I served for 18 months in the New Hampshire Manchester Mission. I served in Canterbury, New Hampshire for 7 months, Ellsworth, Maine for 6 months and Lebanon, New Hampshire for 6 months. So far, I can say they were the best 18 months of my life and some of the hardest, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are better times and probably harder times to come because, in essence, those 18 months simply were the MTC for the rest of my life. Everything we do, and everything we’ve ever done is really just preparation for what is to come. The missionary training centers around the world prepare full-time missionaries for missionary work in the field. The Pre-Earth life prepared us for mortal life. This life prepares us for the next life. The Law of Moses prepared the people for Christ’s higher law. The Aaronic Priesthood is in preparation to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and so on. And so, I can honestly say that I know my mission has thoroughly prepared me for the rest of my life. Elder Holland once said something along the lines of “When you go on your mission, and it gets tough, you had better make sure that you have at least one convert, and that convert better be YOU.” Well, before my mission and even a few months into my mission I had a bit of a pompous attitude and thought: “That’s not me. I’m already converted. I already know this is all true!” Often times, when you start to have a prideful attitude like that, the Lord will cut you down and show you how much you have to learn and grow. And He did just that. Every week, when I emailed my family and friends, I would look back and see all the miracles, all the blessings, all the change and progress I had made simply because I was learning to listen to my Father and what His will was, not mine. I had to learn to let Him shape me into what I needed to be at that time. I had to be willing to change my attitude, my habits, my thoughts in order to even begin to fulfill my divine potential.
Here are just a few of the things that I learned throughout my mission:
I learned just how important family is to me and to Heavenly Father. That’s why it’s such an important and big part of the Church. When families are willing to work together to change themselves and help each other to become stronger and better in a kind and loving way, amazing things happen – the Spirit is more abundant in that family’s home, there is greater joy, love and happiness between them, they are closer to the Lord and more willing to do His will than they are to do their own, and there is a greater ability to teach and testify to one another. A family that is centered on the Lord can make their home, truly, a heaven on Earth.
This is my family, Christmas 2014 after I returned home.
A Gospel centered home is a place where we can safely learn Heaven. While being out on my mission, I recognized just how much I love my family and how much I want to be with them forever. And I know it IS possible for us to be a family for eternity. I also learned how important my future family is to me and what I can do now in preparation for them to come and be in a home where they can feel safe, loved and happy, a place of refuge, and a place for the Spirit to stay. Along with learning about family in general, I learned that people are totally right and it’s not a joke: Being a full-time missionary with a companion 24/7 is definitely a good marriage prep! There were so many times that I was so grateful I’d gone on a mission because there were things I was learning that I did NOT want to learn for the first time as a newly-wed. Communication was a big one of those. I’ve never been great at communicating what’s on my mind in the right way for people outside of my mind to understand. I’m still not great at it, but at least I think I’ve improved a small amount. I had a few companionships that gave me a glimpse of what a good marriage should be like – when you love one another enough to actually say what’s bothering you and then you still love them even after an argument, disagreement, tears shed, frustration, selfishness, and impatience. When you learn to actually say what’s on your mind, and more importantly, you learn to listen to what they’re saying and put yourself in their shoes, then you learn the lessons of patience, selflessness, charity, honesty, kindness, service and so on. You see them in their good times and their bad times, and still all you want is for them to be happy, to know that they matter, that they’re important and that what they do and say doesn’t go unnoticed by you or by the Lord. You care enough about them to want to help them understand the Gospel, to help them change and become more like the Savior, to help them see their potential and what they are capable of doing. You love them unconditionally.
Which leads me to one of the more important things I’ve learned – God’s love is real. Many times when I was contacting on the street, knocking on doors, teaching lessons to non-members, less-actives and active members, or even just preparing a lesson that I could feel God’s pure and unconditional love for each and every one of His children. These were people I’d never seen before in my life, knew absolutely nothing about. They could have been drinking, smoking, gambling, making crude remarks, just about anything and yet, I felt our Heavenly Father’s love for each of them. It always amazed me that I could feel it so strongly. But once I felt that love, I knew three things: First, Heavenly Father will never stop loving us. He will never stop trying to give us chances to change and follow Him, as long as Judgment day hasn’t happened yet. Second, these people who have made some mistakes, big or small, which is all of us, have great potential and importance in the sight of God. I NEEDED to share what I knew with them in order for them to reach that potential. And third, if what I was feeling was how the Lord felt about those people, no matter what their mistakes were, whether they were a member of the church of not, then it MUST be how He feels about me. Once I understood those three things, the love I felt from God started to become my own love for those sweet people of New England.
Because I learned how to love these people, I loved to serve them. It didn’t matter what it was – anything from working in a library, to carrying groceries, to sharing my music, to splitting and stacking wood, to pulling weeds, to shoveling snow, to repairing roller skates… No matter what it was, I found a lot of joy in service because I could see how it blessed them and I knew that it was making them happier and it was helping me to see their potential. Service softens the hearts of just about anybody, the server included. I saw that a lot as a missionary. It made them happy. It made me happy. And it made Heavenly Father happy.
I also learned, truly, what it means to have an eternal perspective. Being a returned missionary is probably one of the coolest experiences because I have learned so much about the Lord, the Gospel, and the Spirit that now, that’s how I relate to things – my English class, my friend when she talks about music therapy, even movies that I watch. I sometimes even find myself praying for the characters when they’re in distress – and they’re not even real! The best advice I received was that I needed to let my mission change me. I think the quote goes “Don’t go through your mission. Let your mission go through you.” If you allow your mission to change you, then, when you get pushed back into the world, it can continue to change you and keep you centered on the Spirit. It allows you to have an eternal perspective, meaning you understand that the choices you make have consequences, good and bad. Those consequences can reach into the life after this one. The best way to live with that perspective in mind and not be afraid you’ll do the wrong thing, not worry that you’ll be kicked out of heaven, so to speak, is that you just need to know who the Lord is, what He’s all about and what He wants you to do about it. He loves you completely and perfectly. He knows you’ll make mistakes, but that’s why we’re here – to make mistakes and learn from them so we can improve ourselves each day. Because of that love He has, He wants you to succeed and be happy. He knows us inside and out way better than we know ourselves. The way I understand that is that He knows what will make us the happiest and give us the most success. If we can learn to listen to His Spirit, His commandments and desires for us, then act on what we hear, with His will in mind and not our own, then I KNOW that it will bring us an amount of blessings and miracles in our lives that no man could ever count. I’m not saying we won’t have hard times, because those trials and tests and difficulties and times we just want to pull our hair out are there for a reason. They help us to grow, to learn, to change, to repent. They bring us closer to Heavenly Father if we let them. Being human is the hardest thing we will ever do. But I know if we learn to apply the Atonement in our lives, we CAN change. Heavenly Father knows it, I know it and I’ve seen it work in my life, in the lives of my friends, and in the lives of those I served in New England. I learned how to apply the Atonement – if we live the five steps of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Faith, Repentance, Baptism, Receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost and Enduring to the End) on a daily basis and we can honestly say that we feel the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, then we are applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is here to help us change, or repent. It is here to give us a way of becoming like our Father in Heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ. It IS possible to become like Them. But it takes some work, diligence, and willingness on our part.
The people of New England are pretty set in their ways and most will shut the door in your face if you bring up religion. It’s hard to find people to teach. It’s really hard to share the Gospel there, and I’m sure in many other places in the world. But it’s worth it. One of my friends sent me a quote from Elder Holland during the first few months of my mission that I thought was just a cool quote the first time, but when I reread his letter towards the end of my mission, I was amazed and inspired because I realized that I had those times. I had times where I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t want what I and 15 million people throughout the world have. I had times where I wanted to just throw my hands in the air and declare that it was their funeral. And I had times where I even questioned that what I was doing was really doing any good to anyone. Elder Holland said:
“Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t it go better? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? It is the truth. We believe in angels. We trust in miracles. Why don’t people just flock to the font? Why isn’t the only risk in missionary work that of pneumonia from being soaking wet all day and all night in the baptismal font? You will have occasion to ask those questions. I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are The Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him? It seems to me that missionaries and mission leaders have to spend at least a few moments in Gethsemane. Missionaries and mission leaders have to take at least a step or two toward the summit of Calvary. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about anything anywhere near what Christ experienced. That would be presumptuous and sacrilegious. But I believe that missionaries and investigators, to come to the truth, to come to salvation, to know something of this price that has been paid, will have to pay a token of that same price. For that reason I don’t believe missionary work has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, nor that retention is, nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul. If He could come forward in the night, kneel down, fall on His face, bleed from every pore, and cry, “Abba, Father (Papa), if this cup can pass, let it pass,” then little wonder that salvation is not a whimsical or easy thing for us. If you wonder if there isn’t an easier way, you should remember you are not the first one to ask that. Someone a lot greater and a lot grander asked a long time ago if there wasn’t an easier way. The Atonement will carry the missionaries perhaps even more importantly than it will carry the investigators. When you struggle, when you are rejected, when you are spit upon and cast out and made a hiss and a byword, you are standing with the best life this world has ever known, the only pure and perfect life ever lived. You have reason to stand tall and be grateful that the Living Son of the Living God knows all about your sorrows and afflictions. The only way to salvation is through Gethsemane and on to Calvary. The only way to eternity is through Him—the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Christ was rejected and despised of men… People tried to find every excuse to arrest Him, persecute Him, find Him guilty of some great crime so they could kill Him. But He was perfect. He never did anything wrong in the sight of God. Well, as a returned missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a disciple of our Savior, I’m here to tell you that this IS His Church. It is His kingdom established on the Earth once more. It is set up by Him. It is run by Him. Everything about it is because of Him. Everything about life is because of Him. And how do I know this? Well, for one, because I’ve prayed and studied the scriptures to know for myself what the truth is. But I also know it’s all true because it’s hard. Because there are people trying everything they can to tear it down. People have persecuted Christ and His people from the beginning of time. While people make mistakes and aren’t perfect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, run by Jesus Christ Himself, is perfect. It does no wrong in the sight of God. Devils can’t even deny the Christ. Satan knows this is true. He will do anything He can to get people to fall away, to reject it, to turn against it and try to turn others against it. But Satan’s power is nowhere even close to the Power of God. I know that I hold some of my Father’s power because I have a testimony and a conversion of the truth. My faith leads me to act – to do something about what I know. To apply the Atonement and CHANGE. Change is possible no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter anything. I can do anything through Christ, who strengthens me. As Joseph Smith once said: “I know it and I know that God knows it and I cannot deny it.” In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
President and Sister Stoker on my last day in New Hampshire