Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I looked around at sacrament meeting and saw a young man who had only recently entered the missionary training center. “What’s he doing back so soon?” I had no right to wonder.
Pain was written all over his face, despite the fact that he kept his hands over his face the entire meeting. You could not see his face, but you could feel his pain if you were aware.
It did not matter why he was back. I knew what I had to do. I headed straight for him at the conclusion of the meeting and hugged him. “It is so good to see you,” I said, and added, “No one is judging you.” He wept.
Imagine my surprise, these years later, when my son came home after only a month in the mission field. Now I find myself hoping for the same grace from church members as my son returns early from his mission.
Our Words as Tender Mercies
It is too easy to be judgmental, in part, because our norms are strongly embedded in doctrinal orthodoxies, such as going on missions, marrying in the temple, and such. Norms tell us what is “normal” for the group and what we expect of ourselves. Our religious traditions are strong guides to our sense of cultural normalcy, spiritual development, and group identity.
Take the concept that says every worthy young man should go on a mission. This is not only a sincere request; it is a strong norm – suggesting that you are not quite normal among us if things don’t work out. What happens, then, when “worthy” young men go on missions and do not complete them for reasons beyond their control? Such reasons exist, and can earn an unfortunate stigma, regardless of how valid the reasons for finishing early but honorably. All this can lead to isolation and depression, as well as a loss of activity in the Church.
Imagine if our church membership created a new norm (expectation) by deciding that every worthy priesthood holder should grow up to be a bishop. What would people feel who have lived worthily but not yet been called as bishops? If one can be exalted without being a bishop, why would it be any different for those who do not or cannot serve a mission, or any other calling? Callings don’t exalt us.
Our norms, or traditions, may reflect God’s will for us universally, but not always individually. Every worthy young man should be prepared to serve as a missionary, but worthiness and preparedness together are not always going to be possible, or happen within certain ages or circumstances, despite our best efforts.
Can people be worthy of a mission but never able to go for reasons outside their control? If so, how should they feel about themselves against high standards they could or did not meet?
And if they try to go and return home early, should they feel even more poorly about returning early than if they had never gone at all? Can one missionary accomplish more in one month than another in 24? Who can judge?
As we talk to one another about our expectations and norms, and they become further institutionalized in our religious culture, we would do well to consider how our words may deny the tender mercies of Christ by sending subtle messages of failure or inadequacy to those who cannot or even will not meet those norms.
We may create a norm that inadvertently suggests to some that they are not worthy of membership because they cannot meet expectations, and we lose them. This is a church – a hospital for sinners, not a showcase for prosperous and competent saints.
While we certainly want all our children to do well, many will struggle. When this happens, they need the best hearts and kindest words we can offer if we hope to keep them firmly in the faith, and the faith firmly in them.
Thus, please consider all the ways in which your words and admonitions may sort and hurt, especially when talking about standards, rules, programs, expectations and the ever diverse “all” that makes up this church.
Our Hearts as Tender Mercies
One of my associates suggested that my son’s early return, though an honorable release from his mission, should be like a rock he carries in his emotional backpack. What a statement!
We cannot hope to become the hands of Christ if we do not first possess the heart of Christ. Such judgments, however well-intended and even arguably true, deny the atonement and the joy of redemption. It also makes us a less safe place for those who cannot conform to our ever increasing expectations of one another.
My bishop speaks of having three bicycles in his garage, all with flat tires. He notes that each requires a separate wrench to repair it. The wrenches may look alike, he says, but there are fine distinctions between them that allow him to meet the exact and diverse needs before him.
So he keeps an adjustable wrench around for such occasions. He continued to suggest that as a bishop, he can apply an adjustable wrench to most situations with members. But cultural norms are not usually flexible wrenches.
We may as an institution have understandably high expectations, but as we regard one another, we must have a heart filled with tender mercies. All boys are not the same; all missions are not alike. For reasons many and varied, everyone cannot respond according to the norm.
At such times, a heart filled with the tender mercies of the Lord will possess an adjustable wrench, along with loving words and supportive steps that make sure we have done all that we can do before calling upon more grace. A heart filled with the tender mercies of the Lord will think of members as individuals, each with individual circumstances that the Lord will suit his mercies to. I doubt that there are many fast rules or inflexible applications of principles where the Lord is concerned.
While I believe that all young men ought to be encouraged and prepared to complete a mission, not all can or will go, and not just because of issues of worthiness, either. In such cases, not sending a young man or woman who may struggle more than is needful may be a tender mercy of the Lord. Let that may be too big an idea to place in our baskets of understanding.
The Lord does not Require the Same of Us All
Norms tend toward conformity, as well as formulaic thinking – do “X” and “Y” will follow. Hardly! Our traditions often cause us to place on one another formulas that are as simplistic as they are hurtful. Being a member of this church, and doing all that is asked of you, does not protect you from a host of challenges.
Thus, a loving God does not expect from us more than we have to give, or to run faster than we have strength (D&C 10:4), even if we sometimes do expect that of one another. And he suits his mercies to our circumstances (D&C 46: 15). Thus, we do not all have to be the same, give the same, and do the same to receive the same in the end.
When we heard our son was coming home, my wife and I went into some long and intense prayer. After a long while of pleading for our son, the spirit of peace descended upon us like a warm blanket. We have never known such peace!
The Spirit whispered to us, “It is well. I have accepted of his offering and require no more at his hands. Be at peace.”
“How is that possible,” I asked? Then the Spirit taught in love. “Recall the story of the laborer and the employer. Those who had worked all day complained that those who had worked but one hour had received full wages. No one said if this day was an eight-hour or twenty-four day. If I can pay a laborer full wage to work for me one in twenty-four hours, can I not also pay in full the missionary who works one in twenty-four months? I the Lord command and I revoke. I accept of his offering. No more is required of his hand.”
“Lord,” I said, “Some people’s baskets will not be big enough to get their hearts around that idea.” “What is that to you?” He responded in love.
Then He continued. “Recall the parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable illustrates that there are only two kinds of righteous people in the world – the unrighteous who flaunt their wickedness and the self-righteous who hide behind their works to argue their worthiness and place in the house of the father. Both are selfish hearts. Now, consider the heart of the father in the story. He has the true righteous heart, though he would never claim to be righteous. How did he receive his boy when he returned?” asked the Lord. “He ran to him,” I said. “Do thou likewise,” He uttered.
As a side note, the Spirit asked me if I knew why the parable had not been completed. We are left with the uncertainty as to whether or not the self-righteous brother will return to his father’s house and sit with his brother. Said the Spirit, “This story is about each of you who profess my name and labor in my fields. You all must overcome self-righteousness. Thus, you each must conclude the parable for yourselves. Each of you must determine if you will humble yourself enough to sit and break bread with the repentant, returning soul. Your actions write the ending of this parable for you.”
Having been thusly taught, when my son came into view at the airport on the day of his return, I jumped for joy – for I was filled with unspeakable joy – and ran to him, swept him up in my arms, and told him how glad I was to see him and welcomed him home. And we both wept.
His first words were to reaffirm his sense of place and goodness, “I am honorably released.” He was not sure what our response would be to his early return, though he expected a loving one, which he got. I said, “It does not matter. Welcome home. I missed you. God has accepted your offering. Be at peace.”
He wept and said, “I know He has.” The Spirit had spoken peace to him, as well.
A Loving People
So my son becomes another in an ever increasing line of early-returned, honorably released missionaries. How do we greet such souls as a church, or treat them as a people?
There are those who will remind us that we have to reinforce for future missionaries the traditional notion of a full mission by not making too much of early returns; though these folks have a point, they remind me of how the brother of the prodigal complained about his father’s celebratory and confirming actions toward the returning son. He, like my friend, just didn’t understand that kind of Father’s love.
Those in the heart of the divine Father ought to run towards their children who struggle for whatever reason, for there are no early returns in the Lord – God knows before He calls, the beginning from the end. He knows, but still calls. He is generous to a fault.
Rough beginnings in gospel living do not predict rough endings, later in life. The atonement is the individual difference to all, as is the perfectly tailored plan of salvation for each person who has ever lived on this earth. The plan is as perfectly suited to you as it is to the vilest among us. We worship an awesome God who, gratefully, thinks in higher ways than we do.
Our actions towards those who cannot conform to every norm – for whatever reason – say more about us than about them. And in the end, isn’t that really all that matters – how we love God and others? That is the real test of life, if you like thinking of life as a test.
Our ultimate positioning in Christ will not be found in the thickness or impressiveness of our church résumé, but in the ways that we continue to repent and love.
The two great commandments center upon love, the driving force behind the Lord’s tender mercies. There is enough for us to learn about love to keep us out of judgmental hearts for the next several hundred years – or longer.