It's been over three years since my last post. I stopped writing when I returned home, thinking that my purpose in writing the blog had been fulfilled. However, about three months ago a young woman who lives in one of the areas I served responded to a post I'd sent home and asked how serving a mission has strengthened my soul. It took me three months to sort through all the thoughts I had about my life post-mission. Here's an attempt to articulate some of those thoughts.
For those who know me or have read much of my blog, it's easy to tell that I LOVED being a full-time missionary. I was in no way ready to go home when the end of my mission arrived. I begged my mission president for an extension, even though I knew they are almost never granted. I asked repeatedly (out of my own desperation). I'll never forget the look in his eye when he said, "Hermana Blackford, it's time to go home." I felt a pit in my stomach. His wife later told me that after one of my requests to stay longer, my mission president went into his office and teared up because he knew how sincere I was. While I knew he was right, for some reason I just didn't feel ready to stop being a full-time missionary.
Back at home, I put on a smile for most of my family and friends and was grateful for their love and support. My parents, especially my mom, were acutely aware of how I was actually feeling. They lovingly reminded me to give it some time and encouraged me to set new expectations for my own spirituality. I spent a lot of time right after I returned home going out with the local sisters, desperate not to lose that feeling I had as a missionary. But, as any returned missionary can tell you, the rest of your life simply doesn't feel like being a missionary. It's different - but that's not bad.
I've digressed a bit from the question I was asked, but it's impossible to understand how a mission strengthened my soul without knowing how I truly felt about serving a mission. I will forever be grateful for those 18 months and all the people I met and lessons I learned. I needed that time for what came next.
Fast forward to my return to college at Brigham Young University, only 6 weeks after returning home. I love learning and I love school, so I was thrilled to return. You can only imagine my disappointment to find that school didn't have the same allure as before, and I found myself still missing the mission field. I jumped into weekly temple attendance and took a family history class in the fall to help me be part of another aspect of the work of salvation. Needless to say, I had some ups and downs during my transition back to home life. However, I was determined to continue progressing spiritually and help others do the same when possible.
About a year after returning home, I hit what I thought was the biggest bump in my post-mission life. I felt lost and really felt a lack of purpose in my daily life. I started slipping in reading my scriptures daily and in my temple attendance because I felt stalled in my spiritual life. Counter intuitive, right? Shortly after that, I hit an even bigger bump that drastically affected all aspects of my life. While the details of this obstacle are a story for another time, I found myself confused and hurt. I began to feel distance between myself and God in a way I never had before. Strangely enough, it was also during one of the best moments of my life - when I found my eternal companion. I was worthily married in the temple as planned a month later, but I knew I had some work to do.
The next two years were challenging. I loved and faithfully served in my calling as a co-teacher in the Spanish Gospel Doctrine class in my ward with my amazing husband. Scripture reading was (and maybe still is) a bit spotty at times, but I'm working on that. Luckily I have such a great partner who is always supportive and a great example to me. With his help, I've overcome some of the hurt I felt and began to rebuild my relationship with my Heavenly Father. I have also been able to find some of the greatest joy in life during this time. Beyond a happy marriage, my studies in sociology and international development have led me to work with nonprofit organizations domestically and abroad to help improve their programs and better meet the needs of the people they serve. It's a unique, relatively obscure field that I absolutely love. My hope is to continue this into a full-time career, combining the need to work with constant service.
Now, how does all of this tie together? As I've gone through some of these trials and had some of the greatest happiness, the words I hear inside my head, guiding me and reminding me what I know to be true, are my own. Struggling with reading my scriptures? I can hear myself bearing my testimony as a missionary to investigators and less-active members. Confused about a gospel principle or church policy? I can hear myself explaining how we can learn truth for ourselves and reminding those I taught that it's okay - and even a good thing - to ask questions. We know that one of the most repeated words in the scriptures is to remember. Well, I remember. I remember teaching the truths of the gospel over and over again. I remember supporting investigators and less-active members through faith crises and temporal challenges. I remember what it felt like to be completely immersed in service. These are things I can never forget.
I loved serving a mission. I look forward to the next one I serve with my husband in 40 or 50 years. In the meantime, I know that I needed to serve a mission not just for those I taught, but for myself. I was called to be a full-time missionary. Now I'm called to a mission, and while I'm not perfect at fulfilling it, I know that I'm doing what Heavenly Father wants me to do. When I get off the path, I remind myself to get back on again, but I also remind myself it's okay to slip and stumble, because I can at least be confident that I'm heading in the right direction.