My ancestors joined the church in the 1910's or so in Northern Florida. My great grandfather heard about a meeting being given by a couple of missionaries and attended. When the local KKK stopped the meeting, threatening to kill and beat the missionaries and those who attended, my great-grandfather followed them to someone's house to hear more. When he got home that night and tried to tell her about it, she shut him up quick and said, "We don't need a new religion. We need to live the one we've got." Nonetheless, they both eventually joined the church and raised their family in it in the rural south.
One of their daughters met a non-member. Well, technically, he was dating her sister. But he and her sister grew tired of each other and my grandmother knew a good thing when she saw it. They got married fairly soon thereafter and, as far as I can tell, lovingly bickered their way through the next 50 or so years. One of their daughters was my mom.
My mom was staying at a boarding house on Jacksonville Beach in the early 60's. The house was owned by Pearl Lucas. My mom had grown up in the church and went out to BYU for college. She was determined that she was going to go, even though her father refused to pay for it. So, she worked her way through, occasionally stooping to making weak tomato soup out of free ketchup packets pilfered from the then version of the Cougareat. She met a guy, they got married, they then got divorced a couple of months later and my mom's love of the church dimmed. She moved back to Florida, went to college in Tallahassee, and eventually moved for a time into Pearl Lucas's boarding house on Jacksonville Beach. Pearl Lucas mentioned that she had a son coming in to stay for a bit, who was in the Air Force. Mom saw Dad when he arrived and fell in love again. Pearl never really forgave Mom for it.
A couple of years after I was born, my Dad retired from the Air Force and we moved back to Jacksonville because all of our family was there (very unusual for a military family). I grew up surrounded by my family. I am a middle child of the peacemaker mold, growing up slightly resentful of my older brother's confidence and my younger sister's ability to get anything she wanted. I was truly the Jan. My attempts to stand out had to do with fitting in, sorta. I was self-aware enough to understand that the cliques were a bunch of people trying to be different by acting the same as each other. But, I desperately wanted attention so I have integrated into about a dozen different cliques. I had a lot of acquaintances, but very few friends (I still mostly operate in this way (but I am getting better)).
My grandfather joined the church after 30 years of marriage and a little later, my Mom returned to activity. So, my grandfather baptized me and my uncle confirmed me. My dad watched. He has never been resentful about the role the church has played in our lives. He thinks it has been a good thing for us, although he thinks it has had a bad effect on others. He seems to have come to accept being on the outside looking in regarding our religion.
Anyhoo, I grew up marked as the Mormon. All my friends (acquaintances) knew me, at least partially, because of that. I got dates due to it. I was asked about it all the time. I tried to make it seem reasonable and normal. But it wasn't; they knew it and I knew it, but we played out a fiction where my religion wasn't really important when we interacted so that they could do more than stare and point. Yes, I grew up with kind of a complex about it.
So, I went to BYU. Suddenly surrounded by Mormons, I faced a crisis. I didn't really know who I was. I was living in an apartment with my brother, his friend, and some random guy named Loren who served a mission in Korea and spent all his time macking on Korean girls in search of a green card. It wasn't the most spiritual environment. Our student ward was run by Bishop Dick (actual name) who, since it wasn't a freshman ward, spent all of his time encouraging everyone else to get married. As someone who was planning on going on a mission (aka unmarriageable), I didn't even register on his radar and when I quit going to church, he didn't seem to notice or care.
I didn't actually quit. I'd go if someone I liked was speaking or if the football games on TV were uninteresting. I had never been a big fan of the actual experience of church and the prospect of skipping droning sermons and stupefying lessons was welcome. I still believed and still read the scriptures as often as it occurred to me. I just became a model of "less-activeness". I didn't care enough about church to bother.
I went home, sent in my papers, eventually got my call and prepared to leave. Or I thought I did.
In the MTC, I met Elder Post. He was from San Jose, CA, an athletic kid with a goofy smile and an eagerness usually only encountered in puppies. He was always excited, in particular about the mission. He was kind of like the stereotypical time-release seminary teacher, where they are just always so darn happy that it has to be a sham, except it wasn't with him. Post was genuinely excited about the mission field in a way that I simply wasn't. I was immediately jealous of this. I learned the language and memorized the discussions quicker, but I already knew that Post was going to be the "better" missionary. I simply didn't have my fires stoked as high as he did.
In the mission, there is more pressure to conform than I have experienced in any other aspect of church life (except, possibly, in the temple). We all dress pretty much the same. We all talk about pretty much the same things (we used to joke that the KGB agents who tapped our phones had to have the most boring job in existence). We all read from the same manuals everyday that told us to behave in these time-tested and spirit-approved ways. We were all supposed to be the perfect, eager, sincere, loving, optimistic, faithful, and hard-working missionary. We were all supposed to be Elder Post. But I wasn't Elder Post. And I was hardly ever all of those things at once and rarely more than one or two. But, I kept trying, thinking that if I prayed, fasted, thought, read, or worked hard enough, I would develop the genuine love of mission work that Post had. I never really did.
Missionary work is hard and rewarding, but usually terribly depressing. So many people stop caring (or never care) about things that you hold very close to your heart. It is frustrating, soul-wrenching stuff (although, to be fair, there are extreme highs involved that more than compensate for the more common lows). After a while, although I tried to be a sincere missionary who genuinely cared for the people I taught (and usually did), I came to realize that I was on one of those missions that was more about me than about the people (you know, the kind they don't let missionaries go on anymore). I was on my mission to change me for the better. Any help that I gave anyone else occurred strictly by accident and divine providence.
I thought that I knew what I was supposed to learn, too: I was supposed to become Elder Post. I was supposed to develop the ability to love people at first glance, to convince quickly and sincerely that the Gospel was important (necessary, even) for others, to smile at all times and in all places. The problem being that, try as I might, I never really got good at those things. I was good at other things and I could feel the Spirit working with me, but I never seemed to improve much in the things that I thought that I should be improving in. It was (and actually still is) confusing and disturbing. What was I doing wrong?
Then came a talk given by an AP on a Zone Conference (you can tell that I am an active Mormon because I have good things to say about the APs in my mission). Elder Livingstone quoted Alma 17:11, the promise of God to the sons of Mosiah as they began their mission to the Lamanites. Here it is:
And the Lord said unto them also: Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.
Livingstone went on to point out that instrument in this passage meant a tool, like a hammer or a sickle. Imagine that God is a handyman and he needs to fix the people in the world. Everyone has their own problems, a few have screws loose, a few need their frames adjusted, a few need to be refinished, etc. Imagine a handyman who, when there was a problem that needed fixing, just took a hammer and banged away at it, partly because he only had hammers in his toolbox. Every time and every problem, he tried to fix with a hammer. Is that a good handyman? Compare him to the handyman who has several tools at his disposal and always chooses the right one to fix the problem, to fill the gap, to remove the dent, etc. Which is the better handyman? Which one do you think God would like to be? God doesn't need 1,000 hammers. He needs all the tools that he can get so he can fix as many people as he can. Stop trying to all be the same!
I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this was the first time I realized that God didn't need me to be Elder Post as he already had one of those. From me he needed to have an Elder Crawford and that was all he needed. It made the rest of the mission (and the life) go a lot smoother.
I returned home, went back to BYU, met the most stubborn, pig-headed, beautiful woman in the world, somehow slipped through her defenses and convinced her to marry me, finished school, went east for a few years to continue school, got the two best kids on the planet (apologies to JP), and am now back in Utah, finishing my schooling and trolling for work.
I've never really questioned the reality of God or the truth of the Book of Mormon. In spite of coming from a part-member family, knowing the Church was true was always a part of me. It will probably always will be. So remember kids, the moral is: It's good to be a tool, as long as you know which one you are.