My sister returned from her mission in Tallahassee, Florida on Thursday sparking a resurgence of mission memories and feelings. As we all sat in the Stake President’s office for her release, I was transported back four and half years or so to when I was in her position—occupying an odd liminal space bridging past and present. My sister bore her testimony and I was moved by the simplicity and purity of her conviction—touched by the confidence and surety with which she spoke and slightly saddened that I don’t feel like I quite have that anymore (maybe I never did, but I think I did).
I loved my mission and it will always be a special time for me. Yet, what those two years mean may, and probably already has begun to, shift and change. Not quite three years ago, I wrote about some of the lessons I had learned as a missionary and reflected on how I felt about them at that moment. My thoughts have shifted some since then, but it may still be of interest to review, which you can do here. I’ve written a couple other times about missionary work (member missionary work and improving missions more generally) and again, my thoughts today are probably not quite what they were when I wrote either of those pieces, but they’re reflective of something worth considering (or at least I thought they were when I wrote them).
I’ve undergone a pretty substantial faith remodel that began with my missionary service. It took a different form once I returned home, but I think it would be unfair to suggest that my mission wasn’t a key part of my spiritual journey. It probably dates back further than my mission, but we’ll just start there for narrative convenience today (otherwise we’d probably have to go back to the beginning beginning and I don’t even really know what that would entail and it’d likely require far more space than I have here or you’d want to invest in).
So, I served in Lithuania (yes, speaking Lithuanian), which is part of the Baltic Mission, from April 2010-2012, spending time in each of the four cities where missionaries serve—Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and Siauliai. I was and remain fairly close with a number of the people that I served with due to a variety of factors (there were around 20 of us serving in Lithuania at any given time and for about a year we only gained new missionaries and didn’t lose any. Not to mention the bond of all struggling to have “success” and commiserating together in our disappointment).
I love Lithuania. I love Lithuanian. I love Lithuanians. I love the food, the rain, the cold and snow, the pointy shoes that I still wear, their fierce national pride, gira, their resilience, and for some inexplicable reason, I even love the look of large, hideous, concrete, Soviet housing. I don’t think that will ever change.
I loved my mission. But why? I spent the vast majority of my time being rejected or ignored if not verbally abused. Only drunk and/or homeless people would talk to us (and the occasional very, very, very old person). My companion and I were mugged (I guess that’s the best word for it, though they only stole my tie and our phone, so it feels a bit misleading, but I don’t know what else to label it as). My toes and fingers were numb for many months out of the year, where we barely saw the sun. None of my investigators were baptized while I was teaching them (2 were baptized some time after). Basically, it sounds downright miserable.
Yet, I loved it. I dove into the scriptures, doing what I would now call close reading for the first time. It was incredible. I read voraciously—I read Jesus the Christ 3 times and the rest of the mission library a couple times (though found it less than intellectually stimulating) as well as countless Ensign articles that I found in Church libraries or in mission apartments. I started a list of questions that would come to me about all sorts of things relating to all aspects of Mormonism (which I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before). I would share the list with companions or other missionaries on exchanges or at district meeting and we’d occasionally have fascinating, deep conversations about stuff as we wandered the streets and knocked doors for hours on end. I quickly learned however that the questions that interested me were rarely of interest to others. I ended my mission with 350-400 questions and some people could read through the entire list and not be intrigued by anything on it.
That was perhaps when I realized that I interacted with the Gospel differently than others. I mean, I’ve basically always known that I was different and sort of weird, but didn’t realize that that extended to how I view and think about Mormonism. There were some minor conflicts with mission leadership throughout my mission, but we were usually so isolated from other leaders that it was never a big deal (and most of my leaders were legitimately wonderful and thoughtful people).
The conversations that I started having as a missionary were the spark for the fire that has become my engagement with Mormonism. I returned home and immediately started using the resources at my disposal to look for answers to my questions (I rarely found them, but the process of searching was, and continues to be, immensely rewarding). I quickly stumbled upon the bloggernacle and various online Mormon communities and felt like I had found my people. It was incredible. I was soaking up this rich, spiritual, intellectual engagement with Mormonism and it was building on and expanding what I felt I gained as a missionary.
However, once I got back to BYU things got messy. Church was painful—Sunday School and EQ were so dry and boring, covering topics at a surface level that I felt was the same sort of engagement that I’d been having since I was ten years old. On top of that people would say things that I thought were straight-up wrong or damaging or offensive or otherwise difficult to sit through. I felt alone and like the deep, thoughtful engagement I had been having with the Gospel wasn’t welcome.
Yet, I kept going. After a couple years, I found a way to make it work. Mostly. I’ve largely come to a peace with what I think and my place in the Church—to be an ally for the marginalized and a voice for the doubting and struggling, to represent the fringes in my own, active, devoted, thoughtful, grounded in love sort of way.
There’s probably lots of reasons I’ve been able to carve out a space for myself when countless others have felt pushed out. I wonder if one is the love I felt on my mission serving God and the love for Mormonism in all its weirdness that sparked then in ways I could never have predicted. My mission is foundational to my spiritual journey—I started to feel and believe in the transformative power of love and tried to embody that then and that continues to guide my belief and actions. I still think about doing it all again and part of me would love to go back, even though I would do things differently and have a host of different challenges. There’s a purity about those years, or perhaps a simplicity, that is powerful. I don’t believe quite the same things I believed then, but I was driven by a sincere love for those around me and strove to help all I interacted with feel a little more of God’s love in their lives, however we could make that happen.
I think that same impulse guides me today. I’d probably settle on different solutions to bringing the love of God into people’s lives, but I still hope to do that. I remember telling my bishop as I returned home that the most important thing I had learned was how the Spirit works with me and I still value that, but I think today the most important lesson is that love conquers all—that love should guide all our actions, that love casts out fear, that love sanctifies, that love transforms. To mash some pop cultural and scriptural wisdom together (as I frequently do), all you need is love, for without love, you are nothing.