I had the pleasure of watching the new movie Soul Surfer this evening, and I'd like to share some thoughts and reactions here.
Growing up, I loved dinosaurs, legos, and Star Wars toys. I loved Transformers, video games, and Japanese animation. Then when I was 18 years old, I had a decision to make about whether or not I was going to leave my university studies, my home, my CDs, and my video games to serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Becoming a missionary for the Church is entirely a volunteer activity; there is no monetary compensation. Young men are encouraged to earn and save money to be able to pay the costs associated with living and teaching the gospel for the term of their mission, which currently runs over $10,000 USD. As a youth, I had no such foresight or even desire to serve a mission. I spent my money on myself.
So it would seem like a no-brainer. Why would I want to leave everything and go off somewhere (the Church leaders assign where you go; you don't get to pick), and knock on doors trying to convert people to Christianity? And yet, it was something that weighed on my 18 year-old mind and heart.
I had several peers that went on missions before I did (they turned 19, the minimum mission age for men, before me), and their letters (from one friend in particular) were encouraging, even if they were a bit strange. In 1 Corinthinas 13:12, Paul speaks of seeing through a "glass darkly." This is a good description of the barrier that exists between someone involved in religion or faith-based living and someone who is not. I'm not talking about a physical barrier, and it really goes beyond being even a mental or emotional barrier. It's almost like a weird twist on the Tower of Babel story, but where two people are actually speaking the same language, but their views of "reality" (paradigms) are so different that they can't understand each other. Or in the words of Pink Floyd, "your lips move, but I can't hear what you're saying."
One of my Japanese instructors was a member of the Church, and after asking about my plans to serve a mission and hearing my indeterminate response, he respectfully but strongly encouraged me to go, saying that my talents and abilities were needed in the missionfield.
At the time I lived close to my grandparents, and visited them regularly. I asked them what they thought of going on a mission. Both of my grandmothers responded that they thought it was a good thing. One grandma had two sons that served missions (my father and my uncle) and she said that the experience really helped them a lot. I think these remarks helped my mind and heart to be prepared for when I asked my Mom what she thought about serving a mission.
We were in the car, driving home from somewhere and were only a few minutes from our house. She said that over the years she had seen many young men in our Church leave on their missions, and when they got back after two years, they were more mature, grown up, and likely to take a responsible place in society. These were definitely not the words she used, but this is what I understood; and there are no words for the peace that "switched on" in my heart: that a mission was exactly what I needed. At that point in my life, I was feeling "stuck in neutral," like Justin in this article. I knew what kind of man I wanted to be and was expected to be, but had no idea how to get there. I felt like a mission would help me "grow up" and out of the self-absorbed teenager that I was.
This feeling turned out to be true. On my mission I found out first-hand the truth of the verse that says "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." And I can't help but quote the next verse:
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
I found true joy and fulfillment in my life in serving and loving others, rather than being preoccupied with my own wants and desires. I also felt fatigue, frustration, and depression at times in degrees I had never encountered before in my life. But somehow, those lows are easily dismissed and forgotten. I only say it here because people that endeavor to follow Christ should not feel betrayed or dismayed when they find thorns and thistles along the path He trod.
So back to Soul Surfer. I am finding that as I get older, I am less and less interested in the thrilling blockbusters like Avatar and Harry Potter. But films like Soul Surfer, based on true accounts of people such as Bethany Hamilton, that glorify God and encourage people to rise above focusing only on themselves, make me a better person for having watched.