement provides us with a way to be forgiven of our sins and to live with God forever." (The Gospel of Jesus Christ, [2005], 18–19)

I love the insight Elder Tad R. Callister shares about this event:
"A person studying the Atonement is somewhat like the man who retreats to his mountain cabin to enjoy the scenery. If he looks out the window to the east, he will see the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies; but if he fails to examine the view on the west, he will miss the crimson-streaked sunset on the horizon; if he neglects the scene to the north, he will never see the shimmering Emerald Lake; and if he bypasses the window on the south, he will fail to witness the wild flowers in all their brilliant glory, dancing in the gentle mountain breeze. Beauty besets him in every direction. So it is with the Atonement. Regardless of our vantage point, it is glorious to behold. Every principle underlying it, every consequence flowing from it rewards our intellect, animates our emotions, and enlivens our spirit. It is a doctrine for all seasons.
... The Atonement is not a doctrine that lends itself to some singular approach, like a universal formula. It must be felt, not just 'figured'; internalized, not just analyzed. The pursuit of this doctrine requires the total person, for the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the most supernal, mind-expanding, passionate doctrine this world or universe will ever know." (The Infinite Atonement)
I love what he says about us needing to feel the Atonement. Of course we can read about it, study it, learn about it, talk about it… But we cannot ever truly understand it until we feel it. My mission became so sacred to me because of the experiences I had in feeling the Atonement of Jesus Christ and all its powers. I want to share my firsthand experiences, coming face-to-face, with its enabling power, its comforting power, and its redeeming and sanctifying power.

First, His enabling power. I will be the first to tell you that missionary work is hard. Sometimes it was cripplingly hard. When I got to my first area in the thick of the American Southwest summer a few Junes ago, I was knocked off my feet with how difficult so many aspects of the work were. Not the least of which, for me, was the simplest missionary skill: Talking to strangers! It seemed my innate, introverted personality was my worst enemy. I would push myself every day to walk up to people on the street and engage in meaningful conversation, but it took everything out of me. I thought it would never get easier. Of course it did. Gradually, over time, I began to feel empowered as I talked to people. I learned to ask the right questions, say the right things, and testify with conviction. I love this scripture from Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me." I felt that! I felt Him help me climb one mountain at a time each day. By the end of my mission, talking to strangers invigorated and energized me. It filled me up. It gave me some of the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. In November, about a month before coming home, I recorded this experience in my journal. It is one example of how I felt enabled by Him through the medium of the Spirit:
"Each day I really feel like I'm living in a dream. A missionary's lens of the world is magic. A few days ago we had an interesting street contact conversation with a man named B... I'm not sure where my boldness came from, but my words were clear and sharp. When we first walked up, his initial words were: 'Look girls, I've really come to believe that religion is the root of all evil [so, I don't think you want to talk to me].' Well that was quite the ignorant comment. What about all the good that comes from religion? Faith, hope, love, service. He didn't buy it. He went into a long shpeal about his Christian roots and youth group experiences, but how he just couldn't believe it anymore. 'It's like believing in Santa Claus – why do we raise our kids to buy into that lie? Why should we believe in this invisible man who lived long ago supposedly? It just really doesn't make any sense to me.' And then he started bashing on prayer and how circumstances can just happen – regardless of people's prayers. And how can we say we're right and others are wrong on the other side of the world if they have spiritual experiences/convictions like we do? And then he made a comment about blind faith and ran his hands over his eyes to signify a glazed look and took a few steps forward in a robotic manner. This flipped a switch inside me and I blurted: "REALLY? Do you really think we (pointing to S Haycock and myself) have come out here blindly? Did you know we're not from here? That we've left our families and our schooling and work for 18 months? Do you know how hard this is? And you think we're doing it blindly?" He was obviously taken aback by my comments and we were thrown into a passionate discussion about the nature of God and revelation. At one point he paused and said: 'Okay, so I see you 2 out here, standing before me with passion and conviction, and I think that's awesome. I just look at you both and you're clean and you're pure and you're beautiful and you're good and kind and your eyes are bright and I just think if the whole world were like you, then I'd be happy with this place... It would be a great place to live.' And his comments – though interesting and flattering – triggered this question from me in response: 'Okay, so you say all these things about us... but what makes us different from the next people on the street?'
'Well, I don't know... I guess maybe your conviction? I'm not sure, that's a good question.'
'Do YOU want to live a life that is good and clean and pure and happy?'
'Well of course.''Do you feel like you're living that now?' ''
'Will you let us come share with you what makes us the way we are?' And it ended with a return appointment… We walked away and Sister Haycock was like: 'Who are you? What just happened? I didn't even recognize you in that street contact...!'
I tried to make sense of what had happened, but my thoughts were everywhere – as the conversation had been (clearly here I'm writing the super SparkNotes version) - and I couldn't clearly explain what had happened. There were 2 things that were crystal clear to me, though, as we walked away:
1. I had been endowed with power bigger than me to say the words that came from my mouth. I was literally being carried – I was an instrument, sharp and efficient and shiny, bright, ready to be used, just in that moment.
2. I felt as if God had been fighting for him through my words...they were not my words – I was truly a messenger. I LOVE what I'm doing!"

Next, His comforting power. In August, I was transferred to my last area of my mission – Anthem. It was a stark contrast to my previous area in terms of social class and wealth, and it was a hard adjustment for me at first. I’d only been in the area for a few days, when my companion Sister Smith and I received a text from our mission president that one of the missionaries who had previously served in our mission had tragically passed away in a car accident on his way up to Utah after visiting Vegas. Devastated, I wrote in my journal that night:
August 19, 2015
"Tonight we got word of the death of Derek White... he was in a fatal car accident on the way back up to school from taking a trip to visit the mission here. I felt like the wind got knocked out of me – how can he be gone? He was JUST here at our P-day sports...playing the piano and lounging around while we all played volleyball. I couldn't absorb it initially – it took me a few minutes to let it sink in. Sister Smith began to cry. 'Wait you mean this is real? This actually happens?' I cried. 'Yeah,' Sister Smith responded, seriously but also with sarcasm, 'We're actually students too? Not just the teachers?' I began to weep. I was struck with terror and remorse and heightened sensitivity to the fragile nature of life. He's only been home since December...he has had such little time. Those were the last 2 years of his life. Then I became keenly aware of how precious and sacred these moments are. What better thing could I be doing but be a missionary right now? I am teaching these eternal truths that will set people free – how enormous and great is my calling.
My heart is heavy, but it's also light. There is a perfect plan in action right now. And I am very much a part of it. All will be well. All will be okay."  
In that time of shock and grief, I was able to lean on the testimony and conviction I'd gained through the countless experiences I'd had with the Spirit that had witnessed to me of the reality of God's plan and of the Savior's love. Because of the Savior, I know that life continues beyond this, and that death is a necessary step in our eternal progression. These truths truly did comfort me.

And finally, His redeeming and sanctifying power.
To redeem is to save someone from sin, error, or evil.
 To sanctify is to set apart or declare as holy; consecrate; to purify or free from sin.
I have never felt so weak and chastened and imperfect as I did as a missionary. It was so painful, so excruciatingly painful and hard. Some days the trying and chastening experiences of it felt like razors cutting me inside, over and over again. My inadequacies became so exquisitely real and apparent. Some days I felt so crippled. My knees grew sore from fervent prayer, pleading with God to ease the burden of it all. I was drawn to the deepest sorrow and keenest awareness of my sins and shortcomings. I felt the deep gravity of the scripture in Romans 3:23 - "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
On December 8, 2014, after about 6 months out, I wrote in a letter home to my mom:
"I really miss you and Dad today. I have been struggling the past few days with the anxiety of transfers and feeling the painful reality of my shortcomings and weaknesses. I have been counseled again and again by many people I love to be gentle with myself - I feel I've come a long way in treating myself more kindly, but sometimes waves of self-criticism come in and I droop to this perspective of all the characteristics I lack. Mom, I don't want to be the selfish, prideful, worldly girl of the past I've been. I want all of those awful attributes rooted out of me. I don't want to be that girl anymore. I want to be changed and converted forever. I pray that when I come home, you hardly recognize me because I have overcome the temptations to be carnal or prideful or jealous or judgmental that have beset me in the past. Thank you for the prayers and fasting on my behalf... I really did feel the sweet peace of His grace aiding me last night and this morning. I felt the whisperings of the Spirit telling me that everything will be okay. I'll be okay. He is there. He forgives me, and I need to forgive myself."
Through these experiences of spiritual awakening, I learned that it is through deep sorrow and repentance that we develop the humility required to truly feel the Savior's redeeming love and grace. We access His power to cleanse and purify us as we repent, change, and keep His commandments. He can and will change us into beautiful, heavenly creatures, as He is, to the degree that we truly, whole-heartedly, unapologetically follow Him.
I love what a leader of the Church, Elder Quentin L. Cook, says in regards to these formative experiences: "The refiner's fire is real, and qualities of character and righteousness forged in the furnace of affliction perfect and purify us and prepare us to meet God."

Each of these experiences are just small glimpses into the countless manifestations of His power I encountered day after day after day. I really have come to know that my Savior is real. I know He knows me intimately, that His love runs deep and unending, and it is up to us to find it. I know Heavenly Father has a plan, and that we've been sent to the Earth to learn, gain experience, and progress to become as He is. I know that we each need a Savior to enable, comfort, redeem, and sanctify us to return to our heavenly home. I also know that He has given us a Church on the Earth today as a vehicle to achieve our highest destiny. I know He gives us prophets and apostles to give us the direction necessary to understand His will, and I know that the Book of Mormon is an additional witness of His power. I don’t know how else to say it, but that it’s true, and it will reveal to every pure heart of His great work rolling forth today.
I have been forever changed by my mission. It has given me even more than I dreamed it would. I feel His truths deeply rooted in me, and I will reflect and cherish and live according to the lessons He taught me in the Las Vegas desert for the rest of my life.