10 years ago today I left to become a full time missionary for the LDS church. In doing so I left behind home, family and my teenage sweetheart Tamara for a 2 year period in which I was allowed to communicate with them once a week by post and twice a year by telephone. No Skype. No visits.
I did it out of a conviction that I had an ultimate truth to share with others, and a strong sense of duty. I had spent most of my youth preparing for a mission, in serious daily scripture study and my best adherence to extreme moral standards. I had already had the experience of teaching and baptizing my best friend a couple of years earlier, who by no small coincidence happened to embark on his mission on the same date, thus we ended up spending a couple of weeks in training together.
Going out as a 19yr old, I expected to be part of a prophetic movement, having been promised that if I had faith and was obedient, I could take the Mormon message to many people and help them convert.
My first 6 weeks of service were a crucible. Every day I awoke homesick and depressed, desperately wanting to return to the arms of my fiancée. Several times, I noted dates in my agenda for the near future that I expected and hoped to be flying home. The chimney stacks and smog of the north-eastern town that I was in, worsened my prospects. However, I worked through it and began to find an incredible inner strength. I believed this to be God’s blessing and I distinctly remember the pure joy of freewheeling down the hill on my bike each evening to those September sunsets, feeling full of spirit and satisfaction that I had achieved something good.
This was a formative time that I remain appreciative of to this day. It taught me beyond anything previously that I could do something hard, even seemingly impossible. It also made me into a hard-core, by-the-book missionary for the majority of the rest of my mission.
I had some measurable success relative to where I was stationed. Some baptisms, re-activations and a lot of time in leadership roles. I felt like I was making a difference and that my sacrifice of home life was being rewarded for the most part. I never had a moment without home/lovesickness.
So, what did I learn from it all? Actually, some pretty unexpected things (for me): Contrary to my belief (I called it “knowledge”) that the church I represented was the most true religion on earth with a watertight theology and an exclusive level of access to the “Holy Ghost” (a concept shared by most orthodox Mormons, especially at that time), I found that I was encountering people of all kinds of religions and backgrounds who obviously felt equally guided to and convinced of their own particular faith, by God.
It began to become clear to me that my religious superiority was unfounded, and I had no grounds to claim that my book of scripture or theological viewpoint was somehow more authoritative than others. This worried me a lot in the final stages of my mission and I resolved to look into it deeper when I eventually got home.
After returning on August 3rd 2007, I began thorough research into science and philosophy and also revisited the history of Mormonism. After blood, sweat and tears, I eventually came to accept a far less restrictive view of reality based in rationalism/agnosticism.
What has surprised me most on the road I have traveled since, is that I can feel and experience spirituality in greater measure outside the church than even when I was a committed missionary (a claim that is generally denied to be possible within Mormon orthodoxy, and would be deemed a lie or misconception at the least). I had wondrous experiences then and beforehand, faith affirming and visionary - and yet these have been transcended by my experiences since leaving Mormonism, despite the fact that I emphatically reject the concept of a god.
My conclusion, and message to any reading this who might now be contemplating missionary service in the LDS church: You may discover the world isn’t as black and white as you possibly have understood from listening to and studying the words of church leadership up to this point. You could discover some rather unexpected things on your journey.
There is much to be enjoyed and appreciated during the, let’s face it, rather unique experience of an LDS mission, but don’t think for a moment that it’s part of a formula with a set outcome. If you go, make sure you really study beforehand. Those you talk to will have Google at their fingertips so be fully aware of the facts of church history, have a good understanding of science and get to know a bit about other faiths and cultures beforehand. I had done a lot of this before my mission but was still taken aback when reality presented itself.
If you think you have a true message to share that will bring joy to people’s lives, by all means go! But do it with open eyes and be street savvy. Check your facts and you’ll avoid coming across as ignorant or naïve. Don’t suppose your message gives you superiority over people that you interact with.
Above all, despite whatever the mission number oriented goals are, don’t let the pursuit of statistics rob you and those around you of the opportunity to give no-strings-attached charitable service. The biggest regret of my mission is that I was blinded to real charity by a rigorous program of targets and goals, and always had the truth-pushing agenda in the back of my mind during any personal encounter that I had.
Here’s to another decade of (personal) discovery.
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation.” – J. Reuben Clark (Apostle)
“Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” — Matt 5:41