Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Will It Stick?--George's Post

A.   “Will it stick?”

To some degree, all missionaries struggle with the same worry—will the lessons they are trying to teach to others “stick?”    For young proselyting missionaries, they worry whether their investigators will embrace the gospel and become and remain active members of the Church.   For MLS senior missionaries, they worry whether members, both active and less active, will catch the vision of what it means to be a responsible, reliable, and faithful member in the Church-- capable of doing their duty without constant prodding.   Certainly the key is independence—the ability to be and stay active and involved without be constantly reminded, poked and encouraged by others.  Frequently, we speak of this “independence” in terms of a “testimony” of the gospel or having “faith.”   Those with their own testimony are able stand on their own, resisting the ever present temptations and going forth with steadfastness with their Church assignments, whether or not missionaries are there to support them.   Otherwise, they are constantly at prey to the temptations and snares that otherwise pry members away from doing their duties and keeping their faith.   Local Malawi leaders often remind members that they cannot, and should not, rely upon the missionaries for their faith, but must be “independent.”[1]    One thinks of the parable of the sower, where the sower scatters the seed by the wayside, upon stony places, among the thorns, and on good ground.[2] 
When it comes to Church activity, and faithfulness in discharging our duties, it is naïve to think of anyone as being wholly “independent;” instead all of us constantly rely upon one another to keep the faith.   President Hinckley’s counsel about what each needs in the Church readily comes to mind:  everyone needs a calling, a friend and the nourishment of the word of God.   Yet at the same time, it is equally true that activity in the Church requires self-initiative: the willingness to accept a calling when extended; the acceptance of friendship when offered, and seeking the word of God through personal scripture study and Church attendance.   Each member must do his part to keep the spirit alive and retain the lessons taught by missionaries and other members.  
As missionaries work with investigators and members, they see the spirit working on them, touching their hearts and hope the lessons taught, and feelings experienced, will become a part of the investigators and members, wedding them to the restored gospel.   Little in life could be more satisfying than seeing the gospel change the lives of investigators and members, working from the inside out, making them “better” people than they were before, more open to spiritual promptings, and more willing to express and share love with others.   It is exciting to witness the “change of heart” experienced by a new member full of the spirit—the desire to learn as much as they can about the restored gospel, to fellowship with other members, equally committed to trying hard to be a better person, to make themselves available for service to others, to seek the Lord through scripture study, Church attendance and prayer.   It is likewise a blessing to play a small part in helping this transformation occur—by teaching lessons, making visits, being a friend, acting as a shadow leader, serving as an example.   No one expects the path forward to be easy and free of obstacles--family and friends may complain or be bitter or non-supportive; old habits may linger and interfere; keeping the standards may require extraordinary effort in the face of temptations.   Yet the longer the commitment, the more the spirit, and the more light one enjoys.  
Nonetheless, the fear persists that, if base-line circumstances change, the lessons taught may not stick, and the spirit felt may be lost.   There is always a risk of reversion when the original missionaries, much beloved, are transferred out or leave for home; when there is turnover in the congregation’s composition, with friends leaving the ward or branch; when branches or wards are split, upsetting historical and familial ties; when members are confronted with new challenges or the old challenges resurface and the repentance process has not yet been fully embraced.     So missionaries are left worrying—will the member go back to the old ways; will the important lessons taught be forgotten; will the member cease to be active—not going to Church or not fulfilled callings.   The fear is more than just a fear of the member going back to the old ways.   It is also a fear that the member will actually be worse off.   He will forget the spirit felt, lose the light received, and find himself more rebellious and disobedient than before.   Where more is given, more is expected.  
When this occurs, the missionary’s disappointment is keen and double-edged.   First, he feels terrible for the one who is backsliding.  Just as there was so much joy with the change in heart, now there is so much pain in watching the loss.   Where there was hope, now there is despair.   Second, the missionary feels as though all of the hard work and sacrifice has been for naught.   Before the missionary could see a purpose in what he did—evidenced in the “new” life of the convert or member.   So what if there were sacrifices in getting there—the rewards more than offset the sacrifices that were required.   But now the same calculus cuts the other way.   The missionary’s sacrifices are not rewarded in terms of “changed” lives and perspectives.   And all that is left is disappointment.   No doubt this is an inward looking, self-centric perspective—perhaps not worth of the missionary, whose focus should be riveted instead upon those whom he sought to influence for good, but a perspective that is nonetheless very human.   Hence, it is not uncommon for missionaries to talk about those who stayed “active” in the Church for years after they left the missionary field—that being the best litmus test for the success of a mission. 
I have never thought of myself as a visionary person—some no doubt have that spiritual gift, but it is not one of my gifts.   Yet last week, I awoke early in the morning, and found myself in that odd half-awake, half-dream state, with images confused and jumbled, nothing making much sense.   I did, however, have two distinct impressions.  First, I found myself worrying whether our local members would backslide after we return home in a few months.   We know how hard it is for some to stay active and keep the standards.   At the same time we know how much better their lives will be if they do so.   Life is hard here and we wish for them the best.   Carole and I have no illusions about the impact we have had upon the members in Blantyre--we know we are in a long-line of missionaries, each of whom has done a little to support them, and certainly believe that the cumulative effect of those efforts has been to help a few hew a little closer to the strait and narrow path.   It is however hard not to worry about them, knowing the ever present temptations and trials that beset them.
It is not surprising I would have this thought surface—since Carole and I frequently talk about whether the lessons we are trying to teach will “stick” or whether they will be lost or, for that matter, whether we have done much good at all in the “big” scheme of things.    We hope we have, but one cannot be sure.   What was surprising is the second impression that came to mind.   In a burst of insight, I realized that the question of “stickiness”—whether lessons that were being taught would actually “stick”—applied to me with equal force.   Over the last 14 months we have witnessed extraordinary acts of charity, from one Malawian to another; have watched with great admiration the faith of members in the face of terrible trials and challenges; have seen the poorest of the poor accept with humility and grace God’s will for them and respond to the sweet message of the good news.   And we know we have “changed” a bit—perhaps not as much as we would like or that others might expect of us—as we have tried to serve them.   But, at the same time, we know many of the changes are “circumstantial” in nature.   We serve because we are here on a mission and it is our assignment to serve.   It is easy to love the Malawian members and to feel good about what we are doing—even if we are not certain about the long-term impact of our service.   We are not too distracted by the normal cares of everyday life, as we have largely left that life behind.   Yet in less than four months we will return to the United States and resume our normal life back home, leaving us squarely with the question—how much we will have learned by our experience in Malawi?   Will we revert to our normal pre-mission life, largely content to take care of ourselves and those closest to us?   Will we indulge our desires to travel, see more of the world, and enjoy of the fullness of life, without worrying too much about helping others or being of service?   I confess to having a great desire to have a few more adventures while my health is still good.   Or will we throw ourselves into service back home and, if so, how will we balance that with the other interests we have, which in and of themselves are not bad?   
Of this I am quite certain, even if it hasn’t happened yet.   Going home, and being released from our mission, will totally alter our framework.   Now we are totally immersed in life in Malawi and then we will be totally immersed in life back home.   In some ways, that is a terrifying thought, knowing how easy it will be for me to “revert” to the old ways—in part I want to retain the lessons learned here, and in part I yearn to go back to the life I knew before.    Of course, the challenge is not unique—indeed, it is precisely the same challenge each missionary faces at the time of his or her release from mission service.     Somehow we will need to find a balance, and hopefully the balance will blend the best of both worlds without too much compromise.

[1] President Chikapa is particularly blunt on this point, warning members of the perils of relying unduly upon missionaries for their testimonies.
[2] See Matt. 13: 3-9.