Thursday, November 17, 2011

Special Mission Conference

Before telling you about our spectacular weekend I have to share my Christmas Dream for the Chile Antofagasta Mission. So bear with me. Last year, after our four Zone Christmas parties, I shared with Presidente Bruce that I wanted all our missionaries to travel to Antofagasta next Christmas (2011) to be together for a huge celebration. We crunched the numbers, did some creative budgeting and looked at the logistics of any possibility of gathering everyone in Antofagasta for a day and it just wasn't plausible. So I settled for separate Zone Christmas parties again this year. Then four weeks ago Presidente Bruce received an email from the Area Presidency announcing a special mission conference with visiting General Authorities. We were instructed to bring ALL of the missionaries to Antofagasta for this meeting. My Christmas Dream had become a reality. 

And so last weekend 155 missionaries arrived in Antofagasta for the best Christmas present of all: to be together for the first time in the history of the mission and listen to the words of a living Apostle, two members of the Seventy and a member of the Presiding Bishopric. Thanks to a very organized and motivated group of missionaries in our office, we were able to coordinate bus passages for 124 missionaries, find hotel rooms for 93 missionaries and organize food for all of our hungry missionaries.

The missionaries arrived on Friday afternoon and we gathered for a Zone Conference.  The excitement was palpable and keeping this group reverent was a challenge.  I was reminded of several Stake Youth Conferences of the past where we were constantly herding youth and encouraging reverence over and over.  It was so great to be together and tears came to my eyes several times over the course of the weekend as I sat on the stand and looked around the chapel to see all our missionaries, who we love like our own children.  

Presidente Bruce taught a great meeting about obedience and encouraged all the missionaries to re-examine their Missionary Handbooks to strengthen their resolve to become more obedient and successful missionaries.  We gave them plenty of instructions and encouragement for our meeting the following day, hoping in our hearts that all of their wiggles and excitement would be worked out during the Zone Conference and that everyone would be ready to receive the spiritual feast on Saturday morning.

We all sat for a group picture before dinner.  Elder Fowkes set the camera on a tripod and with a timer we sat for picture after picture.  This truly is a most historic moment for our mission and one that I can only dream will happen again in the future with other mission presidents.

After sitting still for many serious pictures we posed for the funny shots.  I think these poses are more indicative of their behavior on Friday night.  It was just too much fun being together to sit quietly.  Many missionaries were able to connect with past companions whom they haven't seen since the MTC or earlier in their missions.  Other missionaries were able to meet for the first time some of the missionaries they  have heard about but never met.  It was all so glorious!!!

Dinner!! How do you feed 155 missionaries without help from other church members?  We couldn't fit in the cultural hall of the chapel so we set up tables in the parking lot.  We ordered 1/2 a chicken for each missionary from Don Pollo and dear Nery baked 160 potatoes at the mission home after the office Elders helped me wash and wrap each potato in foil the night before.  Fresh bread, BBQ sauce and the delicacy of sour cream topped off the dinner and everyone was full.  Dessert, the most important part of a meal, was 11 pans of marshmallow and chocolate-frosting topped brownies that I spent a few days making.  Thanks to many helpful missionaries we were able to serve everyone in record time.

Preparing dessert.

All the missionaries eating in the parking lot.

Elder C.and Elder R. dishing up brownies while chatting with Presidente Bruce.

Elder M. also helped with dessert.

The conversations were better than the food.

No talking here; just serious eating.

Some of our beautiful hermanas.

More hermanas.

Elder and Sister R.

Thumbs up from Elder B.

Elder M., my brownie helper.

Love those brownies.
After our meeting on Friday we sent all of the missionaries back to their hotel rooms or pensions with instructions to read from the Book of Acts with their companions for half an hour in preparation for our meeting with Elder Quentin L. Cook.  The Assistants checked each hotel before midnight to make sure everyone was in their room and ready for bed.  Many of the missionaries were already asleep and all were tucked in with no monkey business in the halls of the hotels.  Good job Elders!!!

On Saturday morning all of the missionaries returned to the Origenes Chapel at 7:30 a.m. to await the arrival of the General Authorities.  Presidente Bruce and I were able to pick up and drive Bishop Keith McMullin and his wife from the hotel and met Elder Quentin L. Cook and his wife along with Elder Steven Snow and his wife at the hotel before we all caravanned to the church with Elder Jorge Zeballos and his wife from our Area Presidency.

When we arrived at the church all of the missionaries were given the opportunity to shake all of our visiting authorities hands.  The reverence of our missionaries was incredible.  They were definitely spiritually prepared for this meeting.  We had a beautiful musical number by a choir of missionaries and then were blessed to hear from each General Authority and his wife, ending with Elder Cook.  He spoke about the importance of "Building Branches" and strengthening the wards and branches in the mission.  He left our mission with an Apostolic Blessing and his testimony.  We watched the reactions of several missionaries as he spoke directly to their hearts during his blessing.  I kept asking myself "Where are my Kleenex?"

At the conclusion of the meeting our guests were driven back to their hotel and we returned to the church to see that all the missionaries were receiving their sack lunches.  The tone of this meal was much more subdued, without the singing and cheering and photo taking of the prior evening.  It was a reverent tone.  Soon the transport buses arrived to pick up all the missionaries and take them to the bus terminal for their rides back to their sectors.  Each missionary expressed gratitude for the experience and many exclaimed that the weekend was better than Christmas.  I agreed.  

The following day we had special meetings with the General Authorities in the Antofagasta, La Portada and Calama Stakes.  Presidente Bruce and I attended the Antofagasta Stake with Elder and Sister Snow.  After the meeting everyone gathered at the mission home for lunch.  I was nervous about this meal.  What do you feed General Authorities?  What do you talk about with General Authorities?  Well, we fed them lasagna and we talked about football and soccer.  It was a lovely lunch and so easy because they were, of course, gracious guests.  Afterwards we were able to take photos with some of our lunch guests before driving them to the airport for their flights to Santiago and then back to Salt Lake City.

One week later and it seems like a wonderful dream.  Christmas may be next month, but in the Chile Antofagasta Mission it has already been celebrated.  Anything more will be just a cherry on top.

Elder Quentin L. Cook, Mary Cook with me and  Presidente Bruce

Cooks, Zeballos and Bruce's

Elder Snow and wife, Elder Zeballos and wife, Elder Cook and wife outside the mission home.

Presidente's November Message

This past month of October, I like you, had the opportunity to read once again Preach My Gospel in its entirety.  Whenever I read a book, talk or manual, I always find within myself searching for certain themes, thoughts or phrases that stand out to me or have impact upon me at that particular moment in time.  I am convinced that each time we read Preach My Gospel or for that matter any cannon of scripture, we will find that our current state of mind, our current situation or our current problems will be solved, expressed or characterized in the words of scripture that we are reading.  For me this past month, Preach My Gospel certainly impressed me with the idea that “We are all Enlisted” as so discussed by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in this past months conference address in our Priesthood session. 

As I read through the pages of Preach My Gospel I would constantly remark to Sister Bruce:  “Hey, we could discuss this paragraph in Zone Leader council or hey, what do you think of this paragraph for leadership training”?  Fortunately or unfortunately, my mind races a million miles ahead when I read words and scripture in Preach My Gospel and I begin to formulate lessons, ideas and seek inspiration in order that we can all achieve higher goals and feel the happiness that the spirit brings to our lives.  As the entire book relates to our service as missionaries, it is difficult to highlight or extract certain thoughts or ideas that stand out above others or have specific meaning that we do not discuss regularly; however, a few phrases that had increased impression upon me this month are as follows:

“As a missionary, you desire the salvation of souls”

“Your faith to find people to teach is demonstrated through your actions”

“Accept full responsibility for your actions”

“The attitude you have toward your mission experience is a reflection of your love toward your Heavenly Father and His Son and your respect for the priesthood”

“As a missionary, you are expected to keep the commandments willingly”

“Continue until you have done all that you can, even when you are tired”

“Hope….is manifest in confidence, optimism, enthusiasm, and patient perseverance.  It is believing and expecting that something will occur”

“You are able to do miracles according to the Lord’s will”

These highlights along with countless others in this month’s reading reminded me again and again what is pressing on my mind and what I want to convey to you.  My thoughts can be aptly described by saying that many times missionaries get bogged down in the mechanical role of their calling and lose the vision necessary to maintain effectiveness.  Furthermore, to have the influence of the spirit in our callings is to be in the frame of mind whereby God may reveal the gifts and powers necessary to be effective in our missionary efforts.  As I reflected on how easy it is to become a “mechanical missionary”, I thought back to Elder Holland’s talk where he said:  “We want battalions” or “This is a life and death contest that we are in” or “Victory means everything” and “The game is on the line”.  Can anyone deny that Elder Holland feels passionate about the work we are doing?  Does anyone want to be a “mechanical missionary” and have to report back to Elder Holland that we were not worthy, not able or were mere participants in the missionary experience but did not do all that we could do?

After seeing what we can do when we work in a united effort, when we are obedient, diligent and have great faith that we can win, I am convinced that “Victory means everything” and that we cannot become mechanical missionaries merely going through the motions of missionary service.  In addition, it is my ongoing observation that many of the attitudes, characteristics, personalities, behaviors and goals that you have are shaped by your childhood, your community and your upbringing.  I can honestly say (this is the doctrine of President Bruce so you have your agency to believe or disbelieve) that your generation was raised in an era of participation and acceptance rather than victory means everything.  Let me explain.

As our own children grew up, they participated in every aspect of life afforded to them.  Like many of you, they played soccer, basketball, water polo, softball, baseball, football, and cheerleading. They were involved in student government, seminary, school activities, plays, dramas, dances, dating, church activities, computers, and social activities.  They received high and constant accolades for their righteousness, participation, worthiness, advancements and successes even when not deserved in my opinion.  One day after a particularly devastating loss to an opposing soccer team, we as parents were encouraged by a fellow parent to “make a tunnel” for the kids to run through so as to lift their spirits!  I said, “What”?  We just got killed by a lesser team and you want us to “make a tunnel” so that the kids could run through and feel good about themselves?  As you can imagine, my brain and my logic does not work that way.  In my opinion you either win or lose.  And I always want to win.  God did not send me to earth to lose.  I know that he doesn’t care about a soccer game, but in the game of life I was sent to win and that is his expectation. As my son ran through the tunnel, ate his after game treat and ran off to the car I thought, “What are we teaching these kids, that it is OK to lose?”  The impact of the loss had no effect on my son.

At the end of the soccer season (and every other sport season) my sons and daughters would receive their “participation” trophy and parents would whole heartedly acknowledge their good deeds, their growth, and their desire to play irrespective of wins or losses.  Naturally, I continued to struggle with the idea of honoring alone their efforts and that for most it was victorious just to be a participant in the grander scheme of sporting events.  This may sound old fashion, but when I was a young man growing up, it was my goal to claim 100 trophies on the book shelves in my room.  As a boy I would look admirably at all of my father’s trophies for accomplishments in basketball and baseball and I thought, I need, want and desire to be better than my dad.  Therefore, at an early age, I began to participate in sports.  Fortunately for me, we did not receive participation trophies or have parents make “tunnels” for us to run through after games, win or lose.  I distinctly recall several instances where my father taught me in his quiet yet confident manner of how I could have improved, played better or done something different to be a stronger competitor.  We only were awarded trophies in the event we won first or second place, or were recognized as an outstanding athlete and were honored as an All-Tournament player.  Over several years, my appetite grew stronger to win, be the best and add to my personal trophy collection.  To this day, I am very proud of the trophy collection that I was able to amass; notwithstanding the fact that each was for accomplishment and none were for mere participation.

In watching and working with young adults returned from their missions, I can bear my witness that this “participation” philosophy that has been awarded to them (and to you) by society is spiritually damaging and leads to a relaxation of morals and values allowing Satan to influence you and have eternal effect upon you.  Elder Holland explained that the devil has “tactics in this contest” and “we are at war”.  I have seen many young adults unwilling or unprepared to make commitments, willing to “lose” the war, willing to give in based upon the idea that participation is fine and that entitlement will be forthcoming through the love of a priesthood leader, a relief society president, or a mission president.  These individuals stood as pillars to help them back and provide them a “tunnel” to run through so that their loss did not seem so heavy, that they would be victorious even though they had lost, or that all would be forgiven.

Elders and sisters, I love to be the bearer of bad news.  You are not here to participate in life.  You are not here to participate in your mission and receive a participation trophy.  You are not to go home and participate in a young adult ward, have casual social relationships and fall into Satan’s “tactics in this contest”.  You are not here to be a “mechanical missionary”.  You are not here to be reformed, to repent of past mistakes, to atone for your previous life’s misgivings.  No, you are here to win!  Did you read that correctly?  Yes, you are here on your mission to win.  To accept full responsibility for your actions, to obey the commandments, to be united and most importantly to save souls.  I am sorry to say it but participation trophies and mechanical missionaries will not suffice.  Not here, not now.  As Elder Holland says, you are the battalion “who will take as their weapons every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God”.

Yes, it is true, none of us is perfect.  We all have past mistakes and none of us works as hard every day as we possibly can.  I can testify that you don’t want to waste time on your mission and be a “mechanical missionary”.  I had nightmares for several years following my mission due to my personal idea that I had not done enough, I did not work hard enough, I was not worthy enough or I could have done more in my missionary service.  I can testify to you that none of you want to face that nightmare knowing that you could have done more, could have given more, could have taught more, could have been more obedient or could have relied more on the spirit.  As it says in Preach my Gospel:  “Continue until you have done all you can, even when you are tired”.  Elder Eyring counseled us to “build on strength:  it is to form a habit of pushing on through the fatigue and fear that might make you think of quitting.  The Lord’s great mentors have shown me that spiritual staying power comes from working past the point when others would have taken a rest”.

In following President Eyring’s counsel, I testify that you can push forward, you can build on strength and you can have victory.  As Elder Eyring said:  “I can’t be a perfect servant every hour, but I can try to give more effort than I thought I could”.  So can I.  So can you.  Do not go through life thinking that your parents, the church or your priesthood leaders will “make a tunnel” for you after a devastating loss.  The only tunnel maker is the Son of God and only he has power to save.  Be a winner and do not settle for a participation trophy.  To those who win and endure to the end will eventually receive a fullness of Priesthood, and will thus stand as a King and Priest, Queen and Priestess in the resurrection, possessing exaltation and eternal lives, only the exalted will hold and exercise these powers in the worlds to come.