The following is a prompt from President Mehr to me, on my request two weeks ago, and my answer back to him.
Write about your personal feelings and the testimony that you have gained. Reflect back and ponder on all the lessons and doctrines and impressions of the spirit that you had. Organize it in some kind of narrative and then write that to me.
The decision to come out on a mission for me was not terribly difficult. When people ask me if I choose to come here or if I was forced to, I reply that, as the youngest of three sons in the family, I watched one brother leave for two years, and I watched the other choose not to. I tell them that I saw the differences in their lives, saw what one had and the other didn't and chose where I wanted to be. What I said was true, but it was also incomplete. To be perfectly honest, I never really had to ask myself if I would go on a mission or not. I knew that it was expected of me, and I felt no reason not to, so I went. During a recent zone conference tour, Sister Mehr shared a story-I think she may have been talking about family history-about an ancestor who, while serving a mission, was beaten within an inch of his life and left to die. As she was speaking, I very clearly had the following thought- "You haven't made your great sacrifice yet. Your Abrahamic test is still in front of you. You're not ready to be among them yet." I was impressed by the thought, and have reflected on it since then. I spoke about that moment later with my district leader, who said "So, you've given up everything, and you left for two years to serve the Lord, and you feel like you haven't given enough yet?" Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure that for some young people, the decision to go on a mission is the greatest trial of their young lives. But not for me.
Why did I come? Well, I thought that the church was probably true. I mean, if any church was right, I felt confident that it had to be this one. Knowing if God was there was another question entirely, and one that I hadn't been making a very determined effort to have the answer to. Joseph Smith taught that one aspect of true and rational faith is a knowledge that the life you are leading is acceptable to God; if I were to apply that more directly, I would say that I didn't want to know if He was there, because I was sure that if He was, he would be very unhappy with me, and with some of the poor choices that I had made and was still making. So, I left for a mission with a sort of "this is probably the right thing to do" attitude.
I must say as well that, before coming on a mission, I was used to being the best and brightest without very much effort (in fact, one of the only things that didn't come easy was the piano, and so I begged my mom to let me stop for three years until she did), and so may have come on a mission with the intention of becoming important. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be unique.
The MTC was an important place for me-not because I learned to change my attitude; I was still the special child and reveled in it-but because after staying in such an environment for about a month, I finally had the courage and the faith to talk to someone, of my own free will, about my past mistakes. For the first time in about seven years, I felt free, worthy, and confident. It was an incredible and important change. I left feeling even more ready to take on the world, with a small part of my mind still feeling the desire to make a name for myself.
Then came my very first day in the field. I really couldn't tell you what happened that day, but I do remember kneeling (or falling) down that night in prayer. As I look back on it now, I realize that I was probably emotionally, spiritually and culturally whiplashed out of my mind, but at the time all that I knew was that I felt awful, and didn't really know why. In my heart, I could only cry out "Oh, my Father..." words failed, as I just let all of the weight and sorrow come to the front of my mind and be pushed out towards someone that I was pretty sure was there. I don't remember a single other thing that happened in that prayer, but I know that I was comforted. For the very first time, that night as I was falling asleep, I said to myself that maybe this prayer thing actually did do something.
The next four transfers were a period of becoming, as I left behind the pre-mission person that I had been, and sort of discovered who Elder Santos would be. The first thing that I noticed is that I was a happier person. I smiled more. I got over being an angsty, moody, mysterious teenager. I was more grateful. I really, sincerely, loved people. And so it was.
Then came the call that would change everything. As I was coming down to the end of my fourth transfer, you called, President. Actually, you probably don't remember this, but you first told me that I would be going to Martinique to be a zone leader with Elder Russell, and then you asked me to pass the phone to Elder Santos. Well, Santos and Sosa are close enough that I'm not surprised that you mixed us up, and it's still a story that makes me laugh to day. But no, you then told me that I was going down to French Guianne to be Zone leader and senior couple. Now, don't get me wrong, the assignment to serve in a leadership position and the learning opportunities that came with it were some of the most important elements of my mission. I wouldn't trade that for anything. With that said, that call only reinforced my subconscious desire to become important. I was still special. I was still a stand-out.
You probably also don't remember telling me, in my first interview with you after that call, that "I told the assistants that you are just...well, cocky isn't the word, but we'll say self-confident-just self-confident enough to not be overwhelmed by the calling". Well, it was something very close to that, if that's not word-for-word. You were right, but it was a close thing. Sometimes, looking back on those days, I think that I barely made it. A lesson that I have learned since then, both from you and from the Lord, is that the kingdom doesn't fail and the boat doesn't sink. It didn't, and it wouldn't have, but there were times when I myself was sinking. The challenges of working with a culturally different mini-missionary who was not used to mission rules and was not particularly interested in getting used to them within a month, coupled with two culturally different missionaries who were showing about the same attitude towards obedience in two years of mission life, really did get to me, a few times. What I learned from those early, difficult days was that sometimes, we don't see the answers come in a day, and sometimes we don't see them come at all. Sometimes we just have to live in the life that God has given us, and wait for Him to lighten the burdens on His own time. He does.
Life changed a lot when two new missionaries came in to the zone. I was happy, and I loved my companion a lot. That's huge. I will always look at this period of my mission as "the glory days", not because of any other factor than that we were united at home, and we worked hard outside. I think that everything else, I can live with, if I can be happy at home with the people that matter the most.
Listening to the sincere, humble questions of a young missionary soul, and asking these same questions myself, led me to learn a great deal about revelation and the gift of the Holy Ghost at this time. It was here that I adopted the motto-"If you feel like you should, do it. If you feel like you shouldn't, don't". It was my simple way of expressing that the Holy Ghost simply is there, if we're being good boys, and that even if I don't always recognize Him speaking to us, sincere and honest introspection usually puts us in the right place. I'm fully aware that this is a theory that will not at all lead the natural man to God, and very often will accomplish the contrary, but for those who are humbly striving to live good lives and receive spiritual direction, I'm convinced that it's an important formula for success.
December brought a big learning opportunity as I was allowed to come to Trinidad for a leadership conference. The thing that I will always remember the most from those few days was the chance that we had to speak privately. It was in that conversation, and as I've thought about it since, that I have really realized the full, liberating, and sometimes terrifying meaning of agency and accountability. We truly are free. We truly do just what we want to do. We truly will suffer the consequences of our desires and our actions, whatever they have been. I weight of responsibility seemed to rest on my shoulders, as I realized just what it means to be free to act, and not to be acted upon.
That is the very realization that lead to a period of my life in which I learned some very important lessons about the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I have felt myself in painful, agonizing combats in which I seemed to have put myself in chains through my past choices. In those moments of distress and despair, I have cried out to God and asked for Him to do for me just that part that I could not do for myself. And I have received power. I can never deny that. I know, from personal experience, that the Atonement of Jesus Christ allows us to change, to do more than we could on our own, and to become something that may be out of our reach, but that is not out of His. I must, and I feel personally responsable to testify that Christ is both willing and able to heal us. In fact, I think that there's nothing that He desires more. What we can and cannot do is, in fact, irrelevant, when we are in the service of the Lord. And so, I will always be on the Lord's errand, for then I will always be entitled to His help.
I'm out of time, so I'll have to stop here. I guess I wasn't going to finish the story in any case-it's not over yet!
I love you, President. I'll see you soon.
I love you guys too. à bientôt,