Our Montana ward has the rare opportunity to help a full-time missionary finish where he started.
This tall elder was bright-eyed and eager when he first came to town two years ago. He had a good trainer; he was righteous and ready to teach. We adored his unassuming, humble nature and the example he was to our children.
We fed him dinner. We hosted lessons in our home with investigating friends. We got attached, whether he knew it or not.
So weren’t we surprised to see him walk into the chapel after recent transfers. He arrived with a new missionary, fresh into the field. They stood side by side with poise and power as he introduced his green companion to all his old friends.
He then stood in sacrament meeting to share his testimony, but emotion overcame him temporarily as he said, “I feel like I’m home.”
No offense to his mother, but we felt the same about our “son.”
Two years of service can do a lot for a young man in his prime. Our elder is now wiser and his eyes looked a little more weary than when he first arrived. Although he may have gained a couple pounds and his neckties are not quite as crisp, he is stronger both inside and out. He continues to endear us with offers of service and handwritten thank you notes stamped and mailed following a hot meal. (I am not even kidding!)
Our mission in Montana has been participating in a pilot program with social media. Missionaries who meet some sort of level of trust set up Facebook accounts and communicate regularly with members as well as past and potential investigators. They post messages and inspirational thoughts as well as scriptures and spiritual tidbits. I’m uplifted by being their “friend” and am able to remember the last names of missionaries long after they leave our town.
The other day I asked how the experiment was going and they both confirmed that it was positive, but then they shared a challenge they’d been given by their mission president and visiting authorities.
“They asked us to ‘fast’ from social media for 11 days and read the Book of Mormon instead,” he explained. “We were able to finish reading from cover to cover in those 11 days. It was amazing.”
It’s not a bad challenge for the rest of us to follow: “fast” from distractors in our life and use the time for a spiritual feast.
Last week, I met the elders at the home of a woman who investigated the church two years ago. We reviewed her experiences back then of attending church regularly, of reading several hundred pages into the Book of Mormon and of sharing her feelings on a fast Sunday about her budding testimony.
She confessed that her church attendance is based more on social than spiritual needs, and she enjoyed the potlucks at the church around the corner from her apartment.
I watched the elders’ reaction and tried to follow their cues. I wondered if they would try to persuade or convince. I wondered if they would feel any kind of desperation to teach more lessons in the final days of serving together.
But it was obvious they had no intention of making the moment about themselves. They were simply there to help others come closer to Christ and exercise free agency. They shared an analogy of a bike needing two wheels to keep moving forward, and in her case, those wheels represented spiritual and social priorities. They encouraged her not to let her spirituality go flat in favor of speeding to the next social event, and she responded well.
They bore a strong testimony of the restored gospel and encouraged her to read from the scriptures regularly. I entered my phone number in her cellphone directory in case she ever needed a ride to church or help in any way. We prayed together and left all having become better for the experience.
Our departing elder stood again in sacrament meeting last Sunday to share a final testimony to our ward family. His words were simple and succinct, but I could barely see through the tears and think that’s what his mother may have felt two years ago.
So as he leaves our community, the farewell will be bittersweet. I'll never tell him how much his Montana moms will worry, just like his mother has for the last two years, as he goes back to the real world of college, jobs and dating.
I now better understand my connection with all those South Texas families who watched over me during my full-time mission many years ago.
The bond is strong and not often discussed, but missionary service truly stakes down heartstrings for this life and beyond.