ET Phoned Home: Why Can’t Missionaries?

We’ve been counseled that questions are good.  That questions help us develop faith.  That questions can even invite change where it is appropriate.

So I’ve got a question.

Why are missionaries discouraged from calling home?

It’s been a long time since I served my mission, but I remember being struck almost immediately about how the mission experience was different from what I perceived, what I expected, and what people talked about.  I was always told that it was the “best two years” of a person’s life, and there were plenty of heart warming conversion stories to back up that claim.  Trouble is, that wasn’t quite the mission I served.  Once I hit the MTC, and for the next two years after that, I learned that missions are about uplifting experiences, but they also include disappointment, injuries and illnesses, unreasonable and sometimes uncharitable church members, companions that you loathe, and rules and expectations that made you scratch your head.   They also sometimes involve danger.  Very real, very frightening danger.  Learned that one on the wrong end of a loaded .38.

The one rule that has been of particular interest, and sometimes irritation, for me, is that missionaries are not supposed to call home except for twice a year.  I understand in general terms why that rule is in place:  We want our missionaries focused on where they are and what they are doing, rather than pining about life before their missions or mooning over what they will do once they get home.  Limiting calls home to twice a year certainly can help with that.

But then you hear these allegations about Joseph Bishop, former president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, and you have to wonder whether insulation merits some second thinking.

The story (and I don’t know if it is true, but it early indications are very concerning) is that a former sister missionary alleges that in 1984 she was sexually abused or assaulted by President Bishop at the MTC.  The Church has released a statement indicating that at some point they learned of the allegations and turned the matter over to law enforcement when Bishop (who is called “Mr. Bishop” in the official statement, with more than a little implied disdain) denied doing anything wrong.  (I’ll withhold any judgment on how the Church handled this…it was 1984, they same year that sexual harassment was recognized as unlawful.  Everyone still had a lot of learning to do).  I have no idea what the dynamics of the situation really were, but my first thought when I herd this is that I would have wanted to hear from my daughter immediately.  But such a call would be a violation of mission rules and would have to have been approved by the mission president.  Fat chance.

Then I reflected on some of the other odd things I have known about where things happened to missionaries that probably shouldn’t have waited for a weekly letter or email.  A daughter of a good friend was discouraged by a mission president to let her family know she had broken her leg.  They only found out when local members contacted them.  My own daughter was required to travel alone during a transfer in a foreign country, including waiting for a ride that didn’t arrive on a dark corner in a sketchy neighborhood.  It was quite some time before I found out about it, and resulted in several discussions with the mission president and the Area Authority to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I’ve personally known missionaries who were encouraged not to report “bad news” back home and instead focus on the positive.   Bad news makes people worry.

Again, I get the motive, but in practice it comes off a little weird.  Missionaries don’t sign up to join a monastery, and parents often are concerned about the welfare of children serving in harm’s way.  We essentially abdicate the parenting role (and, yes, there is a parenting role with your kids even after they turn 18) to a mission president and his wife with whom our only communication is often form letters at the beginning and end of our kids’ missions.

I suspect that some of my concern about open communication is alleviated by email.  Don’t know about anyone else, but I made sure to schedule my week so that I was at the computer when my daughter was emailing home on her p-days.  Those often turned into chat sessions by email that she and I both enjoyed immensely.  That back-and-forth gave us a chance to communicate a little less formally and gave me more insight into what she was doing, the conditions she was serving under, and her dynamics with her companion, other missionaries, and her mission president.  All of those things were helpful for me to know, and it gave me an opportunity to provide counsel on specific issues she was facing instead of generic encouragement to work hard, pray always, and wear clean socks.  When she was struggling and I could provide a little help…those were the moments during her mission that meant a lot to me.

I also think that the nature of email makes it a little more likely that missionaries will be willing to reach out to their family if they need to.  Especially if you have a tablet available to you, it is unlikely to feel like a significant rule violation.  (And maybe it isn’t one…like I said, it has been a long time, and we were still rocking rotary phones when I served).

I’m not trying to be a naysayer, nor am I organizing my own version of “Ordain Women” in order to force the “telephone issue.”  I just think that missionaries need to be able to get immediate counsel from their mom or dad more than twice a year.  And, Heaven forbid, if they need help, they should be able to reach out for it without worrying about getting in trouble with their mission presidents.  Of the challenges facing our missionaries, I imagine that open communication is pretty far down the list.

Now let’s talk about those haircuts…

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Let Me Fill You In About Mormon Missionaries, Mr. Bannon.

Political agitator and perpetually grumpy guy Steven Bannon took a swipe at Mitt Romney a few days ago, accusing him of “hiding behind his religion” by serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than serving in Vietnam.  It was one of the most openly hostile things said about Mormons in years, at least by a political figure.  Whatever this reflects about Mr. Bannon’s religious bigotry, it speaks volumes about his ignorance concerning LDS missionaries.

Here’s how it goes, Mr. Bannon.  The LDS Church teaches that, as a part of his priesthood covenant, every worthy and able young man should serve a two-year proselyting and service mission.  Young women are also invited to serve.  Many of our youth go on missions;  others don’t.  Some are able to serve their full missions; others come home early for medical, family or other reasons.  For those of us who do or did serve, we believe that we are acting on a divine commandment to bring a message of hope, peace, and salvation to the world.  We believe that, at that age, there is nothing more important for us to do.

Missionaries serve without pay, and at their own expense.  Serving a mission doesn’t affect your future position in the Church (file that under “who cares,” since we have an unpaid ministry); doesn’t improve your financial position (just the opposite); disrupts your education; and delays your entry into the workforce.  From a traditional “what’s in it for me” perspective, the answer is “not much.”

Indeed, many missionaries have to learn a new language, mostly on their own.  You don’t get to date (even sailors get shore leave), you call your family twice a year, and you don’t engage in many other common activities for a teenager (like movies, television, or popular music).  You spend most of your time being rejected by people, but soldiering on in the hopes that there is someone for whom you can make a difference.

Missions are often full of drudgery.  You have to go to bed by a prescribed time and wake up early.  You spend hours in scripture study and prayer.  You walk until there are holes in your shoes, and then you walk some more.  You are mocked and insulted.  You sometimes find yourselves in dangerous circumstances, and, unfortunately, sometimes you never go home.

And sometimes you make a difference.  There are days you rescue a soul, lift up a downtrodden spirit, or help someone in need.  There are days that you help to instill or restore faith, reveal a path to someone who is lost, or spend some time raking leaves for a shut in.  Every success says nothing about you.  There are no medals, commendations, or accolades.  If you do well, you are honorably released at the end of your service.  And you move on with your life.

Missions are not in lieu of military service nor are they an escape from civic obligations.  I served with missionaries who were in the armed forces before they served the Church, and I served with others who enlisted afterwards.  That many people choose to do both demonstrates their outstanding character and their commitment to God and country.

I never enlisted in the armed forces.  I don’t hide behind my religion to excuse that.  I never wanted to serve in the military, and so I didn’t.  As service isn’t compulsory, I chose to do other things.  But I honor those who serve our nation and fight for our freedom because I am confident that such service requires sacrifices beyond my imagination.  I don’t belittle them because their commitment was different from mine.

And I don’t expect to be belittled for my two years, either.  I wasn’t a great missionary.  I was barely an adequate one.  But I served in order to fulfill a covenant that I believed I had made with my God—and to follow the example of my brother, who (by the way) honorably served in the U.S. Army following his mission.  I did it because I felt that was what integrity required of me.  I’m proud of that decision.  I’m proud of all who have made that decision.

Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone agrees with it.  But I didn’t serve to be respected or agreed with.  I did it because serving others, even in as poor a fashion as I sometimes did it, is the right thing to do. And I give the benefit of the doubt to all that have served that they acted for the same reasons.

Mr. Bannon would be better advised to pause before insulting those who have made a covenant that he clearly does not understand.

Gays and the LDS Church: Rethinking What I Thought

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way:

I’m not losing my testimony.

I’m not telling the Church what to do.

I”m not claiming a new revelation.

All that said, and knowing that my Bishop and Stake President both read this blog, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’m not sure that I am confident that I know what I thought I knew when it comes to the LGBT community and the Church.

This is something that has been much on my mind of late, mostly because of my interactions with gay folks that have challenged my perceptions and prejudices.  I’ve written before that I regret having been unfair and often ugly when it came to my reaction to gays and lesbians.  But being tolerant is one thing.  Loving people is something different.

In the near future, I will be going to my first same-sex marriage ceremony for two young women that I think the world of.  One has been like a daughter to my wife and me, to the point that my own daughters complain that I like her better.  She would insist that I do, and might hurt me if I said otherwise.  When I was in an auto accident years ago, she was one of the first at my side in the hospital.  She cried. I cried.  And we just held hands in silence, because that was enough.  She is a bright light in my life, and I would do anything for her.

I was invited to be present when the marriage proposal was made (a much bigger production than when I proposed to my wife in the front seat of my pickup), during which I looked around and thought, “Well, Robin, you never pictured yourself here!”  Then I shrugged, hugged everyone, got my picture taken with the couple, and told them both I love them.  Because I do.

Imagining the two of them apart is just…weird.  They are loving and warm, wonderful with my family, and just good people.  There are plenty of heterosexual married couples, including many within the Church, that I am hesitant to have around my kids.  Not these two young ladies.  I wondered how, if one or both of them were to join the Church, I could ask or expect them to separate.  Pondering it made my head hurt.

The Church is visibly struggling right now in sorting out what to do with LGBT members and prospective members.  The Church’s opposition to Proposition 8 in California resulted in considerable blowback, but it did get the Church to reassess its position and message.  Church leaders have said supportive things about gay members that I never thought I would hear.  On the flip side, the policy regarding children of gay parents cut against that trend, as did the Church’s recent position on the baker who didn’t want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.  The Church is working hard on its message, but it remains mixed.

Doctrinally, the Church has tweaked its position on homosexuality by saying that it isn’t a choice and same-sex attraction is not a sin.  Acting on it, however, by being in a same-sex relationship is considered a sin and is grounds for excommunication.  That is a line that I think just can’t hold.  I’m not sure how doctrinally or ethically sound it is (given that thinking about other sinful conduct is supposed to be a no-no, right?), and it puts us in the awkward position of saying that neither heterosexual attraction nor homosexual attraction are bad, but you can only have a relationship is you are straight.  And the definition of chastity that we are given in the temple–no sexual relations except with your lawfully married husband or wife–complicates matters further.  Married gays could, with a straight face, declare that they are living the law of chastity under that definition.

I don’t have the answers here, and I don’t want to pretend that I do.  Gobs of people professed to have all the answers about race and the priesthood, only to have their arguments swept away by revelation.  I suspect that as our leaders continue to work through this issue, such divine direction is likely to come again.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer surprises us.

What I do know is this:  If you take away the things that make both heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles unseemly (sex before marriage, promiscuity, lack of commitment, reckless behavior, etc.), I don’t personally have much of a gripe left with gay relationships.  And the more that I interact with folks who are LGBT (well, LGB at least;  I don’t really know any T’s), the more I have realized that my thinking has been unsound and unfair.

Experience should soften us.  I was racist, until I spent my mission in the midst of wonderful people of other races and my prejudices were shattered on the rocks of reality.  I was judgmental until I came to know people who had done terrible things and learned more of their stories.  And I was harsh to homosexuals until they became friends and family.  I can’t be harsh any more.  I’ve invested too much love to do that.

I do not believe that the Lord has had the final say on this issue.  I believe that we still have plenty to learn, and that as we become prepared for greater light, we will receive it, and we will be able to accept whatever that light will reveal.  But even with the limited light I have now, I can see the need to love more, judge less, and not assume that what I’ve always thought on the subject necessarily is true.  I’m open to additional instruction.

Incense on the Altar

Incense on the Altar

R.S. Ghio

 

Slightly burnt cookies quietly deposited on a doorstep

Acrid sweat earned in lifting a brother

Residue of a thousand cigarettes lingering nervously at the back of the chapel

Fetid cloud of diapers, Cheerios and recess enveloping a harried mother

Antiseptic air in a hospital room during a prayer of faith

Sweet savour to the Lord.

What Do You See?

What Do You See?

R.S. Ghio


What do you see when you look at me?

Jew?

Gentile?

Heretic?

What do you see when you look at me?

Man?

Woman?

Abomination?

What do you see when you look at me?

My heart?

My skin?

My scars?

What do you see when you look at me?

Wanderer?

Foreigner?

Enemy?

What do you see when you look at me?

Neighbor?

Burden?

Untouchable?

What do you see when you look at me?

Begger?

Thief?

Pariah?

Brother…

Sister…

What do you see?

 

 

 

Requiem to a Mustache

My continuing series of whisker poetry.  You might want to get a tissue.

Requiem to a Mustache

Oh mustache, my mustache
Why did we part?
You were off of my face
But still in my heart

In a moment of weakness
I shaved my poor face
You went down the drain
With naught left in your place

Oh mustache, my mustache
It made me look young
By my lip got so chilly
And nothing sheltered my tongue

Mustache, dearest mustache
Without you I lack
A thick, manly fur patch
Unless someone looks at my back

Oh mustache, sweet mustache
I’m so glad you returned
I won’t leave you there lonely
I just might grow sideburns.