My personal experience with Thomas S. Monson

thomasmonsonLast night I felt a special love for Thomas S. Monson, our current President of the Church. Since he will be speaking again this morning in our general conference, I wanted to share some of my feelings about this man Latter-day Saints sustain as prophet, seer, and revelator.

As I’ve written about before, when I was 11 years old my father unexpectedly died. Because my grandparents had been friends with the Monsons for many years, Thomas Monson – who was then 1st Counselor to Church President Gordon B. Hinckley – spoke at my dad’s funeral. At the time I met him very briefly. I never expected to meet him again.

Well several years later, I did. As a young teenager I happened to meet him backstage right before he was to speak at a large gathering. He invited me to sit next to him. He then put his arm around me and for the next 10 minutes treated me like I was the reason he was even there. Without being told anything other than my name, he launched into a brief history of how he knew my family and how much he valued his friendship with my grandparents. He asked about my immediate family – how we were doing, how I was doing, and encouraged me to be good to my mom and to help her. And while I don’t remember everything we talked about, I do remember, like the cliché, how he made me feel.

By any conventional standard, I certainly should have been the least of his worries that night. I’m still amazed that he demonstrated such concern for a little teenager he happened to run into right before his big talk.

Such concern seems to be characteristic for Thomas Monson. There are many stories of his lifelong efforts to reach out to the one. (See this talk and this talk, for two examples.)

You can probably understand why, then, I think this tribute to Thomas S. Monson in 2008 by Joseph B. Wirthlin is the most fitting tribute to I’ve ever heard given to anyone:

While it is a compliment to him that many of the great and mighty of this world know and honor him, perhaps it is an even greater tribute that many of the lowly call him friend. 

Thomas S. Monson points others to Jesus Christ, by word and deed, to live and love and serve as the Savior did. I know TSM is not a perfect man, but he is a very, very good one. More than that though, I believe him to be a special witness of Jesus Christ.

When I study TSM’s messages or hear him speak, I feel the Holy Ghost affirm that he is a prophet of God – a modern Moses. I sustain him as such and look forward to hearing him today at conference (morning session begins at 11am CDT). Watch the proceedings live here and follow on Twitter here, hashtag #LDSconf.

The Burden of Belief and Pursuing Truth: Part 2

“Since truth is the only meaningful foundation upon which we can make wise decisions, how then can one establish what is really true?” –Elder Richard G. Scott

In part one of this blog post I explained my background (it got real – I even admitted to wearing a bolo tie), and I described a paradigm-shifting crisis of faith. I seriously questioned the existence of God and in so doing learned that with or without God there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. I learned that rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief, and I determined to make my best judgment after examining three things: my own experience, the experience of others, and the “facts”.

My Own Experience

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is designed to actively involve its members in spiritual pursuits. Being raised in that environment, I have always said regular prayers, read scripture, attended church meetings, and served others in various capacities. None of my varied experiences are undeniable proof of God, but all of them add up to strong personal evidence of his existence. When pursuing answers to big questions or guidance during turbulent times, I have found feelings combined with thoughts that seem to come from outside of me and confirm the existence of a Heavenly Father that is concerned with my well-being.

The Experience of Others

In addition to my own experiences, I find my belief in God strengthen by the experiences of others. For example, the Book of Mormon and the Bible are essentially the spiritual journals of men from long ago, and the stories they tell testify without hesitation of the existence of God and of his love for his children.  In more recent times Joseph Smith said he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and they spoke with him face to face, and modern-day apostles and prophets testify that God and Jesus Christ live. My own close friends and family members have had significant experiences that convince them of God’s existence.

The “Facts”

The “facts” as revealed by science are inconclusive. The materials that make up the Earth date back millions of years, and we can observe evolution in nature. But we don’t really know how dramatic leaps in evolution happen or how a habitable planet was formed from a big explosion of energy. In fact some non-religious scientists believe the evidence suggests an intelligent design as opposed to an accident. I believe at some point instructions were issued so that order could come from chaos. I believe God was the author of that intelligence. In short, while there is definitely no proof of God’s existence from science, there is plenty of room for belief in Him.

Pursuing Truth

Every one of my three pillars of belief can be discounted, argued, or contradicted. There is no easy answer. In fact I believe this Earth life was designed to allow us to make decisions without a sure knowledge so we could gain experience that only that type of environment could afford.

Truth be told (pun intended) I am not trying to convince you to believe in God, I am trying to convince you to pursue truth. Truth is the only meaningful foundation on which to make decisions, and identifying it is the first step to leading a peace-filled life. So pursue it. Relentlessly. And when you find it, or when you think you find it, take action! DO whatever it is that truth would suggest is right.

Your pursuit of truth may lead you to believe exactly what I believe. Or perhaps your pursuit of truth will lead you to something totally different. The God I believe in would not fault someone for honestly pursuing truth and not finding it. I believe our pursuit of truth and our best effort to act according to the truth we find makes this life meaningful and valuable and enjoyable.

I count my doubting the existence of God as one of the great blessings of my life because it forced me to think and to personally pursue truth. I am thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for it is in this church I have found answers to life’s most important questions and had experiences that convince me of God’s love and our eternal worth. May we continue to relentlessly pursue truth, even (especially) when it contradicts what is popular, what is tradition, or what is culture.

The Burden of Belief and Pursing Truth: Part 1

I was born into a strong Mormon family. Every Sunday I put on my tie, or in earlier years cinched up my bolo tie (hey don’t judge, I grew up in New Mexico… on second thought maybe you should judge), climbed into the “middle seat with the feet on the hump” in our 1976 Chevy Beauville Van, and went to church with my five older siblings and parents.

I learned about God, about revelation, about scripture and prayer, about Jesus, about being kind and responsible. Some Sundays I was bored, some Sundays I was engaged, and some Sundays I was excited to see if I could sit next to the new girl. During the week my parents made sure to pray and study with us regularly and hold weekly family nights complete with spiritual lessons, songs, treats, and family arguments (teenagers are just the worst).

I even practiced some of what I was taught. I prayed regularly, read scripture, attended church classes, and avoided most of the things I was taught to avoid (dating young, addictive substances, etc.).

At age 20, though, I encountered serious doubt. While serving as a full time volunteer for my church I learned that my oldest brother, a hero of mine, no longer believed in God. Frankly, I hadn’t considered that possibility, and now I was forced to. The implications of it all came crashing down. Had I been inadvertently brain washed by my own family and religion? Did I invent spiritual experiences and selectively remember convenient coincidence to match my conditioning? Was it all born of some human need to feel important and avoid the reality that we die and cease to exist?

For days I agonized over these questions. I prayed regularly asking God (if he was there) to make himself known to me, to remove my doubt, to solidify my foundation of faith so it could not be broken. I saw no angel, I heard no voice, and I did not climb a mountain to talk to a burning bush. No, I more or less felt nothing… nothing more than I had always felt – a calm, quiet peace that perhaps I had invented.

So for a few days I allowed myself to not believe and freed my mind to pursue existence without God. At first I felt fear – fear of being finite and unimportant, a temporary fixture on this accidental life-sustaining planet. Some believe that fear is the only reason religion exists, to give us weak humans a crutch to lean on. However, I found something even more shocking. Even without God I was confronted again with a need for belief.

The scientific method has done much to uncover truth, but it cannot answer many questions: Where did the energy to create the big bang come from? And what forces govern sub-atomic particles? And what is space? Does it have an end? What will all the space and planets look like in 100 billion years? And beyond that infinitely? And what set of instructions dictated leaps in evolution from single-celled organism to fish to mammal to human? What makes humans different than other life? Why are we so fallible? What is morality and conscience? With or without God, there is an inability to comprehend the undeniable eternity and complexity that surrounds us, and therefore there is a need for belief, for faith in something that is not seen but is believed to be true. Rejecting God does not relieve that burden of belief.

I determined that the only way to justify my own belief, whether in a God or in the absence of God, was to examine as much evidence as I could. Ironically what was at first a crisis of faith became a firm foundation of enduring faith and confidence. I’ll tell you about it in the 2nd part of this two-part post…

Mormon Definitions – Part I

Let’s define some words and phrases. This will surely be a growing list, but let’s get started with some essentials.

Mormon Church, LDS Church, or Church of the Latter-day Saints. Attempts to shorthand the formal and official name of the church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormon. Has a couple of meanings and uses. Mormon could refer to 1) members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; 2) the prophet-historian figure after whom the Book of Mormon is named; 3) fundamentalists who have broken off from the LDS Church. Throughout this blog, I’ll use both Mormons and Latter-day Saints (LDS) interchangeably (not to be confused with #3, which, if ever brought up, will be referred to as Mormon fundamentalists). Check out this page for some additional links and info on uses of Mormon.

Book of Mormon. Religious text held by Latter-day Saints to be scripture, comparable to the Bible. Recounts several ancient Israelite migrations to the Americas – their histories, prophecies, and rebellions and relationship with Deity. Contains an account of the resurrected Jesus Christ visiting these inhabitants. The text originated from a set of ancient metallic records Joseph Smith discovered and translated. Published in 1830 in New York.

Church. Chapel. Meetinghouse. Ward building. Stake Center. Basically, all these refer to a Mormon meetinghouses where Latter-day Saints gather on Sunday for their worship services and which are used for activities such as baptisms, socials, youth activities, athletic events, and dinners. Visitors are welcome. In June 2013, church leaders announced that LDS meetinghouses will now be open for tours during weekdays.

Temples. Temples are different from Mormon chapels, which as noted above, are designated for Sunday worship services. An LDS temple is considered to be the “House of the Lord” by Latter-day Saints. Upon dedication, temples are believed to be sacred structures where essential ordinances, ceremonial rituals and marriages are performed by Latter-day Saints for themselves and their deceased family members. The ordinances and ceremonial rituals reflect Old & New Testament themes and elements. Latter-day Saints visit and worship in temples to make promises with God and draw closer to Jesus Christ.

Ward. An LDS congregation is called a ward. Each ward is defined by a geographic area. Thus, Mormons do not necessarily select the ward they attend each Sunday, only to the extent they choose the neighborhood in which they live. Overseen by a lay bishop and two counselors.

Stake. A group of LDS congregations or wards (usually 6-10). Overseen by a lay “stake president” and two counselors.