Mission Experiences, Both Good and Difficult

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Bruce Hafen

New missionaries may discover a jarring sense of distance between the real and the ideal as they move from the "pre-existence" of the Missionary Training Center to the "mortality" of daily life in an assigned field of labor.

I vividly recall my feelings of overwhelming discouragement during my first few weeks as a missionary in a foreign country. I had studied the language in college, but hearing the "natives" speak their mother tongue initially sounded in my ears as so much gibberish; I understood virtually nothing and was literally speechless for the first time I could remember. And even after the language began to make sense, I repeatedly fought back the tears of disappointment when in other dimensions of missionary service, the promised fruits of a "positive mental attitude" seemed frequently to elude me.

I recall, for instance, my combined feeling of disbelief and pain the night we dropped off a newly baptized couple in front of their apartment, then after turning around down the block and driving past their apartment going the other way, our headlights illuminated the image of the new convert—his hair still wet from the baptism—lighting up a cigarette just outside his front door.

There is a kind of poignancy in those moments when we first discover that there might be some limitations to the idea that you can do anything you make up your mind to do.

Experiences such as these can produce confusion and uncertainty—and we may yearn with nostalgia for simpler, easier times, when life seemed not only more clear but more under our control. We might sense within ourselves the beginnings of skepticism, of criticism, of unwillingness to respond to authority or to invitations to commit ourselves to high-sounding goals or projects that are not very realistic. (p. 56-57).

(BUT, ON THE OTHER HAND)

I once had an experience that taught me a great lesson about the way a highly developed tolerance for "being realistic" can inhibit the workings of the Spirit in our lives.

When I had been on my mission in Germany about a year, I was assigned to work with a brand new missionary named Elder Keeler, who had just arrived fresh from converting, so he thought, all the stewardesses on the plane from New York to Frankfurt. Within a few days of his arrival, I was called to a meeting in another city and had to leave him to work in our city with another inexperienced missionary whose companion went with me. I returned late that night.

The next morning I asked him how his day had gone. He broke into an enthusiastic smile and said he had found a family who would surely join the Church. In our mission, it was rare to see anyone join the Church, let alone a whole family. I asked for more details, but in his excitement he had forgotten to write down either the name or the address. All he could remember was that the family lived on the top floor of a big apartment house.

"Oh, that's great," I thought to myself as I contemplated all those flights of stairs. He also explained that he knew so little German that he had exchanged but a few words with the woman who answered the door. But he did think she wanted us to come back—and he wanted to go find her and have me talk to her that very minute.

I explained that the people who don't slam the door in our faces do not necessarily intend to join the Church. But off we went to find her, mostly to humor him. He couldn't remember the right street, either, so we picked a likely spot and began climbing up and down those endless polished staircases.

After a frustrating hour, I decided I had to level with him. Based on my many months of experience, I said, it was simply not worth our time to try any longer to find her. I had developed a tolerance for the realities of missionary work and simply knew more than he did about it. His eyes filled with tears and his lower lip began to tremble. "Elder Hafen," he said, "I came on my mission to find the honest in heart. The Spirit told me that that woman will someday be a member of the Church."

So I decided to teach him a lesson. I raced him up one staircase after another until he was ready to drop, and so was I. "Elder Keeler," I asked, "had enough?" "No," he said. "We've got to find her." I began to smolder. I decided to work him until he begged to stop—then maybe he would get the message. Finally at the top of a long flight of stairs, we found the apartment. She came to the door. He thrashed my ribs with his elbow, and whispered loudly, "That's her, Elder. That's the one. Talk to her!"

Not long ago, that woman, her husband, and two of their five children were in our home. They had come from Germany to pick up their son, who had just completed a mission in northern Utah. Their oldest daughter has served a mission in northern Germany, the woman has been a Relief Society president, and her husband has been a bishop. We enjoyed a long, refreshing visit with them, recalling our memories of their conversion experience and sharing our experiences in the Church over the course of twenty years.

That experience is a lesson I can never forget about the limitations of skepticism that comes with learning and experience. I hope that I will never be so aware of "reality" that I am unresponsive to the whisperings of heaven. (p. 67)

Bruce Hafen - The Believing Heart