Saturday, February 6, 2016

Will We Go Again--George's Post

A.   Will We Go Again?

1.    Possibility of Serving Several Missions

It is not uncommon for senior couples to serve several missions in their elderly years, despite the pain of being separated from loved ones, the expense and inconvenience, and declining health.    To encourage seniors to go on missions, the Church publishes regularly an extensive list of all the potential assignments around the world, organized by mission type and geographic area, identifying the unique skills, if any, required for the callings.  The Church encourages healthy senior couples to go on missions—despite the challenges.  And the opportunities for service open are constantly expanding, as the Church’s needs become more global.   The Church needs missionaries in Africa to South Africa, Europe to the islands of the Pacific, Europe to the United States; they are recruited to help in a wide variety of capacities: humanitarian, public affairs, proselyting, member leader support, self-reliance, military are among the many possible callings.  
When we first arrived in Blantyre, two other senior couples were in the city: the Reynolds, on their first mission, and the Merrills, then serving their seventh mission, the fifth in Africa.   In Lilongwe, there were then two other senior couples: the Fisks, on their first mission, and the Stones, serving together with their adult son Nathan, on their third mission, the second in Africa.   When the Merrills finished their last mission, Elder Merrill, though robust and in good health, was already in his early 80s, and the elder of the Stones in the late 70s.   For most of us, it is almost unfathomable the depth of commitment such couples must have to elect to return to the mission field after having first served.   

2.    Personal Sacrifices

Usually missionaries have some notion about what they are getting themselves into before accepting their first mission call.   Many of them served as missionaries in their youth or have sent children off on missions; some have watched senior missionaries working in their local areas or had relatives go out on senior missions.   Often they talk to representatives in the Church headquarters in Salt Lake City before going on missions to get more intelligence.   But however careful or detailed their pre-mission advance preparations may be, invariably missions bring their own surprises.   Mission assignments may be changed at the last moment—both as to where they serve and as to the type of mission they have; they may find themselves busier or slower than anticipated; language barriers may be more of a problem than they expect.   They may get more or less guidance from Mission Presidents or other local leaders.    Once in the mission field, they may struggle finding their niche, have trouble connecting with local members, or find themselves isolated.   They expect to miss children and grandchildren, but still may be surprised by how painful the separation feels or how much contact they can actually maintain through miles away.    On the other hand, the positive surprises may far outweigh the negative ones: local members may be more faithful, proselyting opportunities richer, the association with the younger missionaries richer than anything they could have imagined.   It takes a while for all missionaries to find their rhythm.
Faithful mission service requires a level of self-sacrifice hard to envision for those who have not served.   No longer are days spent in self-indulgence.   Now as we approach the end of our mission, we have a better feel for what it means to serve—the sacrifices inherent in leaving family behind,[1] dedicating one’s self to full-time mission service, setting aside, for a season, the pursuit of what we like to do best (indeed, what we may have worked to be able to do for ourselves for years).   As a consequence, we have a far greater appreciation for those who go out to serve a second or even a third time, much less the crazy record of service the Merrills posted.   It is not an exaggeration to see in the lives of those dedicated and often humble servants of God a level of faithfulness and piety the rest of us can barely imagine.    Carole and I count it as a blessing to have met a few such faithful servants of the Lord.

3.    Questions About Future Service  

Even early in our mission, others (primarily other senior missionaries, occasionally members) asked if we intended to serve a second mission.   We are startled when first asked—as we had only been in Malawi a few months and the question seemed to us premature.     How could we possibly know about our interest in serving a second mission, when the first one had just started?    Surely we would need time to process our experience, to re-connect with our children and grandchildren, and to see if we could figure out the contours of a meaningful, rewarding post-mission life.   All missionaries, young and old, go through a transition period when returning home and need time to decompress.   Only after working through those experiences, would we be in position to assess how strong the urge was to go on a second mission.  
Upon reflection, however, it is not surprising why others asked us about future service.   Without hesitation, from the very beginning Carole and I have felt, and openly shared, that Malawi is the perfect experience for us.   We love virtually everything about being here—the unbelievably good weather, the faithful members, the cultural experience.   Serving in Malawi we consider a true blessing, and feel as though our mission call was inspired, feelings we freely shared with others.[2]  The good things about missionary service however have not blinded us to the challenges—plagues of flying termites, being tormented by mosquitos at night, water shortages, electrical outages, inventory shortages in the grocery stores, the required dedication at the expense of our vanity and self-interest.   Yet, on balance, the experience has been rewarding, though hard.    So it is hardly surprising others would wonder if we had already considered extending our mission or accepting a second call.   Though none of our children back home have asked the question, several of them, we imagine, have wondered about our future plans as well.  
Over the last couple of days, Carole and I have discussed why people are curious about the future plans of senior missionaries.   Probably the overwhelming sentiment is that of curiosity itself.   Certainly those outside of the Church wonder—why would anyone go in the first place---is the experience rewarding—how hard is it, especially when the mission involves living and working in  Africa—is it dangerous—do you think you are doing any good—how painful is it to be away from family—can one stay in reasonable touch through Skype and the phone—how good is the local health care and could one get decent medical attention if the need were to arise?   Even if they understand better the motivation for going on a mission, members have many of the same questions.    It is not a stretch to assume senior missionaries may want to serve again if they have a good experience in the mission field.     
Many with whom we speak have personal questions in mind that they don’t share with us.   They wonder how it would be for “them” if they were to go on a mission.   Each question they ask is really intended to probe how they would respond if placed in the same position as the senior missionaries?  Would they be happy serving a mission?   How much does it cost?   How hard is it to lease one’s home and will one find the home in good repair when returning home?     Would it be hard serving in Malawi or, for that matter anywhere else in Africa?   Should they be concerned about their health—do African countries have qualified, experienced physicians and good health care facilities?    Is the mission experience physically demanding?   Will they be required to keep to the same rigorous schedule required of the younger missionaries?   How hard would it be to leave behind family?   Can one stay in touch with kids back in the United States—how difficult is to work around the time zone differences and how reliable about are the internet and phone connections?   How challenging is it for couples to be in such constant contact?   Is there a concern about contracting malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever or diseases?   How comfortable are mission apartments?   Are the local people responsive to the gospel message?   Is it rewarding working with local members?   How often will one be asked to speak in Church or help training local members and leaders?  Most of these questions will come only to the minds of Church members, but I think even non-members have similar questions.   Hence, when putting questions to senior missionaries, they are really testing the edges of their own feelings about charitable service—would they like it; could they see themselves making a similar commitment; how hard would it really be.   Is it something they should consider as an option as they approach the retirement years?   Are they up for the challenge or adventure, however they view it?
Some, when asking about missionary service, have something quite different in mind.   They ask questions not as a way of thinking about their own options, but instead as a way of testing the real motives or experience of the senior missionaries.  They cannot imagine themselves, or for that matter anyone else, doing what the senior missionaries did.   It is really outside of the ken of their understanding and experience.   Yet they are intrigued and want to know how genuine the missionary experience was.   Did the missionaries feel or think or do anything that is really out of the realm of the normal?   Did they, for example, experience God differently than others do?   Did they learn truths others struggle to learn?   Were they changed at all or will they return home pretty much the way they left?   Is there a spiritual world out there that people can really access, but that is inaccessible to most because they don’t make the effort?   Have they ever seen the hand of God working?   Do senior missionaries come back purged of traditional biases and prejudices?   Putting questions to senior missionaries helps to test their testimony, commitment, level of faith, generosity, and charity.   Perhaps, it is precisely for these reasons that questions about missionary service— including the threshold question of whether one might serve again — tend to place senior missionaries “on the spot.”   Intuitively, they know such questions directly or indirectly probe how much they have changed.   What, for example, does it mean when a senior missionary claims to love his/her mission, but has no interest in serving again?    Is the missionary dissembling or tired or tied too much to the things of the world?
I can think of another reason why a few (most probably the tiniest of minorities) would be interested in whether senior missionaries might serve again and might pose a number of questions about missionary service.   Some always view the world in terms of “themselves.”   Nothing is really about others, but only about others to the extent it reflects upon them—others are used solely as a measuring stick to compare their own accomplishments or vaunt their self-importance.   They are those who don’t really listen to others; but are thinking of a response even before others have finished talking.    They don’t take pleasure in others’ achievements or experience.  Secretly they are pleased when others fail or fall short or prove to be human.   Though they would never acknowledge it, they constantly look to find fault with others and delight in their shortcomings and misfortune.    They feel taller when they can show others are shorter.   Questions about a mission are one way of probing to find potential flaws in the returning missionaries—showing they to be not nearly as good, self-sacrificing or dedicated as they think or as they may appear to others.   One would hope few in the Church suffer from this affliction, but I think everyone has met someone like this.  

4.    Will We Go Again?

It really is premature to answer or address the question—it is a question for another time.   Carole and I are healthy (at least appear to be, subject to post-mission medicals), have a few adventures left in us, and both are anxious to make productive use of the good years we have ahead.  We have sorely missed time with our family and need to reconnect.  In some ways I have found serving much harder than anticipated.    Hopefully, our mission service has changed us for the better, but what this means in terms of future service we don’t yet know.     Of one thing however I am certain—it was roughly 40 years between my first mission—as a young man to Northern Germany—and my second mission, with Carole to Malawi, and if  it takes me another 40 years to get ready for my next mission, that mission will be quite different than either of the first two.

[1] Skype makes a huge difference, but even with it, contact with family back home is not easy—connections are poor or spotty, working around time zone differences complicated.  

[2] See “Malawi Has Been Perfect” supra.