Sunday, January 25, 2009

God Wouldn't Leave Me Alone (Washington)

My first memory of hearing about Jesus Christ, or God, or anything like that, was when I was 8 years old. My parents had just gotten a divorce, and my dad realized that he had to get me and my two brothers into a healthy environment. So he began taking us to church (Methodist, I think). The first time I heard about Jesus Christ, I immediately started asking questions about who he was. I remember the pastor saying, “Open the doors of your heart, and invite him in”. I remember saying that exact prayer at 8 years old. Up until the time I was in sixth grade, we went to church pretty regularly, and I was genuinely trying to be a good kid. I tried not to lie, steal, or be mean to any of the other kids, stuff like that. For some reason, I remember specifically praying “God, please don’t allow me to be caught up by Satan. Please forgive me for my sins. Please be patient with me. Please help me to learn the truth when I am ready." About the time I turned 13, we stopped going to church, and I just got distracted and fell away. I fell away for almost 10 years exactly.

I began to make some foolish choices. I messed around with things I shouldn’t have. By the time I was about 19, I began to realize that what I was doing was not good, and that I needed to quit it. I tried to make changes, but I kept falling back with the old crowd. The summer I turned 20, I was invited to go to Silverwood Theme Park with my Uncle and his fiancĂ©, who happened to be a Mormon. They were on their way to her family reunion in Idaho Falls, and somehow talked me into going with them after the water park. I had heard all these stories about the Mormons, and I was a little guarded. I was afraid I was going to get bombarded with their religious beliefs. But to my surprise, that wasn’t what happened at all. They immediately opened their arms to me, and accepted me as one of the family. I was with them for 2 weeks, and I got to see what a normal, healthy family environment was like. I can remember thinking, "These people are doing something right."

After I returned home, I fell into the same old habits. Right after I turned 21, I got a DUI. This was my low point, and I decided that I had to leave my mom. I love her, but she was not a good influence for me. I went to live with my dad in Oregon. I couldn’t find a job, so I took a job at McDonald’s as a cook. After the 6th day of work, I walked out. My pride had gotten the best of me. I knew my dad would be very upset, so I planned out how I was going to hide this from him. But when he showed up to pick me up, I realized that the manager had called him and told him that I had disappeared. He told me that I had to go back in and face the manager, and ask for my job back. I began to sob uncontrollably, begging that he wouldn’t make me go back in. But my dad, God bless his soul, knew that he couldn’t let me off the hook, but that I had to face my fears. I went in to talk to the manager, couldn’t make out a single word I was crying so bad, and eventually got my job back. The whole car ride home I cried uncontrollably, just ashamed that I lied to my dad, and I knew my dad was hurting worse than I was.

The next morning, I went for a walk. I began to pray, and just pour my heart out. I was saying terrible things about myself, saying that I was a mistake and that God must regret calling me His son. Then, this voice came into my head saying: “If you believe I am God, and that I am perfect, and created all things, then to say you are a mistake is to say that I made a mistake, because I created you in my own image.” And this sudden feeling of peace and absolute love came over me, unlike anything I had ever encountered.

Almost immediately, I asked my dad if we could start attending church. So we began attending the local Free Methodist Church. I attended that church for 4 years, and I am so grateful for my time there. I began to learn about Jesus Christ, and what exactly he did. I established a relationship with God, and began reading the New Testament. I had my ups and downs, but I had faith that God would get me through anything. After a few years, I began to feel like something was missing, although I had no idea what. I thought about attending other churches like the Baptist or Nazarene, but I knew they were pretty much the same. The only church that stood out to me was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I was scared to attend. I didn’t want to have the missionaries forced down my throat, plus my pastor had warned me to stay away from them. But I couldn’t deny the fact that I saw and recognized so many qualities that I termed as Christ-like. I really wanted to know more, but I was just too scared.

This last February, my grandfather passed away from heart congestion, and all my relatives came to Washington for the memorial service. My Aunt J. (the only member of my family on either side who is a Mormon) came down from Cincinnati. She also came down with 2 of my cousins. I hadn’t seen any of them for about 10 years. I always had fond memories of them, but I didn’t really remember anybody else. I didn’t have a way to get down there, but my brother called and offered to pick me up.

I wanted to ask so many questions, but they were there for only 2 days, and I really didn’t get the opportunity. But my cousin works for an airline, so they sent me tickets and invited me to come to Cincinnati in the summer time. I arrived in Cincinnati on a July 9th, a Wednesday, and the following Saturday night before church (around 10:00) I couldn’t hold back any longer. I began to ask my aunt just about every question in the book. She asked my cousin’s husband, who had gone on a mission, to come up and try to explain things to me. He asked me, “What do you want to know?” and I said, “Everything!”

He got out his scriptures, and started from the pre-mortal life down to who will inherit the different glories of heaven. My heart was absolutely stirring, and I didn’t know quite what to think. It all sounded so right, but I was a little nervous. He then read Moroni 10:3-5 and invited my to pray about it. Then he asked if I would be comfortable meeting with the missionaries. For the first time, I did. So I started attending church, and meeting with the missionaries regularly. I continued to pray, and my heart was telling me that this was true. But I didn’t have a testimony of Joseph Smith being a prophet. For some reason, I was having a hard time with that.

One day, as I was riding in the car with my cousin, I said how I thought it would be so cool to be able to go to Kirtland. She said, “Let’s go!”

I totally didn’t expect that, it was just a comment. But she insisted. So we went the following Thursday. I got to go to the Kirtland Temple, the visitor’s center, and on Friday, we went to the John Johnson Farm. It was in the bedroom where Joseph Smith received like 16 revelations that I received confirmation about him. I was emotionally overwhelmed, so I really couldn’t say too much.

The next night, Saturday, her husband must have known that something was troubling me. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I told him that I believed everything. I believed The Book of Mormon, I believed the church, I believed in Joseph Smith, but I was feeling hesitant and scared. Mainly because I didn’t want to go home and tell everybody that in a 3 week time period, I had been converted to Mormonism. He told me that when you know you should do something because it is the right thing to do, and you feel fear, that that fear usually comes from Satan. The minute he said that, the fear left me, because I knew that is what it was. I asked him to baptize me then and there, and I haven’t had any doubts since then. I was baptized on August 2, 2008 and confirmed with the gift of the Holy Ghost on August 3.

The blessings that I have received since then have been astronomical, both temporal and spiritual. I am 26 years old, just met a wonderful girl, have quite a bit of student loans I am going to owe, but I am truly one of the happiest people to walk the earth.

I am so grateful to have a Heavenly Father who loves me so much, and who will never leave me alone, and who has a plan to help me return back to His presence to receive the fullness of His joy. I am so grateful for the missionaries, for the church, for the members of the church. I am grateful for the Prophet Joseph Smith, and for the Prophet Thomas S. Monson, the men that God has chosen to lead this church. And most of all, I am grateful for Jesus Christ and His atonement which makes this all possible.

Written by Bro. J.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I prayed. I cried. I knew. (Belgium)

In my Belgian environment, I’m an oddity. A university professor who is a Mormon. Colleagues and students whisper about it. They can’t place me in the normal spectrum of the centuries old allegiances to our society. They wonder: how can this scholar believe the rigmarole of that foreign cult?

Allow me to share on what my testimony is based.

First, and foremost, there is the spiritual witness. I had a strange, preliminary testimony of the Restoration before I ever heard the words Mormon or Joseph Smith.

Antwerp, June 1964. I was seventeen, raised in a Catholic family. That month I was studying for my finals for the last year in high school, one of those demanding European schools. I had had seven years of Latin, five years of old Greek. A mass of philosophy and religion.

That Saturday afternoon, the door bell rang. I went down and saw two young men.
- Hi, little guy, are your parents home?

I knew I looked like a lad of fourteen.

- No.
- OK, we’ll be back later.

They cracked a few jokes and left.

I hardly paid attention to the occurrence and went back to study for my finals. The evening set in. A feeling came over me. The excitement of something unknown, somehow tied to distant memories, but beyond my grasp. I realized it had to do with the visitors. Nothing should have impressed me about them, probably salesmen or sollicitors. But my agitation grew into a compulsion to meet them again. I spent a restless night, trying to imagine who they were. The next day was Sunday. I spent hours looking for them, riding my bike along the streets. I knew I had to find them, by all means. Nothing. I felt desperate. The next morning I kept watch from the window of my room. And then I saw them coming, ringing door bells at the other side of the street, slowly moving in my direction. I crossed the street and waited with a pounding heart.

- According to you, who is God?

It was their first, blunt question only seconds after they told me they were missionaries.

It was the perfect question to ask a young student studying for a Catholic religion final.

- Well, definitions of God have evolved over the centuries, from Augustine to Thomas Aquino, to modern interpretations. Nowadays God is defined as the Totally different, the immaterial perfection that fills the universe.

One of the elders looked at me and said: “Yes, but who is He really?”

I grasped, vaguely still, the massive dimension of that question. All I had been learning all those years were the projections and philosophies of men. And here was a 19-year old boy from America, unaware of the theories of theology, who scattered them with one simple question: But who is He really?

I asked for some literature. One rummaged in his bag and turned up a Doctrine & Covenants. That night I read, deeply impressed:

HEARKEN, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.

Days later the brochure with Joseph Smith's history followed. It overwhelmed me. Then, finally, the Book of Mormon. Moroni’s promise, inasmuch as still needed, was put to the test.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

I prayed, I cried, I knew.

The opposition. 1964. I was seventeen, still a minor, in a period when 21 was the legal age. I wanted to be baptized, earnestly. My parents said no. The clash was profound. I was too young, too inexperienced to understand the depth of the breach my parents felt. My conversion was a betrayal of their holiest heritage. My father hauled books from the library, filled with (incorrect) tales of polygamous atrocities, of Danites murdering opponents, of tortured women thrown from the towers of the Salt Lake temple into the Great Salt Lake. I got to read the Catholic and Protestant theories elucidating the ‘real’ origin of the Book of Mormon, lists of ‘errors and changes’ in the Book, the psychology of Joseph Smith’s hallucinations, and all the inconsistencies in Mormon theology. And I was served some inflammatory exposures by ex-Mormons.

I would not change my mind. I could not. And somehow I was grateful for all the anti-Mormon literature poured over me. It gave me a feeling of confidence: no matter what enemies of the Church would be able to concoct to disprove Mormonism in the future, I felt assured I would be able to stand it. Of course there were disturbing data here and there. I never swept them aside as inexistant, but either their fallacy soon became apparent or the larger picture made them insignificant. The ex-Mormons filled me with sadness. Why such a desire to tarnish, to undermine, to justify, to rationalize? Could it ever happen to me since those people once had a testimony too? I vowed solemnly that I would never allow myself to forget the basis of my conviction.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?

My parents sent me to a Catholic monastery to be reconverted. It was their last hope to rinse my brain from Mormonism. It was the famous abbey of Tongerlo, founded in 1130, one of those stern monuments from ages past. The abbey’s father took it to heart to bring me back to the fold. We talked and talked. We talked about God. I asked him the missionary question: “But who is God really?” He said: “No man can know. God is invisible and beyond comprehension.” I opened the Bible and referred him to all these plain Scriptures that show us that God is a tangible, visible, glorified Being. He said it was all symbolic. I asked him if his presence as the abbey’s father was real or symbolic to the monastery. He called my parents: “Take him back. It’s a hopeless case.”

Two years later, my parents finally gave in and allowed me to be baptized. They refused to attend. It would take another ten years before they started to admit that my Church membership was a source of strength, opportunities, and blessings. But they never joined the Church.

I am grateful, immensely grateful that I could experience the conversion I had. I think my testimony, in its essence, has never changed over the years. The glow is sometimes radiant, sometimes quiet, but always there. Maturation, yes, and I hope, in the process, some wisdom.

Also, my testimony has never hindered me to look critically at some Church programs, to have mixed feelings over certain developments, to hope and plead for others, in the realization that building the Kingdom is a dynamic and complex challenge. And that we’re all humans in this endeavor.

I have tried to explain why I have a testimony. Each convert to Mormonism has to gain and keep his own, one way or another. Some testimonies are received easily, some are struggling over much time and anguish. Some remain intertwined with doubts. Some are submissive, others contesting. We help each other by accepting those varieties and growing together.

Written by Brother D. (Why I Have a Testimony)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I’m So Full of the Spirit Right Now, and I Don’t Know Why (SLC)

From my journal, shortly after my baptism:

Late this summer, I took my six year-old son Jeffrey on his first road trip. Headed to Salt Lake for a conference, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for bonding time before school started. It might have been quicker to fly, but seriously, road trips are a rite of passage I wanted to share with him. There would be other kids at the conference, and I would have plenty of free time. He was excited to go, and piled his pillows and toys in the backseat with puppy-like exuberance.

Ten hours and a ghastly amount of “Are we there yet?” later, we pulled into our Salt Lake City hotel. Our room was right off the pool, and I promised my tired boy we would hit the water as soon as we got dinner. We unpacked and decided to walk to a restaurant up the street.

Turns out those wacky addresses in SLC are a bit confusing for a stranger, and the restaurant was farther than I had imagined- oh yeah, and the air was like the inside of a furnace. The moisture was being sucked out of my body as I dragged my hot child through the arid desert, looking for something called the Blue Iguana. Who hides a restaurant underground anyway?

After a short wait, we got our food, but the look on my son’s face told me he was going to crash into the guacamole if he didn’t get some sleep. Chugging a pitcher of water while the waiter boxed our food, I temporarily hydrated my parched self and made ready to re-enter the blasted heat.

The shortest way back to our hotel was walking down West Temple, where we unexpectedly found ourselves at the Conference Center. Like most Mormons, we watch General Conference twice a year in our jammies while eating cinnamon rolls. We weren’t prepared for how huge and impressive the actual building is- and Jeffrey immediately recognized things he has seen in pictures.

“Can we go in, Mom?”

We were both so tired, but there were people milling around, so I thought I would ask. The doors were locked, and we couldn’t see anyone inside, but a guy on a Segway whizzed by, shouting over his shoulder that the doors on the other side were open.

Looking down at Jeffrey, I told him we could go in, but he had to understand this might take up our swimming time. Was he sure he wanted to do this?

“Yes, mom, I want to go inside” Wow. OK, what six year old boy chooses a big old building over splashing in a pool?

That building is big. Especially when you are hot, tired and don’t know where you are. We finally found an open door, and the blast of cold air was all I could focus on for a few seconds. There were scattered people, but no crowds. A kindly older gentleman approached us holding out a paper.

“Are you here to see the choir or for a tour?”

Choir? What? I was a little confused- we just came in to see the building- the cool air was a bonus. I looked at the paper in my hand, and back at the gentleman.

“Sister, the Choir is practicing here tonight, and you and your son are free to watch if you like. The orchestra is warming up right now, and you can go through those doors to your right.”

Jeffrey was jumping up and down, “Let’s go, mom! Let’s GO!” He was yanking my hand and flapping his own arms in excitement; I mumbled my thanks to the man and headed toward the doors.

Who knew the Choir was practicing, and that we would stumble in at the exact right time, on the exact right day?

Honestly, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. I had a hopping boy, I had been driving since before dawn, we still hadn’t eaten our dinner, and I was dizzy, parched and grumpy from our unexpected walk to dinner. I wasn’t thinking of anything spiritual, I wasn’t thinking much of anything at all. My son was yanking my arm, and I was distracted…

So when I walked through those doors and smashed completely unprepared into a wall of my own emotions, I couldn’t move. Standing there, looking out at the arc of seats and the smattering of people, there was nothing special happening- someone was folding some chairs, another was tuning a violin, the choir was on the stand in small groups, but there was no music yet. So why was I paralyzed? Why were my feet refusing to move as my eyes filled with tears and electricity rushed up and down my back?

“Mooooommm! Come on!” Jeffrey was yanking on me again, and I snapped out of it long enough to wipe the tears from my chin. Yes, my chin. “Why are you crying mom?”

“I don’t know…” Why was I crying? What was wrong with me? An empty building, a few people idly chatting, my son excited to hear some music… why was I crying?

Jeffrey skipped towards the front and I followed, searching my purse for a tissue. I just wanted to sit and feel what was happening inside me. There were thousands of empty chairs and I slumped into an aisle seat as Jeffrey bounced from chair to chair, seeing how close he could get to the organ and counting the pipes.

My body looked warm and solid, but things were stretching, moving, slowly leaning on the shelves inside my mind. How odd to be a spectator of my own life- Gently at first, like an oiled toggle on an old lock falling into place, then quicker and hotter, the ideas began to tip and slide- My breath caught in my chest as the channel opened and suddenly all the pieces shot home and everything fell off the shelf inside me.

Stunned, I sat there.

Holy crap. I’m a Mormon. This isn’t just an experiment. This isn’t something I’m just trying out, until the next interesting thing comes along. This isn’t something I can ever walk away from- Not ever. This Is Who I Am. This is right. This is what it claims to be. This is the rest of my life, and the life beyond. This is eternal progression. This is lead into gold. This is man into God.

Holy. Crap.

I was crying again. The music had started, but I hadn’t really noticed. Jeffrey snuggled into the crook of my arm, and I wiped at my eyes, for the first time turning my focus back outward. Everything looked the same- but I was not the same.

An hour later, we left the cool of the building and walked into the late blue twilight. The heat was abating and the sky showed only the last strands of color on the horizon. We were both quiet as we walked across the courtyard, lost in our own thoughts.

Jeffrey reached out and took my hand, “Mom?”

There was a hitch in his small voice, “What, sweetie?” We stopped on the sidewalk.

His voice was thick, emotional, and I could see his face full of concentration as he worked to find words for his feelings. “I’m so full of the Spirit right now, and I don’t know why.”

The breeze whispered across the empty shelf inside me. I squeezed my son’s hand, letting him know he was not alone.

Written by Sister. M. (Road Trip, or Conversion Happens at the Darnedest Times)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

I Didn't Find Religion; It Found Me

I was raised in a very good, very normal, very happy family by a mother who was vaguely Catholic but only went to mass after natural disasters and an agnostic father. By age 14, I was a card-carrying atheist.

When I was in high school, I began dating a boy, Jonathan, who was a member of the Church. I would occasionally ask him questions, because I found it fascinating that an otherwise rational person could talk to me with a straight face about three parts of heaven, angels with gold plates, and the evils of drink. At this time, I was heavily involved in speech and debate and an important part of that little subculture is summer debate camp. I saved somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars from my after-school job at McDonald’s so that I could spend three weeks at the University of Michigan’s debate camp. At the airport, Jonathan gave me a gift. I unwrapped it on the plane and was disappointed to find a Book of Mormon. (Not a missionary edition, by the way, but a triple with his name embossed on the cover.) I stuffed it in my bag and went back to reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. I was excited about my cross-country adventure and a little nervous about my first major event away from home. I was a little disappointed that, out of the hundreds of debaters in three- or four-person dorm rooms, I had somehow been assgined a private room. No matter.

Debate camps are divided into working groups. I was pleased to find myself in the group led by the debate coach from none other than Harvard. (I had, at the time, the same starry-eyed awe of Harvard that I think most kids growing up in upper-middle class suburbs have.) I imagine that the Internet and the availability of laptops has changed everything that I remember about debate, but back in the olden days, debate camp meant lectures on theory and, mostly, time spent researching, making copies, and cutting and pasting briefs for use in competitions. Everyone in the group would get a copy of everyone else’s briefs to take home. Debaters would then lug file boxes full of these briefs to competitions to whip out in the heat of the contest. (To understand how important these things were, I will tell you that I, in all seriousness, asked my father if I could take six file boxes on our ski trip because I was afraid to leave them home alone.)

Anywho, one day found me with my fifteen or so group members–and the Harvard coach–happily cutting and pasting in a classroom. Two or three of the copies that I was working on had been incorrectly copied and were unreadable. I threw them away. A few days later, a member of our group found hundreds of pages of copies and briefs in the trash can. I was blamed, because I had been seen throwing some things away.

The debate coach from Harvard University wanted me sent home.

I was horrified. I was terrified. I was alone. It was Saturday. I didn’t know what to do. We had a group meeting the next morning. The only excuse for not being there was . . . if you were at church.

So it was obviously time for me to find religion. But which one? Seeing Jonathan’s triple, I decided the Mormons would be as useful as any for my purposes. Their address was listed in the welcome package. This could work.

So I went. I couldn’t believe that a normal-looking person was talking about Jesus spitting in mud. Whatever. By the time I got back, my fate had been decided: I was being demoted to a group run by some yahoo out of the University of Kansas or something, but at least I wasn’t being sent home in disgrace.

I puttered the rest of my time there, not really motivated to create the best briefs possible, not sure that I could salvage my reputation in the debating world once I got home anyway. I skipped meetings to sit on the grass and read Owen Meany.

One night, I was in my little hovel-room, watching lightning. I thought, “God’s power is amazing.”

I thought, "What the hell was that? I don’t think that way."

But I knew it was true. Right there. That God existed. (The rest–the mud on the eyes, the angel and the plates–took a little longer.) I started spending more time in the grass, alternating my reading between the Book of Mormon and Owen Meany. Will you think me disrespectful-bordering-on-blasphemous if I tell you that Owen was nearly as instrumental in my conversion as Nephi was? I started praying. I went back to the little emaciated branch that met at the Institute the next week. When I got home, I told Jonathan that I wanted him to baptize me. He said that I had to talk to the missionaries first. I went through several sets of sisters and was baptized in the Spring of 1992.

I think the only interesting thing about my story is that I wasn’t looking for anything. I could hardly have had worse motives for going to Church that morning if I had tried. And where exactly did that reaction to the lightning come from? I wasn’t responsible for that. I didn’t find religion; it found me. Why? And why doesn’t that happen to everyone else?

Written by Sister S. (My Conversion Story)