Missionary Program Reforms I’d Like to See

Missionaries are coming home early at higher rates than ever before, and fewer are choosing to serve in the first place. I’ve heard explanations for this that suggest kids these days, “addicted to their devices” have gone soft. The implication is that the missionary coming home is defective in some way–weak, uncommitted, and perhaps even mentally ill. 

But what if the problem wasn’t the missionaries, but the missionary program? Even raising this possibility feels taboo. Missionary work is full of sacred cows–the white shirts and black name tags, the smiling baptismal pictures, the homecoming talk with the “best two years” claim. These images are often steeped in nostalgia and tradition, and the pressure to align with this narrative is immense. 

What doesn’t make it into the homecoming talk is the sense of futility and tedium that often permeate mission life. After P-day, the full, empty week stretches ahead. If you are lucky, there is an appointment here and there. Someone showed mild interest and agreed to a visit, but they will become unavailable, never home, calls unreturned. Then there are those “eternal investigators” on the outskirts of town, eccentric and a little bit crazy. They love to talk but never commit. You should drop them from your list, but at least they are an open door and a friendly face. So you will visit them again and again. Goals remain unmet and numbers remain unsatisfactory. Perhaps if only you were more obedient, more worthy, more brave. If only you could “forget yourself” and “open your mouth.”     

Obviously there has been plenty of success in the missionary program. Perhaps some reading this will want to point out that the church is, after all, a worldwide church with millions of members. Many missionaries have truly joyful, transformative experiences. And many new converts find joy and new direction in their life because they were found by missionaries. 

But only pointing to success and insisting on “positivity” rather than “criticism” is a convenient way to ignore problems. The missionaries who come home early, the thousands who secretly wish they could, and those choosing not to go in the first place, deserve more consideration. 

I propose here a few reforms that I believe could help improve the missionary experience. 

Flexible Terms of Service

Is there any reason missions have to last two years for men and 18 months for women? Why should serving anything less than this require some claim to mental illness? Senior missionaries are allowed flexibility in determining the length of time they serve (and even location). Why couldn’t this same flexibility be extended to young missionaries? For one missionary, maybe a year is appropriate, for another, 18 months, and another, 24 months or even more. How many more youth, currently on the fence about a mission, would choose to serve if these kinds of options were available? Maybe they would even get into the work so much that they would extend beyond their initial proposed term of service. Maybe others would come home a little earlier than planned. But it wouldn’t be “early” with all the stigma that goes with that word. It would simply be a change in the term of service. 

More Humanitarian Service 

What if, rather than selling a message to a reluctant audience, people were drawn to the church and the missionaries because of the amazing, beautiful works of service that were performed on a local level? What if every time someone saw the “Mormon missionaries,” they didn’t hide and pretend to not be home, but witnessed them opening soup kitchens, fixing up broken houses for the homeless, picking up litter from the streets, or helping villages get clean water? What if investigators were drawn to the light upon a hill rather than being chased down by it? One can imagine the conversations that might start from such humanitarian work performed by missionaries. Who are you guys and why are you doing these good works? 

How many youth currently on the fence about a proselytizing mission would jump at the chance for a more humanitarian focused mission? Yes, I know there are already service missions, but these are culturally understood as “special needs” missions, a perception that would change if most missionary work shifted significantly (but not necessarily entirely) toward humanitarianism and service. 

More Discipleship, less salesmanship

I often felt like a used car salesman on my mission. Goals, weekly reports, discussions given, souls baptized–the numbers were published for all the missionaries to see, and one felt shame or pride accordingly. Those who produced the best numbers were “promoted” to leadership positions. 

A recent article in the Church News spoke to this issue, admonishing missionaries to not have a “corporate ladder” mentality. But young people will respond to the type of incentives they are given. It’s not surprising that a corporate mission structure (often led by former business executives) results in a culture of corporate climbing. (As an aside, the outdated white shirt, tie, and name tag plays into a 1950s corporate sales ethos as well. How many avoid the missionaries because of their awkward appearance?)  

Many missionaries no doubt love what they are doing. The program and structure fits their temperament. But many suffer silently, believing that the problem is entirely within them, not daring to point to the structural problems within the program itself. The cultural and religious environment have changed significantly in the past couple decades, yet the missionary experience remains largely stagnant. Revitalizing missionary work will require more than appeals to duty or attachment to tradition. It will require reform worthy of an “ongoing restoration.”  

Evening on the Teton

There is a spot along the Teton river not far from my home where I like to stop and contemplate the water. I go on my motorcycle in the evening. Lately, I have been eyeing the water for fishing, checking on its readiness, watching to see if trout are rising for the caddis and mayfly hatches that splatter my windshield and helmut. This is the stated excuse, but really I just like to watch the water for its own sake.

It would be wrong to say that the water is peaceful. This time of year, it swirls and boils with energy as it tries to drain the still snow-laden Tetons whose peaks rise to my east. The fields of hay and spring canola in full bloom might be described as peaceful, especially in the light of the setting sun. But this time of year the river is a writhing snake hiding beneath the cottonwoods and willows, dangerous and alluring all at once. Since my childhood, whenever I see waters like this, I imagine what it would be like to fall in. What would it feel like? What branch or rock could I cling to? Would my muscles seize in this frigid water that only days earlier was mountain snow?

But tonight, as I think of fish and flies and dark water, something else is on my mind. A news report that two young teen boys were playing in the shadows of the ruined Teton dam, just miles upstream from my spot. One boy, age 14, attempting to cross the river, disappeared under the water, and was not seen again. Authorities are searching for his body.

So when I watch the water this evening, the unhappy thought occurs to me that I ought to keep an eye out for a sign of the boy. “Sign of the boy” is a way of softening the haunting image that swirls in my mind, the horror of seeing a child drifting in the cold, murky water. And yet, there would be some relief to the mother and father who just yesterday received a phone call that turned their world upside down, and now wait for another phone call that will not lift the burden but will at least allow them to grieve in a more complete way.

This is the way tragedy happens. The morning starts like any other. And then by nightfall, you live in a different world, a foreign land with no map to navigate, with well wishers and sympathizers trying to reach across a gulf, but the water too deep, the gulf too wide to make contact. When the Teton dam failed 42 years ago this month and flooded the valley with eight feet of water, that is how it happened. “Just a regular June morning,” the survivors repeat with a sense of wonder. Then by evening, farms and homes and businesses filled with brackish water, some homes detaching from their foundations, floating away like rafts. And for 11 families, there were loved ones whose remains would not be recovered until the waters receded.

This evening, my children are accounted for. Two are kicking a soccer ball in the yard. One is on a date at a local play, the other, I believe, is watching TV. For my family, this is a normal evening like any other. I think of the unknown family who grieves tonight and feel for them. I cannot feel a fraction of their pain, but my thoughts are unsettled like the water that churns beneath the willows. I know that tomorrow, for me, will start with a normal morning, just like any other.

When I Thought I Would be Taken

There is, in my memory of my childhood, an event I’m not sure how to think about. It’s about a time when I was almost kidnapped. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s such an extraordinary claim that now, as an adult, I question whether or not things really happened the way I remember them. Did the van really turn down the dirt road after me? Were they just regular folks whose following me was merely coincidental? Were my kidnappers just teens pranking a little kid? What is clear is that to my 10 year old mind, I was nearly kidnapped and was saved by prayer.

Two miles from our rural home in Heber City, Utah, the Provo River passed under a bridge and emptied into Deer Creek reservoir. I rode over this bridge every day on the school bus to Midway Elementary. The waters under the bridge moved slow and deep, and fishermen often dotted the shoreline. At this time in my life, I was crazy about fishing. Although my dad took me out a fair amount, I hated relying on his schedule. I longed to go fishing alone, where I could take my time, try different lures, and work the holes in my own way without supervision. So one summer day, without permission I packed up my rod, hopped on my bike, and headed to the bridge.

Not a soul was there. It was perfect. I dropped my bike on the side of the road and slid down the bank to the water. After several minutes, the initial excitement wore off as the fish were not attacking my bait as they had in my fantasies. I decided to try the other side of the bridge. That is when I noticed a white van parked near the bridge (yes, a white van). The driver was staring at me. Another man stood on the bridge, pretending to take in the view, but glanced my way.

It was the 1980s, the decade of milk carton children, of learning to never accept rides or candy from strangers, a time when friendly neighbors hung McGruff the Crime Dog signs in their windows to indicate their home as a safe haven. My heart pounded. This was it. This was what I had been warned about in all those school assemblies.

I got on my bike and pedaled hard. The man on the bridge jumped into the van, and they followed me. I pumped the pedals, my fishing rod, gripped with the handle bars, bouncing wildly with each motion. I glanced over my shoulder, and they still followed. Fear entered my muscles and my pedaling felt weak. On my left were some older, pioneer era farm homes. Should I go to one of those homes? The lawns looked kept, but I had never seen anyone there. Perhaps there would be no one to offer safety and I would be trapped at an empty doorstep. More than that, the embarrassment of knocking a stranger’s door somehow made my second option more appealing.

Ahead, a dirt road on the right led toward the lake. I took it, breaking off the main road where the van still followed. The van turned down the dirt road. My legs weakened. I raced down the path, which veered left again to follow the lake shore. The rains had been heavy that spring, so the weeds and field grass were over four feet tall. At full speed, I turned and rammed into the wall of grass, ditched my bike and pole, sprinted several yards, and then dove deep into the thick grass.

I kept my face down and breathed hard but quietly into dirt. It was late afternoon, and the sun cast long shadows across the valley. A breeze rustled and swayed the tops of the grass. Could I hear the van passing, searching? Could I hear footsteps or was it only the wind? I braced for hands to reach down and take hold of my shoulders and warn me not to scream.  

I prayed into the dirt, over and over, please let the bad guys not find me. Please God, I will be good, just don’t let them find me. I waited and prayed. And waited, and prayed. Time passed–half hour, maybe an hour–and the sun dropped to the mountain peaks now. I slowly stood above the grass and scanned the horizon. The van was gone. I was safe.

At home I told no one for fear I would never be allowed to go anywhere alone again.

A Quorum of Strangers: On the isolation of Mormon men

“Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’ … It unites the human family with its happy influence.” – Joseph Smith

A group of men in white shirts shuffle into a room of folding chairs. Just one more hour, the home stretch. First, the announcements. Bro. So and So is moving and could use some help next Saturday. As far as activities go, there’s a thing coming up in June but details are vague and it isn’t clear who was in charge of making the phone calls. The end of the month is coming fast, so don’t forget about home teaching. The time is turned over to Bro. K who has the lesson this week. He’s subbing again, but no one really knows who the regular teacher is. And since it was a last minute thing, he says, he was hoping the announcements would take longer, so he’ll be relying on lots of comments from the group to take up the time.

But the group has already checked out. They are staring despondently at their feet, or pretending to find the lesson on their phones while they check the latest scores.

Meet the Mormon patriarchy having all the fun running the Church.  

A recent article in the Atlantic points out that men, especially middle aged white men, are increasingly dying from lives lived in isolation and addiction. I would like to believe that Mormon men somehow buck this trend. After all, aren’t we part of a tight knit community capable of self-organizing in a moment’s notice? Just hand us a natural disaster and we’ll show up with rakes and shovels. But despite the Church’s obvious strength in organizing labor, it’s my observation that Mormon men lead surprisingly isolated and lonely lives. 

There is very little in LDS culture that fosters male friendship. Mormon men have no equivalent of going out for a beer, one of the few socially acceptable male reasons for getting together in American culture. Any free time outside work and church callings should be spent at home with family. Period. I remember an EQ president who berated the quorum for hunting or fishing or playing sports with friends. The time for high school buddies was over, he said. Now it was all about taking care of our wives and children.

When women make time to be with their friends (as they should), it’s billed as a much deserved “Girl’s night out.” The male version is much less common. Because men are “out” all day at work; why should we need time away? And research shows that men in general simply have a harder time maintaining deep friendships than women, despite the fact that such friendships can increase life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.

I don’t want to paint a picture of victimization. We men have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s easier to not make that phone call, to not reach out, and instead numb out in front of the TV or the internet or whatever happens to pop up on the phone. It’s especially easy to not go to that once-a-quarter (if you’re lucky) EQ activity, which are often so poorly attended that they feel like support groups for misfits.  

We also have our excuses: :

“My wife is my best friend, and my kids are priority in terms of free time.” Yep. Me too. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back for being such committed family men. But can we admit it still isn’t enough, that friendship is as important to a full life as family? Isn’t the “family man” excuse just alienation masked as nobility?

“I’m just too busy.” This excuse may not be a lie, but it’s beside the point. Busyness has nothing to do with connection and fulfilment. Some of the most bored, disconnected people in the world are those with schedules packed full of commitments.

So what should be done? I don’t have any easy answers, but the discussion seems more interesting than “Did you do your home teaching last month?” or “Everyone turn to lesson 22.” Like any change that happens in a community, it must become a cultural priority. The Amish, for example, understand very well that a single machine could cut and gather more hay than the work of 12 men. But they wonder, wisely, what would become of the friendship and camaraderie of those 12 men if they weren’t working together?

An acquaintance of mine who attends a support group for “sex addiction” remarked about what a sense of brotherhood he feels there. The men in the group share their deepest struggles and see one another as allies in strengthening each other.

I’m not officially addicted to anything, so I wouldn’t know what such a group is like. I have never belonged to a quorum of elders that tried something that looked like honesty and vulnerability. And why should they? Beneath the “Hey how are ya?” facade, an elder’s quorum is too often a room full of strangers.


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers , story of one soul’s redemptive journey into the afterlife. Please follow new posts on this blog by submitting your email at the upper right on this page. 

Sex Ed


One spring day when I was in the fourth grade, I came home from school and placed in open view an “Important Note to Parents.” I wanted him to find it without me present. The note contained oblique references to the need for children to understand their maturing bodies in a healthy and supportive context. It was the 1980s and sex education was a new and—at least in the religiously conservative valleys of Utah—controversial program. The note explained that this sensitive topic would be discussed in the presence of a parent who could answer his or her child’s questions afterward. If possible, fathers were to take their sons, and mothers their daughters.

At this time in his life my dad was a tough and brooding kind of man, having left the police force, disillusioned and depressed, just years earlier. This was not his sort of thing. I knew he would want as little to do with it as I did, but the letter required a signature and yes or no response. It had to be confronted. I put the note where he would see it so he could do as he pleased.

It was my mom who eventually brought the note to his attention, and his reply was a dismissive “Hmmph.” As expected, the note was not signed and no response given. I was relieved from the prospect of sitting in a room of moms and dads staring at their feet while a hapless school nurse presented drawings and diagrams and spoke delicately of perfectly normal urges.

I paid little attention when the evening of the Special Talk came. My friends were going and had expressed their regret at having to do so, and I felt lucky to be home on a couch watching Three’s Company. My relaxation was interrupted when my dad came in the house and said, “Why don’t you come with me,” as a command, not an invitation.

Outside, he led Molly, our gentle black mare, into the horse trailer already attached to the truck. Molly was a placid and compliant horse. As I lacked any cowboy instinct, she was to me, the horse-that-wouldn’t-buck. I felt safe riding her with my sister around the pasture, sometimes venturing into the foothills above our home. My dad said simply that we were going to have her bred, but having often tagged along with my parents on various errands, I didn’t take much interest in the business at hand.

I was no stranger to the reproductive instincts of animals. We owned a large and muscular Chesapeake who had sired, without consent, a litter of puppies with a female down the street. And on more than one occasion he mounted my small statured neighbor friend, taking him to his knees as he cried for help. Only kicking the dog where it counted most could dissuade him from his confused lust.

From this experience I did not draw the natural conclusion that a much larger animal would produce a much grander spectacle, or that it even need be a spectacle. When our dog propagated himself, he simply disappeared for several days—we thought he had been stolen—before emerging from the neighbor’s shed refreshed and ready to resume his usual duties. Horses, I would discover, had no such privacy.

We drove across Heber Valley toward the small town of Midway. I enjoyed any excuse to ride in the quiet cab of the truck. We rarely said much to each other; watching the passing landscape of hayfields and small neighborhoods was enough. It was late afternoon and the sun was already casting long shadows across the valley floor. The hayfields were green but the higher mountain ridges were still capped in snow.

We pulled into a farm with large red stables and a series of corrals. A burley, gray haired farm wife wearing a flannel shirt met us at the fences.

“Well, he’s ready!” she told my dad after some small talk through the truck window.

“He,” I could now see, was a beautiful dark stallion prancing around the corral in great anticipation. When Molly obediently backed out of the horse trailer and came into full view, he galloped in circles, kicking up clouds of dust, shaking his mane, whinnying impatiently. Molly trained her ears in his direction, eyeing him nervously. But this was the last she saw of him. The farm lady placed a cloak around Molly’s head, shielding her eyes, allowing only her ears to poke through, which now shifted in all directions in search of some clue of her fate. In a moment, I would envy her blindness.

Molly was led into a separate corral and then into a narrow stall where my dad and the farm lady restrained her on both sides. They either considered her a flight risk or thought she was in danger of doing harm to the stallion. Once secure, the stallion, now prancing and shaking and bucking at the gate, was released into Molly’s pen.

There was no time for pleasantries or romance. In an instant I was witness to the stallion’s passions in all their raw power. I backed away from the pen, wondering if I should look away yet unable to even if I wanted. Molly thrashed against her tethers, tugging at the metal fencing.

The farm lady determined the stallion was not performing satisfactorily. The mounting was easy, but there was difficulty in the actual coupling, which required a precision of aim that, perhaps through no fault of his own given the awkward circumstances, the stallion was incapable of achieving. Again, I wanted to look away, but just then the farm woman grabbed the stallion’s enormous errant member and guided it to its intended place.

When the act was complete, the stallion’s passions were spent, I trembled at the spectacle just witnessed and was relieved for both Molly and myself it was over. When they removed the mask from Molly’s eyes, she looked around wildly, as if trying to make sense of what happened. Before she was released, the stallion, now calm and settled, was led to his separate corral. Money was exchanged for the encounter, and there was talk of hoping Molly would “take.”

On the way home the cab was silent. We passed Midway Elementary where, perhaps, the meeting was still in session. While my classmates listened to delicately phrased euphemisms about the sacred powers of procreation, I was witness to the brute physicality of the act. So this was the thing that prompted such anxiety from church and state. This was the thing that could barely be contained with Special Talks and fences and ropes and blinders.

That Molly’s servicing coincided with the evening at the school was no accident. My dad spent his life with animals both wild and domestic, and he was often fascinated with the similarities between human and animal behavior. But to make sure the lesson was not lost on me, he broke the silence of the cab.

“So what you saw tonight,” he said, pausing to search for the right words. “It basically works the same with humans.”

“Okay,” I replied, looking straight ahead. I was glad when he did not follow up with further questions or advice. The lesson was over, my education complete. Silence filled the cab for the drive home. The valley was darker now, the animals grazing in their pastures barely visible in the twilight.


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers

Away Without Leave: The day I ran from my mission

By Sheldon Lawrence

The thing that kept me from snapping sooner was shame. I didn’t want to be “that” missionary–a delicate case requiring special handling, the homesick momma’s boy who couldn’t handle it. So I quietly endured the first two months of my mission to Santiago, Chile, without complaint, slogging through the muddy streets of the poorest neighborhoods, withstanding the jeers of children, and struggling to comprehend a new language. But the shame didn’t go away; it was a private shame between me and the Lord whom I was supposed to be serving.

In that two months a great chasm grew between what I was supposed to be feeling and what I was actually feeling.

I was supposed to feel grateful to have been called to Chile because, we were told, Chile was a special place in the Lord’s vineyard, and we were special missionaries. This was the preparation ground for the Church’s future leaders. The field here was ripe and ready to harvest, and the numbers proved it. Santiago North, my mission, was the lowest baptizing mission with a mere 500-600 baptisms per month. The other Santiago missions baptized between 1000-1500 per month, and they taunted us by faxing their reports to our office.

I was supposed to love the people. That was the mantra, learn to love the people. But I didn’t love them. I didn’t know why, only that this was a spiritual defect. My companion loved the people. He joked and laughed and gave them high fives on the street. He knew how to work a crowd, and I would watch him in awe, feeling exhausted that this was the thing I should aspire too.

He would almost apologize for me to his admirers. ”He’s new,” he would explain. “Just arrived from Los Estados.” But in private, he would do his best to get me on board. “Dude, you gotta get PUMPED!” he would say, generating enthusiasm or “animo” from thin air. I soon realized he was merely repeating the rhetoric of our monthly zone meetings.

At my first zone meeting, the chapel was cold with tile floors and concrete walls. Steam rose from the twenty or so missionaries that gathered in a damp clump in the front pews. They greeted one another with cool handshakes and hugs. It was like they were part of a secret club I wasn’t sure I wanted to join but still envied. The zone leader, a grizzled looking veteran missionary sporting a hat and mittens made of alpaca wool, drew a grid on a chalkboard with the name of each companionship on the left. At the top of the grid were the numbers we were to report–contacts, discussions, and, most importantly, baptisms. He labeled the grid “Weekly Comparativo.” This was the routine throughout the mission, putting up the numbers for the zone to see.

He went down the row, alternatively celebrating big numbers and questioning, with a tone of concern, the lower numbers. It became clear that “loving the people” meant baptizing them, as many and as quickly as possible. And why shouldn’t it? “Todos nececistan un bautismo.” Everyone needs a baptism to get into heaven. Besides, the South and West missions were getting cocky; we needed to step up our game and reach the mission goal of 800 baptisms.

One companionship had a good month. Fifteen baptisms. “Look at this, Elderes,” he said, slowly circling the number. “Let’s hear some animo!” The missionaries shouted and cheered as the meeting took on the feeling of a football pep rally. I tried to fit in. I shouted and smiled and gave high fives and got pumped, for worse than the shame of pretending was not pretending and being discovered as a dud missionary.

After the meeting I found a rare moment when I could be alone and wonder why I was not on the Lord’s side, why I couldn’t get pumped about this great kingdom building work, and why all I could think about was the mountains of Montana I left to come down to the bottom of the planet where the seasons were backward and even the angle of light was wrong.

“It hugs the northern horizon down here, the winter sun,” I said to my companion once.

“Huh…never noticed,” he said.

I could not admit it, not even to myself, but I wanted out. I knew it was a sin to want to leave, but I wanted it more with each day. It never occurred to me that something was wrong with the mission. The mission was from God. If I didn’t like it, there must have been something wrong with me. I was a soldier in God’s army fantasizing about desertion–a secret I couldn’t share with anyone. Not my fellow missionaries, not the mission president, and especially not my proud family back home, for whom “having a missionary out” was the one bright spot in their otherwise unstable life. So I kept my dislike of the mission a secret, a guilty secret.

I did not know at the time that I was part of a phenomenon in Chile that Salt Lake would later come to see as a problem that needed special clean up. The baptizing heydays of the 1990s in Chile produced such a vast wasteland of rushed or questionably baptized people that the Church took the unprecedented step sending Elder Holland in 2002 to personally oversee the effort to clean the records of “chueco” (crooked) baptisms and refocus missionary efforts on reactivation and retention. In the decade of the 90s, membership in Chile grew by 211,000. By comparison, during the following decade membership grew by a more manageable 54,000.

The pressures this environment produced were immense. A hard working missionary in Germany, for example, would produce the same results as a lazy missionary in Germany–that is, practically nothing at all. But in Chile, if you did not baptize every month, it was conspicuous. Something was wrong. And the wrongness and the shame of it were on display for all to see.

If you wanted to get promoted, you had to produce baptisms consistently. A couple months of double digit baptisms could get you to Zone Leader as well as special attention from the mission president. A couple of dry months, and you were treated with special care, with the president’s assistants doing splits to train you in the high powered sales tactics that got results.

I was often witness to sincere spiritual seeking and teaching and was deeply touched by it. But too many times the thing that secured the baptism was the charisma and relative handsomeness of the missionary (and yes, this was a man’s mission. The few sisters there were not part of the numbers race, for reasons that would require another essay). When young Chileans, even children, found themselves lavished with the attention of sparkling, white shirted gringos, it was hard to resist. Jesus got baptized. Didn’t they want to follow Jesus? They would have their chance at the chapel the coming Saturday. That they had, technically speaking, become Mormons in that process was not always obvious to them or their parents.

The thing that kept me going was a sense that I had to pay my debt to my culture. I wanted a good Mormon wife, and a family, and roast beef on Sundays. Those blessings didn’t come free, so I had to earn my place.

But I still wanted out.

The tipping point came when I was transferred to the country, a move I hoped would be a rest from the crowded, dog infested streets of Santiago. For the first few weeks it was. But then the “Mamita” who hosted us in her home decided our rent was not sufficient and gave us notice to find a new place. I was with a native Chilean companion at the time who had zero sympathy for culture shock or homesickness. He was also relatively new to the mission, and this was the first time he lead a companionship and could make a name for himself. He fantasized about Pentecostal-like conversion of the small town of Curacavi.

My companion arranged for our new accommodations without talking to me. We would be moving to live in a squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of town with chickens, goats, and open sewers. We would live at the residence of a man the missionaries nicknamed Gargamel, after the Smurf nemesis. This was the same man whose infamous fresh-squeezed juices (from an orchard irrigated with contaminated water) was believed to be the source of a previous elder’s Typhoid fever.

I found out about the housing change when the zone leaders arrived from Santiago to help with the move. Something happened in that moment. Something took over. I needed to go away. It was as if I was no longer making decisions. I watched myself get on my bike and ride past the zone leaders and my puzzled companion.

“Where are you going?” asked the zone leader.

“Away,” I said, for that was all I knew.

I had no plan, only a vague sense that I needed to grab hold of something solid, reach out to something familiar. I rode my bike away—out of the gate, onto the street, then toward town on the highway. My flight was not calculated like a prison escape, but was more like that of a criminal caught in the act. I knew they would be in pursuit, so I pedaled hard.

I had a vague notion of needing to reach a phone, and I knew there was one at the town’s only bank. I ditched my bike and ran inside. At the phone, I contemplated my options. I couldn’t call my parents and tell them I had become a deserter in the army of Helaman. Nor could I confide in my brothers, both decorated mission veterans who earned accolade of “AP.” I couldn’t call my nonmember friends who thought I was on some kind of study abroad program picking up girls.

I decided to try my inactive sister. This was a risk. She was already a little suspicious of my mission, and I was afraid she would catch the next flight to Chile and demand my release. The phone rang. No answer.

For a brief moment I imagined running into the hills and building a hut in the Andes Mountains until I could gather myself. But everything was falling apart. I looked outside and saw the zone leader and companion approaching the bank like police.

I had nowhere to run. The game was up. It was time to turn myself in. When I walked down the steps and saw the missionaries eyeing me nervously, my arms went numb. I grew dizzy and my breathing became irregular—a sort of hyperventilation that frightened both myself and my approaching comrades.

To my horror, I was coming undone on Main Street in the full light of day. In an instant I changed from the quiet greenie who kept to himself, to something I had never wanted to be: a special problem to keep at arm’s length. I could already hear the mission gossip: Dude, when we found him he totally started freaking out.

When, after a few moments, my soul reentered my body, the zone leader took me to a park bench and bought us each a cold Coke. I told him everything, that I didn’t like the work, that I didn’t know if I belonged there. And there was something else, something I hadn’t told anyone.

“My dad is sick,” I said. “He has some nervous system disease that is only going to get worse. I don’t even know if he’ll be there when I get home.”

He said he would talk to the president and see what could be done. Now the president would know about me. Everyone would know. I felt shame, of course, but there was also something liberating in it. The breakdown and fleeing were the most honest things I had done on my mission.

We moved to Gargamel’s house right away. The new housing would not have been approved by the mission office, but I knew the office didn’t know the details. We were at the outer reaches of the empire; my companion was Col. Kurtz and was not entirely under the rule of mission law.

The new housing provided an opportunity to plan for a seemingly honorable escape, for this was the house where a missionary had contracted typhoid fever during just a brief visit. Still depressed, one day I asked Gargamel for a sample of his legendary orange juice, a request he happily and quickly obliged. For one who was teased as a “germ freak” and who would not share a can of soda with friends or family, the will power required to drink the diseased potion was significant. But I believed the unsanitary blender, unwashed hands, and foul-smelling orchard would do the dirty work of getting me home.

When he produced the juice, I raised my glass and toasted in English so as not to offend my host. “To home,” I said, then downed the concoction as if it were a shot of hard liquor. But nothing happened. Days passed without the drink producing so much as an upset stomach.

The mission president offered to send me home. But I stayed. One more day. One more week. Then a month. I was soon transferred to a better situation, and slowly the fog lifted. In time I gained the confidence to resist chueco missionaries, even if only in passive aggressive ways. And there were good times, times when it felt right and good. And there were turning points. I remember a moment in prayer when I said to God for the first time “Let thy will, not mine, be done” and meant it. Then there was the moment I chose to stay no matter what, an act of defiance more than devotion. Somehow the power to run, the power to leave, made the decision to stay mean something.

My kids recently pointed out that I rarely talk about my mission. Apart from sharing a few funny anecdotes, it’s true. I grew in those two years in ways I could not have done otherwise. I do not regret my mission, and even feel gratitude for it. But I still don’t understand it. In some ways, I’m still in that bank, phone in trembling hands, wondering who to call and wondering what to say when they answer.

Moving Mormons

Though I have spent, in my religious life, hundreds of hours in church sponsored service projects, I have never participated in such Instagram-ready activities like feeding the hungry or digging wells in remote villages. By far the bulk of my service has been spent in truly one of the more unpleasant tasks of human life. Moving. But not just any kind of moving. Moving other Mormons.

I imagine those digging the village wells or ladling soup into bowls clutched in two-handed gratitude feel the warmth of human connection that comes with such acts of goodwill. There is a finitude, a completeness, I imagine, about such service. Even in the case of a soup kitchen–yes, hunger will come again in just a matter of hours. But to provide immediate relief to one truly in need is a kind of service that has so far eluded me.  

I understand that true, sincere service isn’t about the effects upon the giver. It’s about meeting the needs of others. I get the correct philosophical stance. But if we assume (or admit) that service has to do with the quality of experience for both the giver and receiver, then helping someone move their belongings from one home to another must be one of the least gratifying experiences for both parties. If you have money to spend and want to cast your alms before men, then take that orphanage vacation to South America and post your photos on facebook. Avoid at all costs delving into the muck of middle class American consumption.  

For moving a neighbor is a glimpse into the embarrassment of riches of American life, if richness is to be determined, as it appears to be, by the accumulation of suff. This is part of the problem with moving as a service project. You feel about as much satisfaction for having changed the world as you might from waxing someone’s Mercedes. Unlike rendering aid to the hungry and homeless, moving someone is a problem made worse through gratuitous consumerism.

I’m a snob when it comes to getting rid of stuff; my wife is, too. Some marriages are beset with conflict when a keeper and a get-ridder fall in love. But one thing my wife and I have always agreed on is the need to purge junk from our life. We love throwing things out, and feel some pride when dumping–or…donating–our surplus at Deseret Industries. Not that we consume any less than our peers, but I like to believe we practice a Zen-like detachment to the material goods of this transient existence, letting them flow in then out of our lives.

This is how we like to think of it. But in reality, even a relatively uncluttered home appears, when moving, to belong to a hoarder. During one relatively recent move, we carefully cultivated the image of the clean and uncluttered family I’ve always dreamt of being. We donated mounds of stuff. Threw away even more. The things kept were tucked neatly in taped boxes. Yes, there was a furniture problem. But our four children had to sleep somewhere.

The hapless band of church volunteers showed up on moving day and all was going well until one guy said, loud enough for others to hear, “Wow, you guys have a lot of stuff!” It was the kind of throw away comment I should have ignored, but I was hurt and became defensive. If he thought this was a lot, well, then he hadn’t moved very many people. And did he know my wife taught preschool once and might again someday? You don’t just throw out crafts and lesson plans. And the trailers were small, so it just looked like a lot of stuff.

In hindsight, maybe we had kept a few superfluous things just to keep our options open. And I think this has something to do with the psychology of keeping. To keep something feels like leaving a door open to possibility, while getting rid of something means closing the door on an experience we’d like to believe may still happen. Keeping means we do not have to admit the failure of the possession–the unread book, the guitar in the closet–while letting go means the death of a good intention, an admission that the guitar will never see lessons or the light of a campfire. The dusty tennis rackets and golf clubs–well, we might play again someday once life calms down a bit.  

To be on the receiving end of moving service requires a certain amount of courage, or more likely, desperation. It’s the sort of task that one would prefer to do one’s self because moving involves putting your life on display and inviting others to see that life in its greatest disorder. Your preferences, your style, the dresser drawers that had to be removed at the last minute to lighten the load, socks and underwear spilling over–all open to public view.

Only the enormity of the project forces one to invoke the teachings of Jesus to recruit help. When the call goes out at church that so and so will be moving this Saturday at 10am and could really use the help, men shift uncomfortably in their folding chairs. The choice now is to proceed with the weekend plans with a nagging sense of guilt or to help a fellow hoarder in need, and still feel guilty about it.

For another problem with moving is it does not have a definite beginning and end, and therefore offers the Lord’s servant no sense of having provided a tangible improvement to another’s condition. When I help someone move, I feel I leave them in a worse state than I found them. The job is never  finished; it is only abandoned. And even if I am the last volunteer to leave the scene, I have the feeling of deserting the family to the wreckage that has become of their material existence.

In the ideal move, boxes will already be packed and stacked, waiting for the volunteers to load them into a spacious moving truck. Volunteers will be so thick they can almost form a chain, passing boxes from one set of arms to the next. A skilled person will stack the boxes for maximum effectiveness.

I’ve never been on such a move; it still exists as an elusive ideal. Mormon moves are rarely so simple, especially because they always involve a piano and, worse, hundreds of pounds of “food storage” mystery containers whose contents would only be eaten under conditions so apocalyptic and miserable that even the purest saint would have wished to die in the initial calamities.

The worse move I ever did was for an elderly couple several years ago. Everything about it was wrong. I showed up a little late hoping to jump into a project already under way. But volunteers were standing around, arms folded. Women from the ward were there to help pack boxes, but the elderly sister said some of it had to stay, and some of it had to go, so they couldn’t just go boxing up everything. When pressed about what should stay and what should go, she became visibly distressed, like she was being bullied.

I wouldn’t call them hoarders, but they were old, and that is often the same thing, especially for those who lived during the depression. Many from that generation do not get rid of stuff, not if there is the slightest possibility of needing it when the world economy collapses. Such was this home. Rooms were filled with old magazines (“still might read’em”) and cool whip containers filled with rubber bands (“Why throw away a perfectly good rubber band?”).

I tried to help.

“We have a lot of muscle here,” I said. “You don’t have to lift a finger. All we need is someone to say ‘Take this, take that’ and we’ll do all the work.”

“Well I can’t be the one to say that!” she said. My heart sank as my Saturday melted before my eyes.

“Where’s your husband,” I asked. “Maybe he can be the one.”

“Oh, he’s not here. All this stress isn’t good for his heart so he checked into a motel room.”

I wasn’t sure whether to hate the man or envy him.

We did what we could, then several hours later it came to a standstill and we were dismissed. I left and felt bad about leaving, but my own heart wasn’t fairing all that well.

I still don’t know how it all turned out. I never looked back. My spiritual reward for service rendered was a vague feeling that God was disappointed in me for not staying until I had made sure they were comfortably situated in life.

Let’s end on a happier note–the best move I ever did: helping my then fiancee move from her childhood bedroom to our first apartment. Such moves have a celebratory feel and do not require the help of reluctant volunteers. The amount of stuff is relatively small compared to what will come. Even so, my bride-to-be came with a dowry of possessions that easily quadrupled my own.

Before I met her, I took pride in the fact that my my worldly goods fit into the back of my small Mitsubishi pick up truck. It was just me and the open road, able to put down and take up my journey with the greatest of ease. When we met during summer jobs in Montana, she lived out of a suitcase like the other temporary workers, but in her Utah suburban home tucked in the basement were heirloom furniture, racks of clothing, a porcelain doll collection (which she showed me with great pride), and a staggering array of shoes.

As a professional necessity were several boxes and a filing cabinet filled with lesson plans and teaching activities for her some-day school room. Her possessions were orderly and of good taste, no junk, but still far more than my little truck could handle.

It took a long time to get it all packed up, but not because of the amount of stuff. Many items came with stories to be shared. And herein lies one of the few pleasures of moving–the way in which the past is uncovered in layers, like an archaeological dig. Out from the deepest layers come drawings, homework from grade school, and handmade “pottery” that became earring holders. Work comes to a standstill, not for frustration, but because yearbooks and photo albums open up, and now you are sitting side by side on a bare mattress, flipping through the pages.

There is something intimate about seeing into the past of the one who will be your wife. The time you have spent together is the most recent addition atop the stratified layers of a lifetime. And each page of the photo album peeled back reveals a new layer, a new stage in her evolution revealing a new dimension, a whole person. The gangling mud-covered limbs of sisters playing in the mud. School pictures with conspicuous braces and lace collared shirts. Sisters on a beach flexing their bony arms. The birthdays, the sports, the first dates and “also ran” boyfriends. The short hair, the long hair, big bangs, no bangs. A portrait of change, of movement, but constant throughout is that stunning smile, the same one that made me look twice and that led me there, to that moment in the basement, packing boxes of dolls and filling a trousseau that once belonged to grandma, gathering the material that would fill our first apartment, until the last box is carried out and the door closed, almost all the way.  


Sheldon Lawrence is a writing professor, essayist, and author of the recent novel Hearts of the Fathers



By Sheldon lawrence

You can tell me about the neuroscience of memory. How memories aren’t the real thing, but sensory input encoded into neurons, chemical reactions falling into place like a rube goldberg machine in the brain, allowing us to later reproduce certain sensations. And I will pretend to believe you to avoid argument.  

It was 1988 in West Yellowstone, Montana, and I was 12 years old and Yellowstone was engulfed in flames. The town had been taken over by firefighters and soldiers acting as firefighters. My dad managed a gas station and laundromat in town. The firefighting agencies that camped at Old Faithful contracted with the laundromat to have their yellow and green soot covered uniforms washed and delivered.

We had a truckload to deliver, and my dad asked me to come along. The west entrance to the Park was closed. The ranger at the gate said the fire was crossing at Seven Mile bridge, and the road was restricted to necessary traffic only. We convinced him we were on official business, that they were anxiously awaiting the fresh clean uniforms at Old Faithful basecamp, and so he let us through.

The plume of smoke was easily visible from town, but now as we drove east into the park it rose high overhead, blocking the noonday sun, adding to an unsettled feeling I had all summer, that surely these were the last days of something–Yellowstone, at least. Maybe the whole world.  

I could not see the top of the column of smoke, the part that turned from brown to white in the high atmosphere, unless I pressed forward and looked up from the windshield. I could not roll down my window to poke my head out. The ranger told us to keep them shut tight.

A firefighting crew stopped us at Seven Mile bridge, and hesitated before letting us proceed. The light now was an amber haze giving the charred forests an apocalyptic feel.The fire had crossed the road, jumped the river, and was now climbing the hill. The forest was still burning, and a few firefighters looked displeased that we had been let through.

That is when I felt the heat of the flames just off the road and pressed my hand against the window, the glass now hot to the touch.

The heat began as a nuclear reaction in the core of the sun, then escaped as light, making the eight minute flight through space to enter a pine forest in Yellowstone. The heat, the light, absorbed into the evergreen needles, becoming dormant energy as sap and wood fiber. And then, on that August day in 1988, it turned into energy again, released from the tree like a prisoner taking its chance to flee, only to enter my body, my eyes, and my hands against the glass.   

You can tell me it’s just a memory, that I’m not really feeling heat again when almost 30 years later I drive through with my wife and children and tell them the story, looking out at the new growth. But the heat is still inside me, and when I say, look, kids, this is where it crossed when I was with my dad driving through this very spot, I can feel the heat rise up in me, like it knows it’s passing a familiar place, like it too wants to look out the window and see its old home.



Seek stillness. Close your eyes, relax in the lotus position, and breathe deeply. But hold on tight. Search every corner of the cosmos and you find only a universe in motion. Everywhere bodies and matter interrupt one another. Everywhere stars and planets and forests and cell tissues are born. Everywhere they die.

The Earth you sit upon rotates on its axis at 1000 miles per hour, and the planet will, by the time you go to sleep tonight, fly over 800,000 thousand miles along its orbital path. The sun, planets in tow, plows through space in its journey around the Milky Way at 52,000 miles per hour as the Milky Way itself careens toward the Andromeda galaxy at 68 miles per second. In about 4 billion years their glittering spiral arms will embrace one another in tangled webs of gravity.

Still your mind. You will think about not thinking, and your brain will light up like a starry night as thoughts sparkle and pulse through neural networks at the speed of light.

All you can do is make friends with the flux. Observe the churning cosmos and feel the blood coursing through your veins. Watch your breath, rising and falling, insisting on the continuation of life. Accept the hum of the freezer in the next room. Embrace the sound of footsteps and the skinny pajama-legs of a little girl who climbs into your lap and says, “Dad, are you meditating?”

Interuptions was originally published in the Small Things column of River Teeth Journal. 


Stranded in the Stars

My wife asked me if I had the keys, but only after the car door locked shut, so her question was asked in suspense and hope—waiting to see what damage had been done to our trip to the sand dunes. I did not have the keys. I had left them in the car so they would not get lost in the sand. Our spontaneous trip to the “dunes” just got more interesting.

For the past ten thousand years, wind has collected tiny grains of sand from the vast Snake River Plain in Idaho and deposited them on the land just ten miles north of my home. The dunes cover 175 square miles, and they happen to be some of the best in the country. People from all over the United States come with campers and expensive toys—dirt bikes, dune buggies, four-wheelers—to play on the enormous, golden mountains of glass powder.

To my young children, the place is like an inconceivably large sandbox. So after getting an ice cream in town, they begged for a quick trip out to the dunes. It was evening, and we had less than an hour before the sun would set. The children were already making their way up a mountain of sand near the road when the door locked shut, the keys dangling from the ignition. And with a kind of mutual agreement that comes only with experience, we dismissed the blame-placing discussion, deciding instead to play a while before worrying about our predicament. So we climbed up the hills of sand as well, in the way that children do, on all fours, like animals.

On top of the sand dunes, the kids ran and jumped from the crests of the great, stationary waves. They buried each other up to their necks, while occasional gusts of wind would cause the fine sand to snake and swirl along the surface, making them squint their eyes and breathe carefully through their noses.

In the sunset, the dunes seemed otherworldly, like we had just landed on a barren planet in a distant solar system. It was easy to forget we were only miles from farmland and neighborhoods. Perhaps it is the otherworldliness of the place that causes me to reflect, nearly every trip to the dunes, on a startling figure I once heard. It turns out that scientists have estimated the number of stars in the known universe. The number is incomprehensibly large, so to get a sense of it, they say, consider the grains of sand on all the beaches and deserts and dunes of the planet. Then multiply that by ten.

I think of the thousands of miles of coastline trimming each continent. Somewhere on Australia’s Golden Coast, a surfer tracks a few hundred grains of sand into a beachside café—a cluster of stars in some distant galaxy. Somewhere in Indonesia, a coconut lying on the beach has a thousand grains of sand stuck to its brown husk; the sand on ten such coconuts equals more stars than are visible to the naked eye on a clear night.

Then there are the great deserts of the world. The Sahara alone covers over three and a half million square miles. Three and a half million. Now multiply that by the number of sand particles in each square mile. We can keep going to the Arabian Peninsula where many have died just trying to travel from one end to the other. Then to the Atacama, the Gobi, the Mojave—all of them times ten.

But even these deserts and beaches are abstractions. It is the sand dunes here in my own backyard that fuel my imagination. If I had been told that all the stars in the universe equaled the grains of sand in the rolling hills upon which my children played, I would have found the comparison equally incomprehensible. A spoonful of this fine sand must hold tens of thousands of grains. And some of the dunes here are four hundred feet deep. My human brain refuses the math. At some point numbers become meaningless, just symbols separated with commas in sets of three.

It’s hard not to feel lost in the numbers when I perceive myself on our little speck of dust, orbiting just one grain of sand in the vast cosmic dunes. It’s hard not to feel stranded, marooned, locked out and lost with no way back. But it’s also hard not to enjoy the mystery, the infinite playfulness, the wonder of being a participant in the absurd extravagance of creation. When Moses is given a vision of the universe, the Lord declares, “Worlds without number have I created” (Moses 1:33). Perhaps perceiving Moses’s bewilderment, the Lord assures him, “But all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them” (Moses 1:35). Maybe this is all we need in order to enjoy the adventure—to know that someone, somewhere, is keeping an eye on the fallen sparrows, the hairs of our head, and the grains of sand. Someone knows where we are and how to bring us home.

We continued to play. My daughter wanted to be buried, so I filled the bucket and poured waterfalls of galaxies onto her legs. We jumped into black holes, dug into nebula, and made sand angels in red giants and white dwarfs. But the problem of getting home remained, lurking in the background. As twilight set in, I took charge and ventured off in search of a solution. There was a campground just a half mile away, where, perhaps, someone might have a hanger, or a tool of some sort that I could wedge between the window and door, wiggle it around, and—I had no idea how such things worked—hope for the best.

The walking was slow and hard, each foot losing its grip and giving in to the soft powder, but I finally stumbled into the campground and found the camp host. He had no phone, but offered me some “universal keys” that he said just might open our door, and I was certainly welcome to give them a try. He seemed eager and hopeful about the keys, so I accepted them politely to reward his generosity, knowing even as he spoke that they wouldn’t work.

But in the end, there was no need for magical keys or jimmy-rigged tools. Back at the car, my wife, having learned to not rely wholly on my efforts, had flagged down a passing car whose occupants did indeed have a phone. She made the call for help to someone who knew us, knew where we were, and knew how to rescue us. Within minutes, a kindly neighbor was headed our way with an extra set of keys, racing across the cosmos to bring us home.

Sheldon Lawrence is the author of the novel Hearts of the Fathers, a story about one man’s journey out of hell to discover a universe grounded in God’s love. 

Stranded in the Stars was originally published as a prize winning essay in BYU Studies Quarterly in 2015.