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)

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