Sorry for the lack of a letter last week. Hopefully from now on I’ll be able to send one off consistently.
So you should know, yes I am very much still alive and quite well. I only have a little over three months left of my mission and though I miss a great deal of family and friends and the Beatles and Doctor Who and the ability to swim and my goodness I am looooonging for SHAKESPEARE. I am also sad that my time is so short. The opportunity of being a full time missionary is truly divine. I love it. I really love every day of this. When I return home I know I will struggle feeling like nothing I do will be quite as meaningful, because missionary service is the most meaningful thing a young adult could possibly do.
Anyhow, I am simply in love with Sundsvall. It has swiftly become my favourite area. I never thought anything could beat Göteborg, (and nothing can still quite beat the thrill of that city work) but it would seem Sundsvall was tailor made for me. We have mountains and the bright blue sea and sometimes you think you’re in Scotland and sometimes you think you’re on the Puget Sound and the branch is the tightest knit, most down to earth and helpful branch you can imagine. Every hill has a ski lift. The city itself feels like a cross between Chamonix, mini Göteborg and Whistler, and I’ve never been so booked on my mission. We are running from one place to another preparing several people for baptism and don’t have any time to do the standard missionary finding work that I’ve done just about everyday since I came to this country. The work still is hard, and we are dealing with some difficult situations, and you finish the day with a heavy heart, as it ought to be, but it also is absolutely wonderful. I don’t understand why I’m being spoiled with this.
We have several fantastic people preparing for baptism;
Åke and Kristina Lidström, who are easily the coolest old Swedes you could ever meet. Åke has had a successful career as a rockstar. His apartment is full of psychedelic photos of his Roger Daltry hair and magic mystery fashion back in the 60s, with famous rock musicians. He is in severe pain in his arm on account of his rockstar life and is getting surgery. As soon as that is recovered they’ll be jumping in the baptismal font and we hope he writes a rock opera about the plan of salvation. We extend to them commitments like “will you watch the New York doll Mormon documentary?” Which he is positively excited for, because he loves the New York dolls.
And then there is Luis from Guiné Bissau, an old wise African and six Persians and an Arab who I’m not allowed to talk about on the blog for safety reasons, but who I love with all of my heart, and hopefully some more this next week.
But something that has been on my mind that I wish to share; Twice in the last two weeks I had two very special experiences that testified to me of the pure simplicity of the gospel.
The first was on Saturday. Unfortunately, because of security concerns, I can not share 90% of my work on this blog because I am working for the most part with those formally of the Muslim faith. So with details excluded, we’ve been teaching loads of Persians, in various towns and various in quantities, leaving us wonderfully booked throughout the week. This story is of five particular Persian men we’ve been teaching at a refugee camp in the literal middle of nowhere. (We seem to always put the refugees out in the middle of nowhere with no mode of public transportation to the city.) As we were teaching these eagerly attentive faith seekers, all seven of us packed like sardines in a tiny bedroom no bigger than a coat closet, with the bunk bed taking up practically the entire room, sweating like a sauna, huddled around the swiftly dying phone to listen to the Persian translator translate our message, it hit me how beautifully simple this gospel is. There was no grand alter or combination of praises rehearsed. There was no chalk board drenched in deep study of the abrahamic covenant or impressively decadent centre piece display with refrigerator magnets to hand out. We were not meeting in a proud stain glassed cathedral or well furnished classroom. We were meeting in a closet converted to refugee bedroom in an asylum camp in the wild forests of Norrland…. And in that humble teaching setting, teaching those humble listeners the simple foundational principles of the gospel, the spirit was blazing stronger than any majestic church presentation has ever hit me before.
Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
And truly, as firmly as I can tell you that I know that the sun is in the sky I can testify that I know that the Saviour was in our midst, by way of his messenger, the Holy Ghost.
It does not require more than two or three gathered in Christ’s name for the Holy Ghost to be present. The Holy Ghost does not judge whether he’ll be present or not based on how impressive the centrepiece display is or how deep the doctrine discussed is. In this circumstance, we were teaching the basic principles of faith, repentance and baptism in the simplest of terms…. And it were as if the dingy room was a temporary tabernacle for the space of the lesson.
The second experience was last Sunday when we had the unique opportunity to preside and conduct our own branch Sunday service. In our area, we leave the large city of Sundsvall to the other four missionaries and, because we have the car, we cover everything else, in the largest area in the mission. Our crazy dream is to open up a branch in Hudiksvall, a city an hour to the south of Sundsvall. We are looking for an apartment to move there and really make this happen. Anyhow, we got special permission to have a Hudiksvall branch meeting on Sunday consisting of us and a few strong testimony old ladies. (It must start somewhere.) we met in an apartment complex rec room and used shot glasses for the sacrament. The missionaries presided, conducted, blessed and passed the sacrament, each gave a sacrament talk and taught Sunday school…..And never, ever, ever, not once in my life, have I had a more spiritual sacrament meeting. It was a Sunday to never be forgotten. We stripped down church to just the core emblems and simplified the gospel down to the heart…. And it was beautiful.
President Utchdorf once said; “sometimes we take the beautiful lily of God’s truth and gild it with layer upon layer of man-made good ideas, programs, and expectations. Each one, by itself, might be helpful and appropriate for a certain time and circumstance, but when they are laid on top of each other, they can create a mountain of sediment that becomes so thick and heavy that we risk losing sight of that precious flower we once loved so dearly.”
For an awfully long time I was missing the beauty of the gospel’s simplicity without even noticing it. To an extent I understood the key of simplicity, but still I, at times, was letting church culture seep into church worship.
Don’t we all do that?
We fuss over the deacons’ synchronised dance steps of passing out the sacrament, use Sunday school as a battle of wits, passive aggressively look down on the guy who grows his hair out and shows up to church in sneakers, (my old mission leader, one of the greatest members I know, wears sneakers to church) compare our church callings like trading cards, and then there is the never ceasing silent competitions of families battled out through grandiose musical performances in sacrament and the great race of earning Eagle Scouts and Personal Progress Young Women’s medallions before the kids even reach high school. The end product is a church of righteousness based off merits such as adherence to a specific code of dress and grooming.
Those that want to come to church to worship God and receive spiritual strength but do not fit into the cultural cookie cutter of Mormonism are made to feel like outcasts and black sheep, and if not reached out to, can leave the church with bitter feelings of not measuring up to the 4.0 cello players and utopian family bloggers.
It isn’t that the 4.0 cello players and family bloggers are wrong for playing the cello and blogging. We should very much invest our time in our talents and we can promote positive Christian family values through example on blogs. (As long as it does not come across as superficial or snobby of course.) BUT, we should also be cautious that 1. We are not making others feel less righteous in their discipleship because they don’t have a 4.0 or play the cello or have the perfectly dolled up blog family. And 2. We are not letting the presentation of our Von Trapp family singers distract from the real purpose of church; the sacrament, life, ministry, atonement, resurrection, reality and gospel of our saviour, Jesus Christ.
Maybe it is the almost 20 months of living in the culture of Sweden, or maybe it is teaching and baptising refugees with nothing but a few bags and a donated white shirt and no concept of Mormon culture but testimonies that could move mountains, or maybe it is serving in wards where high councilmen show up to church in pink chinos and three different languages are being translated for sacrament meeting…. But whatever it was that got me, (probably the combination of everything) this beautiful country and it’s wonderful members have taught me that Mormons can (and ought to) come in many shapes, sizes, colours, cultures, nationalities, social circles, political affiliations, fashion senses, and economic classes. The variation of walks of life enriches the church. Sundsvall branch perfectly proves the point that all the different Mormons can and must coexist in a ward family of love and friendship with zero ounce of judgement. The upper middle class Swede and the new to the country Persian are brothers. It isn’t like the righteous white Mormons are reaching out as if the Persians are some sort of charity case, but genuinely being their equal in the faith. They are all blended together in sacrament meeting- not separated into their own individual family dynasties in their designated rows (every ward has those) but all together as one, with no regard for age, race or anything else. You could show up with whatever wild outfit you could think up and this branch would love and embrace you with open arms.
I interviewed a lady for baptism a few weeks ago with a flaming orange Mohawk. In the interview she said that in her branch she loved how no one has ever seemed to have judged her for her particular hairstyle…. She felt uncomfortable in other churches in the past because she felt like everyone would look down on her based off her appearance, but in our church she felt like a part of a family. She said she could feel the love of Jesus through the love of the members.
If we are to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ as the title of our church we must strive to live like him, and flee from anything even slightly pharisaic. His gospel is simple and is for everyone, regardless of earthly circumstance. I have found His gospel in it’s purest form in a tiny bedroom with humble refugees from Afghanistan and in an unconventional makeshift branch service of a few old ladies and a row of shot glasses for the sacrament water.
“and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” 2 Nephi 26:33