Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gaining Insight Through Enduring to the End (WA)

My own "conversion" has been a process over time, including a long stretch of inactivity.

A couple years ago we bought a small business, left where we'd lived for about ten years, and moved into the boondocks. This was maybe two years after I returned to the church - after about thirteen years away. I wanted to know if buying the business was the right thing to do, so I took it to the temple. I got one of those clear as a bell answers: "This will be a blessing in the lives of your employees, business partners, and family." I recall thinking "nothing for me" at the time. But, in general, I thought this answer meant that we were going to be very successful, and that the Lord was now going to bless us materially for the changes I'd made in my spiritual life.

Move forward about eighteen months later: We have bled money, lost just about everything we have, put family money in jeopardy, and I have worked myself into total spiritual and emotional exhaustion. I'm constantly wondering, "Is this what the Lord had in mind, or have I screwed up somewhere." To say things have been trying and stressful would be an understatement. For several months I got less than three hours of sleep a night, not knowing how I was going to pay the thousands of dollars in bills we had coming in constantly above and beyond our revenue stream. And things just kept breaking. Throughout, I would get the comfort that comes from the companionship of the Holy Ghost, but nothing in terms of direction that I earnestly and constantly sought. We sold the business, and this year dealt with the aftermath.

All along I'm thinking, surely things will not get worse than they are now. Surely something will come along to save the day. Then about June (when we were in danger of losing the place we lived) I got an answer that said, "Things are going to get worse; you should find your strength in service in the church." And boy have things did get worse … but now it was expected. I began to see myself in a new way. I began asking myself, "When all the trapping are stripped away, who and what am I?" When I've got no peg to hang my ego on. Who am I when I have to basically beg for help? I never turned away from my rather stressful and time-consuming church calling, however much I had lost confidence in my own ability to act the leader, but I did begin to see that I had some substance without titles or ownership - and that has been an amazing blessing.

As for the answer to the earlier prayer, that has become so apparent. I'm in frequent communication with several of my old employees. They ask for advice, sound me out about things, tell me their news. One young girl tells me that they call the days when I owned the restaurant the "Golden Age of (Me)." I can't think about that conversation without weeping, if I'm alone. She told me how good it was, and what she learned about working and life. That makes me so happy - certainly not the blessing I had expected, but one that maybe runs deeper than the financial success I'd hoped for.

Now I'm living in the basement of a friend, saving money so we can get back into the mix. And that may turn out to be a blessing for him and for us, too.

One of the things that has nearly broken through this is my marriage. My wife is not a member. Very much not a member. In the past, she would even roll her eyes when we drove past a meeting house. We met when I was at my farthest point away from the church. She is an extremely bright, very unique woman. We've been friends, and have a lot of similar ways of viewing things. But as I've given up slowly on my old ways of living, some gaps have obviously emerged between us. This last year has certainly taken its toll on her. I can't tell you how many times I've pleaded with the Lord about what to say to help my wife, what to say to help my marriage. Never any answer. Pure silence. "Why," I ask, "can I so easily get answers to my prayers when I'm preparing to teach a lesson, but when it comes to this most important thing, silence?"

Recently, we had a fight about Proposition 8, and (I think) about how our attitudes and ideas about sex had changed over the last few years. She didn't speak to me for almost three weeks. Literally, didn't speak to me. Except when absolutely needed, and to let me know she had no idea what "an awful person you've become." I was vacillating between rage and acquiescence, trying to be kind followed by returning hurt for hurt. Then, while I was driving to work, praying and thinking, an idea, a sure idea, came into my head, about my wife - about who she is and some of things that make life difficult for her. I can't tell it, because this is a public forum. But it caused me to rethink our whole relationship, from day one, and to see her as so much more wonderful than who I'd seen before. I don't know if I'd have been open to this answer a year ago, but now I can see my way clearly. After that insight, we had a really great conversation, looking back over old ground with new eyes - and I feel like I'm her friend again, which is the absolute only thing that I care about.

Anyway, the whole thing can be hard. What we want and what God wants for us are rarely the same. Usually they aren't even in the same vicinity. He wants us to give up the world, and we want everything in the candy jar. We do not know where following His advice will lead us.

Submitted by Bro. P.

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