So I had a pretty good week. I have a couple of spiritual rants lined up for you all, so get ready!
Mom, regarding the etiquette class you're teaching to the youth this week, people definitely notice when missionaries show etiquette and manners. I've encountered a few occasions when people were unwilling to talk to me because they thought my companion and I were Jehovah's Witnesses (nothing against JW's), but upon discovering that we were polite and courteous Mormon boys, they really opened up to us and their attitudes changed. People recognize that Mormons are generally kind and well-mannered, and that's one of the things people often tell me they like most about the church. We are always being watched, so we need to make sure that we are always living our religion and acting as Christ would.
Elder Dean and I had a pretty good day on Tuesday. We taught district meeting; I taught about 'How to begin Teaching' and Elder Dean discussed the Christlike attributes of Hope and Faith. I think we did a pretty good job. I am definitely getting a lot better at preparing and delivering talks and lessons. So spiritual baby steps are being made! After District meeting we got a call from one of our members, Brother Castillo, to help him move some furniture from his mom's work to her house so we invited Vallejo 2nd ward missionaries to come along and help him with that. Brother Castillo took us out to get Phö for lunch, which is essentially Vietnamese Top Ramen. I love Phö so much. I can wait to come back and tour with my family and make them try it because it's so freaking good. They might not like the cow uterus in it (although Gianni might think it's tasty), which adds texture more than anything else, but there are plenty of dishes that don't have that, so no worries. We taught Patricia and Adrian about the first four commandments normally taught after the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which are: obedience, pray often, study the scriptures, keep the sabbath day holy. There are only a few more lessons that he needs to be taught before he is ready to meet his baptismal date next week.
I feel like I have really been getting to know Elder Dean lately. I know my last few emails about him have been a touch on the critical side, but he really is a good guy even though he may have a sarcastic and hard outer shell. He's been telling me lately a bit of his concerns in life, and how he doesn't think he really measures up. He has some struggles with chronic depression and a terrible self image, so I am able to relate to his situation on that level. I know this is one reason that the Lord placed him and I together. The several years that I dwelt with depression and self-loathing were definitely unpleasant, but because of that time of trial I can sympathize with those dealing with the very same problem that I encountered.
Elder Dean and I went on exchanges with the Benicia elders this week. Elder Dean paired up with Elder Walpole in our area and I was with Elder Rasmussen in Benicia. Elder Rasmussen started his mission in San Rafael at the same time of my second transfer in Novato, so I have known him his whole mission. He puts up this sarcastic and cynical persona so people who don't know him might think he's standoffish and cold, but really once you get to know him he's a really good guy. He's actually changed and opened up a lot since last year when he first arrived in the mission.
My day with Elder Rasmussen was kind of hard to describe in only a few words. We exchanged words with a couple of individuals who were unwilling to learn, but just wanted to bash with us. Actually, I think those few words summarized our day pretty well! We met with one women named Nancy that the Benicia elders visit weekly. Nancy is an older women who doesn't have any intention of joining the church, but wants the missionaries to stop by for company and to teach her about the Book of Mormon, not to know if it's true, simply for the purpose of "intellectual curiosity". So, that right there brings up the question of why the missionaries even stop by her house anymore. When we sat down with her, she went into how she has all these problems with the church, like: tithing, Joseph Smith, women's position in the church, and many other little concerns. I tried my best to resolve Nancy's concerns but she is one of those people who don't really care what you say in response to their bashing because she already has decided that no matter what you say she's right and you're wrong. It's immensely difficult to hold a conversation with people like this. She wasn't at all hostile in her opinion, but she was incredibly stubborn and closed off to other suggestions or ideas. The best you can do at this point is bear testimony, be polite and courteous, and walk away; which is inevitably what we did. Elder Rasmussen still intends to keep visiting her, but from what I saw, it won't do any good at this point; some people need additional time for the Lord to work with them before they are ready to listen to the Spirit. That was just one of the lessons we had that day that were like that.
The other lesson we had that day was with an inactive member named Michael. Now Michael is an incredibly complicated man which, unlike the day as a whole, I cannot describe in just a few words. His family is active but apparently he got so overwhelmed with anti-Mormon material and petty concerns that he was just buried in it and now has zero interest in the church or religion as a whole. He is perfectly content worshipping a God that he is semi-sure is real in a way he finds suitable. He is a really great guy and, oddly enough, loves the missionaries. In fact, he is the unofficial Benicia dinner calendar coordinator, and signs up every Saturday to feed the Benicia Elders and has told them to inform him about any day they don't have dinner so he can feed them. He is a super great guy; this is why I was surprised when his son and wife left for scouts and he proceeded to share every anti-Mormon concern in the book. I seriously can't remember a time on my mission when my faith was attacked so viciously. Although he assured me that he wasn't trying to change my beliefs, every time I tried to bear a simple testimony, he would counter what I said with more pointless bashing. He brought up concerns of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, tithing, the temple being exclusive to non members, polygamy, how he thinks people are unable to change, the repentance process, how he sees the leaders of the Church as corrupted, and so much more. He talked about concerns that I hadn't heard before, and he did so in a rather offensive and hostile fashion; heck, he even threatened my life at one point during the discussion, and he said stuff that I wouldn't even say to my worst enemy. All I could do was bear testimony in what I know to be true: about Joseph Smith being a prophet, the Book of Mormon being an inspired book, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and so on. But at this point in his life, his heart is too bitter toward the church and life in general for my testimony to reach him right now. I pray that it will plant a seed that can one day grow into spiritual understanding.
Now the reason I am bringing this lengthy experience of mine to light is not to condemn Michael (believe it or not, I like Michael a lot) or people with concerns or questions about the church. Asking questions is a good thing; it's asking a question that led Joseph Smith to pray and ultimately restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. The point I am trying to make is that it is such a shame to allow these concerns to fester and lead to bitterness, indifference or even a self-inflicted apostasy. It doesn't make any sense why someone would let the opinion of man, whether it be through anti-Mormon literature or someone asking a question they don't know the answer to, sneak into their hearts and dismiss a testimony that they were given by the Holy Ghost, who is the very third member of the Godhead. You simply cannot let a temporal opinion or concern dictate your spiritual understanding of the heavenly. Just as you wouldn't go to a chemistry teacher to help you get an A in art class, you can't go to a man to gain a testimony of God. Now that's not to say we can't teach each other about the scriptures or about God. That's what missionaries, attending church and inspired leaders are for - to help people grow in understanding about our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. But one must take this knowledge they have received to God in prayer and ask for a confirmation of truth through the Holy Ghost. Likewise, we as missionaries are called to assist people to come closer to God by helping them to find out for themselves through prayer and study (Moroni 10:3-5); not by just taking our word for it! I exhort everyone to "doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith", and to not let your own lack of understanding overshadow a time when you felt the spirit testify the truthfulness of the gospel to you.
Sorry for the super long, seemingly never ending, point I was trying to make. I try to keep my crazy missionary rants to a minimum but sometimes they have to be made known.
Nothing really significant happened on Thursday. The most notable thing that happened was we had service with most of the zone for Vallejo 2nd ward's investigators helping them clean their yard that became a dumping ground for homeless people. Other than that, we continued clearing uninterested names out of our area book. On Friday we taught a young man in our ward named Mario. He has been out of town since I have been in Vallejo and he just recently got home so this was the first I was able to meet with him. We are going to start meeting with him a couple of times a week now. We also were able to teach Brother Wells who is a less active member in our ward. His family is trying to get more active in the church and his young daughter, who just turned 8, wants to be baptized so this will be a good incentive for them to start coming to church more.
Elder Dean and I had a pretty decent day on Saturday. We helped one of our members clean up their parent's house and yard a little. We had most of the zone there so the work went by quickly. After we finished helping our member, their neighbor came outside and asked if we could help her with a dead opossum that got caught in her backyard fence two weeks ago. When we went over to her house we discovered the opossum must've gotten it's head caught in between the fence posts and hung itself. So we had to lift it off the fence and bag it for animal control to come and pick it up. I just wanted to share with you another interesting service opportunity I was able to participate in.
We met with Patricia and Adrian and scheduled Adrian's baptism for Saturday at 2 pm. Elder Dean is going to baptize him and I will be giving a talk on the Holy Ghost during the baptismal service. There are a couple of points we still need to teach Adrian before then, but I am glad we finally scheduled it. So be expecting baptismal pictures next week!
I want to address something that had received a lot of attention this last week. The church recently announced a clarification in policy about same-sex marriage and how this situation is to be handled in the church. I know this announcement has sparked ill feelings among some members of the church. When our faith is tested like this we simply need to decide whether we sustain our prophet and apostles and if we believe they receive inspiration from the Lord. If we do then we can trust the decisions they make are out of love for us and love for Jesus Christ. I sustain Thomas S. Monson as the Lord's anointed prophet to lead and direct us along the straight and narrow path; which is where we will walk if we heed his teachings. I know that the leaders of this church aim for nothing less than to maintain the Lord's law in a world of ever-lowering morals.
Love, Elder Hayden Ellis