For the Old Testament prophet Jonah, it took a savage storm at sea and three days in the dark belly of a fish before he was willing to say yes to the Lord’s call for missionary service.
Our Father in Heaven let me spend a few days in the belly of a fish called Despair before I was persuaded to come to him in prayer and act according to his direction. The rewards of that one act of submission are at this point immeasurable.
As a high school student a number of years ago, I was a relatively faithful Latter-day Saint, but after I left home to attend a distant university, my activity in the Church and my commitment to the gospel began to waver. I continued to attend Sunday meetings, but before long I had become critical of the Church and other members.
The Christmas holiday during my sophomore year was spent at home in Alabama, and it was then that I finally came to the conclusion there was no place for me in the Church. It didn’t seem to offer me anything. But as I prepared to return to school, I became depressed for no apparent reason. Very quickly, I was absolutely miserable. I expected, however, that those feelings would go away once I got busy in school again.
When the new semester started, that blackness inside of me did not even begin to dissipate. It seemed only to grow, and not even the desperate effort of seeking counseling could shake it off. Two or three days passed, and by then even listening to my instructors in class was impossible because my stomach felt like it was tied in tight knots. I felt sick and uncomfortable. On the fourth evening of the semester, I sat alone in my rented room, crying, an arrogant young man who feared he was losing his sanity.
After a good, long cry that night, the thought came to me that if there really was a God in heaven who was concerned enough to hear prayers, maybe he would help me. It was a moment of crisis for me, and so I prayed.
After what seemed like hours of talking to the wall, I was moved to look for a copy of my patriarchal blessing, tucked away in a dresser drawer. The blessing had been given to me at age sixteen, and I knew it said something about going on a mission. Didn’t everybody’s? Wasn’t that something a patriarch said habitually? But that evening I read the blessing, and for the first time realized what it told me, personally, about a mission. It indicated that I must live so that when I reached the age of nineteen I would be ready to go on a mission.
I had turned nineteen two months before, and as yet the thought of missionary service had hardly seemed worth considering. With shocking, abrupt clarity there was before me not only an explanation for my recent misery—I had been walking against the wind of God’s will but also a kind of road map, valid for the rest of my life. The Lord had plans for me which involved my going on a mission. It had been necessary to humble me so that the clouded eyes of my understanding could be opened. I had been too proud of my intellect to follow the instructions in my blessing on my own.
I quit school, returned home to Alabama to get my life in order, and was able to leave on a mission several months later. After two months of study in the Language Training Mission at Ricks College, I flew to Denmark in July 1973 and was assigned to the Copenhagen suburb of Skovlunde.
During my four months there, I attended Sunday meetings in the Copenhagen North Branch, now the Copenhagen Third Ward. One Sunday in sacrament meeting, I sat on the back row with my companion looking at the gathered Church members, trying to remember the names of the few I had met. Unexpectedly, an intense feeling of love for those people, almost a sensation of recognition, welled up within me. Those Saints were suddenly like old friends, and it was right and good to be with them again. From that day a feeling of kinship with the Danish Latter-day Saints stayed with me. That love spilled over onto the Danish people as a whole. I wanted to share with them the sense of direction in life which the gospel alone can provide.
From Skovlunde I was transferred in November to the mainland city of Vejle. Here, some physical problems—poor sense of balance, weakness in the legs, and so on—that I had experienced for some time, worsened and began to limit me seriously. Before the winter of 1973–74, these problems had not been significant enough to cause me worry. In early January I went to see a doctor. He put me in the hospital for tests, and the diagnosis was multiple sclerosis.
My mission president and the Church Missionary Committee thought it best, reasonably enough, that I be released to return to the United States, but my assessment of the situation that I could manage was respected. I was able to spend another nine months in the mission field, in Elsinore and at the mission office in Copenhagen, but my symptoms got worse. At the end of October 1974 it became necessary to issue me an early release.
Although there simply was no other choice, that early release was a bitter disappointment. It had been so clear a year and a half earlier that I was wanted on a mission, and the Lord had blessed me with an impelling love for the people and the land. Why did it have to end like this?
In Elsinore, I had begun serious consideration of my future, conferring in prayer with my Father in Heaven. From the beginning of my mission, the thought had been at the back of my mind that when I went home, I would attend Auburn University or the University of Alabama. When I prayed, however, I felt a prompting to apply to Brigham Young University. As a consequence of the transfer of Scandinavian language instruction from Ricks College to the BYU campus, it was possible for me to get a job teaching Danish to newly called missionaries, and to hold it for six months before the effects of my multiple sclerosis caught up with me again. Being able to fill out my two years of missionary service that way was a richly rewarding experience.
In retrospect, the hand of God in my life at that time is startlingly clear. Had I not been humbled and gone on a mission by May of 1973, the symptoms of MS would have appeared while I was still in the United States. I would have sought medical attention, the disease would have been detected, and I would probably never have been able to go on a mission—certainly not overseas to Denmark. That two years of testimony-reinforcing involvement with missionary service made me want more strongly than ever before to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ, and without that desire life would have little meaning.
My MS has taken its toll in that my physical limitations at this point are severe and numerous. But I have gained an eternal perspective through study of the gospel, and with that perspective none of my “trials” seem worth worrying very much about. A strong conviction of eternal life is a durable cushion against all eventualities.