Formed in Us

By Emily Halverson

It is possible for Christ to be born in men’s lives, and when such an experience happens, that man is “in Christ”—Christ is “formed” in him . . . [Then Christ] is not just a general truth or a fact in history . . . [but a] moving, dynamic, vitalizing force [in his life].
–President Howard W. Hunter [1]

IT WAS AN UNASSUMING little flower arrangement, sitting there on the Relief Society table where other vases had been carefully placed many times before. And yet as I filed into the classroom that day and breathed in its sweet fragrance, it awakened a memory in me that twisted my heart with an emotion hard to identify. What was I feeling, remembering? Suddenly it came. I was back as a missionary in France, walking its narrow streets, with pastel springtime and all its blossoms in full bloom. I worked harder on bringing to the surface what it was that I missed—or as the French put it, what I suddenly felt missing from me. The language? The people? Hot crepes with bananas and Nutella melting out the sides? Sensing that my soul’s longing went much deeper, I thought harder. Was it the black tag, the consecrated life, the chance to testify on every street corner? Yes, mission life was part of what I was remembering, but this yearning seemed to encompass much more.

Suddenly it came to me with such force that my eyes stung with emotion. The memory the flowers triggered wasn’t about where I had once been, or what I had once done—it was what I had once felt. The recollection didn’t merely capture me walking along cobblestone streets, breathing in air steeped in lilac, but the feeling that exploded through my body as I did so, daily representing Him.

There it was. I missed being full of His love—time when Emily was pushed aside and “Christ was formed in [me]” (Galatians 4:19).

* * *

As I entered the MTC, I’d assumed the fiery conversion I’d undergone the year previous was enough to prepare me to serve. I walked through those double glass doors drenched in conviction. I wasn’t going out to preach religion; I was out to teach reality—“things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24). The godless lifestyle I had embraced before my conversion convinced me all too well that the confused and empty world had nothing to offer. I knew firsthand that there truly was “no other way,” and I rejoiced in it. What more would I need to sharpen myself as a tool in the Lord’s hands?

I only had one problem—or what I thought to be the problem. My assigned companion did not want to be on a mission. She’d gone through the common, yet grueling dilemma many young women face when they reach “mission” age; and although she’d decided to serve, it soon became apparent that a final decision had not yet been made. The first few days were torture for us both. She’d sit in the MTC cafeteria at lunch and forlornly push around her mashed potatoes, agonizing over her recent ex-boyfriend, her family’s absence, and her ticket to France looming in the distance. Although I outwardly strove to be patient and understanding, my insides weren’t nearly as bighearted. I couldn’t believe my luck. I longed to be with a sister who’d rejoice with me in the Restoration as we daydreamed about French copies of the Book of Mormon.

I still remember the meeting we sat in where the speaker invited each companion to turn to the other and express their love and gratitude for them. My companion and I quickly exchanged stiff compliments, then looked away and busied ourselves by straightening our nametags. I subtly craned my neck to eavesdrop on the companionships around me and glumly noted the bear hugs, bodies heaving with tears and emotion, corduroy-jumpered sisters embracing. One sister gushed to her companion, “I just don’t know what I’d do without you. You’ve helped my testimony so much. I feel like I’ve known you all my life.” I’d never felt so cheated and alone.

Although I loved the MTC, I was soon anxious to leave my uncomfortable situation and enter the mission field. I was so excited to get out there and love all those French people just waiting—people hungry for love, light, and direction. I completely missed the irony of my situation.

Verily I say unto you, that it is not needful for this whole company of mine elders to be moving swiftly upon the waters, whilst the inhabitants on either side are perishing in unbelief. (D&C 61:3)

* * *

One of the biggest factors in my conversion was the influence of my brother Jeff after he returned from serving a mission in Italy. He hungered for the good word more than any meal, his evening prayers were long and heartfelt, sometimes audible and mixed with tears, and I was sure the truth of the gospel replaced the telestial blood that had once flowed through his veins. I wanted to be just like him. Of all the gifts his mission had developed, charity was his finest. He radiated God’s love so purely that I knew even I could be forgiven for leaving the fold. Funny, as I prepared for my own mission, I don’t think I placed charity as the highest attribute I’d hoped to attain. I was probably guilty of coveting the “mysteries” and “knowledge” and mountain-moving ability that Paul warned about rather than coveting the ability to love (1 Corinthians 13:2).

I remember reading Moses 7 in the MTC and being moved yet mystified by Enoch’s rapid lane change from being completely baffled by the Lord’s weeping over His wicked children to sobbing himself, his “heart swell[ing] as wide as eternity… refus[ing] to be comforted” (Moses 7:41, 44). Only later did I see God’s celestial formula unfolding—Enoch’s great faith, transforming into great hope, giving birth to great charity. As I tried to understand those verses, it never crossed my mind that perhaps my own conversion was still unfinished.

* * *

Hallelujah! My assigned trainer was known throughout the mission as a workhorse; and as I hopped into our Euro-chic mission van for the mission assistants to take me to my first city, I was thrilled at the thought of meeting her. The several-hour drive through France’s colorful countryside was blissful—castle sightings as common as Wal-Marts along an American interstate, and saffron sunflowers clustered together in fields that stretched as far as the horizon would allow. As I drank in the postcard panorama, my soul was at peace. The thought of having a companion without any baggage or missionary “reservations” was liberating.

Finally, nothing would stand in my way of doing what I was called to do. But after several weeks together, I was beginning to wonder if baggage were a requirement qualifying all of us to serve. Although Sister Rosemary was dynamic and driven, even she sometimes struggled with mission life. She was extremely hard on herself, often admitting that she and her former companion had done certain things a bit disobediently. Occasionally she woke up so discouraged that she’d have to paste on a celestial smile I knew must have taken a Herculean effort to muster—nd would half-sing, half-grumble “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” through clenched teeth as we biked up Limoges’s San Francisco-like hills. On my most frustrated and unmerciful days, I wondered why it was such a chore for my companions to enjoy thrusting in their sickle.

Sister Rosemary would often tell me that I didn’t need a trainer—I came into the mission ready. For the first month or two I naively saw that as a compliment, but time began to teach me that perhaps her observation wasn’t so positive—for her to feel, or for me to emit. Her occasional discouragement that she wasn’t doing or becoming all that she should really began to weigh on me, like a problem I might have had something to do with. “But I’m excited to be on a mission; I’m on fire. What’s wrong with that?” I privately insisted. Why was I so inept at transfusing that energy into others?

Great faith—but not much more to offer.

I think it was the first time since I proudly pinned on that black tag that I asked myself, “Lord, is it I?”

Six months into my first city and two companions later, I could feel my heart changing. Rather than rummaging through my companions’ baggage, I began to see my own bulky valise so clearly I wondered how I fit it all into our miniature dwelling space. More and more, I viewed these sisters as less and less of an obstacle in the way of my mission, and the real struggling companion came into full view. The parameters of my mission expanded to encompass loving all who surrounded me. And the obstacle I faced in doing so became someone much harder to deal with, and even harder to run from. Although my new self-awareness was painful, this burning abasing pressed out of my soul a hard-earned agent needed as a catalyst for true conversion to begin.

And so it did—faith wrapped in a holy chrysalis—morphing, changing—its former state but a larva in the shadow of a majestic possibility with wings.

But change unfolds slowly. When word came of who my third companion would be, frankly, I was slightly troubled. Although I knew nothing of her personally, my current companion told me that this particular sister and her trainer were somewhat at odds with each other. And I knew her trainer was one of the finest sisters in the mission. Easy assumptions of who might be at fault flew through my mind; more truthful assumptions replaced them: “Lord, is it the trainer? Lord, will it be me?”

In the several weeks I had remaining before this transfer took place, not a prayer rose from my lips which didn’t beg for charity, for our companionship, or for me. I remember the first conversation Sister Price and I had the day I arrived. I uncharacteristically felt we should call off proselyting for the afternoon so we could just sit and get to know each other. I don’t remember all that we shared, but I remember the feeling. I didn’t feel for her what I—s just Emily—might have felt, nor did I see in her what Emily might have seen. She was perfect. “Lord, it is all of us,” I concluded. And I loved her.

I began to regret my MTC experience for reasons much closer to reality—not for who my companion had been, but who I wasn’t for her. She had to serve with me while I was still filled with Emily—reality that probably made her feel just as cheated, and just as alone. Had we been together later, she could have been loved by someone who was filled with Him.

* * *

The phone rang one morning during the final months of my mission, just as we were rushing to get out of the apartment before we broke the 9:30 exit rule. I picked it up breathless and distracted, searching for my backpack. Hearing the voice of my mission president’s wife on the other end, I was embarrassed that we were still home. Her tone was sober, sad, yet determined. She’d called to talk to me about her friend, an investigator we were working closely with at the time. I loved this investigator’s soul with all of my own. In France, missionaries refer to investigators as les amis de L’Eglise, or “friends of the Church,” and this ami had become a cherished friend of mine. We were teaching her weekly, sometimes several times a week, and yet we couldn’t move forward. I sensed that there was a problem beneath the surface which we were unaware of, and yet I was unsure how I could get to it.

Although this phone call was an answer to prayer, as this sister explained to me the demons our friend was battling—battle where her soul was at stake and she was being slaughtered by the enemy—I felt like a part of me was dying. Elder Maxwell emphasized that “[we are in] a real war, with real casualties” and I had seen others die on this particular battlefield. My throat swelled so thick with tears that talking was no longer possible, so I quickly thanked her and hung up the phone.

Slumping to my knees, I sobbed like a widow on our living room floor. My companion had been at my side since the call began, trying to make sense of the bits and pieces she’d overheard—but I couldn’t even talk to explain. Over and over my mind replayed the experiences I’d had while teaching our ami, God conveying to me so powerfully the worth of her soul that I’d come to love her as He did. How could I not when every time I was with her He emptied into my heart the same pure love that filled His own? Quickly I stumbled up and bolted for the bathroom, so sick with remorse that I nearly threw up. The last time I remembered such a physical reaction to an emotional grief was when I was fifteen at the funeral of my older brother Brent. Returning to the chapel after his burial service that afternoon, I ran into the darkened bathroom with puffy eyes, a heart ripped in two, and emptied all the contents of my stomach into the cold porcelain. That day in France felt no different—the news I’d heard of my ami’s spiritual death “swelled [my heart] as wide as eternity” and I “refused to be comforted.”

The cocoon had burst, and Someone else had formed within.

* * *

About a month ago my brother brought over a girl he’d been set up with on a blind date. Searching for conversation to put her at ease, I asked her about her recent mission to Guatemala. Although we’d just met, as she answered my question there was something in her face that suddenly made her seem so familiar.

“The people were amazing,” she said quietly, and not much more, although the yearning in her eyes told the rest of her story—story not only about how she’d served but who she had become. Her humbled, almost broken-hearted expression as she recalled her service brought an image into my mind of her huddled in a destitute shack, somewhere in the hills of Guatemala, with her scriptures open, teaching—this sister missionary looking lovingly into the dark, weathered face of a Guatemalan daughter of God; the Guatemalan looking into what she must have felt to be the face of God Himself.

Meeting my brother’s date and my experience with the flowers in Relief Society have forced me to remember—shedding light on an uncomfortable discrepancy between then and now. Falling out of love makes for a painful thud once you see you’ve hit the ground. The people were amazing. Are not also the sisters who surround me now? Would knowing of their current battles also send me to my knees?

And what of my transfer from mission to motherhood? My mission companions have been replaced by littler bodies, yet bodies that house the same big spirits. But these are bodies that whine and spill, fight and mess—constant source of entropy—disorder I’m in the daily business of reversing. On most days, tackling a struggling companion who loathes my eager presence seems much easier than confronting these miniature obstacles. Yet again I’m reminded of my greatest obstacle. And in remembering, the parameters of my mission expanded again, and the obstacle is harder still to run from. The real struggling companion comes into clear view once more, in all her blemished reality.

Motherhood has filled me with a love that far surpasses what I experienced as a missionary, and yet these sacred stretches are ever punctuated with the earth-bound, not-so-transcendental moments where I see a horrible incongruity between the missionary I was then and the mother I am now. With my patience stretched taut after refereeing my kids’ tenth fight of the morning, I wonder if it’s possible to see in the faces of my current amis what my brother’s date saw in hers. And I question if there’s ever truly been a time when they could see Him in mine.

But change unfolds slowly. What was the agent that began that process? I’m desperate to recall. I’m afraid of the burning abasing required to cull the catalyst—yet I long for the chrysalis. The startling, though somehow hopeful realization returns: my conversion is still unfinished.

[1] Howard W. Hunter, “The Real Christmas,” Ensign, Dec. 2005.

About Emily Halverson

Emily is a member of Segullah’s editorial board. She, her husband Jared, and their three preschoolers, Eden, Jacob, and Madeleine (and another boy due in May), are currently living in Provo, UT, but will move this summer to Nashville, TN. Emily grew up in Penryn, CA (with nine siblings she considers her best friends), graduated from BYU with a B.A. in English, and spends her days freelance editing, writing, reading, exercising (preferably all of these outdoors) and becoming a Christian through motherhood, which she adores.

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