Thursday, May 22, 2014

Without the Nametag

And it came to pass that Elder and Sister Draper, having found favor with the Lord, and with their mission president and stake president, were released as full-time missionaries this day. From this hour their names shall be known on the records of their people as "Larre" and "Kristi".

~ The Book of Draper 4:13

Time is like an accordion. It stretches out for long periods, such as at the beginning of a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), and then suddenly contracts and collapses on itself when a deadline looms; a deadline such as the end of that mission.

I know we’ve been gone two years, but now it seems only the blink of an eye. How can this be so?  April 13, 2014 was always a long way off. The end of the mission was ever “out there” – a distant event, remote in its reality. Then one day I turn a corner and it appears and suddenly yanks me out of the mission, like Harry Potter apparating to the World Quidditch Match.

As time drags me away from our military “kids” the realization hits me that someone else will soon take over our role as military relations missionaries. I fret and agonize for days about this new couple. Will they love these kids as much as we do? Will they worry about them, look after them, and be as sensitive to their needs? Will this new couple reach out and win their trust and confidence? Will the new couple help change the trajectory of their lives as I believe we have?

I hope, and have no choice but to trust, they will do exactly what the Lord has sent them to do. And I hope our Navy kids also will love them and trust them as much as they do us.

 It feels like I’m abandoning my children and it is breaking my heart. Will they remember the love I have for them? Will they continue on the journey we began together during this mission? Will I ever see them become who they are growing into?

Will we ever meet again?

And then time snaps us forward and we are standing in front of the pulpit in our home congregation trying to convey two years’ worth of work, love, sacrifice, and experience to church members who are eager to hear about, but hardly comprehend, what it is like to be a military relations service missionary. Few in the congregation have a clue about the transformation that comes from wearing the nametag. Certainly the returned missionaries in the meeting can appreciate the proselyting experience of their missions. But ours was a service mission focused exclusively on the unique needs of the military families and young singles. I’m certain not one person who hears us that Sunday can do more than sip the barest teaspoonful of the sweet nectar of service that completely immersed us for two years. It will take weeks to tell them of the miracles both great and small, the changed lives, the struggles and hearts of these amazing kids we love so completely.

I have 20 minutes.

How strange that Greenville, South Carolina, where I lived and worked for 12 years and the ward family among whom I worshipped feels less like “home” to me than the Jacksonville, Florida area where I have just spent the last two years. Even our cramped apartment in Atlantic Beach with the sagging kitchen shelves and pokey old oven feels more “home” than the spacious house with the water garden and big backyard we left behind to answer the mission call. Greenville hasn’t changed. I have.

After our release the nametag comes off and we immediately return to Jacksonville to welcome home the USS Gettysburg from her 9-month deployment. Nothing in heaven or on Earth will prevent me from being part of this joyful reunion. For the last time we witness sailors standing proud in their dress whites at the rails as the guided missile cruiser steams into port. For the last time we rejoice with families reunited, with dads holding their infants for the first time. For the last time we stand on the dock with our giant pirate flag and Title of Liberty flag and search for familiar faces on a towering grey ship. I am thrilled for them all and desperately sad at the same time, because this is the last time.

I worry about losing the mission aura, the mantle, the special divine connection that has been a part of me and sustained me for the last two years, a natural high in the purest form. And now I feel it slipping away as if through my fingers even as I clench my hands to hang on to it.

The small black piece of plastic with white lettering I hold in my hand changed my life. How can I go on without it? Without the nametag we are merely Larre and Kristi, no longer Elder and Sister. And we are diminished somehow, shrunken in spiritual size, but curiously not quite back the way we were before the mission. Because of this little nametag my default setting for life has changed, yet I’m still me. As I unconsciously reach up to touch the nametag I shake my head and remind myself I’m no longer wearing it on my shirt. Deep within my heart is where I wear it now.

The nametag brought me here, enabled me to meet these wonderful people. It taught me how to love as Christ loved, to serve as Christ served. It also taught me that I can go forward now and still love and serve without it.

My heart is so full of gratitude at this opportunity to change my life through service. My love and concern for these Navy and Marine Corps “kids” goes beyond the nametag. I love them forever. For two years I have been neck deep in the divine paradox: when you lose yourself in the service of others, you find yourself[i].

I found myself in the Florida Jacksonville Mission.

[i] Matthew 16:25 “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

Mosiah 2:17 “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

Friday, January 31, 2014

God's Three-year Olds

I spend a lot of time on this mission with Navy wives and their young children. Not since my daughters were small have I been around children this much. I’m having a blast being grandma to lots of precious grandkids, from infants to teenagers. The short ones run up to me with arms outstretched for a hug. One young imp, when she sees me in the grocery store from her shopping cart perch, and much to the embarrassment of her mom, hollers “DRAPER!” loud enough for all the customers to hear. The teenagers think I’m cool because I scuba dive and don’t look like a typical grandma. The babies mold into me when I hold them. When children come with their parents to dinner at our apartment they line up to get whipped cream squirted directly into their mouth or turn the handle of the pasta maker. Elder Draper is having just as much fun as I am, playing games with the pre-schoolers and joking around with the older kids.
Making pasta for Family Nightwith the Ellis family
But mostly I am in awe of how these parents manage the tough job of Mom and Dad in today’s challenging military environment, an environment which includes long deployments and frequent household relocations. Wives of deployed sailors are especially inspiring as they have to be both mother and father for up to nine months at a time.
I get to observe a variety of parenting styles under a variety of conditions. And I’ve observed a few constants: a love for their children and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of patience.
When their children misbehave, as is the nature of all children from time to time, their parents lovingly, firmly, and patiently discipline them. The child eventually gets back on track, enjoys a warm embrace from mom or dad and all is well – for a while, at least.
Young children cannot understand the complicated workings of the parental mind. They can’t understand the reasons behind all the rules they must obey. They don’t comprehend their mangled body after getting hit by a car (“Hold my hand when we cross the street”) or the intense pain and blistering of a burn (“Don’t touch the stove”) or the long-term consequences of malnutrition (“Eat your food”). But their parents understand. They love their children and want to see them grow up healthy, mature, responsible, caring adults.  All children know is that they must obey their parents or incur a bit of discipline. What a child does understand is a parent’s love. He learns from tender discipline and wants to please.
They aren’t aware of it but these Navy parents have taught me a lot about the character of God, our Heavenly Parent.
Maria and Kassy
One day, while visiting Maria, a Navy wife, three-year old Kassy disobeyed her mom. Maria had to interrupt our visit while she patiently dealt with the offense. While watching Maria handle this small domestic drama with her daughter a realization crept into my head: to God we all must be three-year olds. He even refers to us as little children:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you (Doctrine and Covenants 78:17).
Neither Maria, nor any of the moms and dads we’ve met on this mission, would ever say to their child “I’m SO DONE WITH YOU. I’ve had it! You’ve thrown one too many temper tantrums, spilled one too many glasses of milk, hit your brother one too many times. That’s it! We’re through. I’m not dealing with you anymore!” Instead, they discipline, love, teach, and forgive countless times a day, everyday. They do this because of the massive love they have for their children, and they recognize the inherent limited comprehension of a child that age. They know their child cannot understand all that a parent knows. The child is just a little child who still has many years and experiences to go until they acquire an adult’s understanding.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“the Mormons”) we believe we are all children of a benevolent God, a Heavenly Father, a glorified and perfected Man, the Creator of the universe and all that is in it. Despite all our intellectual acumen, our maturity compared with God’s is as a three-year old’s to her mortal parents. He no more would say to us, “I’m SO DONE WITH YOU!” than Maria would to her daughter.
What is remarkable to me is that God’s patience never seems to run out. In just a relatively few short years our kids are grown and gone from our homes, and then we no longer have to deal with the daily love-discipline-forgiveness cycle. But not so with God. Throughout all the years of human history He never seems to tire of His role as Eternal Parent disciplining, forgiving, and then blessing His children. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t. I imagine God must sometimes get exasperated with us, but he never ever tells us He’s through with us. He may weep at our disobedience (Moses 7:32-33, Pearl of Great Price), but as the perfect parent He continues to patiently teach, discipline, love, and forgive when His children get back on track.
O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart. (3 Nephi 10:6, Book of Mormon)
 No wonder Christ taught that we should be as little children: meek, humble, willing to submit to and depend on their parents, eager to please, quick to love. These are the attributes that bring joy to the parent of any child, including our Heavenly one.
Because we are “little children and…cannot bear all things now; [we] must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 50:40). He gives us basic rules to follow, sees the big picture, knows our potential, and has a massive love for each of us that I can only begin to appreciate as I watch these young Navy parents with their children. At some point, perhaps far into our future and after this mortal existence, we will continue beyond the lessons of mortality and grow up enough to have the maturity and knowledge of our Heavenly Father. If we learn well what He so painstakingly teaches us then we can expect to grow into the sons and daughters we were meant to be.
We are His greatest creation and His number one priority: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39, PG). And like Kassy, and all the other young Navy children I play grandmother to, who will grow up to be  responsible adults and parents like their moms and dads, as God’s three-year olds we also have the potential to one day become like our Heavenly Parent.