Called to leave

May 31, 2008 | 39 comments
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My grandmother, mother, and I all served missions, so I was delighted when my firstborn announced her intention to serve, submitted her papers, received her call.

Little did I know.

Nobody told me about that wrenching scene at the MTC when they cheerfully announce “Parents and families go this way; missionaries go that way.” Like we were going to two different Disneyland rides instead of two different lives.

Or the millennial wait for the first letter from the field assuring me my child is not, in fact, dying of starvation, stuck with Cruella de Vil for a companion, or the victim of a terrorist plot.

Or the nightmares – how can they just skip over the nightmares? – about her getting Dengue Fever or disappearing like they do in the opening scenes of Without a Trace.

Okay, so I’m a little paranoid. But really. Whose idea was this anyway?

I guess I should confess that all three of my children returned safely from their missions. Nor did it prove necessary to hospitalize me for reverse-homesickness. I know it doesn’t always go that way, but it did for me, and more often than not it does for others. The mortality rate is lower for missionaries than for comparable groups of young adults not on missions, and that holds even when those comparable groups are not living on a remote island with no medical attention or sweating in the jungles of Ghana – or Boise.

So, you ask, how did I survive this unnatural assault on my every maternal instinct?
I survived the way my mother survived when I left on a mission, and her mother, and her mother before her. I worried and prayed. I wrote letters and sent packages. I talked to others who had also said goodbye for a long time to the people they loved most in all the world. Then I simply lived long enough to see them come home, and when they did I was grateful beyond words.

A few things I’ve learned from our experience and that of others:

1. It’s just as hard with the third one as it was with the first. Sorry.

2. Don’t be surprised if there is a blow-up in the weeks before they go. It is very common for families to figure out some way to have a big fight just before a beloved child leaves for college or a mission – perhaps a way to loosen the ties a bit and avoid more tender feelings. If it happens, don’t panic. Do apologize and make things right.

3. Trust them. We weren’t perfectly prepared to launch into adulthood, and we survived. Chances are good they will also. If they can figure out the new cell phone faster than we can, maybe they can figure out the rest of the world without us too.

4. Trust yourself. The home teacher speaking at a missionary farewell in my ward said, “I know the Pliler’s have honorably fulfilled their stewardship for their son.” I’m quite sure that’s true. But Pliler’s are probably the last to know it.

5. And finally, trust the Lord. Those rude non-members, blundering mission presidents, lackluster companions, and incompetent church leaders are also His children, as precious to him as this precious child of ours. He knows how to save us all, whether or not He protects us. This is the message we send to the world on the smiles and hopes of our sons and daughters.

6. Some of them will come home early, come home broken, or come home on the way out the doors of the church. In many cases these challenges would have caught up with them anyway. In other cases there is still something to be learned or gained from the experience, even if it takes a long time. And in those cases where the loss seems irreparably soul-shattering, even life-ending, surely there is some special medal of valor in the eternities for those who lost their lives, physically or otherwise, in the service of the Lord. And for those who loved them and let them go.

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39 Responses to Called to leave

  1. queuno on May 31, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Many thanks for this.

    (Although I’d quibble with the HT and say that parents never “fulfill” their stewardships for their children.)

  2. kenjebz on May 31, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    I have a hard time understanding it…I left for mission without parents, and I don’t have a daughter or son yet who will leave. But yea, some parents are like that, pampering their kids even at the day they leave to serve. I like the title though, Called to LEAVE…Im thinking posting an entry that entitles, LEAVE TO SERVE. Great post!

  3. kenjebz on May 31, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Are parents not happy when their parents leave not just to serve but so that they could have peace? Haha! just kidding. But this post makes me think of blogging something like, LEAVE TO SERVE. Anyways, great post, though hard but knowing the Lord will bless us, both your missionary and you as parents as well.

  4. JA Benson on May 31, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks Wendy for your beautiful post. It has been almost a year since Elder Benson left on his mission. I sure do miss that kid. Thanks for letting us know that it does not get easier.

  5. manaen on May 31, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I discovered the other side of this while on my mission: in their effort to assure me that all was OK at home so I could focus on my mission, my family’s letters almost had me convinced that things became better for them once I was out of the way. I’m nearly sure that wasn’t their intent.

  6. Rick Grunder on May 31, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    “. . . on a remote island with no medical attention or sweating in the jungles of Ghana – or Boise.”

    Actually, Boise was a remarkably safe place for me (1948-67). Paris, on the other hand . . .

  7. Wendy Ulrich on May 31, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    You are all reminding me that a big part of the reason sending my kids off was so hard was because my own mission was such a difficult episode in my life, one that didn’t make much sense until my husband and I left for a second mission, this time presiding. Suddenly every difficult, painful, and challenging experience of my first mission had a purpose: to give me compassion and skills to empathize with and serve a new generation of elders and sisters.

  8. Kaimi Wenger on May 31, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for this, Wendy.

    And one bit of advice for missionaries:

    Depending on the emotional make-up of your parents, it may be wise to tell your Dad (but _not_ your Mom) when you narrowly miss an armed robbery (the mission office was held up); and narrowly avoid guerrilla attacks (three times!); and happen to be on splits the day your comp and the DL are chased through the market by crazy machete guy.

    It’s sometimes best to tell Mom about those, _after_ you’re safely back in-country. :)

  9. Emily M. on May 31, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Wow. I loved this. Sending off my own missionary is in my distant future, but I love your comment, Wendy, that all the painful parts of your mission prepared you to serve a new generation of missionaries. And the last paragraph, too. Powerful.

  10. Ray on May 31, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    #8 – Yeah, my mother still doesn’t know about the time I was threatened at gun point. (in an urban city in Japan, no less)

  11. Coffinberry on May 31, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Ah, my missionary hasn’t written since the 16th of April…. (though he did call on Mother’s Day, at least). And we just popped him on a plane here from home, no strange MTC rituals for us (neither my husband and I served missions). But, as he said in his first letter home: if the mission president hasn’t called to say he’s dead, assume he’s alive.

    His birthday is next week. Couldn’t think of anything to send him he couldn’t get there (he’s in the states) so we just sent him a card. Guess we’re kind of lame that way.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on May 31, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Suddenly every difficult, painful, and challenging experience of my first mission had a purpose: to give me compassion and skills to empathize with and serve a new generation of elders and sisters.

    Oh hell. Does this mean I’m going to be called as a mission president someday?

  13. allie james on May 31, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    My husband and I both went on missions. Neither of us felt successful. Certainly my husband\’s was difficult. Because he is so calm, he was given the problem elders. one ended up going home sick and two others were excommunicated. So it\’s hard for him to be a cheerleader for my children\’s missions though I have never heard him say anything negative and certainly he wants them to go. I\’ve got three within the next four years that should go, and I guess it will be an emotional time. However, I\’m not sure two of the three have any desire at all to serve. How do you deal with that emotion? I\’m sorry that you all have to cry when your children leave, but how do you cry when they don\’t?

  14. Kristine on May 31, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Wendy, your #6 is something I’ve needed to read for a lot of years. Thank you.

  15. Fatherof7 on May 31, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    As a convert myself, i did not go on a mission. I well remember taking our first to the MTC and that dreaded family out one missionary out the other. As i was leaning against the wall waiting for my wife to emerge from the restroom where she was obtaining LOTS more tissue paper, the MTC president walked by. I said this gets easier with the next ones right? He said oh no it is harder for the next ones as you know what is going to happen. I\’ve sent 4 of 5 out so far, with one out right now and one going to leave in about a year. And yes he was very right it gets harder. I do not want to think how it will be next year taking the last boy (6 boys 1 girl, girl is the baby) so it might be our last missionary.

    You cry either way, if they go or decide not to go. The tears for the ones who go are tears of separation and knowledge that who returns will be very different from who left. The tears for the ones who stay are tears of frustration as you know that they need to learn things and if they could see life in 10 years they would know they should be going.

  16. Dalene on May 31, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you! I have been sick to my stomach and breaking into tears at the oddest moments over the past 6 months as my first–a son–has been preparing to serve. Selfishly, I haven’t been so worried about him–I survived, grew and thrived in many ways so I know he will too–as about myself. I wondered how I could bear missing him so much–the empty chair and the empty bed, the silent piano, etc. I’m doing better now since he got his call and I know I just have to put him on a plane to a foreign MTC (Preston, England), but I know this will still be painful and diificult. I so appreciate your insights and advice.

  17. Kevin Barney on May 31, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Very nice, Wendy.

  18. Ray on May 31, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    “I’m sorry that you all have to cry when your children leave, but how do you cry when they don’t?”

    Thank you, allie, for that perspective.

  19. deb on May 31, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Our boy will be home in 6 weeks, 4 days, and yes, I have been counting! My maternal heart strings have been stretched tight enough to build an orchestra around. The thing I have missed the most is the day to day stories, and the dreadful feeling that stems from pg 20 of the little white handbook “Don’t write anything negative home.” He is MY son, and I feel entitled to know about his welfare!! As a family, we can pray more effectively if we know what he’s up against, instead of just “please bless him today.” Just from hints and glimmers, I know he has had 6 broken bones, been beat up twice, his flat was robbed (they took everything, clothes, books, wallets, food, even the dry noodles in the cupboard, and the mission office knew it but did not help them out at all, beyond changing the locks) , he has been struck by a double decker red bus (twice that I know of), 2 cars, and a motorcycle, and the areas have been so bad that the mission president told him and the other American missionaries to lie about their nationalities for safety’s sake (He chose South Africa). Had he not landed in an area where I have contacts (spies?) …I would have known about 20% of this…perhaps I still do.

    I expected to miss my boy–we’ve always been so close— but I thought it would ease, lose some of the rawness in time. Not yet. I am glad he chose to go (his brother did not) and to stay (of the 11 buddies who left that summer, 8 came home early, one reason or another!).I greatly appreciate the support his YSA bishop offered. That man has written to my son every single week, for nearly two years! And my non-LDS mom, who feeds the nearby missionaries warm cookies as often as she can, “because if I am nice to them, maybe someone will be kind to my grandson.”

    We had planned to go meet him, tour his mission, meet his people, etc, but he doesn’t want us to. Something about wanting the long flights home to change gears and ease back into reality. Instead, we spent that money on a week-long cruise, for the whole family, college-student sister, married son’s family , and all. I told him to block out that week, but will not give him details until he gets home It will be great fun, but that is not my main motivation. I want my son captive, so I can finally pry those stories out! Soon he will be married with a mortgage and triplets, and this might be my only chance.

    We talk about “serving a mission” as if it’s a routine, not big deal thing. It. Is. Not.

  20. JA Benson on May 31, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Wow Deb #19 I am speechless. Congratulations on having such a tough kid. I just went from missing my boy to scared for my boy.

  21. JA Benson on May 31, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Wow Deb #19 I am speechless. Congratulations on having such a tough kid. I just went from missing my boy to scared for my boy.

  22. Ray on May 31, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    deb, my son leaves this summer. I will pray he does not get called to your son’s mission. *grin*

  23. Wendy Ulrich on May 31, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Russell, #12 – … only if you are very, very lucky. (That second mission was one of the sweetest experiences of my life.) But if you are less lucky (and luck probably has a lot to do with it) it still probably means that the universe will find some way to use all that heartache and pain to some good end, for some very lucky soul who gets the benefit from your having to grow the hard way.

  24. deb on May 31, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Sorry, didn’t mean to imply my son’s mission has been all negative!! His mission is the highest-baptizing mission in Europe, and he has consistently broken records for Most Baptisms, Most Investigators To Church (24, one day), and Most Lessons Taught. My main complaint has been the awards at zone conferences for Most Injuries In A Single Month and Most Serious Injury and Most Dramatic True Story Told To Pres This Month. He is working hard, having fun, and giving the mission president grey hair.

    The day before Mother’s Day, a young sister missionary died in his mission. He wrote “I knew her well and liked her lots. Good thing the Gospel is true…without the Plan Of Salvation, the hurt would be more than could be borne. Instead, I’m thinking about meeting her again, and what a party that will be!” Our son lost 3 friends the first month of the Iraq War, too. I guess I’m grateful he is less shakable now…but does wisdom always have to come from pain?

    I just think we need to take missionary service more seriously. We may say it’s-just-another-calling, but this not like teaching Sunday School. At All!

  25. Ray on May 31, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Amen, deb. Amen.

  26. bfwebster on May 31, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Don’t be surprised if there is a blow-up in the weeks before they go. It is very common for families to figure out some way to have a big fight just before a beloved child leaves for college or a mission – perhaps a way to loosen the ties a bit and avoid more tender feelings. If it happens, don’t panic. Do apologize and make things right.

    My oldest sister, while going through it with her oldest daughter, termed this “reaching escape velocity.” I adopted this term when our myriad kids started becoming teenagers. Some go off like helium balloons and some like Saturn V rockets. ..bruce..

  27. Ardis Parshall on May 31, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    You are all reminding me that a big part of the reason sending my kids off was so hard was because my own mission was such a difficult episode in my life

    The money quote. I have to hope, though, that the horrendous experience of my own mission can teach me something other than compassion for other missionaries going through similarly unspeakable times. Reliving my own distress in knowing that they were duplicating it would do nothing to help them or me.

  28. Bookslinger on May 31, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    “6. Some of them will come home early, come home broken, or come home on the way out the doors of the church. In many cases these challenges would have caught up with them anyway. In other cases there is still something to be learned or gained from the experience, even if it takes a long time. And in those cases where the loss seems irreparably soul-shattering, even life-ending, surely there is some special medal of valor in the eternities for those who lost their lives, physically or otherwise, in the service of the Lord. “

    I’m glad to read that. I suffered for about 15 years due to emotional/spiritual wounds from my mission. I basically lost those 15 years of my life. And the after-effects are life-long.

    We won’t find out until the eternities, or at least until we get to the “other side”, what good we really did on a mission. From the “accounting” that I can calculate from my current standpoint, I definitely would not have done it again. Or rather, if I could get in a time-machine and go back to speak to my former self, I would advise against it.

    But thank-you for the reminder that God can turn tragedy around into something good.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on June 1, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Russell, #12 – … only if you are very, very lucky. (That second mission was one of the sweetest experiences of my life.) But if you are less lucky (and luck probably has a lot to do with it) it still probably means that the universe will find some way to use all that heartache and pain to some good end, for some very lucky soul who gets the benefit from your having to grow the hard way.

    You\’re not helping me here, Wendy. Thanks though.

    (Oh, and incidentally, my wife, Melissa Madsen Fox, of the Ann Arbor ward Madsens, says hi.)

  30. ukann on June 1, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    I remember a sister in our ward saying the hardest thing she ever had to do in her life was to send her two boys on missions. As a mother whose 2 boys went inactive and never went on missions I silently said to myself – “oh how I wish that that was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.”

  31. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 1, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    #

    I remember a sister in our ward saying the hardest thing she ever had to do in her life was to send her two boys on missions. As a mother whose 2 boys went inactive and never went on missions I silently said to myself – “oh how I wish that that was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.”

    My wife felt the same way after we had buried two children in the space of eleven months, even more so after we buried the third within four and a half years of the first.

    But, it is a social trope, and one that resonates. I don’t disrupt them for others.

    It was difficult having my parents serve their missions. Kenya, Philippines, D.C. and Korea. There are times I needed them. Now they just need me. I’m glad I still need them.

  32. Jami on June 2, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Wendy,
    What a great post. We are moving ever closer to this day in our family. Then I’ll send them two at a time. I hope I can be the mom at home that I wished for when I was on my mission.

  33. Wendy Ulrich on June 2, 2008 at 10:43 am

    There are so many ways for missions to be painful – sending missionaries, not sending children we wish were going, having parents gone on missions when we need them at home, sending children on missions to the other side of the veil when we so desperately long for them to stay, reflecting on our own missions when they just did not work and left us scarred and bruised. There is not always a cure for these things, but through Christ our hope is that there can be healing. But sometimes, truly, “the journey seems long, the way rugged and steep.”

  34. Ray on June 2, 2008 at 11:11 am

    I have come to the understanding that the Church really is different for each individual – based on that person’s experience with the global leadership, to some degree, but more so on that person’s experience with local leadership and events like baptisms and missions.

    I understand the pain on an intellectual level, but my mission (though hard) was a wonderful growth experience that didn’t scar or bruise me in any way that matters – death threat notwithstanding. Therefore, I am not hurting in the slightest at the thought of my son leaving this summer. I would hurt if he were not.

    My wife, on the other hand, is dreading that moment when we say good-bye. She has not served a mission yet, so her emotions are fully motherly.

  35. Aaron C. on June 2, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    My mother had seen the video “Called to Serve” and was therefore forwarned about the “missionaries this way, families that way” scene. Deciding this would be too difficult, she put me and my two brothers on a plane to Utah where an aunt picked us up and took us to the MTC.

    I love this post. Some of the best conversations I’ve had are sharing old “war stories” with other RMs and with people who are just about to leave. I’ve had two brothers-in-law choose not to serve missions and it makes me sad to think of the things (good and bad) that they will miss out on.

  36. purposely anonymous on June 2, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    A comment about # 6 on the original post’s list: I don’t think there’s many things that are more jarring in the church than having a bad mission experience. We spend 18 years telling and even promising our youth that the mission will be the “best two years of their lives.” If reality turns out differently–through a harder than expected mission area, through a less-than-inspiring mission president (purposefully treading lightly here), or something else altogether–the missionary not only ends up frustrated, but also totally disillusioned b/c (1) they feel like they were lied to about what to expect, and (2) they can’t relate to any of the public discourse about what missions are like.

    While I certainly had some great experiences on my mission, it was a rough experience on all relevant levels. Based on some of the above comments, as well as more than a few friends who had similar experiences, I know I’m not alone. Overall, I’m glad I went and glad I served, but I’m more than a little happy that it’s over and done with. More germane to the post: looking back on it years later, I’m convinced that while the mission itself was hard to deal with, it was still much harder to deal with the total disconnect between what I’d been told about a mission and what I actually experienced as a missionary.

    Maybe a large part of it was that I was raised by a family dominated by RM’s from South America who never could understand my European experience. For example, I could have done without the letters suggesting that my lack of success was attributable to my lack of faith, rather than the people who–let’s be honest–just didn’t care.

    In any event, it seems like we generally talk about missions as we’d like to think they are (or should be), rather than how they actually (or at least usually) are, and as a result, I think we sometimes do a poor job of preparing missionaries for what a mission is actually going to be like. When things go south, the missionary then has ample reason to not just feel frustrated with the experience, but bitter with the program or even the church itself. I think a little more perspective in missionary prep classes would go a long way to ameliorating this type of problem.

  37. Erik Champenois on June 2, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    I’ve lived half my life in Europe (Denmark) and can understand your experience and lack of success there. Too many missionaries lose their enthusiasm about being a missionary and trying to spread the Gospel, understandable due to those just not interested in hearing about the Gospel and also understandable due to the idea that a mission is always a positive and succesful thing. It can be — and faith may move mountains, even in Europe. In fact, prophecies have been made that conversions in Europe will increase in the future and a greater harvest of souls will take place (see President Hinckley’s dedication of the Netherlands temple, for example). But that is not to underestimate the true difficulty of serving in most of Europe. It is a struggle and if one knew that before going, perhaps it would be easier to know and understand and be able to serve in the best way without getting to disappointed.

  38. Lupita on June 2, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    #36 I could have written this, except for the European mission part (that was for my dh). Thanks for beating me to it. I was in South America as one of the less successful missionaries because I wasn’t baptizing forty people each month. I felt completely unprepared for many aspects of mission life that were never even alluded to in the MTC. “Horrendous experience” indeed.
    As the mother of four small boys, I keenly feel the responsibility of preparing them for their mission experiences. I don’t quite know where the balance lies. Somehow, “it’s going to be reaaaaaaaaaaaaally difficult but one day you’ll find meaning in and gratitude for the experience” doesn’t sound that encouraging.

  39. Aaron C. on June 2, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I remember our seminary teacher invited two RMs to come speak to our class about their mission experiences. One went to a country in South America and was very enthusiastic about the work and his two years. The other went to Greece and gave a rather sobering depiction of a mission – people spitting on you, no one to teach, no baptisms, etc. I think this was done on purpose to give us a sense that missions aren’t always “fun” – If you’re going to go, go because you love the Lord, not because you want a two year vacation.

    I was never told it would be the “funnest” two years (although I do remember my mission being very fun). When people say it will be the “best” two years – I think they mean something along the lines of spiritual growth (although this isn’t the case many times). For those of you who didn’t have pleasant missions, I pray that you have blessing laid up for you in heaven for the work that you performed.

    What I wasn’t prepared for were the less valiant lazy missionaries – it had never before occured to me that people would serve a mission and not “serve”.