Dear Family and Friends,
Well, here we are. This is the last letter I will write and send out a missionary in the Arkansas Little Rock Mission. I spent hours trying to figure out how to write this letter, what to include, and how, in so few words, to capture all that the past 18 months have meant to me. Finally, I decided that was an impossible task, and contented myself with doing my best. I apologize for the somewhat stream of consciousness style of this letter. Hopefully it’s not too hard to follow.
This week has been special. It has also been hard. It’s amazing how easily we skip over the most beautiful parts of our lives when we get stuck in the routine. This week, for me, was all about finding the beauty right in the middle of the routine.
Monday, we took a trip to Hot Springs, which is a beautiful town here in south central Arkansas. Hot Springs is not one of those towns that requires you to love it before you can see that it’s beautiful. The moment you get there, you fall in love with it. It sits on the banks of the Ouachita River, and rolling hills make it a far cry from the flatlands of west central Arkansas. It is particularly beautiful in the fall when those hills are covered in a swatch of colors; bright golds, crisp oranges, and deep reds, with patches of evergreen poking through the toasted blanket of fall colors.
We went there to eat and shop, (two very limited recreations in the city of Arkadelphia), but the highlight of the trip for me was a stop we made on the outside of town. As I have been preparing to leave these last few weeks, I have felt an urgent need to capture the beauty of Arkansas. I think I’m afraid of forgetting. When we reached a certain point outside of town I asked Sister F to pull over into the parking lot of an old church. On the other side of the road was a cemetery. We got out and began walking through the graves, reading names and dates, trying to find the oldest headstone, and enjoying the inscriptions of love and affection found on several of the little memorials. As we were walking, I noticed several headstones with the maiden name of a friend. The name is unique and fairly uncommon, so I excitedly began taking pictures of the headstones, thinking perhaps this could help with her family history.
As I took those pictures, I laughed a little to myself. A year and a half ago, family history would have been the last thing on my mind as I walked through this graveyard. I’d never taken any real interest in my own family history, let alone anyone else’s, but that’s just one way in thousands that I have changed over the past 18 months. I took a quick inventory of myself, then, wondering in what other ways I’ve changed. There are plenty. Some more obvious than others, but the feeling I got as I went over it all in my mind was that each change was truly for my benefit, even my increased interest in family history.
Tuesday was a hard day. We left Arkadelphia at 8:00 am to travel to Little Rock for my final Zone Conference. I had expected my final mission meeting would be difficult, and somewhat emotional, but even I was taken aback when I began crying during our recitations. For 18 months, I have stood and recited Our Purpose, 3 Nephi 5:13, D&C 4, and the Standard of Truth. If you are unfamiliar with those, I would suggest you look them up. Each is a stirring reminder of our dedication to Christ. I want to share Our Purpose now, though:
“Our Purpose is to invite others to come unto Christ, by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.” For a year and a half that has been my purpose, to invite others to come unto Christ. To quote the White Handbook- “How great is [my] calling!”
Tuesday the tears also fell as I bore my departing testimony. You hear hundreds of departing testimonies throughout your mission- often meetings will feature the final testimonies of several missionaries preparing to return home in the next few days. I’ve always loved departing testimonies, but it’s easy to get used to them, especially when you hear the same things over and over again- “I never thought this day would come” “18 months/2 years, it’s so short,” etc. Usually, following the testimonies of those departing missionaries, President & Sister Wakolo, and sometimes the APs, will bear their testimonies to end the meeting, but this time was different. Both the Wakolos & the APs bore their testimonies following their instruction, and I am the only missionary in the Little Rock Zone returning home at the end of this transfer, which left my testimony as the only one to end the meeting. As I walked up to the pulpit, I suddenly felt so alone, and even afraid. I hadn’t expected that.
I looked out over the pulpit and tears filled my eyes. It took me several moments to compose myself, but eventually the words came, and they kept coming. Very little of what I said that day came from myself. To be honest, I can’t fully remember what I said, but I could feel the Spirit guiding me through it, something I might not have been able to do on my own. As I finished my testimony the fear was gone. It had been replaced with a warmth that spread from my chest outward, like a hug coming from inside of me. I remained at the front of the room as I led the music for our closing hymn, How Firm a Foundation. Once again, the tears came, but this time I welcomed them as I basked in the Spirit present in that room.
It is a rare thing to be able to dedicate all your time, talents, and energy to serving the Lord, and when it happens you are also awarded an extra measure of the Spirit. It is a rarer thing to be in a room full of people in the exact same position, but when it happens, that extra measure of the Spirit cannot be contained, and it fills the space around you, filling all the corners, until everyone is bursting at the seams. That is what I felt as we sang that beautiful hymn to the Lord.
Wednesday took us on an adventure that is unique to serving as a missionary in an extremely rural part of the country. We had received a Bible request from a woman who lived in Malvern, a town about 22 miles away from Arkadelphia. Somewhere around the 2/3 mark of our trip the pavement ended, the rest of our journey would be on dirt roads.
There are moments along those little dirt roads that the trees on either side seem like the whole world- but then the tree line breaks and a green field stretches out in front of you for what seems like miles. In those moments, I feel incredibly small, but at the same time, infinitely loved. I am a part; one moving cog, in this incredible creation. The beauty of this earth is too overwhelming and diverse to be an accident. It is the gift of a loving father.
When we reached our destination, she wasn’t home. A year ago, this situation would have irritated me. We made an appointment, drove 22 miles to get there, and then she wasn’t home. Now I just smile. It’s all part of this ecstatic experience.
On our way home, we drove through Donaldson. It’s a town of a little over 300 people, and at least twice that many cows. The tallest structure for miles is the crane they brought in to work on the Interstate bridge. I like to imagine the people who live there are friendly and industrious, they aren’t bothered by the 40-minute drive to the grocery store. They’re happy to live among the quiet trees and emerald green fields. Peace is important to them, and here is where they find it.
I think a lot about each of our individual quests for peace. It’s a universal need, I think, to feel peace. Many people seek it in validation for their work or fame or looks. They try to find it in financial security. Others still think it comes from a life of total seclusion. Completely ascetic in nature. Some seek it here, in quiet communities like Donaldson, where they can work out a quiet life with those they love.
What I have learned from the gospel of Jesus Christ is that peace is completely independent of outward circumstances, but comes instead from an inward steadiness from a surety of purpose, and a knowledge of one’s divine origins. When one knows their place in the universe, and is sure of their standing as a Child of God, it doesn’t matter if they’re standing at the top of a mountain surveying the valley below, or in the middle of a crowded street in Hong Kong. They feel peace, because they know who they are, and they know who God is.
I Know Who God Is. People are confused. Many people are confused about many things, but perhaps the most important, and most startling thing that people are confused about is who exactly God is. Everybody has a theory, and many have spent years in earnest study and prayer, developing their understanding of the Great Creator.
Some think he is concerned most of all with His own glory, a creator who hung the stars and put the planets in motion, all as a demonstration of His power and omnipotence. He saves and rejects at will, with no apparent order to who receives salvation and who does not- after all, it’s His world, His creation, and He may do with it as He pleases. Other’s view God as a billowy mass, who provides a completely free ticket to heaven for anyone and everyone, regardless of their actions. A God who is truly governed by the will of men, and who has no real concern for right or wrong, truth or deception, good or evil.
I know that God is neither of these. I know He is a father. Fathers are complex figures, representing earthly examples of the heavenly principles of both justice and mercy. They punish when required, but not out of anger or hatred, out of love, and a sincere desire for their children to grown and learn. They provide not only the necessities of life, but the joys of it. They understand their children, and would do anything to protect them. Truly, as James E. Faust said, “Noble fatherhood gives us a glimpse of the divine.”
Wednesday night we attended Institute at the church. The topic was a powerful one – The Trial of Jesus. I was excited and engaged. Dr. B’s Institute classes always offer new insights. As we began the discussion of Christ standing before the Sanhedrin, however, the Branch President opened the door, and quietly beckoned my companions & I to come with him. We did, but as we walked out, I was sad to leave the lesson. He led us into his office, and told us he had a sister in the branch he would like us to visit. He got very anxious as he described her situation to us. It was very special to see how much he cared about her. As a missionary, you have a unique look in to ecclesiastical leadership in the church, and the experience has only proved to strengthen my testimony of the process of revelation that guides the leadership of the church.
We finished our conversation with him and headed back into the class. We sat for several minutes more, listening as the class discussed power. We contrasted the power of those who condemned Christ, and the true power that Jesus himself possessed. I think personally, that power comes down to one concept, truth. In the face of Christ’s mission to bring truth, Pilate asked, with world weary tone “what is truth?” The world often draws the conclusion that there is no absolute truth, and the powers of the world, then, do all they can to control what is perceived as truth. If you have a monopoly on truth, then you have power. Politics are nothing but people trying to convince others of their “truth,” so that they may gain power over the political system. As we see in politics, what is considered truth shifts often. Christ’s power; God’s power, is far greater, because it is based completely in absolute truth. Truth that will never change. Truth that has existed for eternities, and will continue.
Once again, we were pulled out of the engaging lesson. This time by a member of the branch. Once again, I was a little frustrated to leave. Sister A has been a member of the church for a little over two years, and during that time she has struggled in and out of activity. When she pulled us into the lobby she looked confused, and a little upset.
“I’m not sure if y’all can even help me with this…” she started. “But I didn’t know who else to ask. When people join the church, and they want to be with more members, so that they can be better Mormons, they move to Utah, right? How do you go about doing that?” My heart broke. Suddenly I felt terrible for my attitude moments before.
I am a missionary, I am called to serve, not called to sit through very interesting Institute classes. Sister A was a tender soul, just working her way back into the church, but feeling inadequate. She needed comfort. She needed someone who could tell her she was a wonderful Mormon, and she could become an even better one without moving to Utah. We sat with her for a few minutes, and talked to her, but mostly we listened. I am so grateful for the experience. There will always be Institute classes. I can go to one every night of the week when I get home if I want to, but I will never again have the call to serve the way I do now.
Thursday, we had our final dinner with the M family. It has been such a joy to get to know them these past weeks. Brother M played his electric guitar for us, and I was delighted to sing every word to Hotel California at the top of my lungs. Brother M has a really hard time being open to any message that has to do with the Prophet Joseph Smith, so he went into the bedroom while we had a lesson with Sister M and L.
During the lesson, Sister M really opened up to us and bore a powerful testimony of the Temple. I felt prompted to ask her how long it had been since she had been to the Temple. It had been a long time. I challenged her to do whatever she needed to get back to the Temple. The Spirit entered the room immediately, and she burst into tears. There are things you can do as a missionary that you just can do when you’re home, and one of those is call people to repentance and still have them feel your love! She told me how much she loved me and that she knows I was transferred to Arkadelphia for her. What a tender mercy.
I have learned so many things as a missionary, but the most important thing is love, and the source of all love. No love we feel originates from inside of us- all love comes from God. He gave me so much love on my mission, I am bursting at the seams. It truly feels like I will overflow any second and all that love will spill out over everything around me. At first, it’s a terrifying thing to love for real- you are so vulnerable. What if this person drops you? What if they decide not to come back to church? When you’re a young missionary, you try to squelch this love, to develop a shell that leaves you impervious to the pain of rejection. What I learned on my mission is to embrace it. Yes, there are disappointments that you fear you will never recover from, but each hard thing just increases your capacity to love if you let it, and the next joy that comes into your life is greater than anything you have previously experienced. Our Father loves us infinitely, and my mission has brought me so much closer to understanding what that means.
The title of this email comes from T.S. Eliot, and it captures so well all that I am feeling. The only thing that closely compares to my feelings, leaving my mission, are my feelings in arriving here in Arkansas. My mission has been the greatest adventure of my life thus far, but today I woke up with a sense. Just a little nagging, somewhere in the corner of my brain, that the adventure I begin now will be far greater, and ultimately, far more rewarding.
I know my Savior lives.
Sister Hannah Kathryn Thomas