“The Gimmick,” New Era, Apr. 1983, 33
John lingered in the hall before deciding to get it over with. He was sorry he had even come. His mother had talked him into it, saying, “After all he is the bishop, and if he wants to see you the least you can do is go.”
He’s going to say he hasn’t seen me at church lately, John thought as he idly gazed at the bulletin board in the hall, and they’d like me to help on some project, and I’ll tell him I’m too busy right now, and he’ll say they really need me and then I’ll leave, and it’ll be over for another six months.
He knocked on the door and Bishop Warren invited him in.
Now some small talk to loosen me up, John thought.
The bishop asked about his schooling to become an auto mechanic. John answered in two words. Then the bishop asked about his mother and dad, but John curtly reminded him that the man with his mother was his stepfather, not his real father.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you here,” the bishop said.
Here it comes, John thought.
“God has called you on a mission.”
The silence roared through his ears.
“I don’t want to go on a mission,” John said.
“That’s between you and God. My job is to tell you that you’ve been called.”
He didn’t tell me how much they need me, John thought, stunned and off balance.
“I’m not going.”
“It doesn’t matter that much to me personally if you go or not,” the bishop said, “but I want you to realize that God has called you on a mission.”
“This is just a gimmick to get me to shape up, isn’t it?” John said.
“Is it?” the bishop asked.
“Sure, that’s what it is.”
“Why don’t you pray and ask if it’s a gimmick?”
“I don’t need to pray because I’m not going.”
“Tell that to God then, but not to me. Before you decide though, I have some scriptures on this card I want you to read. Will you do that?”
John avoided the question and took the card. “Is that all you wanted to say?”
As he drove from the church, his mind boiled with anger at the bishop. He wants me to go on a mission so it’ll look good on his report, he thought as he slammed the car into second gear, so he makes up a story about God calling me. Well, he’s not fooling me.
He had his life planned, and it didn’t include a mission. First he’d get a job as a mechanic, then marry Jill and settle down. That’s what he wanted in life, and a mission didn’t fit in. Besides, he wasn’t even going to church or living the way the Church taught. Ever since his father had died and his mother remarried a nonmember, none of them had gone to church.
A few minutes later he parked his car in front of the truck stop cafe where Jill worked and went inside. As he sat down at the empty counter, she brought him a cup of coffee, and then poured herself one.
“Well?” she asked with a grin.
“What did the bishop say?”
“He said God’s called me on a mission.”
She barely got her coffee swallowed before bursting out with laughter.
“You—on a mission? Boy, that’s a laugh.”
“I’m not going.”
“Did you tell him you were going to marry me?” she asked.
“I don’t have to tell him anything. I just said I wasn’t going.”
“But you are going to marry me in June—right? I mean you’re not inventing this story about a mission just to get out of it, are you?”
“I said I’d marry you,” he snapped. “How many times do I have to say it?”
“You’re so romantic,” she said sarcastically.
Another customer came in, and she left to get the order. In a few minutes she was back again.
“This coffee tastes rotten,” he complained. “What’d you do, make it with dishwater?”
She took a sip. “It tastes okay.”
“It’s not okay—it’s terrible.”
“Don’t drink it then. See if I care.”
Another customer drifted in. While he waited for her to come back, he tried to doctor up his coffee by pouring cream and sugar in it, but no matter what he did, it always tasted like burnt rags soaked in dishwater. Finally he put so much cream in that it ended up a chalky white lukewarm disaster. He reached over and dumped it down the drain.
A few minutes later it was quitting time for Jill. As they walked to the car, he asked, “How about going with me to the Longhorn for a beer?”
“On a Tuesday? What’s the occasion?”
“I just feel like it. Besides they have that western band playing there this week.”
“You never drink on weekdays, so why do you want to now? Trying to prove how bad you are so God will let you off the hook about a mission?”
“Quit talking about that. It’s over and done with.”
“I don’t see why you’re so uptight. They’d never send anyone like you on a mission.”
“What about going with me to the Longhorn?”
“Count me out. If you start drinking on Tuesdays, you’re going to end up an alcoholic.”
“Forget it then. I’ll go without you.”
“Suits me fine. You’re in a bad mood, and I don’t want to be around you anyway.”
He took her home and went to the Longhorn, a small place on the highway that served beer mainly to the just-out-of-high-school crowd.
While he was there, two guys came in. For one of them it was his 18th birthday, and they were celebrating by drinking one beer after another as fast as they could until one got sick and the manager made them clean it up, which made the other sick.
John walked out, saying to the one huddled on his knees pushing a towel over the floor, “That’s so clever the way you did that.”
At home in his bedroom he took off his shirt and found the three-by-five card in the pocket with a large handwritten message, “God has called you on a mission. Pray about it.”
He threw the card into the wastepaper basket, turned off the light, and went to bed.
He couldn’t sleep. After two hours of tossing, he sat up in bed and said out loud, “God, I’m not going. So just forget it. Amen.”
On Friday night there was a party for a group of mechanics and instructors involved in the training program. They met at a place called Al’s Oasis.
About 11 that night, one of the instructors, a man named Wayne, got into a fight with his wife. As it heated up, they said things to each other that shouldn’t have been heard by the group. His wife got mad and called a taxi. Wayne got drunker and more obnoxious. A while later he came and asked Jill to dance, but she said no and that made him furious. John told him to get away from her. Wayne tried to hit him, but he ducked and planted his fist solidly in Wayne’s stomach, causing him to double over and fall down.
Two of Wayne’s friends started to make noises about getting even with John. He thought he could handle them but was worried about Jill’s safety if there was a brawl. He grabbed her hand, and they ran out the back door to the car. As they drove away, John saw another car pull out after them, and he knew there might be trouble.
He had done enough deer hunting in the area to know the back roads, so after a few shortcuts, he lost the car behind them, but he kept going for several miles to make sure they wouldn’t find him.
Half an hour later they ran out of gas on a little-used country road. He knew they would have to walk into town.
It was a beautiful clear night with the stars filling the night sky. It had been a long time since John had looked at the stars.
He didn’t say much for the first few minutes of walking, until she finally asked what he was thinking about.
“Them,” he answered.
“Wayne and his wife—the way they were yelling at each other, the way he was drinking.”
“What about it?”
“That’s the way we’ll be in a few years.”
“Is it?” she asked.
“Sure—we argue now, don’t we? And I drink too much. Sure, we’ll be just like them—if we stay married. But maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll get a divorce.”
“You are getting cold feet about marrying me, aren’t you?”
“I’m getting cold feet about ending up like them. There must be more to life than that.”
“What do you want, you know, in life?”
“I want to be the best mechanic in town. I’m good at it, and I like it. And I want some sons to take fishing and hunting. And I want a house and a pickup truck.”
“If we marry, I want it to last.”
“Me too,” she said. “If we’re married, I want you to be faithful to me. I don’t want my life to run like a soap opera.”
They walked a ways in silence, both of them feeling awkward at being so serious.
“John,” she asked, “suppose we have sons. Will you let them go to Primary?”
“Why not? It can’t hurt’em—at least while they’re small.”
“How about Sunday School?”
“If it doesn’t interfere with me taking them fishing and hunting.”
“You can fish on Saturdays.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said.
She waited several seconds before getting courage to ask, “What’d be wrong if we started going to church?”
“For our future sons and daughters, so we can learn. Mormons know how to raise good families, and that’s what we want, isn’t it?”
“I’m not going,” he said bitterly. “If you start, the first thing you know they ask you to do something, and before you know it, your whole life is spent at church. I don’t want to get into that.”
“Can we go for a few times just to see if it’s as bad as we think it is?”
He looked at her, shook his head, and gave in.
“All right, we’ll try it for a couple weeks, but that’s all.”
On Sunday they went to church, and even John had to admit it was okay. While they were there, he studied the missionaries sitting with one of the families they were teaching.
No way, he thought to himself.
On Wednesday he asked Jill if she would go drinking with him on Saturday night.
“I don’t want to go.”
“I thought we were going back to church,” she said.
“What’s going to church have to do with enjoying a beer now and then?”
“You’re the one who’s always saying people who go to church are hypocrites, so now you want to be one too. Is that the way it is?”
“I agreed to go to church, but that’s all. I’ll drink when I want, and nobody’s going to tell me to stop!”
“I will, John. You better stop drinking.”
On Saturday night he went without her. A little past midnight he got into an argument about religion with the guy next to him, who was an atheist. John tried to convince him about God.
“There’s a God,” John said.
“Look at the flowers. You think that just happened?”
“Yeah, that’s what I think.”
“You’re crazy, you know that. Flowers don’t just happen,” John said, slamming down his mug for emphasis.
“What do you know about God anyway? What’s he to you?”
John stared at the empty mug, it’s promise of happiness gone, leaving only an empty froth, full of air with no substance. That’s when he became very depressed.
“What’s wrong with you?” the guy next to him asked.
“God wants me to be a Mormon missionary.”
The guy laughed so hard he fell off the chair.
At three in the morning, John drove to the church parking lot and stumbled onto the lawn in front of the chapel.
“Hey, are you there?” he yelled, looking up at the steeple. “Look at me! I’m drunk! Do you see that? Isn’t that disgusting? That’s why I can’t go on a mission—so quit bugging me about it! Look, I’d like to help you out, but you’ve got the wrong person. I’m not a good person. I’m rotten—rotten to the core.”
He sat down on the lawn and started to cry again. Among the sobs he pleaded, “All I want you to do is tell the bishop you were wrong about a mission for me. Then just let me be me—no good rotten John.”
After that he must have crawled into the car and fallen asleep, because the next thing he remembered was the slamming of a car door next to him. He woke up and looked around. It was early morning. Standing next to him looking into the car was Bishop Warren.
“You’re here early this morning for church,” the bishop said.
John’s mouth felt as if somebody had driven a cattle truck through it all night, and his head ached.
“Bishop, last night I was drinking, and I came here to get a message to God that he made a mistake about calling me on a mission. I’m not good enough to do anything in this church.”
“Do you believe now that God wants you to go on a mission?”
He looked up and said quietly, “I guess I do, but it’s too late. I’ve made too many mistakes.”
“John, you’ve got to learn to repent now. Let’s go to my office, and I’ll give you a thorough interview.”
He was too tired to argue. As he opened the car door, two empty cans rolled onto the parking lot, making a loud noise. He stepped gingerly from the car, picked up the cans, tossed them in the front seat, and stumbled after the bishop.
In the office, he sat rigidly in his chair, feeling that the room was leaning over to one side. The bishop asked him question after question, and it was embarrassing to answer them truthfully, but he wanted the bishop to know everything about himself.
After the last question, the bishop was silent for a moment and then said, “John, you’ve disappointed the Lord.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Before you were born, he called you to serve a mission, and you agreed. But now, unless you repent in a major way, you’ll lose that opportunity. We don’t send young men on missions unless they’re clean.
“The time to start repenting is now. Let me write down the things you need to work on. If you can turn your life around, you can still serve a mission, but it’ll take a while to demonstrate your obedience.”
“How long?” he asked.
“Maybe a year.”
“That’s a long time, bishop.”
“A year’s a year, whether you repent or not. And if you don’t repent, where will you be after a year?” The bishop’s list filled two pages.
“I’ll see you next week at this same time, and we’ll see how you’re doing. Priesthood meeting starts in an hour, so you better get home and change.”
He hurried home and got ready, making it back just in time. After Sunday School, he talked to Jill.
“I was surprised to see you here this morning,” she said.
“Jill, I’m going on a mission.”
“Sure you are,” she laughed.
“No, I mean it.”
She looked at him as if for the first time. “Why?”
“God wants me to go.”
She looked at him for a long time before saying, “I think I’m seeing a part of you I never knew existed—the part you tried to hide from everyone.”
She pursed her lips, closed her eyes for a second, and then tried to smile. “Well, so much for a June wedding—right?”
“It’s just a year and a half, and when we get married, it’ll be in the temple.”
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “You and me—regular church people. Who’d ever have thought it?”
“What will you do while I’m gone?” he asked.
It took courage for her to even say it. “You know what? Nobody in my family ever went to college. What if I went to Ricks College, maybe just for a year, you know, just to say I’ve gone? I think I’d like to do that.”
“Jill, have you talked to the bishop?”
“You ought to and when you do, ask him for the thorough interview. He writes down a list of things to work on, and you go back in a week to report how you’ve done.”
So for the next few months, they both repented.
Six months later on a Sunday he watched a guy in faded Levi’s and western shirt burst from the bishop’s office laughing as he headed toward the door. John asked him what was so funny and was told that the bishop had said that God had called him on a mission.
“Isn’t that stupid?” the guy howled. “I don’t even go to church.”
So it was a gimmick after all, John angrily thought as he stormed into the bishop’s office.
“How many others have you told God called them on a mission?” he snapped.
“All of them between the ages of 18 and 25.”
“I believed you when you told me! I didn’t know it was just hype to drum up more missionaries!”
“Let’s talk about it, John,” the bishop said in an even tone.
“I’m tired of talking to you!” he said, whirling toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To get drunk!” he yelled, heading outside with the bishop right behind him.
“You can’t go back to the way you were.”
“Why can’t I?”
“Because now you have a testimony. Don’t you?”
He stopped just before reaching his car and thought about the past six months.
The bishop was right. He had a testimony that the Church was true. He couldn’t go back to the way he had been.
Inside the office, the bishop pulled out a worn copy of the New Era and read parts of a talk by President Kimball: “‘Should every young man … fill a mission?’ … The answer the Lord has given [is] ‘Yes, every worthy young man should fill a mission.’ The Lord expects it of him. And if he is not now worthy to fill a mission, then he should start at once to qualify himself.”
The bishop put down the magazine.
“But I thought you meant God wanted me personally to serve a mission.”
“John, I’ve fasted and prayed about what I told you. God does want you to serve a mission. If you doubt it, fast and pray about it too.”
He did pray and fast, and that helped him feel more assured the bishop was right, but the complete answer didn’t come until three months later.
He had continued to drop by the cafe near Jill’s quitting time, where he had his nightly cup of hot chocolate. One night she said, “Why don’t you come with Cindy and me next Saturday? We’re going to get a patriarchal blessing.”
“I’m not sure exactly. Cindy’s more says it’s personal revelation to help a person live his life. Will you take us? We have to go out of town to where the patriarch lives, and we were hoping you’d drive us. You could get a blessing too, but first you’ll have to get an interview from the bishop.”
“That’s no problem,” he smiled. “It seems like the past year has been one continuous interview.”
When he went for his interview, he brought the worn pages of repentance goals the bishop gave him on his first thorough interview. One by one, day by day over the months since then, he had checked each item.
After the interview, the bishop gave him a recommend for his patriarchal blessing and said, “John, you’re clean now.”
On Saturday the three of them drove to the stake center, where they met the patriarch who talked with them for a few minutes before giving each of them a blessing.
As the patriarch laid his hands on John’s head and began, it was like a cleansing shower of light and joy washing away the bad opinions he’d had about himself. As a child he was the boy who believed himself to be a bad boy, a mischievous boy, an average boy, a low achiever, a trouble-maker, a bad example. He found out that if you believe that about yourself then your life matches what you believe. Even at first when he tried to repent, underneath it seemed artificial, as if he were only putting on an act of goodness but deep down was still rotten and would be forever. But now as the patriarch gave him a blessing, he felt strongly that God was his Father in Heaven and that as a son in the premortal existence he had once been greatly loved and trusted.
He knew he was crying and that tears were rolling in small rivers down his face, and he knew Jill and Cindy knew it too; but he didn’t care because, for the first time in his life, he knew his true relationship to God.
The patriarch told him that Father in Heaven had called him to serve a mission, which was what the bishop had said, except this time, John knew it was true.
After the blessing, he sat in the chair, wiped his eyes, and, a little embarrassed, asked Jill for a tissue.
That’s how John came to go on a mission, and why Jill saved some money and quit the cafe and went to Ricks. Sometimes she’d be listening to a lecture when she would suddenly realize where she was and she’d think, Look at me! I’m in college and I never thought I’d be, and I’m smart enough to understand what the professor is saying, and I bet there’s a hundred other things I can do that once seemed impossible. I’m going to stay active and live the commandments and be married in the temple. Nobody around here, no bishop or other priesthood leader, has ever said my past mistakes were too great or that it’s too late for me to repent. All that’s important is that we start today and repent and live the commandments, and the Savior will take care of the rest.
John worked harder on his mission than ever before in his life. When he first started out, he thought what a great sacrifice it was to take 18 months to serve the Lord. But as his mission progressed he learned you can’t really sacrifice to the Lord because the more you give, the more he blesses you, and when you finish, you are more indebted to him than ever before.
Sometimes on his mission he and his companion would see an auto repair shop and stop. Inside John always looked for the meanest-looking mechanic there who was about his age, and he would walk up to him and say, “God sent me here to talk to you.” The guy usually swore and went back to his work on a car. John would lean over the other side of the hood, peering into the engine to watch him work, and little by little he would explain the message God had for that mechanic.
During his mission it only happened once that the mechanic ended up joining the Church, but John thought it was great that one did because, as he used to say, Father in Heaven needs all the mechanics he can get.
“Otherwise,” he’d say with a broad grin, “in heaven, who’s going to service all those chariots?”