I've been enjoying reading about church history, reading old talks, learning about the gritty details from more objective sources. When I grew up, it seemed like the only sources were church-approved or anti-Mormons. The internet has allowed for more honest scholarship, with more ready access to primary sources.
But I also want to make sure I don't get lost in the details, so at this time, I want to bear my testimony about God, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I've shared Exhibit A and Exhibit B on why I believe in God. I'd like to share three more, and then delve into my conclusions.
My mother and father got divorced in Amarillo, Texas, at the beginning of 1984. Mom moved with her seven children back to Orem, Utah. I was the oldest at age ten; my brother Austin was just a few months old. We'd lived in Orem before, and we were happy to be able to move back to one of our old houses. We liked the neighborhood. I was able to reconnect with friends I hadn't seen for about four years.
On July 3, 1984, the week after I'd turned 11, we were watching Scooby-Doo reruns while my mom went to a neighbor's to feed their pets and water their plants while they were away on vacation. I got into an argument with my 7-year-old brother Jordan over what to watch next (I think), and ultimately we went to the neighbor's house to go tell on each other.
Now this neighbor's house had a greenhouse built on the side of it. The doors were all locked so we split up, calling for "Mom!", both wanting to find her first so we could present our side of the argument to her first. The first time I passed the greenhouse, its door was open, and an inner voice stopped me in my tracks in front of the door. "Look in the greenhouse." I sat there in front of the door, arguing with myself. Why should I look in there? She's not answering and I can see most of it from where I stood. I kept looking around the perimeter of the house.
On the second lap, once again a voice stopped me in front of the greenhouse door. "Look in the greenhouse." Once again, I argued with myself. There's no point in looking in there. She would've come out if she was in there because we're shouting for her, and I can see from here she's not in there. I kept looking on the outside.
On the third go-around, once again, for the third time, a voice stopped me in front of the greenhouse door. "Look in the greenhouse." Why should I look in there? I can see from here most of it, and she's not there. There's no point of looking in there.
Mine is not a tale of where I followed the Spirit's voice. Mine is more the tale of Peter, who denied he knew the Savior three times, and then he heard the cock crow, and then he got it. I never looked in the greenhouse. I gave up and went home.
Now to this day I don't know if I could have saved my mother's life, or God just wanted me to find the body so my little brother wouldn't have to live with that vision the rest of his life. If I'd looked in the greenhouse, I would have found that behind the concrete shelving on the right, there was a window across the bottom of the wall that led into their basement. My mom had found herself locked out of the neighbor's house and when she'd tried to find a way in, she came across that window. She crawled through that window feet first, but when she did so, the window shut on her neck. The glass cut her, and I can't remember if she died from suffocation or bleeding to death, but when my brother looked in the greenhouse, he found her hanging from that window, unresponsive. He went to a neighbor's and alerted them.
From my POV, I'd just gone back home, frustrated I couldn't find Mom. Jordan wasn't back, so I figured he'd found her first and was telling her his side of our argument. I went back to the neighbor's house and hey, the front door's open. I walked in and I saw Brother Malan on the phone and his teenage son David urgently working on... something. Some other lady was there and as soon as she saw me, she plastered on a desperate, fearful, toothy smile and shooed me outside. "Why don't we wait outside?" Something was going on, but she didn't want me to see it. If she had noticed me a couple seconds later, I would have seen David performing mouth-to-mouth/CPR on my mom's body.
As soon as the ambulance took her away (and they wouldn't let me go to the hospital with her!) I called my dad in Texas. I told him she'd been in some kind of accident and they just took her to the hospital. He took the next flight he could find. I remember going into my mother's bedroom and praying desperately for her to live, but the damage had been done.
The next day - July 4, 1984 - he and her sisters agreed to pull the plug. She was brain-dead. There was nothing anyone could do.
So if you ever find yourself arguing with yourself, ask yourself: Are you arguing with yourself, or the Spirit?
My dad, a few days after my mom died, proposed to his then-girlfriend. They got married a month later and suddenly I had a stepmom and four stepsisters, three of them older than me. But that didn't last long. About two months later, we came home from school one day to find half our stuff gone. I called Dad at work and he found she'd emptied their bank account (including the thousands of life-insurance money from my mom's death). So for the rest of the school year, it was just us.
Summer 1985, the seven of us lived with our aunt and uncle and their seven kids in Orem. We'd call Dad every week or two, and one day he let us know he met someone and he married her. Huh? Met her and married her in less than ten days. Oh, and she has four kids, two of them older than me.
Those were stressful times, and there was abuse involved, but I wanted to make this one point. During a time of high stress, where I didn't feel safe at school or at home - anywhere, really - my stepmom started slapping me repeatedly for accidentally letting the cat outside. I ran outside and was disappointed to see the neighborhood deserted. I ran to the church building down the street. I was crying and stressed and miserable and just couldn't believe this was my life and wishing I was dead, and I went into the cultural hall and saw some guys playing basketball. I went on the stage, behind the curtains so no one could see me, and I just prayed to God for it to all go away.
And instantly it did. Every chemical in my body that was amping up my stress factors just vanished. I was fine. Relaxed. Stress-free. I knew my crappy life still existed out there, but I was given an oasis of pain-free calm.
I came out from behind the curtain and watched the guys play their game. No worries. No stress. Just peace. May seem small to some, but it meant the world to me.
Now even while my dad and stepmom were engaging in more behaviors that I would argue weren't in harmony with the gospel, deep down, my dad still had a testimony. At that time. I think. For one General Conference, I remember he and me putting on our white shirts and ties and heading over for the priesthood session.
Now General Conference and any talk in general is boring to most kids and teens. I probably didn't have a great attitude about the words we were going to hear. But I remember when it was Ezra Taft Benson's turn to speak. This would've been around 1987, so he was the prophet and President of the Church. As soon as he being to speak, my heart swelled. The Spirit poured onto me with clear, loud, amped-up assurity that this was a prophet of God. I wanted to shout from the rooftops and sing with the angels. I was so excited. It's all I could talk about on the way home. I think my dad was glad, or amused. He obviously didn't have the same experience I did, but man, it was so clear!
So I've had other experiences but those are the top five I think about. They sustain me. They were each undeniable.
(Update: I found the talk pres. Benson gave that struck me. "To the Fathers in Israel")
Now I've heard some people refer to mere "warm fuzzies" when it comes to the Spirit, and I've had those. I've had the majority of my prayers go unanswered, and I've "given" myself the answer I wanted to prayers that backfired. (Usually financially.) I've heard about the God Helmet, and would happily take that challenge. But here's what each experience had given me.
Exhibit A - God can give insight into the future before we would have any idea what's going on.
Exhibit B - The power of the priesthood is real, and God loves all his children.
Exhibit C - The Spirit can only whisper to you so much; you have to listen and follow it.
Exhibit D - We have our trials, but God can grant tender mercies when it becomes too much.
Exhibit E - God's prophet is on the Earth.
Now if Pres. Benson was a true prophet, then how he got there makes the rest of it legitimate. It means Joseph Smith was a prophet, that Brigham Young was his rightful successor, and that each prophet down was who was supposed to be next. Pres. Benson's main focus when he led the Church was on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. That means it really is inspired scripture, and that we can study it and learn from it as the Bible. It means Pres. Thomas S. Monson is the true prophet today. It means there will be future prophets, future revelations, future scriptures. It means God is real, Jesus is the Christ, and we are eternal beings.
Now as I've been studying church history, I've been coming across the more messy details about how it all came together. And if we had more primary sources, I'm sure we'd find that with prophets of old. I mean, Moses killed a guy, Jonah refused to go where he was called, Noah got drunk a lot. Wise kings David and Solomon sinned egregiously when they knew better.
How was it for Paul performing his missionary duties when some people could say, "Hey, aren't you Saul, the guy who'd hold people's coats while they stoned Jesus' followers to death?" I go back to Pres. Uchtdorf's talk, where he says frankly that sometimes the leaders of the church have made mistakes, but it doesn't subtract from the truthfulness of the gospel.
It's amazing that the Church has survived. Since its inception, they were driven from place to place. Joseph Smith received constant revelation, and yet he also said and did some things that make you say "What?" When he died, Church membership was at 26,000, and thousands of them followed Sidney Rigdon or JJ Strang or others. Brigham Young took those that would follow and moved them to Utah, and then they were able to build up the kingdom. There were a lot of growing pains. And Young definitely was the product of his times and had his blind spots. (Blacks and the priesthood, for one.)
And so it went to John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant and George Albert Smith and David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson and Howard W. Hunter and Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson.
Now we've been instructed that the President of the Church will never lead us astray. I believe that, but I believe that means he'll never take the Church completely off the rails, but we still all are entitled to personal revelation and personal confirmation about the truthfulness of his words or of anything about the gospel.
Now that it's grown past 15 million, I can see the growing pains of a worldwide church. It's becoming a more flat church. Regular members will hardly be able to get access to the First Presidency or the Apostles, and they rely more on local leaders. Medical advances mean the Apostles' average ages have gone up. (Of the FP and Q12, only three of them are under the age of 73.) There is a corporate wing to the church. It's a church of imperfect people doing the best they can. We get out of our wards and stakes what we put into them.
But the way I see it, when we all die, once this life is over, we'll see our loved ones, and we'll see the big picture, and there won't be religion anymore. It'll just be the way it is. And yeah, the LDS church has those saving ordinances. We're like the custodians. Truth is truth, and truth can be found anywhere, and when we've obeyed those commandments that Christ taught, we'll then understand why. We'll be given the answers to everything. There won't be faith anymore; it'll just be knowledge. So if we're jerks in this life, we'll be jerks in the next life, and if we're jerks in the next life, we won't be able to bear being in God's presense. So be excellent to each other.
When asked by someone to boil down the gospel to its core, Jesus gave two commandments. Love thy God, and love thy neighbor. I strive to do both, and I hope everyone else does too. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.