The Calling Ritual and How I Screwed It Up

By: Stephen Carter
June 19, 2011

Elder Carter contemplates his glorious mission–but hasn't actually told his family where he's going.

My littlest sister is on a mission in Spain. When she first arrived, she wrote to me saying that she didn’t remember anything about my own mission. This surprised me because I was an inveterate–even diarrheal–writer of letters, and my mom distributed them as far and wide as one could during those pre-email years. But then I remembered that my sister was four at the time and therefore more interested in watching The Swan Princess for the thousandth time than in reading her brother’s scintillating missionary letters.

So for the past few months, I’ve been sending her remembrances of my time in Toronto. The fine folks at Wheat and Tares thought their readers could use some time off from using their brains and accepted my offer to post my letters to my sister here. They scheduled me for Sundays, doubtless because they wanted something to inspire their readers–or because it’s the day fewest people go to the blogs.

So without further ado…

Dear Sister Carter,

I guess if you don’t remember my mission, you certainly don’t remember when I got my mission call. Mom probably does, though, as you’ll see.

For some reason, I’ve always had an aversion to social rituals. I understand why other people like them: social rituals allow them to step into archetypal shoes–to occupy a role that is well scripted and culturally important.

And, of course, opening one’s mission call had become a huge social ritual by the time mine arrived. It was modeled on the beginning of the Called to Serve video–the family gathered in an eager circle, the callee’s hands shaking as he/she pulls the flap open, and that climactic moment when the mission’s name is revealed. If that mission doesn’t turn out to be the Bismark, North Dakota Rural North mission, tears are shed, cheers roused, and hugs passed around.

No, that was not my cup of Lemon Zinger tea.

It was only by luck that that I found my mission call in the mail box before anyone else did–though I was definitely keeping an eye out for it. I grabbed it on my way to work and threw it on the passenger seat where it stayed all day.

Sitting in the car after work, my shirt and pants soggy from the thousands of dishes I had washed, I considered my choices. My mom no doubt wanted the traditional opening–I was her first missionary, after all. It would be the sweet culmination of the hundreds of family home evenings she had organized,  the thousands of testimonies she had borne, and the millions of church meetings she had dragged me to. And since I was the oldest, I was the example. Eight younger siblings supposedly watched me with wide eyes to see how they should live their lives. And what better way to launch them down the path of righteousness than to have a nice, traditional––I tore the envelope open.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of my calling. I was relieved that it was at least in a different country–but only barely. I wasn’t even speaking French.

The evidence of my impulsive act lay scattered around me. The ritual would never happen now. I’d lost my only chance.

It didn’t bug me.

I told my girlfried about the call first. And the next morning, on my way out the door, I said to the breakfasting family, “Oh, by the way, my mission call is to Toronto.”

Mom chased me out the door, her cries divided between celebration and remonstrance.

Possibly the reason I tend to avoid social rituals, or at least enjoy adding a little twist to them, is because I have an easier time remembering events that might otherwise sink into a collective story with few personal marks–it would be kind of sad if my memory of my call opening merged more and more with the Called to Serve archetype until I could no longer disentangle the two.

Or maybe I’m just a brat.

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11 Responses to The Calling Ritual and How I Screwed It Up

  1. Mike S on June 19, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    This is awesome and I can totally relate. I can already tell I’m going to like this series. Thanks for agreeing to join us here.

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  2. Stephen Marsh on June 19, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Still, turning a social ritual into a painful twist on the other stakeholder seems a little, err, anti-social.

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  3. Gilroy on June 19, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    I know this is off-topic, but I have to ask. Stephen, were you on that UVSC ethics discussion show that aired on Channel 9 about 10 years ago?

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  4. FireTag on June 19, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    Well, a lovable brat. To be a real brat, you would have had to tell your Mom the calling was lost in the mail.

    Welcome aboard.

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  5. Stephen Carter on June 19, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Yep. That was me. Insomniacs across Utah know my face. People still recognize me, so I must have kept my good looks.

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  6. Mike S on June 19, 2011 at 8:41 PM

    Here’s a cool story – I’m not sure how long it will take to tell.

    My brother put in his papers for his mission. When he was talking with his friends, he said he didn’t care where he went except for Washington DC North. No real reason, but there was a guy he knew who had his call there and he just joking said he didn’t want to be in the same mission.

    In SLC, mission calls are pretty predictable. They generally take the same amount of time from when you put in your papers. They generally come on the same day. So, on a Tuesday, my brother got his mission call – a day earlier than usual, but not entirely out of the ordinary.

    He did the normal thing – gather family around, open call, etc. And, you guessed it, a call to Washington DC North. In the call was the official church letterhead with the prophet’s signature, the garment card, the picture of an “appropriate” haircut, etc.

    My parents were actually excited. We grew up back east and they actually knew the person who was going to be his mission president. Calls went out all over the country. My brother was calling his friends. After a few hours, he eventually got around to calling a few of his friends who told him “Stop. It’s a fake call.” He didn’t believe them – everything was there – it even had the prophet’s signature.

    Now, this was in the days before computers were are good as they are now. They told him to look closely on the letter with the call – that there was a dot on the left side they couldn’t get rid of on the copy machine. They essentially got Church letterhead, retyped a call, and forged the prophet’s signature. They had a friend’s dad mail it from downtown so the stamp on the postage was correct. They timed it to come on the right day. It was a brilliant practical joke.

    And it was a fake call. :-)

    His real call actually came the very next day – that’s how well it was timed. He ended up serving a great mission, although NOT in Washington DC. And we still chuckle about it.

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  7. MH on June 19, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    Wow Mike, that’s quite a story.

    I remember coming home and my mom put my call on the top of the mail. I picked up the pile of mail to see what else was there and my mother exclaimed, “What are you doing???!!!”

    I just wanted to see what else was in the mail. I opened it and learned I was going to South Carolina. It was a great mission, and I think it opened my eyes to race relations in the church. I’m sure it’s a large reason why race is one of my favorite topics to blog about.

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  8. Troth Everyman on June 19, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    Our family business was commercial fishing growing up. My identical twin brother and I were still in Alaska when our call arrived the same day to our home address in Washington state. Our parents read the call to us over the phone. I got mine read to me first and then my twin brother got on the phone. Now, for years my brother had been telling me he’d serve anywhere but Texas. As soon as he got off the phone I knew what had happened. He looked me straight in the face and in all seriousness said “trade ya”! We had switched classes periodically in high school…but I decided to decline his offer of mission switcheroo. He served in Texas and actually really enjoyed it.

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  9. Stephen Marsh on June 20, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    I remember my parents first mission call. The called everyone to tell us and the first response was “ok, now that you’ve had your joke, what is the real call?” (not by me, for which I am grateful).

    It was the real call. ;)

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  10. Mike S on June 20, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Another good story I heard yesterday at Father’s Day dinner:

    A couple in the ward in which I grew up had just settled in to their mission (tropical area, nice people, etc) when they got a phone call. The person on the line said they were from President Monson’s office, and that he wanted to talk to them. Because of a history of practical jokes from friends, they didn’t believe it was him, and wouldn’t actually take the call.

    To confirm, just in case, they actually called back to the Church’s main number in SLC and asked to be transferred to President Monson’s office, only to find out that it really was from him. A situation had come up and he wanted them to up and move to another mission. And three days later they were gone.

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  11. Cowboy on June 20, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    I actually had a friend try the same practical joke on me, except the timing didn’t work out as well in his case.

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