Missions and the Art of Togetherness

September 12, 2008 | 10 comments
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One unique aspect of the missionary experience is the opportunity to focus everything you do, day and night, directly on the goal of serving God. It can be kind of scary to set that as your project, because it is a tall order. Serving God for one day is hard enough; you run out of ideas. Serving God for two years takes a lot of creativity and thought. On the other hand, how else can you really make sense of an idea as big as God? How can you seriously expect to understand God if you never devote more than a few hours at a time? It takes a lot of time and work and growth.

This is essentially the thought that drove me to serve a mission. By the time I was in college, I had had enough tough questions asked me, and known enough people who thought differently from me, that it became clear that I had not figured God out. I knew God existed, and I believed he had sent prophets, come to Earth, founded a church, etc., but I had a lot of questions about what faith really is (does it mean setting aside reason?), how to feel about people who didn’t believe (aren’t they wonderful people too?), what to think about those who prayed and did not receive the answers I had received from God . . . These were deep questions, and the questions were coming much faster than the answers.

I needed to take some time and clear my agenda to work out my relationship with and my understanding of God. I didn’t want to keep on living my life in the dark, sweeping these questions under the rug. That would be like driving down a freeway without being sure whether you had missed your turn or not. You can do that for a few minutes, but the longer you go, the farther off track you are likely to be, and the more time you will waste driving back to where you should have been the whole time, the more you will miss of whatever you were driving to get to. If you have another two hours of driving to do, it’s worth five minutes to pull off and look at the map. I figured two years was about the right amount of time to figure out what I needed to live my life right.

A lot of missionaries don’t have the kind of questions that I did, at least when they start out. The questions haven’t occurred to them. They haven’t necessarily had to explain their beliefs, or they have explained them mainly to sympathetic audiences, or they haven’t really known and admired someone well enough who didn’t reach the same conclusions, to feel the need to dig deeper.

I hadn’t exactly counted on what it would be like to be around other people who were also trying to devote themselves to God, night and day, for two years (or one and a half, in the case of the sisters). There’s no more serious business, and disagreeing somehow becomes a much bigger deal than it would usually be. My trainer called me an apostate and called the mission home because I said we should talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to our door. I thought, hey, they want to talk about religion with us, unlike most people we meet; why not talk to them? The faith of a sincere search for knowledge looks rather different from the faith of resting assured, and I couldn’t share too many of my questions with my companions. It was too upsetting to them. When I saw my trainer’s face that day, though, I knew he wasn’t trying to make things difficult for me. He was honestly shocked. So I realized I needed to slow down and get to know these guys better, and share my thoughts more selectively. Actually, just what I was learning about our investigators–to find out about them and build on common beliefs, to reach some common basis for understanding, and then challenge them gently, from a basis of trust.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned as a missionary is what I learned from being around my companions, who were very different from me. I learned to listen, to notice what matters to people, not to step on it, but to respect their honest efforts to make the world a better place, and when I needed to correct them, to correct them in light of standards whose value they could understand and relate to. This is the way I tried to approach my investigators, and over time, I think I became pretty good at it. It’s also what I took the basic message of the Missionary Guide, our training manual, to be. It was a lot of work learning to do this. It was very uncomfortable for months and months. It would have been much easier to just do my own thing, but how else is a community ever supposed to work? If God wants to unite his family in love, isn’t that something we have to learn? We have to be good at being together.

10 Responses to Missions and the Art of Togetherness

  1. Tim on September 12, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    We knocked on the doors of Jehovah Witnesses. We even had two appointments with one nice family. After that second appointment, my companion asked “I wonder if they know we’re not coming back.”
    I don’t see what the problem would be in talking with them. I do know that missionaries aren’t supposed to have other people in their apartment. I’m not sure if I would have invited them in (although I would have been happy to set up an appointment elsewhere).
    Some of my fondest memories of the mission were talking to Jehovah Witnesses, “Moonies,” and New Apostolic people. We even had a couple of good investigators from those groups. Some great people.

  2. Todd Wood on September 12, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Just this past weekend, 300 to 400 JW spent four days building a meeting house from the foundation to finish in Ammon, Idaho.

  3. Marianne on September 12, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    I served in Japan and a Jehovah Witness woman came to the church one day with her young son. I told her I’d be happy to talk to her about her beliefs and I’d even take her literature if she’d take a copy of the Book of Mormon as a gift from me. The hope I’d seen on her face turned to horror and she backpedaled out of the door pretty quick. What did she think would happen when she first opened the door and came in?

    As far as what a mission taught me–I’d never adapted to change very well, but until the last 4 months of my mission I either had a new companion or was transferred every month, and my parents moved to a new town in the middle, so I learned to adapt. I learned that love wins every time. I learned that Heavenly Father loves me, from time to time it was the only thing that I felt I knew for sure. I learned that happy for me didn’t mean giddy, it meant recognizing that doing my best didn’t mean dying for the cause or flogging myself or those around me.

    I agree that serving a mission is an excellent way to learn what it means to live in a community of faith–recognizing that everyone is in a different place, has their own agendas and needs, and still just might be as righteous as me. It’s why, even when others bug me and the talks are tedious, I’ll keep going to church. On the best days it’s transformative. On the worst I’m proving to myself and the Lord that I’m willing to be obedient, even if I can’t see the point.

  4. onelowerlight on September 12, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Thanks for this post. I think you’re absolutely right, and I wish that I’d realized this sooner.

    I think that there are two basic approaches you can take to missionary work in order to succeed. The first is to focus on obedience and diligence first before all other things, and the second is to focus more on connecting with people and understanding others. You eventually have to get to the point where you can balance the two, but since you have to start somewhere, you have to focus more on one than the other. I leaned more towards the obedience end of the spectrum, and I was able to serve very well with that approach, but in the second half of my mission I started to realize that the other approach, which sometimes appears to be dangerously disobedient, can work just as well.

    I see the spirit of the law as this very fine point in the middle of a spectrum between two extremes where the letter of the law has completely killed the spirit. On the one end are the pharasees, the people who believe that life should be ruled at all times by absolute laws, that there are no gray areas or exceptions, and that in religion the keeping of the law is the only thing that matters. On the other end, you find the people who are always trying to test the boundaries, to be edgy, to go right to the edge of the rules without actually breaking them. These are the people who want to know the letter of the law because they want to know how far they can go without actually breaking it; the law is like the chain that they are always tugging against.

    In order to be at the middle, you have to balance obedience and diligence with relationships and understanding others, and that’s the challenge: when do you push, when do you let go and give a little? It’s such a challenge, but it’s also a wonderful growing experience just to try. I’m just so glad to be a member of this church.

  5. Lupita on September 13, 2008 at 12:16 am

    I really enjoyed this post, especially this “It would have been much easier to just do my own thing, but how else is a community ever supposed to work?”
    I struggled with that because I felt very different from many of my companions in fundamental ways. Once I did try to focus on whatever common denominators we shared, no matter how tenuous, mission life improved.
    I do remember being baffled by the paradox of hearing certain missionaries lauded when I followed them into their sectors and saw the messes they left in their wake. Same goes for the blatant rule breakers, they were some of the most amazing missionaries.

  6. Katie P. on September 13, 2008 at 9:37 am

    What you describe is almost exactly my own reasoning for deciding to serve a mission. I saw a long life stretched in front of me with years in school in preparation for it, and it seemed to me that I were willing to devote so many years to preparing for one aspect of my life, then I could devote a year and a half to my religion and the Lord to figure out what was going on there. I had had a few spiritual experiences and even more questions, and of all the things in life to explore, I wanted to devote my attention to the most essential questions I’d ever ask.

    I did find what I was looking for, there in Michigan. Detroit became my Waters of Mormon. It was so worth it.

  7. Neal Davis on September 13, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Once, when our ward was inviting the local neighborhoods to a Christmas showing of Joy to the World, I inadvertently knocked on the back door of the Kingdom Hall. I invited the young man who came to the door, but he declined. It was an interesting minute waiting for an answer, tho’…

  8. Chad S. on September 14, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for the post.

    Perhaps the lesson you learned – “I learned to listen, to notice what matters to people, not to step on it, but to respect their honest efforts to make the world a better place” – is more important than finding the answers to your “deep questions”?

    As time goes by, I respect and appreciate more and more Lowell Bennion’s quote: “Relationships are what matter most” (particularly relationships with God!)

  9. Ben H on September 15, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Chad, you may be right. I needed those other answers, and the knowledge gained from many hours of study etc., but probably what has most helped me flourish in the Church . . . and in my career perhaps . . . is that awareness and ability to be responsive to people that I developed as a missionary. I think love of neighbor has to be anchored in love and knowledge of God, or else it can become misguided and destructive, so I needed those other things, too, but I had a lot of the gospel foundation before my mission. I’d say what I learned about communicating and getting along is the biggest difference my mission made in me.

  10. mike on September 15, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Excellent comments.

    onelowerlight #4

    “I think that there are two basic approaches you can take to missionary work in order to succeed…”

    Why didn’t you tell me that about 40 years ago before I went? That makes so much sense to me now.

    I think I went on a mission to be famous; the next B.H. Roberts or Heber C. Kimball, only better. I thought I was God’s gift to the church and the world or something like that. But see, I was worse than those who push the rules. I was one of those rare luminaries that most of the rules didn’t even apply to. Who the hell did this Mishie Pres think he was anyway? Did the Apostle Paul have a mission president? How abut Parley P. Pratt? I was Nietzsche’s Mormon superman, the will to power, beyond good and evil. I hadn’t actually read any of that crap but sort of intuitively knew it.

    So after having my superior version of the lesson plan torn up before getting it translated and after kicking this rule enforcer’s arse in a fistfight in the LTM (he swung on me first and was at least 60 lbs bigger, but I admit provoking him) I was barely allowed on the plane and then “mistakenly” assigned to work with perhaps the most unconventional missionary in Japan. He taught me how to secretly date and make money selling black-market diamonds and smuggle cameras into Korea on P-Day and stay up until 3:00 am collecting referals in x-rated karaoke bars. Funny thing, we had more investigators, more baptisms and more fun than anyone else. I connected with him and although I rationalized much of what we did that was clearly over-the-top against-all-the-rules as trying to “make him the best missionary in the mission, ” I loved every minute with him. I never could lived down the unforgiveable legacy of being his “wampaku” or bad boy green bean.

    The second half of my mission when I was more in charge as senior companion, I had my own strict sense of following many of the rules. But I fought continually with ZL’s, often finding ways to claim the moral “higher” ground. Such as refusing to ever speak to them in English, praying publicly for the Lord to forgive their weaknesses and listing them in great detail, working harder than they did, tracting instead of attending their “pointless pep rallies.” So I guess I played that side of the equation to a degree.

    I think the single most important experience was about in the middle with my last senior companion, a very strict heartless native Japanese missionary known as “the little green machine.” At that point I was becoming unraveled inside with guilt over a 3 week long intense romance with a cute investigator, my first real love, and I couldn’t carry the load any further. I begged the Lord for mercy and redemption and in desperation just turned my life over to Him.

    I didn’t want to go home in disgrace and decided that even though I was probably going to end up in hell in the end, I would go down in my own way which included serving for one more month in the Lord’s army. I would do whatever was necessary to make “the little green machine” happy, because I knew no one else ever had and it seemed impossible. We had a miraculously wonderful month together and he became my all-time favorite companion and he transformed me into an almost conventional missionary.

    At the end he revealed to me that he knew about my girlfriend, (duh, she showed up to church every week). He told me that Christ forgives our sins when we love and serve him. It sounds so simple but it was so liberating to me, even though all of my natural tendencies were and still are present in rich abundance. As my branch president, he told me that even if he forgave my sins, it wouldn’t change anything. The church can not forgive sins. As bad as I was, I knew at that moment, that Jesus walked with me, had walked with us for a month and always would. I have had to learn this lesson over and over many times, I somehow forget it, after getting beat up by life and my own faults and poor choices.

    This most wonderful companion, who brought me to Christ in a way no one ever had, eventually baptized my girlfriend (after his mission which was nearly over anyway) and married her. The last I heard from him, he is a Stake President. He would pretend otherwise and I don’t think he would appreciate me blabbing how his wife came into the church, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

    I only know of one other investigator who stayed active, after getting baptized, over two years after we taught him and I was only the obnoxious junior companion. Two other native Japanese companions of mine are also no longer with us. I made a few junior companions learn some Japanese because I refused to speak English to them and learn some discipline because I worked very hard and I hacked off a few self-righteous ZL’s. That is about the sum total lasting benefit of my mission to the church in Japan except whatever other subtle personal growth I might have experienced. Not much, but it was worth it.