He could be anyone. I might have made him up. Or this might be the template letter I sent to every missionary I wrote to after they returned. Someone once told me that we need a post-mission MTC–the RMTC. The struggles missionaries encounter upon their return when they are suddenly without a companion, back in the “real world,” and in culture shock when they enter their own bedrooms deserves some special treatment.
So here is my letter:
I want to do this the way I did for two years—by letter.
So much of what I’ve been writing in my yet unfinished letter to my niece (who is like a daughter to me) is about unfulfilled expectations. You certainly had some of those as a missionary, when someone you really thought would accept the gospel simply quit being interested. Your expectations are different as a returned missionary, obviously—though in your particular case, you have at least a hope that your father will be baptized, or on his way to true conversion. (I’m not sure any of us can claim we have been truly converted until our final examinations are finished. We never know what’s just ahead.) You had expectations of your bishop—or of any church leader—which have not been fulfilled yet. Welcome to the club. You had expectations of yourself–how you’d behave and how you’d FEEL, and you’ve found yourself falling short of your various goals, or even slipping back into past patterns.
I don’t remember if I told you about a poem one of my students wrote about Peter the apostle. The poem described Peter running to greet Jesus after the resurrection. It started many thoughts in me, and I turned to the Book of John for my scripture reading the day I graded that poem. The Book of John is where the episode is described. Peter, that impetuous disciple who has already spent time with the resurrected Lord, sees him on the shore. Peter is in his boat, fishing. He leaps out to go to the Master. There is no hesitation; this is his friend. What if, in the amazed moments when the eleven disciples met with Jesus in his resurrected form, they spoke mostly of the gospel and the miracle of what had just happened when death was conquered, and what if Peter had wanted a moment alone with the Savior to say, “Do you know how hard I wept when the cock crowed the third time? Do you know how racked with torment I was when I realized I had betrayed you? Do you know the shame?” Finally, the opportunity is here, and he runs to his master. But of course, Peter would understand that Jesus DID know the shame, and loved him far beyond that particular moment and into the eternities. Jesus KNEW who Peter was, despite those very bad lapses. In fact, in the book of John, Jesus tells Peter that he will suffer a martyr’s death. The Savior knew not only Peter’s potential to betray, but his potential to be completely devoted, even at the expense of his life. Peter would be faithful.
For me, when I covenant to live the Law of Chastity, I actually rephrase it slightly in my mind. Chastity implies the list of what we’re not supposed to do. It reminds me of chaste, ascetic nuns who wouldn’t even know how to kiss back. I rephrase it as the Law of Fidelity. I think, thus worded, it goes well with the token accompanying it in the temple. The Law of Fidelity is not just abstaining from certain activities, but loving the Lord of the Commandments, and later on, loving the person to whom we have bound ourselves and given ourselves, even as Christ was bound to the cross. (Think temple.) It comes from love. In fact, in its purest form, fidelity IS love.
True fidelity also includes being faithful to ourselves, loyal to our eternal nature and willing to let the Lord teach us, as He taught Peter, that we are not the heretics we might imagine ourselves to be, but that we will actually give our lives for Him—even though in some moments, we will somehow deny Him. We will become angry–not just righteously indignant, but angry. We will become hateful and warlike—even to our own children or our own parents, our spouse, those we should love best. We will do things that will haunt us for years and make us wonder if we could possibly be acceptable after such a taint. We will find that, even though we’ve sworn we won’t return to past patterns, we do return, and the world feels like a labyrinth. When we were so sure we could find our way out of the maze, we suddenly find ourselves against a very familiar wall, and everything feels blocked. Instead of a prayer, we find ourselves murmuring, “God, how did I get back HERE?”
I mentioned miracles with my niece. We have had several years of her combating an eating disorder, anxiety, self-loathing, inactivity in the Church, and some behavior which often accompanies confusion. I have always felt that she would return to herself, and that she would be the main key to others in her family. I find myself wishing I could micro-manage everything. It’s a huge temptation, and also rather faithless. I’m not in charge here.
When you and that lovely ex-girlfriend of yours broke up, you said, “Why can’t she just love me?” Those words were so poignant to me, and I could imagine you at various points in your life asking the same question of important women who you loved, and important men. I find myself praying for some good man to love my niece and help her realize how wonderful she is. Most of us need others to open some window which lets us hear messages which have been emanating from Heaven since our births: You are mine. You are mine. You are loved beyond anything you could imagine. You are infinitely valued. You are eternal.
I am pretty certain you will get to address the hard issues of Mormonism. Remember to peel away anything extraneous to the gospel, and certainly anything contrary to it. Now you get to apply those Christlike attributes to your new life, not the Elder XX life. You get to be patient with your bishop. You must be. I speak as a bishop’s wife. Bruce says that he sometimes feels inspiration, but usually he just does the best he can. Your bishop is doing his best, and you do not know his own private struggles. Forgive him for what he’s not doing, and forgive yourself for not meeting whatever goals you’ve set. Forgive that ex and whoever else you associate with so that your loving spirit is not hindered by resentment. Forgive yourself. YOU are a miracle.
I have alluded to one of my favorite authors before. Now I have one of his books in my hands, and I’m going to quote from it. Reynolds Price talks about his prayer during the time when cancer was claiming him. “Alone in a dark bed,” he says, “I asked how much more pain I must suffer, and a voice answered, MORE.”
RM, there will be more for you—perhaps not cancer, but because you are so sensitive, you will always feel things deeply. And what you’re going through now is NOTHING compared to what’s coming. Seriously. Marriage resolves so much, but then our children bring greater joy and greater challenges and heartbreak than anything we have experienced before. That’s ahead of you, and you are now learning lessons which will help you then. You are becoming the man who will deal with his own teenagers as they find themselves in the labyrinths they must negotiate. You will yearn for them to hear your voice, and will realize that they must turn towards you first. And you will not always feel the Spirit as you felt it in those sacred, peak moments on your mission. Price says, “Few believers known to me have survived to midlife without the sense of occasional, or frequent, desertions by God or absences of his interest or—hardest of all—his intentional silences.“
The way you work through your current challenge, in a world in which you might interpret God’s silence as a punishment, will prepare you for harder times. I don’t know if there are spirits who are waiting to become your sons and daughters, or if it’s more random and not necessarily foreordained. I do know that you will be a better father than you had imagined, and also a worse one. We parents find ourselves in Peter’s position many times, asking, “How could I have done that? How could I have SAID that? WHO AM I?” as we hear the metaphorical rooster crow the third time. And sometimes we forget that we are not alone in raising our children. We are surrounded by Heavenly forces which would astound us if we could see them. We forget that God knows us—parents and children alike—and calls our progress His “work and glory.” He is raising us in so many ways.
You are a son of God, loved beyond measure. God already knew you would screw up on occasion. It’s covered. Take a look at that missionary tag, the one you were wearing the first day I met you. Your name belongs with the name of Christ. No matter what happens, it always will.