Tweny years ago today, June 15, 1988, I entered the Missionary Training Center and began my 24 months as a missionary assigned to the Korea Seoul West Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d like to take this moment to offer all my mission companions, every missionary I knew, both my mission presidents, all the people I ever taught, all the members I ever interacted with, the Korean people as a whole, and the church my deepest apologies, and ask for their forgiveness…because, as a missionary, I really sucked.
This isn’t because I was one of those “jackass missionaries” that Rusty attacked so eloquently last year. Sure, there was plenty of misbehavior on my part during the 22 months I was in Korea, but nothing that approached the style, the brazeness, the pure ignorant goofball foolhardiness that some of my fellow missionaries reached for, and often obtained, back then (and which some elders continue to aspire towards today). No, I fear that the causes and consequences of my poor performance as a missionary had little about them that can be romanticized or made into a good story, which I suppose is why I’ve done so little thinking about or sharing of my mission in the years since. I did attempt to put some ideas down at first, and did attempt to stay in contact with some fellow RMs for a while, but there came a point when I managed to pack most all of it away somewhere, and throw away the rest, and I was happy with that.
Basically, I was an arrogant, self-pitying, socially inept, judgmental, doubting intellectual smart-ass, right from the start. I went on a mission because, of course, I was supposed to go on a mission, because I’d never considered not going on a mission. And so there I was, a young misfit with an enormous amount of unrepented and complicated sinful and psychological baggage and with barely a clue of how to deal with it. And so I went through the motions. But it didn’t work; within a day upon my arrival in the MTC I was bitter and confused and paranoid, even as I tried to show off my smarts and find some sort of niche. I found the rules in the MTC bizarre, the strange mix of jock culture and cheesy spirituality (two words: “MTC basketball”) distasteful. And I hated myself for not repenting hard enough, for not seeking for the spirit constantly enough, so as to be able to stop disliking it, or even to stop condemning myself for disliking it. I spent hours in private prayer (when you add it all up, that is…I’m no Enos, I’m afraid) hidden in some shrubs in back on one of the MTC buildings, pleading with the Lord to sent me an assurance of the truth of the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith or the validity of priesthood ordinances or anything. And then I would wonder: did I not receive anything because I was breaking the rules by sneaking away from my companion? Or maybe I did receive something, but I subconsciously talked myself out of it? Or maybe the trial of my faith just wasn’t over yet?
The pattern continued into the mission field. The work bored me, and then I berated myself for being bored by the work. Mission life was stultifying, and I condemned myself for not truly consecrating myself. I was desperate to ingratiate myself into what passed for cliques and networks and common points of experience amongst my fellow missionaries, but then would turn around and zealously condemn those very same things, almost just to see if going the self-righteous prick route might work. It didn’t. I didn’t have the spirit; I didn’t feel guided or inspired or blessed. (What was the cause? Was it the tape of Michael Jackson and Moody Blues and Cheap Trick songs I’d bought for cheap from a vender outside a military base? The fact that I’d desperately grab and hide for late-night reading a copy of every English-language newspaper I could find? My naughty dreams? Of course it was! So I’d give all those things away and repent of my hormones in a dramatic and heartfelt flourish, making pretentious promises and sacrifices to the Lord, and then weeks would go by, and nothing would change.) Ultimately, I was just filled with doubts, doubts that I’ve long since realized are a dime a dozen in the mission field–doubts as to why it was necessary to convert the whole world (isn’t the story that we’re going to be doing temple work 24 hours a day all through the Millennium, anyway?), doubts as to the inspiration behind the innumerable fine distinctions and regulations that plagued us as missionaries (wait, which kind of tea was it that we needed to tell people to stay away from again? I can’t wear what kind of tie? you want me just to make up a number when we didn’t give out any Books of Mormon this week?), doubts as the very notion that someone like mewas one of God’s chosen instruments to reach out to His children (oh right, like God is going to fault someone for not receiving a divine call to repentance when the messenger is a frustrated, self-aggrandizing, foolish American kid who can barely speak Korean). I suppose I could blame a lot of externalities for much of this, and I did, for a long time. But it all eventually comes back to me, to the way I was deeply divided in my feelings, the way I found myself impelled to turn from brown-noser to rulebreaker to repentant peacemaker to super-confident know-it-all at the drop of a hat. The repetitiveness and focus of missionary work demands constancy, maturity, and perspective on the part of those who perform it, and I had almost none of that.
There were good moments, or moments that I came to recognize as good, in later years. I discovered C.S. Lewis’s apologetic writings on my mission, particular The Great Divorce, which I read over and over again. I worked my way through the standard works (all except the Old Testament; I never did finish that), fell in love with the New Testament, and slowly began to develop a grasp an idea of the message behind it all (in a nutshell: thank God for His grace, because God knows we’re nothing without it). I was exposed to instances of terrible poverty, child abuse, sexual desperation, violence, gossip, unrighteous dominon, and invariably came away haunted and humbled by my own powerlessness and lack of comprehension (and even sometimes by my own unknowing, implicit participation) in the face of such. But I also met elders and sisters who maintained their balance, their confidence, their sense of humor, their testimony, through it all. More importantly, I think, I met more than a few good brothers and sisters in the wards and branches I served in, who watched us missionaries with kind bemusement and treated us with far more compassion and respect than we deserved. Finally, I was sent to a ward and thankfully, blessedly, was left there for a year, enabling me to put down some roots and actually develop some friendships that weren’t subject to the politics of the mission field. I can remember realizing one day that perhaps my greatest challenge as a missionary–and as one who feels committed to the church–was to learn how to deal with (in my doubtful, smart-ass, intellectual way) the fact that God really does sometimes, occasionally, without warning, bless people with knowledge and testimony and gifts in answer to their prayers….just not everybody, and perhaps not ever me. And there was another day, one particularly fine day, about a month before I came home, when a bunch of us were able to attend the South Korea temple, and on long the bus ride back, while looking around at everyone else (probably wondering who last had the Billy Joel tape we were surreptitiously passing around and listening to), I realized, with a surety that I’d never known before, that every single person on the bus was every bit as confused and screwed-up and sinful as I was…and yet, that God, somehow, knew us all and took care of us, just the same.
I came home, and all the good I mentioned in the previous paragraph was outweighed by the bad; it look a long time for me to sort through all the chaff, and retrieve that which I decided was worth preserving. At first I was an angry SOB, not wanting to talk about the mission or be reminded of it (except, of course, when I wanted to explain how it was the Toughest/Worst/Craziest Mission Ever, but then I realized that everyone’s mission was the Toughest/Worst/Craziest Ever, except for those who’d had the Greatest/Best/Most Successful Mission Ever). I treated much of my family and many old friends like crap (how dare they have had good mission experiences, the jerks!), closed myself off from others. Within a year I’d thrown away my mission journal (no big loss; just lots of philosophical ruminations and private, wretched confessions of all my resentments and sins), packed away my photos, got rid of most of my souvenirs. I’d survived, and now I was going to leave it all alone. I’d keep the Korean language and my fondness for kimchee, but that’s about it.
Except…I couldn’t truly leave it alone, because we’re a missionary church. Oh sure, I could avoid it for a while; for years, actually. But eventually, Melissa and I were married, and we were living ordinary lives in ordinary wards, and the assignments started coming: who is going to go out on splits with the missionaries this Wednesday? Who can help teach this investigator after church next Sunday? So I had to be active, had to articulate, when pressed, my refusal to proselytize. I won’t have anything to do with it, I said, so don’t ask. I will not teach, I will not preach, I will not put myself out as a representative of the gospel of Jesus Christ in that way; I’ve already done that, thank you, and I hated it. Oddly enough, my rigorous stand turned out to be something less than a mighty rebuke that scandalized all around me; they just stopped asking me (until somebody else would be called as ward mission leader, and then they’d start asking me again), and in the meantime, the church’s missionary program–everything that I disliked about it, as well as everything that, as I got older, I found myself sneakily admiring–just kept on rolling forward.
I’ve seen myself change, over the past two or three years. I no longer grumble when Melissa’s invites the missionaries over for dinner the way I used to, and I don’t mock them afterward with the frequency I once did. Sometimes I ponder about missionary work, and I’m more serious, and less snarky, about it than I have been in years past. The big breakthrough came when we moved to this ward in Wichita, and I was called to be a ward missionary, and I accepted. I’m still not sure why I did that. I mean, Mormonism is for me, but I’m pretty certain it’s not for everyone, and I kind of doubt you have to accept Mormonism or its ordinances–in this life or the next–for Christ to save you or perhaps even for God to exalt you. So it’s a bit of mystery to me, as I drive the missionaries around to their appointments and suggest scriptures for the curious to read and ponder. Maybe it’s because I was tired of being a member of this community, but eschewing one part of it. Maybe it’s just because I’m almost 40, and I’ve come to doubt that a lot of the things I was so emphatic about twenty years ago–even if I think my judgments from back then are still fairly legitimate today–are really worth making such a big deal about now. Or maybe it’s because I’ve figured out that I have something to share, and the context of sharing, of compassionate service, of messages of recognition and hope coming from lives touched by the goodness of Jesus Christ–or more importantly, messages that are contained in His words themselves–is often desperately needed, regardless of whether it’s accepted or whatever it leads to. That’s something, I suspect, that nearly every good missionary probably knows, even if the rhetoric and requirements of the environment they’ve thrown themselves into prevents them from saying so or even fully understanding it; the language and ideology of numbers and goals and reports and baptisms is just too strong. But that’s all right, I think: any program they commit themselves to–the Peace Corp, the military, the public school system, the job at the phone company, whatever–would have its own controlling language and ideology, and somehow, at least sometimes, the context of sharing and service shines through all the same.
I guess even I did some service, too, back then, though it’s hard to be sure how and when. (Is this where I’m supposed to put in a reference to how many people I baptized? Two.) Anyway, I’m glad I served. I can’t imagine what person I would be if I hadn’t. I have no real expectations, and no particularly strong desires here, but I do hope that the young men that I now work with will go on missions. I look at them and I think: honestly, they’re coming up on 19 years old; are they really going to try to tell me that they’ve got something better to do with their life at that age? I didn’t, and they probably don’t either. So go and serve, I say, the moderately hypocritical recovered (recovering?) missionary. Look at it this way: at worst, you’ll go, and you’ll suck at it, and the rules and the organization and your companions and the expectations will drive you mad, and maybe you’ll hate it, and maybe you’ll come home early, or maybe you’ll make it through, but either way you’ll be mixed up, and maybe you’ll be angry about it all, but then twenty years will go by, and you’ll realize that nobody–including yourself–really particularly gives a damn about your feelings or your mistakes anymore. And God will probably just be relieved, because most likely–no, most definitely— He was just happy that you were there, and He was forgiving all your little mistakes and doubts all along.