Category: mission

On Calling Home as a Missionary

I served a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1997 to 1999. I was in former Eastern Germany for those two years, and they remain some of the most impactful years of my life, continuing to influence who I am and how I think to this day. I was just exposed to so many different people, who each viewed the world differently, and because almost all of my conversations focused on religion, it was a chance to have some very deep discussions with all those different people.

As has been the custom for as long as I can remember, missionaries were only allowed to call home two times a year: on Christmas and Mothers Day. (Though my mission president allowed us to call home on Fathers Day as well, because fathers are also important.) Other than that, we were restricted to writing letters home once a week, and at the end of my mission, I was allowed to write emails, since I was in the office, and we had a computer and internet. The reasoning behind this was always that it allowed missionaries to focus on where they were, as opposed to where they had been. I never really questioned that reasoning. I know being away from my family and friends was difficult, but I also know it seemed to make sense at the time, and I got through it all without any traumatic experiences.

A few days ago, that communications ban was lifted. Missionaries are now allowed to call or teleconference with their families once a week. (Still just families, not friends.) I am 100% behind the change, for a variety of reasons:

  • I believe today’s youth are much more accustomed to being “plugged in” to their family and friends than they were in the past. The addition of the internet, social media, and smart phones has fundamentally changed how people think and behave. I’m not one who rails against those changes. I accept that they will happen, and that some of that change will be good and some of it will be bad. For missionaries going away for two years, I’ve wondered if yanking that support structure out from under them has been doing more harm than good. When you’re on a mission, you have a lot of contact with your companion, some contact with a few other missionaries in your district, limited contact with missionaries in your zone, and rare contact with your mission president. If your companion is a bonehead, it can be a rough time. Also, you’re sometimes told things that just aren’t true. Mission presidents can be boneheads as well, after all. Being able to turn to your parents for advice and support would be invaluable. (Though of course I can also see the potential for helicopter parenting stepping in, but that was true already. This just increases the immediacy of the contact.)
  • It’s not a requirement. We had the sister missionaries over for dinner last night. They’re a trio at the moment, and we asked them what they thought of the change. One wasn’t sure, one was very much in favor of it (she’s been out for a week), and one had called her parents once but didn’t think she’d call again (she goes home in two months). And that’s fine. If the missionaries want the support, they can have it. Parents still aren’t supposed to be initiating the phone calls.
  • It costs almost nothing. When I was on my mission, an international phone call home was very expensive. These days you can Skype whenever you want for free if you have a device and an internet connection. Missionaries are provided with tablet computers, and all churches have internet, so there you go. There may still be areas where it’s not possible, but that’s the exception, not the rule, and I see no reason to limit all communication just because it’s not universally available.
  • It further involves the family in the missionary effort, inspiring people to grow stronger in the faith. That’s a big plus, in my book.

But what about the infamous “lack of focus” these phone calls are supposed to threaten? If a missionary could lose focus when I was on my mission, can’t they do the same now?

Sure they can. But people forget one simple fact: missionaries break rules. Not all of them, but plenty of them. And these days, it’s so cheap to call home that missionaries who really want to would find a way. Then they’d feel guilty about it . . . Better to avoid the whole rigamarole.

I believe missionaries are called to serve in specific places for specific reasons, typically because of who they are. Their strengths and weaknesses make them able to fill roles in places where other missionaries with different strengths and weaknesses might fail. And part of who a missionary is is their family. I’ve never liked the idea that missionaries need to forget who they were in order to succeed. I think they need to do the opposite: be the best “them” they can be.

Anyway. My two cents on the matter. I’m looking forward to being able to talk to all of my kids when they’re out serving missions. Really, the only downside to all of this I can think of (as a whole, not counting exceptions like when you have overbearing parents or something) is that phone calls will mean no more letters to hold onto to be able to document your mission. I guess that will make journaling even more important. (Not that I ever read those letters or those journals these days, but it’s nice that I know I *could* read them, if I wanted to . . .)

What do you think of the change?

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The Best Book on Mormon Missionaries

As a former LDS missionary myself, I’ve read or perused a number of books on the subject. Before I went on my mission, there were some I read through to try and get a handle on what I was getting myself into. After the fact, I’ve read responses and reactions to missions online and in books. I’ve watched movies that try to depict missions, to varying degrees of success.

So when I first moved to Maine and started working at the University of Maine at Farmington, I was surprised to be approached by one of the professors and discover he was working on his own book on Mormon missionaries. He wasn’t Mormon, for one thing. Was this going to be some sort of smear campaign? (It wouldn’t be the first.) But Rob Lively seemed like a nice enough fellow, and I was willing to talk to just about anyone about the church, so I agreed when he asked to interview me for the book.

Through the course of the interview, I discovered just how serious he was about this. He’d sat down with over 200 missionaries. He’d interviewed President Hinckley twice. He’d gone to multiple MTCs and gotten permission to sit in on classes. He’d spoken to Elders, Sisters, Mission Presidents, Senior Missionaries, General Authorities. He was really doing his homework on this one.

Why was he doing it? I asked him. He said it was because he felt like so many people casually dismiss the Mormon missionary experience, unable or unwilling to look at missionaries as actual people with desires and dreams, instead content to classify they as nuisances to get rid of when they show up at your door. He wanted to write an unbiased, outsider’s view book on the subject so that people who aren’t Mormon can find out more about them in a non-threatening way.

Eight years later, the book is out at last.

I was quite surprised to see the final version. It’s much thicker than I expected. Most of the Mormon missionary books you see at Deseret Book or the like are brief affairs. Maybe two hundred pages, filled with quotes from church leaders and some basic advice for how to succeed on a mission. Rob’s book, The Mormon Missionary: Who Is That Knocking at My Door?, is 576 pages. It’s a tome, people. I hefted it in my hand and thought he’d really gone overboard. How in the world could anyone write that much about Mormon missionaries and keep it interesting for the whole of the book?

It’s a good thing I didn’t say that out loud, because Rob proved me very, very wrong.

I started the book Friday night. I was mostly finished by the end of Sunday. And I wasn’t reading anything I didn’t already know. I’d been on a mission, after all. Why would 576 pages on the experience be so captivating to me?

Because it’s accurate. More accurate than any book or movie on missionaries that I’ve come across. It covers every single aspect of the experience you can think of, from preparing for a mission, getting the call, going to the MTC, learning a language, getting companions, transfers, teaching, baptizing, service, coming home. You name it. Even more surprising, he easily and fluently uses mission lingo. Accurately. You can tell he’s been talking to missionaries for decades. He’s also attended church services here in Maine many a time. I’ve since gotten to know Rob and respect his approach. He really did set out to depict a mormon mission without any other agenda. There’s no anti-Mormon undercurrent, but neither is there a “you all better go on a mission because they’re doing God’s work and this is all true!” overtone either.

He doesn’t paint things too rosy or too bleak, but he also doesn’t shy away from the good times or the bad times of a mission, and almost all of it is rooted in actual missionary experiences and quotes.

Who would I recommend this book to? Just about anybody. Mormon, non-Mormon, missionary or ex-missionary or pre-missionary. If you want to understand what it is those guys in white shirts, ties, and name tags are going through, or the girls in dresses and name tags, then this is the book for you. If you’d like to think back on your own mission experience, this will touch on it in many ways, even while recognizing that each mission is unique and different.

I’m definitely giving the book to my kids to read once they’re old enough. I think it’s the best mission prep book that can be written, and I don’t say that lightly.

Before I left on my mission, the best piece of advice anyone gave me was this: “If you can think of it, a missionary has done it, and is probably doing it right now.” For good or bad, I found that to be true. This book encapsulates that in a way only a 576 page book could. Is it too long? Not at all. It covers the whole of the missionary experience, and it does so accurately and completely. It turns out that missionary experience is a whole lot more complex than I initially thought it was.

(*Full disclosure: as I mentioned above, I was interviewed for the book, as was Denisa. Both of our experiences ended up in various places in the book, though we’re not mentioned by name. (Rob keeps things fairly anonymous.) Still, if you’re looking through it and know Denisa and me well, you can usually pick out what we said. Denisa’s the only person from Slovakia interviewed for the book, and while there were a couple of missionaries interviewed who served in Germany, my pieces were easy for me to recognize. In each case, he treated my interview fairly and accurately. Did I like the book more because I liked seeing what I had said? Maybe. But I don’t think that really made a huge difference in my opinion of the book in the end.)

Well, now I’ve prattled on about this book for over 1,000 words. Have I gushed enough? Bottom line is that I encourage you all to go and read this book. If you have any questions after you’ve read it, I’m happy to answer any I can. Rob’s also going to be speaking locally about the book on May 14th, I believe. Should be good.

After you’ve read it, let me know what you thought.

My Affair with Sriracha Sauce

I first encountered Sriracha sauce in Schwarzenberg, Germany of all places. It’s a town of about 25,000 in the southern part of former Eastern Germany. Not exactly a place well known for its love of spiciness. But I was there on my mission, and I was visiting a family that had made us a treat for dinner: Mexican food! And they’d even gotten us some hot sauce to go with it. (I believe it was tacos or burritos, but it’s hazy at this point.) My companion at the time (Elder Urien) took one look at the bottle and scoffed, telling me (softly, and in English), “German hot sauce is totally weak. We’ll have to drown the food with this to give it any sort of kick.”

I’d been out in Germany for all of a month or so, so whatever he said was absolutely true. I nodded, thankful for the tip.

The family explained they’d gone through a lot of trouble to find the sauce, and they were particularly proud of how hot it was. My companion and I tried to keep the smiles from our faces. Silly Germans. This was the same family whose son had tried a drop of Tabasco and gone running around like a madman, desperate for water.

We each took that bottle with the rooster on it (“Sriracha”–what a silly name. It must be made up. It didn’t even sound Mexican.) and dumped a ton of it all over those tacos. We’re talking spreading it on like ketchup. The family watched all of this, aghast. What in the world were we doing? Were we crazy?

“That’s really, really hot,” the father (Brother Ebisch, as I recall) told us.

We nodded. “We know,” Elder Urien said.

It felt pretty boss, to be able to smother so much “hot” sauce on our food. Truly, we were manly missionaries. Missionaries who would show these Germans what spice tolerance was all about. Missionaries who–

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S GOOD ON THIS EARTH!

If you can’t tell, I’d just taken my first bite. And suddenly, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. I’d just bragged about how great I could handle hot sauce. I’d proceeded to put this hellfire all over my food, and I was doing my best to pretend it wasn’t bothering me at all–even as my eyes were tearing up.

“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Brüder Ebisch asked us.

I coughed a few times and took a drink. Why were the cups so small in this country? “No,” I said. “Just a bit of a kick.” Could I wipe my eyes and have them not notice? Was I sweating that much?

And did I really have to finish two more tacos?

Somehow or another, I survived that experience. And I never touched Sriracha again. It was this mental block. I couldn’t handle it. But then last week in the grocery store, I saw it, and I said to myself, “Self, the time has come to prove to yourself that you’re bigger than a small bottle of hot sauce. The time has come for Sriracha!”

I love me some spicy, but I was intimidated by this stuff still. I put a bit on my rice that evening. Just a drop. I didn’t want to spontaneously combust, after all. My children watched with mouths hanging open. They’d heard my story of Sriracha before. They knew what might await me.

But sometimes, you have to show your kids that you can overcome fear.

I took a bite.

It was barely hot at all. And it was also extremely tasty. It turns out, when you don’t put a gallon of the stuff in your mouth at once, Sriracha is pretty much awesome sauce.

Take that, fear!

For Mormon Eyes Only: On Missionary Work

Well, it’s not as if this is top secret stuff I’m going to be writing about here, but I’m not sure how interesting it’ll be for non-Mormons, so if you’re a coffee drinker, this one might not be for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was having a conversation with my brother over the weekend. He was recently called to be the Ward Mission Leader in his congregation. (An assignment I had for over a year here in Maine. I wrote a talk on my thoughts on the calling back when I received it.) In our chat, he expressed his frustration with some of the expectations placed on Mormons when it comes to missionary work. And let’s be honest: they are legion. It’s easy to feel at times (if you’re a Mormon) that unless you go to work each day with an “I’m a Mormon” button on your shirt and have a minimum of three gospel-related discussions with non-Mormons, then you aren’t fulfilling your God-given duty to spread the Gospel.

Which is complete hogwash, if you ask me.

But why it’s complete hogwash didn’t  snap into place until I was in the middle of that talk with my brother. And once it did snap, I knew I had to blog about it.

One of the things I love about Mormonism is how inclusive it can be. I know that sounds strange–especially if you’re not a Mormon. (Why are you still reading this, by the way? Did you not read the bit at the top about how it was going to be boring for you?) From an outsider’s perspective, we can be pretty darn insular. We have strict rules about what we can eat or drink, how we should dress, what sort of language we ought to use, and that’s omitting that huge bit about gay marriage that we’re just not going to get into in the middle of this post. But believe me, once you know a fair number of Mormons, you start seeing that we’ve got a lot of variation between us. Let’s put it like this: we’re a church that can have Glenn Beck and Harry Reid both be active, passionate members of our religion.

I’d say that’s pretty inclusive, wouldn’t you?

But even putting politics aside for a moment, there’s a lot of inclusion in the way people can live their religion. You’ve got commandments that give a great deal of latitude for personal interpretation. “Keep the Sabbath day holy” might mean nothing but scriptures and hymns to one family. It might mean walks on the beach or heading out sledding for another. What I mean is that there are “things we’re supposed to do,” but we’re given a lot of leeway in how we choose to do those things, generally speaking. In fact, Joseph Smith even has a quote that’s often referenced that directly applies to this: When asked how he managed to govern so many people so well, he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

And that’s how it is for many things in Mormonism–at least in my experience. Yes, there can be overzealous Mormons who get mad if another Mormon is doing something they don’t think is appropriate, but life is too short to worry about what other people are thinking about what you’re doing. This is a religion where you do your best in the way you see best (within a certain definition of “best.”)

But.

When it comes to missionary work, I think this degree of personal choice isn’t as readily embraced, and it should be. The way it’s usually portrayed in the church, we’re all supposed to be always actively looking for ways to inject discussions about Mormonism into our day to day lives. For opportunities to shove a Book of Mormon into someone’s hand whenever possible. It’s like if we don’t invite ten people to church each week, we’re not doing our job.

Don’t get me wrong. If any of the above describes what you do, and you’re comfortable doing it, good on you. I’m not writing this post to say you shouldn’t do that. I’m writing to ask why is it that those who share the Gospel in another way should be made to feel like they’re doing it wrong? (I’m also not here trying to defend myself. I’m comfortable with how I share the Gospel. But I know of many people who aren’t.)

Really, there are tons of ways to share the Gospel. I personally find the most rewarding being the approach to simply be an active Mormon and not be afraid to let people know that. If you’re an active Mormon–really living the Gospel to the best of your ability–then you will be doing some things that normal people don’t do. You will also not be doing some things that normal people do do.When people ask why you are or aren’t doing something, tell them. If they have questions, answer them.

It’s that easy.

But instead of that personalized approach, I feel like [an] approach [sometimes] preached in the church* comes down to a certain scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, a monologue by Alec Baldwin. (I’d link it here, but it’s got some harsh language, and the irony of having an f-bomb laced tired in the middle of a post about sharing the gospel would not be lost on me. But it’s very famous, and it’s a fantastic piece of acting and film.) Baldwin plays a high-powered salesman come to encourage some minions to be better at selling. The top two salesmen for the month will be given prizes. Everyone else will be fired. They’re all encouraged to ABC–“Always Be Closing”. Here’s a snippet that’s clean:

This is not how sharing the gospel is supposed to be. The Gospel isn’t something you shill on QVC. It isn’t something you have to ram down people’s throats. It’s something that’s supposed to be making you genuinely happier on a day to day basis. Something that improves your life and brings you comfort and peace. That’s what it does for me. I’m happy to share that with others if they want to hear about it. Why wouldn’t I be?

Anyway. My main point is that I feel like Mormons should be encouraged to share the Gospel, but the how should be up to them, just like with many things in the church. (I wrote an extensive piece on this idea about four years ago–it’s really good stuff, if I do say so myself. Check it out.)

What are your thoughts, Mormons? Do you see this same sort of thing happen? It’s not really like that in my current ward, but it’s been like that in a lot of other wards I’ve lived in in the past. How do you share the Gospel, and what are your feelings about it? (And if for some reason you’re not a Mormon and have still read all the way to the bottom of this post, congratulations. Also, do you have experience with Mormons who wanted to talk about religion with you? Would you care to share an outsider’s perspective? I’d love to read it–just keep things civil.)

*NOTE–I realized after I posted this that I’d used some wording that made it sound like this post was directed at all church missionary work. Not my intent, and I’ve tweaked a few words to reflect that.

Newsflash: You Can’t Go Back to the Past

I suppose this should have been something that was obvious to me, but it wasn’t. Ever since I left Germany when I was a missionary, I’ve wanted to go back. Wanted to return and check out the cities where I lived and worked. I would go to Google Maps from time to time to scope out old haunts and remember the good times I had there. (Surprising how quickly one forgets the bad times–at least how quickly I do.) Denisa and I would go to Slovakia every three years, and each year we went, I’d try to figure out a way to get over to Germany. Prague is only about  2 hours from where I was a missionary, after all–and I’d been to Prague twice.

But it never worked out. We didn’t have the time, we couldn’t afford it–there was always a reason it didn’t come together. And each time I couldn’t go, the desire to make it there only grew. This time, when we looked at our finances and realized we could swing a Christmas trip to Europe–I was Going To Go.

And so we went.

Actually being back in my mission was a far different experience than I’d expected. It first hit me in Schwarzenberg, the first city I had lived in. My apartment had been torn down. That was somehow very unsettling, and a sign of things to come. The city was the same in many ways, but I was different in many more. I have a family now. I was showing TRC all the places I’d done things, telling him about what it had been like. The last time I’d been there (15 years ago now–am I really that old?), I’d been 19. Single. Struggling to understand this strange dialect of German they spoke in the Erzgebirge.

Life had moved on in Schwarzenberg, just as it had for me. I know this should have been a no brainer, but somehow, it took me actually being there to realize it.

The same experience held true in my other cities. Leipzig. Gotha. Weimar. All of them were the same in many ways, but because I had changed, they had changed. I had anticipated being back in my mission would be some sort of dream-like experience, full of magic and memories. (So sue me.) I discovered it was like any dream: very different in real life.

And as I went to those other cities, I realized that what I had been missing–remembering–all those years wasn’t the places. Well, not entirely. Yes, I’d missed the food and the language and the country and the cities. But what I really wanted to recapture was the whole experience. That time period in my life.

And that’s something you don’t get back.

I know this is turning into a pretty mopey post, and I’m sorry about that. Don’t get the idea that I didn’t have a fun time being back in my mission, because I had a blast. It meant a lot to me to be able to share it with my family. To show them the places. I think it was great for TRC especially, to be able to connect to this event in my life in a much more tangible way. My mission was one of the best things I ever did. It helped me grow in so many ways, and I hope TRC gets to do the same thing.

Would it have been different if I’d been able to meet up with some of the people I had taught or interacted with back then? Maybe. I do wish I’d had time. But even then, I tend to think I would have soon discovered the people were just like the cities. Different. Changed.

And that’s okay. I’m different. I’ve changed. It’s only fair they get the same right.

The bottom line is that I’m cured from wanting to go back to my past. At least for now. I had a lovely time being in Germany again. The food hadn’t changed a bit, and I wish I could open up a local Doner Kebab place in my hometown now. I’d gladly go back to Germany again, but at the same time, there are plenty of other places I’d like to travel still. Italy. Spain. China. Mexico. Who knows? You live in the present and enjoy it as much as you can, because that’s the only shot you have at it.

I’d like to think that when we die, we’re able to return to the past in some way–to relive the moments we’d like to. Then again, I wonder . . . If we choose to try and relive too much of our past, doesn’t that detract from our present? Right now, my kids are just that–kids. There will come a time–I know this–when I will look back on these days with the same nostalgia I look back on my mission. And I will want to return here, and I won’t be able to.

TRC still likes holding my hand. That will last how much longer? A year? Already I can tell he’s beginning to get self-conscious about it, and each time he reaches for my hand, part of me wonders if that will be the last time. I try to enjoy each time.

Because if you don’t do that . . . you might end up like Uncle Rico.

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