Muttering About Missionary Service: Good Advice From a ‘Gator

Had a wonderful experience being in Provo yesterday to drop my oldest daughter at the MTC.  Spending the last 24 hours of her preparation with few distractions was a great treat for her mom and me.

We had another experience at the same time that magnified the spirit of the moment .  The night we arrived in Provo, I received an email from a young lady who has been reading my other blog (reallywanttoknow.wordpress.com).  She told me that the posts there had helped her work through some difficult questions about the gospel, and that after taking the missionary discussions both she and her husband had decided to get baptized.

Cool beans.

Even cooler, she lives in Provo and agreed to meet us just before we dropped off Number One at the MTC.  My family was up for it, so off we went.  It was a quick meeting, but it meant the world to me.

This young investigator (to preserve her privacy, I will refer to her as “Gator Girl”) was very excited about getting baptized and was particularly anxious to give Number One a hug before she hit the MTC.  Then she offered some advice, which is really the point of this post.  She told Number One that there were two things she wanted her to remember.

The first was to be obedient.  She said that investigators can tell when a missionary is not following the rules of the mission, and it interferes with their ability to teach effectively.

The second was to genuinely love the people you teach, because investigators can feel when the missionary’s love is genuine, as opposed to when the investigator is just another statistic in a weekly report.

That advice seemed to connect with my daughter, and I thought about it a great deal for the rest of the day.  I became convinced that for any of us who want to share the gospel with others, Gator’s Girl’s counsel is just as important.

We have to be obedient.  That doesn’t mean that every member of the Church has to live by the little white missionary handbook (my colored shirts and facial hair can stay), but it does mean that we have to strive to be obedient to that same gospel that we proclaim to be true.  If we attempt to testify of something that we have not bought into ourselves, others will sense that conflict in us.  Worse, we may outwardly manifest that internal conflict through very obvious bad behavior.  People will listen more closely if we have demonstrated that we believe these principles to the point of living them.

We need to love more genuinely.  Sometimes in our discussions of missionary service we talk about friendship with non-members in a way that is nearly manipulative.  We discuss how to make more non-member friends so that we can share the gospel with them.  What I think is more important is that we demonstrate a genuine love to other people.  If we truly and deeply care about our neighbors, we will be naturally more inclined to share with them the things that make us happy.  And when we do share, our friends will know that it is out of an honest love for them and not contrived or forced.

Both of these pieces of advice are about putting our hearts where our mouths are:  Loving the gospel enough to live it, and loving others enough to offer them the Living Water that is Christ.

Gator Girl gets it.  We need to pay attention.

On Becoming a Missionary Dad

When my older brother returned from his mission (during the Carter administration, if I remember correctly), my dad was invited to speak at his homecoming.  Dad, a man of very few words (most of them colorful), announced that he had been asked to speak on “What it is like to have a son serve a mission.”  Dad announced that he felt the subject was “too personal,” and so he spoke on something entirely different.  No making Dad do something he didn’t want to.

That caught my attention, and I wondered what it was about the experience of being a missionary dad that was so personal.  Several years later when I served my own mission (Reagan), I gained a slightly better understanding as the relationship between myself and my dad deepened through our weekly letters.  Somehow we managed to communicate much more directly and personally in those letters than we ever did in person.  After my dad died, his letters became a great treasure to me and a  legacy to my family.

Tonight, the oldest of my daughters will be set apart as a missionary in preparation for serving in Rome, Italy.  (The Church, for some reason, goes with Yoda-speak in naming its missions, so she is going to the “Italy Rome” mission.  Serve, she will).  I recognize that only a about a bazillion parents have gone through this process before, but the experience is unique to me.

And I’ll be darned if it isn’t too personal to talk about.

But I’ll try.  Since I spent the entire morning sobbing worse than I did when Spock died, I probably need the catharsis of writing or I might spend the next eighteen months popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs.

There is a difference between my experience now and what my dad went through.  My dad joined the Church as an adult, so he did not have the opportunity to serve a mission.  By contrast, I served a mission in Chicago (“Illinois Chicago”) and have  at least a decent idea of what she will be going through.  I’m not sure if that makes it easier or harder.  I remember missing my family terribly while I was away, but I was able to survive it without too much homesickness.  There was one rough Christmas, but most of my desires to go home were based less on my wanting to get back to my family than on finding a way to get away from my companions without killing them in their sleep.

In fact, my daughter leaving for her mission is much more difficult for me to handle than when I left home myself.  Part of that is the wisdom and angst that come with being older.  When I was 19, I was stupid enough to think that I could accomplish anything and that I was immune from danger.  I assume that my daughter is also being duped in the security offered only by the stupidity of youth.  Now that I’m older, I think about all that could go wrong and I fret about all that my little warrior is likely to experience.

I”m also worried about not being able to protect her.  For twenty years I have had the comfort of knowing that if anyone made my daughter cry, I could resolve it by punching the person in the throat.  That option will be denied to me for a year and a half, and I’m not sure that her mission president is going to be a throat-punching kind of guy.  Mine wasn’t.  And I don’t think the Italian consulate is going to approve a visa for me if I list the purpose of my visit as “Retribution.”

The hand-wringing I will have to deal with, and it likely will get better as I trust that the Lord will take care of the precious daughter that I am placing in His hands.  Given the choice between entrusting her to God’s protection or a husband’s, I’m probably better prepared to turn her over to God.  After all, He has been smiting people for 6000 years.

There is plenty of other stuff, however, that I am not worried about at all.

I have no concerns about her having a testimony strong enough to withstand some adversity.  She’s spiritually tough, and I believe that she will only get tougher in  the trenches.

I am not worried about her willingness to work.  She might only be 5 feet tall, but I’ve seen her pull a handcart.  If they actually let this girl sleep 8 hours a day she is going to feel like it’s Spring break.

I am not worried about her courage.  Her resourcefulness.  Her ability to understand the scriptures.  Her capacity to love the people and teach with the Spirit.

In every way that is important, she is better prepared for her mission than I was for mine.

And I think that is why I am crying so much.  I’m not ready to share her.  I can’t resign myself to letting her do great things without me seeing it.  Selfishly, I know how much I lean on her.  I know how much strength her mother draws from her.  I know what kind of guidance and inspiration she gives to her sisters.  The real difficulty of sending her out on a mission isn’t the fear that she isn’t ready or won’t be safe.  Instead, it’s the sacrifice of letting her do all of the good she does for someone else.  When her strength has become such an important part of your own, sharing that with people so far away can be enormously difficult.

And personal.

And immeasurably important.

So, Pops gets to suck it up.  Because my wife and I did not raise this child to help us get through the world.  We raised her to change the world.  It’s time she got after it.

What Does it Mean to “Pray Always?”

Much to the dismay of my family, all of whom are pretty well sick of Dad talking about “mindfulness,” I’m intrigued by Buddhism and probably read far too much about it for a guy who still has some hair and isn’t likely to wear orange robes any time soon.  That said, one of the reasons Buddhism attracts my attention is that I find it often sheds an interesting light on aspects of Christianity that I find difficult to understand.

As an example, one of the commandments given by the Lord is to “pray always.”  Sometimes this is expressed by the counsel to “always carry a prayer in your heart,” which never has helped me much (particularly as I suspect that someone just substituted “prayer” for “song”).  Given that I have a real difficulty doing any two things at once–with the exception of watching TV and eating ice cream–I’ve been at a loss to understand what is expected of me.  Am I supposed to always have a prayer running through the back of my head or, even worse, walk around mumbling a quiet prayer like some schizophrenic guy living under a bridge?  (No offense intended to people with mental disorders.  Most of my friends are crazy).

Part of the problem is how we think and talk about prayer.  As a missionary, I taught the “steps” of prayer to those investigating the Church.  Each of the four steps (addressing our Father in Heaven, thanking Him for our blessings, asking for what we need, and closing in the name of Jesus Christ) address only one side of what is supposed to be a communicative process between us and God.  It suggests that at “Amen,” we hop up from our knees and go to work, or bed, or continue on with whatever other activity is next.

Unfortunately, this exclusive focus on prayer as a petition (and the good manners of saying “thank you” before hitting your list of needs in earnest) reduces prayer to something akin to a letter to Santa:  We offer up our wish list, and then wait to see what shows up under the tree.  True prayer has to include listening, both prior to making our petitions (so we see more clearly what is in our best interest to seek) and following our petitions (so that we open ourselves to whatever inspiration or promptings come our way).  On balance, if one of those aspects of prayer is more important than the other, it has to be the listening.

I’m currently reading a book with the engaging title, “How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness,” by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.  She deals directly with this question of what it means to live a life of “continuous prayer,” and she compares it to the practice of mindfulness (meditation) in Buddhism.  She observes:

True prayer is not petitioning, it is listening.  Deep listening.  When we listen deeply, we find that even the “sound” of our own thoughts is disruptive, even annoying.  Letting go of thoughts, we enter a more profound inner stillness and receptivity. If this open silence can be held at our core, as our core, then we are no longer confused by trying to sort out and choose among our myriad competing inner voices.  Our attention is no longer caught up in the emotional tangle within.  It is directed outward.  We are looking for the Divine in all appearances, listening to the Divine in all sounds, brushed by the Divine in all touches. . . . This is a life lived in faith, faith in the One Mind, a life of continuous prayer.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the incense:  I think there is some truth here.  If we think of the contemplative, listening aspect of prayer, then the notion of always having a prayer in our hearts makes considerably more sense and is much less likely to have people avoiding sitting next to us on the bus.  It would mean that we are living our lives in such a way that we are listening for God’s message for us in all aspects of our lives, rather than describing  (or complaining about) our lives to Him and telling Him what we think is important and what He needs to do about it.  Focusing on the listening part of prayer is a way of helping us to see things as He does, which so happens to be things as they really are.

Joseph Smith said that all truth belongs to Mormonism, and I take that observation seriously.  There is much that people of other faiths can teach us, not for the purpose of adopting what they believe, but so that we can have a different and perhaps deeper perspective of our own faith.  When it comes to praying “always,” I think that we could do worse than having a little Zen insight.  So put on your sandals, find yourself a lotus flower, and open your eyes to the Divine.  The Light of Christ lights all things, so we should be able to see that light everywhere.

Daughters

Reb Tevya, the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof, and I have at least three things in common:  We’re fat, we’re low on cash, and we have five daughters.  I spend way too much time bemoaning the first two of those conditions and not nearly enough appreciating the third.

Today is a special day for the Ghio clan, as we are likely on the stepping-off point for huge changes in our lives and our family dynamics.  All of my girls are in town for Number Four’s quinceanera (that’s a Mexican 15th birthday party, for those of you unfortunate enough to be Yankees).  Tonight Number Two heads back to BYU.  Next week Number One leaves for her mission to Rome, Italy.  For at least the next eighteen months, I won’t have all of my kiddos in one place, and who knows what the family will look like then?  If I am fortunate enough to have more days like today, they will be rare treats.

All I’ve ever wanted to be was a dad.  That sounds like nonsense, but it is true.  My father and I were very close, and that relationship was incredibly important to me.  I looked forward to having squids of my own and thought about what it would be like to be a dad myself.  Mind you, my mental pictures all were of boy-type children, and even those in a manageable number, like two.  Never did I imagine that I would have five daughters in the house, all competing for bathroom time and monopolizing the TV with iCarly and chick flicks.

Didn’t see this coming, but so glad that it did.

My daughters have been the great blessing of my life.  Although I know you are never out of the woods with your kids (“enduring to the end” and all of that), my girls have presented so few challenges and offered so much joy.  Most of the credit for that goes to my lovely wife, who has taught them to be strong, independent and clearly focused on their goals.  Their husbands will have their hands full, but from a dad’s perspective, it is wonderful to have five daughters who refuse to be objectified or trivialized.

As I sit here listening to them this morning, so many memories bubble to the surface:

The nearly constant laughter that has echoed through this house for over twenty years.

Naps on the couch with a little girl stretched out beside me.  Or two.  Or three.

“Playing tiger” in the living room while my wife accurately prophesied that “one of you is going to get hurt again!”

The tension of an impossibly difficult project for work being broken up when the rejected pages of a brief turned into an epic paper ball fight that still elicits a huge grin from the eldest.

Late nights holding a sick girl, realizing that all I want in the world is for her to smile again.

Beautiful girls dancing on stage with their mother.

Quiet moments of teaching, consoling or counseling.

Reading together on the couch, in bed, in the car…wherever we can.

Standing in line for hours waiting for the newest Harry Potter book or Iron Man movie, embracing our Nerd Natures.

TV marathons reducing our minds to senseless gelatin.

Holding hands in a hospital room, blinking through the tears, and knowing that we survived.  Together.

The joyful memories are incalculable, and they remind me that even though much of my life has not turned out exactly as I expected, the Lord has blessed me beyond measure where it matters the most:  Within the walls of my home.  I am grateful that our Father in Heaven’s plan for us includes Him letting us share in His greatest power and joy:  Creating children, loving them beyond description, and striving to help them reach their divine potential.

The Clone.  The Clown.  The Monkey.  The Angel.  The Baby.

God bless each of you for letting me cry with joy today.

 

 

Lent: I told you I wasn’t alone on this.

OK, this is weird.  I write about Lent on Friday, and Saturday night stumble across this article from the Salt Lake Tribune that discusses how Mormons increasingly are observing some form of lent in preparation for Holy Week:  http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/55968017-80/church-says-lent-lds.html.csp

Told you my family wasn’t alone on this.  but I’m telling you right now, I’m not putting ashes on my forehead.  Religious ritual doesn’t get to cross the lines drawn by my OTC issues.  Knowing there was something on my forehead would drive me bananas.

This is What I Get for Marrying a Catholic

Every now and then my wife reminds me that, despite having a testimony of the truthfulness of the LDS Church and being a member for some 24 years, she hasn’t left all of her Catholicism behind.  The issue usually comes up around this time of year when she will interrupt a perfectly good re-run of Adam-12 to ask me, “What are we giving up for Lent this year?”

This conversation never goes well for me.  I usually respond with, “How about nothing?  I’m not Catholic.  We already give up coffee, tea, booze, tobacco, two meals a month, and catchy music at church.  I think we suffer enough.”

That usually elicits “The Look,” a simple change of expression that has been emasculating me since 1987.   I have a lot of phobias, but there is nothing I fear more than The Look.

OK, maybe albinos.

Each year I try to deflect her with humor.  “I’ll give up crystal meth.”

Crickets.  Guess I’ll skip the one about unsuccessfully giving up celibacy during high school.

Usually, she already has a pretty good idea of how she is going to ruin an otherwise perfectly good month.  Television is a frequent victim of the Lent Offensive, but that ban isn’t nearly as traumatic since we only watch Netflix these days.  Chocolate was a bitter loss one year.  I think fast food bit the dust once.  We’ve even done the traditional red meat thing.  Well, actually Mom got no buy-in whatsoever on THAT nonsense, so the rest of us camped out at McDonald’s while she ate fish sticks.  Religious devotion is one thing, but we don’t need to get all crazy.  That bacon isn’t going to eat itself.

My only solace now is that as I get older, there is less that I can give up for a month.   Between high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, there is nothing I am eating these days that I would miss.  I fall asleep watching TV.  I might offer to give up watching sports this year, hoping that she won’t notice that her eternal companion and father of five girls already surrendered on that front right around the turn of the century.  Maybe we could give up Project Runway, dear.  Do we really need that many men crying over messy seams in our living room?

I’ve discussed this dilemma with several of my LDS friends and was surprised at how little pity they offered.  Apparently, my beloved isn’t the only Mormon who toys with observing Lent.  All kinds of folks are giving up some favorite vice this time of year.  It’s like everyone I know is taking a mulligan on their failed New Year’s resolutions.

I suppose Mormons are used to this sort of thing.  The first Sunday of every month we fast for 24 hours and donate the value of what we would have eaten to the needy.  (“Twenty-four hours” isn’t exactly a precise temporal description.  I have it on good authority that more than one member of the Church follows the same calculation that my family did:  The time between when you go to bed on Saturday–wiping the milkshake off of your mouth–and when church services end the next day equals “twenty-four hours.”  If you have 9 a.m. church, you can get that sucker down to single digits).  If we serve missions, we give up TV for 18 months or two years (not counting walking really slowly through the electronics department at Sears).  We abstain from sexual activity until we are married (and then, if the number of our kids is any indicator, do our best to make up for lost time).  So the idea of giving something up for a month isn’t out of the realm of reason.

Maybe the Lord actually looks kindly on these gestures of sacrifice.  I need all the blessings I can get, and if delaying the gratification of 1970s police dramas will help the cause, I’m game.  Besides, I knew she was Catholic when I dated her.  Kind of late to start griping about it now.  At least she didn’t make me learn Latin.