Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why I have decided to serve a mission:

“Along the pathway of life you will observe that you are not the only traveler. There are others who need your help. There are feet to steady, hands to grasp, minds to encourage, hearts to inspire, and souls to save.”
— Thomas S. Monson, Church President

I believe that the ultimate direction of our lives is decided by a select few pivotal decisions, which means that once you’ve made up your mind about something, your life can change in an instant—like the decision of where to go to college, what career path you want to pursue, whether to serve a mission, or even something as simple as deciding to go to church. All of life’s decisions boil down to that singular moment that you commit to yourself and say: Yes, that is what I am going to do with my life. In October 2012, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life, but as I have come to learn over these past few months: sometimes the plans we’ve chosen for ourselves and the plan that our Heavenly Father has in store for us don’t always match up, and it is our job to make sure that we exercise our faith so that we are able to discriminate between the two.
I didn’t always know that I was going to serve a mission. Growing up, I went through phases of ‘yes, I think I’ll go on a mission’ and ‘no, I don’t think I’ll go.’  But I did always have a love of languages and took Spanish for quite a few years, and so whenever I pictured myself on a mission, it was always to some hot, humid, beautiful country in Latin America.
But when October 2012 came around, I had decided that I was definitely not going to go on a mission. I had made the decision that, after my last year at Utah State, I was on targeted and uninterrupted path towards a doctoral degree program in neuropsychology. I still know that is what I’m going to do with my life, but I’ve learned that I am supposed to serve a mission beforehand.
The October 2012 session of LDS General Conference brought with it some startling news; news that would alter the life plans of thousands of young people like me across the world. The age that church members could begin serving missions had been lowered: young men could now serve missions beginning at age 18, and young women could now serve missions beginning at age 19. Since this announcement, the Church has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of young people leaving on missions: there are now over 65,000 missionaries serving worldwide, with another 20,000 waiting to enter the field. As Elder Russell M. Nelson has so eloquently described it: “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for missionary work is sweeping the entire earth.”
When the announcement was made in Conference that day, it was one of the few times in life when my jaw has genuinely fallen open out of surprise. Suddenly, at age 20, I was now old enough to serve a mission. However, even after watching all the Conference sessions that weekend, I still didn’t think that this news applied to me. I had a plan for myself and I was going to stick to it. I didn’t have time to go on mission if I wanted get my doctorate. 
So I went about my week, marveling at how boys fresh out of high school could be trusted with such responsibility and how girls everywhere I turned were putting their lives on hold at the drop of a hat. It seemed like I couldn’t go to a single class period without overhearing some eager young woman talking about how she was putting in her papers. At the time, this made me even more determined not to jump on the bandwagon. I didn’t want to serve a mission just because it seemed like everyone else was going.
However, I have come to learn that today’s rapidly growing enthusiasm for missionary work is not the result of young people casually jumping on the bandwagon, or the simple byproduct of popular opinion.  Elder Russell M. Nelson assures us that this wave of missionary work “is not man-made! It comes from the Lord, who said, ‘I will hasten my work in its time.’” It is “a wave of truth and righteousness” and a glorious and exciting sign of the times we are now living in.
It wasn’t until I drove home for the weekend about two weeks after Conference, that I began to think that maybe the whole mission thing might be for me as well. It wasn’t some overwhelming spiritual revelation, in fact, in my experience, things rarely ever are. As it says in Alma 37:6, “…by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” In the past few months I have truly gained a firm testimony of that principle, because what got me to consider that maybe the Lord wanted me to serve a mission was a small and simple comment that my Dad said to me one night, seemingly out of the blue.
He said, “You know, Kaitlin, if you want to serve a mission, you might want to think about doing it while you still have a year of school left. That way, you’ll have a familiar routine to come back to. It makes the transition easier.” Never again will I underestimate the power a single sentence can have, because at that moment, I irrefutably knew the truth and the logic contained in those simple—even seemingly inconsequential—words. And distinctly I knew that I had to at least be open to the possibility that the Lord wanted me to serve a mission. That is a lesson that I will never forget: the first step to following the path that the Lord has for us is being open to receiving the promptings of the Spirit and being willing to act on those promptings when we receive them.
So, for the next two weeks afterwards, I thought about serving a mission virtually all the time. I earnestly prayed and read my scriptures with that question in mind, and I carried that prayer always in my heart. I even reworked two possible alternative schedules for my classes in order to graduate. It turns out that most graduate programs only start in the Fall, so serving a mission will actually put me two years behind in school. At the time, that was frustrating, but I willed it not to dissuade me from the possibility of doing what the Lord wanted me to do.
After two weeks, however, I was still undecided. I hadn’t got my answer. And then one morning, I was walking in the Institute (church) building on campus and a poster caught me eye. It was advertising a speaker for the following afternoon. There was a speaker every Friday afternoon at the Institute, but I didn’t usually go because it was during my lunch hour. For some reason, however, I felt impressed that that I needed to go listen to that particular speaker: Camille Franc Olson. And I did. And again, I was reminded of the power the single, seemingly insignificant, decision can have on our lives if we listen to the Spirit.
Sister Olson wasn’t technically there to speak about women serving missions. Honestly, I don’t even remember what it was she was actually there to speak about. But she spent over half her time speaking about why she had personally decided to serve a mission as young woman, many years ago. As I sat there, I heard many details of my own life, my own thought processes, and even many of my excuses, spoken back to me from that pulpit. Like me, she was a student at USU, she graduated in 3 years, and after her mission went on to earn her Ph.D. in sociology and have a very successful career as a professor at BYU and an author of numerous books.
Here was an intelligent, independent, scholarly woman telling me that serving a mission was one of the best decisions of her life. Obviously, the Lord knew that I was quite stubborn and needed my answer told to me pretty much point blank.
As I sat there in that crowded cultural hall, all of my excuses, which had once seemed so valid and compelling, suddenly evaporated. The reasons I had told myself for why I shouldn’t, or didn’t need to, go on a mission just didn’t seem all that important anymore. And I knew, without a doubt, in that moment, that I needed to serve a mission. That was what the Lord wanted me to do. And the very instant that I committed to that decision, a tremendous feeling of peace spread over me. It was like shutting an open window or turning off a fan, and getting rid of a noise or an unsettled feeling I didn’t even really notice was there in the first place. It just felt right. I knew that was what the Lord wanted me to do, without a doubt. And there was no arguing with that.
Once I had made that decision, it was as simple as that. I started working on my papers the following Monday.
For me, however, my mission preparation process began when I first sincerely opened my mind to the possibility of serving a mission. The firm foundation of my process of earnestly seeking to know if a mission was right for me, was reading from the Book of Mormon every day. I had a 90-day reading chart and I was determined to stick to it. Through doing so, I found that focused scripture study paired with sincere, directed prayer made my worries less troubling, stress easier to bear, and life is more meaningful. Even though I may not have received my answer right away, everything just seemed brighter, clearer, and more balanced. My daily focused scripture study brought power to my life and a sensitivity to my spirit that made it possible for me to receive the answer I was looking for, through listening to the words of my father and acting on the impression to attend that Institute speaker.
Once I knew that I was supposed to serve a mission, my ways of preparation branched out. I bought a copy of Preach My Gospel and began to study that along with the Book of Mormon. Preach My Gospel explains our beliefs and the fullness of the gospel with a pure simplicity that even someone who knows nothing of our faith can readily understand, and yet I managed to learn something new every time I opened it. I know that the knowledge contained in those pages will become an indispensible tool to anyone who reads it, whether preparing to serve a mission or otherwise.
            My mission call arrived at our house only nine days after my papers were officially submitted. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it home to open it for another two days. Some people might call it strange, but I didn’t spend those two days waiting in tense anticipation. To me, that envelope simply represented some inevitable unknown. I didn’t know what my call would say, but I knew that it was inspired by the Lord and that it wasn’t going to change no matter how long I waited to open it. Those two days were the last time that I could imagine going in the world, and anything at all was possible. Once I opened that envelope and read its contents, all the 300-plus possibilities would collapse into a single tangible reality. This idea was both thrilling and daunting, and consequently, my call had seemed to come both too soon and not soon enough. The one thing that I did know for certain was that wherever I was called, that was where the Lord needed me and it was where I could do the most good.
When I read that I had been called to serve in the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo West Mission, I instantly felt both excited and comforted. Somehow I had always known I would get sent to some hot, bright, beautiful country to speak Spanish. President Thomas S. Monson has said of those called to serve: “The missionary opportunity of a lifetime is yours. The blessings of eternity await you. Yours is the privilege to be not spectators but participants on the stage of priesthood service.” And I couldn’t be happier or feel more blessed for the privilege to serve a mission at this time in my life.
My first semi-coherent thought after reading my call—after the cheering died down and the tears dried up—was research. My mind was reeling. I needed books, webpages, documentaries, statistics, maps. There were so many wonderful, exciting things to learn. I drove to Barnes and Noble, and then for the rest of the night, I get lost in the research. By the next morning, I had a general understanding of the country’s climate, geography, history, demographics, economy, and culture. The more I learned, the more excited I got, and the more I fell in love with my call.
            As my second order of business, I decided to open a colorful new pack of scripture markers and reread the Book of Mormon. …No matter how many times I think I’ve read scriptures, there is always something new to learn. This time around, I was reading with a newfound hunger fuelled by my approaching mission. And it has been a truly magnificent experience, through which I have learned that the amount of enthusiasm that we pour into our personal scripture study makes all the difference in the magnitude and quality of our personal growth.
Furthermore, I also got a subscription to Rosetta Stone to brush up on my Spanish, since I haven’t taken a formal class in several years. Some people might call it overzealous, and I am frequently guilty of overthinking things. But when it comes to preparing to serve a mission, I really don’t think there is such a thing as being over prepared. I’d always wanted to try it anyway, and now I had the prefect excuse. It’s been great to get those neurons firing again and I know I’ll feel more confident when I enter the MTC.
And I’ll say it again: I don’t think its possible to over prepare, and I know that effective preparation is vitally important to becoming a successful missionary. Serving a mission is a divine and sacred calling. Missionaries are trusted with the salvation of the children of God as it hangs in the balance; this work deserves all the respect and preparation that I can give it. Ronald A. Rasband described missionary work as “the lifeblood of the Church and the lifesaving blessing to all who accept its message.” I’d like to think I’ve done my best over these past few months to become worthy of this calling, and the rest will just have to rely on faith.
Throughout this process of deciding to serve and preparing to leave on my mission, it has never ceased to amaze me how the smallest actions and the briefest moments can send ripples through your life and change its course in what seems like the blink of an eye. But I know that if we strive to listen to the Spirit and are sensitive to its promptings, keeping an eternal perspective, we will always be guided in the right direction and blessed with that wonderful feeling of peace to know that our decisions are the correct ones and that the Lord is always there for us no matter what unexpected direction we find our life going.
As I have prepared to serve a mission, I have learned that our faith is increased proportionately to the amount of effort that we put in to building up our own testimonies. As Doctrine & Covenants 6:14 promises: as often as we will inquire of the Lord, we will receive instruction of the Spirit. I know this to be true, and I know that our Heavenly Father loves all of us, his children, and has a plan for each and every one of us. I know that we will find joy in this life as we follow the direction of the Spirit and the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.  I have a testimony that this Church contains the fullness of the gospel restored on this earth today, and that as we strive to live our lives in accordance with its teachings that we can return to live with our Father in Heaven once more.
I am so blessed to be given the opportunity share this wonderful message with the people of the Dominican Republic. I know that the next 18 months will bring some of the most challenging and beautiful experiences of my life thus far, and that the Lord will be there to help and strengthen me every step of the way.

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