Being a Mormon Christian is hard. No one is very good at it.
[Note: This post takes off from a discussion in a prior thread. I’ve made it a separate post because it isn’t a direct reply to anyone in that thread, which would require more personal knowledge and spiritual authority vis-à-vis any of them then I currently possess.]
Prior to my mission, ‘unconscientious, unsociable, lazy, and selfish’ would have described me well. (It still does–or at least I have reason to believe that’s my default state). Add to that that I am bookish and introverted and extremely family-oriented and you will see why going on a mission filled me with dread. Almost existential dread, in fact. I would get sick in my gut when I thought about it. I tried not to think about it.
Up till then Mormonism had made no particular demands on me. If you’re raised Mormon and used to it, there is no great sacrifice in attending church meetings and refraining from alcohol and tea. Paying tithing is no big deal either, if you started doing it with your very first job so you never made a need for the money. These are all Mormon ‘sacrifices’ that you can habituate yourself to. The mission was much different. It was a spiritual crisis that I couldn’t ignore. I would either have to visibly and dramatically break with my family’s expectations and, basically, Mormonism, or else I would have to be absolutely miserable and out of my depth for two years.
How did I resolve the crisis? I did exactly what you’d expect someone with my kind of character to do. I temporized and drifted along. There was more to it than that, including divine wiles that got me to go to BYU my freshmen year pretty much against my will. But reduced to essentials, somehow and without much real conviction I eventually came to a despairing conviction that I had to suffer through a mission.
When I decided, two thing happened. First, God brought strongly to my mind the story of Peter walking on the water. It was pointed out to me that me serving a mission was absurd but that in its way it was a glorious absurdity–and that when it inevitably turned into a disaster, the hand of God would lift me up. This story was the text I preached in my missionary farewell service and in my missionary homecoming service and has become my personal theme. I see it, in fact, as a reprise of the whole plan of salvation.
The second thing was that I received a clear and unmistakable manifestation of the Holy Ghost when I prayed about the Book of Mormon. I had been praying about it off and on all my life but nothing undeniably supernatural had ever occurred in response. Now it had.
My mission was pretty bad. Spain was not a fruitful vineyard for even the best of missionaries and to the faults I already knew my mission experience added more. I can be self-righteous and prickly and arrogant, it seems. It also had moments that I will just blandly describe as the heavens being unveiled and leave it at that. Even so, I was mostly a failure as a missionary. I don’t mean that in the anodyne way that people talk about failing at tasks that are beyond their capability. I mean I failed, I did less than I could have, I knowingly and willfully let fears or temptations take me at times, I deliberately let opportunities go because I was a chump. The task was beyond the level of my abilities but I wasn’t even up to the level of my abilities.
Yet–this is a big yet, because its the whole point of what I’m writing here–at the end of my mission I was given the spiritual knowledge that the Lord approved of my service and accepted the severe trials I’d had, even with myself, as the sacrifices of a fellow servant.
No, those aren’t the right words. They aren’t powerful enough. If I could tell it right, you would read it knowing that its the kind of experience that would be worth a lifetime to have. I was at the same time made to comprehend the totality of all the misery and frustration I’d experienced for two years and of all my nasty little sins that had contributed to it, and then I was made to see and *feel* and *know” that these were a cross that I had carried for two years. I don’t mean “carrying the cross” as a euphemism for having a hard time. I mean it the ways the scriptures mean it. We are too used to treat the phrase ‘carrying the cross’ as a trite commonplace for you to get the full effect, but I got the full effect. I heard–I felt?–I comprehended? a voice telling me that Christ had observed my mission and had accepted that I was someone who had walked his path. ‘This is a friend and a brother,’ he had said. “This is one of us.”
In time to come He will repeat it to my face.
Since then my experience as a church member, or as a father and a husband, has been much the same. Never an unmixed success. Never a performance that I could feel I hadn’t unnecessarily tainted with sins of commission and omission. I am a shabby Mormon. These failures are better than successes elsewhere. I have found more joy making a hash of things in the gospel path than would be possible on any other path pursued however flawlessly. I mean that.
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
C.S. Lewis, in Screwtape, showed us that the fear of death was harder to endure than death.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”
One of the themes of this blog is that failure is always an option. I would almost say that it is the only option. Come, flounder with us.