Week 99; October 5, 2015 – Numbers Rarely Tell the Whole Story
It's weird for me to think this whole journey's almost over. Two years ago the nation of Sweden was more of a concept than it was a tangible reality, but now this place has become a second home to me. There isn't really any way of gaining an understanding about another culture until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Superficially, Sweden has a lot in common with the United States, and in many ways they've influenced our fashions and our music, but this is very much a nation of individuals that think, act, and believe in a very different manner than what I was used to. Nonetheless, I have grown to love them all.
I don't know what other missions around the world are like, and I don't care to compare them, but I would venture to say my mission experience has been unconventional at best, and most of my preconceived notions of missionary work and the people of Sweden have been turned upside down. If numbers matter, I have not had a numerically successful mission. I have never baptized anyone here, and for most of my mission teaching more than 15 people a week has been a nothing short of a miracle.
Yes, if one could look at the baseball card statistics of my mission and compare it with other, more traditional expectations of a mission, they might think that my two years has been a waste of time. I however, have learned that a mission, regardless of where you may serve, or what language you may speak, is far more valuable than what can be quantified into numbers.
I have enjoyed a deeply meaningful, cultural, educational, and spiritual experience over these past two years that I would not trade for anything. My mission has given me a unique perspective and preparation for the rest of my life that would have been impossible to develop in any other way. The challenges, trails, hardships, triumphs, failures, and friendships that I've developed during my time away from home couldn't be traded for anything. But, before I talk about life-lessons that can't be quantified, I want to briefly describe a few experiences and conclusions I've made that do have numbers attached to them.
Until recently, Sweden has ranked as the 128th most culturally diverse country on earth. I was expecting a pretty ethnically homogeneous experience here. However, Sweden has had a strong open-border policy over the past decade that has rapidly shifted the demographics of this nation. In my two years here, the world has undergone the largest international refugee migration since World War II, and Sweden has taken-in immigrants from every corner of the globe. I've done my best to keep track, and in total, I have met and worked with people from 85 countries. I’ve become acquainted with grad school students from China, and demoralized refugees from places like Syria, and Somalia. I have met displaced Americans who have moved for love, or for business, and Africans that have given-up everything they own for a fresh start in Sweden. I have seen the results of war and poverty, and the hopes that this nation has brought to so many for a fresh start.
Granted, the system here is not perfect, but most of the experiences I’ve encountered have been positive, although sometimes they’ve been a little scary. That being said, my time in Sweden has shown me that amazing and inspiring people come from every walk of life and from every corner of the world.
It's been prophesied that the gospel of Jesus Christ will be preached to all people from across the four corners of the globe. Quite frankly, that is not possible right now, there are still some places that missionaries just simply can't reach, and they won't be able to for quite some time. Sweden has, however, helped to fulfill this prophesy by taking-in people from literally everywhere. As wars and political unrest spread across the globe, groups that have never before had a chance to hear the gospel message are now getting that chance in Sweden, and I am glad to say I extended this opportunity to countless people. This is something that I am very proud of, and I hope that some of the people I've met will be the first from their nations of origin to accept the gospel message.
There is a wonder willingness and a desire to accept the gospel that is found among the weak and simple of the earth. Humility, born from circumstance, certainly adds to ones’ willingness to seek for something greater, but what about the rest of the country.
Well here's another statistic... Sweden ranks as the number one most atheist country on earth. This is a daunting truth that I've been aware of since the day I came to Sweden. The Swedes aversion to faith made it hard for me at times, to believe I could connect with anyone and share the gospel on their level. Of course, I have been teaching Swedish people my whole mission, but attracting an interest in religion has been one of the most frustrating challenges of my life. That is, until I had an interesting experience in a town called Norrköping.
I approached a group of young people and asked them a simple question… Did they believe in God? They all laughed and said no, but I could tell that saying ‘no’ seemed to bother one of the youth. After the laughing died down, he admitted that he actually did believe that some sort of God existed. One by one, all of the youth admitted to a hope that there was indeed something out there beside empty space that they, to some degree, believed in. We explained that contrary to their prior belief, they were not in fact, atheists, but searchers of truth, and there was nothing wrong with searching.
Time and time again I've had experiences like this. It's not been often that our lessons have come to fruition, but I would say it is incredibly uncommon to find a passionate atheist, even in the most atheistic country on earth. Nothing confirmed this more than my time serving in Halmstad, where I found the greatest number of people anywhere on my mission who were willing to listen. I left there thinking, “I’ve spent the past six months in an ecclesiastical utopia,” but it was only later that I realized Halmstad was actually the most atheist city in Sweden.
This was such a shock to me! How did I have my greatest successes in the least believing city, in the most atheistic country in the world? I've thought a lot about Halmstad and it has led me to the conclusion that belief in a higher power is a fundamental part of the human condition. No amount of social conditioning or collective ideology can truly take away a person’s desire to understand the mysteries of their existence.
Yes, it's true I have met atheists. And, it is possible, by means of enough reason and worry, to conclude that there is no God, but it is my conclusion that belief cannot be completely quenched from a society. The average person will always, to some level or another, believe that there is something greater than themselves governing the universe.
That being said, Swedes are naturally distrusting of religion and have struggled to take any collective leap of faith necessary to build on their uncertain, yet ever present, hope. But, having seen that desire in the eyes of thousands, has kept me going through all the rejection. There have been points on my mission where I thought religion and Sweden were incompatible, but I am leaving this place with the hope that the gospel of Christ really is for everyone, and I do sincerely believe I have planted a lot of seeds within people's hearts who had previously given little or no thought about religion. I am leaving with the peace of mind that many people will be more open to a relationship with God because of my efforts here. There is always hope… And there is a God who is willing to fulfill that hope that naturally resides in the hearts of all men.
These are just a few of my thoughts in regards to numbers. Numbers can be good benchmarks and they have their place, but numbers rarely tell the whole story.
I have a lot of stories to tell that have meant a lot to me and literally changed who I am. In next week’s letter I'll write about some of these lessons… The ones that can't be measured, and those I will take home as blessings for the rest of my life.
Thank you to everyone who has soldiered through reading this blog. I know that some weeks have been interesting and some weeks have been pretty mundane, but your love and support means a great deal to me. I really enjoy writing and I hope that I will be able to share my thoughts as clearly as possible in their raw form, as I bring my mission to a close in the coming weeks.
I love you guys!