Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Secret to Missionary Work - aka The Disneyland Principle

So many of us are afraid of missionary work. I went on a mission to Paraguay for two years. The people were great, but I have to admit that the physical conditions were, shall we say, less than adequate. Still, I had great successes: numerous people whom I taught chose to join the church, and many of them continued on to receive Temple blessings, and to hold important callings in their wards, stakes, districts, and branches. One place in particular stands out as a congregation I was assigned to literally doubled in size during my time there, and another area of success was when a zone I was working in experienced a 300% increase in baptisms.

Now, over a decade later, looking at my missionary journal, I see that I recorded mostly the "physical" stuff: the time(s) I went to the hospital, the time I was bitten by a dog, the many many many times I suffered gastrointestinal embarrassments (if you don't know what that last one means, ask any missionary who's been to South America). And I have to ask myself... why?

Why did I record only silly temporal moments when my missionary experience was a cornucopia of spiritual occurrences. I saw miracles happen: both the more mundane kind where someone is healed instantly of a sickness, and the more powerful kind where someone's heart is changed forever and he or she becomes a true disciple of Christ.

So why did I record mostly the silly pranks and pratfalls that occurred, the physical, the whimsical? The mundane bits of everyday life?

And in asking that question, I am drawn to think of the parables of Christ. He was, of course, the Master missionary. He had a perfect command both of the doctrine of salvation and how best to administer it to his audience. And one of the best examples of this are his parables: the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the sower, the parable of the unjust steward, and on and on and on.

As I think of these things, I notice something about them: none of them are about miracles. They are about mundane things; things that everyone listening had experienced or seen firsthand in their lives as simple or rich, bond or free, man or woman.

There are, of course, reasons for this. One of them is that he was speaking in such a way that only those who were prepared to hear his lessons would understand the deeper meanings couched in the seemingly innocuous stories about farming, about trees and seeds, about searching for lost coins. Thus, the righteous could be brought closer to Him, and the wicked could be spared further damnation, for they would not be judged against the measuring stick of those lessons which they did not understand.

Another reason he spoke in such a way in his parables was that he wanted them to be accessible to everyone. He did not come to teach "higher" theology to the learned among the scribes and Pharisees; He came to teach the core principles of the Gospel to all who would hear it. So He chose parables that would reflect everyday life of those who listened, and that they therefore would be able to relate to.

These first two reasons have been pointed out by many as reasons for Jesus' "everyday" manner of speaking in his parables. However, I would suggest another reason for Jesus' use of the mundane, of the everyday, of the normal things of the world in his parables:

Jesus lived in a mundane, everday, normal world.

By this I mean to say that, even though He was known as "Joseph, the carpenter's son," and likely had his share of work as a carpenter and probably as a fisherman as well, He never lost sight of the kingdom of God. I can easily imagine Jesus planing a piece of wood, evening it out, working conscientiously in his worldly trade before beginning His three-year ministry. I can easily imagine Him thinking as he did so, "The People of Israel are like this wood: they must be planed, they must be straightened. The parts that are out of line must be removed, so that what is left will be a masterwork fit to enter into the Kingdom of God."

In other words, I think Jesus did not always think up a parable ahead of time, tailoring it to his audience ("Let's see, we have a bunch of planters scheduled to meet me at noon, I better come up with something about sowing seeds"). Rather, I believe it more likely that Jesus understood that He was the Son of God all the time. He was working for His Father all the time. He was aware of his place in the Kingdom of Heaven, and further that the Kingdom of Heaven would be made not by preachers, not by scribes, not by Pharisees (though of course some of them might make it there, too); but rather by businessmen, by planters, by farmers, by potters, by (in our day) bankers, lawyers, mechanics, housewives, etc., etc., etc., all of whom remembered that they were a part of the Kingdom of God not just on Sunday, but at every moment of every day.

The Kingdom of God on earth is like this pile of towels I'm folding: it must be done properly so as to avoid falling.

The Kingdom of God on earth is like my work as a lawyer: I must work my hardest, and be honest in all that I do, in order to be worthy of my place of trust and responsibility.

The Kingdom of God is like... and here is where you fill in your own parable.

Because preparing for the Kingdom of God is not a part-time job. Jesus knew that, and so He was able to liken the "normal" parts of his life to all that was holiest and best, because He had already realized that the only thing separating us from the Kingdom of the Lord... is ourselves.

Which brings me full circle to my original premise: the Disneyland theorem of missionary work.

As I've labored to show you up to this point, the work of God is 24/7. We are missionaries 24/7. We have no choice in this matter, for we are observed and our actions are judged by others whether we want them to be or not. Our only choice is what kind of missionaries we will be.

At this point many people "turn off." They say that they don't want to do missionary work, or they don't have time, or they've already tried everyone they know, and no one wants it.

And what they're really saying, without exception, is "I am afraid."

And not without reason: rejection is always a fearful prospect.

Or is it?

Let me provide you with a hypothetical: you have just won an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland. Transportation, hotel, everything is covered. Not only that, but you can bring along anyone you want. There is NO limit on the number of people you bring.

Now, would you be afraid to invite your neighbor? Your boss? Those people you hardly know who live down the street? Of course not.

Why, then, are we so afraid to invite people to live the Gospel, to visit our Church, to see what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth consists of? And here I'm about to reverse myself on my previous opinion. Perhaps it isn't really fear. Perhaps it's really because we don't love the Gospel enough ourselves to want to share it in the same way we would want to share a trip to Disneyland. Maybe we don't believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ has as much to offer our fellows as an amusement part.

Personally, I know I'm not perfect. But I also know that everyone - everyone - I work with or spend more than 20 minutes with knows that I am a Latter-day Saint. That I love my religion and my God. And I never fear to talk to them about the Church. I've talked to all my friends about it at some point or other, and have never lost a friend over these discussions, even when serious disagreements came up.

But do I fear these conversations, or the opportunities to introduce others into the wonderful world of blessing and love that is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

I do not. Because I know that the Kingdom of Heaven is much more than an amusement park. It contains the sum of all that is good and holy, and therefore is the most desirable of all treasures.

And once convinced of that, how can I help but want to share such a treasure with my fellows, especially knowing as I do that this is not a normal treasure: sharing does not mean less for me, it means more, as their glory is added to mine, which in turn is added to the Father's.

The Gospel is 24/7. We should all be living our lives in such a way that, in an instant, we could come up with a parable - an example, a simile, a metaphor, a story - to tell a friend or someone asking questions about the church or the Gospel that would simplify and clarify the concepts therein. We should all be living our lives in such a way that the Gospel permeates and intertwines with every aspect of not just our Sundays, but every breath we take.

We should all live our lives in such a way that, in the most mundane moments - as those recorded in my missionary journal - we can find inspiration; we can find God.

And in so doing, we will come to love the Gospel. And we will believe it of far greater joy and worth than any Disneyland trip.

And suddenly, sharing it won't seem so bad.