Lesson #4This one is a bit long, but It's a great story. I hope you enjoy.
I served a 2 year mission in Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from August 1993 to August 1995. I served in amazing places like Recife, Olinda, Joao Pessoa, and Natal. In Brazil, missionary work is very successful. The people are well-prepared for the Gospel and we experienced much success as missionaries. The expectation for our work was high and it reflected in our weekly and monthly goals for our activities.
In my second area, I served in a place called, Petrolina. It was located here:
It was a hot place to work. There were very few trees and a lot of sun. We were sent to work on the outskirts of town in an area where missionaries hadn't worked yet. There was a main highway through the area, but none of the places I worked had any paved roads - or cobble stone roads. Just a lot of dirt. And really crazy looking packs of dogs...lots of great stories from Petrolina. A lot of our area was 2 or more miles from our little house and we walked to it every day. Because we had little money, we didn't take buses much to our area and we mostly skipped lunch and worked instead. We wore ourselves out each day and I lost a lot of weight in that area. I also went through one of my pair of shoes.
At that point in my mission, I was still pretty green, but I was made a senior companion and sent a new companion - Elder Martins, a Brazilian Elder who was one of the strangest people I've ever been around. A unique character, for sure. He wasn't a bad Elder, but he had no passion and no personal motivation for the work outside of just doing the duty. It was kind of sad to watch. In many ways, he was extra weight I had to carry a lot. He reflected myself back to me. If I worked hard, he would follow and work hard. If I took a rest, he was more than happy to oblige. He was along for the ride. Literally, if I walked fast, he walked fast, if I walked slow, he would immediately adjust. It was a bit like having a large dog by my side. He was super quiet and didn't really want to contribute outside the required activities. Thankfully he obeyed the rules.
So, the work was largely left to me to bear. The decisions, the motivation, and the inspiration. For a younger missionary like me, that was hard. So I did the only things I knew how to do...
I worked as hard as I could. I obeyed the rules to the letter. I did everything I was asked to do by my leaders and tried as hard as I could to succeed. In fact, we ended up leading the mission in the number of discussions taught for several weeks - and that is not an easy feat in Brazil because the warm people let you in a lot. You have to teach A LOT of discussions to lead the mission.
At weekly meetings, my leaders would ask about our successes and I would report on how many discussions we had taught, etc. I was always at or near the top in the group. However, the most important measure of success was convert baptisms. How many people did we commit to baptism and how many were actually baptized? The answer was always, zero.
Zero is not an easy number for a missionary in Brazil. to have no baptisms in a month was not an ordinary thing. It just didn't happen much. And we reported a zero for 2 months in a row. My leaders (other, more experienced missionaries) would sit with me and ask about what we were doing. In their minds, and in mine, it was a simple formula. If you obeyed the rules, obtained the Spirit, and worked hard teaching discussions, you would have success in the form of baptisms. The worst part was that our zone (a geographic area with about 16-20 missionaries) was the mission leader in baptisms those months and we contributed none to that success. It felt like S.T. Coolridge's poem, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink." And I had the albatross around my neck.
I remember one day after our zone meeting, sitting with my zone leader while he drilled me with questions about how were were teaching, if we were obeying all the rules, etc. He was trying to find something wrong in what we were doing - because if we were doing the right things, we would have success. It frustrated me because I knew that we were teaching well, we worked very hard, obeyed the rules, and taught a lot of discussions. Yet, I knew we weren't baptizing and it was a double punishment to hear this kind of questioning from my zone leader all while I was already disappointed with myself.
There was hope, however. We had found a family the week before and they were awesome! So golden. In fact, one day while struggling in the very hot sun to get in a door to teach, I stopped and said a heartfelt prayer and pleaded with the Lord to help us find someone who would let us in to teach. I was discouraged and needed hope. Immediately, I felt prompted to skip a street over and knock on the door on the corner. We did and were warmly greeted by a father of 3 and his wife.
To be honest, I can't remember their names off-hand, but I know I have it written in my journals (which are still hiding inside our garage in an packed box). I do remember their faces, their smiles, and their personalities. I remember a lot about them. The children were so adorable....and they lived in a house that looked a lot like this one (this is a picture of a house actually located in the area I worked):
We taught that family the lessons of the Gospel and challenged them to pray and ask God if what we taught them was true - to find out for themselves.
And they did. One day we showed up for our appointment and asked them how the reading of the Book of Mormon was going and how their experience with our challenge to pray was. Their response was one I will never forget. "Elder, " the father said, "we don't know a lot about God like some others, and we don't have much to offer to the Church, but when we read this Book and pray to God about what you teach us, we want to offer all that we have to have more of what you teach."
I smiled wide, then cried in that small, mud and stick home. With them, I smiled and cried. We rejoiced together. The promise of the Gospel had taken root in their hearts and they were committed to becoming disciples of Christ. We asked them to accept baptism and they heartily agreed. The father did say one thing more. He lowered his head and said, "Elder, we cannot be baptized and go to church without shoes for the children. We will need to wait for us to purchase some." My heart was touched by his humility and I told him that I understood and that I would see if we could find a way to help.
My companion and I showed up a day later with 3 sets of shoes for the children. While my companion would not agree to spending his measly allotted money for the month on shoes, I decided to donate the money and buy them myself. It was worth going without some food and bus fares if it meant seeing that family obtain the blessings of baptism and the Gospel through communion with the members and the Spirit.
We set a date for baptism and continued to prepare the family. We spent quite a bit of time teaching them and just being with them. I fell in love with this family. They were what you live for on a mission.
So, in my meeting with the zone leader, there was this one family - that would put me right with the mission and the Lord.
The night before they were to be baptized, my companion and I walked the long journey to their home from where we had been working and knocked on the door. The father let us in and immediately I could sense the mood was depressed. I asked what was wrong and he explained, "my work is moving me to another city more than 5 hours further into the interior of Brazil. We must leave tomorrow or be left without work. We cannot be baptized tomorrow."
My heart sunk. We talked about possible scenarios and options. There really was not option. And we didn't have a Church to attend so far away. It would be better if they waited until they could be baptized where they could attend Church and get the support they needed. I was dying inside and scrambled to argue in my heart with the reality. But the Spirit whispered that I be still - that it was as it was supposed to be for now. I did not want to accept that. And I did not want to say good-bye to this family I had grown to love. But we did.
We left their house that night with heavy hearts. I was crying, they were crying, and there was nothing we could do but trust our Heavenly Father that they would have an opportunity later to hear the Gospel and be baptized. They promised they would pray and read their scriptures often. I trust they did and still do. That was the last time I saw them.
That visit was our last of the night so we headed home, with feet that felt as heavy as they ever had.
Our home was located about 3 miles on the other side of a big gap between small "suburbs" and we traveled through an empty, dark desert to get home. Imagine this kind of trail/terrain in the dark:
As we walked, I fought emotions of anger and sadness and confusion and disappointment all at once. It all settled in me like a dark storm till I wanted to walk no further. Finally, I stopped, dropped to my knees in the dark and dirt and wept. I prayed out loud, disregarding my companion and the night around me. I cried to God and asked him WHY?! Why must that beautiful family wait?! And why was I prevented from the joy of bringing souls to Him through baptism? After a long time, I ran out of everything. Questions, emotions, energy. The night was so quiet and empty, and so was I. Slowly, I picked myself up and walked the final miles home through the night that seemed as deafening as any night of quiet could be. My companion walked behind me almost as a strange, but real reminder of how alone I was.
When I got home, there was still no peace. So I sat in my hammock and picked up my scriptures, hoping that I would find some answer within.I opened up to where I had been reading in the morning. 2 Nephi Chapter 7 in the Book of Mormon. It is a chapter where the prophet Jacob is quoting the prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament (see Isaiah 50). When I saw that was the chapter I was on, I groaned, thinking that I wouldn't find peace in the teachings of Isaiah. But I felt compelled to read anyway - perhaps because I didn't have the energy to argue or find something else.
I read the whole chapter and still not feeling peace, I just closed the book, frustrated.
Then, a quite voice told me to read it again. Thankfully I did. But I still did not see or feel anything. Then, as I lay there with the book open to that chapter, the voice said to me, "the end is for you."
I looked back at the chapter and read it a third time, this time being careful to pay attention to the end. As I entered verse 10, the burning of the Spirit came over me and my mind was opened to the meaning. The final two verses of the chapter read:
This was me. I certainly feared the Lord (meaning that I obeyed him and his laws), I obeyed the voice of his servants (all my leaders from zone leaders to mission president to the Prophet and Apostles), and yet there I was, walking in darkness and having no light.
Verse 11 told me why. And yes, I was laying in sorrow. This was certainly for me.
What I realized at that moment was that I had been working so hard to be successful, but only kindling "fire" and compassing myself with "sparks" by my works. I was walking in the light of my own fire - of my own works and glory. And because of it, I walked in darkness and sorrow.
It is indeed possible to obey God, to follow his servants, and still walk in darkness. It is when we think that by our own efforts, we will have success. I thought that the Spirit and God's inspiration were there to help me do the work. But the truth was, I was supposed to be there to help THEM do the work. I was to walk by the light and fire of Christ. I was supposed to see my work as His.
All my focus on my activities and obedience and hard work, all of which were good, were simply prioritized above obtaining the Spirit and the will of the Lord. I had been asking God to help me when I should have been asking how I could help Him...and help His children.
I dropped to my knees that night and begged forgiveness for thinking I was the maker of light and converter. I pledged to always let Him be the light that led.
This experience was one of the most profound of my mission and my life. It changed how I placed myself in the Lord's work and how I went about it. It helped me change from doing THE work to doing HIS work. it changed me from trying to baptize, to trying to love and testify.
I am still working on it. I am a long way from perfection. But this scripture and experience is always there in my heart and mind to remind me where to find the fire.