Missionary Farewell Talk, Sept. 16, 2012
Almost 5 months ago I got a call from my family telling me that my mission call had arrived from Salt Lake. I found it sitting on my bed when I flew home from BYU two days later and, to my family’s credit and my surprise, it was still unopened. This Tuesday I fly to the Missionary Training Center to begin my mission, exactly 150 days from the time I opened my call and learned that I would be serving among the people of Campinas in the southeastern part of Brazil. The Lord was being serious when He revealed to Joseph Smith in the 35th section of the Doctrine and Covenants that He would “call upon the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised, to thrash the nations by the power of [His] Spirit” (v. 13). I don’t know the first thing about the Portuguese language, the people I’m going to meet, or how tolerable my companions will be. But I do know that my Heavenly Father knows what He’s doing, that He knows me personally, and that for the next two years I will be doing what He wants me to do. I will be continuing the work first started on this earth by His Son and my Savior.
That work—“bring[ing] to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”—has patterned the creation of this world and countless others before it. As members of God’s church, we have been blessed to play a significant part in ushering in the work of our Father. We are instruments in His hands, and as soon as we join His church we begin to learn our duties and responsibilities in it. We hold weekly meetings and councils, fulfill callings, perform service, and study the gospel as contained in the scriptures and words of the prophets. Sometimes, as has been my experience in preparing for my mission, we become so caught up in what we are doing that we forget why we are doing it. In the most recent General Conference, President Uchtdorf reminded priesthood holders to focus on what he called “the why of priesthood service.” He counseled, “We need to be constantly reminded of the eternal reasons behind the things we are commanded to do. Understanding the why of the gospel and the why of the priesthood will help us to see the divine purpose of all this. It will give us motivation and strength to do the right things, even when they are hard.” President Uchtdorf never specifically mentioned what he thought the “why” was—I think he wanted each of us to study it out and ponder it in our hearts. For me, through my study and preparation for this talk and my mission, I’ve learned that two reasons behind what we do in the Church ought to be the Atonement, and our love for God and our neighbor.
An important moment in my understanding of the why of priesthood service came in my second semester of attending BYU. Our bishopric asked one of the few returned missionaries in the ward to spend an hour after church each week teaching us important principles of missionary service. An additional hour of meetings seemed like an insurmountable burden at first, especially on Fast Sunday’s, but the Lord blessed me every time I decided to go. One particular Sunday our teacher posed to us the question, “Why serve a mission anyway?” We gave him every answer we could think of but his response was always the same: “Good, but no.” Eventually he shared with us Elder Holland’s answer to the same question, given while speaking to missionaries at the Provo MTC. Elder Holland said the purest reason for serving a mission is to help investigators learn to access the Atonement.
“A convert’s new life is to be built upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His redeeming sacrifice—a conviction that He really is the Son of God, that He lives this very moment…that He alone holds the key to our salvation and exaltation. That belief is to be followed by true repentance, repentance which shows our desire to be clean and renewed and whole, repentance that allows us to lay claim to the full blessings of the Atonement.”
I was deeply touched by what Elder Holland had said, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Atonement is at the center of both the Plan of Salvation and the restored gospel. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that all things “which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man cometh unto the Father but by Him. Unless we turn to our Savior, access His Atonement, and exercise faith in him unto repentance we cannot be exalted. One “why of priesthood service and why of the gospel” then, is to point souls to Christ and His selfless sacrifice.
Jesus spent His life serving others, and we are expected to do the same. The remarkable thing about service is that it blesses the lives of those who serve just as much as it does those who are served. President Monson encouraged young adults during a recent CES Fireside to “Help others in their race of life. Remember that when you help another up a mountain, you are a little nearer the top yourself.” I chose the path of a mission because I wanted to help my brothers and sisters climb that mountain and come unto Christ. I have faith that many lives will be blessed because of my service, but I know that God in His goodness will serve me more than I could ever serve them. My experiences with service in the past have taught me that it is not really me carrying another up a mountain; it is our Savior carrying both of us.
The second to last paragraph of every missionary’s call promises that “Greater blessings and more happiness than you have yet experienced await you as you humbly and prayerfully serve the Lord in this labor of love among His children.” As the Lord carries the missionary and the investigator, the giver of service and the receiver up the mountain, both individuals are pointed to Christ and rejoice in Him. Doctrine and Covenants 18:15 reads, “And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” An eternal bond seems to grow between the two of them.
I have seen and felt many memorable bonds of service at work in my life and the lives of those close to me. I have felt them when my dad has placed his hands upon my head to give me a Father’s Blessing. I have seen them in frequent home teaching visits and presidency meetings and phone calls. I have felt them when members of a bishopric have wept with joy and love for the ward members they work with every week. I’ve seen them at home and in the temple, and I am feeling them now as I speak to so many of you who have served me in countless ways.
One of the most touching experiences I’ve had pertaining to service involved a group of athletes I worked with this past Spring. They were no ordinary athletes, seeing as they had trained for months to participate in the 2012 Winter Special Olympics for the state of Utah. As part of a service component of an American Heritage class I took at BYU, some friends and I decided that we would make the 2 hour, early, early morning drive from Provo to Ogden to volunteer at the games for a Saturday. I’d like to read a little bit from the report that we presented to our class about that day:
“We began our service with the mindset that we would be making a mark on the people we met, but quickly realized that, in reality, we would be the beneficiaries of their remarkable talents, friendship, and heartwarming smiles. One particular experience taught us the incredible blessings that can come when we offer ourselves up as instruments of good in God’s hands. During the first race of the day, a young man named Jonathan stood frozen at the starting line for almost a full thirty seconds after the call “go” had sounded. Some other volunteers watched with us, a little heartbroken, as an athlete who had spent so long training struggled to overcome his fear to begin the race. Our cheers of encouragement grew in volume and urgency until, finally, Jonathan made his way down the 50-meter stretch of snow. The crowd erupted as he crossed the finish line, and the smile on his face did more wonders for us than we ever could have for him. He finished dead last, but seeing him finish at all struck us as the most impressive victory of the day. Most of the volunteers came to help with an event, but we left fully invested in people. The friends we made and athletes we served confirmed to us that we had been ‘in the service of [our] God’ that day.”
Seeing Jonathan finish that race proved to be a powerful parable for me of God’s infinite love for His children. We are all participants in one great race to return to live with Him forever. He has laid the course before us and the call to start has sounded. In our weakness, many of us delay at the starting line or somewhere along the middle of our journey, just as Jonathan did. But it doesn’t matter who gets there first. What matters is that we finish. Every time we pause or stumble, He has provided the Atonement of His Only Begotten as a way for us to make it back to our feet. Our Heavenly Father is not just calling to us from the sideline, but He has sent His son, Jesus Christ, to be with us as we run. A father’s love for his children could not be more perfect.
It makes sense to me that love is yet another why of the gospel and priesthood service. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God’s work is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life; His reason behind it is His love for each of us. Because we have been commanded to keep “an eye single to the glory of God,” our work should be His work, and our reason for working should be His reason. (D&C 4:5). Everything we do in the Church should be done with love for the Lord and love for our neighbor. That is a tall order, but it comes with a remarkable promise. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “Love is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the pathway of discipleship. It comforts, counsels, cures, and consoles. It leads us through valleys of darkness and through the veil of death. In the end love leads us to the glory and grandeur of eternal life.”
I’m still thousands of miles from the people I will soon serve, but I have already begun to love them. I can only imagine the extent of Heavenly Father’s love for His children as a perfect parent. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers,…nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39). I know that it is that love that will sustain us when we don’t think we can go any further, and I know that our love for others will sustain both us and them in a similar way.
I know that firsthand because preparing for my mission, especially in the months since I received my call, has been really, really trying at times. My mom can attest to the headaches involved in getting a visa for one of the most difficult countries in the world. I can tell you how hard it’s been knowing that my name isn’t on any of the BYU-Georgia Tech football tickets that Bishop Black’s been handing out for this October. There have been days when I have let the shopping, the paperwork, and the painful goodbyes overshadow the simplicity of serving the Lord. I have felt empty, scared, and alone, but God’s love and Christ’s Atonement have buoyed me up each time I’ve humbled myself and turned to them. Every negative feeling always departs when I remember why I’ve chosen to serve and sacrifice.
President Uchtdorf has promised that remembering the why will motivate and uplift us. To quote him directly, “It is in the why of priesthood service that we discover the fire, passion, and power of the priesthood. The what of…service teaches us what to do. The why inspires our souls. The what informs, but the why transforms.” I testify of the truth of his counsel. Focusing on the “why” of my mission and the “why” of priesthood service—that is, love and the Atonement of Jesus Christ—has brought a new perspective and a new hope into my life and my preparation. It has reminded me that I am about my Father’s business, and as such I am entitled to His help. My role is to trust that He knows what He is doing more than I. I am eager to watch my love for my fellow men grow as we together draw nearer to Jesus Christ and rejoice in the hope and renewal made possible by His sacrifice made on our behalf.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.