Subject lines are the bane of my existence

Next week we have transfers, which means things will get switched up, though one of the perks of being a VC missionary is that transfer possibilities are pretty easy to predict, at least to a degree. There are only 12 possible areas (7 Wards) where VC sisters serve, unless they get sent to ‘full proselyting’ areas, though that only happens when there is an excess of sisters or an odd number, which is not the case for this upcoming transfer. Of those 12 possible areas, several of them are always immune from transfer change-ups for various reasons, most often because a missionary is being trained there (meaning that companionship doesn’t change for at least twelve weeks). Then there are certain missionaries who are pretty likely to stay or move from a given area due to the length of time they’ve been there – for example, Sis. M is likely to get transferred next week because she’s been here (in Perry) for six months, and I am likely to stay because at least one missionary in every area needs to be familiar with the people, etc. So, with all that there are only about three or four missionaries who are likely to be transferred to where I am, and because we see all the VC sisters at least once a week, I know all of them at least somewhat and I am really happy to say that there aren’t any who I am worried about having as a companion. Sis. M and I have come a long way in the last month or so, and we’re in a pretty good rhythm but I think she’s ready to move on, and it feels like the right time. There is always at least one odd/unexpected move that happens every transfer, so technically anything is possible, but it’s very, very likely that I will be staying here with someone new. Next Monday we should have a pretty good idea of exactly who will be coming here and where Sis. M will be going.

So, in addition to the fact that I just like to reflect and look backwards, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on my training period with Sis. Morrison. The first little while was really, really rough – everyone told me that having a companion would be the hardest thing for me and at the beginning that was absolutely true. Sis. Morrison and I don’t have terribly compatible personalities, and being companions isn’t just like being co-workers who have to deal with those personality differences and get the work done. We have to get work done, live together, eat together, pray together, and form weird three-way relationships together. All relationships are between others (members, investigators, etc.) and ‘the Perry sisters’. Plus, the work we do is very, very personal in nature, it’s really impossible to separate the personal from the work (I know this because I tried). All that makes personality differences exceptionally difficult, to say nothing of the trainer/trainee dynamic which was much harder for me than I cared to admit. I didn’t make things easy on Sis. M, though my difficultness was largely unintentional, and she didn’t make my transition into real missionary life very easy, though that was completely the opposite of what she wanted. The point is, it was rough, but here we are after three months functioning at a pretty good level, I think. I feel I ought to say something about how I’ve learned that it’s possible to get along with and work well with anyone, and work through any problems if both people are determined enough to make it work, but I’m not actually that convinced. I definitely can say, however, that I’ve learned a lot from her, and even just as a result of her, much of which I hope I won’t have to learn again.

That brings me, I suppose, to the thing that I might consider to be the ‘theme’ of the week – that being humility. I see impressive examples of humility almost every day, and on the days I don’t see those I see examples of the opposite (hubris, arrogance, etc.). I don’t have a definition of humility handy, but if I were to define it myself I would say a humble person is one who doesn’t get in the way of goodness. Some people generate goodness themselves, but humble people facilitate goodness and facilitation goes much farther than generation. Facilitators can take goodness generated from all kinds of sources and spread it around to all kinds of people – their own concerns don’t get in the way. It’s possible the examples of humility strike me because it seems so counter-intuitive, but here are a few examples:

-Sis. Morrison – Every week as part of our weekly planning session we have ‘companionship inventory’ where we have to make individual and companionship goals, share a strength about the other person, and also share ways the other could improve. If it doesn’t sound completely awful I challenge you to try it with someone and then see how you feel. It’s awful. And I’m bad at it – both taking feedback and giving it is difficult for me. Sis. M on the other hand, when I’ve shared something that has been bothering me, has ALWAYS been extremely gracious, apologetic, and committed to try and change. She hasn’t been defensive or difficult or offended even once which I still am amazed at. There is nothing she could do that would make me want to try and improve myself more than how she handles this – I find humility to be pretty inspiring.

-Douglas – He is not someone who would think of himself as ‘humble’. This is a guy who, when he was in his 20’s, put someone in the hospital for not saying ‘Good Morning’. His life circumstances have forced him into humility and now, in his late 50’s, he’s having to work his way out of all kinds of terrible baggage. But he’s doing it! Alma talks about being filled with ‘great joy’ because the afflictions of the Zoramites had ‘truly humbled them’, which sounds kind of mean I think. But he was happy because their humility allowed them to be open to making changes which could lead them back to happiness that their rich brethren who ‘esteemed them as dross’ because of their poverty wouldn’t have. Addicts talk about this concept as having to hit ‘rock bottom’ – humility forced upon them. Douglas says this is his third time hitting rock bottom but this time he’s trying to stay down there for awhile to find the thing that’s really going to allow him to avoid hitting it again. He’s not trying to avoid the consequences of his actions and he’s focusing on trying to ‘piss off the devil’ (see quotes below).

-Leaders – We work with all kinds of church leaders in our area and in our mission, and without fail the ones who are the best are the ones who demonstrate humility. They’re not the smartest ones or the ones with the best ideas or the ones who can think outside the box (though many of them meet these descriptions too). They just magnify whatever seems to be good, or whatever the person in charge deems to be best, and are willing to jump in to help. We have three men in our Ward who have all volunteered (without being asked) to drive Douglas to and from community service every day just so he can avoid breaking the law by driving on a suspended license. Not only that, but one man in particular, who has been out of work for several months and has three kids at home, volunteered to drive him to AA or NA meetings several evenings a week, and even to take Douglas to Cleveland to see a doctor or counselor. (Not that it should matter at all, but I also think this is especially impressive because Douglas isn’t even committed to joining the church.) This man (Brother Ring) also volunteered to coordinate all of this with Douglas directly so we could focus on other work AND wanted to make sure it was okay that he was doing this because he didn’t want to step on our toes. WOW!

I’m going to stop talking about this now because I think it might be one of those things that I like thinking about but isn’t terribly exciting for other people to read. Bottom line is….humility. I want more of it for myself and for people around me because it just makes things better.

Some notable happenings for the week:

-Douglas told us that he "really pissed the devil off this week" for a variety of reasons. In one case his microwave broke this week, which was something that would have really set him off before since he doesn’t have the money to fix it, but instead he said, "The Devil is really trying me but he’s not going to get me!" And when he felt like drinking he told us he started reading the scriptures because he said he wanted to "read that temptation out of me!" He hasn’t had alcohol in a month, drugs, for five weeks, and coffee for six, plus he’s trying to avoid caffeine even though we told him that wasn’t necessary, he just thinks it’s a good idea. He’s still smoking but the Word of Wisdom really hasn’t been hard for him to believe or understand at all, which was unexpected.

The much, much trickier discussion was around obeying the law. I never could have imagined teaching someone who, of the various commandments we talk about, would have the hardest time with ‘Obey and Honor the Law’. The trick is that his license is suspended so it’s illegal for him to drive, but he has to do community service and he lives with his mom and sister, neither of whom are well enough to drive, so he has to get groceries, etc. for them and he lives beyond reasonable walking distance to any sort of store. But, Douglas committed to obey the law and trust that things would work out with this rides, etc. and now, because of Brother Ring and the others in the Ward, things are working out. Plus, when he went to court on Thursday he found out that he won’t actually have to do ANY jail time, which was completely unexpected. He told us on Friday and I was as visibly excited as I ever get, even almost got carried away and clapped my hands, while he just sat there stoically. I was thrilled though, I just love Douglas as much as it is possible to love someone to whom you are not related and have less than zero romantic interest in.

-Book of Mormon ‘Book Club’ – This is our second week doing this and it was a blast! We have a small group, by design, and they are all older women (between 65 and 80…my people!). A few are members, newer to the church or have been less-active, and one is an investigator. All we do is take turns reading a verse and then we pause when people have questions or comments or to clarify what’s going on. This week two women expressed great concern and confusion at how Nephi and his family traveled a great distance on a boat without ‘oranges and lemons’. Not sure why those two items of produce were focused on specifically but I am sure this is going to be a highlight of each and every week.

-Schizophrenic Fan Club – We went back to read the scriptures with our friend Hannah and ended up adding two new people to our scripture study group – Tia and Leslie. Tia doesn’t seem to be schizophrenic though it’s possible she’s just better about her medication, and Leslie….well Leslie we’re just not sure about. Is not all that clear whether Leslie is a man or a woman, though I think Leslie is a man who has had some surgery done but who can’t afford whatever hormone pills/treatment might help him lose some of his more masculine features. Regardless, he sat down across from me while Sis. M was talking with Tia and Hannah, and he ended up telling me how much he wanted to change, even starting to cry. When Hannah said it was okay that the other two join us, they immediately told us they had Bibles and asked if they should go get them right then, so eager to talk with us and be involved in something. We said a prayer before leaving (as we do every time we leave anywhere) and after Sis. M said ‘Amen’ Tia added ‘And thank you for the sisters coming to talk to us, Amen.’ Pretty sweet.

I had this weird epiphany in Ward Council yesterday, sitting with all these smart, capable leaders in the Ward as well as the Stake Presidency (they were there for Ward Conference), where I realized that I would rather be with the odd collection of people we’re working with (like Hannah, Tia and Leslie, or the heavy-smokers who make my clothes smell, etc.) than with these ‘normal’ Ward Council types. So strange, but definitely a good thing given where we spend most of our time.

-The Bigelows – My aunt Allison and uncle Sean came to Kirtland on Wednesday. They took us to lunch and we took them on a tour, which was fun. I really enjoyed getting to know them a little bit better and mostly enjoyed being reminded of various family members, especially my mom. I had forgotten how similar Allison and my mom look, and it definitely made a me a little homesick. As they were leaving one of the senior missionaries asked them how we did and Allison said, "They were great tour guides. She’s (gesturing to Sis. M) a little bit better though." Always a nice thing to hear from one’s relative, but she was completely right. I was nervous about the whole thing and ended up trying to avoid mentioning much of anything of a religious nature, which meant I ended up talking about a bunch of boring facts that I actually don’t really know as well as I should. But it was still nice to see them, and lunch was good. (Picture of three of us attached).

I think that’s it for today…sorry there wasn’t a lot to report. It was a busy week but I didn’t write much down and it’s hard to remember back more than a day or two.

Before I finish though, I did read something interesting today – 1 Cor. 11:31, a verse I’d never heard before. "For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged." I like the idea of constant self-correction and the potential to avoid correction from other sources, but also just appreciated the positive spin on checking ourselves and trying to change (aka repent). A little self-examination/criticism is a good, healthy, productive exercise.

Hope you’re all well. Thanks for the letters and prayers, as always. I pray for all of you as well, though I admit not all of you every day. I made a prayer list the other day and it’s got over 200 people on it, so I’m trying to come up with some kind of rotating schedule. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from all of you soon, especially those who are less-frequent communicators 🙂

PS – I could use some exercise suggestions, the current routine is getting pretty boring. Exercises must be doable in an apartment living room and not require too much exertion 🙂

Exhausted but content

Have I mentioned how exhausting it is to be worried about other people all the time? On the one hand it’s nice to realize that my own little worries are so pathetically small compared to the things others seem to be dealing with, but on the other, it’s tiring to feel the weight of those others’ needs and not to be able to fix them. With our own problems we can take action and have at least some degree of control, with others we don’t . Sometimes it feels a little like we’re standing looking at one of those machines on that show Wipeout, we’re looking for an opening to jump in and do something but the wheel keeps turning and we feel a little overwhelmed about where to start, and when we do jump, we often feel like we miss.
That said, the problem we have is a really good one – we’re working with too many people and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to help them all. Every week we report on our ‘key indicators’ – different numbers that tell our mission president and others what we’re doing, but also help us to measure the effectiveness of our efforts. Not that numbers are the end, but if we’re not meeting the goals we set for ourselves for these indicators, chances are we’re not using our time very effectively. Specifically, we track how many lessons we’re teaching each week, which includes lessons to members, recent converts, less-active members, and investigators. A ‘lesson’ is essentially defined as talking to someone about a gospel principal and extending an invitation of some kind – this could mean asking them to see us again, read something, pray, write something, etc. We’re teaching just over 20 lessons per week (on average) in our proselyting area and about 10 per week in our two days at the Visitors’ Center. Those lessons are divided up between about 40 people/families that we see (or try to) every two weeks, some more frequently.

That maybe doesn’t sound terribly overwhelming but the problem is that we kind of care about all of these people, and we really don’t meet with anyone that doesn’t have hard stuff going on and who we don’t worry about. They’re all on our minds all the time, we’re constantly trying to figure out what to talk with them about that might be helpful, if there’s anything we can do (last week we made mashed potatoes and several batches of brownies – making food is often the only thing we can come up with in the ‘doing’ category), or just what these people need to help them be happy. Constantly thinking about that is tiring and sometimes painful and often makes me feel inadequate.

For example, on Tuesday we got a call from a woman (Shakira – not her real name but not that far off either) who was working at some kind of facility. She said that a resident at that facility (Hannah) wanted someone to come and read the Bible with her so Shakira thought of us. We assumed that this facility was some kind of nursing home and that maybe the word was spreading about the two sister missionaries that frequent nursing homes, and maybe our singing prowess was even the thing that was getting people interested in seeing us (definitely not the case – see story below). Anyway, we showed up and discovered that this facility is a group home for people with mental illnesses. We sat down with Hannah who told us, as she rocked back and forth on her chair, that she wanted to read the Bible because she hears the devil barking in her head and she wants it to stop. Hmmm. I’d not ever talked with a schizophrenic before, that I’m aware of, so it was a really interesting hour. She was so sincere in wanting to understand what we were reading and talking about and even had a notebook to take notes – I think she was worried that if she didn’t pay enough attention we wouldn’t come back again. In fact when we asked if we could pray with her before we left she said, "If I tell you I’m Catholic are you not going to be able to come back and see me?" with such a worried/distressed look on her face that I could hardly stand it. We of course reassured her that we would be happy to come back again, and we will be going back tonight. As far as ‘indicators’ our time with Hannah will count as service, which is fine, and we’re happy to do it if it will help her, but it’s pretty hard to see how we can make any sort of lasting difference with Hannah.

That night Sis. Morrison and I spent a long time talking about how hard it is to be in positions like this. Even if I really make a concerted effort to seek out opportunities to help other people for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure I won’t ever be in a position to help so many people in a personal way ever again. Hannah, John, Douglas, Alan, and on and on. Over the last few months I have gradually lost some (maybe a lot) of the confidence I used to have in my own abilities, especially in my ability to help other people. But at the same time, strangely, I feel very confident in the fact that people WILL receive the help they need, whether it’s through me or not, because God will make it happen. He loves these people and if I don’t get in the way, good things are going to happen. If l look at the moments, tiny as they might seem, where I felt like I helped someone here, those moments weren’t a result of my being smart or having made a great lesson plan or anything of the sort…those moments almost feel like accidents, where I happened to say something that struck a chord or happened to be in the right place or the right time. But I don’t really think they were accidents, I think God just cares about the people we happen to be talking to.

In my interview with the mission president this week (a quarterly occurrence) he talked about the difference between ‘obtaining’ a change of heart and ‘receiving’ a change of heart. As I’ve thought about that I’ve realized that the ‘change’ I felt last Spring/Summer that lead me to sign up for this thing was more of the ‘obtaining’ variety – I was seeking something and found something. The change of the last few months has been the ‘receiving’ type. I wasn’t really looking for something, but I think I’ve changed, even if I can’t identify exactly how, other than to say I feel a little like some rough edges have been worn away. I was so worried about losing the self that I knew and liked (and that other people seemed to like) and becoming a weirdo (maybe I sound like one and I don’t realize that my worries were warranted) but I’m kind of liking the feeling of it so far. Good stuff. Lots more to do and figure out, but no doubt about it, the trend is positive.

I haven’t lost all of the rough edges though, sense of humor is still in tact. Here are some funny experiences from the week:

-We took a call from a woman (at the Visitors’ Center) who was a disillusioned member, wanting to talk about the things she does believe (her words). Over the course of the conversation she told us about her son’s funeral and how it was actually really beautiful, and I made a comment about how I thought funerals could be really positive experiences. Her reply was, "Oh, well your funerals (meaning any LDS funerals) suck!" Lovely. She also told us about how she jabbed a pen through her own throat last year so clearly she’s got a hard life and we weren’t offended by the funeral comment.

-We walked into the kitchen at the Visitors’ Center where some other sisters were sitting with their recent convert (about age 20). We grabbed a snack and were walking out when the girl stopped me and said, "How old are you?!" I asked her how old she thought I was and she said, "Well all these ones (the six other sister missionaries in the room) seem like children compared to you." Not sure it was meant as a compliment but I was secretly delighted. She explained that she was wondering about going on a mission but didn’t want to be an old weirdo, and I told her that even though I was 27, no one had made me feel like an old weirdo, until her 🙂 We all laughed and explained that if she went at 21 or 22 she probably wouldn’t even be one of the older ones – there are quite a few sisters who are 22, 23, or 24 around.

-At the end of one of our lessons with John this week he said the prayer, which was exceptionally sweet: "Dear Jesus, thank you for my guests. (long pause) I can’t say much, but I hope the holy spirit will come into us and do what it’s supposed to do. (long pause) Please help the world to know they need faith, even as small as a mustard seed…" He continues to be inspiring.

-We met with Roger, a former investigator from a few years ago who we have recently picked back up, at McDonalds last week and had a good discussion about the Plan of Salvation. He’s fascinating – really smart, knows the Bible like the back of his hand, and maybe has a form of Autism. He’s a rare one in that he probably could be on disability (at least he seems as qualified as all the other people we meet who are) but he isn’t and instead works as a handyman and does snow removal. He’s never been married or had a serious girlfriend apparently (he’s in his 50’s) but has three requirements for a future wife: 1) She must be a Democrat. 2) She must love cats. 3) She must believe in God, it would be nice if she was Christian, but mostly he just doesn’t want an atheist. Doesn’t seem like an unattainable standard, though I’m not sure I’ve met someone who meets all three yet. Not going to say which one is the trickiest here, but it definitely isn’t #2!

-At the end of our discussion Roger looked at Sis. Morrison and said, "You have a joy and light in you." She says, "Oh thank you!" He says, "Yeah, you just have a bubbly, effervescent joy, like a beautiful blonde!" Then he looked at me and said, "And you have peace." I think he felt obligated to say something about me, but it didn’t take him long to come up with ‘peace’ so I’ll take it! It’s actually a pretty good description of the difference between Sis. M and I. Joy and peace.

-Last night we were visiting with our recent convert (in her 60’s but with some disabilities – was recently tested and found that her reading is 4th-grade level) and Sis. Morrison asked her what one word she would use to describe each of us. For Sis. M, no surprise, she immediately said, "Cheerful." Then looking at me she thought for awhile, said something about how she wished she could just use the same word for me too (clearly not because she actually thinks I’m cheerful, but because she didn’t have anything else to say), but ended up saying, "Happy." Once again, I’ll take it, though I think in this case it had nothing to do with what she actually thinks of me. But I must be making progress…people aren’t commenting on my grumpy resting face anymore!

-Sis. M then asked her what word she would use to describe Heavenly Father and her response, in no time at all, was, "Pleasant." When we asked for an explanation she said, "He’s very pleasant to get along with." So great.

-Someone this week pointed out to me that 2 Nephi 18 talks about ‘peeping wizards’. I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this before. That might be my new favorite chapter. Awesome!

All-in-all a good week, but prayers are appreciated! Mail as well, it’s hard to explain how nice it is to come home after a long, very, very cold day to find a letter in the mailbox, though it’s an occurrence that is becoming more and more rare…

Only picture is a shot of us in the car on one of these very, very cold days – the high that day was 11 I believe.

Hope you’re all well.

Ohio is full of surprises

Hi all –

I don’t feel very prepared to write this week, which is weird given that it was a good week with lots of interesting (I think) happenings, but I’ll just start right in:

On Tuesday we received another online referral, this time it was a guy named John who had seen an ad about Mormons on his tablet while downloading some random app. He filled out the form and requested more information and next thing he knew, there we were at his house. We were excited because the last online referral was Douglas (who continues to be great) and we John had requested more information about the church specifically, not just a Bible. We knocked on the door and it was answered by an older man who clearly had some mental disabilities. We asked if he was Joe, he said no, and walked away, though he left the door open. Then an older woman came to the door and as we explained who we were she said, "I had no idea he’d asked to meet with anyone….come on back." She walked us back to John’s room and we met John, age 62, wearing a pilot’s cap and playing some sort of helicopter video game. We were both disappointed….we discovered that John has cerebral palsy and lives with us mother (Vicki, age 84) and his brother (Jimmy, age 59).

However, as we stood in John’s bedroom talking with John and Vicki, we discovered that they are both incredible people. John does have cerebral palsy – he has physical limitations that seem to include trouble standing for long periods of time and really shaky hands, and he is probably not quite as mentally mature as a typical 62 year-old man. But, he is also smart and genuine and interested in learning and really, really kind. His mom was telling us about various health struggles he’s had and how miraculous his life has been, but my favorite thing, which I will never forget, is when she told us about how he handled being teased when he was growing up. When people would give him (or his brother) a hard time or when he was dealing with pain and other physical difficulties he would just say, "Testing…1, 2, 3…testing," because he knows that life is a test to help us learn. After Vicki shared this, John proceeded to talk about how we are taught to have faith, even if it’s no bigger than a mustard seed, and how even that much faith can help us do hard things, even move mountains. Wow! Talk about unexpected…

Our initial reaction (not shared in the moment but discussed afterwards in the car) had been one of disappointment and that this referral was a bust. Because of his situation we didn’t think we were going to be able to teach John anything. After listening to him I had the same thought but for very different reasons, what could we possibly teach someone like this? I just wanted to listen to him talk! (He also made a great comment, paraphrasing a televangelist he had heard once, about how God has given us each day so we should wake up and rejoice in it!) But he was somewhat familiar with Joseph Smith and was really excited about the Book of Mormon that we gave him. Vicki also seemed excited about our being there – she made a lot of comments about how she didn’t think there were any believers left out there, and how cool it was that we were taking time to talk with people about Jesus, especially at our age (not an uncommon reaction here actually). She said she raised her kids to believe in God and Jesus and that they would read the Bible together every night even though they never went to church. At the end of our conversation she even said, "Wow. I feel like someone who has been really thirsty and I’ve just had a drink of water!" My jaw almost hit the floor when she said that…nobody says stuff like that in real life! We didn’t ask her what she thought or how she felt or anything, she just blurted that out.

We went to visit them on Saturday and John agreed to be baptized in March, assuming he learns all the different things we have to teach and comes to feel that it’s all true. Unfortunately Vicki told us right when we arrived that she was happy with where she was at and she didn’t care to participate. Such an interesting experience and so typical of missionary life…people are so unpredictable. I don’t really understand how a person can feel the way Vicki seemed to feel on Tuesday and then react the way she did on Saturday (very friendly and kind, happy for Joe to learn more, but just not interested herself). It makes things tricky with John because he can’t drive, and getting him a ride to church will be logistically difficult because they live on the very farthest border of our Ward (the houses across the street are in a different Stake) and because of his physical limitations. But, as John told us Saturday when we asked him if his mom might want to come to church with him, "People have to make their own decisions, we all get to choose."

He’s so right, and I’m really glad that’s the case. Watching people make choices can be difficult (especially when those choices are destructive, but also when they’re just even a little bit off from what we might think would be best) but I’m also glad that compulsion isn’t a part of this job. There is no quota we have to meet (though we definitely set goals) and we’re not operating under the direction of some sort of dictator trying to bring people under his influence or force them to follow some narrow set of rules. The missionary purpose statement says our job is to ‘invite’ and to ‘help’ and we are operating under the direction of a father (God) who loves everyone and wants them all to be happy, and we won’t be happy if we don’t get to choose good things for ourselves. Not sure how things will work out with John and Vicki but I hope more happiness lies ahead for both of them, and I hope we can help somehow.

Here are some other quotes from this last week, not in the profound category like John’s, but still worth mentioning:

-We were having dinner with an older, single woman in our Ward, and she was admiring Sis. M’s hair and wondering if we could teach her how to do some different things with her hair. I told her that I wouldn’t be of much help as I don’t know how to braid and don’t do anything fancy with my hair. Her response was, "That’s ok. You have a very business-like look. Very professional." I was feeling pretty good about that, I’ll take it. Then she told Sis. M. that she was very feminine and very personable, so she’ll make a great dentist (Sis. M’s planned career). Hmmmm…is ‘business-like’ not compatible with femininity and personableness?

-We encountered this same woman at church on Sunday in the library where she made yet another comment about my appearance being very professional, and another woman standing there immediately jumped in to say, "Oh yes, you always look so professional and organized." I don’t dislike the idea of that perception, but I’m not sure it’s a look that is well-received in these parts…

-A woman we have been meeting with for awhile was talking about some of her tenants who are being needy and wanting her to paint rooms three different times, for no good reason. She was telling us how she likes doing things for people and being accommodating, it makes her happy, but then burst into tears and told us that right now, "these people are stealing my joy!"

-Sis. M had met this man named Daniel (50’s) and we were finally able to set up a time to meet with Daniel this week. We met him at the library and started talking to him about prophets. We asked him if he was familiar with the prophets in the Bible, like Moses, Isaiah, Abraham, etc. He was staring blankly at us so I said, "Or like Noah? You remember him…he build an arc because of the big flood?" His response was, "I don’t know much about floods but I know about mudslides…" I was trying really hard to contain my laughter, the conversation up to this point had contained similarly unexpected responses, so Sis. M said something like, "Yeah, mudslides, avalanches, etc. are all natural disasters and prophets have taught…" when Daniel jumps in and says, "Floods….yeah, lots of people drown in floods."

So then, as we’re both trying to contain our laughter, we realize that the Noah example isn’t helping, so we tried asking him what he thought a prophet was. It was reasonable for us to assume, I think, that he might have some concept of the role of a prophet because he is in his 50’s and had gone to a Methodist church for a long time in this 20’s and 30’s. So he says, "Uh…they’re the guys who grow the corn and stuff for people." And I couldn’t speak because I was shaking with laughter….Sis. M was laughing too, but she is more practiced at speaking through laughter so she said something about him maybe thinking of the word ‘profit’ when we meant ‘prophet’, but he just stared blankly again. Needless to say the lesson didn’t get very far.

-We were reading the Book of Mormon (alternating, each of us reading a verse at a time) with a woman we are teaching over the phone at the Visitors’ Center, and it was her turn to read a verse in Alma 7, talking about the birth of Christ. She read, "And he was born…." then stopped and said, "Oh YES! That’s beautiful!"…and then she kept right on reading. The ‘mute’ function is so nice when we’re teaching online/phone lessons.

-I was making small talk with someone about Groundhog Day because I heard that Puxatawny (sp?) Phil hadn’t seen his shadow and I was informed that Phil only counts for Pennsylvania, not Ohio. Apparently Ohioans have their own groundhog named ‘Buckeye Chuck’ and he DID see his shadow. More winter for us I guess, though it’s been very nice and pretty warm here this week.

Pictures this week are from the Visitors’ Center, I don’t think I’ve shared any from there yet.

-The first one is of some of us singing around the piano, something we do every morning and occasionally when we need a quick break from the computers. This is late at night after a long day so we’re not looking our best.

-The second is a selfie a really nice couple wanted to take with Sis. M and I after we took them on a tour (longest tour I’ve been a part of here, over two hours!). They’re from northeast PA, he’s a carpenter from NYC (and sounds like it) who joined the church in 2004 and is now a Bishop, and she’s from Tennessee getting her Masters in Education. They’re both really nice people – he surprised her with a quick overnight trip to Kirtland for their anniversary.

Mice, Cats, Dogs, and Old People…Death, Mouth-to-Mouth Contact, and Urine

This week has been one to remember, all for good or at least fairly amusing reasons.

First of all, the mice and cats…Sister Morrison went on a bit of an unintentional killing spree this week. We stay 2-3 nights a week at an old house we call ‘the Maple’ (because it is on Maple Street…at least I think it is) and they have had a bit of a mouse issue lately. So one night Sis. M was walking down to the creepy unfinished basement with the two sisters who live there (Sis. Allen and Sis. Bird) so they could do laundry and she stepped on a mouse going down the stairs. It is likely the mouse was already pretty ill but also likely that being stepped on was what did it in. Not a gory situation, but definitely squishy. I thought it was hilarious but also made sure she sanitized her slippers before walking into our room. Then we were driving back from an appointment late the other night and a cat dashed out in front of us – nothing Sis. M. could have done to avoid it, and she felt terrible, but the fact that she had never even killed a spider before in her life (as far as she was aware) and then killed two animals in the course of three days was a little bit funny.

We have been short on service opportunities in our area so this week we insisted on helping an older couple in the Ward clean out what they call their ‘Hell closet’ – a closet full of stuff they hadn’t really looked at in a long time. Not strenuous work by any means, one of us picked an item out of the closet and handed it to the other who showed it to Brother and Sister H. for sorting. We switched roles periodically and when it was my turn to be the picker, I bent down and realized that the next item was an old pair of men’s boxer shorts, which I didn’t really want to pick up, and didn’t…thankfully Brother H. took care of that pretty quickly. They explained that the boxers belonged to their son, as did the empty cigarette boxes we found and the Playboy magazine. I’m not one to talk about having a junk closet (or room) that isn’t touched for a long time…but none of those items would have been found in my junk room, and the son to whom these items belonged hasn’t lived in their house for at LEAST ten years. After we finished the closet we sat down to eat (using tray tables on the couch which I LOVE doing – it’s been years since I lived with my parents and had to eat at the table but I still find eating on the couch kind of exhilarating) and their dog jumped up on the couch next to me. I looked into it’s eyes (something that usually causes dogs here to back away) and before I knew what was happening it had leaned in and licked me…to be more precise, it had licked my mouth, inside my mouth, which was open as I had been about to speak. Between the Playboy magazine (my first time seeing one in-person) and the dog kiss I got more action that day than I had in almost three months! Totally not the same…

The last amusing story from the week is Sis. M’s favorite. We were visiting Brother E. at a rest home last night. He’s a sweet, quiet guy who seems to be the only man in his home, so he’s VERY popular there. It’s by far the worst of the nursing homes we frequent, depressing and at least one of the residents always seems to be having difficulties. We hadn’t been to see Brother E. in over a month and we felt bad about that because he doesn’t get any other visitors, but he was pleasant and upbeat as usual. Something else to know about him…he doesn’t attend the Ward, but he LOVES Jesus and instead attends a non-denominational church just down the road and even serves as an usher for both morning services every week. I’m not exactly sure why he doesn’t come to the Ward, but yesterday we invited him to come this Sunday (not the first time he’s been invited) and he actually said yes, because he wants to sing in the choir again and he wants to share his testimony! So that was exciting. I was feeling great, but as I stood up to leave I felt a little wet. I looked down at the chair I had been sitting in and saw that the cover/pad looked wet, but I thought they must have just cleaned it thoroughly after dinner. Then to my chagrin I realized the wetness had a smell to it, and it wasn’t the scent of a cleaner. It was urine. I had been sitting in some other human’s urine. For a good 30 minutes. Yep. If you ever have to go to a home (parents – I’m looking at you) make sure you can afford one where they keep their dining room chairs urine-free.

Beyond that, we had some really cool experiences with some investigators and less-active members this week. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this one individual before, and if I have, what name I used. Today I’ll call him Douglas. Douglas went online to request a free bible and we showed up at his door about three weeks ago to deliver it. As we talked to him, we discovered that his life has hit rock-bottom, for the second (possibly third time) due to dug and alcohol addictions. He was facing a few court dates and was broke and living with his sister. So, he requested a Bible thinking he might be able to find some hope there. We talked with him about hope and he agreed to meet with us again to learn more about the church. We’ve now met with him six or seven times and he came to church for the firs time yesterday. We were worried that something would come up, that he would bail, that his ride would bail (he lives in the very furthest corner of the Ward boundaries and the man we asked to drive him doesn’t come to church all that much himself) but they both walked in about five minutes before the meeting started. I almost shouted I was so thrilled to see them!

I know it’s a lame missionary thing to be that excited about someone coming to church. But there’s more to it than that. Yes, it is exciting to have someone come to church because it’s something we work to accomplish, it’s inherently rewarding in that sense. But the real excitement is not for the ‘what’ (the coming to church), it’s the fruition of the ‘why’. I’m not sure I really, really believed that the gospel could help people in the midst of their difficulties outside of the really obvious connections I could clearly draw. For example, I can see how many, many peoples’ lives would be improved if they followed the Word of Wisdom and stopped smoking. What I hadn’t really seen was how the gospel could help people who were sad for good reasons that weren’t getting resolved. But despite the fact that Douglas’ life situation has not improved (if anything it might be worse than it was a few weeks ago) he is noticeably happier. He came to church and while he commented on how long it was, he said he got more out of it ‘than anything’. He also said that was the longest he’d ever remembered going without a cigarette (he started smoking at age 9 but he didn’t bring any with him to church because he just didn’t feel right about that). He even read three chapters from the Gospel Principles book between when we gave it to him at the start of Sunday School and the end of church (less than two hours later) AND he said he wanted to go home and look up the scriptures that were referenced in those chapters. He also told his ride that he’d be needing one every week for the next month until he can get his license back, and we didn’t even mention the possibility of his coming to church again next week, let alone for the rest of the month.

All really exciting stuff, but it’s exciting because we can really see how much he’s enjoying what he’s learning and that he really is happier. He was able to let go of enough guilt that he felt okay about entering God’s house yesterday (his words). He feels like he’s here (meaning he’s alive and also in Ohio) for a reason. I don’t really understand how this has happened, I can’t draw a direct connection between something that has been said and a boost in his mood, but he feels some hope where he really had none and that is what matters.

Missionaries, at least in my experience thus far, spend all day every day focused on other people. Every minute of work is invested in people. It’s emotionally-intense work and it’s dependent on the emotions of others which can be so exhausting. When they’re up and making progress, so are we. When they’re down and frustrated, so are we. I was reading in Alma 26 this morning, which happens to be Ammon’s celebration, so-to-speak, of missionary work. They’ve just experienced wild success, "…how many of them (Lamanites they were teaching) are brought to behold the marvelous light of God! And this is the blessing which hath been bestowed upon us…" It struck me that the blessing Ammon was so excited about, the thing which made his heart ‘brim with joy’ wasn’t actually something that had happened to him. It was the joy that had come to those other people. That seems to be missionary life.

Last week at church someone blessed the missionaries in the closing prayer of Sacrament meeting, and I had been thinking about what that meant. I used to think it meant people were praying that the poor missionaries would find someone they could teach so they wouldn’t have to keep walking and knocking on doors. And that’s always a good thing 🙂 But what I think happens when missionaries are blessed is that they are better able to help people. We are in a unique position to help people, for whatever reason people open up to us and seem to be more willing to be helped because we wear name tags. There are so many problems and so much going on that it is overwhelming to know how to help or what to say or do. Missionaries need all the prayers they can get, not so they don’t have to tract or so they don’t get as homesick, but so they can actually help the people who are in their sphere of influence. We really, really, really want to help, so we appreciate the prayers 🙂

Anyway, beyond prayers, letters are always good too. A letter is the one thing in a day that feels like it’s just for me, reading it is a nice little moment of selfishness, hopefully an acceptable one, and I really relish those moments.

Pictures this week….
One is of us cleaning out the closet, the other is a ‘closet selfie’ taken with Brother H. and his daughter and son-in-law who are also in the Ward. They were watching us clean out the closet. Good times.

I was going to add another photo of the big, yellow bruise on my arm – a result of a giant chunk of icicles falling from someone’s roof as they opened their front door – but decided it wasn’t very attractive and would be better left to the imagination.

Hope you’re all well!

Another picture

1) Me with another cat – This one is apparently normally very shy and unfriendly, but he hopped right up on my lap before I could even take my coat or bag off. I was thrilled, of course, and happily left my coat and bag on to accommodate Gary for the duration of the lesson.

Ramblings

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.

Thanks again for the letters and prayers!