Happiest 18 Months03414_000_012
Elder Scott Marlow stumbled wearily out of the bus into the harsh lights of the nearly deserted bus depot. It was two in the morning, and the town was asleep except for a few stragglers who had to be up for the bus.
Although it had been a long trip, it was one which he had relished as he thought about his first assignment as a district leader over six pairs of missionaries. It was the first in a long line of goals he had set for himself on his mission.
An obviously sleepy elder approached him and shook hands. He introduced himself as Elder David Anderson.
“Sorry to get you out so late at night,” Scott said as they threw his luggage into the trunk of the car.
“It’s okay,” Elder Anderson said. “But I’ll never figure out why they can’t run a bus schedule at decent hours.”
As his companion drove him to their apartment, Scott asked him about the area. “Who are you working with? Anybody that’s good?”
“Sure, the Fosters. You’ll love the Fosters. They’re terrific.”
They met the Fosters the next night. During their meeting, Scott continually pushed for commitments from them, but they just grinned and asked if he’d like some more cake.
As they drove home that night, Scott dropped a bombshell.
“If they don’t accept some challenges the next time we meet with them, then we drop ’em.”
“Just like that? We’ve been working with them for six months.”
“Maybe they’re just deadwood. We’re out here to baptize.”
“Give ’em some time.”
“I don’t have time.”
The next time they met with the Fosters, Scott challenged them to prepare for baptism.
They accepted the challenge. Two weeks later they were baptized.
“What’s that little notebook you look at sometimes when you’re studying?” his companion asked Scott one morning.
“It’s a record of my goals. I’ve mapped out my life, step by step. So far I’m on schedule.”
“Can I look at it?”
“I usually don’t show it to anyone,” Scott said warily, “but I guess okay.”
His companion carefully looked through the notebook.
“What’s the check mark by each goal?”
“I make a check when I’ve accomplished the goal.”
“Oh, sure. I see where you set a goal to be a district leader, and you’ve checked that.” He continued looking. “You’re going to be a zone leader?”
“I guess I shouldn’t have let you look at my goals,” Scott said with embarrassment. “I know we’re not supposed to aspire to positions in the Church.”
“That’s all right,” his companion replied, continuing to examine each goal. “I see you’ve written down a goal to baptize six months in a row. Can you really do it?”
“Sure, why not? We’ve already got one month. Are you willing to work for it? We can do it if we work. We can succeed.”
Succeed they did. For the next five months, the mission newsletter highlighted their consecutive baptisms. The elders in Scott’s district caught fire too. The number of baptisms coming out of his district made history.
The team of Marlow and Anderson seemed to complement each other. Scott was strong on helping families to set goals to pray and attend church, but his companion seemed to get along with people better. Children flocked around Elder Anderson wherever he went. Scott didn’t mind, though, because they were a team.
One morning Elder Anderson came out of the bathroom with Scott’s hair brush. It was matted with hair. “Have you looked at this lately?”
“I know,” Scott said dismally. “I’m losing my hair.”
“Isn’t there something you can do?”
“I don’t know,” Scott sighed. “I wish there were.”
The sixth month wore on with no baptisms in sight. The tenth of the month passed, and they were without anyone who would be ready.
“Sister Johnson invited us over for dinner tomorrow night,” Elder Anderson announced as they were heading home one evening after a floundering discussion.
“I hope you told her no,” Scott said grimly.
“It’d be a waste of time. A 60-year-old widow isn’t likely to have any referrals.”
“It’d be nice to have a home-cooked meal. Besides she doesn’t have many people visit her.”
“Tell the home teachers. It’s not our concern.”
“What is our concern?” his companion asked with an edge of tension in his voice.
“To find somebody to baptize this month.”
“We’re already leading the mission in consecutive baptisms. What do you want, another record to add to your string?”
“Why shouldn’t we succeed? We can do it if we work.”
“Okay, maybe we can. But there’s one thing that bothers me about you.”
“What’s that?” Scott asked defensively.
“You’re doing all this for your own glory—so you can be zone leader.”
That set Scott off. “Doctrine and Covenants, section four,” he said. “‘O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength. ’”
“Okay, you work hard. Still I’m worried about you. The elders in the district are afraid to talk to you. They talk to me about their problems.”
“What problems? They’re baptizing more now than they’ve ever done,” Scott defended.
“They feel a lot of pressure from you to produce.”
“We’re supposed to produce.”
They walked into their apartment and got ready for bed, hardly speaking to each other.
Just before prayers, Scott gave in. “Okay, I was wrong. We’ll have supper with Sister Johnson tomorrow night.”
Much to their surprise, Sister Johnson had an elderly lady with her who wanted to be taught so she could be baptized.
And she was before the end of the month.
Scott received a letter from his girlfriend a week after he had written her about breaking a mission record. “We’re so proud of you in the ward,” she wrote. “My dad says that he wouldn’t be surprised if you were made a zone leader or even an assistant to the mission president. I’ve been going to firesides with Mark Stevens. You remember him? He’s just back from his mission.”
One morning during study class, Scott picked up the mission roster and looked up the date of arrival of each of the zone leaders in the mission. One of them would be released within the month. Scott glanced through the mission newsletter to see if he could see any other strong candidates for the position besides himself. As far as he could tell, there weren’t any others. He pictured his parents bragging in church that he was a zone leader. Smiling to himself, he resumed studying the scriptures.
During the week that one of the zone leaders was to go home, Scott and his companion received a phone call from the mission president asking them both to come to the mission home the next day. They both were to bring their luggage with them.
“I bet I know what that’s all about!” Scott’s companion said with a smile. “You’re going to be the next zone leader.”
Scott forced himself to be nonchalant but could not suppress a smile. “Now, now, we’re not supposed to aspire to positions.”
Nevertheless, Scott got his suit cleaned and carefully polished his shoes. Look the part, he told himself.
He made sure that they left in plenty of time so they’d be there promptly.
President Snowden enthusiastically welcomed them as they entered his office. They chatted for a few minutes, and then President Snowden excused Scott while he spoke to Elder Anderson.
In a few minutes, Elder Anderson left the office, and it was Scott’s turn.
“Your companion has told me about your little notebook of goals. It’s remarkable what you’ve done.”
“Thank you, sir,” Scott replied, properly modest.
“You must have wondered why I asked you both here.”
“Yes, naturally, I did.”
“Well, you know, the zone leader in Centerville is going home this week. We are looking for someone to fill his position.”
“I see.” Scott felt his heart pounding with excitement.
“Of course, the order of the Church is that we are called by inspiration. You believe that, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Sometimes choices made by inspiration are not the obvious ones. The Lord chooses whom he will, when he will.”
Scott wondered why the president didn’t just come out with it and call him to be zone leader.
“When I prayed and fasted about this, I was frankly surprised the way it turned out. The Lord has seen fit to call your companion, Elder Anderson, as a zone leader.”
Scott was stunned. “Oh,” he said weakly, embarrassed by his suddenly reddening face.
President Snowden walked over to where Scott was sitting and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Remember that in the work of the Lord, it’s how we serve that counts, not where we serve.”
“Is that all, sir?”
“No, there is one other thing.” President Snowden pulled a chair close to Scott and sat down. “Did you know that we have a city in our mission that has 80,000 people living in it, and yet we have no missionaries there? We’ve had elders there once, but they never did much good. Part of the problem was that they believed it was the Siberia of the mission. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
All Scott wanted was to get out of the office.
“We’re going to put a set of missionaries in that town, but we’re going to put the best we’ve got. This time we’re going to succeed.”
“I see,” Scott said.
“Elder, I want you to go there and see what you and the Lord can do.”
“Me? But what about my being district leader?” he blurted out.
“We’ll call someone to take your place. Your companion will be a new elder. He’s arriving tomorrow. We’d like you and Elder Anderson to stay overnight with us before you go to your new assignments.”
As Scott left the office, the president added, “If you have the time, why don’t you and Elder Anderson take in the museum today. It’s very good.”
Scott hurried from the office. He went to the bathroom and shut and locked the door. Turning on the cold water, he soaked a washcloth and held it to his face. He was ashamed of the tears streaming down his face and afraid that anyone should ever find out. Feelings of anger surged through his mind.
Nobody must know how I feel, he thought to himself ten minutes later as he examined his face in the mirror before leaving the bathroom.
He walked into the office area and congratulated his companion.
The museum was in the heart of the city. Urban decay had rotted away the neighborhood near the museum. They parked the car and walked along a newspaper-strewn sidewalk.
A man stood in a doorway watching them approach. He held in one hand a twisted brown paper bag which contained a bottle. As they came near him, he stumbled out of the doorway toward them.
“Are you Mormons?” he asked, slurring his words.
“Yes,” Scott answered.
“I thought so. Well, I’ve got a question for you. Do you know Jesus Christ?”
The man leaned forward, thrusting his face at Scott.
“Our church can tell you more about the Savior than any other church,” Scott said.
“That’s not what I want to know. Do you, yourself, know him?”
Scott felt the man’s probing glare. He’s only a drunk, he thought. He probably has to beg for whiskey.
“Do you know Jesus Christ?” the man again demanded.
Scott tried to move aside, but the man grabbed his coat sleeve.
“Do you know Jesus Christ?”
“Let go of me!” Scott ordered, jerking his sleeve and running for the museum doors. Elder Anderson followed after him.
“Tell me!” the man shrieked.
“Well, he won’t follow us in here,” Elder Anderson said with a smile in the museum lobby.
“Why not?” Scott asked, still shaken by the experience.
“Because it costs two dollars to get in.”
They strolled through the museum corridors, following the progress of mankind from earliest times until the present. Around every corner, Scott expected to see the man charging toward him, yelling his question, but he never saw the man again.
As they stood before one exhibit, Elder Anderson stood beside Scott and said quietly, “Elder, I’m sorry. I didn’t even want to be a zone leader.”
Scott turned slightly to acknowledge his companion. “It’s all right. It’s not your fault.”
Several seconds passed, and then Elder Anderson asked quietly, “Whose fault is it?”
Scott looked at him, puzzled by the question. “Is it President Snowden’s fault for receiving the inspiration? Or is it the Lord’s fault for giving the inspiration?”
“I’m sorry,” Scott said quickly. “I didn’t mean that. It just slipped out.”
Scott couldn’t sleep that night. An overwhelming feeling of failure crept into his throat and chest and crushed down. Dreams became nightmares. The man from the street ran through his thoughts, shouting at him with the same question.
Driving to their new area the next day, Scott wondered if he had been as annoying to his first companion as this new elder was. His name was Elder Carlisle.
“Do you know that you’re going bald?” Elder Carlisle asked as Scott was driving.
“Sure. You comb it to get the most use out of the hair you’ve got left, don’t you? Sort of swirl it over the bald spots, don’t you?”
Why me? Scott thought to himself about his companion.
“Does your girl know that you’re going bald?”
“No,” Scott replied glumly.
“Maybe you could wear a hat when you get home until she agrees to marry you.” A chuckle.
“Do you mind?” Scott asked, annoyed at his companion.
“You’re pretty sensitive about it, aren’t you?”
They found an apartment that day and began work. They were the only members in the area. They spent their days tracting.
A week later Scott got a Dear John letter from his girlfriend. She was going to marry a returned missionary all right, just like they’d planned, but it wasn’t going to be Scott.
“I sure hope there’s a young lady back at BYU who likes shiny scalp,” his companion said with a smile. “My girl will never send me a Dear John letter, though, because we’re really in love.”
The month passed with no baptisms. Scott’s consecutive baptism record was gone. The next issue of the mission newsletter carried no mention of Scott. Scott did read about the success Elder Anderson was having encouraging the elders to set goals.
The next week they had a zone conference. They met in a ward meetinghouse 40 miles away. President Snowden was there and interviewed each missionary.
Scott was one of the first to be interviewed. President Snowden was intensely interested in the work being done in the new area.
Before Scott left after the interview, he asked if he could talk to President Snowden about something that was bothering him.
“President, what do you say to someone who asks if you know Jesus Christ?”
“I guess I’d need to know the circumstance.”
Scott described the incident.
“Why does the question still haunt me?” Scott asked.
“Is it such a difficult question? Since you were a child, you’ve been taking the sacrament, promising to always remember the Savior.”
“I felt such an emptiness when that man kept hammering away with that one question. Why?”
“You have a notebook with goals written in it, don’t you? Do you have any goals that relate to the Savior?”
“In a way, they all do.”
“Let me see if I can explain. The Savior once asked the question, ‘What manner of men ought ye to be?’ Do you remember the Savior’s answer?”
“He said that we should be like him.”
“That’s right. Do you have any goals to become more like the Savior?”
“What if you tried to radiate love for others the way Jesus did? What if you tried to carry out your priesthood assignments the way the Savior would? Do you think it would make a difference in your life?”
“I’ll never be like him.”
“Wouldn’t it make a difference if you tried?”
President Snowden came around the desk and put his arm on Scott’s shoulder. “We have mission rules. We have commandments to obey. We have counsel from our leaders to follow. But the final requirement is to learn to follow the Master. Can you put a goal like that in your little notebook?”
They had lunch in the cultural hall after the morning meeting. As he sat down at a table, Scott’s companion called over to him, “Hello, oh hairless one!”
The elders within hearing range smirked.
“My companion is the only one in the mission who takes 30 minutes to wash his face. It’s because it goes clear to the back of his neck.”
Scott ate quickly and left. He found the chapel open and vacant, so he sat down and began reading the scriptures.
“Looks like you’re busy as usual.” Scott looked up to see the wife of his mission president. “Are you all right?” she asked with kindness.
“Do you know any way to make hair grow back?” he asked her.
“The elders can be cruel, can’t they?”
He felt the pent up frustration pouring forth as he talked to her about his problems.
She listened to him attentively, and just talking about it made him feel better.
Missionaries began to file into the chapel for the meeting. Before she left to go up on the stand, she showed him a book she was reading. “It’s by Brother Stephen Covey. Look at his picture on the inside cover. You can see he’s bald, but do you see any fear or shame on his face?”
“No,” Scott said, looking at the picture.
“He’s a very positive man and, I think, handsome too. You know, Elder, you really have a nicely shaped head.”
“I do?” Scott said.
“Sure you do. It’d be a shame to hide that with hair.”
The next morning Scott cut his hair very short.
“What have you done?” his companion gasped as he came out of the bathroom.
“I’ve decided to quit hiding my good looking head.”
Before he knew it, there were only six months left of his mission. Scott felt that there still was so much to learn. For the first time in his life, the scriptures seemed to come alive for him. He cherished reading the New Testament.
He was beginning to feel a closeness to the Savior.
Now, as they traveled in the car, Scott avoided the usual light conversation and instead talked enthusiastically about Jesus.
“You know,” he said one morning as they drove to their tracting area, “I think the Apostles were probably always trying to keep the Savior on a schedule. I think they had so many miles to travel to get to a place to stay, and they didn’t want to travel at night. But there were so many interruptions.
“One time Jesus and the Apostles were going to Jericho. There was a blind man sitting along the road, maybe begging. He heard the sound of the crowd coming. Someone told him that Jesus was coming. He began shouting for Jesus. The people told him to shut up, but he yelled even louder. I think the people traveling with the Savior were really mad because they wanted to make good time. If it had happened in modern times, they’d all have been looking at their watches. They were behind schedule.
“But the Savior stopped. He asked them to bring the man to him. They did. He asked the man what he wanted. The man said that he wanted to be able to see. Jesus looked with compassion on the man and healed him.”
Scott drove in silence for several blocks. “That man was probably considered by many to be the scum of the earth. Jesus could have walked away from him—like I walked away from a man once—but he loved others so deeply.”
Four weeks later they baptized a family of four. Then the brother of the wife of the first family joined. Then his wife. Then his parents. Soon they had ten members meeting in a home for a sacrament meeting.
Then it was time for another zone conference. It was a rainy April day as they got on the interstate to travel to the conference.
Scott was driving. As he rounded a curve, he saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. A young mother wrestled with a tire jack while two small children peered out the back of the station wagon at their dripping mother.
Scott slowed down.
“We’ll be late if we stop,” his companion warned.
“If we help, we’ll get wet.”
“I know,” he said, pulling off the road.
“Then why are you stopping?”
“She needs some help.”
“Maybe it’s a trap. How do you know there’s not a couple of guys hiding, ready to take our money?”
“We don’t have any money,” Scott smiled.
Scott stepped outside into the pouring rain. “Can I help?”
“I can’t figure out how to work the jack.”
“Why don’t you get out of the rain? No use both of us getting wet.”
He worked quickly changing the tire. As he worked, he realized that he was singing. He looked up once and saw the faces of the two children pressed against the back window of the station wagon. He winked at them and made a silly face. They both giggled.
When he was finished, he opened the back door of the station wagon and put the flat tire and jack in the back.
The woman got out to thank him. “Can I pay you something?”
“No, but there is something you can do,” he said, running back to his car. He picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon and ran it back to her.
“Read this,” he said, thrusting it into her hand.
Then he turned and ran back to the car.
He had never felt so happy in his life.
“You look like a drowned rat,” his companion complained as they continued down the road.
“At least my hair isn’t wet,” he answered, smiling.
“I suppose you know that we’re going to be late for the meeting.”
“I’m sorry for making you late. It couldn’t be helped.”
“Yes it could. You could’ve passed her by. Someone else would have come along.”
“Will that lady ever have a better reason for reading the Book of Mormon?” Scott asked with a wide grin.
“She doesn’t even live in our area. Even if she’s baptized, someone else will get the credit.”
Scott found himself humming.
“Why are you so happy?”
“Because I’ve just done something that the Savior would have done.”
They arrived a few minutes late. Scott’s suit was soaked. Sister Snowden saw them come in and hurried over to Scott. She wouldn’t let him stay in wet clothes. She talked to the custodian, who found an extra pair of coveralls for Scott to wear while his suit dried. Scott sat in the back of the chapel and listened to the conference.
President Snowden interviewed Scott while he was still in the borrowed coveralls.
“How’s my goal setter?”
“President, I’ve changed some of my goals. I’ve replaced some of them for one goal—to try to become more like the Savior.”
“That’s a lifelong goal,” President Snowden said.
Scott agreed. “President, I’ve found out that it’s true what you said. It’s not where we serve; it’s how we serve.”
A few minutes later, President Snowden asked, “How would you feel about serving as a zone leader for the remainder of your mission?”
“I don’t need it anymore. I’m content where I am, in our little branch.”
“It is the will of the Lord that you labor as a zone leader.”
“I’ll serve wherever he wants me.”
A few more baptisms, a few more meetings, a few more washings of the same eight white shirts and it was over.
He walked back into the mission home for his last night before flying home. President Snowden had it arranged so that the missionaries going home and the missionaries just coming into the mission field could have a testimony meeting together the night before they went their separate ways.
“I guess this has been the happiest 18 months of your life. Right?” one of the new elders asked him after the testimony meeting.
“What?” Scott asked, coming out of his deep thoughts.
“The happiest 18 months of your life—that’s what all the elders say in our ward when they return.”
“Happy?” Scott said. “Yes, I guess it has been happy.”
“You’ve lost all your hair, haven’t you? How are you going to find anyone to marry?”
“I’ll set a goal, Elder,” Scott said with a smile.
“They tell me you were a zone leader. How long did it take you to be a zone leader?”
“Why do you want to know?” Scott asked.
“I hope you’re not planning on that as some kind of a goal.”
“I want to succeed on my mission,” the elder said with determination.
“Look,” Scott said firmly, “let me sum up 18 months of my life. Jesus Christ stands at the head of this church. We are commissioned by the Savior to teach the gospel. He loves the people in this mission. You must focus your entire energy on serving Jesus by loving and serving the people.”
“I know that already,” the new elder said confidently.
“Don’t worry about artificial goals—like being a zone leader. That kind of a goal has no place in this work.”
“Sure, you can say that,” the new elder said. “You are a zone leader. How long did it take you?”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “Elder, you’re going to learn a great deal out here.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve pretty much got the discussions learned already.”
Scott reached out and shook the elder’s hand. “I wasn’t talking about the discussions.”
“You never told me how long it took you before you became a zone leader,” the new elder called after Scott as he ascended the stairs to his room.