My Remarkable, Irresistible Pen Pals

Dear Will:

Every Monday my inbox fills with letters from around the world. They come at me from all directions: from Arizona, Utah, Georgia and the Dakotas; from Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil; from Scotland, Germany, Italy—even Russia. No wonder I love Mondays.

All of these letters are written by talented, charming, twenty-ish “kids” I have known for years. Several of them I have watched grow up since infancy. They are young men and women full of high aspirations and unlimited potential, people who will no doubt make their marks in a variety of professions and in a variety of ways. They will marry well and raise kids that you and I will consider irresistible. Their futures are brighter than most, in part because of the light they radiate.

My pen pals include many of my former students, some close family friends, nephews and nieces, and a few all-of-the-aboves. Each of them is living far from home, for the most part cut off from social media and popular culture, limited to only occasional, distant contact with family and friends. They subsist on hardly anything and don’t get paid a dime for their efforts. Willingly they have offered to go wherever and do what they can to help those around them. For as much as two years they have volunteered to put their personal lives on hold and dedicate their daily 24 to others.

It’s remarkable.

At times my far-flung friends face challenges and discouragement, no doubt with pangs of homesickness thrown in. Their letters describe weird viruses and a curious variety of problems with their toes. They learn to eat things you and I might not recognize as food. They describe bitter cold in some places and incomprehensible heat in others. As I read from week to week, I can see them wearing out their bodies and souls (and soles), lifting up the downtrodden and forgotten, embracing the lonely and unloved, bringing smiles to the sad and hope to the hopeless. In word and deed, they embody Jesus’s useful rule of thumb: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

They all are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes. The ones you see around town with their white shirts and bicycle helmets. The ones who a time or two may have arrived unannounced on your doorstep. What you may not know is that they are also the ones who’ll help the elderly couple move their antediluvian armoire, who’ll bake goodies for the shut-in, who’ll lay sod with the over-extended family in their neglected backyard. They’re the ones who make friends on subways and sing songs in public parks. ALWAYS with a smile, I might add, especially when no one else is smiling. They are the ones who also teach anyone who will listen about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries do all of that and more.

And when another week of selflessness has come to an end, when they have exhausted themselves riding bikes up and down the hills of Orange or slogging through the muddy backroads of Paraguay, they sit down in a public library or a far-off cyber-cafe and tap out sentences like this one: “I love the mission. There’s no place I’d rather be. There’s no better job than teaching the Gospel. I’m enjoying everything here.”

No matter where “here” is. They are indeed remarkable. And irresistible. No wonder people welcome them into their homes. If you haven’t recently, you should, if only to see how they fill a room with light.

PW

It’s a Long Time Till Wednesday

Wednesday

Dear Will:

I’m not getting any better at this stuff.

When my daughter Bryn was barely 19, she boarded a plane for New Zealand where she lived and worked for the next two years. Putting her on that Air New Zealand flight was traumatizing, especially as we faced hours and hours of radio silence awaiting word of her arrival. As fatherhood memories go, it is not one I treasure. (Fortunately, it all worked out.) Nevertheless, a year later I found myself once again standing in an airport about to send my daughter halfway round the world. And once again, it was tearful and traumatizing.

So you’d think that I might be building up a tolerance for such things. Alas, it is not so.

Last week my wife Dana and I drove to Utah to deliver Seth (our youngest) to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. On Wednesday, July 26, he began his formal preparations to serve full-time in the Argentina Posadas Mission, which straddles the Paraná River as it runs between Argentina and Paraguay. He will be gone for about two years, during which time we will communicate with him principally through once-a-week emails. No big deal, I thought. I’ve known this day was coming his entire life. We can do this.

But on Wednesday at 2:15 pm, he disappeared into the MTC with his two ginormous suitcases filled with white shirts and other missionary essentials. And at 2:16 pm it really hit me: Wait a second. I have to wait till next Wednesday for word from Seth? But I want to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That thought has come back to me again and again every day since we said our good-byes. I’m not worried about his welfare (not yet, anyway—he’s in Provo, Utah, after all), but I hate being out of the loop. How does he like his teachers? What about the other missionaries he will be training with for six weeks before they fly to South America? How’s the food? What’s the routine? Has he thought about his over-invested and hyper-agitated father even once since we dropped him off? HOW IS HE DOING?!!?

We will get over it, I suppose; parents always do. But for us first-timers, our previous experiences with Bryn have proved wholly inadequate. Anxious doesn’t even begin to describe our state of distress. Our plight is exacerbated by the fact that Seth’s departure leaves us as empty-nesters for the first time, with no one but Barnum, the Moron Dog, to comfort us. So far it isn’t working.

What does comfort me is this: I know Seth’s cause and I know his heart. And I see firsthand the impact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has on the lives of those who embrace it. Faithless cynics might assert that the Church should keep its beliefs to itself, that traveling the world in search of new members is somehow inappropriate. But I see these things from a very different perspective. As bishop, I have the unique privilege of seeing the lives of new (and longtime) members of the LDS Church from behind the scenes. I see darkness dissipate as people accept the teachings of Jesus and allow His Atonement to lift their spirits and heal their broken hearts. And when that darkness lifts, I see their lives transformed by light as hope, faith and truth inform their choices and fill their beings. It’s glorious.

Seth will offer all of that to the people of Paraguay and Argentina. Most will have no interest. But those who listen earnestly and embrace his message will bless his name forever. If my wife and I have to suffer a little separation anxiety in the interim, it’s a small price to pay.

But do we really have to wait till Wednesday?

PW

God Knows I Could Use the Lift

Dear Will:

On January 9th I stood in the Lihue airport on the island of Kauai and said goodbye—again—to my daughter Bryn. As you may recall, Bryn lives in Wellington where she dances for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. When she first moved there around 14 months ago, we were a little bit frightened and more than a little bit nervous, but we shared with her the eager anticipation that comes with adventure. She was only 19 but about to take on an exotic new job in an exotic location. For all of its attendant anxiety, the whole thing was very exciting for all of us.

A year later, much of that excitement has passed. The mystery is mostly gone, the unanswered questions mostly answered. And so the job is just a job, and the location, though still exotic, seems (somehow) much farther away. Our farewell in Lihue felt different as a consequence. Instead of eager anticipation for that first communication from afar, we stood there wondering when we might see our daughter again. We all cried. I didn’t like it.

I thought at the time of our many friends who have stood by similar ropes at similar airport security lines, sending their children off into the great unknown as they embark on full-time missions for our church. Within the last several months we have seen seven members of the Santiago Creek Ward head out to serve: in Washington, Texas, North Carolina, Chile, Scotland, Croatia, and New Zealand. All seven have left behind anxious loved ones. And all have left eager to serve.

In return, the Church has sent to the Santiago Creek Ward four exceptional young people from around the United States: Sister Laulusa (Ohio), Sister Longhurst (Idaho), Elder Long (Tennessee), and Elder Parent (Michigan). They are bright lights who are full of faith and dedication. More to the point, they carry with them the Spirit of God—you can feel it in their presence. And because they have been commissioned of Christ, if you spend any time with them at all and get a chance to hear their uplifting message of hope, one of three things is likely to happen:

  1. You will feel an increased closeness to God.
  2. You will gain a greater sense of peace and happiness.
  3. You will gain an increased understanding of your purpose in life.

I realize those are bold promises, but I do not make them casually or without basis. I’ve been around these young people, and I know. Which is why I suggest that if you are interested in any of the things I listed above, you should invite them into your home some time. It doesn’t have to be anything formal. Maybe you could just have them over for dinner or something and spend a few minutes getting to know them. Imagine drawing closer to God and receiving a greater sense of peace and happiness in exchange for a ham sandwich and cup of milk. That’s not a bad deal.

Just the other day, in fact, I was sitting at the office when a familiar song by Simon and Garfunkel came onto my computer’s music feed. It’s a song my daughter and I have sung often (and poorly) while sitting side-by-side at the family piano. The melody disrupted my concentration, and a great sense of melancholy settled over me as I thought about my girl and how long it might be before we’ll be seated side-by-side again. And while Sister Longhurst and Sister Laulusa may be poor surrogates for my own 20-year-old girl, that song seemed as good an excuse as any to invite them over—and soon. It would bless my family. And God knows I could use the lift.

PW