Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Boring Discipleship

I am in the throes of the annual spring semester existential crisis--my students don't seem to have progressed much, if at all, this year; in my depression over this (apparent) reality I slacken my daily discipline and fantasize about dramatic events that can stir and maybe academically save my kids. I am trying to remind myself how essential boring discipleship is, both professionally and spiritually. This--the boringness--is one of discipleship's hardest aspects. In fact, for me, it's harder than anything else (except when it's not boring--then things are really hard).

I am editing the missionary journal of an Elder Joseph Brooks who served in Texas from 1899-1902 (for distribution among descendants of those he baptized; I'm almost finished, Mom, I promise). Two things that strike me in the journal are (1) how insignificant the one day we talk about--the day he "found" William Williamson--is compared to the rest of the mission and (2) how signficant the rest of that mission is to the story we tell. From my introduction (overblown rhetorical flourishes at no extra charge):

I think perhaps the most important element of Elder Brooks’ journal is its daily “boringness.” Most mornings he set out on “another day’s ramble” (19 Apr 00) and worked until the “troubles of another day were ended” (8, 15 Apr 00), and what those troubles were he usually reduces to weather, walking, some talking, sleeping, and eating. Herein is the strength of the “story:” nothing ever happens but everything. It is here in daily life that he pays the price and it is here he participates in the miracles. He records no soul-searing or body-breaking tortures, just walking to exhaustion in heat and cold, enduring malaria over and over and over, leaving loved ones again and again, and so on. There is no blessedly quick martyrdom, no laying down his life gloriously and then going to a glorious rest. He lays down his life and drags it through marshes and black prairie mud and floodwaters and heat and cold and prejudice and apathy and everything else in the way. ...It is thus that he plants and waters seeds, thus that he lifts up the hands which hang down, strengthens feeble knees, and stitches together a community of saints: line upon line, smile upon smile, handshake on handshake, truth on truth, life on life.

It is discipleship's dailyness that most often gets me, and I think most of us. I can be nice sometimes, even often. I can sacrifice for special events. I have been known to live, on occasion, with "attention to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ." But, the promise is to "always remember him," and that relentless "always" pursues me and swallows my pitiful "sometimes." If I were ambitious I'm sure I could find a NA Maxwell quote to make my post superfluous; I don't feel like it, so you're on your own. (Did I just fail a test of daily discipleship?) I do, however, have an LT Ulrich quote handy:

...it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies. To extract the river crossings without noting the cold days spent ‘footing’ stockings, to abstract the births without recording the long autumns spent winding quills, pickling meat, and sorting cabbages, is to destroy the sinews of this earnest, steady, gentle, and courageous record. (p. 9. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, 1990. See also her essay, “The Importance of Trivia.” Journal of Mormon History. 1993, 19(Spring):52-66.)

Again, from my introduction to the Brooks Journal:

So, what do we learn from Elder Brooks’ journal? For me the lesson is about missions themselves, mine in particular. If his journal is an accurate indicator, what Elder Brooks did on his mission was walk and walk some more and then look for food and a place to sleep. Along the way he got lost and tired and sick. He also talked to some folks, taught a few, and baptized a handful. It was an altogether uneventful few years and an altogether familiar few years. ...[But, w]ith a century of perspective I and many others call Elder Brooks blessed. Perhaps one day others will look back in gratitude for the work my companions and I did in our short service.

I think the lessons apply to more than just missions. I also think that more can be said for our actions than that they bore fruit. We were assigned to walk and to talk and we did, which as Nate Oman points out, "is not without its own dignity." We were not assigned to convert anyone nor can we take credit for any conversions, no matter when they happen--conversion is the Lord's task, not ours. It is going too far the other direction, however, to say that the only value is the existential satisfaction that Camus told us to extract from our Sisyphean tasks (which I don't think Nate O was suggesting). As Henry Eyring--who had his own Sisyphean difficulties--says, "I'm not here for the weeds (¶ 21-25)." We are doing "result-oriented" work, but the object for which we work here and now is not necessarily the result to which Father is guiding us.

When I started this post I had a particular endpoint; I don't remember what it was. Oh well. Viva la half-bakedness! May we endure well the drudgeries and in so doing be fitted for heaven.

Apparently I am unable to post without a dash of poetry. So, from Sabará, Minas Gerais, Brazil five months into my mission (27 Oct 96):

Boring Discipleship I
This is my great agon:
the little half steps, the visits, the miles,
smiles, doors, and conversations
disappearing to forgotten lands
and dust and aches.
You don't know what seeds you sow!
cliché-ers cliché
and I don't care
in this long hot lonely stretch
between faith and witness
(of faith until witness?)
where we plod,
trailing our gentle wake
bearing the easy yoke.


At April 18, 2006 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he's been robbed. The fact is that most putts don't drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old-time journey...delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas, and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride." Gordon B. Hinckley

At May 08, 2006 11:39 AM, Blogger tyler said...


Where do you teach?

This is a beautiful post. I used to tell "my" missionaries (I taught ESL in the MTC, which has a rather rap-like cadence to it) that their missions would be hard. I told them most days would be filled with slammed doors, dirty shirts, and half-baked companions--the trick, I said, was to just keep trucking so as to find that one lone seeker just before twilight and at the very end of the dusty road.

It now occurs to me, however, that I ought to have better emphasized that many days are not so much hard as boring. I served in Mexico and my first town was a lazy little suburb far-flung from the metropolis. Life was hard (I missed my family terribly, my first companion and I were not fast friends, etc.), but, often, it was just boring, dirty, and unremarkable.

Lookling back, of course, it is nice to reflect on the miracles (which were just as real as the grime and monotony). Still, there were relatively few pearls stretched across a long and dusty road.

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