Last Thursday I drove my in-laws to the Preston MTC in England. They have been called to work as CES coordinators for the church in the Greece Athens Mission. They will be the first to tell you that when they first received their call they were not overly pleased with this assignment. Originally, they had intended to serve a humanitarian aid mission and hoped to serve in the US. Subsequently they have made their peace with this assignment and seem to be having fun in the MTC.
Watching them move through the process of submitting their papers, preparing to serve, and then saying goodbye has been humbling. I love and admire my in-laws a great deal. This has not been easy for them and they have been willing to trust in their God as they embark on this period of sacrifice.
In fact, I have new respect for senior couples all over the church.
A few years ago, a senior couple was assigned to our struggling ward. They had traveled from Idaho to serve in the London Mission. This somewhat exotic assignment came with some probably unexpected challenges. I failed to realize at the time how difficult it must have been to experience rejection and apathy in response to their great financial and emotional sacrifice. They were assigned to work with less-active families and to try and make contact with those who were on the records of the church. Sometimes this must have been mind-numbing and depressing work even if it was punctuated with moments of success. I know they experienced fatigue and discouragement but they always served with cheerfulness. Moreover they spent time meaningfully with the sick and the lonely. Our ward has benefited from their efforts.
My in-laws, I hope, will find more satisfaction in their service; but if they do not I am sure they that will approach their time with assurance, hope, and affection. Knowing them as I do, I suspect they are incapable of anything else.
Serving as a senior couple is not cheap. In fact, it is prohibitively expensive. I imagine that this form of service will (or has) become the province of the very wealthy.
More than this, changing dynamics between young adults and their parents means that serving a senior mission is increasingly difficult. Young adults (there are a variety of other sociological terms to describe this group) are gradually becoming more dependent on their parents. This dependence is manifest in extended periods of living in their parents house, the boomerang effect (where children move out and then return), long-term financial support, and the attendant emotional help that comes with new norms regarding what it means to be a good parent of those aged 18-29. The financial and emotional ties between parents and their young adult children are formed in new and intricate ways and breaking or untethering them when a couple leave to serve a mission is incredibly painful.
Yet, the changes of the last 20 years have also brought new ways connect. Social media, cheap internet access, and mobile phones have allowed families to keep in contact despite the distance. I have already spoken to my in-laws by Skype since they have been away.
Despite these new modes of connectivity there will be a real loss for my in-laws. This rupture in the fabric of our family will, in some ways, forever alter these relationships. That uncertainty is part of what makes this separation so painful. When this is coupled with the feeling of abandoning those who need you most, no wonder there are some who choose not to serve. I cannot blame them. My wife and I are not making plans to serve for precisely some of these reasons.
And yet, I am moved by my in-laws, and those like them, who have willingly chosen to separate themselves from those to whom they are most intimately tied in order to respond to a call to serve a people and a place they know very little about. What inspires me most about their sacrifice is that they have pursued the Other in order to allow their hearts to expand.