Preface: Please note that this post was published only after getting the thumbs-up from my dear son. I sat anxiously across the room while waiting for him to finish reading it, wanting to make sure he didn’t feel like I’d be pushing him even further into the spotlight. But when he was done, he just said “Ok, you have a couple of typos. But other than that, way to go Mom. I’m going to go make some nachos.” I smiled, fixed the typos, and was grateful for a son who was more concerned about his nachos than he was about his mom sharing this post.
Monday morning, I got a phone call every parent of a new missionary dreads. The kind that gives you a pit in your stomach the moment you answer, only to hear a choked up voice on the other end of the line say “Mom?”
After trying to process why on earth there was a voice on the other end of the line that sounded exactly like my son in the MTC, and then realizing it WAS my son’s voice, calling from the MTC, my mind ran through approximately 10,000 thoughts in a period of .5 seconds before I managed to say, “What’s going on buddy?” (You have to ask, knowing full well that he wasn’t just calling to say hi, or to check on the dog. But you somehow hope that maybe, just maybe, he is just calling to check on the dog.)
My sweet son, the one who’s been in the MTC for 3-1/2 weeks, was notably choked up. It took him a moment to start talking. He told me that he needed to come home. Assuming he was struggling emotionally, and was just wanting to come home, I said “No, you’re ok! You don’t need to come home.” He stopped me, and said “No, Mom, I need to come home.”
He proceeded to tell me that for the past 3 weeks, he’s struggled to fully feel the Spirit, all the while watching the other missionaries around him radiate it. As the 3 weeks wore on, he knew that there were things in his life that up until then, he thought he could resolve on his own. But every day, as he saw the other missionaries around him exhibit such fullness of the Spirit, he realized that he would never be able to experience that same strength and depth of feeling until he asked for the Lord’s help.
After speaking with his MTC Branch and District Presidents last week, he said that he felt the weight of the world leave him. He went back into class and taught a lesson with his companion to one of their MTC investigators. He said that for the first time since he’d arrived at the MTC, he was able to feel the Spirit so strongly that it was almost overwhelming. He knew then that he was finally on the path to making things right, and to being able to serve with all his heart, might, mind and strength.
Four days later, the decision was made that my sweet son would come home for now. We only talked for about 5 minutes, but I was so grateful for the presence of mind that allowed me to let him know how much we love him, that we support him, and that we’ll get through this time together. While he’s home, he’ll have time to resolve anything that was keeping him from serving to his full potential, as well as have additional time to further prepare himself for missionary work when he goes back to the MTC.
When we’d finished talking, he then brought in President Gilbert, his MTC District President, to talk to me. He couldn’t have been more kind, supportive, and optimistic. President Gilbert told me that some of the greatest missionaries he’s ever known are the ones who go home, take the time to make sure they’re completely prepared and worthy in every way, and come back stronger than they ever were before.
I know that this can be the case with my own son. I have no doubt about it. I know for a fact that we only truly grow when we do hard things. But believe me, this is not what I would have ever asked for. It’s going to hurt – for him, and for us. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be awkward. And there isn’t a manual with instructions on how to deal with your missionary child coming home early.
In spite of all those things, I also realize that this is far from the worst thing I have ever experienced, or that my other children have experienced. But because of the very public nature of it, our culture often interprets a missionary coming home early to be the worst thing in the world! If we can be realistic, we quickly realize that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is a but a small blip in our family’s experience, and my intention is to do what I can to help dispel the unnecessary awkwardness that surrounds these momentary detours on our path back to Christ.
Sometimes, difficult challenges allow for spiritual experiences that would never otherwise happen.
Yesterday afternoon, when my son had been home for less than 24 hours, he and I sat and talked for a while. After he gently reminded me that I needed to give him some space and not hover too much (ok, fair enough), I opened up and shared with him about how I was also trying to figure this all out, since I have no absolutely no idea how to do this “right.” I explained how I probably felt a bit more overwhelmed than I might have otherwise been, simply due to the fact that my husband is away for the entire week on a business trip. I shared with him that I really don’t know how to handle all of this either, especially since I was having to do this all on my own.
He stopped me right there, and said, “Mom, I want you to listen carefully to me. I have something extremely important to tell you. It’s the most important thing I learned at the MTC, and it was something I was able to share quite a few times with people during my last few days there.”
He then proceeded to testify that I’m not alone. He said, “Dad may be gone right now, but you still have his help. You also have me. I’m here for you. But most importantly, you always have God. The Lord is here for you every moment of every day. You just have to ask for what you need, and He will bless you.” He then proceeded to testify of God’s love for me, for him, and for every other person on this earth. He shared a testimony so heartfelt, so powerful, and so sincere, that I wept. I wept and wept. I’ve heard those words before, but I’ve never felt them with such conviction as I felt when my dear son, who had just left the MTC, shared these words with me. The same son who should have needed my comforting words was the one comforting me.
When he finished, I had to ask him, “You know these things are true? You really know it?” He said, “Yes, I know it more than ever.” At that moment, I knew everything was going to be alright. In fact, not just alright, but things can be better than we ever could have imagined.
My son has taken the first steps in applying the message of the gospel and Christ’s atonement to his own life. And even though he was not there teaching these principles to investigators at the MTC or in his assigned mission yet, he was still teaching the atonement. To his mother. He was teaching me the true Gospel plan, and was living proof of the gospel in action. And I have never been more grateful to have him as my son, nor have I ever had more faith in his divine potential.
The Lord doesn’t always purposely give us trials, but he does allow them to be a part of our lives. I typically really despise trials, and would prefer to just pass on the potential blessings if that allows me to skip the trial, thank you very much. However, I can see more clearly than ever before just how powerful a tool trials can be. There is no doubt in my mind that my dear, amazing son could never have reached his full potential had he just continued on his way, avoiding things that kept him from feeling the spirit as much as he could. And by making the most difficult choice of his life so far, he’s already reaping the blessings that come from making things right with the Lord.
There’s no need for scarlet letters, trumpets, or spotlights.
We have a unique challenge as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We love to celebrate missionaries, and we should! But as a result, we’re all very aware of their goings and comings. Specifically, we’re aware of when they go away, and we’re equally aware of when they come back home. If the coming-back-home is anything short of the expected release date, we all panic. “What happened? Did they do something wrong? Did they get kicked out of the MTC or their mission? Could they just not handle it?” Those pointless questions are followed by something like this: “Oh, those poor parents. They must be so humiliated.”
Now, I won’t even pretend to say that I haven’t had some of those very thoughts run through my mind in the past when a missionary has come home early. But today, I’m kicking myself for any time I have ever allowed those type of thoughts to cross my mind. Because today, I understand that missionaries come home for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s health. Maybe it’s worthiness. Maybe it’s loneliness. Throw in the possibilities of anxiety, depression, or lack of preparation. Bottom line? It just doesn’t matter. And honestly, it’s none of our business! Whether the missionary came home early due to physical challenges, emotional challenges, or an unresolved guilty conscience, our response should be the same – complete acceptance, and love.
We all have our own challenges that keep us from being our best selves at times. And lucky for us, we don’t have to walk around carrying a scarlet letter while announcing to the world that we’re a working through a challenge that’s a bit more difficult than usual at the moment. We have the luxury of waging our battles privately. But for a missionary, it’s almost as though they have a 40,000-watt spotlight shining right on them, or a magnifying glass that emphasizes each and every flaw.
I can only imagine how it might feel to walk into a room each and every time after having come home early from a mission. I imagine it might feel as though each entrance is being announced by trumpets, a blinding spotlight, and an announcer’s voice booming, “We have a sinner in the room. I repeat, we have sinner in the room.” And not until every last person you know has witnessed the public announcement, and acknowledged it with a gasp, can you begin to attempt to relax and breathe easy. But even then, the weight of the scarlet letter they may feel they still carry could be enough to keep them away from the places, people, and experiences that would best support their future growth.
Whatever it is that is keeping a missionary from being able to fully and completely serve the Lord is enough of a reason for the missionary to take steps to correct it.
Whatever a missionary’s own personal reason is for an early return, it needs to be enough. Enough for us to respect them for making the choice to serve in the first place, and then to welcome them home, regardless of whatever circumstance led them back. With the right kind of support, encouragement, acceptance, and love, we can be instruments in God’s hands to help encourage them on the Lord’s path. For some, that path may lead them back into completing their full-time mission, and for others, the better path may be one that leads directly into a lifetime of active church service. But when we attempt to make ourselves both inadequate and unqualified judges of something we know nothing about, we certainly do nothing more than just place roadblocks along the path God has in store for them.
If this still seems difficult, we can always look to our perfect example, who showed us just how simple a change in thoughts and behaviors can be. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, never cast judgment. He welcomed the sinner, the saint, the leper, and the mentally challenged with open arms and complete acceptance. He didn’t waste time or energy on judging their worthiness to be loved. He didn’t just focus his efforts on the people who were doing well. And even though He was certainly clear about what was right and wrong, I highly doubt He sat in the back of the temple whispering about what might have brought someone in to offer confession or to ask for assistance in some way.
No, instead, He would have been the one who stepped forward, with open arms, and with an immediate offer to assist, love and heal someone.
I recently read an amazing article by Andy Proctor called “6 Things Repentance Does NOT Mean.” The principles discussed in this article can be applied to any person who is struggling with anything that is keeping them from feeling worthy of God’s boundless love. In this article, Proctor states:
“Why is there so much shame in being honest about our imperfections? Why is it scary? Why can’t we be more open? Why is there shame in sharing about our eternal progress? If angels rejoice when we decide to repent, then why not everyone else?”
We all have imperfections. We all struggle! And wouldn’t it be amazing if we could truly live the way Christ taught us to live, and rejoice with those who are working to become better? We should be as the angels, and rejoice when we see others doing whatever it takes to come closer to Christ. Isn’t that the very reason we send missionaries across the world? Their entire purpose is to share God’s plan for overcoming our earthly imperfections, to repent, overcome challenges, and to try and improve ourselves! It’s time we learned to rejoice with the angels when a missionary understands this concept well enough to apply it to their own life.
How can we make a difference?
As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I honestly believe that there are several things we could all do differently that could make a world of difference when a missionary comes home early. Here are a few things I would suggest.
As families, let’s not be afraid to acknowledge when a missionary has come home early.
Over the past two days, I have read dozens of articles about how to support a missionary who comes home early, for whatever the reason. After reading those articles, and thinking of my own experiences, I feel very strongly about one thing: Unless we can be more open with the people who care about us, people will continue to whisper and wonder. And I can tell you this for certain – when we don’t know the reason for a missionary coming home early, people often tend to assume the worst possible scenario.
Also, there is nothing more uncomfortable than running into someone you believe is out serving a mission, and your confusion leads you to ask when they’ll be leaving, or when did they get back. Those interactions leave everyone cringing, eyes to the floor, and wishing they either hadn’t asked, or that they didn’t have to answer. We cannot avoid all of these moments, no matter how hard we try. But we can bring the number of them to a minimum if we are proactive in sharing the news with those around us.
So, I am choosing to publicly share the news of my son’s return from the MTC with the people around me for several reasons. First, I want to eliminate the shock and awe that will inevitably occur when someone sees him back at church or in town again. (“Wait, didn’t he go on a mission? Why is he here? What happened? Oh no, that must be so awkward for them all.”)
I now realize what a waste of time that is for you all, and so for your benefit, let’s not waste any time here. I’m choosing to personally escort the elephant around the room, and then I’m going to tell it to get on outta’ here. Because I simply don’t need to live in fear of who I’ll run into, who might ask about my missionary, or worry that I need to protect my son from those type of whispers and questions. By acknowledging the elephant in the room, we can all just deal with it, and start to move forward. Besides, I prefer to live without elephants anyway.
We need to be ready and willing to reach out to early-returned missionaries.
When a missionary comes home early, the last thing they need is to have people avoid them. Sure, it’s going to be awkward no matter what. But it can be made far less awkward if we make an effort to proactively approach the newly-returned missionary and greet them with love and support.
I get it, it’s hard to know what to say. But why not just give them a hug, a handshake, or at the very least make eye contact and offer a genuine smile? I can only imagine that they must feel like they’re the leper in the room for quite a while after coming home early. (Wow, the room is getting really full. First elephants, and now lepers. What next?? We’ve got to stop this parade right now.)
And if you’re nervous about what to say to them, how about something as simple as “I’m happy to see you. I care about you. We support you.” Any of those would be great, and would certainly be far better than the old grocery store avoidance technique (you all know what I’m talking about). Those first greetings are critical to giving the missionary the strength and confidence to keep on coming back to church, or to family and social events.
Let’s choose to rejoice with the angels when people work to come closer to God!
Finally, I realize that the natural response when a missionary comes home is one of sorrow, and disappointment. Yes, those feelings come into play, but I have learned very quickly that those are not the only elements at play, nor are they the most important!
We all need to recognize that strength comes directly from resistance and opposition, faith is made greater by experience, and some blessings can only come through a trial by fire that refines us more significantly than any ordinary experience ever could. I truly feel today as though I see the opportunity my son has to be refined, to come out stronger, more full of faith, and with a more powerful testimony of God’s grace and his love as a result of this very temporary bump in life’s road.
So, with that, he will move forward, supported by the love and acceptance of so many of you. He will continue to hold his head high, in the knowledge that our Heavenly Father loves him, and that Jesus Christ atoned for all of our weaknesses, fears, sins and imperfections a long time ago. It’s now just up to us to accept that gift, and to joyfully accept its ability to comfort and refine us.
God’s greatest messengers go out prepared with testimonies that have been strengthened through their greatest trials. Let’s rejoice with the angels, and support missionaries and their families by offering the same unconditional love and acceptance that our Savior shows to us.
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