Beyond the Thorns

by Anne C. Bradshaw

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    “That bush kills,” Justin yelled. “Fancy having murderous thorns like that!” He wasn’t too excited about his mother’s analogy of people being that way too: prickly on the outside, good on the inside. And he definitely wasn’t excited about finding that kind of people on a mission.

    Justin hunted through the raspberry canes for a ripe, unblemished specimen. By passing inferior fruit and deceptive berries that had flawless fronts with bird-pecked backs, he suddenly found a beauty. It looked almost too perfect, hanging there among the gentle swish of green. Almost a mean thing to pluck such perfection, almost a crime to crush that splendour between teeth so the tangy juice could satisfy his stomach.

    He plucked it from the bush, and his mouth was watering in anticipation when he saw the bug. There it was, hidden deep in the dark hollow of his prize, crawling swiftly from the snug depths to discover the cause of the disturbance.

    Justin flung the raspberry to the ground in disgust, squashing it underfoot with sharp jabs. Typical, he thought, feeling a familiar rebellion rising through his system. Everything’s fake these days—family, friends, Church, life, and above all, missions. As that word filtered through his brain, it oozed in and out of his thoughts like the red stain spreading between the cracks of the old paving slabs.

    His lean, tanned features drooped in sulky lines. “Mission, mission,” he muttered, “hadn’t I known it would come one day?” He punched the nearest leaves in frustration. “All my life’s been preparing for this time, and now it’s here I feel cheated. Two years of my life thrown away. And for what? To serve here in England—not even in foreign parts—but here, in my own country.”

    Justin stuffed his clenched fists into his jeans pockets, angrily scuffing the dead berry with the toe of his shoe. Friends can have jobs, cars, girls, and I’ll miss the best time of life because I’m serving, keeping rules, suffering hardships, and for what?

    A terribly honest thought struck Justin—I’m not sure I believe the Church is worth all this sacrifice. Panic replaced his anger.

    He could see his mother heading for the fruit garden. Oh, no, not again, he thought in frustration. I can’t stand another motherly chat. But there was no escape. Mum’s cheery smile did nothing for his bad mood.

    “I’m so glad you’re down here, Justin. I really am pushed for time. If you can help me pick these gooseberries, I’d be so grateful.”

    “Okay, okay,” Justin sighed, steeling himself for the advice he was sure would come.

    Mother began filling her earthenware bowl, fingers moving carefully between the greenery, uncovering plump, hairy fruit. Justin scowled at the bushes. He parted leaves with half-hearted movements. “Not worth the effort,” he muttered. “There’s hardly anything here.”

    “It takes careful searching, dear. See, I’m finding loads by looking deeper.”

    Justin gritted his teeth, waiting for the next words. He wasn’t disappointed.

    “Like missionaries,” she said. “You know, never giving up.”

    How is it, Justin thought, that Mother has such a knack for finding analogies to missionary work in everything we do? He thrust rebellious fingers deep into the bush, then, with a furious cry, jumped back, nursing a bleeding finger.

    “That bush kills!” he yelled. “That’s stupid, that bush is. Fancy having murderous thorns lying in wait like that. I’ve gone off fruit picking. You seem to be doing all right without me. Do you mind if I go for a bandage?”

    Ignoring the pleading in her son’s voice, his mother calmly handed him the bowl. “We’ll only be a few more minutes if you hold this.” She dropped a particularly fine, tawny gooseberry into the bowl. “It’s strange, Justin, but special people can be a lot like that too, you know. They’ll hide behind prickly exteriors, but with a little questioning and love, they’ll come into the fold. You’ll be able to find those people on your mission.”

    “I don’t think I want to talk about this,” muttered Justin, but his mother had already taken the bowl and was on her way to the house.

    “What’s that dear?” his mother asked.

    “Oh, nothing,” said Justin. He plodded on, trying to turn his mind away from the gloomy rut it kept travelling. It always seemed like he was moving down a continual motorway in the dark with lights snaking off into the distance, but he could never see where they were headed or where they ended.

    By his farewell sacrament meeting, he still wasn’t sure he was happy about this “sacrifice.”

    “This fine young man, Elder Justin Barnes,” the bishop was saying, “is about to exchange two years of his life for something out of this world.”

    Justin’s head was spinning as he sat on the stand, dreading his turn to speak. Why me? kept echoing inside. I don’t want to be out of this world. Why not Andy and Phil down there? They’re 19 and refused to go. Why don’t I stop all this and say no too? He looked down at his family, sitting on the front row, smiling at him—Mum and Dad looking proud; Adam, Sam, and John, eyes big with hero worship; and little Suzy and Pam, the twins, open-mouthed in awe of the occasion.

    Justin moved to the rostrum, amazed his feet moved him. With dry mouth, perspiring hands, and trembling knees, he stumbled through his talk. “And although I’m not too sure why I’m going,” Justin concluded, “I suppose … er, I mean, … no, I am going because the prophet has said all young men should serve and because my family and I follow the prophet.”

    Justin sat down in a dazed state, wondering where those words came from, wondering if he had really said them.

    Two weeks later at the Missionary Training Center, his dad said, “First time I’ve felt like crying for many a year.” With his dad’s arm around his shoulders, Justin stood gazing up at the London Temple. Two hours later Justin wished he could have those minutes back, so he could say all the things he hadn’t been able to put into words. Things like, “I love you, Dad. You’re the greatest. Thanks for everything, Dad. I promise I’ll work hard.”

    In the whirl of the MTC, however, it was hard to be lonely. It was study all the time, and soon Justin began to feel a sprinkling of testimony that quickly turned into a shower and then a downpour of spiritual experiences as new friends became brothers and sisters, sharing knowledge and insights. Those three weeks became an oasis, and Justin could see the clear road of the motorway until his first assignment in his mission field came along.

    Justin stared at his new companion. This must be a joke, he thought. He looks like a boxer—a heavyweight. Talk about muscles. And that huge, flattened nose. No one will open the door to us!

    “I’m glad to meet you, Elder Barnes. I’m Elder Warriner from Texas.” His voice was warmly encouraging, his smile transforming grim features to genial humour. But the handshake! Justin imagined his fingers would never return to normal.

    Oh, wow! he thought. How do I cope with this one?

    He soon found out. Elder Warriner never stopped. His energy and enthusiasm were exhausting, or catching, depending on Justin’s mood that day. But Justin gained an appreciation for his companion’s beefy shape the day they knocked on one particular door.

    “Yeah?” snarled the sloppily dressed man, thrusting wide his front door. He was massive. A soggy cigarette dangled from half-closed lips, and a beer can looked ready to make a fast exit from his fist in the direction of the pair.

    “Good morning.” Elder Warriner’s smile clipped corners off the man’s invisible barrier. At least that’s what Justin tried to tell himself as the beer can lowered and the man’s eyes narrowed.

    “We’re from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we wondered if we could share a message with you for a few moments?”

    The man’s eyes widened. He sniffed hard, wiping ash off his stubbled chin with the back of his hand.

    “Um … yeah. Thought you were the TV license spies. What you want then? You a boxer or something?” he asked, staring at Elder Warriner’s craggy features. “Used to go in for boxing myself,” he went on, not waiting for a reply. “Well, come in then. Could do with a change from telly.”

    Following him down the dark hallway, Justin noticed peeling wallpaper, tatty carpet, and the smell of damp chips.

    This is not worth the effort, Justin thought. Poking Elder Warriner in the back, he pulled a waste-of-time face. A Texan eye winked back.

    “My name’s Charlie,” their host announced. Then pointing to a frail woman hunched by the gas fire, he said. “This is my missus, Elspeth, and them’s my kids—Jimmy, Jane, Sally, and Thelma.” Four pairs of eyes flicked from TV to the elders, then back to TV.

    “He actually sounds proud of them,” mused Justin, looking with astonishment at the thin, little foursome. “Wouldn’t Mum love to fatten them up,” he thought.

    Charlie continued the introductions. “This here man’s a boxer, kid. Take a look at this face now. Your Uncle Bert looked like that when he went to Canada. Where you been boxing then lad?” This last question was flung at Elder Warriner from a sparring position. Charlie’s frame blocked the light as his weight shifted to his toes, his hands held in loose fists.

    “Er … Charlie?” Elder Warriner sounded unusually solemn. “We have something more important than boxing to discuss. I used to box every day in the boys’ clubs back home, and I was pretty good, but I gave that up to come here and share this message with you.”

    Charlie looked puzzled, then skeptical. “You a wimp or something?” He began moving towards the door, his face surly again. “No time for wimps.”

    Justin scrambled to his feet, giving a let’s-move-it eyebrow signal to his companion. But before he could step forward, he heard his own voice speaking, “By the way, Charlie, is your mother important to you?”

    The words quivered in silence. Justin’s mind did a swift action replay. For a brief second he was back in his own garden picking gooseberries. His Mum’s voice was saying, “They’ll hide behind a prickly exterior, but with gentle questioning and love they’ll come into the fold. You’ll be able to find those people on your mission.”

    Justin jumped as Charlie took a step in his direction. “What do you know about my Ma?” With neck pushed forward, his head looked even more aggressive. But his tone softened as he began pacing the floor. “My little Ma, oh she was right lovely was my Ma.” His face took on a gentle sadness the more he reminisced.

    Justin glanced at the children whose gaze had at last left the flickering screen. Tears dribbled down Charlie’s cheeks when he spoke of his mother’s death during his tenth year. Little Thelma jumped up and ran towards her Dad. She hugged him as far around as her thin arms could reach.

    The effect was startling. Tenderly scooping her into his arms, he held her close, patting her back. “I still think of my Ma every night before going to sleep, I do. She had a tough life, but she loved every hair of my head.”

    Charlie brought his focus back to the elders. He squinted closely at Justin’s face. “Young man, if you can tell me anything at all about Ma, then you’re welcome to stop and chat.” He motioned to his wife. “Let’s see a bit of that fire, Elspeth. How about a cup of tea for these boys. And you kids hitch up on that sofa. Give the lads a seat.”

    While Elder Warriner began explaining their taste in drinks, which didn’t include tea, Justin recognized the familiar feeling creeping out of his heart, only this time it was different. He felt like he could catch a glimpse of their destination as he felt them moving together down the road. He thought back to his reluctance to go on a mission and his feeling of travelling a dark motorway. For all the trials and sacrifices, the Church was still worth more. Justin wanted Charlie to know that too.

    Charlie and his family were baptized six weeks later. Baptism day produced a radiant family, washed, mended, and full of smiles.

    Charlie’s big hand squeezed Justin’s shoulder when the service ended. “Lad, I can’t find words to thank you and your mate for all you’ve taught us. Your finding us has brought out feelings I never knew existed.” He sniffed. “You’re a cracking bit of inspiration from the eternities, you missionaries. There’s no more important work, is there, than getting this message across. Thanks, lad, a million thanks.”

    Justin shook his hand. He felt a mixture of warmth and love for this big brother, and at the same time he envisioned a brightly lit motorway where he could see forever. As Justin caught another Texan wink from his companion, he had the warmest assurance that they were on the right path. His silent prayer of gratitude moved heavenward.

    “Like Charlie says,” he whispered, “there’s no more important work.”

    Illustrated by Richard Hull