Friday, March 16, 2012

My Conversion to Mormonism

Dear Readers,

The title of this blog post is a little misleading. I’m not a convert. I was raised in the Church. But sooner or later everybody who is raised in any religion has to decide if they really believe in it. Everybody has to be converted. They can’t rely on the testimony of others.

I’ve learned somewhere, in Sunday school or in seminary, that in The Parable of the Ten Virgins, the oil in each lamp represents a testimony. The five virgins who had the oil in their lamps didn’t share their oil with the other five virgins not because they didn’t want to share their oil, but because they couldn’t share their oil. How can you share a testimony? How can you split a testimony in half and let someone else use it? When the Bridegroom comes, if you’re not prepared, you’re out of luck. That door is shut.

So, even though I was raised in the Church, I’ve had a conversion experience, and I’d like to write about that conversion experience now.

I was a pretty good kid. It seems that I innately had a testimony of the restored gospel. I believed what my parents told me about the Lord in Family Home Evening, in family scripture study, and in conversations. I accepted without hesitation what my Sunday school teachers taught me about the doctrines of the Church. I can’t ever remember a time, when I was very young, when I didn’t believe in the Church.

I remember learning one Sunday that all kids who die under the age of 8 automatically go to the Celestial Kingdom. Some of my classmates and I thought that was unfair, because here we were trying to be so good, but just because we were 11 years old, we weren’t guaranteed a spot in Heaven. We had to suffer through Satan’s temptations and work out our salvation with fear and trembling in this fallen world. Why did billions of dead babies get a free ride?

My Sunday school teacher showed us kids in the scriptures where it says that all who die before they reach the age of accountability are saved in the kingdom of God. There it was in the Scriptures, I thought. It must be true. The teacher testified of the principle. With the innocence and the faith that is characteristic of the very young, I accepted that doctrine. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to doubt what my parents and Church leaders were teaching me.

I also remember one night, alone, picking up the Triple Combination (The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price) on the nightstand. I was maybe 10. I don’t know. I didn’t read the Scriptures by myself much when I was a kid, but on this particular night, I must have felt some spiritual tugging. I picked up the book and started reading. I read about Adam, in the Book of Moses, offering a sacrifice, and an angel came, and the angel asked him, “Why are you offering sacrifices?” And Adam said, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” A few weeks later, in Sunday School, my teacher asked my class about that story. I was able to answer the questions, and the teacher seemed impressed, and that made me feel good. I felt good not just because I had the teacher’s approval, but because I had God’s approval. I felt that God wanted me to read the Scriptures and to obtain knowledge of his holy ways.

My parents tell me that I was a good kid. I can’t remember my childhood very much – you know how memory goes - but by all accounts I was mild-mannered, obedient, smart and faithful. I remember taking Dad’s Red-Wing boots off probably hundreds of times, after he would get home from work. He worked construction. You should meet my Dad. He has a big garden, he makes leather belts, he yearns to play the banjo, he’ll shake your hand and say “how do you do?”, and once he tried to fix one of his cracked molars with JB Weld. He’s an honest, upright man. He’s one of those salt-of-the-earth types of folks that built this great nation.

But gradually, I got worse. I sinned. I became worldly. Maybe it was too much TV. (And I did watch too much TV.) Or maybe it was some of the bad influences at school, or on my wrestling team, or maybe even some of the bad kids in my Scout Troop. Or maybe it was just teenage hormones. Whatever it was, I had a hard time walking the straight and narrow path.

During my junior and senior year of high school, I went through a lot of changes, changes that caused, or perhaps merely coincided with, the waning of my spirituality.

I was self-absorbed in that period of my life. (Who am I kidding? I still am self-absorbed. Telemoonfa Time, in fact, is nothing more than a giant digital pyramid built to honor the Pharaoh that is Me.)

During my last two years of high school, I thought I was very intelligent and hip. I blew off most of my homework assignments. If I didn’t sit in the back row literally, I did it figuratively. In math class, I cheated on a regular basis. (Nearly everybody did. But as my Dad would say, "two wrongs don't make a right.") I don’t think I ever cheated on tests, but I would copy people’s homework.

I was probably condescending, but I was also kind of an outsider, resisting categorization into any of the high school cliques: jocks, nerds, preppies, loners, stoners, cowboys, and Mexican gangsters. In fact, readers, you’ll all be amazed to know that I was the only person in high school ever to be truly individual.

I could be friendly, and, to the people I liked, I was friendly. But there were too many people that I didn’t like, and there were too many people to which I was not friendly.

As I blossomed – or wilted - into a teenager, I began to see myself as an artist. I liked drawing; I liked acting; I liked foreign films. I made a few short experimental movies with Super 8 Camera equipment. I loved Stanley Kubrick. I loved Martin Scorsese. I loved Bob Dylan. I had the bohemian spirit of Jack Kerouac raging inside me, but I was stuck in a religious home in the boring, rural desert of southern Arizona.

Sometime between repeatedly watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and reading underground comic books like The Maxx, I came up with the idea that artists are not bound by the same moral codes that boring people are. And by “boring people,” I mean accountants, electrical engineers, dental assistants and the like. Artists are the priests of beauty and love, I told myself. Artists come bearing gifts from afar. Artists see something that the rest of the world just doesn’t get. And to properly express themselves, and to properly delve into the depths of the human soul, artists get a pass on The Ten Commandments.

I thought it was OK for artists to experiment with drugs. I never experimented with drugs myself, not necessarily because of any righteousness on my own part, but because I simply never found myself in a situation where friends asked me to do drugs. I suppose if I had spent a night in Arivaca, I would have learned what being high really meant.

Even though I never tried drugs, I was kind of glad that Bob Dylan did. I mean, Mr. Tambourine Man could not have been created without the influence of drugs. And probably Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and other Dylan masterpieces would not have made their entrance into the world if Bob Dylan been a straight-laced Mormon. Dylan at least needed the cigarettes to get his voice to just the right level of raspy. Drug use allows artists to tap into the subconscious well of inspiration that would otherwise be sealed. And so, I thought, the ends justify the means. If there must be drug use in order to have great art, then let drug use abound!

I’ve already digressed enough. Let me try to be brief. I sinned a lot, and kind of fell away from the church. I mean, I still attended Church and seminary, but only because my parents made me. My heart wasn’t in it.

I remember feeling smothered because my Mom was my early morning seminary teacher, my Dad was my priests quorum adviser. I wanted to move out. I wanted more freedom and more space to find out who I was. I got in an big argument with my Dad one day, in the summer after I graduated high school. He wanted me to get a job, but I wouldn’t. When he saw that I wouldn’t get a job around town, he tried to get me to work around the house. He wanted me to build a small flagstone patio in front of his garden shed. But I was being lazy and rebellious. I think he said that if I was just going to sit around and do nothing with my life, I should move out. I wouldn’t use the term “kick out,” but I would say that he made it uncomfortable for me to keep living under his roof, so I moved out earlier than I had planned.

In the summer of 2001, I moved to Thatcher, where I was going to attend Eastern Arizona College in the Fall. I had about a month and a half before school started. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t know anybody. I was living with strangers. I didn’t have anything to do. So I watched a lot of movies. I was kind of mad at my family. I didn’t call them very often.

I didn’t go to church for a month or two, I think. Then one Sunday, all my roommates started getting ready for church, and one of them asked me if I was going. I had nothing else to do, so I said yeah. I don’t remember anything about first going to church on my own, away from my parent’s house. But there must have been a lot of people there my age. It was a college ward. Church was a nice place to meet nice people.

I didn’t have much direction in my life. I didn’t really have any goals or ambitions. I was kind of lazy. There was a hammock in our yard that I spent a lot of time in, swinging. And I spent a lot of time in front of the TV watching Comedy Central.

I knew that I was approaching the age of 19, and if you’re familiar with contemporary Mormon culture, you know what that means. For boys, that’s mission age. Growing up, in church and at home, it was always assumed that I would go on a mission. In Deacon’s Quorum and Teacher’s Quorum and Priest’s Quorum, they always get you to commit to serving a mission.

And the young men who went on missions were always glamorized and honored. They got their special mission plaques put on the church wall, and everybody at church was excited about the new young man going on a mission. “Where’s he going?” people would ask, “Oh, he looks so handsome in that suit. Just like a missionary!”

And when the young men get back home after two years, they get a hero’s welcome. They speak in church, and talk about how their testimony is rock solid and about how they converted a lot of people out in the mission field. And the young women, still wearing their Young Women’s medallions, flirt with the returned missionaries.

And my older brother had gone on a mission, so that made me feel like I should go too.

But I didn’t know if I would serve a mission because I didn’t know if the Church was true or not. I really didn’t.

I’m not making this story up just because it sounds good. This is the way I really remember these events.

I’m not sure if I kept a journal during this time period. I think I destroyed some of my journals, or at least parts of my journals, a while back. Maybe some other time I’ll look in my journals and try to figure out if my memory and my journals match up. Sometimes when you re-tell the same story over and over, the story takes on a life of its own. And so the version you tell your grand-kids is nothing like the way it really happened. I’ve thought about my conversion experience a lot, and I’ve told this story a lot, in private conversations, and a time or two bearing my testimony in church.

So there I was, an 18 year old, raised as a Mormon, not knowing if the Church was true, not knowing if Jesus was real, not knowing that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, and not knowing that the Book of Mormon was true. I knew I couldn’t go on a mission and lie. Missionaries preach the gospel. They have to preach it from the heart. They have to believe it. How sad it would be, and how hypocritical I would feel, if I preached the gospel for two years, and didn’t really believe it.

I know some missionaries go through the motions without faith. I know some missionaries lie in their interviews with church authorities. They say they are sinless when they are rotten inside. I know some missionaries serve missions just to please parents, please communities, or so they can get married more easily to a Mormon girl. One of these days those missionaries are going to get what’s coming to them.

But I wasn’t going to be one of those missionaries. I wanted a testimony. I wanted a revelation. I wanted some sort of sign. I wanted an angel to come down from heaven and tell me to serve a mission, or I at least wanted that “burning in the bosom” I had heard so much about.

How was I going to get revelation? Well, I felt that I was doing some things that were not in accordance with God’s standards, so for the first time in my life I went to the bishop and confessed. He was a wonderful bishop. I think his name was Bishop Griffin; I could be wrong. It’s been so long. He helped me repent. He helped me feel good about myself. He told me about the healing power of Christ’s Atonement.

I also thought that God would not answer people if they were lazy about getting an answer. I felt that people throughout history have gone to great lengths to try to access the mind of God. Feeling this way, I resolved to live my life in such a way as to be worthy of revelation, at least for the next few months.

Well, one day, one of my roommates had cleaned the house, and I felt a spiritual tugging. On the coffee table rested a missionary copy of The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. I picked it up and thought, “This is evidence. If this book is true, then Joseph Smith was a prophet. If Joseph Smith was a prophet, then the Church is true, and I should go on a mission.” That line of thinking made sense to me.

So I started reading the Book of Mormon, with a critical eye, asking myself, “Could Joseph Smith have written this?” I decided I would read the whole book, by myself, and then take the challenge in Moroni chapter 10. During First and Second Nephi, I thought maybe Joseph Smith could have made it up. It would have taken a lot of time and imagination, but still, he could have made it up. During Second Nephi, in the Isaiah chapters, I thought, “Well, that’s kind of cheating. Joseph Smith could have just copied that part out of the Bible.”

Over the next few days and weeks, I devoted lots of time to reading the Book of Mormon. Now, I wasn’t educated that well. I wasn’t a religious scholar or a historian looking at this book. I was just a young kid trying to decide whether or not to go on a mission. So I guess you could argue that I wasn’t the most qualified person to determine the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. But a testimony of the Book of Mormon doesn't come from scholarly research. Well, maybe in some cases a testimony can stem from critical examinations, but in most cases, a testimony of the Book of Mormon is received by praying about it and living its principles.

I noticed as I went to Church and read the scriptures (I don’t think I was praying at this point) my emotions started changing. I developed more sympathy for people and their struggles. I sensed more value in human life- all human life. I stopped worshiping idols like Bob Dylan and Stanley Kubrick, and I started thinking about all the souls that walked upon this earth.

I remember listening to Far Away Boys, by Flogging Molly, on their album Swagger. The lyrics moved me to tears. I played that song on my CD player over and over again. I thought of all the men who wore out their lives working on the railroads. Before, I would listen to music, such as the songs of Rage Against the Machine, and get angry, or I would listen to Bob Dylan and think, “Man, this guy is such a genius. I can’t understand why all these stupid high school kids don’t appreciate him.” But when I was listening to Far Away Boys, I felt sympathy for human suffering.

It’s hard to explain. Flogging Molly is hardly a spiritual band. But for some reason, listening to those song lyrics over and over, laying face down on the floor of that dingy bachelor pad, I just balled my little eyes out. And I realized that I hadn’t cried in a long time. I had been hard-hearted. I had been insensitive. But the light of the gospel was gradually making me more emotional. My spiritual progress was making me more human, in the noblest sense of the word.

At some point, when I was reading the Book of Mormon by myself in my room, I got to Alma 32: 27. “But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”

That verse really moved me. I felt that I was trying an experiment. I felt like I had a desire to believe, just like Alma wanted me to. I wanted to believe in God. I wanted to believe that my life had a purpose, and that my life had a meaning. I wanted to believe that we sentient beings weren’t merely spinning around on this big rock in some dark corner of the galaxy, here for a brief moment as some accident of evolution and then doomed to non-existence once we croak.

I changed from wanting to find some error in the book to wanting to believe it. If I remember right, I think I felt that the book was true when I read Alma 32. But I didn’t want to get an answer until I finished the book and took Moroni’s challenge. Turns out I didn’t get that far before getting my answer.

Maybe that day, or maybe a day or two later, I got to Alma chapter 36, and I read the inspiring account of Alma the Younger’s conversion. I read verse 22. “Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.”

And I felt just the way Alma felt! Well, I didn’t see God. I didn’t even “methought” I saw God. As I write this now, I can’t remember exactly how I felt. I’m trying to remember. I’m trying to get this story accurate.

I remember I was so taken by this verse that I copied it in big letters on a dry-erase board in my room, and I left it up there for a good long time. That verse still moves me today. It’s highlighted in my scriptures. I like it so much for a few reasons; one being that it says that Alma’s soul longed to be with God.

Do we long to be with God?

We should. If we don’t long to be with God, we should so arrange our lives so that we long to be with God. Sometimes I long to be with God, when I feel like I’m living my life in accordance with His will. Other times I want the mountains to fall upon me and crush me, so that I am hidden from God’s presence. I like the way it says, “methought I saw”, instead of “I definitely saw.” Methought is such an old-fashioned word, rich in connotation. It reflects the hazy nature of the veil, the nature of faith. At this point in my life, I can’t be absolutely 100% sure of the gospel, or the existence of God. But methinks the gospel is true, and methinks God exists.

I felt the book was true, and I felt that I was on the right path. I believed that there was a God, and that he loved me. I had the impression that there were angels rejoicing in heaven because I had come back to the Lord. The veil felt thin.

At one point in my conversion process, I knelt down and prayed. It was the first time I had prayed in a long time. I was alone in the house, so I prayed out loud. It was a long prayer. It was a heartfelt prayer. Of course now I can't remember what I said, exactly, or how I felt, but I generally remember that it was a really good prayer. I’ve had many long, heartfelt prayers since that one, but probably none were as significant as that one was for my spiritual development.

A funny thing, though, is even though I felt that I had got my answer about the Church and about going on a mission, a few months later, I started having doubts again. I started second guessing the subtle revelations I was getting.

(I guess I’ve never had the faith of Moses, and maybe I never will. I want to have the faith of Moses. Or at least, I want to want the faith of Moses.)

So a few months later, I was going to get my patriarchal blessing. I was still a little worried again that the Church wasn’t true, or that God didn’t exist, or whatever. I think I was seeking a sign. I decided to fast for three days. I drank water, but I didn’t eat anything. It was a really long fast. I didn't get a sign. But I think it helped my faith grow. I guess I was pretty zealous. Looking back, I don’t know if that fast was wise. I felt really light headed. But I wanted to show God that I was serious in my searching for an answer. I felt that even though I didn't have absolute knowledge of LDS doctrine, I knew enough at the time to proceed and go on a mission.

Around the time of my patriarchal blessing, I was in a priesthood meeting, and I felt the Spirit really strong. I was happy. I remember writing a note to a friend I was sitting next to. I wrote, “I’m excited to go on a mission!” and I smiled a huge smile.

I’ve had so many spiritual experiences in my lifetime, and so has my wife, and so has my Dad, and my Mom, and so many others. My conversion to Mormonism is a gradual process. It's still occurring. I'm still learning doctrine, exploring new ideas, testing them out, and I'm still seeking further gospel knowledge. The gospel is never-ending. There's so much to learn.

Thanks for letting me share my conversion experience with you.