On February 11, 2020, my family drove Rachel, my oldest daughter, to the airport here in Madison, Wisconsin. People streamed past us in the busy airport as we hugged her and said our goodbyes. We told each other it would be two birthdays and one Christmas—18 months—until we saw her again. She was tearful but excited as she boarded her plane to fly to the Mexico City MTC, ready to focus on studying both the gospel and Spanish as she prepared to teach and serve people in Washington. In her calls those first few weeks, we could tell she was working hard, learning a lot, and having fun.

Six weeks after dropping her off at the Madison airport, I stood alone in that same airport. No people streamed past me this time. Instead, the airport was completely empty as I waited for Rachel to get off her plane. She had been woken up at 2 a.m. that morning and handed a ticket to come home. The Mexico City MTC was being evacuated and missionaries around the world were being called back to their home countries as Covid-19 spread. Although in our limited interactions we had tried to prepare her for what we increasingly saw as inevitable, cut off from world news in the safety of her happy MTC bubble, it was impossible for her to digest the magnitude of what was happening. Reality hit hard as her plans for the future collapsed around her.

It was the beginning of a roller coaster—for Rachel and many others of course. Over the next two months, Rachel would be told she couldn’t return to missionary service due to using an inhaler twice in the past five years, become frighteningly ill with pneumonia, test negative for Covid-19, be diagnosed with it anyway (possibly having caught it on her layover in Newark, New Jersey on her way home from Mexico) when the doctor told us the test wasn’t reliable and quarantined in her bedroom for two weeks. She would sign up for BYU spring term classes and choose an apartment for fall just to get a call from our stake president that her case had been reviewed and she was approved to go back on her mission. Then she would suffer a pneumonia relapse, which would lead to more Covid tests and more quarantines. On May 26th, the day after she had been cleared from the latest round of Covid limitations and over two months after she had arrived home, we hugged her goodbye again as she boarded a flight to Washington.

While Rachel is now in her original mission, speaking Spanish just as she was originally called to do, her mission looks very different than what she had imagined when she submitted her papers nearly a year ago. She has never been to church in Washington and has only met a handful of the members in the local Spanish branch in person. She cannot tract and in fact on most days only leaves her apartment twice for 30-minute walks. The rest of her time is spent contacting people on Facebook or teaching people through Facetime on her phone.

Yet while Rachel’s path to becoming a missionary and even her daily life as a missionary is astonishing different than she had originally imagined, the purpose of her mission hasn’t changed. Preach My Gospel states that a missionary’s purpose is “to invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end.” The delivery of the message has changed but the message itself is the same. In her sacrament meeting talk given the Sunday before she left on her mission, Rachel said, “I have always known that I am a child of Heavenly Parents who love me. That has shaped my life. I want to share that message with others, to help them come to Christ and feel God’s love in their lives too.” That message also remains true and just as important, if not more important, than ever before.

When faced with unexpected or challenging circumstances, we often focus on the need to have deep, strong roots to keep us in place. Roots are important of course. But we need something in addition to roots to withstand whirlwinds. In his April 2014 General Conference talk, “Spiritual Whirlwinds,” Neil Anderson reminded us that trees that effectively withstand high winds have two adaptations: 1) roots that spread farther 2) trunks and branches that are more flexible. In other words, we must both be deeply rooted in what matters and also be willing to bend and change when needed. Without deep roots, we will get blown away. But without a flexible trunk, we will break.

For Rachel to be successful—and to be happy—as a missionary in our current Covid world, she needs deep roots. She must hold onto and nurture her knowledge of God’s love for her and for others. But she also must be flexible as she looks for new ways to share this knowledge. Part of what makes this possible is separating what is an unshakeable truth and remains unchangeable (God’s love for us and the importance of sharing that love with others) and what is only a vehicle, a process or procedure to help and therefore can and should be adapted to fit our circumstances or be adapted as we grow (the way she shares this message as a missionary).

As the world has shifted beneath us and whirlwinds have raged around us these last few months, we have all found ourselves needing to be flexible in ways we never expected to—in ways we probably didn’t even think we could. With many of our plans canceled and options closed off, we have been forced to think more about what really matters and what should remain unchangeable in our lives. Instead of going through the motions of what we’ve always done, in many cases, we have had no choice but to leave behind the comfortable and familiar processes that have shaped our lives. We must learn to bend as the wind blows and to let go, if only temporarily, of some things. Then we must forge new paths to accomplish or even maintain the truly important things in our lives.

Keeping with the theme of missionary service, I recently came across the story of Elizabeth Ann Claridge McCune in a church history article titled “I Could Have Gone Into Every House,” which demonstrates this same principle in a different way. In February of 1897, Elizabeth traveled to Europe with her husband, Alfred, and four of her children for a sightseeing trip. The trip began in England, where Elizabeth’s 19-year-old-son, Raymond, was serving a mission. Elizabeth invited him and some of the other missionaries to stay at their house in England. Elizabeth and her daughter often accompanied the missionaries as they taught in the streets.

At this time, women were not called as missionaries. Yet Elizabeth felt powerfully drawn to the work. She wrote, “While abroad I always had a burning desire in my heart to give our Father’s children what I knew to be the Truth. Wherever I went to visit and had an opportunity to converse with the people I would lead up to this the uppermost topic in my mind. Often I had the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel to people who had never before heard of it. I asked myself, at times, ‘Why do I feel so, I am not a missionary?’ I told my daughter one day that I believed the time was not far distant when women would be called on missions.”[1]

Around this same time, a man named William Jarman was also traveling through Europe. A former member of the Church, he was promoting his recently published anti-Mormon book that presented a scandalous account of life in Utah, particularly as it related to Mormon women. The book served as a major stumbling block for missionary work in England. Church leaders found that their male leadership and young male missionaries could not effectively convince the public that this portrayal of women was not correct. Then President Joseph McCurrin, a counselor in the European Mission presidency, got an idea. His purpose of sharing the gospel effectively with the people in England had not changed but new circumstances meant he needed to be flexible, to adapt the process to accomplish it. He called on Elizabeth to address a packed house at the 1897 semi-annual London Conference and to tackle the topic head on.

At the conference, Elizabeth told the crowd, “Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies; but they give them every opportunity to attend meetings and lectures and to take up everything which will educate and develop them. Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.”[2] The strong and immediate impact of these words, spoken by a woman sharing her own personal experience, was felt by everyone. Elizabeth later wrote “This incident opened my eyes as to the great work our sisters could do.”

It opened the eyes of Church leaders also. Elizabeth spoke at other events in England. Joseph wrote a letter to the First Presidency, telling them of “instances in which our sisters gained attention in England, where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing.” He told them “that if a number of bright and intelligent women were called on missions to England, the results would be excellent.”[3]

Only a few months later on April 1, 1898, Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were set apart to be the first female proselyting missionaries in the history of the Church. While calling sister missionaries was not the way missionary work had been done before, these inspired women and church leaders recognized that having sisters serve missions helped accomplish the purpose of missionary work: bringing people to Christ. Calling women not only added numbers of missionaries, they added unique perspective and voices to the work, reaching people in new ways, accomplishing good that would not have been accomplished without them.

Structure and protocols are necessary and helpful. They keep order and we know that God’s house is a house of order.[4] But if we aren’t careful, they can sometimes become a barrier or distraction from the essence of what we are doing. We can get so caught up in how we do something that we forget why we are doing it. It’s easy then to become attached to the process and resistant to any changes—even those that might actually help us better accomplish the things that matter most. Or on the other side, when we become too fixated on procedures we wish would change, we can get so stuck on frustration over a process that we lose sight of the beauty beyond it.

We know that God is the same yesterday, today and forever.[5] We also know that we are a Church and a people that believe in continuing revelation. In fact, Quenton Cook called continuing revelation “the very lifeblood of the gospel of the living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”[6] This means that the truth and power of Jesus Christ being our Savior and Redeemer will never change but the way lessons are structured in the youth program to teach this has changed and will continue to change. It means that it remains fixed that baptism is a necessary ordinance but that who is allowed to act as witnesses does not and has not remained fixed. It means that God’s love for us is eternal but the particular guidance he provides for our life changes, that even an answer to the same prayer could be different at different points in time.

Of course it’s not just global pandemics that bring whirlwinds or cause the world to shift beneath us. We’ve all had the experience of feeling the world shift in more personal ways. These shifts can leave us feeling unsteady. Hopefully they also lead to moments of reflection in which we consider what our roots are, what forms our personal foundation—and what we can let go of.

The gospel is made up of universal truths yet it is also an extremely personal gospel. Since we are all imperfect and incomplete, each of us has roots that are also imperfect and incomplete. What forms our personal roots will be different for each person then, built and solidified by our own experiences, our own searching, the growth of our own personal faith.

I am still learning to focus on what is most important, on the truths that keep me personally rooted. I have learned that like my daughter, feeling God’s love for me and for others keeps me rooted. My growing understanding of grace, both the divine grace that God offers us and the kind of grace that we must learn to offer one another, is important to me. The verses in Matthew that teach “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” contain a truth that I have tried to build my life around.[7]

As Covid blows through my life, I’m learning to be flexible and adapt to (although sometimes painfully and grudgingly) the way school happens for my kids while staying dedicated to helping them learn and grow. I’m being flexible about what church looks like while keeping my commitment to finding ways to worship. I’m working on extending grace to people who strongly express opinions and then follow them up with behavior that I find befuddling and even offensive, hoping others offer me that same grace as I also stumble to find my way.

And as new thoughts and ideologies, new challenges and tests come my way, I am trying to keep my roots firmly planted while allowing my branches to bend in the wind.

[1]  Susa Young Gates, “Biographical Sketches, Elizabeth Claridge McCune,” Young Woman’s Journal 9 (August 1898): 339-343.

[2] Gates, 342

[3]  Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 11 March 1898

[4] D&C 132:8

[5] Mormon 9:9

[6] The Blessing of Continuing Revelation . . .” General Conference, April 2020

[7]  Matthew 25:40