Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mission: Chapter 2

[For those jumping in at this point please note all cautionary remarks at the beginning of VOL. I.]

My mission experience was hard. It was the next major struggle and the first battle for my life. For reasons I can't fully explain many faithful young men in the church have a trying mission. A few have little or no difficulty, wrongly attributed by some as an individual being more righteous or faithful. For others it ends up being the first time they contemplate suicide as a means of leaving the hardships behind. Whatever the circumstances many good young LDS guys are able to reconcile the hardships, the things they experience, and end up staying fully active and faithful to the church. Others get driven out or drive themselves out while in the mission field frequently, and again often wrongly, attributed to serious sin and transgression. And for more still leaving the church comes as a slow process of realization as one comes to terms with their experiences. Given the circumstances I'm a little surprised now that I was a bit of a slow mover, but I have always been a little cautious moving quickly on anything in my personal life.

So it puzzles me why so many guys have such incredibly diverse reactions to being fully in the service of the church. My own answer to the question is that serving a mission is ultimately less about the bringing of people in the the church, and is more of a testing ground of your individual faithfulness. Sure the building of the kingdom by way of conversion is a nice bonus, but it isn't just about those you are trying to convert. It is also about you being fully converted to giving everything your are or have to the church as well.

Interestingly there does seem to be a facet of blind obedience to your leaders while a missionary. For most you are stripped of your identity, all of your former life becomes inconsequential. The MTC gives you a new one - that of a faithful and passionate young person desiring above all else to share the fullness of truth to a seemingly darkened world. You are given all that you need to say and do to persuade the men and women of the world that you have something they don't posses that will bring them everlasting happiness in this world and in the life everlasting. Even if you have doubts yourself as a missionary you are given promises of blessings of understanding and comprehension - a testimony of the truthfulness of the restored church. For each of the number of times I went "well I don't know about this," it was proclaimed to me two fold that I would be blessed with a full testimony of the truth as a servant of the Lord.

Now testimonies are an interesting thing for members of the church. Any non-member of the church can walk in to any fast and testimony meeting held once a month and experience how it all begins as a little child. How so much begins as a child. So many find it cute to see the children just barely able to form a sentence get taken (or for some dragged) to the pulpit by their parent and give the standard form of testimony. Depending upon the age the amount of detail will increase accordingly but generally goes as follows... "I'd like to bear my testimony. I know this church is true. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know Thomas S. Monson is prophet of the church today... In-the-name-of-Jesus Christ-amen." It is not uncommon to have a succession of youngsters say just those things in amongst the travelogues and [temple] experiences of the more seasoned members.

Perhaps my parents would be seen as not being diligent by not dragging us up there to follow the rank and file. I cannot think of any time where we were forced to do that. There were the occasional nudges from mom or dad as we became teenagers - but never forced. I suppose if it wasn't for the shyness fostered from very protective parenting perhaps we may have participated of our own accord. But it is a testimony to the truth that holds the church and all it's members together - from the president of the church on down to the newest member. Without a sure testimony of truth, however small it may be, you have nothing in the church.

There has been a saying, I believe originally by Brigham Young, talking about the church and it being founded upon truth. Various general authorities in the church have reiterated since but it goes something like this; "The church and all that flows from it is either true or it isn't. If it is, it is the most wondrous and miraculous sharing of God's love for his children. If it isn't then it is the biggest fraud and should be exposed." While in untainted/unbiased empirical terms and evidence it remains to be seen how true the LDS church is. It will only be seen come the end of one's life or the very return of Christ himself. While I won't get in to that debate within my story this is the very axiom of absolute nature the church exists upon. It is the testimony in which that truth can only be rooted. There is no gray area, and members I think will support the view that it is either all true or not at all. You have to believe it all or you can't believe in any of it because it is built upon itself "line upon line, precept upon precept." This is probably one of the harder things for me. It's like the game Jenga. You can only remove so many blocks before the whole things falls to ruin. In the mission field I started looking at those blocks and my tower did fall.

As I mentioned in my previous volume the experience in the Missionary Training Center is intense and powerful. It certainly gives even the doubting Thomas' something to cling to. You don't have time to ponder or doubt because you are caught up in learning to be an effective instruments in the Lord's hand. You are to learn the discussions and extra points go to those that memorize them before leaving. When you aren't memorizing you should be studying the scriptures, primarily the Book of Mormon. All of that is during the time you are not in a class or fireside where the missionary hymns of the church, and spoken word from leaders and teachers are fanning the flames of passion and zeal to proclaim God's restoration of the fullness of truth. It's infectious - almost like some sort of religious illicit drug. Once you get a taste of it and like it you want or demand more. It feels so incredibly good how could anyone live without that feeling - and instantly that gets equated to being the truth of the church and the confirmation of truth from the Spirit of God. No time is wasted in connecting the affirmation of truthful feelings there.

An example of how emotional energy or hype is equated to being the Spirit of the Lord can be seen here in a recent production by the church for youth. I guess if you feel that same feeling at a "more worldly" rock concert that would also be the Spirit too, wouldn't it?

Even with the doubts I knew I had, being in those large rooms with others singing the energizing Hymns of the faith had me believing in the truthfulness of the church "beyond the shadow of a doubt." It was even more intense being on the listening end of it. Yes my talents at the piano were put to regular use rather quickly while at the MTC and I became rather popular at the piano. When you hear all of those voices united in the cause and purpose of the church there is no feeling like it in any ward, stake, or temple session. It is no wonder many have claimed to see angels walking the halls of the MTC. It seems to me that the fire of the church starts within that place. Even celebrating my 21st birthday while there paled in comparison to the energy and importance of missionary work at the MTC. And music, I would learn, is a key influence in my journey.

I had thought that music would play a key role in my time as a missionary. It had briefly at the MTC and I was told the Lord would bless me as I use those talents in His service. I had hoped and prayed it would carry over to the field. How wrong I was. My mission president, a kind soft spoken man, had the promptings of the Spirit (so I thought) to ask me not to go near a piano or organ while on my mission. It was explained to me by him that the Lord desired that I develop my other spiritual gifts and that music would have been too much of a crutch or distraction in converting people to the gospel. Now it is interesting to note at this point that the Alaska Anchorage Mission (AAM) had a bit of a tradition sending musically inclined Elders and Sisters around presenting concerts and using their gifts. One of my key teachers at the MTC who had just returned from serving in Alaska mentioned this and thought I would fit in well. I had thought that my call to be sent there was rather divinely inspired if this was the case. But it appears that someone didn't get the memo from the Spirit somewhere along the line. Since the Lord is asking me to give something up that is a huge part of who I am how could I refuse? And so I did - and in so doing the struggles and pain began. The work got harder, I had difficulty getting along with others or at least the more zealous Elders. I lost focus and life began to be less worth living. Depression set in. Coincidentally or not the mission president was a psychologist that taught at BYU-I and put me in to therapy with a LDS network therapist and I was put on anti-depressants. I was told I would get better and was blessed to carry on with the work. So I set out again.

At this point I could certainly talk about all of the unique individuals that made up the AAM. The zealousness of my first companion and trainer in the field who only seemed determined to be leadership bound. Or some of the struggles I had with my other companions. But really the part they played is rather small in the bigger scope of things, but it did influence how I viewed various Elders depending upon where they were from and how long they were members of the church.

Of a little more serious nature I will share in all soberness an experience I had after about 3 months there. In all I only served in two areas during my time. The northeast side amongst the Hmong people from Laos and Thailand, and the Southeast side including Whittier and Girdwood amongst the affluent and very near the mission office. The mission president kept the ones he was most concerned about nearby - and you couldn't get any closer than the few blocks away that I was.

While still serving up north I had been assigned to that area by the mission president with the hopes I would quickly learn the Hmong language. I guess a year of high school Spanish is qualification enough to learn a language that had barely been set to a roman alphabet. There were few church materials available in that language although some had been developed and used while I was there. My trainer was hell bent on becoming fluent in the language as he believed he was with Spanish and he thought it would be good for me to do the same. Since I was aware that many languages from the orient were tonal inflection based I thought my musical inclination could be a blessing. Needless to say the language was very difficult to learn with little resources to learn it. I did get to a point where I could understand a reasonable chunk of what they were saying but never a point to actually converse or read it.

The more profound part of being in that area came after the companionship rotation, my trainer left, and I was assigned a new companion. He was a nice guy but was himself at a struggling point in his time there. We had some troubles getting along but that isn't the story here. We had been working rather diligently to make some in roads amongst the Hmong community. We would bring them donated bread and other things often in exchange for time to attempt to teach them a discussion. We had a number of people we would make the rounds with and hope to get a baptism commitment. After my charismatic trainer was reassigned and left the area things weren't as easy. He had developed a lot of trust with these people rather quickly. My new companion was very different and didn't seem to be quite so interested in spending so much time with this particular group of people. It was a little bit of a sore point for me since I had been pushed to work so hard with the Hmong.

One evening after a particularly difficult day for the both of us I just needed a little air. He decided to go to bed and I wanted a little more study and personal prayer time (aka needing some space). Because the intensity of the mission experience and the resulting hardship was starting to build for me it seemed like a good time to really beg of the Lord to help me out. I couldn't get the language to teach a neat group of people, I was irritated with my companion, with the mission, and well everything.

The only thing I could think to do is really cry out to God and beg for forgiveness of anything that was keeping me from being successful. So I got on my knees at the couch and really started pouring my heart out. I was never a pleader but there is a first time for everything. I went through the list of things that were really bothering and was begging for help. At that time I thought I had enough faith that the Spirit would give me comfort, and guidance, as well as an increased capacity to teach people I had nothing in common with. As I really began asking of God to give me the tongue to learn this unique language so that I may bring those people to the truthfulness of the gospel I began to feel a presence. It was a strange presence that made me uneasy, a heaviness in the room. At first I thought nothing of it and continued on in my prayers of asking for help. I increased my intensity of pleading to have my mind loosened and receptive to learn the Hmong language and began asking for the spirit to touch the lives and hearts of those we were teaching at the time - that they may know through the Spirit the truth of Joseph Smith's vision and the fullness of truth contained in the Book of Mormon.

As I began asking for these things the dark presence closed in and consumed me. I was very aware of it in the room and I know it was very aware of me. I have never before or since had the sensation of a demonic presence until this moment. I was completely frozen and unable to move or speak. The terror of actually turning around and seeing what felt like the presence of two dark personages wouldn't have let me look. I was quite afraid for my life as I could not yell out for my companion who had just fallen asleep in just the next room not 10 feet away - my tongue was tied. Eventually as the intensity increased my mind jogged loose and my prayers quickly shifted to asking for deliverance from this force. I pleaded with all my strength commanding the darkness to leave by the power of the priesthood that I held... and the darkness got closer and felt like it was about to embrace me - I panicked further. As I began commanding this presence to leave in the name of Jesus Christ things changed. I became more confident and sure asking in the name of Christ and asking for the Spirit to drive away the darkness. After a brief moment the dark, heavy, and evil presence in the room withdrew. I was released from my paralyzing position and collapsed in tears. I had never before thought there were dark or evil forces in the world until that moment.

I was confused that trying to do something by the power of the priesthood provoked what ever it was, not in an adversarial way like enemies per say, but in a menacing and embracing way, as if it thought I was one of them joining its cause or purpose. The thought sent chills. My companion never knew what happed and it took several weeks before I mentioned anything to the mission president. The experience was dismissed with little commentary other than a mention that there are many distracting forces in the world that can consume us. No validation was made to anything, and the pres. probably thought I was hallucinating. It was an experience that drove me to distraction for weeks. Later impressed with a thought to not push the church on the Hmong people as my first companioned wanted I completely stopped wanting to learn the language or to work with them. I was terrified. At first I thought of it as a confirmation that Satan didn't want these people to have the truth of the church and it was all a confirmation of the church. I have since re-evaluated the entire experience with out the filters of being a missionary in the LDS church and have come to a much different conclusion. For the sensitivity of any church members reading this I will not share that conclusion here, but it is one of my many reasons for leaving the church.

Nothing significant ever came of working with the Hmong people with me during my time in that area. I recall seeing an article that mentions a great deal since my time in Alaska. My, how the church has drawn them in all across the country. It is one of promise for them as they embrace a newness of life in "the American way." But it is also one of sadness as they denounce their traditions (all that they have since they have no country of their own) in favor of the church that offers them many charities in return for the opportunity to make them members of the church. I always felt bad how we took advantage of their situation as a poorer people just needing a little help to have a new life in our country. But I suppose it is no different than what the church does in many 3rd world countries - not that it makes it right or honest. The intent was always to baptize.

Not long after I was transfered out of the area to South Anchorage where the mission office was close as was the new Anchorage temple - one of the many small ones built during part of the church's mini temple campaign. The area was fairly expansive going down in to Girdwood where the Alyeska resort is and to Whittier and the longest one way tunnel. This area had gone cold in missionary prospects and the apartment was a dump. It was depressing on its own, but my new companion gave it a good try.

Here I was at a point where I was in an area where the work wasn't going well - lots of wealth and comfort among the people. As the work got harder we found ourselves getting more tired and less interested in trying. I can see now why so many that worked the area slacked off so much. I have no problems admitting now that there were days that were just so impossible to get people to listen that we would give up. It seemed no amount of prayer and begging the Lord was going to soften the hearts of these people to being receptive to our teaching. We would find ourselves with other missionaries taking a break talking about life, or goofing off in so many ways. Sure it may have been bending or breaking a couple rules but it was hardly a transgression. It was nothing more than letting off a little steam before we got to the point of wanting to strangle ourselves or the people spitting in our faces.

Of course the Zone leaders and assistants to the President wanted to see results. The baptism numbers were slipping drastically mission wide. It got the attention of Salt Lake. When we were visited by one of the 12 apostles, M. Russell Ballard (I think it was), he was disappointed that we were not generating what the brethren wanted to see in the mission for conversion rates and admonished us to repent and shape up. We had an area seventy do the same thing less politely at a different point. Naturally the intensity increased. Personal priesthood interviews increased looking for unresolved sin and transgression that could be slowing the work. The number of assistants to the mission president also increased, and the focus to get more baptized became a mathematical goal with, of course promised blessings if we were to succeed. It also encouraged the shortening of the discussions to get a baptism commitment sooner. It all seemed disingenuous. I can remember thinking that these are people we're talking about, not some sort of sales projection for the Coke company. Everyone was more on edge than usual. Suspicions and rumors of slothful and lazy missionaries and their punishments ran rampant. Everyone began spying on everyone else. Things became rather turbulent in the mission.

As things were heating up in the mission field other things were going on at home. One day I received a note from my previous organ teacher. She was no longer willing to hide the secret that my dad and mission president apparently were both were keeping. Prior to my leaving for a mission I had set things in place to study organ with Jim Holloway at PLU. We met and talked about my future at the school and I also met a very talented young man and now a good friend (a truly gifted organist and now former member of the church) for the first time. Jim was a man with a real gift for teaching. I knew it was where I needed to be at some point. While in Alaska I had learned through my teacher's note that Jim had been shot and killed on campus in a strange murder plot. The loss of this brilliant man was still being felt when I ultimately started school and to some degree still is. I walked by the memorial on a daily basis as a student wondering what might have been.

What little I had to cling to in the mission field had been yanked from me entirely. I was slipping and fast. There was more than one morning where the razor in my hand looked like a good way out of it all. My president caught word that I was going deeper in to the dark abyss and things were moving swiftly for an interview. Since I was already on medication and in weekly counseling there were only so many options. More aggressive drugs, other treatments. I think the pres. was hoping that I would consent to further drug treatment and even electroshock therapy to get me out of the hole I was in. I wanted so badly to be a good missionary for my mom more than myself, but I couldn't give in to torturing myself any further. I asked to be sent home. They were not going to give up on me quite so easily promising blessings if I would stay and be obedient. My first companion and trainer took it upon himself to work with me a lot. Thinking that if I just did more work it would break me out of my spell. His other trainees after all were some of the most successful in the mission. It must have been a blow to his ego that I was the worst of all of his "children."

I suppose it should be said at this point that I didn't like the guy anymore. He may have been my first companion but he was a different guy as an assistant calling all the shots in the mission on the president's behalf (and it seems he was always the senior companion). The church seems to have a subvert culture that good obedient people are rewarded and climb the ladder of leadership and his goal seemed to be about control of those below him and the power that came with that. I didn't buy in to his promises of blessings if I did what he told me to. I just wasn't going to be manipulated any more - I was done. It certainly increased the distance between us and when we had to work together I didn't want anything to do with him. I should also mention that this rather zealous guy was determined to bring those who were not perfectly obedient to some of the new rules and manipulations tactics to baptize people that he helped create - he was going to bring them to repentance and any necessary discipline. A secret organization and the resulting newsletter and the writers behind it were one of his goals of exposure. As he saw it, it was an apostate situation of disobedient missionaries that had to be corrected...

Ah the Necroratus... Such memories... And it all began while I was there or just slightly before - but I was there while it was happening. Since I am privy to the true identity of its founders they will, as they always have, remain anonymous. Agent: c0r3 and Agent: x3n0_c. Truth began with this group and continues to do so. You may see some of the history at the link below... Unfortunately some of the salient details were since blotted out to protect both the innocent and the guilty. But those who were there remember... only too well. It made us in part who we are now.

The humble beginnings of Necroratus opened the door of truth for me. As I was one of the victims of those who were demanding blind allegiance and obedience I was in an inner sanctum of those not willing to go quietly. But the important part is not about some secret group trying to overthrow anything - although it could have happened had things pushed any further... It was about truth, exposing it, and the lies that were being made by those we were supposed to trust. They were dark and terrible times at the end of my tenure there.

Back to the main story. As everything was coming to a head both with me personally and within the mission I had made a deal with the mission president. I was reluctant but we agreed that I would think and pray before I made my final decision to leave - which I did. I couldn't lie to myself or the people I was supposed to be bringing in to the church so I affirmed that I wanted to leave. As arrangements were being made my dear sweet mission president told me that he was wrong about asking me to give up part of who I am. I didn't think much of it at the time but appreciated the sentiment. Music was a glue that held me together, and still does. With out it I am nothing and can do nothing.

Only weeks after 9/11 I was on a plane returning home. It seemed to me in my mental haze brought on by my experiences and the drugs I was on that the world was spinning apart. It was intense, powerful, and would later motivate me to find out more about what the "true church" was all about. To say that I returned early from my mission honorably was a bit of a technicality. I was essentially let go from further service on a medical release. It was a deal I made with the mission president for the incredible hell I went through so as to avoid further scrutiny when I returned home. It also kept me from causing too much trouble in the mission field as I left. Others just before me and some after would have much greater and painful falls as they left. I hope they have since picked themselves up.

Regardless of all of the details there is an important concept I would have to later work with. How could it possibly be that a church leader could be "inspired by the Spirit" only later to be wrong about it. At the time I couldn't process much of any of the Feb. 2001 - Dec. 2001 that comprised my missionary service. I was in intense shock and was mentally and emotionally shut down. As my mind began to re awaken after starting the next part of my life this started me on the journey to see how deep "the foxhole really goes." I guess in terms of the Matrix I took the wrong colored pill. I began to see where light and truth were and it was not where the church or leaders told me it would be.

It has since taken me years to figure out the rest.

[End of VOL. II]

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