Friday, December 14, 2007

My journey: how Sam became a Mormon

“When you put one foot in front of the other, sometimes you never know where you’ll end up.” – Bilbo Baggins, quoted by Brother Adam Passey

“Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:20)


It was a normal November day on the Farm 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 Amelia’s 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 Rachel had become a nondenominational Christian a couple years earlier, but she rarely talked about it, and I didn’t ask.

Religion had never been a big issue — to me — in our short relationship. Amelia and I didn’t see each other on Sundays, and her father gave a prayer at her graduation party. But I just bowed my head, closed my eyes, and skipped the amens.

The threads of our lives would twist together again, then eventually apart. But one with the other left a precious seed: a seed that would grow to change my life. Less than two years later, I would be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Colloquially, I became a Mormon.

It was a long, rocky journey, filled with false starts. A battle with a personal demon brought me as if by chance to church; kindness, goodwill, and curiosity kept me coming. But the universe made sense to me without a God; so stepping my foot forward in faith felt like stepping into a chasm. Still, under the guidance of intelligent and enlightening friends I began to hope. For a ground under that step; for things, as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma puts it, that are not seen, but are true.

And line upon line, precept upon precept, my understanding grew.

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. (Alma 32:26)

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. A vision early in the text, describing a tree of life, those struggling to find it, often losing their way, and those preferring instead to mock the attempt. I was apparently into detailed note-taking at the time, as I filled thirty-four double-sided sheets of paper with plot summaries, questions, and Amelia’s patient responses.

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. My thought processes were of a sociological, or journalistic, manner; I was learning what Mormons believed, not whether their religion was correct. It was an odd feeling: I trusted Amelia completely, and then out of her mouth would come: “Missionaries aren’t allowed to hug women or date, because Satan is trying extra hard to tempt them.”

That same confusion carried me through several other brushes with the Church. Watching speeches by Church leaders at Amelia’s house. Sitting in church when I visited Amelia, watching her grow steadily more and more agitated until finally she got up and bore her testimony.

Still, when Amelia and I 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. Life during sophomore year was standard college fare. Took a graduate student econ class for kicks. Rushed a fraternity, got rejected. Asked a girl out, got rejected. Got along well with Joseph, my roommate.

I didn’t really know Joseph before we decided to live 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.

Joseph 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 Joseph, 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.

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words; yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27)

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: Karren. Jameson. Brad. Adam. Joanna. Sean. Other Sam. Kimball. Alissa. The full-time missionaries, if they count: Elders Prestwich, Christiansen, and Mortensen. 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 Karren 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.

We will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and ye will begin to say within yourselves — It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul.

And now, behold, will not this increase your faith? (Alma 32:28-29)

I’d prayed before. Is the Book of Mormon, which claims to be a divinely inspired record of peoples in the ancient Americas, true? I’d asked that of Heavenly Father when I started reading it, in January 2006. And promptly forgot, as I went about my daily life.

As I started to go to church, in February, and March, and April of 2007, the situation changed. I prayed sometimes, and went about my day not remembering much my prayer, but not forgetting it entirely, either. 

My friend Jameson made an analogy to the “leap of faith” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Harrison Ford faces an unboundable abyss between himself and the Holy Grail. Instructed to take a leap of faith, he risks his life by stepping onto thin air. Finding it supports his weight, he then walks quickly to the other side.

But the hardest part is taking the first baby step, onto what seems thin air. 

Over my time at Stanford, though the gospel was making more sense, I couldn’t shake what seemed obvious: that taking a step onto thin air is pretty dumb.

There were a few scattered signs to the contrary. A fervent, powerful prayer in the privacy of my dorm room. A prayer for guidance when entering a party, and my subsequent departure. A feeling of peace, power, and incredible awareness after bearing my testimony to the Stanford ward that I hoped of the gospel’s truth.

Still, I believed not.

As spring quarter ended, I moved to West Palm Beach 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 named Adam Passey. 

I kept meeting with the missionaries.

My friends multiplied one Sunday afternoon, when, hanging out at Adam’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 Adam’s, I met a host of other young families – the Bohns, the Youngs, Darren Caldwell and his brother Evan, Evan’s wife Melissa and their infant son Corbin.

Adam soon had a family too — he married his wife Nohemi in mid-July. 

A lot of names, a lot of faces, but one common attribute: in each, qualities I aspired to.

Simple charity. Adam always had houseguests, friends in a hard spot he let sleep in a guest bedroom. Driving to the Bohn’s house, he sang a love song into then-fiance Nohemi’s voicemail. Now, he and Nohemi drive rideless teenagers to seminary class at 5:30 in the morning.

Mixed worldly wisdom and childlike innocence. After church, I’d watch Evan and Darren attack each other with yardsticks, playfully jousting while shouting in mutually incomprehensible Chinese and Japanese at each other. Melanie would hold Corbin, smiling. 

And seekers of truth. Julie, my friend from Michigan who clandestinely searched for a new religion through high school, disenchanted with the halfhearted Lutheranism she grew up in. Callie, 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 Stanford and West Palm Beach; 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. 

And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness. Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away. (Alma 32:31-32)

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. Scriptural seeming-contradiction. Whether I was just having these experiences because this was my first serious encounter with religion. How literally to take Scripture.

Most importantly, how to integrate these new ideas of God and faith with the logical, scientific worldview central to my way of thinking. 

Many teachers helped make what the Church said make more and more sense.

Adam helped me see both religion and science as striving after the truth. God is intelligence, he told me. God knows partial differential equations, church leader Henry Eyring assured me in an audio talk. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, reasoned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in a quote bouncing around my head. 

But was the Church’s message true?

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 Shewell and Sister Robbins, asked me whether I would be baptized.

I said no.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good (Alma 32:35)

“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, Adam 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 Amelia, 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 Adam and Nohemi, 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.

And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst. (Alma 32:37, 42)

I have no idea what’s next in my life. It’s turned into a giant self-improvement project, for one thing.

I have no idea if I’ll “endure to the end,” learning and growing in the Church. Maybe I’ll leave the Church at some point in my life. Maybe the Church isn’t true and I made a mistake by joining. (I’ve amassed enough of a testimony to make this proposition very doubtful in my eyes. Not to say sometimes, as when I read Church leaders’ comments on evolution, I don’t wonder.)

Or maybe I’ll serve two years on a mission. Maybe I’ll fall in love with a Mormon girl and marry her.

Maybe I’ll fly to the moon.

At least for now, I’ve realized, speculation is hardly helpful. Everything in my life is up in the air, and I’m just going to have to take things as they come and trust that if I keep down the “strait and narrow path” my life will start to fall into place.

It’s been two months…four months…six months since I got baptized on August 12, a week after bearing that testimony in church. How can I but catch a glimpse of the life to come?

But that mere glimpse is still enough to make me smile.