A Missionary Reminiscence on Christmas

November 25, 2011 | 13 comments
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When the mission president announced to our small group of greenies that I was going to Strasbourg, I shrugged the resigned shrug of a missionary who knew nothing about anywhere but was willing to go wherever. One of the sisters expressed jealousy; Strasbourg, she said, was one of the best cities in the mission.

She was right, and it would not be a good thing.

strasbourg-christmas-market532x400Strasbourg is and was beautiful pre-Christmas.* Several weeks passed before I fully acclimatized to the major time-change, and the schedule of missionary life, but I loved Strasbourg almost instantly. The eastern area of France bordering Germany is known as Alsace, and offers the best of both countries in terms of food, architecture, and other things. Parks are plentiful, the accent is easier to master, and doner kebab is cheap. Two wards meeting in an actual chapel with a basketball court were staffed by over a dozen hard-working missionaries who made me feel welcome as we did splits. My trainer, a stand-up guy, introduced me to the endless variety of bread, cheese, pastries, roasted chestnuts, and other delights as the weather cooled. On Saturdays, we played ultimate frisbee and soccer with other missionaries and ward members.
Things were happening in the ward; we had at least one solid person we were teaching regularly, who came often and participated more than some members. Work was hard, but had enough positive things going that I felt we had some energy. The ward choir we sang in was prepping some of my favorite classical Christmas music,  Es ist ein Rose entsprungen (or, D’un Arbre Séculaire, or, for the awful English title, “Lo, How a Rose is Blooming”), and I loved the tenor part. Life, it seemed, was Good.

Then, shortly before Christmas, I was transferred to a two-man town in Belgium called Verviers (VERR-vee-ay). 45 minutes away from other missionaries in Liège, the little industrial ville seemed to be near the arctic circle. My companion was depressed, having seen a missionary go AWOL to live with a French girl. The branch was small, dysfunctional, and met in a small but Mormon-feeling house. Mostly I remember a 10-yr old girl who liked to provoke missionaries, who closed the piano on my hands mid-hymn at least once. The mission president confided that he was considering withdrawing the missionaries and shutting it down. No choir sang. We tracted much, taught little, but one young couple with two small children always welcomed us. She was more friendly and sympathetic, but had lost all faith in God because of a miscarriage. He saw us as helping encourage his wife back into faith, but was less receptive to us as missionaries. That was the highlight of our non-LDS contact.

Belgian architecture, in that area, consists of long narrow streets, with narrow sidewalks, and endless row houses of dark brick. The weather got colder, the heavens closed permanently for winter, and dustings of snow on the ground quickly dirtied. From ground to sky, everything was despairingly grey. The transition from dim to darkness came around three each afternoon; To make matters worse, the APs, doing what middle management does best, misconstrued something the mission president said, and required everyone to wake up half-an-hour earlier every day to exercise. This somnalent curse would not lift for several months, and created perfectionist guilt when, after a few half-hearted pushups, we’d fall asleep on the floor by the heater until 8 am.

While we had a few moments of levity and brightness in Verviers, such as a MoTab Christmas tape and our “Christmas tree” constructed from some pine branches found in the street, twined onto the drying rack, decked out by a few Belge Francs worth of Christmas lights, these were merely stars in a black night. It was the darkest period of my mission, literally, figuratively, and spiritually. My struggles went deeper than what I have enumerated here, and I think I cried some bitter tears. Never have I felt more like crying out “o God, where art thou?” “How long, o Lord, how long?” My temporal suffering in hell was all the worse for having previously been in heaven. Better to start in the mission armpit and get transferred somewhere nice, than start at the pinnacle and establish that as the baseline norm for missionary life.

Things didn’t get much better until Spring began to dawn, and another transfer came. In retrospect, it strikes me that temporary (and, as they were, shallow ) feelings of despair, abandonment, and futility may be some of the best preparation for appreciating the spirit of Christmas and the mission of Jesus the Messiah. Though my discomfort was largely selfish, my wounds hardly mortal, my sins those typical of missionaries, my darkness nevertheless felt very real to me. Having been in the gloom, I could appreciate the light, instead of being distracted by the cultural trappings of Christmas.  Christ came, not to provide fleeting comforts or entertainments, but to “swallow up death in victory and wipe away the tears from all faces” to “heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds.”

*If I can find any of my mission pictures, I’ll update the post.

13 Responses to A Missionary Reminiscence on Christmas

  1. Erin on November 25, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. At the end of my mission, I felt like I had been steam-rolled, to humble me so that I would be humble and really open up to the Gospel.

    Strasbourg sounds lovely as a missionary:)

  2. Tim on November 26, 2011 at 12:27 am

    I served in Karlsruhe, just 60 minutes from Strasbourg (and parts of our area were closer to 30 minutes from Strasbourg). I’ve spent four years and three Christmases in Europe, and I can honestly say they feel more authentic, more genuine, and less materialistic than Christmas in the U.S.

    My Christmas-time memories as a missionary include singing Christmas songs on the street (including the incredible “Es ist ein Rose entsprungen”); seeing a brave older member do her best to be a member missionary in the weeks before her health deteriorated to the point that she had to be sent to a nursing home; celebrating Christmas Eve with a truly golden investigator whose sons later talked her out of further investigation; finding an eternal investigator drunk after the Eastern Europeans he was helping enter the country illegally beat him up bad on New Year’s Eve (his Russian friend standing guard outside his door, patting the gun inside his overcoat and telling us our investigator would be kept safe if they dared come back); and many more.

    I miss those European Christmases, despite the pain surrounding some of those memories. Cobble-stoned streets, lebkuchen, Christmas fairs in the center of every city, churches packed to celebrate the holiday. As magical as this life gets.

  3. Kevin Barney on November 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

    A wonderful reminiscence, Ben. (Having served in Colorado, my experiences were less extreme in either direction, so I appreciate this peek into the European experience.)

  4. Ronan on November 26, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Ben,
    This was almost too hard to read given the memories of grey European missions I also share. For every Vienna there’s a St. Poelten.

  5. Kerry on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Charleroi, St. Quentin, Cambrai, Strasbourg and Mons provided quite a few gray days but I agree Strasbourg was the best.

  6. J. Stapley on November 26, 2011 at 11:14 am

    As you might be able to imagine, Ben, there is a lot going on here that resonates. Thank you for writing it up.

  7. Craig H. on November 26, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Really nice Ben. Why is it that so much written about missions comes from those who happened to be in Belgium or northern France? This is an impression, mind you, not a clear statistic, but it’s been striking to me. I’m writing something myself–about my time in Belgium, which is as gray as you say.

  8. Wowbagger on November 27, 2011 at 2:40 am

    Nice memories for me as well. Bruxelles, Strasbourg, Metz, St Quentin. All leaving a mark on me, even though I am no longer LDS. Christmas in Metz, where we could go to visit Luxembourg remains one of my fondest memories.

  9. Paul on November 27, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Ben, lovely post.

    My first mission Christmas (just a month after my arrival in Germany) was in Worms. My first companion and I did not get along and I was as proud a new missionary as there could be (read: it was all his fault and I bore no responsibility for the rift). Members seemed to sense our dischord and were not happy to share their holiday with us. Only after my companion left (a week or two after Christmas) did I begin to come to my senses and I felt the pangs of guilt of one who could not really make amends.

    The bittersweet reality of a mission is an awesome thing.

  10. Adam Greenwood on November 28, 2011 at 11:46 am

    What a truthful, powerful story.

    Here is Bookslinger’s mission Christmas story, and here is mine.

  11. Patrick Faulk on November 29, 2011 at 2:35 am

    First Christmas was spent in the LTM. Highlight: special fireside with Pres. and Sis. Kimball. Arrived in Germany in February, coldest winter in 20 years (and I from the central coast of California!). Second Christmas, in Minden, Westfalen, was like living in a greeting card – except for bicycling home in driving snow…!

    (I still use the sheepskin mittens I bought from a little shop in the Minden Altstadt.)

  12. Jim F on December 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    One of my best Christmas memories is a Flemish Belgian one: the missionaries in Leuven were teaching a Cambodian family. He spoke English, though not particularly well. I don’t know how he was surviving graduate school. His wife spoke neither English nor Dutch. Somehow the missionaries found a copy of a Bible in Khmer and between him reading in that Bible and the missionaries explaining in the simplest English and then him translating for his wife, they were getting through the lessons. How much was being taught is another question.

    Janice had bought a small creche and showed it to the missionaries. They were having difficulty getting things across to this couple, so they asked if we would meet with them and use the creche to explain Christmas. With quite a bit of nervousness we agreed.

    Not surprisingly, it quickly became clear that the man didn’t have any idea what we were talking about–or if he did, we didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. We would tell a bit of the story and ask him to read some verses from his Bible. Then he would ask questions about what he’d read. In those questions, angels became demons, the hosts of heaven became a panoply of gods, King Herod was an evil demon conspiring with the wise-men demons.

    I am certain that our efforts were unsuccessful. But in spite of that, having to see the story absolutely from the outside for an hour or so, trying to make sense of it and explain it to him, brought it freshly to our minds and hearts. The breathtaking miraculousness of it all became impossible to avoid. Though the day was grey and cloudy and the quaint architecture and cobblestone streets of spring and summer had turned into merely cold brick and stone, Janice and I walked back to our apartment feeling very much in a Christmas mood.

  13. john f. on December 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Very nice Ben. This brings back memories. East Germany is also a grey place.