Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Call

On Wednesday, May 9, 2012, I received a letter in the mail.  It was in a large, white envelope that was about a 1/4" thick.  Though its long-anticipated arrival was met with much excitement, it also brought with it a certain amount of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.  I was not fortunate to relieve my apprehension by opening it right away.  Instead I had to wait several long, torturous hours before the time to reveal its contents had arrived.  But those waiting hours were nothing compared to the time it had taken to prepare for this letter’s arrival in the first place.  That story begins over two and a half years ago, and in order to fully appreciate the contents of the letter I received this week, I want to share that story with you.

In October 2009 I received a letter from my friend, Megan Richards, who at the time was serving a mission in Romania.  She was only one of several of my close friends serving missions at the time, so my mind was often turned to the possibility of going on a mission.  But having turned 22 months before, I was nearly old enough to have already gone and come home from a mission, and therefore I felt that perhaps the time for my mission service had passed me by.  Having shared these thoughts with Megan in a previous correspondence, she responded to me in her typical beautiful, inspired way.  She recounted to me the story of Esther in the Old Testament, and the counsel from her father, Mordecai, in Esther 4:14.

“For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed:  and who knoweth whether thou art called to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

I felt such an affirmation from the Spirit that this scripture was applicable to me – “who knoweth whether [I was] called to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  I may have felt old for leaving on a mission, but who was I to question the Lord’s timing?
Shortly thereafter, we sang Hymn #270, “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go,” as one of the congregational hymns in sacrament meeting, and I absolutely came to pieces.  It seemed that every word of that hymn was calling out specifically to me. 

It may not be on the mountain height
Or over the stormy sea,
It may not be at the battle’s front
My Lord will have need of me.
But if, by a still, small voice he calls
To paths that I do not know,
I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in thine:
I’ll go where you want me to go.

Perhaps today there are loving words
Which Jesus would have me speak;
There may be now in the paths of sin
Some wand’rer whom I should seek.
O Savior, if thou wilt be my guide,
Tho dark and rugged the way,
My voice shall echo the message sweet:
I’ll say what you want me to say.

There’s surely somewhere a lowly place
In earth’s harvest fields so wide
Where I may labor through life’s short day
For Jesus, the Crucified.
So trusting my all to thy tender care,
And knowing thou lovest me,
I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere:
I’ll be what you want me to be.

I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord,
Over mountain or plain or sea;
I’ll say what you want me to say, dear Lord;
I’ll be what you want me to be

The Spirit was not so much whispering as it was shouting in my mind and my heart, “Go on a mission.  Go on a mission!  GO ON A MISSION!!!”

Around this same time, I recorded in my journal a collection of “Things to Think About.”  I included the scripture in Esther, some select phrases from Hymn #270, and other passages of scripture and verses of hymns, including 2 Timothy 1:7; D&C 4; Hymn #169, “As Now We Take the Sacrament;” Hymn #97, “Lead, Kindly Light;” James 1:5; D&C 31; Acts 6:4; Romans 1:16-17; and D&C 88:81.  By this point, I knew that the answer to the question of whether or not I should serve a mission was a resounding, “Yes!”  However, it was a question I was simply terrified to ask the Lord in prayer.  I was so afraid of putting my life on hold, so resistant to change, so nervous about where I might go, and already starting to mourn those things which I would have to leave behind or miss out on while I was away.

It took a couple of months, but by December 2009/January 2010 I had finally come around to admitting to myself and accepting from the Lord that this was the path that I should take.  I met with my then-bishop, Eric Rasmussen, and after a preliminary interview he sent me to the Missionary Online Recommendation System to begin my paperwork and to the patriarch to receive my patriarchal blessing (something I had been putting off for years because I was afraid of being disappointed).

I visited the patriarch, Kenneth Godfrey, on January 31, 2010, and in my interview with him I mentioned that I was preparing mission papers.  He gave me a beautiful blessing, which spoke in detail about my missionary experience and the blessings I would receive as a missionary.  I felt buoyed up and even more excited about my mission plans after receiving my blessing.

Only a few short weeks later, Bishop Rasmussen was released from his calling much sooner than I had anticipated, and Bishop Al Burns was called in his place.  At first, I was simply devastated.  I already had a good relationship with Bishop Rasmussen and I hardly knew Bishop Burns at all.  But in his address to the congregation in sacrament meeting the day he was sustained, Bishop Burns shared an experience about how he had been arrested in the midst of a ward youth activity at Bear Lake for having too many people in his boat.  As I had recently been arrested myself for forgetting/neglecting to pay a traffic ticket (If you don’t know this whole story, ask me and I’ll tell you about it sometime.), I felt an immediate kinship with Bishop Burns.  I had confirmation from the Spirit that he was called by God, that he would be a good bishop for me, and that everything would be okay with regard to my mission paperwork.

I met with Bishop Burns a couple weeks later and we discussed my mission plans.  There were a few things slowing my progress, including not having insurance to help cover the costs of the necessary medical and dental exams, having a significant (but not insurmountable) amount of debt to repay, and on top of those things, not receiving sufficient hours at work in order to get ahead or begin to save.  Despite being out of school for a year and being available for full-time employment, I was not very successful at finding anything I was interested in or that didn’t conflict with other priorities I had in my life.  I never made appointments with my doctor or my dentist or made any arrangements for quickened repayment of my debts.

Over that next year, I let my mission papers become neglected.  I began to make different plans for my future.  In the spring of 2011, I enrolled for my last year of school at Utah State.  I kept my same job and worked no more or less than before.  I hoped that I would graduate and find a fantastic job or a fantastic husband and finally get on with my life.  I didn’t ever say I wasn’t going on a mission, but I just figured I probably wouldn’t.  There were just so many barriers I would have to overcome.

In the fall of 2011, I began my final year at Utah State.  At what would be seven years after my high school graduation, I could look on my upcoming college graduation with nothing but relief.  I was so tired of school and so tired of part-time work and so tired of not having a real life.  I didn’t think too much about what I would do once I was done, but I certainly knew it had to be different and better than what I was doing now.  However, as that fall semester began to draw to a close, it was with panic and dread that I realized that I would soon have to make some major life decisions.

I tried to ignore it the best I could, but I really couldn’t stop thinking about my patriarchal blessing, and how it spoke so specifically on serving a mission.  I tried telling myself that I’d been there before and hadn’t gotten anywhere, that this time around it was definitely too late, that I really didn’t want to put off my life and a career and marriage and children any longer.  I wanted to make my own decision.  I wanted to carve my own path and I didn’t want anyone, not even the Lord, telling me what to do.  (I know, I know.  I can be very stubborn and ridiculous.)

I knew that following the path the Lord wanted me to take would be difficult.  It would mean some major sacrifices – the one I hated the most was all the time that I would lose.  As a 24-year-old unmarried Latter-Day Saint woman from Utah, I already felt a little like an outcast and somewhat of a failure for not having a husband and a gaggle of children as so many of my friends my age (and younger) already did.  Going on a mission would mean choosing to put that off even longer.  I worried that it would only serve to make certain my fate as a lonely old maid.  I would become the scary old lady on the corner who never married and who had nobody but her garden gnomes to keep her company.  This is a thought which still haunts and terrifies me.

Additionally, it would mean leaving everything I know behind.  It would mean walking away from my family, my friends, my job, my television shows, my wardrobe, my cooking blogs, my singing and dancing and acting, and into the absolute unknown.  It would mean having to talk to complete strangers about a difficult subject all day, every day in an unfamiliar place, maybe even in an unfamiliar language.  It would mean 18 whole months of getting up every morning at 6:30 AM.  It would mean missing weddings, school musicals, babies being born, birthdays, and Christmases.  I wasn’t ready.  I didn’t want it.  I yearned for the familiar, the comfortable, and the sane.

But in the end, it didn’t really feel like it was my decision to make.  It was the Lord’s will for me and at some point I came to accept it, even if I didn’t embrace it right away.  I couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud, even to myself, for the longest time.  I knew if I said it I would have to go through with it and I was so remarkably afraid.  Finally, one day, in desperation, I prayed to know if it was really the right thing to do.  I said that I would go if it was the Lord’s will that I do so.  But I already knew the answer.  It had been trying to force itself into my mind and heart for weeks, maybe even months.  I had to serve a mission.  Now was the time for which I had been prepared to serve.

Despite my spiritual confirmation, I was frustrated and even a little bit angry and resentful at the Lord’s timing.  I mean, I’m almost 25 years old, for heaven’s sake!  Who waits until they are 25 to serve a mission?  Even after I had decided that I would go, at first it felt almost like a chore.  I felt abandoned and neglected.  It seemed almost like the fact that I had not gone sooner was due to ignorance of me on the Lord’s part, rather than careful love and planning.  But I looked back on the time that had passed since I first started my mission papers, and I realized what I would have missed if I had gone two years ago as I originally intended.  I would have been gone when my family experienced the death of my father.  I would have missed my little sister’s high school graduation.  I would not have had the wonderful blessing of reconnecting with a long-lost old friend.  I would not yet have graduated from Utah State University or from Institute.  I would not have formed some of the wonderful friendships I have found in my ward, at school, and at work.  I would not have had the opportunity to fulfill the callings I have been given at church.

I would not have been prepared in Institue by Brother Dymock, who taught me to love scripture study and whose class helped me to develop a regular habit of scripture study for the first time in my life; by Brother Hunsaker, who taught the New Testament with so much love and faith in Jesus Christ you couldn’t help but grow closer to the Him every single day; by Brother Evanson, who used his experience as a former mission president to teach Mission Prep with practicality, straightforwardness, and honesty about what is required to be a missionary, and what missionary work is really like; or by Brother Winward, whose Marriage Prep class was one of the most inspiring and doctrinally sound classes I have ever taken, and which made me more excited about the temple than I have ever been.

The timing seems bad to me in many ways.  But only the Lord can see the end from the beginning.  Only the Lord really knows what is best for me.  I know I will continue learning this lesson every day of my life, but looking back over the past two and a half years has helped my testimony of this (often difficult) truth to grow.

So I made an appointment to meet with Bishop Burns, and on January 25, 2012, we met and talked about finally completing my mission papers.  There were still some obstacles – I was still uninsured and though it had been reduced by almost half, I still had some debts to pay off.  But Bishop Burns offered to help cover my medical expenses and to help me repay my debts because he, too, knew that it really was time for me to go.  But that wasn’t all.  He was given a forceful impression that this was something I should do on my own – at least, without the involvement of my family and friends.  He didn’t want my family to worry about the finances and he didn’t want me to feel any pressure or even “friendly encouragement” from anyone else to rush through the process of completing my paperwork.  He knew that I needed the opportunity to sort through these things for myself.  To move at my own pace and to take the time I needed to evaluate things emotionally.

At first it was difficult.  It was often very lonely.  And I can’t even tell you how many times I felt trapped in a lie when I was forced to be vague about my post-graduation plans.  But I was also grateful for the solitude.  There were many, many panic attacks in my car or in my room late at night.  There were days when I worried that opening my mouth at all would result in the truth of my future just spilling out, entirely unbidden by me.

I developed a few confidants – of course my doctor and my dentist (who both also happen to be in my ward) both knew, as I visited them in February in the course of completing mission paperwork.  My voice teacher, Laurie Hart, got it out of me early on in the process and she was a tremendous help and support.  My lessons each week were often my only opportunity to talk about my progress, and to express my anxiety and excitement.  It was truly a blessing.  And my dear friend, Annie Ferrin, was included in my list of co-conspirators shortly before I submitted my paperwork, because she asked me about a mission and did not believe me when I tried to lie.  Beyond those few people, and anyone in the ward or stake leadership who needed to know in order to help complete the process, absolutely nobody in my life knew I was submitting mission papers.  Not my mother, not my sister or brothers, not my grandparents, and none of my best friends.

After four months (give or take two years or so) of getting my papers in order, I met with President Wallis, my Stake President, on April 22, 2012, and after a great interview my papers were finally submitted!  Before letting me go, he said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and I was pleased to say, “Yes!”  It was a long journey and a difficult one, but somewhere between January and April, my hesitation and resentment grew into excitement and anticipation.  Now all I had to do was wait, wait, wait for the call to come.

President Wallis said it would take up to three Wednesdays for my call to arrive.  Everyone I knew who had recently received calls said they were turning around in about 10 days.  So you can imagine my disappointment when, 10 days after submitting my papers, having still not told my family or any of my closest friends of my plans, my call failed to arrive.  I did not know that I could survive another week.  I was finishing school the next day, and though I had graduation to look forward to, I was not going to be nearly busy enough to distract myself for so much longer!

Graduation day came, and then there were only a few more days to wait.  I attended my graduation ceremonies and still had not revealed my plans to my friends or family.  I meant to wait until my call actually came (I think because it had been a secret so long, I wasn’t really sure they would believe me if I didn’t have it in my hand as proof), but my graduation celebrations were too heavy with the weight of the future to put it off any longer.  After five months of solitude in my decision, I told my family that I was expecting a mission call to arrive on Wednesday.

They were, needless to say, absolutely stunned by this news.  I think my mother’s jaw literally hit the table at the restaurant.  My sister was crying.  My grandparents were ecstatic.  My brother was stoically proud.  One of my best friends and my near-constant companion, AnnMarie, just kept exclaiming that she couldn’t believe that I hadn’t even told her!  And then they had to learn to keep it a secret too.  I wanted to wait until I had my call and I could tell people where I was going.  And I wanted to be able to tell people myself – I didn’t want it going viral all over Facebook and blogs and Twitter and the neighborhood gossip mill before I had a chance to tell my own story.  They were resistant at first, but they agreed to keep it a secret just a little bit longer.

So on Wednesday, May 9, the long-anticipated day finally arrived.  After a not-so-much-fun trip to the dentist for a root canal, I sat in my room waiting for the post to come.  Every car that drove up or down my street called me to the window, searching for the mail truck.  Finally, at about 2:00 PM, the post arrived!  My call was here!

Unfortunately, that did not mean that the waiting was over.  Shannon and Eric were stuck in traffic on their way back from Tooele.  Mom was at work, Austin at school.  Colin was standing by to Skype in from Hawaii.  For four whole hours my call sat in my bedroom, just taunting me.

During this time, my mind continued, as it had been doing for the entire previous week, bouncing around all over the globe.  Japan.  Missouri.  England.  Germany.  Washington.  Some remote tropical island I’ve never even heard of.  I didn’t want to speculate.  I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment.  But how can you not wonder?  What language would I speak?  What would the climate be like?  What about the culture?  The food?  The time zone?

The family gathered, at last, at around 6:00 PM for the grand opening.  I was apprehensive, but excited.  I had returned missionaries from France, Switzerland, Korea, and Canada in the room.  I felt pressure to follow in their footsteps, while at the same time I wanted something of my own.  I wanted to go somewhere distant and exotic, while simultaneously longing for the familiarity of home.  My sister was sure it would be stateside.  I wasn’t sure I’d get to learn a language.  My grandpa said I could only choose between Paris and Montreal.  With trepidation and anticipation, I finally opened that letter.

This is what it said:

Dear Sister Burgess:

You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  You are assigned to labor in the Chile ConcepciĆ³n Mission.  It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of 18 months.

You should report to the Provo Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.  You will prepare to teach the gospel in the Spanish language. . . .

Chile ConcepciĆ³n!  Oh my goodness.  I never, ever would have thought that I would go there!  I know nothing about Chile.  I took Spanish in high school but never progressed very far.  And only four months to prepare!  Oh my goodness.  I have no doubt that these next four months, and the 18 after it, are going to be filled with some of the most difficult and harrowing days I have ever lived through.  However, I also know (because it was promised to me in my call letter and my patriarchal blessing) that my mission will be one of the greatest experiences of my life, and that if I strive to keep the commandments and serve the Lord prayerfully and faithfully, I will be blessed with success, happiness, and peace.

This has been a long journey for me.  And it’s certainly not over yet!  But I want to leave you with my testimony that this gospel is true.  I know it!  Joseph Smith is a true prophet.  He saw our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ, that morning in the grove of trees; he translated the Book of Mormon, which is a true testament of Jesus Christ and His prophets and disciples on the American continent; and he restored the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth.  President Monson is the true and living prophet today.  We must heed his warnings and follow his counsel, for he is an instrument in the hands of the Lord in these latter days.  Heavenly Father loves us and knows us – He loves me and knows me!  We are His children and He wants us to return to Him and to receive all that He has.  He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to the earth to be a teacher and a perfect example and to perform the Atonement.  This magnificent gift allows us to repent and be forgiven of our sins, so that we might grow each day to become more like our Savior and older brother, Jesus Christ, and that we might return to live with our Father in Heaven and receive everlasting life!  I pray that I may strive to be more like Him as I prepare and serve as a missionary in Chile.  I pray that as I share my testimony, the Lord will soften the hearts of the people I meet; that they may be prepared to accept the gospel and to find everlasting joy and peace through Heavenly Father’s great plan of happiness for His children.  I know these things are true, and I say them in the name of Jesus Christ, my Savior and Redeemer.  Amen.