Sunday Essay: A Reluctant Missionary

Like the Jacob Hannah character in my historical novel, And Should We Die, I was a reluctant missionary. I remember my feelings as a newly-called missionary – unsure as to what I was getting into and whether or not I had enough fortitude to see it through. When I made up my mind that I did not want to go on a mission it was too late. I was already there with promises to keep. The following is my remembering.

I grew up in a small village in the Rocky Mountains some 165 miles north of Salt Lake City. I look back upon those first 19 years as the formative process for a child of pioneer stock, of a band of Mormon believers sent to our valley to found a community bonded by faith, hard work, trust in each other and a God who spoke from Heaven to individual souls who were anxiously engaged in the good causes of life.

I recall that by the time of my late-teens a sense of religious duty seemed irresistible as it prompted some sort of postponement of my growing sense of independence and what my future might look like in terms of education and vocation.

I grew up only partially active in the Church and that mostly for social reasons. I grew up relatively free from parental pressure to go to church and if I attended for reasons other than social and connected to my love life, it would have been a response to the unrelenting and guilt-making pressure from my beloved Grandmother. Grandma Ruger was the one who taught me the religious stuff like prayers but who could not seem to tolerate any form of disappointment in her expectations and wishes that we be good active Mormons.

When I entered the age of availability – 19 years – and aware of our ward’s missionary-minded bishop, Glen Yost, I tried to stay low on his radar. But my attempt to avoid the bishop was only half-hearted in that the sense of pride in being thought of as mission-worthy did much to challenge any critical thought on my part about putting my life ahead of the Lord’s need of me.

Bishop Yost easily cornered me one Tuesday or Wednesday night at MIA and I knew what he wanted. I was next in line among his harvesting of local recent high school graduates and urging them to fulfill a mission for the Church. Even as I was gathered in and cornered in his office I knew that I would probably agree to go.

My own assessment of how I might be a man worthy of a mission call was somewhat tempered by an inner awareness and admission that I was a social Mormon more than a testimony Mormon.

No one more than I was aware that I had not prayed according to the Moroni formula in chapter 10 of the Book of Mormon which was a constant teaching theme in Church, MIA and Seminary classes.

No one more than I was aware that I had been going through the duty motions to please family and peers more than a consequence of the inner-convicted faith of someone like Nephi in the Book of Mormon.

The only “spiritual” moving experiences seemed to come with my response to Mormon music – mostly the hymns that I liked the best. I’ve only recently come to realize that I have been brought “spiritually” to tears more by music than the spoken word, more by the tune and melody of a favorite hymn than any sermon or lesson.

That is still true today.

Back then no one more than I was aware that my kidding and joking and lack of seriousness that interjected itself into almost any religious discussion with my friends was closer to the real me than any sense of piety and future religious devotion.

But I listened to Bishop Yost make his pitch and almost without hesitation, perhaps as a habit of going along with whoever I wanted not to be disappointed in me, I told him I would think about going.

Within a week, having added a dose of serious do or don’t to the issues of life, I experienced what seems like my first religious prompting.

I was moving irrigation pipe and thinking about whether or not I would go on a mission. At some point I forgot about the mechanics of moving pipe and got lost in my thoughts. A few minutes later I realized that I was pondering about what a mission would be like for me all the while a hymn, The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning, was playing over and over again in my head.

That then was the closest I had ever come to experience and believing that the Lord was bringing something to my personal attention … in my memory that is the first time I was ever prompted by God.

Contacting Bishop Yost with the good news of my agreeing to go was the easiest next step. Of course then he went right for the jugular in terms of preparation and repentance.

I’d have to quit my secret smoking on the way to and from pipe moving and with my friends in the evening. It wasn’t as secret as I thought and my mother confirmed that years later when we were joking about how I thought I was fooling people.

All this took place in the early summer of 1965. By August and my 19th birthday I’d received my Patriarchal Blessing and a call to the Spanish American Mission in Texas and New Mexico. I was disappointed for a while because I had requested and had my heart set on Peru. I guess Texas and Spanish was the best I could get.

I do not recall any further promptings until I entered the mission home in Salt Lake and the enormity (well to me it WAS enormous) of what I’d done and how I was locked in to a way of life for the next 2 1/2 years hit me.

I had no sense of “trying this one out” and having any right to change my mind and give it up. My mother, who was not active, had flat out told me that if I went I had to complete it and that she would not have me come home early. She was referring to being sent home from my mission for getting in trouble or serious sinfulness but it didn’t matter. I was her oldest and if she agreed to have me go there was no way of ever wrecking her opinion of me by trying to the right thing and failing.

So into the mission home I went, experiencing the most intense and powerful moment of reluctance and change of mind I would have over the next 30 months. The mission home was full of the kinds of guys I had come to both envy and detest because they came from active families or because they came already testimonied-up and because they looked and acted so damned happy to be there.

I on the other hand did not feel that way.

Before I got out of the car my mother had hinted that I could still change my mind … and I was tempted. But then my grandmother was there and ready to literally bawl me out if I tried to change my mind. Coupled with the awareness that I did not want my mother to see me try and fail at anything, I outwardly avoided changing my mind.

I went into the mission home feeling more than ever that I had faked my way through things once too often.

All I had going for me was my new suit, my new missionary Bible with its center section full of interesting stuff and my new Book of Mormon. Both books had my name and title embossed on the front. Elder Arthur Ruger … at least I felt like a dignified faker.

To correct my problem I went after the formula testimony as instructed. 

“Ask God if it’s true and you will feel it.”

 I didn’t know what the hell that felt like and to my memory my bosom never even scorched, let alone burned.

Maybe my pipe-moving moment was my burning bosom … but my bosom had not burned and my rubber boots leaked as I squished my way back and forth across the field in August humming The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning in my head.

I suppose I made that pipe-moving epiphany do for my burning bosom for a long time since there was no way I was going to back out of this predicament. 

But I’ll tell you … 

24 months looked like an endless time frame and I felt something akin to having entrapped myself inextricably in  quicksand where I would only be able to tread water and hopefully keep my nose out of it.

I had pretended my way into my 19th year. Now, stuck (committed) to my extended service in Texas, I could not bring myself to pretend my way through another two years just to return home having made no mistakes and therefore having completed an honorable mission. In my young heart I knew it would be necessary to my integrity to be mentally faithful above all to myself.

Why? Because I understood that infidelity does not consist in mere belief or disbelief. It comes from proclaiming as truth things I do not believe.

I had to obtain a spiritual experience that would inform and energize my life as an ordained minister called to mission work.

And my soul hungered”: The Only Testimony I could offer.

A Book of Mormon hero, Enos, prayed mightily and gained a remission of his sins—The voice of the Lord came into his mind …

Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it—

Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

However, having come to grips with what we concluded that I must bear testimony (witness) to versus what I really knew in the most personal corners of my heart, I’d like to take this opportunity to describe reality of God in my life.

As a new proselyting missionary wearing the title of “Elder, ” I had not prepared myself, felt that I had no testimony of the truth of any particular LDS narrative or teaching and that I stood at the precipice of a dangerous leap into a pretense that – if maintained – would lead ultimately to a revealing of myself as a hypocrite, mouthing words and phrases regarding things of which I had no internal convictions and about which I had received no divine prompting.

Rather than give in to that temptation to walk away, I took steps that led to my own “Enos moment ,” if you will … referring to a scriptural concept I had heard frequently over the time of my youth.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God,
the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true;
and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent,
having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it
unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.

The narrative of our heritage tells us to ask God with that heartfelt attitude which leads to a more intimate communion with the divine. There was no other way to get my anchor into the water.

I began a process that took much longer than one all-day-all-night period. I’d have to say that sufficient fullness in that regard did not come to pass until I was in Texas and already going through all the motions as an ordained minister called to preach the gospel.

Eventually, in a form only I might be able to understand (since my prayers were personal, pertinent primarily to me and involved only my own standing before God), I came to a place where I felt I could serve as an honorable missionary.

The intensity of life as a missionary can do much for the intensity of spiritual experience.

A missionary’s constant flow with the depth of scripture and the constancy of looking for the Spirit in every moment and event of mission life can inspire a life permeated by that peculiar Mormon revelatory attitude that attempts to experience God in every venue.

Not totally aware of the difference between how I experienced life spiritually as a focused missionary and how others not living in a similar intensely spirit driven mode might not be experiencing life in the same way, I essentially assumed that what was happening to me had for the most part already happened to every active adult Mormon; that I had finally arrived into that Mormon spirit-driven way of living that I had envied for so long in others.

I returned home as an on-fire returned missionary and ready for the next steps the Lord was preparing me to take. Like most active and participating members of the Church, I accepted as literal the LDS narratives about our earliest history, the LDS doctrines and assertions regarding my belonging to and being an integral part of the One True Church on the Face of the Earth. It was a heady time and did not seem to dissipate for almost 25 years.

Consistent with my missionary personality of the mid-sixties, I for the most part with ease accepted and maintained the narratives, doctrines and commitments as a priesthood-holder, father and temple-wed husband …

… until there came a time when events, people and historical narratives came to my attention in ways that I had heretofore (almost subconsciously) deliberately avoided or ignored. Eventually, a mindset came over me that hearkened back to 1965 and my frightened humanity in the Salt Lake Mission Home. That mission-home desperation of 1965 drove me to a personal humility in the presence of God that seemed so necessary for me to attain ministerial honor as a young missionary.

Such was the only personal experience on which I could rely to help me deal with all these pieces of information that seemed to tumble, as it were, into my awareness whether I was ready or prepared or not. It seems now like that was how the rest of the Moroni Promises asserted themselves.

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

And whatsoever thing is good is just and true;
wherefore, nothing that is good denieth the Christ,
but acknowledgeth that he is.

And ye may know that he is, by the power of the Holy Ghost;
wherefore I would exhort you that ye deny not the power of God;
for he worketh by power, according to the faith of the children of men,
the same today and tomorrow, and forever.

And again, I exhort you, my brethren, that ye deny not the gifts of God,
for they are many; and they come from the same God.
And there are different ways that these gifts are administered;
but it is the same God who worketh all in all;
and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men,
to profit them.

I owned (as we all do) spiritually tangible experiences and knowledge that I had well understood all along and that had served me well for years. I just seemed to have forgotten the import and meaning of those experiences. Had I forgotten how I had made them work for me as a young missionary and a young father, husband and priesthood holder in every ward in which I resided?

In the face of new information, confusing narrative conflicts and rising doubts, I seemed to have forgotten the next-step applications of wisdom regarding my experiences with the Moroni Promises. That Moroni-Promise process in reality had nothing to do with whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet nor with the true-church narratives that intersect with LDS attention spans much like the chatter coming from a television set left on in the background.

The essence of that process is purely and simply the formula for success for every religious mystic in every setting (Christian or otherwise) going back thousands of years.

What should we expect should happen for or to us as we attend and participate in Church?

Perhaps better asked, what appears to be the expectation the Church has for what happens when we attend meeting with all it’s priesthood-correlated management of sacrament meeting topics/ talks, Sunday school, priesthood, youth and primary lessons and testimony-bearing?

An additional question would be to ask what sort of expectations do active members have as conditioned by Church narratives, procedures and patterns of activity/worship?

Does the Church expect membership experiences or moments of union with God?
Or would such experiences run counter to the hierarchical flow of information in which Leadership functions as necessary middle men between members and God?

Do Church members as a whole understand spirituality or spiritual satisfaction as a feeling of “confidence waxing strong” (D&C Section 121) that comes from obedience and conformity? Do Church members feel and are they as a whole satisfied with such feelings as that being “all there is?”

I agree with all those who by experience have learned that to be alive spiritually we only need personal union with God and an ability to be conscious of that personal union. These are not impossible tasks; do not take years of patience, meditation or suffering to obtain.

The Moroni Promises are proof of this.

Without a personal awareness of the constancy of communion with God, I do not see how religious life has much greater value than some sort of conscience-easing drudgery. That kind of religious life leaves more on the Lord’s table than anything consumed by repetitious activity that is nothing more than imitation of real spirituality.

Why attend Church at all if the only thing that occurs is a never-ending repetition of things we have all heard at an almost kindergarten level of depth. Why attend and participate if – as a result- We are not taught to swim in deeper water and told only to continue wearing our water wings and merely splash harder and make sure everyone else is splashing?

It was that shallowness and failure to offer any meaningful counsel regarding that trickle of confusing and contradictory information that seemed to challenge almost the entirety of truth claims made by the Church along with the shoulds and shouldn’ts mandated by the corporate insistence on conformity and obedience.

I have not gone to Church in order to listen to exhortations to spiritual unity based on unquestioned acceptance of cookie-cutter spiritual-mindedness.

I attended and participated with the idea that on any given moment – especially in a religious or worshipful environment – I could expect an enhanced awareness of personal union with God.

Such is not an unreasonable expectation for anyone … unless perhaps a human being is lost in the artificial environment of a performance-based belief system. Such would be a system that brings to life a God obsessed with obedience; a God who makes a big deal of worthiness; and a God who then is accepted as the Divine rewarder who may bless or withhold blessings based on obedience and conformity.

In such a religious context, Sunday school only needs to teach obedience. The Gospel needs only imply that the highest spiritual feeling one can obtain is that of being so personally obedient; that one could hardly notice the conditional circumstance that causes one to believe that God will be present or withdraw based on one’s personal condition of worthiness based on obedience.

That is not a loving God who loves unconditionally. Rather, that is a God who must be pleased and satisfied before blessings are given. A father or mother cannot parent children wisely in such a manner with such an attitude. Neither can God who – if the relationship is conditional – is no longer God … because you cannot count on God’s unconditional willingness to commune with you even if you aren’t good.

The transition from wide-eyed seeker willing to take in anything that smacked of authoritative and scripted spirituality to a human being aware of the personal responsibility inherent in authoring and accepting ownership of one’s own personal spirituality is on-going, never-ending and eternally progressive.