Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seeing the Hand of God (South Carolina)

Due to my mother's health and their relative poverty, my parents assumed they would never be able to serve a "regular" mission as a couple. However, after talking with their bishop extensively they decided that they would be able to serve at a Church historical site not far from their home, since it would not be stressful on my mother and would cost very little. They planned everything accordingly, submitted their papers with that specified by themselves and their bishop (with an explanation about why a regular mission would be impossible) and waited for confirmation of those plans.

They were called on an active proselyting mission to South Carolina - at the full cost for such a mission.

They had no idea how they would be able to do it - both in light of my mother's condition and their finances (they literally didn't have enough money to do it), but they accepted the call, attended the required training and left Utah to drive to South Carolina - not knowing beforehand what they would do.

It was a five-day drive for them. Three days into their journey, an elderly sister in South Carolina called their new Mission President and told him that she had received a strong, explicit dream in which she was told to offer the use of her small house to the mission - to be used for any couple who needed to serve in that area, totally free of charge. She would live with her son and daughter-in-law for as long as the mission needed her home.

The Mission President was unaware of my parents' dilemma, but he immediately felt impressed to have my parents live in that house and serve in that area. They did so for over half of the 18 months they served - building lasting friendships and having a wonderful experience, and seeing their meager savings extend almost to the penny for what they needed for that mission.

God's hand operates all around us - not always in such visible and undeniable ways as my parents' mission, but powerfully, nonetheless. The thing that strikes me most deeply about my parents' experience is that they had no idea how they would be able to do what they had been called to do. It literally was impossible without the direct and active participation of the Lord, and it took them stepping out into the darkness and committing to do something they knew they couldn't do for it to happen.

There is a valuable lesson in there, I believe.

Wirtten by Brother R. (Ohio)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I Was Free to Choose for Myself (New Mexico)

My conversion is an odd story, with an odd beginning. I had been offered two summer job opportunities - one working for the boy scouts in New Mexico, the other sailing on a barge up and down the Mississippi River. The barge job paid 4 times as much as the New Mexico Job, but the scouting Job meant being close to mountains, which I had never done up to that point in my life. I felt like I needed the money. I was agnostic, and sometimes considered myself an atheist, but on a whim, I decided to pray about which job to take. When I finished praying, my dad called and told me I didn’t need the money and to do what I thought would give me the best experience for the rest of my life. At the time, I thought it was a happy coincidence, and I decided to take the job working at a Boy Scout Camp, as I really felt like there was something really important for me there. I was 20 years old.

At the same time, a Young Lady going to BYU was also 20 years old and about to turn missionary age. She felt a prompting to postpone going on a mission, but did not know why. Walking on Campus one day, a Woman approached her and asked her if she were looking for a summer job. This Young Lady felt the spirit within her prompt her to take the invitation. The job was at a boy scout camp in New Mexico. The Young Lady accepted the job, although the only camping she’d ever done was girl’s camp and she was a vocal performance major. Having taken a missionary preparation class, she decided to pack a book of Mormon to give away, and to mark scriptures in it.

The summer was a fun and amazing experience. In the fresh New Mexico air, I decided that life was not the awful sham I previously thought it was. I decided that my addiction to alcohol needed to end. I decided I wanted to explore faith and religion and try to have a relationship with a God I wasn’t sure was there again. I had received answers to prayers before, and was not satisfied that they were just coincidences. I was even considering getting a tattoo of a cross on my arm as a way to commemorate and remember this transcendent event in my life. (I didn’t, fear of commitment and all that.)

On the last day of summer, the Young Lady, who had become my friend, gave me the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t an out of the blue hand off, but we had developed a genuine friendship over the summer. This was pretty amazing, since I had thought she was a prude and she had thought I was a jerk on our first meeting (I cussed a lot). During the summer, I had asked about her faith, and she had first given me a book by Robert Millet called the Mormon Faith, had encouraged me to return to my straight edge convictions regarding alcohol (I quit drinking on my 21st birthday), had talked to me under the most beautiful stars in the world about God, life, meaning, and purpose. She impressed me and I wanted to know what made her so amazing. She put forth her religion and her conviction in it as the source of her strength of character. I had only known previously that Mormons went on a two year “pilgrimage” and what Clint Eastwood taught me in “Paint Your Wagon”. So I didn’t know much.

But here I had been given a Book of Mormon and a desire to learn more. I read some of it on the plane ride home, but mainly read Bridget Jones’ Diary. I went back to school a few days later, to discover my new apartment was by a church with a big spike, which I knew was a Mormon church because one had been pointed out to me on a drive to Colorado once during the summer. I decided I would go there on Sunday. That night, the young lady had the missionaries call me, and I surprised them by telling them I would see them at Church on Sunday. The missionaries came over and we discovered we had similar tastes in music and played PlayStation together. We talked about reading the scriptures and I thought it weird that they wanted me to read the middle and end of the book first. I thought it weird that the book started with a religious man chopping off another man’s head. I searched the internet and thought polygamy weird, and things I read about blacks and the priesthood really disturbed me. But I really liked the religion as presented by Robert Millet (The missionary discussions were basically a repeat of that book for me.) I really liked the concept of the Godhead, as it resonated with me in regards to God and Christ being separate beings. This is something I had been thinking about since reading Chinua Achebe’s “Thing Fall Apart”. I talked to my family about the Mormon Church. My Mom talked to her priest about it and he said “Better a Practicing Mormon than a Non-Practicing Catholic” (for which counsel I will always love the Catholic Church) and my Father told me that Mormons were really supportive of the boy scouts, which meant a lot to him. I prayed. I made a deal with God, and set some terms. I felt like I had an answer.

A few weeks before I was to be baptized, I went to Utah and visited with the parents of the missionaries and the Young Lady. We went to music and the spoken word. They Sang “Blue Skies” and the Organist did an amazing solo that frankly totally rocked. I learned you can’t drink water on Fast Sundays. I professed my love to the Young Lady.

When I got home, The Young Lady in Utah called and told me she no longer wanted to have anything to do with me. She didn’t want me to think we were in some sort of relationship and told me she would never marry me or be romantically involved with me. She didn’t want me to join the church on her account. So I wondered what this meant. Was I joining the church because I was in love with a girl? Was I conflating human emotion with divine inspiration?

I knelt in prayer and asked God for help.

There was a knock on my door. It was the missionaries, out past curfew. They had felt a spiritual prompting to come by. One Elder looked me in the eyes and told me it didn’t matter to him if I was baptized. He knew we were meant to be friends and that we would always be friends. He told me I was not obligated by them to be baptized and could just call it quits anytime I wanted. I knew he was sincere and that he was right. I was free to chose for myself.

The missionaries left. I knelt in prayer and asked God if I should be baptized. The experience that followed can only be described as though a bucket of love from God were poured over me and the single word “Yes” reverberated through my mind and spirit.

So I decided that as much as some things from the history of the church really bothered me, I was going to take a leap of faith. I decided to believe in that answer and in the call to be a better person that joining the church represented to me.

A week before my baptism I went to all 5 sessions of General Conference. The only thing I can remember is Elder Faust calling me to repentance on matters of immorality.

A day before I was baptized I asked to meet privately with the bishop and told him I believed but was afraid I would fall away if I was not given an assignment of some sort to help me come to church (I thought he would ask me to vacuum or something, later he asked me to be in charge of the sacrament, which for a former Catholic, seems like a pretty huge responsibility) He just laughed.

On the day I was baptized, the young lady showed up to sing at my baptism. She had flown in from Utah and was staying with some friends. She sang an arrangement of “Abide With Me, Tis Eventide”. She wore a very attractive black dress. I was wearing my white karate pants and a Hanes t-shirt. I remember doing a jumping front kick in the hall. She said something snarky about my irreverent exuberance, to which one of the missionaries said to her in a soft rebuke, “That’s why we love Matt.” She later told me it was when he said those words that she realized that she also loved me. An Elder took me down into the water and I was baptized. I remember coming up out of the water and thinking what do I feel and what did God want me to do now, when these words came into my mind “When you are in the service of your fellow man, you are only in the service of your God.” It turns out there is a scripture that says that too…

The Young Lady and I have now been married for 5 years and are both returned missionaries. We have two girls. My life has completely changed and I have gone through many ups and downs since then, but I am so grateful for those first moments, God’s intervening hand, and the Faith that has been in my life since then.

Written by Matt W. (Nine Years Up and Running)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Before We Met, I Had Lost God (Germany)

It was early August 1992. I had been a missionary in the Germany Dresden Mission for about one year. My companion that day and I were wandering the streets of the Market area of downtown Leipzig, a city of 500,000 unemployed, some agnostic, some atheistic, all communist former East Germans and 300 members of the Church. I had been in this city for about two or three weeks. I was lost much of the time and still relied heavily on my map to get around town.

In addition to always feeling lost, I was annoyed by the size of the city and manner of the people. I had just come from six months in small, rural towns where people would talk to you even if they weren’t interested in the gospel. People in this city were rude by comparison.

It was a bright, hot, humid day. I was hot and sweaty. I was not interested in being there, not in that city, not at that time. Street contacting was the furthest thing from my mind.

As I walked along the throngs of people I saw a smartly dressed elderly man walking briskly the other direction. I felt like I should approach him. He had the appearance of someone who had somewhere to be. Someplace important. I was envious. I didn’t feel at the moment like I had anyplace to be. What better way to prop up my ego than by interrupting him? Surely he would be annoyed by being stopped by a young American impostor and chew me out and I could continue on my merry, mad-at-the-world way, knowing I had at least been rude back.

So I did. I stopped him. I launched into my quick spiel, essentially daring him to brush us off. And, as expected, he interrupted me.

“Boys,” he said arrogantly in fluent, albeit accented English, “I don’t have time today, but here is my phone number. I’ll be gone on vacation for a month. Call me in September.” With that, he scribbled a number on a scrap of paper, shoved it into my hand, and continued on his way. The whole exchange lasted mere seconds. He had barely broken stride.

Meanwhile I dumbly stood there on the spot, feeling sheepish that I had not accomplished my objective of stopping him, annoyed that he had spoken to me in English when I had spoken to him in perfectly good German, and offended that he thought I would believe his spiel about calling him in a month. This was worse than being told to go back to America or to go to Hell or being lectured about the injustices of God. He had lied to me! The nerve of that guy! That was it! His fate was sealed. I would hold onto that stupid scrap of paper with his “phone number” and I would call it in September and I would prove what a liar he was.

A month went by. I kept the little paper in my bag for a week or two, then stuffed it into my wallet, then nearly forgot about it.

Then one day in September I rediscovered it. I was standing at the tram stop at the end of our street waiting for the streetcar with my companion. We were set to go knocking door-to-door somewhere in that big nasty city that I still hated. My hand fumbled around in my pocket for my wallet, in order to retrieve my month transit pass when I noticed the dog-eared paper with the phone number. Having a few minutes before the streetcar arrived, I ducked into a nearby phone booth and tried the number.

To my surprise this same man answered the phone. I stammered a moment before recovering and re-introducing myself. After a moment or two of stubborn exchange, I trying to nail down an appointment with him in German, he trying to weasel out of it in English, he finally agreed to an appointment. Slightly flabbergasted that he had been true to his word during our initial exchange on the street, I was now unsure what to expect from him. Would he keep the appointment?

He did. The first visit to his apartment was nothing exceptional. After explaining to us how he had learned English in a POW camp in Nebraska or Oklahoma during World War II, he droned on to us about the injustices of God. It was typical East German commie talk. How could he allow this to happen! How could he allow that to happen! Where was the church when the Russians took over? Where was the church the past forty years?

We managed to squeeze in a first discussion, at least it counted for statistical purposes, although I didn’t feel like we accomplished much spiritually. Maybe he flinched once during the telling of the First Vision. Maybe not. But he did commit to reading from the Book of Mormon, and he did invite us back.

When we came back a week later, it was as though this were a different man. He had read in the Book of Mormon. He liked what he read. He wanted to read more. He wanted to know more. Over the ensuing weeks and months, he read the Book of Mormon, got a confirmation of the truth of it as well as of everything else we taught him, and committed to be baptized.

During those same weeks and months, I learned a little about him. Before and after World War II he had been very active in the Lutheran Church in Leipzig. He had sung in the Choir at the Thomaskirche for decades. After returning from World War II, he married and he and his wife had raised a son with Down’s Syndrome.

During the forty years of Iron Curtain regime, he had become disenchanted with his church and with God for the passive nature the church took toward governmental oppression, for the struggle of his son to lead a productive life, and for the loss of his once dear wife to despair and alcohol. He ultimately abandoned the church and his beliefs.

Also during those months, something happened with me. I learned my way around that big city. I met and taught many other terrific people. I stayed in that city I hated for seven months. At the end of the seven months, it was no longer the City I Hated. It had become the City I Loved More Than Any Other.

At the end of my mission, in May 1993, my father ventured over to Germany to bring me home. We spent a week touring some of my areas, and I made sure that the lone Sunday we would have was spent in Leipzig.

That Sunday was a bright, crisp, cool spring morning. My father and I waited for the tram at a transfer stop. This stop was situated in a grassy, tree-filled park next to a lazily winding river. The early morning sunlight filtered in through the leaves, casting golden rays across the grass, causing the water in the river to sparkle, penetrating the thin fog rising a few feet above the dewed grass. As the streetcar that would take us to church approached and slowed, I noticed it had only one other passenger.

As we climbed aboard, I recognized a smartly dressed elderly gentleman as he strode toward us. He looked as if he had somewhere to be. Someplace important. As he stopped in front of us, a wide smile on his face, he said hello to me. I smiled back, astonished at the happy coincidence, and introduced my companion to him as my father.

He then turned to my father, and in fluent, though accented English, greeted him with, “I am so happy to meet you. I want you to know that your son stopped me on the street one day. Before we met, I had lost God. Because he talked to me, I have found God again. Thank you for sending him here. Thank you.”

My father was speechless. I felt like I was in a dream. This man was obviously ecstatic to see us. At that moment, I don’t know who was happier: me, my father, or this newly converted gentleman. But I have a suspicion that our happiness pales in comparison to the joy the Savior must have felt knowing that a few more of his children had found their way to Him.

Written by "A Married Mormon Man"

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Lord Will Put Us in the Right Place at the Right Time (Denver)

I’ll begin my story with a quote from my missionary journal for 31 May 1978:

A few days ago we were going to see a referral or something, and Haynes [my companion] said “The Spirit says to go see Grubbs.” Well, I couldn’t figure out why the Spirit would want us to do a dumb thing like that, but we went anyway.

As I had guessed they would, the Grubbs (an elderly couple that really weren’t interested) “flaked out” [a journal quote] on us. But while we were there a member drove by and said to go to his house for cake and ice cream, as it was his daughter’s birthday. This member family was as poor as dirt, but were salt of the earth types - and they happened to live just sort of kitty-corner from the Grubbs.

So we went to the family’s house, and the mother told us we needed to rush over to the VA hospital to give a man another blessing. This man had cancer, and we had given him a blessing previously, but they had isolated the cancer and were taking him into surgery again, so he wanted another blessing. So off we rushed to the VA hospital (without having eaten any cake and ice cream!) to visit with this man and give him the requested blessing, which we were glad to do.

After all of that, we were in the elevator and a man on the elevator with us said to my companion, “What’s that on your shirt?” We had been babysitting a pet bird for a part-member family we were teaching; Perky had pooped on my companion’s shoulder; neither of us had noticed it until now. So we started talking to this man (whose name was John), and he told us he had visited Temple Square. We asked him if he would like to learn more, and he replied, “Sure,” so we started to teach him. He attended Church and came to the investigators’ class, and during the course of the lesson, which I was teaching, he asked at what point one gets baptized - so I gave him a baptismal challenge right there in class. He replied, “Where’s the water?” - and was baptized the following Saturday, which happened to be the day after the priesthood revelation was announced.

Written by Bro. B. (Schaumburg Illinois Stake)