Several years ago we sat in Stake Conference and listened to our Stake President talk about the responsibility we all share for missionary work. "Why do we call it missionary work?" he said. "We should call it missionary fun!!" I remember at the time feeling like I should stand up and pump my fist in the air and yell, "YEAH! We should call it missionary fun!" It wasn't until my husband and I took our family to Boston where he presided over the full-time missionaries for three years that my eyes were opened. It didn't take long until I completely understood why we don't call it missionary fun. Because...well...it's NOT fun (at least not in the way chocolate milkshakes and rides at Disneyland are fun!) Yes, the satisfaction of seeing people accept the gospel is rewarding. The joy of seeing the gospel bless lives is incredible. Missionaries definitely have some fun times. But, generally speaking, we need to call missionary work what it is if we want to give our missionary children the credit they deserve. Serving a mission is one of the most demanding, exhausting, challenging things anyone will ever do. It is hard work. No matter the weather, no matter how much sleep they get, no matter how they feel that day, no matter if they are depressed or discouraged or tired or homesick--they wake up early in the morning and go to work. Every. Single. Day. And for that, they deserve our respect, our gratitude, and our never-ending prayers.
As parents, we sometimes don't fully grasp what our children do every day on their missions. When I sent my first son to Japan, I had no idea what his day-to-day life would look like. Teaching the gospel, I thought. Going to meetings, I assumed. Maybe doing a little sightseeing here and there and having dinner with members. Other than a few pieces of anecdotal information, I knew very little. I certainly did not know he would be doing such hard things--and so many of them! I had no clue how demanding a mission really is--physically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and socially. Yes, I understood the obvious things. Like being away from home. Leaving life behind. Postponing education. Missing friends and girlfriends. But little did I know that the list of difficult things went way beyond anything I had ever imagined. Here's the truth: From the minute our children shut the car door at the MTC and wave goodbye until they have fully adjusted to life back home after their mission ends, they face one incredibly difficult thing after another. Their comfort zone is stretched in ways they could never have predicted or been prepared for. They carry on conversations with complete strangers, live with someone they hardly know and knock on doors (or however they contact people in their mission) from morning 'til night. Many do not have cars so they walk. And walk. And walk. (Sounds like a Primary song, doesn't it?)
People ask me all the time if serving as Mission President and wife helped make our own boys better missionaries. And I always say yes. It definitely made them better--but not in the way you might think. They didn't know more scriptures than the next guy. They weren't necessarily better teachers or leaders. Serving with us in Boston made our kids better missionaries for one reason alone: it helped them understand that missions are hard--harder than anything they had ever done before. Our mission helped them see that all missionaries struggle from time to time--so that when (not if--when) that happened to them, they knew they were not alone. It helped prepare our boys so that when they had challenges, they didn't feel isolated thinking they were the only ones dealing with these kinds of feelings. Our mission developed within each of our missionary children an awareness of what they would experience and what missions are really like. Because of this, they weren't surprised by the difficulties they faced.
It is not only important for us as parents to teach our missionary children that missions are hard--it is vital to their success. Being prepared for the tough times makes them so much easier to face. And here's the thing: everyone has those hard times. No one is exempt. I still remember our oldest son writing us from the MTC saying: "How come some missionaries are laughing and joking and having fun in here, and I'm not. How come it isn't as hard for them as it is for me?" I couldn't wait to write him back and fill him in: truth be told, every single missionary struggles at some time. The only difference between them is the way the sadness, homesickness, anxiety, stress and fear manifest themselves. Not every person deals with challenges in the same way. Some missionaries laugh to cover their sadness; some cry to relieve it. But there is comfort in knowing that everyone experiences pretty much the same emotions. Knowing this strengthens them as they see how other missionaries deal with hardships. It helps them deal with their own and grow because of them.
Before we left for our mission in Boston, a friend shared something with me that I have thought of often and lived by ever since--especially during our 3 years there (yes...missions are even hard for Mission Presidents, their wives and their families.) Here it is:
"When you come face to face with a mountain and you can't go over it, you can't go under it, you can't go around it and you can't go through it, your only choice is to grow to be bigger than the mountain."
And that is what serving a mission is all about--growing. Our sons and daughters leave us as children. They come home bigger than the mountains they faced (and even more prepared for the ones that still lie ahead.) It is those mountains that have made them who they are when they return to us. Knowing that helps us all as we suffer along with our missionary children through their day-to-day challenges. There is great purpose in the struggle. It is their struggles that will be their more cherished memories of their missions...for it is those moments that will have created in them the most profound growth.