So what does this faith of yours do for you?

My friend Lloyd is 78 years old. He is English but has lived in the Baltic region since the early 60s, a widower since 1992. He is a complicated man with some major moral flaws, but I adore him, and he is a part of our family. We have lunch together regularly, he often comes to our home in the evening, and when I have time I join his oldtimers’ cafe newspaper reading group.

My religion has always been a bit off the table. Some years ago, we were talking about something and the Mormons came into the conversation. He was about to make some pronouncement, and I cut him off, saying, ‘Just so you know, Lloyd, I’m a Mormon.’

Are you? Good Lord.’ And that was the end of it.

So Saturday we had just had sauna and were talking about ice hockey while sunning ourselves on a rock near the sea. (Lloyd belongs to a posh sauna club.) Suddenly he says, ‘So what does this faith of yours do for you?’

My mind went blank. I’m not much of a member-missionary, and I didn’t have a ready answer. But I cast my mind out like a net and one image came back — singing ‘I Am a Child of God’ with my sons. I said, ‘It helps me know who I am and who I can become. It gives me direction.’

He was quiet, then said, ‘You have something tremendous.’ And after a moment, he commented on the weather.

I suppose I should have said more or followed up, but it didn’t feel right. I do wonder what has happened that has made him think in these terms after all the time we’ve known each other, but considering our age difference I’m not sure I can really ask.

I admire people who are bold enough about their faith to be more systematic in sharing the gospel, but it has never been natural for me, even as a full-time missionary. In truth, I have decade-old friends with whom I’ve never had a religious discussion. I know that the standard answer is that our tendency to ‘share the gospel’ is proportional to its importance to us, but I don’t really buy that. I do feel grateful for the chance to sincerely declare my faith, even briefly and rarely.

Comments

  1. ‘It helps me know who I am and who I can become. It gives me direction.’

    Yep, Lloyd was right. That is something tremendous. Nice post.

  2. I agree, you did well.

  3. I should add that, because we had just come out of the sauna, this is probably the most naked ‘missionary moment’ you’re likely to read.

  4. What, no place to tuck the pass-along cards there, Norbert? A good answer nonetheless O naked one.

  5. Peter LLC says:

    I suppose I should have said more or followed up, but it didn’t feel right.

    I’m glad you followed your instincts/the spirit/etc.

    As a ward mission leader with a non-member wife I occasionally find myself in situations where members share the gospel with no apparent regard for the person it’s being shared with. I appreciate boldness and good intentions as much as the next person but sometimes I think those who are closest to non-members may actually know what they are doing even if not progressing through the discussion at a rapid clip.

  6. I wanna belong to a posh sauna club. I might think of being a better member missionary if I could.

    Nice post, Norbert. I want to meet this major moral flawed Lloyd.

  7. Considering how pretty you have to be to get called to Temple Square, can you imagine what you’d have to look like to get called as a sauna missionary? :) We can’t all be like amri!

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Sounds to me as though you handled it just fine. (Being naked is probably a good way to do missionary work, with the barriers and defense mechanisms temporarily down. Maybe we should suggest this to the Missionary Department….)

    Your story reminded me of when I was clerking for a law firm after my second year of law school. I was having lunch outside with my fellow clerk (who was Lutheran), and out of the blue she asked me “So what’s it like to be a Mormon?” I was completely flummoxed and nothing sprang immediately to mind. I think I mumbled something about it not being a Sunday-only religion, but one of heavy commitment. I kicked myself later for being so caught off guard and inarticulate, but eventually I forgave myself.

    It’s tough to give concise, powerful responses to religious questions that come at you out of the blue. I think yours was terrific, Norbert.

  9. “I know that the standard answer is that our tendency to ‘share the gospel’ is proportional to its importance to us, but I don’t really buy that.”

    Norbert, I’m glad you said that. In a talk I gave years ago I quoted Elder Oaks essentially saying those very words, and yet I was uncomfortable saying it. At the time I trying to convey the idea that the only way to share the gospel is through the love of Jesus Christ and I concluded that Elder Oaks was talking about the same thing. But I knew in my heart that I had trouble openly sharing, unless someone ask me about it. Like you, I have many co-workers who don’t know of my specific faith but hopefully they can see it through my actions.

    My wife and I have given an open invitation to the missionaries to bring anyone at anytime to our house to give a discussion. They recently took us up on this and the fellow in question was baptised last week. We’ve become good friends through our short association. But searching for ways to share the gospel , other than through simple opportunities that present themselves, is something I don’t do.

    For what it’s worth, I think your answer was an excellent way of sharing your faith “through the love of Jesus Christ.” Thanks for sharing.

  10. Norbert, I think your answer is really the best answer any of us can give.

    The only possible better one under the circumstances would have been to tell him that Mormons believe they get to keep having saunas after they die.

  11. I have had variations of the “what’s it like to be Mormon” question, and all I can think of to do is ask what the underlying assumption of the question is. Is the assumption that we are just plain weird? Is the assumption that we can’t have fun because we don’t drink or fool around? Is the assumption that, no matter where we go, there are other Mormons who are willing to take us in and help us simply because we are Mormons?

    My answer will be different depending on their answer.

  12. …variations of the “what’s it like to be Mormon” question…

    The best of those came to me in HS. I had gone to a state a football camp, and another member from my stake was also there, and very well known by the other players. We were all hanging out talking about what we’d do that night, and Mike was explaining that as members of the church, we didn’t smoke, drink, or get laid. This enormous African American kid said, ‘[Expletive], what DO you Mormons do?’ It’s a question that I’ve thought about a lot over the years.

  13. We human beings are a story-telling (and a story-listening) people. One of the most popular stories that we like to tell and retell to ourselves is the story about the person who somehow got lost in some way, and had to find his or her way back home. If you think about all of the movies or TV shows you’ve ever seen, this story pops up all the time. It’s “The Wizard of Oz”, it’s “The Bourne Identity”, it’s “Homeward Bound”, it’s “The Prisoner”, it’s “The Time Tunnel”, it’s “Field of Dreams”, it’s “Lost in Space”, it’s “Back to the Future”, it’s “The Lord of the Rings”. Either we’ve gotten lost, or we’ve lost something important to us that we need to find again, or it’s a journey where the best possible result is that the end of the road leads us back home again.

    It’s the Plan of Salvation.

    As Hugh Nibley puts it, the temple is our map of the universe, and tells us how to get back home. More importantly, it tells us where we are right now in relation to everything else on the map: “You Are Here”.

    Knowing who we are, and where we’re going and what we can become truly is something tremendous, and I think that it’s something that we can take for granted far too easily.

    I think your answer was perfect.

  14. “I know that the standard answer is that our tendency to ‘share the gospel’ is proportional to its importance to us, but I don’t really buy that. I do feel grateful for the chance to sincerely declare my faith, even briefly and rarely.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve spent the last several months as a ward missionary, a calling that in years past I had declared to myself and my wife (on the basis of my pretty thorough failure and unhappiness as a full-time proselyting missionary) that I would never accept and never perform. And really, for the better part of fifteen years, I’ve avoided missionary work of any sort like the plague. Yet I have found myself being grateful for this calling, and for being able to speak out in my own small, idiosyncratic way as a complement to what the elders around me have to do. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me (maybe I should blog about it).

    Thanks for the post, Norbert. It’s always good to hear from you. And man, what I wouldn’t give to have a nice sauna here in Wichita (though I’m thinking of the Korean type).

  15. As I just told Jonathan off-blog, my husband was called this morning into an MTC branch presidency, and I will have duties there as well (primarily, as I understand it, to comfort the sister missionaries and to give an occasional talk.) I have never considered myself to be a particularly good missionary, but I intend to get better. Bruce and I came home with copies of _Preach My Gospel_ in hand.
    Norbert, your line is very quotable. I like it a lot.
    I do not yet know where the sauna is in the MTC, but I’ll find out.
    (Please don’t tell me I need to put a smiley face after that line.)

  16. Kristine says:

    Margaret, for what it’s worth, I would have given anything to have someone like you to listen to and talk to when I was in the MTC. I don’t remember even once hearing from a woman in a dozen Sacrament Meetings there. What a great blessing to those sisters!

  17. What a sweet thing to say, Kristine! My understanding is that every time my husband speaks in a sacrament meeting (once a month), I will also speak. We do not yet know which language we’ll be assigned. Spanish seems logical, but Bruce speaks French too. (And then there’s always English.) I am genuinely thrilled by this calling. I love the missionaries!
    Interestingly, Norbert, the man who extended the calling to us mentioned that most missionaries headed to foreign-language missions stay in the MTC for 9 weeks. The exceptions are those headed to FINLAND, because Finnish is so hard it requires a little more time.
    Of course, back in 1950, there was no LTM or MTC. My dad learned Finnish on his own, and did it beautifully. He still loves to speak it.

  18. Those going to Russia are in the MTC for 3 months.

  19. I thought those going to Russia were still sent to CIA headquarters for a briefing before going. Does that get calculated into the 3 months?

    I find that most of my friends are offended by the more traditional bearing of testimony and don’t want to hear a preachment. They do appreciate when I respond respectfully but honestly about my feelings on the subject. I wouldn’t have done anything differently (though I find saunas, at least as the Russians have interpreted them, fairly exhausting, all the birch-branch flagellation, choking on the steam, and having to dive into freezing cold water).

  20. I don’t think you could have responded better. I don’t believe Lloyd was expecting a disertation.

    The title of your post reminds me of an exchange between LeGrand Richards as mission president in the South and an old timer that had been in the church 20+ years.
    LeGrand: “What priesthood are you?”
    Old timer: “A deacon”
    LeGrand: “Have you quit your tabac?”
    Old timer: “No”
    LeGrand: “What church did you belong to before you were Mormon?”
    Old timer: “Baptist.”
    LeGrand: “Well why don’t you go back to being a Baptist ’cause Mormonism hasn’t done anything for you.”
    If its good for nothin’ why continue? If it is the path to eternal life, what are you doing sitting down?

  21. this is probably the most naked ‘missionary moment’ you’re likely to read

    Maybe we won’t read about them, but I am sure I am not the only RM from Japan who has done great missionary work at the neighborhood baths.

  22. Norbert, the description of you having the thought of singing I am a Child of God and the subsequent answer you gave truly brought tears to my eyes. I am outing myself as a supreme cornball, but most of my spiritual and meaningful moments have somehow revolved around that song!

    I am a person who is extremely shy and sensitive about sharing the gospel with others unless specifically asked, as in your case with Lloyd. I’ve always felt guilty about it, and I guess the Lord knows me, and so in my patriarchial blessing He told me that missionary work can sometimes be done “just by setting an example.” It was a great relief to me and a testament that there are many different ways of sharing the gospel.

  23. molly bennion says:

    Super post, Norbert.
    During the ERA battles of the early 80’s, my extreme reluctance to start missionary conversations (as opposed to sharing a part of my life that happens to be Mormon) paid off. When my lesbian co-worker attending an ERA organizing meeting heard, in great detail, that all Mormons were the enemy, she told the group she worked closely with an active Mormon who did not resemble the hateful, dogmatic people they were describing. It was perfect: my finest missionary moment and I wasn’t even there.

  24. It may be true that our tendency to share the gospel is proportional to its importance to us, but I think it is also proportional–perhaps even more so–to how much we like the gospel message and the Church and how much joy they bring (or do not bring) to us.

    If, in our gospel/Church culture we constantly (or often) feel oppressed or controlled or overburdened or shamed or inadequate–well, who wants to invite others to feel that way. On the other hand, if, in our culture, we feel valued (even loved unconditionally) and liberated and joyous and growing and hopeful, well that is something worth sharing with others.

    I think that, structurally, there are aspects of our culture the lead to negative or unhealthy feelings, and aspects that lead to positive and healthy feelings. My own opinion is that emphasizing or nurturing the healthier aspects of the gospel/Church culture would probably lead to more natural, uncoerced sharing of the gospel than any other kind of program.

  25. Thanks for the kind thoughts. Discussions of somewhat agressive missionary work at church sometimes remind me of the dentist talking about flossing your teeth twice a day. I wonder, Is that really what I need to do? Does anyone really do that? But I still give mad props to someone like Bookslinger.

    Margaret: Look very hard for that MTC sauna. Missionaries were allowed to sauna here until I think 2002. Members were unhappy with the ban, saying it showed a lack of understanding. There was also a debate about whether a group sauna should be installed at the temple, in the accomadation center. It wasn’t. On the side, I think the MTC experience will be interesting for you and you’ll be a great asset there.

    smb: Russian banya is hilariously punishing. I enjoyed it in a look-how-manly-I-am sort of way. They seem to have turned sauna into a fraternity hazing ritual.

  26. Speaking of saunas…

    Norbert, Sam:

    Do you know how to do an al fresco sauna? That is, you get a fire down to its hot embers, then stick a tarp over it. Or something. I’ve always wanted to have a go at this.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    Once when I was a GD teacher the regular scripture course was interrupted for a six-week member missionary course, which I was expected to teach. I am not a fan of aggressive proselytism, and most members aren’t comfortable with that sort of thing either. So I made up my own little course, one of the centerpieces of which was what I called “inciting a gospel conversation.” The idea was never to push your religion on others, but simply to live it openly, which almost invariably will result in curious questions. If someone affirmatively asks me a question, then my shyness about the social impropriety of pushing my religion goes away, and I find that if they start the conversation the defense mechanisms are down and a real gospel conversation can take place.

    In my first office as a lawyer, I had a lot of historical paintings and photographs up on my wall (Abraham Lincoln, the joining of the railroads in Utah, that sort of stuff). I had a number of items related to Nauvoo (a map, an antiqued reproduction of a High Council Circular [my ancestor was on the High Council], etc.). These particular items almost invariably stirred questions and conversations.

    My students seemed to like my lower key approach to member missionary work.

  28. I’m a low-key type of missionary too, particularly since I never feel that I’m a very good example of our faith. I want people to meet the other awesome Mormons that let me see that the religion was doing so many things right, not me, who just converted not that long ago, and who is more the recipient of all the goodness than someone who can spread it around.

    I think your answer was perfect, though!

    One time a Catholic nun caught me off guard by asking “What do the Mormons have that we (Catholics) don’t have?” and I beamed and said “Oh, do you really want to know?” But I didn’t have a ready answer. Later I thought about what I should have said, and came up with this: “The constant companionship of a living God.” So now that’s my one-line response to the question why I’m Mormon. (Not that some Catholics might not have that too, but just that I didn’t when I was Catholic.)

  29. When I joined the church I had no doubt it was true. What the church asked I did. They said do you geneology, I traced it back 3-5 generations on multiple levels within months. They gave me all sorts of sexual/moral rules and I obeyed them. Within a few months of joining I was told to hand out BOM’s. Right away I handed one out to a guy in my class at school (I was early 20’s and in grad school). I continued to hand them out roughly every other month for about 8 years. I personally Baptized 11 people – although I never formally went on a mission. Then I got married, lost my faith, do the bare minimum to keep everyone off my case – was asked to be ward missionary and in good conscience did not accept it. Feel kind of bad for using my personal influence to get others to join.

    We are told one can only convert by the spirit. Salesmanship and guts do just as much. Those who are not regular in their missionary efforts might have a testimony – but they certainly lack the guts to just speak up. People are sheep and are easily led. Luckily for everyone most LDS are too passive to speak up,

  30. Looking back on grad school, the lady in charge of my clinical experience was bought up in France by nuns. She HATED religion – who can blame her. For Christmas one year I gave her a quad – my classmates (none of whom were LDS let alone religious) were so shocked. Her nickname was “the Dragon lady”. They thought she would take it out on me – they were aware that she hated religion – I was not aware of it – if I had been aware of this I probably would not have given her a quad (set of 4 scriptures). However she treated me super nice afterwards anyway – ex.I broke an expensive piece of equipment (thousands of dollars) and everyone told me NOT to tell her, since she would go ape…but I CTR’d and told her and she just brushed it off as nothing. Remembering that story almost makes me think once again there is a God, but the fact is she had just gotten engaged and that almost always puts everyone in a good mood until the realize what they committed to….. a year or two later and she would have probably had me drawn and qaurtered

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