Second Guessing the Call to Serve

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank the Lord for having the courage to second guess the call to serve. Let me explain.

When I turned 19 in the spring of aught-ninety-eight (a show of hands if you’ve never heard the expression), I joined the throngs of other nineteen-year-olds (there may have been three of us at my venerable undergraduate institution) and went to the university clinic for a physical, filled out the paperwork, and submitted my application to serve a mission. A few weeks later I received a call with a reporting date the next fall.

In light of the distance to the Missionary Training Center, missionaries in my stake were traditionally set apart on Sunday to allow them and their families plenty of time to travel to Provo by Wednesday. When the appointed hour came, my twin brother and I were set apart and on Monday we left for the MTC. We arrived in Provo that night, and on Tuesday morning we went shopping for a few last items. While walking through the parking lot to the store, I felt like it was going to be now or never and told my parents: “I’m not going.”

Me and Dad turned around and went back to the car while Mom went ahead with my brother to complete his packing list. Back in the car, Dad calmly asked what the matter was and I simply replied that I just wasn’t ready to go. We talked about my plans. I didn’t really have any, I just knew I wasn’t ready or willing to serve a mission at the moment.

This wasn’t the first time I’d expressed reservations. The summer after my freshman year I had met with my bishop and stake presidency on several occasions after my application had been submitted to let them know I just wasn’t sure about serving a mission after all. Each time we would counsel and pray together, and I would leave feeling like I could do it. But then, just as the rubber was about to hit the road, the realization that it would be me—and not my bishop, stake president, parents or anybody else who cared about me—who would have to serve my mission, caused me to reach for the emergency brake.

If my parents were upset or disappointed, they didn’t show it. The next day we all went to the MTC together, and I stopped at the front desk and let a secretary know I wouldn’t be reporting that day. She thanked me for the heads up and we went in to the farewell ceremony they still did in those days. And then my brother left through the one side and I went with my parents out the other side. And that was pretty much that.

The next Sunday I was back in my old ward, which was a little awkward, especially as I made the rounds of family friends to return the gifts they had given me the week before at my farewell. But I survived and so did they. There was no wailing, gnashing of teeth or rending of garments. I don’t know if it would have mattered much either way at the time—I wasn’t going back!—but in retrospect I am grateful that everyone kept their cool.

I ended up joining a friend in an industrial band and moving  to Utah of all places. For the next 18 months a mission was far from my thoughts as I played in bands and worked the graveyard shift to make ends meet. But one winter morning after getting home from work, I reckoned that for being a Mormon, I wasn’t acting much like one. So, in one of those improbable faith-promoting experiences where you flip open the scriptures and find an answer to a question you didn’t know you were asking, I flipped open the scriptures and found an answer to a question I didn’t know I was asking:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I hadn’t been wondering at all if I should consider going on a mission. But in that instant I received what felt like pure inspiration—follow in the footsteps of the apostles by putting the kingdom of God first and the rest of my life would work itself out. It made a lot of sense at the time, so that night I gave my two weeks’ notice to my boss and let my bishop know of my intentions. Three weeks after cracking the Book of Mormon for the first time in months, I was saying goodbye to my family at the MTC. (I don’t know what the usual practice is in such circumstances, but rather than receiving a new calling I received a deferred entry date for my original call).

It wasn’t easy serving in Europe, but I was endlessly grateful that I could fall back on my very own testimony of missionary service that had come to me in my own time. So when a friend shared this story on a popular social media website, I was relieved that the young man who had been left by his parents to fend for himself in a National Park after telling them that he wasn’t going to serve does not appear to be any worse for wear for the experience.  After being abandoned, the young man’s grandparents came, picked him up and gave him the encouragement he needed to give missionary service a try. A few days behind schedule, the young man was at the MTC and Elder Alabbas now appears to be serving happily.

So that’s good, and I should probably leave it at that. But the reasoning shared by the young man’s mother gave me pause:

 “Our hearts were broken because his future suddenly became so unclear. We knew we weren’t failures, but it was hard in the heat of the moment not to feel that way. The truth was we were less concerned about him not serving, and more concerned with suddenly having no plan and no direction.”

Hyatt believes their only choice was to put their son in the hands of the Lord in their creative way. “We felt inspired to step away and reset. Our approach might not work for everyone, but we could see productive communication had broken down.”

I hope the lesson people learn from this story is not to increase reliance on “creative ways” of shaping outcomes that rely on others’ decisions. Rather, I hope parents and guardians will be encouraged to examine the assumptions about life, the universe and everything that they may have tied up with their children’s decisions to serve missions or achieve other milestones in life and resist the urge to act in haste. It’s not easy to revisit expectations and take the long view when it appears that a loved one is veering off course. In fact, it requires faith in no small measure to grant moral agents the space that allows God to work wonders in their lives on His and their timetables. But I think it’s the gospel way.

At any rate, it’s a lesson Elder Alabbas appears to have learned. I’d just like to add my endorsement to some really excellent advice:

His advice for parents of prospective missionaries is simple. “Be patient. Talk to your kids as they’re preparing to serve. Listen. Tell them it’s all right to be afraid. Invite them to try and to trust the Lord and just take one more step, to make one more commitment. And if they serve, love them! And if they don’t serve, love them even more. But if you leave them somewhere,” he finished with a laugh, “make sure they get picked up.”

How have you fared, either as parents or as prospective missionaries?

Comments

  1. I’m just going to say what half the people reading this post have already thought: that mother needs a therapist, badly.

    Excellent post, Peter. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Excellent, Peter. I love your story, and this makes the best (that I think can be made) of a very troubling story. (And there are echoes of my own son Peter’s experience, not going when expected/planned/scheduled but finishing college first and making a good decision on his own time to serve. So of course I will latch on to your story.)

    I think we should acknowledge and deal openly with the reality that missions — at least for young men — have a very strong rite of passage nature in Mormon culture. It’s not something we can wish away. There’s a whole lot of “not a real [man]/[believer]/[disciple]”, “direction-less”, and “failure” for those who don’t go, who delay, who come home early, who have a hard experience and can’t talk about it. Those cultural norms are not in accord with my own feelings about missions and about young men, but since I can’t make them go away I have to look to continued recognition and counseling.

  3. Karen H. says:

    This post is so great. Such an important one for parents to read. (And that Bryce Canyon story is horrifying….)

  4. Happy Hubby says:

    The older I get (implied assumption that I am getting wiser) the more I treat my late-teenagers as adults and leave it up to them. I will bite my tongue and not say anything about abandoning your children. Ouch – I bit so hard my tongue just started bleeding! ;-)

  5. Having had several companions that didn’t want to be there and remembering how that affected me, I tend to strongly feel that people should only go when they truly want to. Otherwise you’re not just wasting your own time but other’s as well.

  6. Jason Wright’s piece on the Elder Alabbas story reads as if the parents were acting on their first impulse, just as Elder Rasband (April 2017) would have them do: “We must be confident in our first promptings. Sometimes we rationalize; we wonder if we are feeling a spiritual impression or if it is just our own thoughts. When we begin to second-guess, even third-guess, our feelings—and we all have—we are dismissing the Spirit; we are questioning divine counsel.” Perhaps they should have their heads examined.

    On the other hand, I went when not ready because my father/bishop said “now or never” and I wasn’t willing at the time to say “never.” Though I came close to leaving after a couple months, in the end going when I did (and therefore serving with some of those I served with) proved to one of the greatest blessings in my life. I remain appalled at Elder Alabbas’ parents’ behavior, but do not know what to make of the whole story.

  7. Peter, I love your story for the very reason I cringe at the story of Elder A. Your parents trusted you to make the decision. Elder A’s parents didn’t trust him. When he didn’t do as expected they pushed (both his parents and his grandparents really) rather than accept that he might actually know what is best himself.

    His mother said, “Our approach might not work for everyone, but we could see productive communication had broken down.” What she means by productive communication is that Edler A wasn’t doing what she wanted. I’d argue that the productive communication that is needed is not between her and her son, but between her son and God. She shouldn’t even be in the equation unless he invites her.

    I was the first ever missionary from my family. No one expected me to serve. It was never mentioned let alone encouraged. When i called my parents and told them I’d decided to serve, their response was, “Errr… Are you sure?” But because of that, I spent my entire mission knowing that I was there as a pure gift to God. There was no peer/parental/patriarchal pressure. There were no expectations. There was no serving as a way to improve myself or strengthen my testimony or get anyone’s approval. God asked me personally to go and I responded because I love Him.

    I see your story as being very similar. I wish we could somehow move to a model where missionary service is an outgrowth of love of God rather than all the other stuff.

  8. Thank you Peter. I love this.

  9. Thank you, all.

    I wish we could somehow move to a model where missionary service is an outgrowth of love of God rather than all the other stuff.

    I absolutely agree. We could start just by taking D&C 4:3 seriously.

    I went when not ready because my father/bishop said “now or never” and I wasn’t willing at the time to say “never.”

    I’m glad I wasn’t put in that position. Backing out was hard enough as it was without the added stress of having to take a final decision (I suppose raising the threshold to backing out is sort of the point of these kind of statements, however).

    Otherwise you’re not just wasting your own time but other’s as well.

    Indeed.

  10. Really great post Peter — and solid parenting advice as to missions!

  11. “We must be confident in our first promptings.[…] When we begin to second-guess, even third-guess, our feelings—and we all have—we are dismissing the Spirit; we are questioning divine counsel.”

    I’m inclined to agree with the first part with two qualifications. Once I actually felt the call to serve, for example, I acted immediately and didn’t look back. That worked out nicely. But 1) it was a prompting I received for me, not someone else. 2) It came in its own due time and not on someone else’s schedule.

    When we receive promptings that mostly have to do with someone else, well, I think reflection is in order. Burdening difficult decisions with the fear we might be dismissing the Spirit or questioning divine counsel strikes me as unproductive.

  12. “Otherwise you’re not just wasting your own time but other’s as well.” Yes. My first junior companion (I know the term dates me) was an atheist who wouldn’t have been there but for (a) the threat of breakup with his girlfriend, and (b) unwillingness to put his east bench Ogden parents through the “shame” of his not going. It was difficult. He was passed around from companion to companion many times without being sent home. Perhaps that was ultimately for the best…the second time he married years later it was in the temple. I thought he wasted my time. He certainly didn’t help the missionary work, but then nothing much could help it in Europe at the time. But I did learn things from him, his misbehavior, and his experience. Perhaps it wasn’t a total waste.

  13. nice article

  14. How many people will read either story and say “it’s okay because he ended up going”?

    As a teenager my parents were aware I did not want to serve a mission, but insisted that I go. They sent me to BYU as a freshman and threatened to cut off financial support if I did not follow the life plan they had mapped out for me. So when I turned 19, I got a job to pay for my tuition and continued on with college. The funds from home stopped, and I was not allowed contact with my younger siblings. It took years for my mother and father to admit the damage they had done to our relationship.

    I think if a non-proselyting option had been available 30 years ago, I might have gone. But it didn’t, and my parents efforts at tough love did more damage than good.

  15. Peter: “Burdening difficult decisions with the fear we might be dismissing the Spirit or questioning divine counsel strikes me as unproductive.” What a fine gentle way to say #%@! to Elder Rasband’s advice! I would likely never have thought it up, but may be using it next week when leading the “Teachings of Our Times” discussion. Thanks for the OP and this.

  16. My my companion never showed up to the MTC in Sept 1993 and I was put into a threesome. I always wondered what happened to him. I hope he’s not stuck up a canyon somewhere.

  17. Mark Clark says:

    “creative ways”

    Uh, no. This is called coercion.

    “it’s a lesson Elder Alabbas appears to have learned”

    Alabbas’ parents were teaching him a rightful lesson? Boo!! Alabbas caved into unjust force by family. He should have stood his ground and not gone on a mission. This post is absolutely terrible.

  18. I had a roommate whose bishop and stake president submitted his papers for him, even when he didn’t want to go. When the call came, he refused it. A couple of years later, when he was ready, he went. It still caused so much stress in him that under doctor’s orders he took a three-week “vacation” in the middle of his mission.

  19. Focus on herself rather than son in need? Check!
    Huge overreaction? Check!
    Gaslighting? Check!

    Narcissist Mom!!

  20. Angela C says:

    Yeah, the mom sounds like she’s got BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). It’s unreal the way she’s justifying her actions as if it was inspiration when she just overreacted when she didn’t get her way. I’m glad her son was safe. I’m even glad that he did go on a mission and feels it was a good decision. It’s possible he’s even forgiven them, but that’s all to his credit, not theirs. That story is insane.

    Peter, I love your complementary story.

  21. Chadwick says:

    I think mom’s attitude is all’s well that ends well. I wonder if things had not turned out like this what she would think. It’s fortunate her son seems happy for his own sake, but not for hers.

    I decided recently that if I ever feel like God wants me to choose between my family and God, I’ll most likely choose family (circumstances pending). My relationship with them is real; my relationship with God is tougher to define.

  22. As a 19-year-old, I totally would have digged being dropped off in a national park to fend for myself. Vision quest time!

  23. What happens if this poor kid decides to come home in a few months. What a strange thing this is to make public.

  24. Peter @ 9:01 am — that is such a good and wise comment.

  25. I find it so ironic that one of the greatest blessings we recite as Mormons is our free agency. However, we only ever allow one true choice, the equivalent of no free agency.

  26. Marivene says:

    Chadwick, choosing between my family & the Lord happened well before my mission. As a convert who was kicked out of the house the night of my baptism, my parents had no part in my mission call or departure, except to express their displeasure at both. My branch president at BYU, in hindsight, did not approve of sister missionaries, & behaved like a jerk. Even tho my elders quorum in Ohio was happily ready to support me on a mission, my branch president in Provo insisted that I earn 1/3 of the cost of my mission before he would sign my papers. If I had had the funds to fly home to Ohio, I could have left from there, & gone out almost a year earlier. Instead, I withdrew from BYU, worked waiting tables, & left from Provo. When our son was 19, we made it clear that we would happily support him if it was his choice to go. He has an uncle, his father’s brother, who did not go, so there was precedent, not handled well, in the family. There was a girl he was reluctant to leave & we had a talk about that, & I shared the experience of the young man I left behind, who is not his father. He decided to go, that young woman is not the one who is now his wife (and happily so, from my point of view), since his wife actually loves him.

  27. Nice story Peter!

    The Mormon culture has a real problem in dealing with those young men who either don’t serve a mission at the expected age or return home early. They end up feeling as failures, outcasts, not meeting the expectations of the culture and not worthy. We must do better!

    My best friend was a convert at 20. He actually had girls tell him they would not date him because he was not a RM. One particularly hurt his feelings, he stopped attending church and eventually left the church altogether joining a Baptist church. It is sad since he really sacrificed a lot to join the church in the first place.

    My youngest brother returned early from his mission. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just didn’t want to be there and honestly was not prepared or ready to serve a mission at the time. He only went out of pressure from the Ward, all of his friends were going and because his older brothers had gone. He was really ostracized by some when he came home. Most difficult time of his life. He went inactive in the church for several years before returning. It is still an issue he must handle amongst church people occasionally. It would have been so much better for him had he just not gone, if he wouldn’t have been pushed into going.

  28. Kids need to want to serve. The desire comes from within. It cannot be forced by family or friends.

  29. Drew Graham says:

    I could barely get past the first sentence. Do you actually know what “aught” means in this context?

    I’m always torn with stories like this, because sometime kids are just being bratty and sometimes parents are wrong, and besides all that, sometimes a mission isn’t the most important thing in the world. Anyway, hasn’t anyone heard of the concept of being inspired on behalf of those over whom you have stewardship?

  30. Alabbas’ parents were teaching him a rightful lesson? Boo!!

    I have no opinion on who taught him the lesson; I simply meant that he appears to have internalised the scripture I linked about exercising influence through love unfeigned, etc. as evidenced where he wrote: “And if they serve, love them! And if they don’t serve, love them even more.” Since we tend to perpetuate the ways of our fathers, this probably represents a significant break with tradition.

  31. I could barely get past the first sentence. Do you actually know what “aught” means in this context?

    I’m sorry to have placed stumbling blocks before you. I do know the meaning of aught—zero—and tried to signal that it was being used idiosyncratically with the parenthetical comment. It’s just a folksy way my dad had of saying “a long time ago.”

  32. Bro. B. says:

    There are opposite examples too. One of companions, who was made zone leader with me, told me he only decided to go on his mission because his intermural football teammates were all going, and he wanted to return at the same time and get the team back together. Then about month 7 of his mission, he sent all his ACDC tapes to the MP and decided to go to work, and was baptizing people every month from then on out. There were two other missionaries in my mission with very similar stories. They were all personable, charismatic young men, which I’m sure was also a factor, along with their spiritual change of heart. I suppose the key was, even with less than stellar motives, they still made their own decision to serve.

  33. I suppose the key was, even with less than stellar motives, they still made their own decision to serve.

    That sounds right. I don’t imagine that everybody, or even most, will need months or years to find their way. Waiting was the right thing for me, but it also delayed my studies and everything that followed. So it’s not without its costs.

  34. Angela C says:

    This story has apparently been yanked / modified to cut the mother abandoning her son: http://www.ldsliving.com/A-Grandpa-s-Perfect-Response-When-His-Grandson-Said-He-Wouldn-t-Report-to-the-MTC-the-Next-Day/s/85941

    Changes to the story were documented here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2017/07/20/this-inspirational-story-about-a-doubting-mormon-is-horrific/

    It’s like magic, watching the white-washing happen before our very eyes!

  35. Michael H says:

    Someone named Kaydin does not simply skip missionary service.

  36. Jason Wright posted the original article here: http://jasonfwright.com/column/family-leaves-son-at-bryce-canyon-one-day-before-his-mission-should-have-begun.html. LDSLiving, a division of Deseret Book, duplicated it, hopefully with permission. If LDSLiving later decided it didn’t want to continue to be associated with the despicable part of the story, but only with the Grandfather’s invitation to try, that’s hardly white-washing when it has no control over Jason’s post or the cached, original LDSLiving story. Maybe I don’t know what was meant by “white-washing” in this case. Deseret Book has never been a model of consistent doctrinal or responsible historical editorship. It’s a money making venture. Continuing to offend the readership of LDSLiving would hardly be consistent with its aim.

  37. Eh, less risk of parents copying the abominable behavior in the original story if the story is “white-washed.” For LDS Living’s audience, altering the story was a good move.

  38. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!

  39. Angela C says:

    Tim: valid point. One would hope no parents would follow this mom’s example. But it’s odd that LDSLiving didn’t have any objection initially to the story, only after there was backlash. And to JR’s point, that’s what you get in money-making ventures, I suppose. It’s just strange to publish it in full and then redact half of the story. Clearly someone thought it was a fine story until it was pointed out that it wasn’t.

  40. “Clearly someone thought it was a fine story until it was pointed out that it wasn’t.”

    Clearly at least one of each of those people was from LDSLiving. They wouldn’t modify the story if someone from higher up in the organization didn’t agree.

    Don’t understand the urge to pile on to a traditionally faithful site like it’s run by the enemy.

  41. BTW, Angela C that passively antiMormon patheos blog you referenced had no qualms about selectively editing a quote to maximize the brainwashiness quality of the the young man.

    “Be patient. Tell them it’s all right to be afraid. Invite them to try and to trust the Lord and to just take one more step. Make one more commitment. And if you leave them somewhere,” he finished with a laugh, “make sure they get picked up”

    The blogger edited out the part about loving them if they serve and loving them even more if they don’t, which was right in the middle of the quote. Instead the quote reads like an endorsement of just pushing them to keep taking one more step at a time until you leave them somewhere.

    In all seriousness, an atheist person rejects our God as cruel. He did after all send us here to experience suffering, calamity, depravity and then tell us all things are for our good and our purpose is joy.

    I’ve got far less qualms with parents leaving a capable 18 year old in a populated national park than I do with a God who doesn’t call down immediate destruction when a child is born in sexual slavery in Asia.

    Ultimately in both cases we have to trust God, and if a healthy 18 year old can’t find his way safely out of a national park in fair weather then we’ve got serious problems.

    You might even say the fact that he didn’t kill himself or end up homeless as prophesied above suggests the parents raised a confident, emotionally healthy and capable young man.

    It’s a different example, but every parent has walked away from their toddler and said if you don’t follow I’m leaving, while the kid stamped their feet and pouted. I suppose it’s conceivable in that instance a car could pull up grab the kid while you were to far away and drive off. Or they could throw a tantrum and run into a road or something before you reach them. But in the vast majority of all instances, left to their own devices with the knowledge the parent actually does love them, they turn out ok.

  42. Homeless was mentioned in the linked patheos blog, not here.

  43. Loursat says:

    When you hear a man bites dog story, you can sanitize it so it becomes generic, or you can do what Peter did and use it as the inspiration for a rich vignette about personal responsibility and supportive parents. Who wouldn’t prefer Peter’s approach? The bloggernacle is indispensable.

    Thanks for this, Peter. You’re a terrific writer.

  44. It’s a different example, but every parent has walked away from their toddler and said if you don’t follow I’m leaving, while the kid stamped their feet and pouted.

    My failures as a parent are legion, but that’s an approach I’ve tried very hard to resist since it simply isn’t true—I’m not actually going to leave the toddler and believe it is manipulative to suggest otherwise.

  45. Peter says; When we receive promptings that mostly have to do with someone else, well, I think reflection is in order.

    I tend to think that the word “promptings” should be in quotation marks there. I’m usually wary when I think I know what someone else should be doing, when that person is above the age of accountability. Even if it’s my own kid.

    That said, I love this story and I love Peter’s parents’ trusting reaction. Also his courage in the face of pretty intense social pressure – brother entering on the same day, etc. That took real courage. What a great foundation on which to build a future spiritual life.

    As a convert of less than a year, I wanted to go and more importantly, I had a very strong witness that I should go, but to this day I am not sure why. I was a terrible missionary; it was not a very healthy experience for me, my companions, and probably some investigators. If it was meant to humble me it worked altogether too well.

    I wonder if someday Elder Alabbas will realize what an abusive and horrible thing his parents did to him.

  46. This story reminds me that maybe too many parents are too protective of their children. When a child reaches the age of 18, they should be able to function as an independent adult. That includes making and learning from adult mistakes. Is it not appropriate to let children fail a class and take responsibility for that failure? I actually learned more in classes that I had to struggle to understand and earn a C, than some “easy A” classes.

    I like to remember the simple maxim: “Failure isn’t fatal.”

  47. Slow getting to this Peter, but it was a wonderful post. Thanks for this tender view into your life. It was inspiring.

  48. Interesting exchange. I served a mission in 1969, however I endured terrible emotional problems while out there. Later I learned that I suffered from PTSD and depression. In those days you “didn’t have the spirit with you” if you were depressed & service was supposed to Heal everything–“you wouldn’t be out here if you didn’t have what it takes–now forget yourself!” So as a parent I wanted to prepare my kids and make sure they made their own decisions. With one active son, I prayed and prayed and felt clearly that I needed to watch for whether he had a real desire to go, and to urge him to pray and be honest with his bishop. He decided not to go, has been very active 17 years after turning 19, and does not regret going. My wife would say, “Gee, what if he had gone? Would his life be better?” I say “I don’t know–it’s not my problem! It was his decision and it’s not about me at all. . .by the way, the Church does better now with many aspects of missionary service yet always there are members who don’t know how to support agency or handle some decisions of others. In my view, the worst kinds of pressures can often come from family and church, not “the world” !!!! Thanks for the posts

  49. Mike H. says:

    When does coercion to do “what is right” become what Lucifer wanted to do for humanity, back in the preexistence? Communism has been denounced by so many Church Leaders, with the lack of individuals being able to make their own decisions being one of the objections given. But, it’s OK for parents to make decisions for their late teen children??

    Yes, some who are pushed onto missions change, but, others become toxic to all they were around. Trust me.

  50. To answer your question, not very well as a parent. Great post