I've been home from, or rather, finished with my mission long enough to see how it has shaped many aspects of the life I have now. Among several blessings, my mission helped me break down culture vs. doctrine. It prepared me to come to terms with my same-sex attraction, and it led me to my calling in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
First thing's first...I didn't want to serve a proselyting mission.
Yep. The quiet, very active, duty-oriented, highly spiritual young man...the one everyone told "You'll be such a great missionary" didn't want to go on a full-time, proselyting mission. I knew I wanted to serve in some capacity. I wanted to dedicate that part of my life to something special. I even had some spiritual feelings about possibly doing something different for my service.
However, there was no shortage of messages that going on a mission, a "real," full-time mission, was the right thing to do, and that anything else was a sign of selfishness or weakness. I knew I had issues with depression and anxiety. Asperger's syndrome had been mentioned by a few psychiatrists and therapists. I secretly wanted a doctor to just tell me that I couldn't go, but that never happened. I couldn't face the prospect of actually choosing not to serve. That would be an outrage! What would people think? How would people treat me? Of course, NOW I understand the value of not worrying about what other people think, but we're talking about a nervous wreck of an 18-year old.
There was an element of faith involved. I figured if I made the first steps, God would make me equal to the task. Besides, the other young men, who I then thought of as "immature macho men," did it. If they could do it, I sure could. When all was said and done, I received a mission call to Des Moines, Iowa the day after my 19th birthday. I was scheduled to leave just over one month later. I love the temple, yet my first time through the endowment session should have been a red flag. I must mention, though, that I felt great peace in the Celestial Room. So I knew there was something good about what I had just gone through.
So anyway, I went to the MTC in February, hoping Iowa would be better, and in March I went to Iowa. I returned home in May. I did have some spiritual experiences. I did love many of the people I met. I had an amazing and very patient companion. Yet in the mornings I cried more often than not. I left a district meeting in tears, and of course my companion had to follow me (sometimes my breakdowns included bloody noses...something to do with my sinuses). I went through bouts of wanting to injure myself. After several decisions to stay, since I thought that would always be the right choice, I was finally advised to go home and get some help, with the assumption that I'd return, and I agreed. I ultimately made the choice to go home. If had chosen to stay one more time, I could have been in a dangerous situation with myself. I felt soon afterword, as did my stake president, that I probably wouldn't go back. It wasn't anything like I couldn't or shouldn't go back, but just that it wasn't in the cards.
Upon returning home, I dealt with a new set of challenges. To put it simply, it can be awkward being a 19 or 20 year old Mormon boy in Utah. As I look back, I realized that a TON of crap came from my own shame and negative self-talk. The vast majority of reactions were very kind and understanding. Most people treated me like any other returned missionary. There were a few who I thought were extra sensitive around me. Some assumed I would leave the Church and were surprised when I kept going. I know one person who seemed very nervous in asking me to say the prayer in Elders' Quorum. All the talks about missionary work were painful for a few years.
Now, this was over ten years ago. Any shadows have pretty much disappeared. I no longer feel shame about my experience. I sometimes look back and chuckle at how obvious it was that it wasn't for me. I now know that it was the will of the Lord. I had to go through that experience as part of my test of discipleship. I've since been the recipient of many blessings. I had the opportunity to serve for a year as a missionary in the Family and Church History mission in Salt Lake City. I now refer to that as my "real" mission. I loved the senior missionaries with whom I served, and I actually got along better with them than with people my own age! I understand now that the young missionary crew has grown exponentially, and I love seeing them every week at Music and the Spoken Word.
On that note, while I was on this mission, I sang with the Elijah Choir, which was the mission choir. During my time there, we were directed by two professional musicians. Imagine...a choir where the average age is greater than 60 singing Mack Wilberg's Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, along with several other moving songs composed and arranged by these missionaries. I thought it sounded pretty good, and this is what started my love for singing sacred music in good choirs. It led me to pursue a minor in music and be involved in the choral program at Weber State University. During my last year of college, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I often wonder if I'd be in the Choir if I hadn't come home from Iowa.
More importantly, this experience has enabled me to relate to others who don't fit the so-called "Mormon mold." (In reality...there is no mold). I would never encourage someone NOT to go on a mission, yet it's refreshing for me to see people who don't serve in that capacity for whatever reason but still remain faithful in the gospel. I've seen these people go through the temple and get sealed. It warms my heart. I have an increased sensitivity for those who are single, divorced or those who do not have children of their own.
And of course, this all prepared me to accept and navigate being gay. It prepared me for a life "on the edge" of Mormon culture. Just like I did something a little different for my mission, I now have the opportunity to find love and intimacy in different, creative ways. This isn't anything outside of the simple truths of the gospel. Missions are important. Marriage is important. But these experiences have helped me understand that there are even more important aspects of the gospel, such as a personal relationship with the Savior and subsequently a life of service and love to God's children.