I’d like to teach 5 lessons I learned on my mission. I promise these aren’t the only things I learned in a year and a half, but these are a few of the outstanding highlights, and they became principles that I’ve based a lot of my life around.
1. God won’t waste our efforts.
Many times, we feel like what we’re doing is small and insignificant. But if we’re really looking for God’s help, and trying to follow His Spirit, we won’t be led to do pointless things that waste our time. When I was serving in Jersey City, one of our members introduced us to his friend Joanne. She seemed interested to learn more, and gave us her phone number. A few days later, I found her number in the phone and texted her to see if we could set up an appointment. She said she’d be happy to meet, but she’d be busy for a week or so. After playing phone tag for about 2 weeks, we finally arranged to meet at a park. We arranged to bring our friend Omar with us, because he was a recent convert to the Church, about her age, and he might be able to answer some of her questions better than we could.
We waited at the park for about 15 minutes before we saw a car drive up. A young woman about my age got out, waved to us, and started across the parking lot. We smiled and waved back cheerfully, then leaned over to Omar and said, “That’s not her.” As it became obvious she was headed our way, we decided to play it cool. She introduced herself as Joanna. We said, “This is Omar, and we’re the Sister Missionaries.” We then very casually added, “So how did you first meet the missionaries?”
Turns out, she’d been meeting Elders off and on for a few years, and she’d just lost contact for a year or so. We talked about the gospel and the questions she had about God, and she said she’d love to meet with us, except that she was going to Georgia the next week, and she was going to be there for 3 months.
So, when we got home, we banged our heads against the wall and prayed that her flight to Georgia would be cancelled, and then (a little more realistically) sorted through the Area Book for Joanna’s old teaching record. We put a little sticky-note on it that said something to the effect of, “She’ll be back (this month.) Go teach her!” and then we put her record in the front of the book, where it would be more noticeable. And then we got replaced by Elders a month later, and never heard from her again.
About half a year after that, I got news from an Elder in Jersey City that Joanna had been baptized, and that she was a strong, faithful member of the Church. The Elders had found her record, gotten in contact, and she had taken to the gospel with a fire! I still don’t know what happened to the original Joanne (we never did find her number,) but I know God led us to the wrong number because he knew that Joanna needed His attention – and that maybe those Elders would need a gentle reminder and a sticky-note 3 months later.
2. Excuses – however valid – are never impressive.
When I got to my second area (Barnegat,) it was clear that the members didn’t expect us to accomplish much. I don’t think this was because they doubted our intentions; it was more a matter of statistics to them. Historically speaking, there hadn’t been many baptisms lately. On top of this, several members didn’t want to bring new people into the branch because there were several branch members who didn’t get along, and they didn’t want to present the image that Mormons are contentious people. They assured us that it wasn’t our fault, and we shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves if we didn’t see a lot of success.
There’s a scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 6:34 that reads:
“Therefore, fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail.”
Sister Samuel and I decided that no matter what we came up against in that area, God had called us there for a reason, and it wasn’t just to mark off days on the calendar. We made a promise – to God, to ourselves, and to our members – that we were going to be obedient to every mission rule, and work harder than we’d ever worked in our lives. If we did fail in that area, we wanted it to be abundantly clear that it wasn’t due to our lack of effort.
It was really hard. We only had a handful of strong members, and finding team-ups to come teaching with us wasn’t easy. We also had a strict limit on the number of miles we could use the car – and when we printed out the map of our area, it covered our entire living room floor. Even though this was a rule that had been overlooked in the past, we decided that if we wanted to see success, God would have to see that we were serious about this. We figured out the miles we could use on a weekly basis, and started using the bus as frequently as our budget would allow. After a few months, a member offered to give us two women’s bikes for free, and we started biking as well.
I felt really bad when I started training a new companion. Sister Barrett was from Alaska; she was tough, down-to-earth, and never complained. I was accustomed to working at an insane pace. Within a week, her feet were bleeding, and within a month, she got heat stroke. Fortunately for me, she understood the vision Sister Samuel and I had, and the vision Sister Black and I had, and she got herself a gallon jug of water the next day and said, “Are we biking or walking?”
The crazy thing is that we did see success, and we started surprising the members there. I had 3 baptisms there – 1 while I was there, and 2 shortly after I left the area. And it took 8 months to set that precedent, but when we left, the members knew it was possible, and the Elders who took our place knew they were in a good area for missionary work.
3. Never give up!
This is a similar principle to the “no excuses” principle, and I learned it from many of the same experiences. The Lord will never ask us to do something for no reason, and if He wants us to stop trying, He’ll tell us. This principle also applies to prayer – if you haven’t received an answer, keep praying. Revelation doesn’t usually come at one explosive moment; it requires a lot of time and effort, and sometimes we don’t even realize when they’re answered. But if we keep praying and keep following the small promptings we get, we’ll see the answer come in time.
There’s a fantastic scripture in Luke that illustrates this principle. Luke 18:1-7:
1. And he (Jesus) spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
2. Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man;
3. And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversaty.
4. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
5. Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
6. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.
7. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
Even a stranger will answer our questions when we nag them enough – why would a loving God refuse to give us the answers we’re looking for?
Story time! In Barnegat, we were teaching a couple named Kevin and Becky. Becky had been raised in the Church and drifted away; Kevin had been a Baptist minister before he had also drifted away. As we taught them, Kevin told us he respected everything we were teaching, but he couldn’t ever see himself accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture. We shared with him the promise found in the introduction to the book – that those who read, ponder, and pray about the book faithfully “will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
Kevin and Becky made one of the best compromises I’ve ever seen: she would read the Bible with him every morning if he would read the Book of Mormon with her every night. (Greatest. Couple. Ever.) We didn’t get to see them very often (because we had to ride the bus 40 minutes to get there,) but we called them frequently to ask how their reading was doing. After a few months, they were nearly through the Book of Mormon and Kevin bore solid testimony of the divinity of the book. He gained this testimony so gradually he couldn’t tell us when it came – but he’d been reading and praying about it daily, and it came through his consistent effort.
4. The Lord calls the unqualified.
In some cases, He calls the miserably under-qualified. I can’t think of the last time I’ve received a church calling and thought to myself, “Oh, good. That fits my resume perfectly! God is a teacher, not an employer. When He asks us to do something, He’s not thinking of what we already know; He’s thinking of what we’re going to learn from it. And I believe that one of the reasons God calls missionaries at such a young age is because He knows we’re inexperienced, and He knows we’ll spend more time on our knees, begging for His help.
5. You are never alone.
The best thing is that when we’re on our knees, He is always there. The Lord understands that we can’t do it on our own, and He doesn’t ask us to. How many times do we read in the scriptures, “Ask, and ye shall receive”? (I don’t know the exact count, but it’s a whole bunch.) And no matter how miserably unqualified we may be, or how weak or imperfect or flawed we may feel, the Lord is always reaching out for us.
There is a man in Jersey City who ranks as one of my favorite people of all time. His name is Giovanni, and he spent most of his life thinking that God hated him – that somehow, his life was like some kind of practical joke to God, and the horrible things that had happened to him were all God’s fault. As we taught Giovanni, something in him changed as he started praying sincerely to know whether God loved him. In time, Gio began to realize that God trusted him enough to give him challenges that would be horrible to face – but as he reached out for the Lord’s hand, the Lord pulled him up, dusted him off, and set him straight again.
In Doctrine and Covenants 18:10, the Lord says, “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” No matter who we are, or what we’ve been through, or what we’ve done, our Father in Heaven still loves us, and still wants us back. And the Savior who begged that His Father would forgive the men who crucified Him – that is our Savior. He will never stop reaching out to us. He will never leave us alone. I know He lives, and I will forever be grateful for His sacrifice for me, and for all of us. ◊