The following is a talk I gave at a missionary farewell in church today:
I had only been a missionary in France for a few weeks and I was desperately homesick. My companion was an ex-marine who knew how to follow the rules with precision and one of those rules was to speak in French at all times during the day. My French was about as good as it had been in junior high school, which is to say, not very good at all, so I mostly remained silent as we rode our bicycles out to the low-income housing in the Parisian suburbs of our quartier where we tracted—they call it porte-a-porte or “door to door” in French which is exactly what we did—going door to door for sixty hours a week with little success. The weather was bleak that summer. I joked in a letter home to my parents that it had only rained once during those first few months, but it started in June when I arrived and ended sometime in mid-August. I felt desperately lonely and miserable riding my bike in the rain and meeting rejection at almost every door.
On one of my first Sundays at the little ward meeting house, I was feeling particularly homesick when Brother Tran, the second councilor in our ward, approached me, smiled, put his arm around me, and asked “how are you doing, Elder Petersen?” It was a small gesture on his part—I doubt he even thought about it, and almost certainly wouldn’t remember it—but it changed my world and my life. In that brief moment, I felt my heart expand, my spirits rise, and my soul becalm. I not only felt Brother Tran’s warmth and friendship, but somehow in that brief embrace Brother Tran conveyed to me something more: I felt my Heavenly Father’s love for me and a peaceful assurance that I was not alone. I never got to know Brother Tran very well—he lived outside of our area—but I will never forget him, for on that one day when I needed a blessing from heaven, he was to me a ministering angel. Significantly, our ward meetings were held in the city of Colombe, the word means dove in French. And if there was ever a symbol for peace, it was the ward in Colombe. Church meetings became a place of renewal for me throughout my mission, a refuge from the world, a place where I felt the angelic fellowship of other believers and the presence of God.
Throughout my mission, I felt the presence of other ministering angels. I frequently thought of my grandmother, who had died a few months before I entered the MTC, and I had the inexplicable feeling that she was watching over me. I also felt strength from prayers I knew were being offered on my behalf at home and the presence of the Spirit during discussions, especially as we bore our testimonies. I also began to see the gospel change the lives of those few who would listen. Our investigators were typically those who lived in the most humble of circumstances—we saw extreme poverty and desperation—but as these humble people accepted the principles of the gospel their souls were buoyed and angelic ward members rallied to give aid and comfort where they could. I saw these new members become part of a community of saints, their lives made better, more whole and holy.
When Christmas came, I fully expected to be hopelessly homesick. Instead I saw angels all around me. The Sunday prior to Christmas we accompanied a group of ward members to a rest home where we sang Christmas carols. We were a small group of carolers, but as I watched the faces of our elderly audience light up, I felt as if heavenly choirs had joined in. On Christmas day, a family in our ward invited us, our investigators, and several new members to their house for dinner, each of us bringing a dish from our native land. It was truly an international dinner with our French hosts, our Russian investigators, a newly baptized young woman from Algeria, a young couple from Zaire, my Canadian companion, and me. And I felt God’s spirit bless us as we represented a small microcosm of the kind of peace on earth that the Christmas season promises.
In last chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, he alludes to Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly messengers who foretold the birth of his son Isaac. Paul reminds the Jewish Christians of the ancient law of hospitality, stating “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). The word “angels” in both Hebrew and Greek simply means “messenger.” In fact, the name of the prophet Malachi is simply a form of the Hebrew word “angel” or “malak” and means “my messenger.” In the scriptures the word can refer to messengers both heavenly and human but they always have a heavenly purpose. These messengers sometimes deliver important news (as does the angel Gabriel to Mary), convey warnings (as does the angel who appears to Laman and Lemuel), provide care and nurture (as the angel who delivers food and drink to Elijah [Kings 19:5-7] or the angels who attend Christ in Gethsemane [Luke 22:43–44]), and teach (as the angel who visits Daniel [Dan. 8:16] or the one comes to Adam and Eve after they offer sacrifice [Moses 5:6-8]). We Latter-day Saints believe that angels like Moroni, John the Baptist, and Peter, James and John also restored lost knowledge and priesthood keys. But Nephi tells us that after we have received the Holy Ghost we too can “speak with the tongue of angels” who “speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Ne. 32:2-3). Whether heavenly or mortal, all of these messengers act as God’s emissaries.
One of the most important things my mission gave me was numerous experiences to entertain angels, most of them mortal, but all of them holy. I saw people bless each other’s lives as they themselves were blessed by forces from beyond. And as missionaries we were blest by our selfless service to others. Whether it is physical or spiritual, humanitarian works or spiritual teaching, missionary work is full time service to others. Missionaries are ministering angels, constantly influencing others’ lives for the good.
We all touch the lives of those around us, influencing their actions and words. Most often we are completely unaware of that influence. As a teacher, I know this first hand, as I’ve heard the words of my former professors come out of my mouth when I teach my students. And just this week, I received an email from one of my former students, now a professor of religion at BYU-Hawaii. He said he had been trying to find an article on a particular topic to give to his class, and came across something I just recently wrote on the subject. This made him realize that it was probably my influence in classes he took from me as an undergraduate that prompted him to want to share this information with his students. He thought it was delightfully serendipitous that he had come full circle from student to teacher to student, and I was happy that my influence had been positive. So in education, teachers often know they have a direct influence on their students.
Even though we all influence the lives of others, the question is whether we will be an influence for good or bad. A few years ago, the actions of a man I didn’t even know at the time caused me to lose out on a professional opportunity, permanently damaging my career. Even though he didn’t know me and surely didn’t intend to hurt me, his actions created a ripple effect that extended out to me. I learned from this experience that we can never can know the ripples of influence that our actions can cause, and I’ve since wondered what injuries I may have caused to others without intent or knowledge. It’s forced me to rely more completely on the saving grace of Christ’s atonement, since I know I have likely inadvertently sinned and caused pain to others. But it’s also caused me to renew my resolve to be more charitable, to try to be an angel of mercy like Brother Tran was to me on my mission.
These ripples of influence can and do often go on for generations. I think this is why the scriptures speak of “the sins of the fathers being visited upon the heads of the children”—it’s not that we are punished for sins we did not commit, but that we often bear the consequences—physical or psychological—of our ancestors’ mistakes. I just recently learned of how I was able to influence the life of not just one person but perhaps a generation. My second companion felt impressed that we should spend time visiting a family in the ward that was somewhat inactive. We visited this family almost weekly and developed a deep love for them, as they did for us. Our spending time with this family did not give us the kinds of numbers that missionaries like to report to their presidents—numbers of hours proselyting, number of hours teaching, number of people committed to baptism, number of baptisms. Hours spent with this family counted for nothing on the record books of the mission. Yet this family began coming to Church regularly. Just a few months ago, an old friend of Zina’s was in town to drop off her son at BYU and stopped by to visit. Coincidentally, her son had just returned from my former mission and had served in many of the same places I had served, so I began to ask him about families I knew when I served there. When I mentioned this particular family, he said that their son, who was just a boy of maybe eight or ten when I served in France, was now a leader in the stake. Success in my mission was hard to calculate since baptisms were so scarce, so it felt really good to find out that we may have made some difference, that the ripples of our actions may reach beyond one generation and perhaps beyond one family.
The Church is a wonderful place for us to minister to each other’s needs, where we can entertain angels. I think the service we do for others within the ward family is one of the best ways we do this. In Matthew, Christ reminds us that serving others gives us the company of not only angels but Christ himself. “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me,” says Jesus. For “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:35-36; 40). When we serve others and bless their lives, Christ is there, in our lives and in the lives of those we serve. I sometimes ask myself if I can see the face of Christ in the face of the homeless person on the street corner or in the face of the aged person in the rest home? Regardless, I know Christ observes my actions when confronted with those in need and tests my charity.
Significantly, some angel or angels showed up at my house this morning. I was up rather late last night putting the final touches on this talk. When I awoke this morning, I knew it had been snowing all night and was not looking forward to having to shovel my walks. When I looked out the window I discovered my walks had already been shoveled. And the fact that I have no idea who did it, makes me see all of you with greater gratitude since you may have been the angel who shoveled my walks. No one is better at this kind of guerilla charity—doing kind deeds for people and then not sticking around to get the credit—than my wife, Zina. Recently, we were in a doctor’s office when a family came in with a little girl who had a broken arm. We overheard the mother and father discussing how they were going to be able to pay the copayment and feed their family. Zina quietly asked the receptionist to put their copayment on our bill, and covertly paid it for them. I’ve seen her do this kind of thing often.
I also think attending Church services offer us this opportunity to entertain angels. There are many times I’ve felt moved by the words of a speaker or felt the presence of the spirit witnessing to me of some truth. However, I think we have to learn how to see the angels among us. Recently I was reading the book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by the essayist and naturalist Annie Dillard and was struck by her discussion seeing. She writes that there are two ways to see nature: one active and one passive. She describes how in one mode she must actively study nature, to verbalize to herself what she is seeing, “maintain[ing] in [her] head a running description of the present” as she overturns rocks and studies the river bank “a square foot at a time” (33). But the other way of seeing “involves a letting go.” It’s in seeing this way that she is able to see the unexpected, the flash of a fish in a stream, the sudden burst of a flock of birds taking wing. “The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price,” writes Dillard (35). It struck me as I read this that attending Church meetings may require two types of seeing too. There are times when we need to focus on the content, to keep, as Dillard puts it, “a running description” of the words in our heads. But there are other times when we must open ourselves and our senses so we can see and hear the brief flashes of inspiration that may be lost to us if we focus too hard or get distracted. At one time in my life, I always made sure to bring a book with me to Church to occupy myself on High Council Sundays or during a particularly boring talk. Now I find those talks to be the very ones where I need to open myself to the spirit, to allow the full experience of the meeting to affect my soul or to notice the brief flash of angelic beauty or wisdom or comfort that may come from the speaker, the congregation, the music, or the child sitting down the row from me. These two modes of seeing have helped me to entertain angels at almost any meeting.
Just before I returned home from my mission, my companion and I were talking with a young Algerian woman who had been hanging around the missionaries for several years. I think she had taken the discussions at one time, but she really seemed more interested in the missionaries, particularly my companion, than in the Church. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at one point I suddenly said “Oh, you’ll eventually get baptized; you’ll join the Church.” I think all of us were a little shocked that I said this, but we quickly changed topics and continued talking. Several months after I returned back home to Utah, I received a letter in the mail from this young woman telling me that my comment inspired her to be baptized. So like Brother Tran at the beginning of my mission, I was able to be a ministering angel to this young woman. I was thrilled that my words had made a difference, but I really don’t think they were my words. I was simply the instrument through which the Lord worked on that occasion. But I felt honored that I had been able to be his servant.
I believe that the Lord’s promise to missionaries in 1834 stands today, “And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88). And I bear witness that I have felt the presence of heavenly angels not only on my mission but on several occasions in my life—the first time I entered the temple to do baptisms for the dead, on the day I was married, when I witnessed each of my children being born, and when my parents passed away to name only a few. I can honestly say that I’ve entertained a number of angels; however, by far most of these angles have been mortals, humans who have touched my life and lifted my soul as they have been moved to do so by God. I bear testimony that the Church is true and that we can each be instruments in God’s hands, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.