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.”