Twenty Years.

Twenty years ago today I went into the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah and started my LDS mission. It began 18 months of illness and injury, discovery and doubt, fear and faith.

For the next 18 months, every week I’ll share a journal entry or experience from my time as a missionary. I’ve been thinking about my mission quite a bit this week, as meteorologists are predicting a brutal ice storm to hit the Omaha metro. (Incidentally, I can trace the beginnings of my back troubles to this storm.)

But this week, instead of sharing something from that first day in the MTC, I want to share an effect of my mission.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with the most basic component of my faith: trusting God knows I’m alive and cares about me. While in the MTC, I remember going to many meetings in which I was told the most important person to convert as a missionary was myself.

Twenty years later, I know that is truth.

This morning I woke with a heavy heart and a helping of survivor’s guilt. The reason is not important; what’s important is the events of the morning. I knew I needed to be around people, that I needed to reach out to anyone, so I could feel reassured that it’s okay I’m alive.

What followed might seem like a series of coincidences to most people, but for me, was clear evidence that God knows I’m alive and I’m here for a reason. It’s still a bit too raw and personal to give specifics, but here is what God told me today:

He told me I have a big heart and a capacity to love, and that I shouldn’t feel bad about that capacity. He told me to love those around me and not hold back, that part of why I’m still alive is because of how easy it is for me to love people. He told me that the little things I ask for in times of need are just as important as the big things other people ask for, because they are important to me, and I am important to Him.

My former bishop has been trying to tell me for the past 6 years that God loves me–unmarried, childless, liberal, cantankerous me. And I’ve had glimpses of that in the past, for sure. But today was a day when I felt it to my core.

Which brings me back to my mission. Over the next 18 months as I share pieces of that life, one piece should be clear: the person I am today, for good or ill, would not be the same without my time in Montreal and Ottawa. My ability to talk to God would not be the same, my knowledge of scripture would not be the same, my faith would not be the same.

And as for God knowing me? It’s relevant to share this tidbit, from when I received my mission call in November 1996: missionaries often dream of where they want to go, hoping when they open their letters it will match their dream. For some it is Asia, for others it is Europe, for some (the more humble than me) they are just happy to serve. For me, I wanted to go to one place.

Montreal.

Hello, My name is Sister Rowse.

A couple months ago, my friend Amy emailed me: “Hey. Want to go see Book of Mormon with me? Someone is looking to sell their tickets. Let me know.”

I mulled over this invite for a spell. She wasn’t the first to invite me to see Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s raunchy musical, but of all the people in the world, she is one of two people I would even consider seeing that show with, for one reason that I’ll get to later. (The other person is my friend Angie.) I’ve had friends both Mormon and not Mormon see the show and tell me how much they enjoyed it, and by all accounts, they reassured me it wasn’t really a musical about Mormonism per se, but it carried a larger, some even said sentimental, message about religion in general.

Since Amy was game, I figured I was game, so I emailed her back, “Sure! Let me know how much the tickets are and I’ll bring you money.”

As various other invites to events on the night of the show sprung up in the past month, I would politely decline, explaining I had tickets to see “Book of of Mormon.” And without exception the reaction went something along these lines:

Person cocks head to one side.
Person’s eyes widen.
Person sucks in a deep breath.
Person says, “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” I would say. “After all, I’m pretty progressive anyway, and I’ve seen South Park and I appreciate their satire, so I’m sure the larger message will be worth it.”

The show was Tuesday night, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it for five days. So here goes.

First, what I liked: the choreography was fantastic. The sets were great–the first backdrop that falls is of Salt Lake City, and it included landmarks like Harman’s KFC and the bowling alley on State Street and a sign for Zion’s Bank. I lived in Salt Lake for two years and I loved finding little Easter eggs in that backdrop. Nice job, research team.

The very first song, which takes place in the MTC and shows a variety of enthusiastic missionaries practicing door approaches (though all men and zero women) was spot on. The missionaries receiving their assignments after their training? Well, that’s not how it works in real life, but for the sake of story, I understand that concessions have to be made.

The missionaries’ zeal was quite true to form–I served a mission in Montreal and saw shades of all the young men I served with in the caricatures on the stage.

I sat through the entire production waiting for that South Park satire punch, for the larger message to land like an anvil, reminding me that Parker and Stone were just using Mormonism as a vehicle to make a statement about religion in general…and it never happened. Which meant I sat through a musical that lampooned elements of my faith and culture for the sake of making people laugh (and yes, I did laugh).

Now to why I would only see this show with Amy: I knew she was a safe sounding board for any reaction I might have, positive or negative, and she would a) not judge me and b) understand where I was coming from in terms of grappling with my faith. We talked the entire drive home, and for another 20 minutes in her driveway, both of us trying to suss out what we liked and what we didn’t like about the show.

For people of faith–and I include all people of faith here, not just Mormons–“Book of Mormon” isn’t a simple show a la “The Music Man” or “Guys and Dolls.” It questions the efficacy of sending missionaries, again of any faith, to teach in all corners of the globe for a short-term stint, eventually leaving the community after forging ties with people. It questions the nature of prayer and whose prayers are more important; however this was something I actually connected with in the show.

But here is where it lost me: in its mockery of the actual Book of Mormon, there were multiple points where Parker and Stone could have acknowledged the idea of faith. But they don’t. And by not including the word faith–even if they went on to mock it–the show fell flat for me. As Amy said in our debrief, they are clearly humanists–by the end of the show, there is the suggestion that humans are helping each other, but not because God told them to.

What surprised me most about “Book of Mormon” was that I went in really expecting to like it, and I wasn’t bowled over. After all, I’m the resident lefty feminist of my ward who often wants to run screaming from the church building on Sunday. I was surprised by how defensive I felt at some pretty big inaccuracies, resisting the urge to lean over to Amy and say “Actually…” and correct the misinformation.

But I was even more surprised by realizing how important my faith is to me. I still feel fringe-y in comparison to the church as a whole, but if they can handle a little fringe, then I’m in it for the long haul.