Going on a Mission!

So I am going on an LDS mission. For real.

There are lots of reasons this is a crazy idea, in fact no one could think it’s crazier or be more incredulous than I have been about the whole thing.

Let’s start with the fact that I’m old – it’s not normal for 27 year-olds to do this. I’m about to go out and spend ALL my time with 19 year-old girls. Literally my only moments of solitude will be in the bathroom, which might just be the best argument I’ve ever heard for gagging down gallons of water. I am about to be the most hydrated human on the planet. If that doesn’t solidify my reputation as the old weirdo…I’m pretty sure these kids think One Direction is passé, so the fact that I still listen to the Backstreet Boys locks in my freak status. Thankfully we probably won’t be talking about music all that much, except the hymns, and since everyone loves MoTab I’m sure we can have good bonding experiences that way.

The fact that I might have a fair amount of interaction with the male missionaries (18 year-old boys) is more worrisome as I didn’t click well with them even when I was 18 myself. Anyone know any 18 year-olds I can practice with? Or anyone willing to teach me how to be cool and fun?

In addition to not being the right age, I may not be as supremely spiritual or exuberantly obedient as missionaries ought to be either. As of about four months ago I hadn’t been to a full three hours of church in years – Sunday School was optional, Relief Society was so not as appealing as a nap. Now I’m teaching Sunday School and I’ve signed up for all day, every day church for 18 months. And wearing a skirt or a dress…not ever in my life have I found a way to be comfortable or enjoy that. I’m crossing my fingers church leaders get a major dress code revelation in the next month or two….I’d be happy with the inclusion of business-like pantsuits but boy would I have a testimony of the blessings of nice jeans.

Crazier still I have to leave important relationships for 18 months. I’ll get to Skype home on Christmas and Mother’s Day, and I can write letters or emails, but here’s the problem….cats can’t read and mine probably wouldn’t do Skype. Finding them a new home and knowing I’ll miss out on watching their little catonalties develop might just be the hardest part of this whole thing.

Add to all that the fact that when I come home I’ll be even older but with no job, no house, no car, no college degree, and as my mom reminded me when I listed off all these things, no husband!

So I’ve got some work to do… lots of life to dismantle, sell off, or put on hold. And not even the application process has been smooth or typical. These days when mission papers are submitted it’s reasonable to expect to receive the call (the letter with the date of departure and location of service) within two weeks. If mine arrives the week of September 7th, which is the earliest possible week at this point, that will have been five weeks.

You might be thinking they are having a hard time figuring out what to do with someone who has accrued a little baggage in the years that have passed since her prime. And you might be right. One day as I was wondering why things were taking so long, an image popped into my head of some elderly church worker-types singing about me in their cubicles, “How do we solve a problem like Sister West?” with lyrics like:

She got a tattoo, medications to make do, she seems a little worn.
 What is her deal? She’s really old, just look when she was born.
 I hate to have to say it, but I very firmly feel…she’s really not an asset to a mission.

Thankfully, they haven’t given up on me. My application spent several weeks clearing the medical review and yesterday I discovered that my application is awaiting review by the tattoo review committee. Yes, indeed there is a tattoo review committee! I think it might be worth the extra delay in getting my call just to know that such a committee exists. Had I known that a picture of my waist would be displayed on a big screen in front of such a committee, I probably would have had a professional help me take it, maybe even done a little touch-up, rather than snapping a quick selfie with my iPhone. I did, however, ensure that my underwear was not visible in said picture so I do feel good about that.

Anyway, the point of all that is to say that I am not unaware of all the reasons this decision might be a little crazy. I’ve been consistently reminded of the complications throughout the process so far. And I’m doing it anyway.

As I’ve told people that I’m going I’ve gotten a variety of reactions, every single one including a degree of astonishment. Several people, in the most flattering ways, have said things like, “You know missions are hard right?” Well the answer is yes, I know missions are hard. I’m certainly not doing this because I thought 18 months of wearing a skirt walking around who-knows-where with who-knows-who sounded like a nice vacation. And while I recognize that I can’t truly anticipate the kind of hard that lies ahead, I feel confident that I can do hard.

I haven’t done harder things than anyone else, I’m not good at hard things, and I generally have an intense aversion to hard things. But I have done things that felt impossibly hard for me. In dealing with depression over the course of about eight years, getting so low that I didn’t feel I could go on for one more day, didn’t really want to, and almost didn’t…the perspective I gained through that process is a good part of what is driving my decision. I believe that hard things work out in the end and that there are benefits that come from hard things which don’t come any other way.

I don’t feel like I’ve received a revelation or miraculous sign indicating that I’msupposed to go on a mission. I don’t believe that not going on a mission would be abad choice or that my life would go in any sort of wrong direction if I kept right on working and living my lovely, regular life. But I do feel like the idea of going on a mission, as it kept coming up, was divinely suggested as a real opportunity to do a hard thing and reap unique benefits.

Of course there are lots of experiences that can bring blessings, and even though I think this experience offers unique blessings for me, the main focus of a mission is not oneself, it’s other people. Some might say the focus is recruiting as many people as possible, successful door-to-door sales, though the way I like to think about it is that I’ll be spending my time trying to help people find happiness, and I do believe my religion is a vehicle that can do that.

To be clear I don’t believe it’s impossible to be happy without the gospel as defined by Mormons. I don’t believe being a member of the LDS church makes life easy. I don’t believe there is a formula to finding faith. I don’t believe that every person I will talk to on my mission absolutely needs to hear what I might have to say. Religion doesn’t heal depression, it doesn’t numb pain, it doesn’t cause hard things to disappear. There is a lot about life and happiness and religion (LDS or not) that I don’t know and I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I think I have all the answers.

What I know is my own experience. I have experienced what I consider to be a miraculous change due, in no small part, to becoming re-engaged in my faith. I hesitate to share the story of how I’ve arrived at this ‘religious revival’ because it’s long, and personal enough that posting it here is really uncomfortable. But, I am of course about to go talk to complete strangers about stuff like this for 18 months, so partly by way of explanation, and partly for my own practice, I want to at least summarize the process of how I got here.

For anyone who doesn’t want to read the long story, churchy you can stop now – the gist is that the gospel has brought me happiness and I think it can do the same for others.  For anyone who wants to read the rest, I just want to make it clear that I’m not an over-zealous church freak. Well, if you thought I was one before then I probably still am – the point is I’m not a completely different person. 

I maybe refer to this too often, but dealing with depression was such a significantly life-altering endeavor that it has played a role in shaping just about every facet of my life, and religion is no exception. I was a fairly committed, active member of the church through high school and the beginning of college, though I consider it largely an association of ease and convenience without much underlying conviction. But when the depression started to take hold I lost all sense of emotional stability.

For me there are two important pieces to faith – the intellectual and the emotional (spiritual), one without the other is not enough, so when all-things-emotional went haywire, my intellectual commitment and interest in the church quickly diminished and ultimately vanished. I had lots of doubts, disillusionments, and downright disagreements with various policies and actions taken by the church – and I couldn’t find a spiritual connection with God or with anything religious.

I did a lot of things I wasn’t proud of that were contrary to the teachings of the church or were just plain bad things to do. The feelings I was able to identify and relate to religion were all bad – lots of guilt and shame, isolation from a God that almost everyone I knew believed in, and a seriously large absence of any of the comfort or peace I had always been told was available through my religion. In one moment of despair I remember laying on my bed pleading for help – I didn’t know what kind of help I needed or how help could possibly come but in what felt like my most desperate hour of need I expected the Heavenly Father I had assumed was there to provide some relief, and I found none.

 It was terribly discouraging and heart-breaking, but I continued to make efforts to re-engage off and on over the years. There were a few positive experiences during that time – the organization of the church itself was a real blessing for me. Callings forced me to spend time focused on other people, and even simply kept social outlets open when depression decimated most of regular my social life. But I never felt like I found the consistent connection I wanted. I felt like a failure and I felt excluded from something that was so important to most of my close friends and family members.

So I quit altogether. I focused solely on the disagreements I had and the pain I associated with the church – I decided to let it go because whatever this religion thing was that worked for other people, clearly it wasn’t going to work for me. That decision brought a certain amount of relief and I spent a good year being somewhat content with ignoring all things religious. I got all kinds of help for my depression and got to a good place where I felt stable and healthy and on the road to happiness.

Then I started to feel like maybe I ought to try “the church thing” again. It felt like the stakes were lower, I wasn’t in desperate need of aid and if I didn’t find what I was looking for I wouldn’t sink into a spiral of depression. I started to have conversations with people about religion, I started to explain where I had been and where I was at on the subject, and without any direct prodding or advice (which probably wouldn’t have been well-received) these people encouraged me to try this out again. And I did. I went down to Lake Powell alone to do some thinking and feeling on God and faith. No miraculous spiritual happenings occurred, no answers to life’s hard questions, but it felt good. I read a lot, learned a lot, introspected a lot, and wrote a lot about what I was thinking. So I came home and kept reading and thinking and tried praying and started to go to church a little. The more of the church stuff I did, the better I felt. The things I did believe started to become more clear, through new experiences as well as reflection on old experiences.

And that has been the process that has continued to work for me. I still have doubts and there are policies I have a hard time with, but I believe in the important stuff. I believe that I can find my own confirmation of truth, and I believe that not all truth comes at once. When I came to a belief that there is a God and that He loves me I did not immediately or automatically believe that He wanted me to pay tithing. Beliefs come, as one verse says, line upon line, precept upon precept, and in my experience, they come in different ways for different people.

But here’s what I believe: There is a God and He loves me. I can change and become better because of Jesus Christ, who I believe is my Savior. I believe the spirit I feel connects me emotionally and intellectually to them, and that through it I can receive guidance, comfort, understanding, and peace. The LDS Church is a vehicle by which I have changed and which helps me stay on the course to where I want to be. I believe the principles, the organization, and the associated rules of the church help me navigate a path to the most happiness. I believe that the inevitable hardships of life (depression and more) have a refining effect, and as a result of these beliefs I have found hope where I had none before.

The bottom line is that I have a testimony of the gospel and the way it can bless lives. I have been amazed at the positive change effected in my life through faith and the inherent hope of the gospel. By spending 18 months sharing my own experiences I hope to help at least a few people find the peace and happiness I have found.