With Thanksgiving approaching, I have been thinking about some of the many blessings I enjoy. One of those blessings has been an unending series of of experiences that, in retrospect, have built upon one another.
During my first week as a new mission president, my secretary brought a stack of letters into my office and asked me the sign them. In response to my query, he explained that they were the “death letters” for missionaries who would be released in three months.
Death letters? I soon learned that there was a rich culture of death surrounding the completion of missionary service: we sang for the “dead,” junior companions “killed” their senior companion. I had only been mission president for a couple of weeks when we had our first transfers and I interviewed a group of missionaries they day before they returned home. It was a somber occasion, not unlike a funeral. What I began to realize during the course of those interviews was that these missionaries – most of the 21 years old – felt that the best of their life was over. It became clear during the course of the interviews that they had been told over and over again in countless ways that their mission would be the best two years of their life. It also became clear that my job was to convince them that that was a lie!
A mission is a remarkable, memorable, unique and life-changing experience in so many ways it would be almost impossible to describe them all. But the best two years of your life? I hope not! A mission is the best two years of your life so far. One of my jobs as mission president was to remind missionaries that, as incredible as the past two years or eighteen months had been, the best was yet to come. For missionary at the end of his or her mission, it is hard to imagine that any two year period could even match, let alone exceed the past two years. But it can, and it should. No one should reach their apogee at age 21.
|Noah's Ark - click to enlarge|
The Best Two Years: Between High School and Mission
As evidence, I have been reflecting on my own life. For more than a decade, I lived it in two-year periods, each building on the previous. I was seventeen when I graduated from high school, and the next two years – as a college student – became the best two years of my life (so far). My decision to attend BYU was made after high school graduation, and I didn’t know a single soul who was planning to go to BYU that fall. I unpacked my bags in a stark dorm room without a friend on the campus. Because of missionary restrictions imposed due to the military draft, I would not be eligible for a mission for another year and half. Those early semesters at BYU were the best two years (actually about eighteen months) of my life to that point. It was a period of personal growth, great new friendships, social development, learning. What could be better than being a college student in the Sixties?!
The Best Two Years: A Mission
What could be – and was – better was being a missionary. I arrived in Cordoba, Argentina in June, two years after I had graduated from high school. The next two years were amazing. I learned a new language, experienced a new culture, met remarkable people, struggled, worked, got rejected, and witnessed miracles. My companions and I were given responsibilities and expectations. We got up early every morning, we worked hard, and we slept well. We did things. By the time I returned home two years later I was a very different person than I had been when I left. I had confidence, I could look people in the eye, I could teach, I knew things, I could do things. It was the best two years of my life.
The Best Two Years: More College
I arrived home from the mission field one week before classes started, and I spent the next two years finishing my college degree. It was as different from being a missionary as being a missionary had been different from being a college freshman. But it was a remarkable two years, filled with learning, growth and fun. I had wonderful roommates. Many of them were friends and companions from the mission, but we rarely spoke of our mission memories – our life was too full with classes, dating, Church service, and planning for the future to spend much time reminiscing. During those two years, my gospel knowledge increased, my social skills improved (I still had a long ways to go from the geeky high school kid whose primary extracurricular activity was teaching a slide rule class), and my testimony deepened. It was the best two years yet.
The Best Two Years: Graduate School
After college graduation, I spent the next two years in Boston earning an MBA at the Harvard Business School. It was an amazing two years, and changed my life. I have often joked that my experience at the Harvard Business School was the best two years and $10,000 of my life! Everything about it was life-changing for me: living in Boston, traveling around New England, school, Church, new friends. Many of my closest friends today date from those years in Boston. Between years I worked in New York City, and no one can live in New York without having it change their life. And it was near the end of these two years that I met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman from Dallas, Kathleen Hansen.
The Best Two Years: Ad Infinitum
I could continue. The next two years Kathleen and I spent in New York City. We became “city people” – and we still love urban life. I served in a bishopric, we made great friends, we learned, we grew, and we had our first child. It was such a remarkable couple of years that we thought nothing would ever be better and that we would never be that happy again! We then went to Salt Lake City for two years where I dabbled in real estate development, served on a high council, had another child, and had experiences which shaped our lives.
After that, the two-year cycle changed: we spent a year in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (where we had another child); five years in Grand Rapids, Michigan (three more children); two more years in Bloomfield Hills (a ward that changed our life); ten years in Arizona (where we wondered if we had really been happy anywhere else). There we had our sixth child, I served in a stake presidency, and we had Church, work, family and social experiences that kept us growing and learning. A career move brought us reluctantly to Salt Lake – could anything ever be better than that magical decade in Arizona?
The answer, of course, was yes. We segment the past nineteen years in Salt Lake mostly by Church callings. I served for several years on the high council under the tutelage of the legendary stake president, Theodore M. Jacobsen. When he was released, I was called as stake president. I was pretty certain that serving as president of the Bonneville Stake was the best calling in the Church and that nothing would ever compare to it. Then I served three years as president of the Spain Barcelona Mission. More miracles, more learning, more growth, increased faith, deeper testimony, and the most amazing young men and women I had ever met! Then it was over. Could anything even come close? I never imagined how much I would learn and how much fun I would have after the mission. I have felt the guidance of the Spirit in remarkable ways, seen many miracles in my family, and continued to learn and grow. I thought I understood baptism as a mission president, but working in the temple has given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the power of ordinances. Pursuing my goal of writing has been extraordinarily rewarding. And the great friendships and associations from BYU, Harvard, New York City, Michigan, Arizona and Barcelona continue to be a source of satisfaction and learning.
I can hardly wait to see what’s next!
Tell us about your most recent two years. Share your thoughts by commenting below, or submit your own post to the blog (send to firstname.lastname@example.org).