When the kids are wound up sometimes we’ll load them up in the Odyssey, give them a Nintendo DS or iPod Touch and tell them to keep quiet. Of course, they are never quiet, but they are strapped into their seats and unable to inflict too much damage on each other.
That’s what we did tonight, and have done on a number of occasions. If we’re lucky the kids will fall asleep giving Kim and I a chance to talk.
Tonight I asked Kim a question that’s been on my mind: “Had you not been raised in a Mormon family, how religious do you think you’d be?”
This lead to a discussion about the differences between religion and spirituality. I believe one can be religious without being spiritual. For me, religion has more to do outward behavior and practices often set forth by an organized church. Attending church and paying tithes or offerings are examples of this. I know plenty of people who are really good at appearing religious.
Looking back on my two year mission to Germany, I recognize most of what I did was centered around quotas, rote memorization, and keeping rules. I had a few spiritual experience during those years, but it was by sheer accident, and had little to do with traditional missionary work.
One of those experiences took place about six months into my mission. My companion and I had been teaching a man who worked as a Protestant pastor. He was interested in learning more about the Mormon church so we got together to discuss how our beliefs meshed and differed from his.
He was single and often invited us to his home for lunch or dinner. Over time we become close friends to the point where he gave us a key to his home where we could retreat from the bitter winter months when our limbs were numb from walking the streets searching for people to teach.
We shared a few ups and downs. Members of his congregation hassled him for speaking to us. Although Germany recognizes Mormons as one of only had handful of sanctioned religions with the freedom to openly proselyte, we were often mistaken for Jehovah Witness missionaries who were more aggressive in their recruiting techniques.
I’d lived in Germany for six months, and my speaking skills were rusty, but I learned to listen and was able to understand well. I often asked my new friend to repeat himself. He showed a lot of patience and never made me feel stupid when I asked for help or referred to my Germany/English dictionary.
Most evenings my companion and I would stay at his home until 9:45. The pastor would call a cab, give us a 10 Mark coin, and send us out the door so we’d be home by the mission mandated 10 pm curfew. But one night, he asked if we wanted to walk home and offered to accompany us.
That gave us about 35 minutes to chat as we walked down moonlit cobblestone streets that lined the tiny city of Unna. This man was more than twice my age, belonged to a different religion, and certainly didn’t need two young American missionaries telling him that what he’d been taught all his life was only partially true.
As we neared our apartment and were about to say goodbye, the pastor reached into his pocket and pulled out two solid silver 10 Mark pieces.
“I want you to have these. Maybe they will remind you of all the cab rides. Or maybe they will remind you of me.” he told us.
I was stunned at his kind gesture.
Connecting in such a manner with another person is a rare experience. Over twenty years later I can appreciate how seldom such connections happen. It’s those connections that kept me going for two years worth of days filled mostly with rejection. Our mission president called it something else: failure.
I can’t recall a single memorable experience I had handing out a Book of Mormon, inviting someone to church or teaching a memorized discussion. The most memorable parts of my mission occurred on the periphery, not in the weekly statistics we called in to headquarters.
The pastor could not have known the insecurities that existed in that 19 year old young man from Utah. Or the feelings of “What the hell am I doing here?” that ran through my mind each morning as I sat in my bed staring at the ceiling. How could he know how I was feeling when he’d only known me for a few weeks?
I felt as though I’d been given a spiritual gift, although it would take years before I’d recognize it as that.
I recently gave my oldest son this silver 10 mark piece, and shared this story with him. By his reaction he gave me I don’t believe he fully understands its significance, but that’s OK.
All in due time.