It was to be the longest lunar eclipse in nearly 600 years. Several hours ahead of time, I had my digital camera attached to my little four-inch refractor telescope and was all set. Prior to the event I began taking pictures of the moon to check my camera setting. All was in readiness. And then came every astronomer’s nightmare, cloudy skies. Literally a few minutes before the event, clouds began rolling in. All my preparation was now in vain. In a few minutes the moon was no longer visible. Alas, this is a rather common occurrence for an astronomer, but it doesn’t stop us from symbolically, or even literally, shaking our fists at the heavens with, “The longest event of its kind in 600 years and that’s the best you could do?”
Receiving a missionary call
As a young man I missed the opportunity to be a full-time missionary, so when the opportunity arose for my wife and I to serve we began to make the necessary preparations: dental work; lots of shots; and, of course, the multiple page application. How is your overall health? Tell us about your past service. Your heritage. Your hobbies. Be sure to provide some suggestions regarding where you would like to serve. Be sure you check all the boxes. This we did and then we waited.
When the call arrived, with a few close friends on hand, we eagerly opened the letter that thousands of others have received.
You are hereby called to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the . . .
I was reading the letter with my wife by my side but when I got to this part, although my eyes saw the words, I couldn’t read them. I just sat there, staring at the letter. Finally, my wife took the letter from my hand and then she also sat there. We had been called to the Poland Warsaw Mission.
My wife’s ancestry is from China, mine from England and the US. My wife speaks Cantonese and a little French, myself only English. We had discussed what we would do if we were called to a country other than the three we had listed, England, France, and [Eastern] Canada, but nothing, nothing had prepared us for this. Nothing, that is, except our faith and our desire to serve. As I remember it, we had 24 hours to accept or reject the call. The clouds had rolled in, and we were living in the shadows.
All of us have had opportunities of experiencing something from both sides. Some may have been adventures like driving in England [not!]. Other experiences may have been stressful, or fun. Balancing chemical and algebra equations in your high school days or balancing both sides of a teeter-totter in your playground days come to mind. If you have had the opportunity to teach in adult life you may find yourself wishing you could step back in time to say a few kind words to “Mr. Brown” your grade ten math teacher. Some of you may remember when you discovered that your parents were not perfect after all or when your BFF [Best Friends Forever] became public enemy number one.
Child, parent, student, teacher, friend, enemy, old, young; it would take Google less than a second to provide numerous facts and opinions about when we are capable of understanding both sides.
My dear wife and I had prepared for our mission mainly thinking of what we were bringing to the table. Our likes, our heritage, our skills, our language, our preferences. Suddenly all that was cast aside. We were now faced with looking at this mission experience not from our side but from the Lord’s side. A call to Poland was not at all what we wanted, but clearly, there was another side to consider. So, what to do. We chose to go.
We arrived at the MTC in Provo, Utah without fanfare and totally unexpected. It was basically, “What are you doing here? Senior couples only come on Tuesdays.” A check of our paperwork confirmed we had arrived on the correct day which was, in fact, the wrong day. And so, our mission began. In Frankfurt we were almost not allowed to continue to Poland. Where were our residency cards? Yes, we explained, we knew about residency cards, but we were told we could get them when we arrived. And so on, and so on, for 18 months.
It is not always easy and certainly not obvious to see and understand how the events of our lives are woven together; keeping it simple, whether they are simply good or bad. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “We live in the shadows” (Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography , 308). For my wife and I this ended up meaning we began our mission in Poland and finished it in the Winnipeg Canada Mission. In Poland we served in a city of over 600,000, and in Canada, a small, border town of less than 8000. In both cases the branches of the Church were small. In Fort Frances there were eight regularly attending. In Poland we actually served in two branches about an hour’s drive apart. Each church service was three hours long, in Polish, some with an occasional whispered translation, some not at all.
So, you see, as my wife and I completed our mission living in a small border community we were looking at our anticipated missionary experience from both sides. It was not as we had expected and as a result we were pondering and hoping and praying and waiting a good deal more than we had imagined. Yes, we were working hard as well, but’s that’s the side we knew about.
I am not one to believe that God is leading us around by the hand. That every left turn we make, every road we travel down is exactly the right one. We are here to gain experience, and experience can be a brutal teacher. But ‘experience’ is not heartless. Just as I believe God does not see us as puppets on a string, I also do not believe He is a mere observer watching us walk across thin ice and chuckling as it cracks.
As difficult as it may be, I do not believe it is up to us to judge too quickly whether a dark, cloudy night is good or bad. Such decisions may take a lifetime, and some do. All of us can look back and reflect on cold, dark nights when we were trying to observe the moon and saw only clouds. Perhaps we shook our fist at the heavens. It is true there are times when we would have preferred a different lesson, but then we would not have had the experience. Perhaps a loving Father in Heaven wants us to see both sides.