What I like best about missions is coming home. Let me make that more clear: what I like best about missions is seeing the missionary, like my freshly returned son from Taiwan in the photo below, come home–and being so changed for the better. What I like best about LDS missions is what it does for the missionaries.
I’ve had three sons leave us for two years to serve God and mankind on LDS missions, giving up school, money, and girls for difficult work and challenging circumstances. When they returned, in each case, I was amazed and delighted to see who they had become. They were kinder, more compassionate, more respectful, more diligent, smarter, and even more fun to have around than before. Their faith was stronger.
As you can see below, my son (the most airborne on the right) was a little jumpy, perhaps a little flighty, at the beginning of his mission. He soon became much more down to earth. Having him home for these past couple of weeks has been just an incredible delight. I’m learning from him in many ways and relishing the chance to do a few things with him while he’s here. It’s been that way with all of my sons so far. I’ve been so pleased and amazed and what a mission has done for them. It’s been worth the price, even when they had to serve in what I might consider highly challenging fields.
It’s not just them. I like what it did for me. I can remember how I thought about the world and others before my mission. Frankly, I think I was too judgmental, too narrow, too selfish. Still have those problems, but I feel that the mission experience changed made some of the worse things about me a little better. I wasn’t so freaked out by sin in the lives of others (we’re naturally very tolerant of sin in our own lives, of course), though I was now much more familiar with the pain that it causes and the destruction it brings to families and individuals. Working with good and bad people and seeing how the Gospel blessed their lives and made them better and happier was a wonderful experience. Teaching and feeling the compassion of the Savior for others and His desire to remove the chains of sin in their lives does a lot for the preacher over time. I loved the hands-on Gospel laboratory that a mission provides, for you can see what the Gospel does to the lives of people. It brings happiness, new insights, more closeness to God, more peace in human relationships, and strengthens families. It really works.
I feel I returned more tolerant of others. Working closely with people having divergent viewpoints and vastly different life experiences can do that. There is also a refining process that comes with having to live with random companions 24/7, some of whom might initially seem like embarrassments to the Faith. But in following the teachings of the Church and the Mission President, I found out that these were sons and daughters of God too, real people deserving of real respect, no matter how much they liked to talk about sports.
The challenges of living with companions and finding unity in spite of very different views and desires was, in my mind, essential for me to have any chance of success in marriage. I think I would have been far too intolerable or self-righteous without that softening experience. I was pretty sure I knew who I wanted to marry before I went on my mission. She’s now my wife, and marrying her was the smartest thing I ever did. But I’m so glad I took two more years to prepare for that blessed and challenging transition.
A mission opened my mind in many ways. I went to the Zurich, Switzerland Mission and just loved it. I become more appreciative of art and history, more interested in cultures and language (I taught people from 52 countries – what an education that was!), became more appreciative of the art of cooking, more aware of the diversity of human experience, more sensitive to the plight of the poor and of immigrants in particular, more aware of the suffering and horror of war through the stories of many who experienced it, and perhaps a little more understanding of those who are gay. I also became more aware of the good in other religions, while also better appreciating what the Restoration did. (As for gaining a deeper respect for sports, well, there’s only so much refining a mission can do. It took raising four boys to slowly make some progress there.)
I also became less sure that I had all the answers, while also being more confident about the reality of Jesus Christ and the Restoration. I saw the really important aspects of the Gospel in action, and saw over and over this basic reality: the Gospel of Jesus Christ works. It frees people and makes them happier. It can bless the life of anybody, anywhere, in whatever circumstance they are in. It’s what the world needs now, more than ever.
I sort of knew that in theory before, but the lab results were overwhelming.
(Note: Results will vary. Missions are never easy and can frequently be painful, sometimes too painful. A few people found their missions to be negative experiences. I think the risk was higher back before the Church “raised the bar” in terms of what it takes to qualify for mission service. Yes, it’s voluntary and there are demanding qualifications to be allowed to go and serve, as there should be. A few mean-spirited or rebellious missionaries, coupled perhaps with a rare but occasional neglectful mission president, can result in very ugly experiences for others who are sincerely trying. If you don’t really want to go and serve, please don’t!)