July 16, 2008
The following is a letter that I started to write you on Sunday during Sunday School (the foyer, for once, was quiet and deserted). The rest I finish today with all my hopes and prayers that it may be of use to you somehow as you endeavor to bring those around you unto Christ.
Gosh. I wish there was some way I could convey to you the power of today’s sacrament meeting. I must have heard Brother Keller wrong when I understood Ben to be speaking today (I thought at the time that it seemed rather early, considering his recent return home), or, Brother Keller could have simply been Brother Keller. At any rate, the McAvoys spoke, a relatively new couple in the ward, married six or seven years and 40-ish. It was simple and simply powerful and moved everyone in that room.
Sister McAvoy spoke about being raised in the Church, her earliest recollections of feeling the witness of the Spirit (when quite young), and gaining her own testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. She thought it a bit vague to say, “I know this Church is true,” and expounded on the definition of truth and all we imply when we use that well-known phrase.Brother McAvoy spoke quite simply and tenderly but powerfully of his conversion experience. He told of his grandmother who was a devout Catholic, so much so that nothing prevented her from attending mass on Wednesdays and Sundays—not even the Maine winter weather. He told how he wished to believe something so strongly and with such certainty as did his grandmother, but he had too many questions regarding her religion and tired of the answers given him—answers not at all but advice: have faith, my son.
Eventually, he became frustrated enough to start seeking out and investigating other denominations. He stated that he never went to a bad church—that they all were made up of good people doing good works—but they were all missing that ‘little something’ which would have joined him to any particular denomination.
Then, having reached the conclusion that there was no sect which answered all his questions and met all his requirements, he decided that he’d give agnosticism a trial for a while, that while being a great deal of his life. However, he ultimately admitted that the national religion of commercialism and instant gratification failed to provide him with any true fulfillment. As he spoke, it felt to me that he never gave up on God or Jesus Christ, nor ceased to believe in them, nor to hunger and thirst after the eternal truths denied him. He simply gave up looking.
Realizing that living for the latest gadget left him nothing but a bunch of stuff, he thought he’d try prayer. Prayer seems so elemental, does it not? And yet, for him, he was venturing into the unknown. He said he had always prayed out of the Catholic prayer book, his prayers all preconceived by some stranger probably dead for centuries. However, he eventually reached the decision that when he prayed he would have a real conversation with God, in the hopes that he would receive real answers.
He said, then, the answers started coming—not necessarily the ones he wanted, but they came. Ultimately, these promptings led him to respond to an advertisement touting a job with ‘a great boss and positive working environment,’ etc. That certainly seemed to be the job for him. He got the job but immediately realized it was not the job for him, it was the worst job he had ever had, and he despised his boss, but every time he determined to quit on the spot, something inside him said ‘not yet’.
The one thing he liked about his place of employment was the fact that everyone discussed religion frankly and openly, and there was nothing he more enjoyed. He said people of all denominations were represented and voiced their opinions and explained their doctrines freely. However, one of his friends told him one day to “stay away from Ann. She’s a Mormon.”
Of course, this sparked his interest. He had never heard of these people called Mormons, let alone the church to which they belonged. Ann (the future Sister McAvoy) seemed perfectly normal to him, and rather nice at that. So, he determined to figure out the mystery. He had never heard of a Mormon before, and because his friend was so negative, he expected her answers to his questions to be dodgy and anything but forthright. He expected her to be evasive altogether respecting any inquiry he made and was glad to be pleasantly disappointed in his preconceptions.
Over the years of his search, he decided that there were two primary principles prerequisite to any religion with which he would associate himself. The first was the need for a ‘captain of the ship’. He said that his Catholic upbringing helped develop his opinion that the church he chose must have a central governing body and that the religion must be universally consistent in precepts and practice. His stated his prerequisite as ‘is it protestant?’ which I understood to mean, does it have a head to guide the whole church or do delegates convene to vote on doctrine which may or may not be require the adherence of individual congregations?
He asked this of Ann. She told him of the Great Apostasy and the Restoration of primitive church. We believe that Christ stands at the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that, through his prophet, Joseph Smith and under direction of our Savior, it was again established on earth. The priesthood (the authority to administer in Christ’s name) had once again been restored. The Church is consistent worldwide: the same scriptures are used, the same principles taught, the same programs initiated. The Church is the only faith with governing body which is true to the structure of the early church established by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. We believe that the leaders of our Church are apostles and prophets of Jesus Christ, and that through his divine authority they lead and guide this church. We believe that each member is equally entitled to revelation over his particular calling or sphere of influence, but the stewardship of our prophet, seer, and revelator encompasses the whole earth.
Brother McAvoy went on to say that this answer moved him to ask his second prerequisite question, who goes to Heaven? Sister McAvoy told him of our temples. We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. (3rd Article of Faith, Pearl of Great Price, emphasis added). We believe that every soul shall have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ whether in this life or in the next. We believe the moral agency of each individual is essential to God’s great plan of salvation. We believe that missionary work continues beyond the veil which shades our mortal eyes, and all will choose of themselves whether to accept or reject the vicarious work performed for them within the House of the Lord. God will force no man to heaven.
Needless to say, this doctrine answered Brother McAvoy’s sense of injustice in the belief that only those who lived under the influence of Christianity and accepted its doctrine could possibly make it to heaven. He expressed his concerns that there were many good people in the world, those who lived Christian precepts and did good works no matter the form of worship to which they ascribed. Every sect he investigated failed to answer the injustice of that claim.
He then decided to read the Book of Mormon. However, he had not voiced his intent to Ann nor decided to meet with the missionaries, so he went to the local Christian book store to pick one up. (Here, the congregation laughed). Failing in that quest, he decided that if anyone had that book, Barnes and Noble would. (The congregation laughed again). When he again failed to find it, the clerk tried to help him by looking it up on the computer. She said, “It says we have one in stock, but I can’t figure out in what section it would be in.” Then, she mused, “That’s really weird, because my neighbor is trying to give copies away all the time.” To be fair, Barnes and Noble does carry the Book of Mormon and can be found here.
Brother McAvoy decided it was time for him to attend a meeting and accepted Ann’s invitation. Being from a Catholic background, you can imagine the paradigm shift he underwent as he grew accustomed to our particular brand of worship. The building was simple, without the usual ornaments he had come to expect. Instead of a priest or preacher standing in a pulpit before the room, members of the congregation delivered the sermons. Our faith functions on a lay ministry, where leaders and teachers of both genders donate their time and talents to the Gospel. No plate for donations was passed, which settled another point of concern for Brother McAvoy. The priesthood is conferred upon all worthy males, beginning at the age of twelve and progressed through incremental degrees. Thus, the sacrament (similar to the Holy Communion), the center and focus of our Sunday worship, is conducted by young men with great simplicity.
Brother McAvoy came away certain that it was all too good to be true. There had to be a flaw somewhere, some indiscretions of its leaders, some controversy regarding the Church, some sort of underhanded dealing. It all too perfectly suited him and answered his every concern. There had to be a fly in the ointment, and so he determined to investigate. Needless to say, he found no shortage of derogatory material to peruse on the Internet. He came across arguments against the Book of Mormon, the premises of which he easily dismissed. However, it puzzled him immensely that the primarily focus of attack centered on Joseph Smith rather than the Church itself.
He had by that time agreed to take the discussions. The missionaries came and shared with him the first discussion. The spirit was strong, their closing prayer had been said, and the missionaries took their leave. However, the senior missionary turned to him again and told him that he didn’t know why, but he had to tell him one more thing, which was this: it is all circular. If the Book of Mormon is true, then the Church has to be true, and if the Church is true, Joseph Smith was truly a prophet of God. If Joseph Smith was a prophet, then the Book of Mormon is true. It was then that Brother McAvoy realized why Joseph Smith was the brunt of so much defamation. There is nothing sinister about the Church. Attacks upon it as an institution are week and ineffectual. Thus, they focus on the man rather than the church he founded, hoping to deprive it of its foundation.
The fault with that strategy is, Joseph Smith is not the foundation of our faith. Our religion is sunk into the bedrock of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and propelled by the continuing revelation he gives to his prophets today. With that certainty burning in one’s bosom, with the whisperings of the Spirit that assures one time and again of the truthfulness of not only Christ’s divinity but also his very personal and intimate, everlasting and infinite love for each individual, the railings of its adversaries and accusations of the misinformed simply cease to be. They do not and cannot whisper the peace of the Still Small Voice. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” and the publishers of such things produce naught but anger, distrust, resentment and malice.
Finally, Brother McAvoy explained, it was time to “meet the prophet”. He knew he would know him a Man of God, a true prophet, or simply a chairman of the board who claimed divine inspiration to accomplish his own ends. This all occurred over the summer of 2001. September rolled around, and his investigation had reached this point.
Then, 9.11 happened. When he learned that President Hinckley was calling a memorial service in honor of the victims, he knew the opportunity for which he had waited presented itself. He would finally get to meet the prophet. Unfortunately, his boss was rigid and demanding. Personal days were nonexistent in that office, which meant neither Brother McAvoy or Ann would be able to attend the memorial service. As it happened, an interesting little tropical storm was pirouetting in the Gulf, threatened to land a hurricane on their city, Tampa Bay, Florida. The boss closed up shop and told everyone to stay home, which opened the way for Brother McAvoy’s attendance. He stated that he didn’t claim a personal miracle in the form of a hurricane, only that he just thought the sequence of events interesting.
President Hinckley was nothing as expected but everything Brother McAvoy hoped he would find. He wore no vestments, no great tall ornate hand, no robes or anything that overtly proclaimed to all the world that ‘Here is a Great Man!’ However, he spoke with such great power that his voice reached into Brother McAvoy and professed to him personally that he was truly the Lord’s Servant, called of God.
And there his story ended, and his bore his own sweet testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. The Spirit bore witness of the precepts he taught, particularly as every lesson subsequent to that meeting seemed an extension of it, as if they simply broke into groups to discuss it. To see how many people he affected was not surprising, particularly when the laughter or nodding heads or tissues produced professed how nearly the converts in the chapel (which were not a few) identified his story with their own. Neither were the born-and-bred members unmoved, for every member who professes to follow Christ must at some point or another develop a testimony of their own. They must deal with the doubts and questions which niggle at them. They must have the Witness of the Holy Ghost profess that this church is Christ’s own.
I know, because I have experienced my own conversion. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know he lives and actively engages in furthering his work and his glory, which is to bring to pass the eternal life of man. I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is his Gospel, fully restored, guided and directed by his hand. I know that he suffered for our sins, that he achieved the great and infinite Atonement, all for his love for us—for me—and for his love of God the Almighty, his Father, that we, his children, may one day return again to him.
I know Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God, that he was called and ordained to be the Lord’s instrument on earth when the truth was restored. I know that his successors in that holy calling as prophet, seer, and revelator, as well as president of the Lord’s church, are equally called of God, the Lord sustains and uplifts them, they wear the mantle authority upon their shoulders and have bestowed upon them the keys of the Priesthood of the Holy Order of God.
I know that President Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s prophet for this time, and, like every other prophet before him, He has been raising him up for this singular purpose from his birth. Do you remember when, as first counselor in the First Presidency, he came to Houston, to our chapel, and we were able to see him in person? We were not near enough to shake his hand, nor did I wish to add to the press to greet him, but as he walked into the room he brought with him such a spirit of God’s love as radiated out to encompass us all. I know he is God’s prophet, as surely as I know President Hinckley was God’s prophet, and the depth of my love and certainty for him I cannot express.
I know Jesus Christ is my lord and my savior, my son. I know his love for me is infinite. I begin to understand what it is to kneel in his presence as I petition to the Father and pray in his name because he has bestowed upon me that great privilege, as I know that experience, as overwhelming and indescribable as it is, is naught but the smallest inkling of what it will be when he at last calls me home.
Of these eternal truths I testify, in his name, even Jesus Christ, my Savior and Redeemer. Amen.
I love you. Be well, have faith, work hard, do good and rejoice! The Lord is King.