Like the Jacob Hannah character in my And Should We Die , I was a reluctant missionary. I remember my feelings as a newly-called missionary – unsure as to what I was getting into and whether or not I had enough fortitude to see it through. When I made up my mind that I did not want to go on a mission it was too late. I was already there with promises to keep. The following is my remembering.
I recall that by the time of my late-teens a sense of religious duty seemed irresistible as it prompted some sort of postponement of my growing sense of independence and what my future might look like in terms of education and vocation.
I grew up only partially active in the Church and that mostly for social reasons. I grew up relatively free from parental pressure to go to church and if I attended for reasons other than social and connected to my love life, it would have been a response to the unrelenting and guilt-making pressure from my beloved Grandmother. Grandma Ruger was the one who taught me the religious stuff like prayers but who could not seem to tolerate any form of disappointment in her expectations and wishes that we be good active Mormons.
Bishop Yost easily cornered me one Tuesday or Wednesday night at MIA and I knew what he wanted. I was next in line among his harvesting of local recent high school graduates and urging them to fulfill a mission for the Church. Even as I was gathered in and cornered in his office I knew that I would probably agree to go.
My own assessment of how I might be a man worthy of a mission call was somewhat tempered by an inner awareness and admission that I was a social Mormon more than a testimony Mormon.
No one more than I was aware that I had not prayed according to the Moroni formula in chapter 10 of the Book of Mormon which was a constant teaching theme in Church, MIA and Seminary classes.
No one more than I was aware that I had been going through the duty motions to please family and peers more than a consequence of the inner-convicted faith of someone like Nephi in the Book of Mormon.
The only “spiritual” moving experiences seemed to come with my response to Mormon music – mostly the hymns that I liked the best. I’ve only recently come to realize that I have been brought “spiritually” to tears more by music than the spoken word, more by the tune and melody of a favorite hymn than any sermon or lesson.
That is still true today.
Back then no one more than I was aware that my kidding and joking and lack of seriousness that interjected itself into almost any religious discussion with my friends was closer to the real me than any sense of piety and future religious devotion.
But I listened to Bishop Yost make his pitch and almost without hesitation, perhaps as a habit of going along with whoever I wanted not to be disappointed in me, I told him I would think about going.
Within a week, having added a dose of serious do or don’t to the issues of life, I experienced what seems like my first religious prompting.
I was moving irrigation pipe and thinking about whether or not I would go on a mission. At some point I forgot about the mechanics of moving pipe and got lost in my thoughts. A few minutes later I realized that I was pondering about what a mission would be like for me all the while a hymn, The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning, was playing over and over again in my head.
That then was the closest I had ever come to experience and believing that the Lord was bringing something to my personal attention … in my memory that is the first time I was ever prompted by God.
Contacting Bishop Yost with the good news of my agreeing to go was the easiest next step. Of course then he went right for the jugular in terms of preparation and repentance.
I’d have to quit my secret smoking on the way to and from pipe moving and with my friends in the evening. It wasn’t as secret as I thought and my mother confirmed that years later when we were joking about how I thought I was fooling people.
All this took place in the early summer of 1965. By August and my 19th birthday I’d received my Patriarchal Blessing and a call to the Spanish American Mission in Texas and New Mexico. I was disappointed for a while because I had requested and had my heart set on Peru. I guess Texas and Spanish was the best I could get.
I had no sense of “trying this one out” and having any right to change my mind and give it up. My mother, who was not active, had flat out told me that if I went I had to complete it and that she would not have me come home early. She was referring to being sent home from my mission for getting in trouble or serious sinfulness but it didn’t matter. I was her oldest and if she agreed to have me go there was no way of ever wrecking her opinion of me by trying to the right thing and failing.
So into the mission home I went, experiencing the most intense and powerful moment of reluctance and change of mind I would have over the next 30 months. The mission home was full of the kinds of guys I had come to both envy and detest because they came from active families or because they came already testimonied-up and because they looked and acted so damned happy to be there.
I on the other hand did not feel that way.
Before I got out of the car my mother had hinted that I could still change my mind … and I was tempted. But then my grandmother was there and ready to literally bawl me out if I tried to change my mind. Coupled with the awareness that I did not want my mother to see me try and fail at anything, I outwardly avoided changing my mind.
I went into the mission home feeling more than ever that I had faked my way through things once too often.
All I had going for me was my new suit, my new missionary Bible with its center section full of interesting stuff and my new Book of Mormon. Both books had my name and title embossed on the front. Elder Arthur Ruger … at least I felt like a dignified faker.
“Ask God if it’s true and you will feel it.”
I didn’t know what the hell that felt like and to my memory my bosom never even scorched, let alone burned.
Maybe my pipe-moving moment was my burning bosom … but my bosom had not burned and my rubber boots leaked as I squished my way back and forth across the field in August humming The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning in my head.
I suppose I made that pipe-moving epiphany do for my burning bosom for a long time since there was no way I was going to back out of this predicament.
But I’ll tell you …
30 months looked like an endless time frame and I felt something akin to having entrapped myself inextricably in quicksand where I would only be able to tread water and hopefully keep my nose out of it.