It happened within this last week. The heavy realization of having just graduated high school, the impending onslaught of personal responsibility and independence, the wave of nostalgia from the journey thus far… I have been struck hard. Having been in the Dominican Republic recently for 9 days on a humanitarian trip, I have had a fair amount of time to contemplate my current state of limbo, and consequently nearing future as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though having yet to complete my application process, and thus not knowing where I will be sent, nonetheless I have been buttressed with a myriad of emotions and reflections regarding the mission I plan to serve. Some of these I wish to share below, this post being more of a public journal entry than anything else. As always, I invite you to read, respond, and hopefully bear with the ramblings of this Mormon youth looking to brave the world.
To begin, setting forth a proper explanation of what an LDS mission is, and what it entails, seems proper. Essentially, Mormon missionaries strive to be representatives of Jesus Christ and His Gospel on the earth by inviting all to come unto Him, be saved and follow His teachings and example. The are called to assist in meeting the temporal and spiritual needs of those they serve, while devoting two full years of their lives to God in active ministry and strict religious observance and conduct. Missionaries can be called to travel to distant lands and foreign countries, becoming immersed and familiar with the local culture and language of where they stay. They remain well-groomed, actively engaged in both evangelizing and service, and separated from the influences of the world by abstaining from popular media, music, and many forms of recreation. Their daily routine is well-planned, beginning in the early morning and ending later at night. They are permitted to write home on a weekly basis, as well as being able to call/Skype family twice a year on Christmas and Mother’s Day. In all, the mission is extremely demanding on all levels physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual and very much serves as an extended “coming-of-age” ritual within within Mormonism. From both current and post-Mormons who have had the opportunity to serve a mission, the common theme that I have heard is that serving a mission ranks among the very top of the most challenging, and most personally rewarding ventures that they have ever experienced.
Within Mormon circles, the mission is highly idealized from an early age, with Primary-aged youth learning songs like “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission”. I have always enjoyed browsing through pictures my father took while serving in the New York, New York South Mission where he taught in the Spanish language, as well as hearing of the many
misadventures that befell him there. Beyond him, many of my uncles and cousins have likewise served, in places like the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Australia, Mexico and more. In essence, like many youth coming from dominantly Mormon families, I have been surrounded and raised with a “mission” culture all around me. For many years though, I remember this was at times distressing, with the chief concern of mine long being did I even want to serve a mission?
For many years, the answer to this was a definitive no. Since an early age, I have held the desire to teach, travel, and focus on my education and subsequent career path as a professor of somewhere within the humanities. The mission for me then was seen as an inconvenience, a burden, and an undesirable social expectation that would only conflict with my plans. Life is too short, I thought, and so a mission wasn’t along the lines of something that I wanted to take part in. I recall many instances in Sunday school sitting in class only to here the teacher make the request, “Now, raise your hand if you are going to serve a mission!” For the span of several years, my hands remained confidently at my side, indifferent to the potentially surprised or in one instance, disgruntled, looks garnered from the teacher or youth leader.
“Are you just not sure whether you want to go?”
“Nope”, I would reply, “I am pretty certain that I won’t be going on a mission. It is just not for me.”
This would be in turn followed by a class discussion on the purpose and importance of missions, how in the words of the Prophet Thomas S. Monson, “Every worthy, able young man should prepare to serve a mission” with “missionary service [being] a priesthood duty.” Although I appreciated and very-much shared their sentiments, too often the tone moved from one of loving invitation to perhaps inciting feelings of guilt or isolation. I never felt it convincing at the time, and so remained confident in my own independent thinking and choice-making that I had then settled on. But as time progressed, I found things beginning to change. My attitude towards my faith, myself and the world around me matured. Much like Joseph Smith in his 1832 Account of the First Vision, I could say that, “Thus, from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divisions, the wickedness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind. My mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins… I felt to mourn for my sins and the sins of the world.” (grammar, punctuation and spelling regularized)
The more I realized and grappled with my own struggles which have plagued me since my youth, the more I sought to improve on my own imperfections and weaknesses, I only became more convinced that this was not a fight that I could win by myself. During my years of active faith crisis in which I was searching to obtain an authentic expression of my own spirituality, I related so deeply to the struggle that is common to every man during the course of their existence; that of finding and determining their own path through life’s complexities. As a became more sure and confident in my faith -as a Latter-day Saint that is- I became more cognizant of the great clarity, perspective, stability, joy, and peace that the Savior and His Gospel had given me. My spiritual experiences and newfound personal testimonies became the foundational lens through which I would view the world (see Blake Ostler’s Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment). While many of these personal beliefs are doctrinally or theologically unique to Mormonism, I can say that my overall paradigm shares a multitude of similar expressions and attitudes with many other faiths and worldviews; that is to say, I by no means credit myself with obtaining these truths. Like Jonathan Haidt in his work The Happiness Hypothesis, I too have found modern truth in ancient wisdom. Perhaps a natural component of coming to have what we Mormons call a “testimony” (or the sum total of our personal conviction), is the desire to share it with others. As this took place, I heard internally the call to serve ring louder and louder until I knew, that a mission was something that I needed to go on. Despite years of external influence hoping to persuade me earlier, it wasn’t until I became convinced of it myself that I made the decision to go.
That being said I hope to answer a few questions: why is it exactly that I wish to serve a mission, what do I anticipate experiencing on my mission, what do I hope to accomplish or gain from my mission, and what are my feelings heading into serving?
1) Why serve a mission?
Besides considering myself a faithful, practicing and committed Mormon, I more so consider myself a citizen of the world, child of God, and a follower of Christ. These three identities give me cause to travel the world, love all of humanity as myself, and serve them unconditionally. I do not wish to serve a mission to create more Mormons, though some might find that foolishly ironic. Rather, my focus while on the mission will be to solely minister to the spiritual and material needs of those I encounter, be they Mormon or not. If I can ease their burdens, if I can brighten their day, if I can impart on them some newfound wisdom or tool that they can apply towards their lives, then I will be fully content. As a representative of Jesus Christ and His Church, I will be constantly be inviting others to come to Him and follow his example, whether verbally or by my actions alone. In total, these are briefly the reasons why I wish to serve a mission.
2) What do I expect to experience?
As often heard from individuals who have previously served, I expect my mission to be one of the most demanding ventures that I will ever embark on. I fully anticipate and intend on being pressed both emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually throughout the course of what I will be called to do. For two years, I will be adhering to a largely routinized and fixed schedule, following stringent standards of personal decorum. Throughout this process, which some might feel becomes monotonous, I am going forward with the intent of engaging it from a sacramental approach. That is, I fully plan on practicing mindfulness and internal contemplation as I perform and carry out my repeated duties. Activities as small as shaving then will become more ritualistic and sacramental in nature instead of thoughtless responsibilities. By losing myself in the moment, by focusing on virtues such as discipline, peace, charity and others, I hope to turn my mission into as close a monastic experience as a Mormon might have. Though we have no monks, nuns, or religious orders within our faith, perhaps the mission might afford me a similar experience for inward contemplation. I anticipate feeling some of the most elevated of highs, and perhaps the lowest of lows, while out in the field though no matter what then occupies my attention, I hope to walk with the Savior continuously, relying on His Grace, Strength, and Spirit throughout to sustain me.
In essence, I am looking forward to an opportunity to love and serve unconditionally, to challenge myself and grow in an unprecedented manner, and dedicate nearly every action and thought to my God, Savior and faith for two years.
And to top it all off, there is the good chance I will be sent to another country and be learning a foreign language at the same time.
3) What do I hope to accomplish/gain?
There is a cultural saying within Mormon circles that goes along the lines of “sometimes the one person one saves on their mission is themselves”. If I am the sole individual who benefits from my serving a mission, by becoming in some way closer to God through the process of sanctification that He leads me through, if the only soul who is brought into the fold is myself, I will consider the whole effort entirely worth it. Nonetheless, I will be going forward with what is known as the Kenotic Ethic. In Christology, the Greek word kenosis (literally meaning emptiness) stems from Philipians 2:7 where ἐκένωσεν (ekénōsen) is used in depicting Christ as taking upon himself a human form in mortality. By this action, he emptied himself of his own will, thereby completely accepting and carrying out the will of the Father. Kenotic Ethic then indicates much the same in humans who sacrifice or empty themselves of their own will, thereby humbling themselves through subservience and service to others as exemplified by Christ. This ethic, the ethic of sacrifice and selflessness, is one then that I hope to imitate and aspire to while out in the mission field. I find such perfectly encapsulated in the following:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20
Being an average American teenager, I am no stranger to the foibles of youth and -by that token- mankind. I carry many personal imperfections and weaknesses, some of which I have worked long to overcome. My hope, my prayer, and my faith, is that through humbling myself to the greatest extent through Christlike service, His Grace will be sufficient in making weak things become strong. (Ether 12:27) I am serving a mission with the desire to change and be changed. I am certain that the Jaxon who leaves will not be the Jaxon returns.
4) What are my current feelings?
Currently, I am undergoing an amalgam of emotions such as excitement, fear, insecurity, anxiety, hope, sadness, and love. It’s selfish of me, but the prospect of leaving so much of what I know and love is a hard sacrifice for me to make. Saying goodbye to my perfect family will be unprecedented in my experience. It is not a choice that I make easily, but it is one that I make willingly because I know that I must. The Jaxon that I have idealized for so long, the better version of myself that I have strived to be for so long, is one that can only come first through the trial of serving a mission. Putting all religious implications aside, it is the more selfless, spiritually mature, compassionate, disciplined, and wiser Jaxon that I hope to become. Some might say that such could be achieved through a similar venture, perhaps by serving with UNICEF or another charitable organization? It could be I suppose, but my identity of being a Mormon, coupled with my authentic and honest desire to teach others that which has brought such happiness in my life, the Gospel of Christ, makes a mission the perfect provider of such.
In being just a bit more vulnerable, I can say that the weight of serving a mission hit me the hardest while I was flying back from the Dominican Republic to Atlanta just this week. I became briefly overwhelmed and for close two hours, couldn’t help but weep at the thought of it all. Leaving my family and my life. Loving and serving others as Christ did. Dedicating my two years to my faith and my Father in Heaven. By no means am I the “crying” type, but this was an unexpected and powerful experience that ultimately ended with thoughts of peace as the following scripture came to mind in a whisper-like voice:
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”
Though I have planned on serving a mission for awhile now, the Call to Serve has recently been sounding within me louder than ever. I am filled with many emotions and expectations at the prospect; the chief of which being a desire to love, serve, and grow. The next few months will mark time for me to save towards the endeavor, enjoying my summer with family and friends, and in preparing spiritually through prayer, study, and attending the Temple (of which I will be entering to receive my endowments beforehand). I plan on writing as much as I can until then on the subjects I have heretofore covered, having also several upcoming projects and engagements which I will be sure to provide here. As far as my communication on my mission, I am planning on perhaps publishing my letters through this blog (provided they don’t contain advert personal information) and also devising a master-list which those interested in receiving the emails directly can subscribe to. Regardless, with high school now over, my transition to the soon Elder Washburn seems to be happening faster than ever.
How grateful I am for it.