Editor’s Note: Sister Michaela Proctor is on a mission, currently serving in Blantyre, Malawi in Africa. Water and electricity are unpredictable, sometimes going out for as much as a week. Recent flooding collapsed the walls of several hand built mud homes. Clothes are hand washed. Hiking up and down the mountainous paths is her daily routine.
When I arrived at my little flat in Lilongwe, Malawi as a new missionary with new shoes and a fresh-out-of-the-MTC-let’s-get-to-work attitude, I curiously peered down at the rugged, hole-strewn shoes of the more experienced sisters and thought my shoes would never get to that point. I thought perhaps I was impervious to wear or I came a bit more prepared with the sturdiest shoes available.
As I got to know some of the missionaries in my district and zone I found that though many older missionaries were still zealous about the work after 15-23 months of service, some missionaries’ excitement level was directly connected to the wear of their shoes. Along with their rubber soles wearing thinner and thinner it seemed their souls were also getting tired. But in my bright-eyed, fresh missionary outlook, I thought it would never happen to me. I came a bit more prepared.
Many months have passed since I hugged my trainer that first night in Lilongwe and just recently I began to find holes and tears and wear in all of my shoes. Even my socks have turned to rags. My current area of Blantyre, Malawi is a rather mountainous city and with the combination of elapsed time and hiking miles a day to investigators’ houses, I find myself wondering if my shoes will last me the duration of my mission.
It has gotten to the point that even the cobbler who brings his stool and sits on a corner in our area every day knows me by name. To be candid, there’s something satisfying about working a pair of shoes right off your feet, but it’s disconcerting to find that along with faded shoes walking out the gate in the morning is a faded excitement about the work.
One day, I was determined to turn my attitude around. When the alarm went off, I woke up with a smile and said out loud, “Today is going to be the best day of my mission.” Our planning session the night before was especially good and we had planned what I decided was the perfect day. We thoughtfully called specific members to come help us teach each investigator and each hour had an appointment. Though we passed the same primary school and crossed the same rickety bridge and walked through the same maize field, that day felt different.
Hope added a spring in my worn out shoes. Potential hung in the very air we breathed. At the first house, they invited us in and told us they had a few things to do so just to wait a minute. Five minutes turned into 45 and when they finally sat down we had another appointment to get to. We rushed to the market to meet up with a member who agreed to come teach with us and he never showed up. At this point my heart was undeterred–it was still morning and we still had an afternoon of perfect plans. Without the member, we forged ahead to teach the lesson anyway only to find a man without his wife at home. Slightly disappointed, we turned down the appointment because without a woman we couldn’t teach.
After lunch and a long hike to our next lesson we found an empty house and each subsequent lesson got cancelled over text or phone call. The only “perfect” plan of ours that actually happened was to see who we call our “eternal investigator”. But not even a lively discussion on tithing could refresh my downtrodden soul. By far the worst cancellation came through a text ten minutes before the appointment was supposed to start. We ashamedly called the member who was coming to teach with us for the first time to find he had already made the long hike from his house to our meeting place.
With every cancelled appointment, my heart sunk a little lower and the sting of perfect plans shattered made my feet heavy as we made our trek home. I felt that Heavenly Father’s sense of humor that day was a bit dry and the blazing sun was a bit too diligent at its job. As we accounted for the day I felt like a failure–to my mortal eyes I hadn’t helped to save anyone.
How do we trudge on when our hearts are about as weary as our shoes? Where can we find validation when our hard work and our perfect plans result in empty houses and long walks? The Lord says to each of us, no matter what is weighing our hearts down, “Be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great,” (D&C 64:33).
This is not just some cheap encouragement to persuade us to keep laboring in His kingdom. This is an invitation to look forward with a perfect brightness of hope, for we are not only doing His work but He is working on us. His “great work” is to “bring to pass [our] immortality and eternal life,” (Moses 1:39). If your perfect plans don’t work out then you can know for a surety that God is working on you. His plans are infinitely grander than our mortal minds can fabricate.
With my minute comprehension of missionary work and life, I cannot possibly measure success in the expanse of eternity. Maybe, for today, the greater success in Heavenly Father’s eyes is not that I accomplished all of my plans but that despite every cancellation I kept walking and my patience grew the tiniest bit. He rejoices every time we smile when it would be easier to cry, every time we walk out the gate, though we are exhausted and unsure what the day holds, and every time one of our weaknesses becomes a little less weak through the Atonement of His Son.
The enemy of our souls tries to convince us that God is only pleased when we are perfect and all weaknesses have been turned to strengths. The truth is when our natural man would get frustrated and lose patience but we choose faith and long suffering instead, that is a miracle to our Father in Heaven.
I often think of Nephi and his diligence and faith in the midst of great setbacks. He may not have left family behind for 18 months but he did leave his home behind with no knowledge of the journey ahead. He and his murmuring brothers took the same path, facing the same Laban, the same hunger, the same storms, and they all reached the Promised Land but which of these sons of Lehi do we honor and desire to emulate?
Nephi, of course. Nephi maintained inexhaustible hope in the promises of the Lord and went on his wilderness journey with gladness in his heart. Laman and Lemuel also go to the land of promise, like Nephi, but what was their journey like? I would say their figurative shoes were worn out within their first steps out of Jerusalem.
I don’t want to be Laman or Lemuel. I don’t want my heart or attitude to match my shoes. I don’t want to wish any moment away.
Nephi’s unfailing faith rested on his testimony that God has the ability to fulfill all of His promises. “Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him. And if it so be that we are faithful to him, we shall obtain the land of promise,” (1 Nephi 7:12-13).
He had faith that God’s wisdom far surpassed his own. He maintained an eternal perspective even when the journey seemed long. In mortal years, maybe his journey was long but great light accompanied him and the Liahona guided them “in the most fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:14). He rejoiced in Christ and lived in thanksgiving in all things. His voice “forever ascend[ed] up unto [God]” (2 Nephi 4:35).
On April 1st, we got a call from the assistants to the president informing us that our quarterly mission leadership council in Zambia had been cancelled. After weeks and weeks of no success, this seemed like the one thing I had to look forward to. I wanted to believe it was some cruel April Fools joke but this three-day trip to Lusaka became yet another 2-hour monthly council over Skype.
That was hardly the spiritual and emotional refreshment I had been waiting for. But with yet another perfect plan shattered and many minutes off my worn out feet down on my weary knees the Spirit called me to awake, shake the dust from my soul, and open my eyes. The Savior brushed me off and reminded me that this may be a wilderness journey but He is leading me through the most fertile parts. With arms outstretched He says, “Let your heart be not faint now the journey’s begun; There is One who still beckons to you. So look upward in joy And take hold of his hand; He will lead you to heights that are new,” (Does The Journey Seem Long, 127).
Oh the heights I have reached on my mission. With every moment of grief my appreciation for the Atonement deepens. The greatest, effulgent joy comes from seemingly inconsequential things–the change of the seasons, having running water when dry taps are the norm, kneeling in prayers with an investigator, seeing someone open the Book of Mormon for the first time, a less active coming to church for the first time in years, a member who willingly teaches with us.
My eyes see life a little clearer and the Spirit has expanded my perspective. Though I am so intricately within this experience I am also without. When missionary work gets difficult I feel my future self calling out to me saying, “Don’t give up, my dear. Don’t you quit. You keep trudging. You keep knocking. There is far greater light ahead.” “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come here after, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings. Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand,” (D&C 58:3-4).
Storms may rage and the natural man may hunker down and hide but a wiser voice calls from future years to say, “You will be forever grateful for this storm. Pull those shoes on and keep walking. Be not weary. You are His work.”