The following is the fifth, and final, in a multi-part series. I hope that something from my experiences will help those who find themselves in the same situation, dealing with the challenges that come with an earlier-than-expected return from a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I think all parties involved in this situation — including family and friends — can benefit from the experiences shared here.
Hold to the Rod
There’s an unspoken stigma that comes with returning home early from a mission. Most people won’t admit it, but it’s there. It’s a natural man kind of thing.
He’s back early. He must’ve done something wrong. I wonder what it was.
We’ve all been in that boat. As the old 80s advertising slogan used to say, “Enquiring minds want to know!” Our better selves—the one we let everyone see—knows better than to give in to that thought process, though we might if we’re in gossip-friendly company. That’s a topic for another blog post.
Maybe you did do something wrong to get sent home early. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you came home because of medical, mental, or emotional issues. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to buy in to the mostly self-constructed stigma that puts us at perceived odds with other members of the Church.
Everyone thinks I’m a sinner and/or loser for not finishing my mission, so I might as well play the part!
You know how it goes.
It’s at this point that the returned missionary—at least in my case—entertains the thought that it might be easier to deal with this situation by avoiding ward members and friends. The problem with this option is that the only way to do it is to 1) move to another ward, or 2) stop going to church.
This is a slippery slope. Moving to another ward might solve some of the problems, but it falls in the area of trying to run from your problems. It might solve some, if not all, of the short-term issues, but in the long run, it will not lead to as much growth and will not put the matter to rest.
This leaves two scenarios. Keep going to church no matter what, or stop going to church. The latter is a dangerous option because not going to church leads to a decline in one’s spiritual growth. As you can see, letting go of the iron rod is not an ideal choice, though I’m afraid there are many returned missionaries that have made this choice. The unknown struggles of the world can seem less daunting than the expected judgments of Church members.
As I mentioned earlier, I flirted with the idea of not going to church after I got home from my mission. I’m glad I chose not to give in to that temptation, though I could have easily gone down that road. I’m happy to say that, in spite of the challenges that come with returning early from a mission early, I’ve never gone less active in my church attendance. I hope you won’t either.
Let’s not be naive and assume that going to church each week is the same as holding fast to the iron rod. We all know that the two are totally different things. Some might convince themselves that the two are synonymous, but let’s keep it real, shall we?
It takes a firm conviction and dedication to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ and to do the things that will keep us close to Him and firmly on the straight and narrow path. You know the lineup: scripture study, praying, fasting, temple attendance, home and visiting teaching, etc.
When a missionary comes home early, for whatever reason, there’s a label—a scarlet letter, if you will—placed on the returned missionary. Often, it’s put there by the returned missionary, but sometimes it’s affixed by others. Whoever puts it there, the fact remains that it would be easy for the returned missionary to let go of the iron rod and give up, to live up to the notion that they’re a second-class citizen in the Church and destined to amount to nothing.
While we’re on the topic of the iron rod, let’s clear up another notion that’s easy for returned missionaries that have.
Just because someone finishes the entire 24 or 18 months of their assignment does not make them a better person than you or put them on a higher spiritual plane. I’ve seen way too many full-term RMs fall away and lose sight of the spiritual side of life to believe that.
Actually, that’s my current self that knows that. For years, I believed RMs that completed their 24-month assignments were better people than me and were on a higher spiritual plane, more favored of the Lord.
In our right mind, the one that’s under the influence of the Holy Ghost, this notion flies in the face of gospel principles. God does not love any of His children more than others. He’s more pleased with the behavior and choices of some than others, but at His core, He loves us all equally.
As a parent, I’ve come to understand better how our Father in Heaven views us. I love each of my children equally. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help them. This love does not preclude me from being pleased with one while being disappointed with another. Because I love each of them equally, nothing they do will stop me from loving them and doing anything I can to help them. Nothing.
If I, as a mortal, can unequivocally say this, how much more can our Heavenly Father say and do the same with all of His children! (See Matthew 7:11.)
And so it is with the statuses of returned missionaries. Maybe the Lord is disappointed in us for not finishing our missions, but, by virtue of the Atonement, nothing that displeases the Lord ever need be permanent. We just need to do our part for Him to forget the mistakes that we make.
What’s at the core for coming home early is between the returned missionary and the Lord. So, don’t let the actions of thoughtless people define who you are and your status with the Lord. If you’re ever unsure of what the Lord thinks of you, ask Him. He’ll let you know. He’ll also let you know how to grab hold of the iron rod and never let go.
I’ve traveled a path—though difficult at times—that’s led me to a point where the gospel of Jesus Christ plays the central role in my life. I don’t know for certain if the road I would’ve traveled after going back into the mission field to complete my 24-month assignment would have led me to this point. Nothing in life is a given.
What I do know, however, is that the road I wound up traveling has led me to this point—with many happy, joyful, and trying experiences along the way. This leads me to believe that the road I’ve traveled is the best one for me.
You have the power to experience the same for you in your life.
There’s only one highway that leads back to our Father’s presence; it’s narrow and has many off ramps. There are times in our lives when we take one or more of them and find ourselves in a neighborhood we shouldn’t be in. Mercifully, His highway has even more on ramps that turn our mistaken exits into nothing more than a detour. Because He loves us and has mercy on us, there will come a day when what seemed like a mistaken route becomes the ideal route that teaches us the most and molds us into better travelers.
May it ever be so on your journey, which is sure to be fraught with challenges and trials—but just as much, if not more, joy and happiness.