The flight didn’t seem very full. I wasn’t particularly happy to be onboard myself but I found my way to my seat and settled in for the long trip ahead. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep, nor would I have the presence of mind to read or otherwise occupy myself. As the flight attendants secured the doors for takeoff, my thoughts were already soaring at thirty thousand feet and showed no signs of slowing down. The plane lifted off and I leaned my head against the window, watching the lights of Sao Paulo fade slowly into the surrounding darkness. It was happening. I was going home.
I’d spent the last twenty months laying out the principles of the gospel as simply as the in-flight safety instructions I’d just heard. There was an answer to every question and personal study every morning was a time to compartmentalize and make sense of teachings that had confounded the greatest of men. Life was laid out in the pocket planners we maintained so zealously and the salvation of souls fit neatly into the grids we diligently filled night after night.
We were princes, messengers of truth, servants of God, spokesmen of the cure-all gospel. Now here I was, suddenly devoid of answers, suddenly boiling over with questions, battered and broken on a flight home. Missionaries had been hurt worse than I was. You didn’t need to know much church history to see that. But no one wants a companion who can’t walk. Sao Paulo was barely visible now, like a distant star you wished on as a child. I’d be home in no time.
I looked around. The cabin was quiet and the two other seats in my row remained unoccupied. This certainly wasn’t how I’d pictured my homecoming. My mother’s voice still rang in my ears, full of disappointment for me cloaked in the optimism that had kept a smile on my face for twenty years. She’d be happy to see me, as would the rest of the family, but the reunion would be bittersweet at best. I would see behind their welcoming smiles the very questions I was too afraid to utter myself. I would do my best to smile back at them and recount mission stories without feeing the sickness in my stomach that set in as the plane reached cruising altitude.
I had been right about one thing: sleep wouldn’t come easily on this trip. I’m fairly certain that had there been anyone else seated in my row, he would have gotten an earful of a young missionary’s tale of unlikely medical tragedy. I looked back at the two empty seats and felt, for the first time in nearly two years, completely alone.
I’d learned early on in my mission to appreciate the meaning of the words: “Be still, my soul. The Lord is on thy side.” 1 I had heard a similar sentiment from my mission president as he bade me farewell earlier that day. I couldn’t remember all the times I’d shared that message with the people of Minas Gerais, Brazil. I loved to point out the promise in Helaman 5:12 that defines Christ as “a sure foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” and read the passage where He promises, “Wherefore, be of good cheer and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you” (D&C 68:6).
The words had fallen countless times from my lips and I knew they were true. They were true for Vera who lost her job the day before her baptism. They were true for Danielle who wondered if she had the strength to follow Christ’s teachings. They were true for Maria whose determination to quit smoking at the age of seventy had taught me more than a thousand sermons ever could. My fingers drummed restlessly on the armrest as I recalled their struggles and triumphs and wondered what I could say to them now. I closed my eyes in the first of many futile attempts to fall asleep as something unseen whispered into my ear the words that had buoyed me up through the tests and trials of missionary service: “The Lord is on thy side.”
Perhaps no other sentiment is as universally preached in the scriptures as that of Christ’s unabashed loyalty to those who follow Him. The Old Testament prophets spoke of him as “the Good Shepherd” and Isaiah prophesied: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom…” (Isaiah 40:11). The Book of Mormon promises to the followers of Christ “a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God…” (Ether 12:4) and the New Testament is full of the words of the Savior Himself who prayed to His Father: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them…I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:22-23). Partnership with Christ seems to be the genesis of His entire gospel. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me,” He says, “for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29). This scripture conjures images of joint labor and invites all men to come unto Christ and work with Him toward our own perfection.
A Mysterious Ailment
I had felt the Lord at my side as a missionary. Much of what I’d heard about mission life had been sugarcoated or romanticized, but there was no denying the power with which I had felt infused as a full-time representative of Christ. Invincibility, though, proved to be a boyish delusion as familiar roads seemed longer and often-climbed hills seemed steeper than they had ever been. Walking became a greater burden with every passing day until I had been taken out of commission and moved close to the mission home for immediate care.
I’d been infused with a sort of blind hopefulness and trusted that eventually I’d find a doctor who wouldn’t furrow his brow in confusion and a medication that would do more than make me want to take a nap. However, as time passed, the situation grew bleaker and optimism became more a defense than anything else. I was working full-time in the mission office and walking with the assistance of a cane. I’d spoken on the phone with missionaries and ached to have a story of my own to tell, to speak with someone who wasn’t wearing a nametag, to feel like I’d earned the exhaustion that set in at the end of the day. The days were long then.
I reached up and adjusted the air conditioning on the panel above me, then turned my gaze to the darkened world outside the window. I strained my eyes to find any far-off pinpoints of light but soon gave up. I leaned back in my chair and listened to the hum and squeal of the cabin and the sounds of peaceful sleep around me. I began to pray but kept finding myself distracted from my own words. Prayer had not come to me as easily lately as it typically seemed to flow from the mouths of missionaries.
I’d caught unintended worried looks coming my way from those who had accompanied my struggle and was frankly unsure of what my petitions to the Lord should be.
As prevalent as His promises to be faithful to His followers is the often-repeated scriptural assurance: “Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (D&C 4:7). I’d learned, though, that prayer was not a means by which we place orders with the Lord, carefully informing Him of our own priorities and urgent needs. I would have loved to feel justified in asking God to grant me the health for which I’d been longing but I found myself on my knees day after day praying for the patience to learn His will and the courage to accept it.
My words frightened me and as time went on the Spirit began to instruct me concerning what was to come. The reality of an early return home for more adequate medical care was an unwelcome guest whose presence was made known more and more each time I addressed my Heavenly Father in prayer.
Not surprisingly, then, the morning I found out the bad news didn’t come as much of a shock. As I knelt at my bedside on Friday night my thoughts wandered to the test results that would be in hand on Monday morning. A cold wave of anxiety washed over me, and I opened my eyes to orient myself once again. The other missionaries were asleep and the house was quiet. Alone in the peaceful darkness I began again to offer up the feelings of my heart when I experienced something I’d never before felt. I’d read 2 Nephi 4:33 in which he pleads with the Lord, “wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness” but hadn’t understood what he had meant until that moment. My eyelids rested gently closed but I felt more surely than ever before: “The Lord is on thy side.” I’d felt of His love and knew that His hand guided the path upon which I would soon enough find myself.
And it was soon indeed. Monday morning rolled around and time itself seemed to be in a hurry to get through the uncomfortable waiting room, anxious walk into the doctor’s office, and confirmation of the fears that had been festering for days. I found myself in the passenger seat of President Johnson’s car knowing full well what the tears in his eyes meant. I had no sooner arrived back in the office, it seemed, than I had a plane ticket home for the next day and the surreal feeling that my entire world was about to change.
We had a nice lunch the next day at the mission home. Sister Johnson made two pans of lasagna, one for the group and another exclusively for me. We laughed and it felt good to be surrounded by love. I was interviewed by President Johnson and driven to the airport where I said my last goodbyes. My flight was on time and, like I said, not too crowded at all.
I was grateful for the slices of sleep I managed in between racing thoughts and burning questions, as the plane grew closer to its destination. The last few days had been a lot to take in, and certainly I needed my rest, but more than that, I needed that feeling of security and assurance I had come to associate with pure Discipleship. I wanted a comforting passage of scripture, an illuminating quote from a conference talk, a morsel of wisdom to feed my starving soul.
The plane began to shake threateningly and a scratchy voice apologized for the turbulence. I thought back to nightly planning sessions and lessons neatly counted up, progress clearly made. I thought of scripture flashcards and zone conference devotionals, of ward mission plans and goals to make ten contacts a day. What had it all been for? Why couldn’t I feel that joy? And why did the answers seem out of reach?
I refastened my seatbelt and fingered the canvas strap nervously. What was it President Johnson had told me? “The Lord has a purpose in all of this.” The words of the Proverb came to me like a song: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
The memory of my prayer Friday night felt like the welcome beam of morning light in the gloomy clouded skies outside the window. I rebuked myself for my sudden lack of faith but could not shake the desire to have something of the anchor upon which I had grown to depend. The body of the plane continued to nod and shudder, as did many of its agitated passengers. I closed my eyes again and slumped down in my seat in an effort to get more comfortable.
Soon enough I found myself praying again. My eyes were closed and my mind was drawn up in a channel between my Heavenly Father and myself. I wanted answers. I wanted to know why I was on that airplane. I wanted to know why no diagnosis could be made, why no treatment had made the slightest difference in my condition. I wanted to know why my mission had been cut short when I had worked my entire life in preparation to serve. I waited in quiet desperation and again felt nothing. I asked again, pleaded even, that I be given some sort of direction, some means by which I could cope with the frustration that was quickly setting in. Just as I was about to resign myself once again to blindness and confusion, I felt the gentlest tugging and the slightest warm sensation at my side. I recalled the words that had come to me earlier: “The Lord is on thy side.”
No answers came on the flight. The plane landed and I had no better understanding of what had happened than I had had twelve hours before when I boarded the airplane. But more than once I had felt the very real love of the Savior at my side strengthening me, even in my confusion and frustration. I felt it again as I painfully watched a crowd of missionaries heroically descending the escalator, their carry-on bags full of souvenirs for the family, and caught sight of my own family. They seemed just as happy to see their own gimpy missionary limping over to join them, also returning home with honor. I felt it radiate from my parents as they hugged me for the first time in twenty months and my little brothers as they bombarded me with the questions I knew were coming. I felt it again as I stepped into my home and spent the evening with the people I had so dearly missed.
I had spent twenty months wearing the Savior’s name proudly on my chest and had cultivated more of a relationship with Him than I could have understood the day I reported to the MTC. I learned that “all flesh is in (His) hands” (D&C 101:16) and that His love for us is deeper than we know.
I learned that the invitation to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32) is truly a call to work to become more like Him, to take His yoke upon us, and to keep His commandments. And I learned what may come of a close relationship with Him. As Job teaches, “Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace: thereby good shall come unto thee” (Job 22:21). All these things had been studied, pondered, and conscientiously recorded in the margins of “Preach My Gospel” but it wasn’t until I boarded that airplane that I truly learned what it means to acquaint myself with Christ.
A Medical Obstacle Course
If anything, the frustration I had experienced in the mission field was only a taste of what awaited me at home. Navigating the medical obstacle course in which I found myself anxiously engaged required the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and concrete answers were few and far between. I amused myself at church by watching ward members rapidly calculating the time since I’d left home and pursing their lips in solemn contemplation.
Of course they were always relieved to see my cane and liberally offered their condolences and medical counsel. Every decision seemed impossible to make as I constantly faced the conundrum of a standstill in life, held hostage by a mysterious ailment about which people seemed increasingly skeptical. And I learned that the last question a sick person wants to hear is, “How are you feeling?” Life was obnoxious and did not seem to be going anywhere at all.
Through all this, though, I learned that one Man truly can and does understand the perplexities of life and “know(s) according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). After teaching to his disciples many precious truths, Christ said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In those moments when you feel truly alone you recognize that, in a very real sense, “The Lord is on thy side.” These “tender mercies of the Lord” (1 Nephi 1:20) are our support, our refuge, and our salvation. They are the reason why Paul exclaimed, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13) and the reason why I found myself where I did months after I walked through the jet way in the Sacramento airport.
It had been a season of unanswered questions and unwelcome answers. I’d seen my opportunity to return to the mission field all but pass away and knew that I once again had to trust in the Lord. I was still broken and my extended family had a litany of questions regarding my physical condition. We had spent the week in Nauvoo having a great time together. Grandpa had worried whether I was strong enough to baptize my younger brother and everyone seemed to look at me like something incredibly fragile. Nevertheless, months had passed since my restless plane ride and it seemed still more distant as I walked into the celestial room in the temple.
The quiet in the temple is almost tangible, almost has a taste to it. I moved through the room, looking into loving faces gathered together as a family. I took a seat by myself, with much to think about. Things had not gone as I had hoped and I suspect that a certain disappointment will lie in wait in the back of my mind for years to come. I’d been to Spring Semester at BYU and had experienced the unique highs and lows of my own personal limbo. I’d continued to seek answers to the questions that seemed more pernicious and persistent than any medical condition could be. I’d also been to the temple numerous times and took advantage of these quiet moments for personal reflection and meditation. I liked the quiet.
I ran my fingers gently along the upholstery of the arm of my chair and looked up. The chandelier glittered like thousands of twinkling stars filling an opulent sky. A thousand wishes to make. I still had little or no concrete knowledge concerning what would happen to me in the coming weeks, months, or years, but I felt a familiar assurance as I looked at the chair next to mine. It was empty, but I didn’t feel alone. I closed my eyes and felt the familiar warmth and heard the familiar words:
“Be still, my soul: The hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.” 2
I looked up and saw my parents smiling back at me. It had been a long couple of months but I had gained a friendship through the “disappointment, grief, and fear” of it all, a friendship with my Savior. I felt Him at my side.
1 “Be Still, My Soul,” Hymns , no.124.