Monday, March 16, 2009

On Which She Ruminated About Things Green and Lucky

When I had been on my mission all of three months, a third of the sisters in our mission left and 8-10 new sisters were scheduled to come in the space of two months. When everything shook down, it turned out that several of us, basically green ourselves, were going to be training new missionaries. I assumed that they would at least keep me in an area I was familiar with, but no.

I was given a Japanese companion fresh from the MTC in New Zealand who spoke little more than conversational American English. She brought one heavy suitcase and wore a pair of heels. Her name tag had somehow gotten buried in the suitcase, and I didn't understand what she had told me her name was, so we took a ninety-minute train ride involving two transfers across Sydney with all of our luggage and a tense car ride with a preachy zone leader to our new flat before I even knew her name. (That journey was very interesting all around--I'm thoroughly convinced that we met at least one of the three Nephites that day, but I will save that story for the Urban Legends blogspot I'll get around to starting one day.)

Our first day, I woke up to the sound of the rain pounding the basement apartment where we lived. The damp was pervasive even in the house. Five months later I would realize just how pervasive--the clothes I had stored under my bed had mold growing in them. We pulled out the map. The sisters before us had marked a few streets where they had tracted, but there was little to go on, and there was no scale on the map so distances were hard to judge. I had almost no clue what I was doing, having never seen a convert baptism; I figured that my convert-comp probably knew more about missionary work than I did, but she still looked at me with such trust that it just about paralyzed me. I only knew how to be obedient, so I tried to listen to the Spirit but then practically threw a dart to choose a street.

At 10:30 that morning, despite the terrible realization that I'd left my umbrella in my previous area and that my companion didn't have a jacket of any kind, we set out, on foot, to a street that was probably three miles away and across a freeway. It took several weeks, but as we became familiar with the area, we learned that we had probably picked the steepest street in our area to tract that rainy morning. The paver (and even cobblestoned!) driveways were uneven, slick, and rivaled the black diamond ski-slopes I had always carefully avoided during civilian life.

We kept going up and up and up the street. Sister Japan could do little more than introduce the two of us and my last name had two L's in it. I imagine we were quite a sight. Which is to say that we were probably a bit ridiculous. Halfway up the street I looked at my comp. She was BEAMING. I cannot think of another time in my life when I have seen such joy radiate from the face of an adult.

Incredulous, soaked and feeling like a disastrous failure, I said, "Sister Japan, are you happy?"

She smiled even broader and said, "Oh! I am so happy! Today is the first day of my mission!"

I would later learn that she was the only member in her family. That her parents had insisted she finish university before serving. That she had nearly every penny of her mission paid for before even submitting her papers. That she was nearly 25 years old.

In the three months we served together I received a crash course in faith, optimism, endurance, patience and focus. It turned out that my greenie was the real trainer. It was probably the most righteous three months of my whole life.

And we were blessed above all measure.

I spent nearly half of my field mission service training new missionaries. This allowed time for a lot of extra study. I enjoyed this extra study so much that I convinced a couple of more willing comps to get up early with me even when we weren't training. Missionaries are fond of bearing companion-a-monies and will often get emotional about what they learned from one another. "Sister So-And-So taught me about charity." "Sister Thingy taught me about prayer." You get the drill. When it came to me it was always, "Sister STM taught me how to work." I was never quite sure how I felt about that. My new comps would invariably tell me after about three weeks how terrified they had been to serve with me for the task-master reputation I had unwittingly earned. They would say, "I'm so surprised that that you are nice, too!" I was never quite sure how I felt about that, either.

My point is, that for all the things I did wrong on my mission, my level of diligence was not something I ever regretted. My last companion was a fantastic sister I had often served near on my mission, but never with. I got a surprise transfer with her for the last 3 1/2 weeks of my mission. The weather was beastly hot that December, but we got a reprieve to be up and out of the city and serve in the beautiful Blue Mountains. With both of us so close to going home, we decided to get serious about the exercise we had always intended to do. We woke up each morning and ran down the hill toward the national park, scaring the sulfur-crested cockatoos and galas from the same trees each morning, watching the sun rise over the Three Sisters. It was almost like vacation; oh, except for the 10+ hour tracting days because we had no one to teach.

We traveled into the city for my last zone conference and our cheeky district leader thought he'd make an example of us. He called on various elders and sisters to teach principles from the discussion--without any aid except the scriptures. There had been a big push in the mission for us to memorize the discussions. (This was before the "bar was raised" and missionaries were trusted to create their own discussions.) So Elder Teenager asked my companion and I to teach the sixth principle of the sixth discussion. To many of you this will not mean much, but to us it was a fairly big deal. I'd only TAUGHT the sixth discussion a handful of times during my whole mission.

After we finished teaching, and feeling extreme gratitude for having just reviewed that lesson the day before, a sister who came to the mission the same day I did said the following to me, "You are really lucky that you have the discussions memorized."

Lucky? Lucky!

I knew her reputation as well as I knew any sister's in our mission--there were only 25 of us: bad news travels fast. Was her reputation deserved? I have no idea. But I wanted to shout at her and tell her that "luck" had nothing to do with it.

Was I blessed? You bet--blessed with time to study because of all the training I was asked to do, blessed with a first rate education from age 4 to 21, blessed with parents who taught me to work hard, blessed with a mind that does what I want it to, blessed with a love to read and learn . . .

But lucky?

Was it luck that set the alarm at 5:30 all those mornings? Was it luck that we followed the schedule and rules in the handbook? Was it luck that kept me awake over the scriptures each morning? Was it luck that copied passages of scripture to be memorized during the horrifically long and often boring tracting hours?

I don't think so.

We use the word "luck" a lot. You are so lucky. Good luck. Today is your lucky day. That was a lucky break. Third time lucky. Thank your lucky stars. I'm just having a string of bad luck.

But what does it mean? Is there really any such thing as luck? A very scientific Internet search yielded the following etymology for the word "luck."

It probably means a chance occurrence or a random blessing in Latin, Hebrew or Greek.

There is much room for complaint here: the word "probably" and then the invoking of three different languages is frustrating to any real study, but it is illustrative. First of all, it tells us that the idea of luck is probably very old, dating back to a time when ignorant people either could not understand the reasons behind natural occurrences or confused superstition with faith. And I like the two definitions. "chance occurrence or random blessing."

The first is much like coincidence, but the second is something much more. It implies that the giver of blessings, God himself, is arbitrary. But the Doctrine and Covenants (130:20-21) teaches that all blessings are predicated on obedience to some law. The word "all" leaves no room for "random."

Sister Japan would not, for two minutes, have given herself an ounce of credit for being on a mission. She was so faithful and humble that she would have turned any such praise right back to the Giver of all good gifts. But I like to think that she had worked hard enough that her own eyebrows would have furrowed if someone had called her merely "lucky." Because it gets so shmoopy, I try not to do (at least very often) a Seriously So Blessed post, but really, what else can so much joy in my life be called?

So, you've got to ask yourself one question, "Do I feel lucky?"


Melanie said...

You're exactly right. Sometimes I think we feel that other people are lucky because they get things and experiences that we would like to have. But in truth, Heavenly Father gives each of us the specific circumstances and experiences we need to learn and progress.

I don't think "greenies" or "newbies" ever realize how much we, as older missionaries, relied on them for their faith and enthusiasm.

I was always the companion who taught others to be organized. I never knew whether or not to take that as a compliment. Organization seems like lesser quality compared to charity and kindness!

chris w said...

Nice. Very nice.
I'm still picturing Sister Japan saying your last name. HAAA!!!

FoxyJ said...

Beautiful writing. Now I'm really feeling mission homesick :)

A few years ago I made a conscious decision to start acknowledging when things were either blessings or the result of hard work (or both), and not just 'luck'. My son's birth had a lot of wonderful coincidences and I felt very specific promptings that they were blessings and not just random 'luck'.

Nerd Goddess said...

Interesting post. I'd never thought much about "luck."

And thanks for the wonderful story about "Sister Japan." After my brother served there, and two of my best friends are there right now, I have a great respect for the saints in that area. :)

CaLM RAPIDS said...

I think luck is being proud that you found a $50 bill on the ground.
Being blessed is being out of work, sick kids, broken car, finding a $50 bill on the ground, and giving the thanks to God.

I love your missionary stories.

Sherry said...

My dad wins a lot of contests. He must be lucky. Of course, he also ENTERS a lot of contests, so I guess he makes his own luck.

Either way, I think "luck" has much more to do with hard work and a merciful Father in Heaven than random occurrences.

Cathy said...

Ditto for most of these very thoughtful observations except where it comes to things like cards and games of chance. I am gifted (or cursed) with some rather unbelievable luck. Things really do happen more frequently in my favor than is statistically likely. This isn't a good thing necessarily--mine seems to be inherited, and it made my biological father a compulsive gambler because he relied upon it too heavily. Having experienced this with cards, I can believe that others could have unusual luck in more useful areas in their respective lives.

There's a character named Llonio in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles. He thinks of himself as lucky; it's made pretty clear that he's innovative, optimistic, and downright doggedly determined.

So, maybe two kinds of luck? One that happens to you and that could be a blessing or a curse. and one that you make through your utilization of God's gifts and that ultimately is still His gift to you

peaceful reader said...

I feel we are blessed.
I really enjoy your writing.
Thank you.

Good blessing to you!

kanaboke said...

Aaaaaw, Sister Japan!! Makes me homesick for my mission! Loved the stories you share and your example of unwavering obedience mixed with hard work!

emandtrev said...

STM, I really needed to read this today! Thanks! And somehow...I think your "blessed" posts tend to be nowhere near those that SSB (which I love to read too) skewers on a regular basis. :)

Suburban Hippie said...

Joe went through this weird phase - he kept talking about how unlucky he was. I told him there is no such thing as luck; there are good things and bad things and it's up to us what we do with them. I gave the speech a couple of times but I think it sunk in finally.

Slyck and Slim said...

Nice post. I love to read what you think. I'm not a believer of coincidence or luck, I guess. All things have a purpose -- good and bad and we learn from our experiences. Good thoughts to read today.