I don’t really know how to start these messages – so much happens in a week that any summation like ‘things are going well’ seems so unbelievably insufficient. It’s kind of like looking at the overall arc or trend of a bunch of dots which, in actuality, are all over the place, with lots of extreme highs and lows. Drawing a line through the approximate middle just loses some of the reality I think, but, I suppose it’s important to know the trend and trajectory, which in this case is very positive. So there you go.
I had a bad cold this week, that was unpleasant and made things difficult for a few days, but the work goes on and there is no staying in or sleeping it off unless you’re on your deathbed, which I was not. I just tried not to touch people as we visited them and so far it doesn’t appear that I spread my germs to anyone else, not even my companion. So, if a cold can be considered successful in some sense, this one was.
There are a few interesting stories from the week though. The first is of a kid who I’ll call Alan, he just turned 16 and we’ve gotten to know him because we’ve met with his mom a few times (she hasn’t been active in years). At first he seemed to be a typical teenage boy in many ways, bad attitude, into video games, etc. and all the wonders of teenage life (hormones, identity issues, friend drama, etc.). But he has the added challenges of a really difficult home situation that I can’t really go into as well as drug/alcohol problems. He sat in on a conversation we were having with his mom about goals for this year and he mentioned that his goal for this year was sobriety, and he said it with complete sincerity. I’ve never met, that I’m aware of, a 16 year-old that had such a serious and difficult resolution for the upcoming year, but the four of us talked for awhile about how little daily things help us make progress toward our goals, even if we regress, forward progress is forward progress.
We ended up talking about prayer for a little while and when we asked him if he prayed much his mom immediately jumped in to say, "No, of course he doesn’t!" She didn’t say it in a mean way, it was more like she was saying, "He’s just a kid, and that’s not something we really do here, we’re not like you perfect types." But then he said that he DID pray sometimes, specifically he said he prayed whenever his mom had to work late and he knew she’d be driving home when she was exhausted. He said he prayed that she wouldn’t fall asleep and that she would make it home safely. And I was completely speechless. His mom was clearly surprised, but a very tough lady and quickly jumped in to tell a story of how she fell asleep behind the wheel once when she was a teenager and almost crashed. (See previous week’s message about survival stories). It was such a sweet thing for him to say, and to admit in front of his mom, and us really. We finished the conversation about prayer, both of us explaining how prayer is such a great tool we’ve been given, how it has been important for both of us personally, and encouraged them to use that tool more in their lives.
The next week Sister M. and I devised a plan to help save miles (we only get to use so many miles on our car every month – it’s not a lot and creativity is required to make it work) and this plan also was going to help motivate one of our investigators to come to church. But, to make the plan work we needed to leave our car at the church Saturday night and get a ride back to our apartment. So, we called Alan’s mom and the two of them very kindly agreed to pick us up and take us home (gas money and car reliability are both concerns for them so it was really generous of them to agree). Alan helped us carry our bags, and reiterated several times that we could call them if we ever needed rides, or anything, and warned us about various parts of Cleveland where we should NEVER go. Specifically ‘East Cleve’ – not the first time we’ve been warned about that, but it’s nowhere near our area so it’s not actually a concern for us. He even said if anyone ever gave us a hard time he and his dad would take care of things. Knowing his dad, and knowing Alan’s history, we quickly assured him that we were perfectly fine – we don’t want either in any more legal trouble than they are already in. You might think that maybe this teenager is trying to impress two older women with some kind of display of manliness or that he has ulterior motives. Or maybe you weren’t thinking that, and now you’re thinking the idea of a 16 year-old boy being at all into two sister missionaries like us is really laughable. Well, it is, and he definitely isn’t interested in us at all. Sister Missionary sex appeal isn’t a thing, and for good reason. He is just a good kid who was sincerely wanting to help us and make conversation, and I think I maybe found it even more impressive than I otherwise might have since he was smoking (is that the correct term?) his e-cig the entire time.
So none of that happened this week, but then we had Ward Council yesterday and we took a few minutes to talk to the Young Men President about Alan afterwards. We explained our recent interactions and how there seems to be a window of opportunity to help Alan go in a new direction, but that he probably needs some serious mentoring/help from some others, especially good male role models. His parents want him to go to church (they’ve made that clear) because they recognize how much trouble he is in and they want him to change, but they aren’t in a position themselves to really lead by example or help him the way he might need. His mom couldn’t come to church so his dad was supposed to bring him, but instead his dad spent the morning playing video games and was still intoxicated from the night before. Not exactly an ideal role model to help a teenage kid get sober.
Anyway, we spoke to the YM President, Brother R. and he thanked us for letting him know. His first reaction in fact was that he really appreciated and needed help from others to help him fill his role the way it needed to be filled, said not as an excuse but just as a statement of humility. It was my first real interaction with this man, and all I really know about him is that he joined the church in his 30’s maybe, was inactive for at least 20 years, but now fills this calling and participates in a major way despite his wife and grown children wanting nothing to do with the church at all. He told us that he had been a scout leader when Alan was younger, and he remembered being really worried about having Alan at camp due to all the medications and difficulties surrounding Alan and his life circumstances. He said he had been tough on Alan, along with the other boys, when they goofed off (as any scouts at camp will do) but that on the last day he had told Alan he was sorry if he’d seemed like a ‘crotchety old man’. Then with tears in his eyes he told us that Alan had responded, "It’s ok Brother R., we know you care about us." He explained how much that had meant to him, being a recently returned member, wondering if he was making a difference with the scouts at all or just being their babysitter and a nag. He thanked us again and told us he would do his best to reach out to Alan.
It occurs to me that maybe this story isn’t very exciting – if you were hoping it ended in a baptism or something then I apologize for getting your hopes up 🙂 But I’ve been thinking a lot about these two people and they have made me think about the following:
-I can and actually do believe there is happiness and change to be had in spite of difficult circumstances. There is certainly something to the hierarchy of needs – it’s hard for people to care about or find spiritual fulfillment if they have major obstacles to having their basic needs met. BUT – my understanding of how basic needs can be met has changed. I like to think I wasn’t as snobby or sheltered as I maybe ought to have been given my background and circumstances, but I most definitely still thought that there was something better about not being in a trailer or not being on disability or any number of other life circumstances that we encounter regularly here. Not that anyone in these circumstances would say no to opportunities to change those circumstances, having a good-paying job might be better than relying on disability payments. But it’s not the kind of better that matters. Goodness and happiness and peace and faith and love can all be found in places and in people who are surrounded by meanness and misery and chaos and despair.
-Openness is a requirement for any real change or progress or certainly for any spiritual experiences. Alan and Brother R. were both more open and vulnerable than I would have been in their situations. I probably wouldn’t have admitted I prayed in front of my mom, let alone that I prayed about her, unless I was using it to make myself look good or make her feel bad somehow. Those were not his motives, he was open and honest even though he might have seemed uncool and been criticized, and that comment opened up a conversation that was much more meaningful than if we had tried to preach about prayer. Brother R. apologized to teenage boys for simply trying to make them behave – I wouldn’t have done it. As a YW leader I remember feeling frustrated at not being listened to and I’m sure I had more than one ‘crotchety old man’ moment, but I never apologized. His apology lead to his feeling appreciated, which seems like such a counter-intuitive result.
Having a crusty exterior is a protection I employ very well, but I realize more and more how much of a barrier it is. It’s kind of like the difference between a chunk of marble and a chunk of clay -getting the beautiful sculpture out of the marble requires a lot of chipping, which can be painful, can lead to bigger pieces being removed than intended, more exposure in a less controlled way. On the other hand clay is softer so it’s easier for external forces to make an impression and mold the raw material. I’m not sure that analogy works quite the way I mean it, I just came up with it and don’t have time to revise, but the idea for me is that if I want to change and if I want to connect with people I need to be better at allowing impressions to be made. That of course applies to my relationships with the people here, and those are coming along nicely I think. It also applies to my relationship with God, something I will continue to work on, but also my relationship with Sis. M.
Hopefully she wouldn’t describe me as ‘organized’ if asked today, because I have made an effort to be more open, though I still have a long way to go there. It’s hard for me to remember that other people can only go on the words I actually speak, despite the fact that those are such a small and inadequate representation of all the stuff happening in my head. It’s kind of like the dot/arc idea I suppose. Sis. M, and others, really only see sporadic dots all over the place and draw their own conclusion about the trend. I’m working on either exposing more dots, or being more explicit about the trend. And it’s working, which is great!
Alright, so I’m almost out of time, again. One quick funny thing from Sis. K this week – we were talking to her about forgiveness and she ended up telling us all about her ‘temptations’ which are specifically related to men. She is sincerely worried about ‘relapsing’ when she ‘gets back out there’ despite the fact that it seems fairly unlikely that she will be leaving the rest home. She explained how she ‘tested out’ her husbands (and maybe others) before she married them (btw she is endowed and has been married in the temple at least once) and gave lots of her other details which I don’t need to share. It was really difficult not to laugh out loud at being talked to about ‘lovemaking’ as though we could empathize. I’m actually wondering if the full moon somehow brings up these feelings for people because we meet with several older single people (mostly women) and they all brought up something similar this last week.
Final thought…thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan (in Luke somewhere…) I think it’s interesting that we don’t really get such obvious opportunities to be good these days. I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t at least attempt to help a half-dead person on the side of the road, but we just don’t come across that much anymore. Being a good Samaritan requires a lot more searching I think, though I’m not sure exactly how you go about it. Too bad there isn’t a Facebook group for half-dead people laying on the sides of roads, or in similar circumstances, I bet googling something like ‘people who need help’ would return lots of results, but how meaningful and how actionable in reality I’m not sure.
Only one picture today – apparently two would exceed the maximum file size.
This is me in front of Lake Erie – not a great picture but the only one I have with the lake so far – it’s much colder than it looks. Also, the hat was made for me by one of the senior missionaries at the Visitors’ Center – a great Christmas present though I’m not sure it’s my color. Our area includes 15-20 miles of the Lake Erie coast.
Thanks again for the letters and prayers!