Sunday, January 9, 2011

The "reset" button: back to Texas, and back again

It's been a delightful couple of weeks, wrapping up the holidays and enjoying pleasant weather and company.  For those who didn't know, after Christmas I took my family back to my mission field to share with them a few of the relationships and locales that came to mean so much to me over the two years I spent there.  In many ways, it felt very much like coming home, and I'm grateful to have had such a choice experience with my family. 

Of course, no matter how much I wanted to, it would have been impossible to make two years' worth of introductions in just a little over a week.  I also quickly realized that I was no longer part of a team of college-aged guys whose job was getting to know people; thus, to best fit the needs of my current traveling companions, it wasn't practical to cram my days full of appointments with people I wanted to see (as I had been accustomed to doing as a missionary).  Because of these and other factors, I didn't really say much online about this vacation.  I love all my friends in Texas so much, and would have been very hurt myself if by not visiting someone I had hurt their feelings.  It was best to keep the trip a secret in order to avoid building hopes that would fall to disappointment. 

With that said, I do want to talk about the experience, but I'm going to stay away from writing a travel log (not out of secrecy here, but because it won't mean the same thing to most readers as it would to me).  Instead, I thought it might be more fun to talk about some thoughts I've had about this trip.  Here we go!

As I first flew into San Antonio back in 2008, I had no idea what was under me.  I couldn't make sense of any of the buildings or roads or hills.  I hadn't yet met my mission president or any of my companions.  For that matter, I hadn't met any of the friends who would eventually shape my mission, and for the next several weeks I would be completely lost in my new surroundings.  All I knew was that I was flying over my mission field.  That was a most unique, exciting feeling--one for which I had waited my whole life--and I couldn't restrain myself from sharing it with the passengers around me.

That same ecstasy returned as once again I approached San Antonio at the close of 2010.  But this time, I was coming home.  I knew where I was and where everything else was, and I could feel it pulsing through me as we got closer and closer to the ground.  Those hills down there I knew as the Hill Country.  And that's Lake Medina!  That means we just flew over Boerne. . . .  Yep, we must have.  I see Six Flags.  And there's where I-10 meets the 1604!  South of that is UTSA, west is Helotes. . . .

I was doing that all the way to the airport.

Indeed, it was the first family vacation I could remember where we didn't make heavy use of maps.  I felt like a local, and thoroughly enjoyed training my family in such things as ordering a barbecue plate and how to correctly pronounce words like "Bexar," "Menchaca," and "Nacogdoches."

End of December, start of January.  And I'm going out in shorts and flip-flops.  In this list of thoughts I will occasionally refer to a "reset" button.  This trip was one of those in several different ways, one of which being in climate.  On the plane back home I looked out the window, saw snow, and thought, What the heck?!

One of the funnest things for me about this trip was the element of surprise and the reactions I got from it.  I just kinda snuck in, putting one of my old mission nicknames ("Elder Sly Pig") to good use.  For example, as I emerged from the car when we arrived at church on Sunday, a sister in the ward who I waved to waved back and called, "Hi, Elders!"  And she kept walking.  (Bear in mind that I served for six months in this particular ward, and was only transferred out of there in May; under those conditions I suppose people might still have been used to seeing me.)  As she entered the foyer, I could hear--just as the doors closed--her husband saying, "Isn't that Elder Cunningham?"

Then that door opened again (quite quickly) as we approached, and that was the first of many very happy reunions that would take place that Sunday.

And I do hope the Lord will forgive me for deceiving a missionary.  I needed to find out what time the ward met for sacrament meeting, but didn't want anyone to know I was coming.  So I called the elders!  It was Elder Roland who answered--an elder I had been really close to during the last months of my mission--so to keep him off my trail, I put on a believable act: I pretended to be some random visitor seeing relatives in town, with no idea what I was doing for church on Sunday.  And this poor missionary totally bought it!  I even asked for directions to the chapel.  He sounded pretty excited.

Well, that Sunday happened to be fast and testimony meeting, and Elder Roland went with his companion to bear testimony.  And as he sat up there waiting for his turn, I could pinpoint the exact moment when he finally noticed me quietly blending in near the middle of the congregation.  I wish I could have taken a picture of his face when that happened!  It was one of the most priceless moments of the trip.

These are some of the elders that spotted me when I dropped by the mission office unannounced.

As a missionary, transfers were a natural and uncomfortable part of life.  They were hard, mostly because it meant saying goodbye to people with whom we'd grown close.  If I had time before I moved, I might call a few families to see if I could stop by for a few minutes to say goodbye.  Those were almost always the most difficult visits to make.

But I went back to those same places last week.  And when I had the time, I'd call a family up and see if I could stop by for a few minutes . . . to say hello.  We had already said goodbye once before, so it would never have to happen again.  From now on, every visit would be a hello visit.  

And when you think about it, that's just a small taste of what we're going to experience in the next life.  Pretty sweet!

During the last months of my mission, one of the worries I had about going home was the fact that I now had two separate lives: mission and home.  I knew that that just wouldn't work, and that eventually I would have to bring the two together into one.  This thought came with images like hangouts where high school friends and old mission companions would all be present.  And that was something really cool to think about.  But there was also the worry that bringing my two lives together like that would be a monumental undertaking with the potential of rejection (kinda like a failed organ transplant, or something).

I was very pleased, then, that when my family was introduced to those people we did get to see, it was like they'd all known each other for years!  Everyone just clicked so well, and now I'm enjoying the sweet confusion that happens when I'm sitting at home and one of my family members starts talking about someone I knew on my mission as if that person lived right next door.  Sometimes I have to double check my memory to make sure the names I hear aren't actually in our own ward here in Utah!

It is remarkable, indeed, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has such a way of bringing people together.  No matter who we met, no matter the background, all of us had at least one very big thing in common, and there were no strangers.  It's the same reason I feel as much at home in a chapel a thousand miles away as I do my own.  It's the same reason why I could be across the world and still be able to call on local members of the Church if I need help (or just a friend).  And it's the same reason why I don't need to worry about bringing my mission life and my home life together, because both are built on the same foundation.

Well, this post has gotten long enough, so let's take a break and come back in a couple days.  After all, how do you devour something as big as Texas?  One bite at a time!

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