Three days ago, I returned from a faculty development program in Delhi, India. While I attempted to adjust to Central Standard Time immediately upon arrival, I wasn’t successful. On Saturday afternoon, I fell exhausted on my bed and took a much-needed nap. Unfortunately, I awoke just in time to send the rest of my family to bed, and I have been awake since, reading and pondering. Something I encountered on Times & Seasons inspired me to write this entry. I hope that you will not begrudge me the opportunity to share a testimony in this sea of intellectualism.
As devotees of this blog already know, I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during my sophomore year at BYU. I attended BYU on the coattails of my best friend from high school (Mike O’Neill), but I joined the Church because of the Book of Mormon. At first I was a little worried about the requirement for two semesters of Book of Mormon study, but Mike assured me that the Book of Mormon was just a “history of people in South America … you know, Aztecs and Incas and all that.” That sounded all right, and I didn’t bother to inquire further.
My first class in college was Book of Mormon 121. The teacher, an ROTC instructor at BYU, began by introducing the scope of our study: the first half of the Book of Mormon. He described a bunch of events and named a bunch of people I had never encountered, but I didn’t get worried until the fellow next to me raised his hand and asked, “Are we going to be discussing the sons of Mosiah this semester?” I did a double take. What is he talking about? When the teacher responded in the affirmative without missing a beat, I started to worry. Had he posted an assignment? Did I blow off my very first college class?!
Then another fellow raised his hand, “How about Samuel the Lamanite? That guy is cool!” Everyone laughed, except for me. Then a third person got into the act. Now, I was not in the habit of praying, but by this point, I had lowered my head. “Please, God, make them stop.” He must have heard that because class ended.
A young woman directly in front of me stood up and addressed the first young man, “Are you a returned missionary?” He beamed his answer, “Yes, I just got back from [some South American country that I cannot recall].” Great! I wasn’t too sure what missionaries did, but this guy could not be good for my grades. This situation called for dramatic and immediate action.
I approached the teacher and waited patiently for all of the other students to finish. Then, I asked, “Did you post an assignment for the first class?”
“Why, no, why do you ask?”
“Well, it just seems like everyone has read ahead.”
“You aren’t a member are you?”
We did talk … for a long time. In the end, we agreed that my grade would be based on class attendance and on staying up with the reading. From that day forward, I sat in the front of the class, and I always laid my book open so that the teacher could see the yellow highlights. That may have been the easiest “A” ever. Well, that and the next semester, when I made the same bargain in Book of Mormon 122.
Of course, I really was reading, not just highlighting. At the same time, I worked as a janitor in the Harold B. Lee Library, and several of my co-workers took an active interest in my progress. I remember one of them (Kay Dennis) asking what I was reading in the Book of Mormon, and I mentioned the story of Lehi finding “something like a compass” outside of his tent. “The Liahona,” she said helpfully. “Wow! That is amazing! I can’t believe you remembered that word.” I was easily impressed.
Those first months at BYU were a time of great change for me. Not because of the Honor Code; that was not a big challenge, since I didn’t use tobacco, didn’t like alcohol, and was inclined to wear my hair short. I did have to stop swearing — a talent I had developed with much practice during high school — but most of the changes were not visible.
Since then, I have come to realize that change is at the core of the Gospel. This life is a time to repent and to become like God. For most of us, that requires a substantial departure from the status quo. The Germans have a great word for repentance: umkehren literally means “turn around.” And that is what I did at BYU.
When I started college, I described myself as an agnostic. I had heard the word from another friend in high school, and I thought it fit me pretty well. Shortly after beginning my study of the Book of Mormon, however, I realized the need to rethink this position. My supervisor at work (Paul Tippetts) introduced me to Moroni 10:3-5, and I started to pray.
I was alone on the bottom floor of the library when it first happened. I was off work, reading my Book of Mormon assignment for the next day, and I suddenly felt that what I was reading was true. The only problem was that I had no idea what I should do with this feeling. How frustrating! I prayed for a feeling, and here it was, but I was paralyzed by fear. I thought about my parents. I thought about my girlfriend in Wisconsin. I thought about not wanting to have all of the obligations that obviously accompanied membership in the Church. Too much right now.
Gradually, it became clear to me that I was being pulled into this. A close friend suggested that I sit for the missionary discussions, so I met the missionaries secretly in one of the Wilkinson Center classrooms. They wanted me to be baptized, but I couldn’t. Not yet. If I showed up in Wisconsin as a newly baptized Mormon … well, I’m not sure what, but it probably wasn’t good.
Over the summer, I distanced myself from the Church. The ward in Eau Claire, Wisconsin didn’t know about me because Mike was off doing his own thing, while I was busy working as an assistant golf professional at the Eau Claire Country Club. What a great job! Especially since my boss allowed me to play in a tournament nearly every Sunday. When I wasn’t working or playing golf, I was sleeping. The summer of golf ended in August with the Tournament of Champions, a locally televised tournament played at the Eau Claire Country Club. When I carded the low score in the sponsors invitational one day before the tournament, I was optimistic about my chances, but my performance in the actual event was disappointing.
The next day, I was on an airplane with Mike, headed back to BYU. I was not happy. I wanted to play college golf, but BYU had won the NCAA championship at the end of my first year, and Coach Tucker wouldn’t even give me an audition. I was thinking about a fall transfer to the University of Wisconsin — the Badger golf team seemed like a more attainable goal — but I had placed a deposit on an apartment in Provo and stored all of my college things there. Money was tight, and I could not afford to fly to BYU and then turn around and head for Madison. Moreover, I hadn’t even applied for admission or spoken to the Badgers’ golf coach. So thoughts of tranferring were not very practical, but I was 18. Is anyone practical at age 18? During our plane ride, Mike asked me what I was thinking about the Church. I told him that I didn’t want to talk about it. I was all about golf.
The airport shuttle dropped me in front of Pine View Apartments and took Mike to the other side of campus, where he was staying. We weren’t rooming together because he was late in securing an apartment. For some reason lost in the mists of my memory, he had thought about not returning to BYU, even though he hadn’t yet decided to go on a mission. All of my other BYU friends were headed for missions, and that left me with five new roommates — all returned missionaries!
Walking into that apartment changed my life. I opened the door and was greeted by Eric Mercer, a tall and happy guy. “Greetings!” He always said things like that. Then … BAM! I felt it. Totally unexpected. Memories of my prior year at BYU washed over me, and I felt like I had been transported to another world. (People often say that about BYU, but not for the same reason.) The contrast between being at BYU and being at the Tournament of Champions was so stark that I immediately decided to settle the matter. I needed to know whether the Gospel was true, and I turned to the Book of Mormon.
My roommates encouraged my efforts. One night, I announced to Kevin Graham, “I am thinking about getting baptized, but I am not sure about a mission.” I will always be grateful for his response: “Listen, if you aren’t committed enough to go on a mission, don’t even bother with baptism.” Are you kidding me? I thought I would be a hero for wanting to be baptized, but now it was clear that I had more work to do.
A few weeks later, I announced my decision to be baptized in my family home evening group. I had decided to go on a mission. (Mike did, too, by the way, and we both went on German-speaking missions.) My roommates and FHE sisters were very excited, and suddenly everyone in the ward seemed to know me.
Since my baptism, I have served a mission in Austria, graduated from BYU and then the University of Chicago Law School, and lived in 12 states. I am married and have had six children. The first died when he was three months old. The others are healthy and wonderful and changing every day. Lots of changes. During that time, I have made a great deal of personal progress, but I still get frustrated by certain aspects of my personality and behavior. This is most apparent when I see my children reflecting behaviors that I do not like about myself. (It happened today, in fact.) For many years, I have kept a mental list of the four or five things that I would most like to improve about myself and occasionally I promise myself to act on this list. But I am 41 years old, and change seems harder now than it did during those first years at BYU. For better or worse, I am in a groove.
I was thinking about such things the other day as I rode the airplane home from India. This trip was my first exposure to a third-world country; my mission in Vienna and subsequent travels to other parts of Europe and to Australia did not prepare me at all for what I saw there. Among the many feelings evoked by India was an extreme sense of gratitude for the Gospel. For some reason, seeing India inspired me to become a better person.
When I missed my connecting flight in Amsterdam, I was forced to stay the night in a hotel. I seized the opportunity to turn my mental list of shortcomings into a physical list. Using hotel stationary, I wrote my list and experimented with acronyms that I could use to remind myself of my newfound resolve. I wanted to change these things about myself. Somehow.
The next day, again on a plane, I was pondering my list. This was not the first time I had decided to change these things, but I really wanted this resolution to stick. Still, how would I avoid the seemingly inevitable backsliding? I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the changes I wanted to make. Then … BAM! There it was again! Although I have felt the Spirit testify of truth many times, this was different. More than just a soft assurance that I was pursuing the right course or had come to the right decision, this felt like the Spirit was physically rearranging my soul. The feeling didn’t last long, but I recognized it immediately. More importantly, I knew that I was a different person when I got off the plane than when I had boarded. (Interestingly, two days after I returned home, without hearing this story, my oldest daughter told my wife that I had changed in India.)
For many people, this story would seem cheesy, and I apologize for that. Usually, I keep experiences like this to myself, or share them only within my family. In this instance, I wanted to illustrate the process of personal change. In my experience, such change is a joint venture between me and God (through the Spirit). I am not always sure why some desired changes “stick,” while others languish, but it probably has something to do with “sincere desire” and “real intent.” These seem like just words until you feel them, and then they become understandable.
Finally, let me make clear that this event is not the end of the story. I am still working on every item on the list, and I expect to continue that work indefinitely. Nevertheless, something inside of me changed on that airplane. My sense is that the event was the culmination of years of reflection and prayer, the fruits of which somehow were released by my experiences in India. While the results may seem rather random, not replicable like a scientific experiment, my testimony is that God provides us with such experiences at surprising moments if we are ceaselessly striving to become like Him.