When our oldest was eighteen, he decided he didn’t want to serve a mission. He was (and still is) an exceptional big brother to his siblings, my right hand at home, an Honor student who would go on to earn two academic scholarships to university to study Law and Business. He was active in church, attended Seminary, enjoyed going to youth activities, – but still, he wasn’t interested in being a missionary.
Were we sad? Sure. Disappointed? No. We’ve tried to raise children who can make their own prayerful choices and then have the strength, resolve and confidence to follow them through. We told him we love him, we’re proud of the young man he’s become and we would support him in his decision.
Not long after, a member of the Stake Presidency visited our ward and spoke to the young men, in particular, the ‘prospective missionaries.’ He asked, who is planning to go on a mission? Every boy raised his hand. Except for my son. The man then proceeded to single out my son. He said, among other things, “You have to choose what side you’re on. It’s very clear. If you’re not choosing the Lord by going on a mission, then you’re choosing to be on Satan’s side. It’s that simple.”
When my son told me what had happened, he was quietly upset. He said, “I don’t think this church is the right place for me.” My heart broke for my boy and I was so incredibly angry. With that man who had treated him with such callous insensitivity . And yes, with a church culture which dictates that a young man MUST serve a mission, or else he is inadequate somehow. A church culture that would have us believe if a young man doesn’t choose a mission then he must be weak or selfish or a sinner. That he must instead, be choosing Satan.
The sad irony is that not all the young men in the class that day – ever went on to serve missions. Yes a few did. But others didn’t. For a variety of reasons. One of our son’s friends went so far as to submit his papers because of the pressure from family and friends, but when the call came, he refused to go. It was a tough time for him and his parents. His father threw him out of the house because ‘no son of mine is going to turn down a mission call…’ How many others submit their papers, leave on missions and then go home early – because they went for the wrong reasons? Because they hadn’t felt confident enough or supported enough to NOT raise their hand when the recruiter came calling?
That’s not the only time the culture of Mormon missionary perfection has reared its judgemental head. When my son got his scholarship acceptance letters, I posted a photo on social media of us with our boy, informing our family and friends of the good news. A proud mother, I also wrote a mini-essay about how much I love him, how excited I was for his future, and all he would become. Many celebrated with us and wrote to congratulate our son. Then I got a message from one of my dearest friends. A one-liner note – “Is he planning at all on going on a mission?”
No congratulations. No warm wishes. No #Yay!
Only a single sentence loaded with judgement. I don’t usually use the F-bomb. But I was sorely tempted to that day.
Today my son is in his second year at university. Still my right hand when it comes to his siblings, listening to my #BusyMum rants via messaging and giving me long distance advice and cracking jokes to make me laugh. He’s still my heart. Still my beloved. I’m still ridiculously proud of him and I thank God every day for the blessing of being his mum. He only attends church when he’s home for the holidays. I see how he keeps his careful distance from others in the ward. Yes, he’s polite and considerate but he no longer goes to church activities. I don’t know how much of that is connected to his no-mission choice. I can only guess as to how welcome – or unwelcome – he feels around other Mormons.
That makes me sad.
Today’s lesson in Sunday School was about Christ’s condemnation of hypocrisy – the obsession with outward appearance and a neglect of inner holiness. We talked about how the scribes and Pharisees were caught in a rigid system of legalism to justify themselves and others before God. How they often did things like attend worship services, pray, give to the poor and go to the temple, not because of their faith, but out of a desire to be seen as righteous by others. We were challenged to look within and ask ourselves, how are WE hypocrites? Saying one thing but doing another. Pretending to be someone we aren’t. And like the Pharisees, getting bogged down in the complex tangle of church rules and programs – so much that we neglect the “weightier matters”, things like mercy, faith and Christ-like love.
Why do we sometimes pretend? Is it because we’re afraid we won’t be accepted if we are transparent about our beliefs or our differences? It would have been so easy for my son to lie. To raise his hand and ‘go with the crowd’. To pretend, that yes, ‘I’m like everyone else. I’m committed to being a missionary.’ What was the big deal? It was only a lesson with a visiting stranger from the Stake. Who really cared if he faked it and put his hand up?
My son cared. About being honest and about representing his true self. And I’m going to take a wild guess and say that his Heavenly Father cared.
Does our church culture breed hypocrisy? By requiring people to always say and do the ‘proper’ thing, rather than accepting them for who they are, as another child of God who’s flawed and trying to find their way? This is tied to how often we judge others. We make it difficult for each other to be honest about our imperfections. We make it a struggle for our sisters and brothers to reveal their weaknesses, ask their questions, express their doubts and live their truths.
Sis Chieko Okazaki wrote, “Somehow we get the message that Heavenly Father doesn’t want the real us. He wants the prettied-up us, the does-everything-right us, the almost-perfect us. Sometimes we believe that Jesus is saying, ‘Clean up your act and then come back.’ But He wants us just as we are – broken, feeble, imperfect, limited in understanding and limited in achievement.”
I love this truth.
But as I think about that long-ago Sunday when a church leader told my son he was on the same side as Satan, I ask myself, how welcoming are we of the broken, feeble, imperfect and limited in understanding…? Of those who love, live and worship Christ in a different way than we do? If our church is a ‘hospital ‘ for the sick and afflicted and not a ‘museum’ for the beautifully perfect – then why are we so often, so ruthlessly exacting in our expectations of those who come to this hospital seeking strengthening, love and fellowship?
Church should be a place where we can feel the love of the Saviour – through the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, uplifting messages of the speakers, the Sacrament renewal of our baptismal covenants, inclusive and engaging gospel discussion, beautiful music, and the care and concern of teachers and leaders who are sincerely committed to the youth they have stewardship over. We all have a part to play in creating a church environment like this and I’m grateful for those who have helped my children feel of that love throughout their years in Primary and YM/YW. I hope I’ve been that kind of teacher and leader during my various callings.
How can we do better and be better? Our Sunday School reading included Christ’s response to the lawyer who asked what the greatest commandment was. – “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And yes, on these two commandments, hangs every ‘motivational’ talk we give to young men. Even if they don’t want to go on a mission.
Post by Lani from New Zealand