Sunday, February 1, 2009

I Thank You for the Peace (California)

It was a normal November day on campus two years ago, when out of my PO Box I pulled a bubble-wrapped manila envelope, addressed in the neat, curly script of my former girlfriend. I don’t remember whether I saw her letter or the Book of Mormon first, but I’ll never forget her words. “I’m sure when you opened the package you saw what it contained,” she wrote. “I hope you don’t hate me for it.”

Then, I was confused. Why would I hate her?

Sure, I wasn’t religious, I was an agnostic. Maybe by default; religion was never really discussed in my house growing up. But though I was pretty doubtful about the prospects of God existing, I had long since passed the middle-school militant atheist phase. I looked upon religion with a sort of detached, bespectacled curiosity. “Why would people believe those things?” I wondered idly. My younger sister had become a nondenominational Christian a couple years earlier, but she rarely talked about it, and I didn’t ask.

The universe made sense to me without a God; so stepping my foot forward in faith felt like stepping into a chasm. The first big question I had was something along the lines of “This is interesting. So?”

Some of the passages in the Book of Mormon were inspiring and profound, but I wasn’t sure how to evaluate the church’s claims to truth – especially given the size of the worldview shift those claims represented. That same confusion carried me through several other brushes with the Church. Still, when we broke up again the next June, whatever I had learned about Mormonism wouldn’t be worth much, I thought then. Two experiences helped convince me otherwise.
The first experience was the next time I walked into a church: December 24, 2006. Our family goes to church every Christmas Eve; a weird tradition for a nonreligious family, I suppose. The church was Methodist, my mother’s childhood faith. I found the atmosphere odd: the pastor’s sermon was strong, yet somehow empty of passion, and moreover, she was overshadowed by a digital display screen. Now, I’d say the church felt empty of the Spirit. Then, it just didn’t feel right.

I left Christmas Eve services with a desire to go to a church that felt more real. So I went to the local Mormon ward on New Years’ Eve, and left with a much more positive impression. Then it was back to school.

I didn’t really know my roommate before we decided to room together. I had entered the draw with two girls, making me short a roommate. Scouting out the other males at the in-house draw, I noticed an older student I’d seen around at the student newspaper, where I worked as a copy editor. Two minutes’ awkward conversation followed: neither of us drank or partied, and we were both quiet studiers in search of a roommate. After choosing a room, he turned to me and said: “So, what was your name again?” Not that I knew his — or that he was a Mormon.

J. went to church every Sunday, leaving the room regularly around 1:15 p.m. for services starting at 1:00 p.m.. But he rarely mentioned his faith, and I was content to watch him come and go. That all changed one Sunday afternoon in February. An observer might have squinted in the bright sun to catch me walking down the steps of Ricker Dining, returning from a late brunch. But inside, I was nurturing only darkness.

Surges of self-contempt surrounded me, seemingly helpless in my battle against a persistent personal demon. I approached my room: there stood J., clad in suit and tie and heading out. Sensing it was now or never, I summoned my voice and my courage.“Could you wait a few minutes?” I asked him. “Sure,” he replied, looking surprised. Quickly throwing on shirt and tie, I ran out the door with him. To a new church. Towards a new life.

I don’t remember a lot specifically about what happened that day in church. I do remember that when I came back that afternoon, the demon was gone. It has since fled farther than I had thought possible.

At first, I only had one friend at church (Joseph) - two, when I saw my friend BJ there. And then, I suddenly had many, including the full-time missionaries, if they count: Elders P., Elder C., and Elder M. Other faces that float to mind, whose attached names escape me.

Knowing church members gave me the first inkling the Mormons had something to offer. I had watched and admired Amelia’s family; I knew Joseph as a good roommate and human being. But as I came Sunday after Sunday, I kept discovering good person after good person, all striving to improve themselves, to do better, to love more. Does that statement approach the cliché? Yes. But it’s true.

Church lessons were interesting and powerful, reminding me of things I knew but too often forgot, and teaching me new things applicable to my life. Like in a lesson on service, when K. pointed out that listening to others is a form of service often overlooked. I kept coming, in short, because I felt uplifted. Meanwhile, around April, the missionaries started to visit me and teach me more about the gospel. And pieces fit together that never fit together for me when considering more mainstream Christian doctrine. To explain, let me repeat a story my mother told me.

When she was eighteen – though it’s weird to think of her at my age – she attended a Baptist church. Once, staying after church, she asked the minister’s wife why people of remote African tribes, who never heard the Gospel, still went to hell. The reply? “They should have known.”

They should have known? How, exactly? My mother didn’t think much of that answer. Neither do I.

I don’t remember exactly when I heard Church doctrine on this point, but it certainly made sense to me. “There are many,” wrote Joseph Smith, “who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”

Through ordinances performed for the dead, I learned, everyone will get their chance to be taught the Gospel and accept it, or not. The missionaries taught me other Church doctrines and practices: no infant baptism, a lay ministry staffed by volunteers, a prophet and apostles in modern times as in old. And the teachings started to make sense, in that they were internally coherent. If I were a Christian, I thought, I’d be a Mormon.

If. I still lacked an essential element: belief.
As spring quarter ended, I moved to Florida for a summer newspaper internship. In Florida, I continued going to church at the local LDS ward. Their warmth overwhelmed me, and I quickly became friends with a mid-30s real estate agent and avid Lord of the Rings fan, Brother P. I kept meeting with the missionaries.

My friends multiplied one Sunday afternoon, when, hanging out at Bro. P's house after church, he got a call asking for help moving a ward family into their new house. Coming along with a Baptist friend of his, I met a host of other young families. Bro. P. soon had a family too — he married his wife in mid-July. A lot of names, a lot of faces, but one common attribute: in each, qualities I aspired to.

Simple charity. Bro. P. always had house-guests, friends in a hard spot he let sleep in a guest bedroom. While driving, he sang a love song into his then-fiance’s voicemail. Now, they drive ride-less teenagers to seminary class at 5:30 in the morning. Mixed worldly wisdom and childlike innocence. After church, I’d watch E. and D. attack each other with yardsticks, playfully jousting while shouting in mutually incomprehensible Chinese and Japanese at each other.

And seekers of truth. J., my friend from Michigan who clandestinely searched for a new religion through high school, disenchanted with the halfhearted Lutheranism she grew up in. C., an eighteen-year-old recent convert who told me, unprompted, of having the same doctrinal problem with the Baptists as my eighteen-year-old mother.

Church is far from the only place I’ve found good people. But goodness was almost commonplace there, and the depth and kindness I saw strengthened my testimony. This raises a question, articulated by my mother a couple months later when I told her I was going to be baptized.

Did I make my decision, my mom asked, just because I had found the Mormon church to be a “safe place”? They took me in at college and in Florida; made me feel welcome, made me feel I had a home. Wouldn’t that make me want to convert, even if I had doubts?Yes: the church being a “safe place” did make me more eager to convert.

Whenever I’ve been in a Mormon church, I’ve sensed genuine love and goodwill emanating from members. That’s a good thing, and evidence to me that the Church had something meaningful to say. Had I started coming to church and observed bickering, snobbery, or holier-than-thou-ness, I would have been much more reticent. I doubt I would have kept coming.
Not that I didn’t continue to have doubts. Still, through my lessons and learning, the sister missionaries and other members addressed one of my doubts after another. It was a simple problem that paralyzed me. At times I thought I was making spiritual headway, and other times was utterly convinced I was just wasting my energy. Shoving God and a plan for humanity into my previously non-theistic universe was, well, a bit much to swallow.

Resolving such intellectual doubts went hand-in-hand with more scripture study, and some prayer. I began to read the rest of the Book of Mormon and the New Testament and I devoured CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Somewhere, things started to go beyond just making sense; they became real to me. As my knowledge expanded, the doctrinal paradigm fit the facts better. A seed grew in my heart.

On July 15, the missionaries, Sister S. and Sister R., asked me whether I would be baptized. I said no. “When is some amount of knowledge enough to make a decision?” I had written in my journal three weeks earlier, in reference to conversion. I didn’t know, but that meant my answer was no. Baptism isn’t something to undertake if unsure.

I was learning more, but it only made me more confused. A dog can only run into a forest halfway, as the saying goes: after that, it’s running out. I was nearing the turning point. A couple of Saturdays later, A. invited me over for a movie night, and drove me back. We got to my apartment around midnight. When I walked in the door, it was at least 1 a.m., and probably later. My body was ready to collapse onto the couch, but my mind buzzed with new thoughts and ideas from our discussion. I knelt down on the floor and prayed fervently for an answer. Is the Church true? Should I be baptized? Soon after, I fell asleep.

Like the first time I’d gone to church with my former girlfriend, that Sunday was fast and testimony meeting – open-ended, people just coming up and saying what came into their minds and hearts. As sacrament was being passed, I did something I hadn’t before: I ate of the bread and drank of the water.

Earlier, the Bishop’s counselor had taken the podium to remind us to remember Christ’s atoning sacrifice. I could barely sit still in my seat. After taking the sacrament, I finally knew what I had to do. “Dear Heavenly Father,” I scribbled on a piece of paper. “I thank you for the peace that came over my life when I decided to be baptized just now.”

I squeezed past A. and N., to sit in the front row. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. The last time I had borne my testimony I had said that I hoped but did not know. But now, I told the ward: “I think I know the Gospel is true.” I explained some background, and then, bubbling with a tremendous love towards all around, I concluded with a passage from Matthew I had just read.

“And whosoever doeth the will of God, the same is my mother, and my brother, and my sisters.” I couldn’t stop physically shaking for twenty minutes afterwards.

Written by Brother B. (full story can be read by clicking on this link) - posted today in honor of this being his last day at the Missionary Training Center, prior to leaving on his mission

1 comment:

ElGuapo said...

Sam, if you're reading this, I enjoyed your story. It sounds like my life and yours are reflections of each other. I also worked as a copyeditor in college, but I was born in the LDS faith and my "middle-school militant atheism" came second. I may not share your beliefs, but I appreciated your nuanced telling of the conversion process for you. I'm always impressed when people have the conviction to follow evidence wherever it leads. I still don't regret my time as a missionary, and I'm sure you won't either.