Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clear as a Bell

For those readers who are married, let me ask you this question: how long did you date your spouse before you got engaged? And how long after that until you got married? I know that most of my audience so far is LDS, so I’m guessing most of you dated for a few months, but probably less than a year, followed by an engagement that lasted somewhere between 3 to 6 months. And I also know that if you’re not LDS, you’re probably astounded right now (I’m talking to you, Della!), just thinking about how someone could plan a wedding in 3 to 6 months.

Well, try picturing this instead. You go on one date with a guy, and then realize he’s your husband-to-be. You go on about three more dates with him, get engaged, and get married a couple months later. This is exactly what happened to Sarah Bell and her husband Scott. About four years ago, Sarah was a single mom in the Medford Singles’ Ward when she met Scott. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“He was really irritating!” Sarah says, “He asked questions all the time!”

One day while watching Scott pass the Sacrament at church, however, she felt prompted to become friends with him. Eventually, they went out to dinner. As a divorced mother, Sarah was cautious about dating, and Scott knew of her feelings. When they discussed seeing each other during that first date, he made a suggestion that few of us have probably heard.

“He said, ‘Let’s pray about it,’” Sarah recalls. So she did, praying that same evening about where her relationship with Scott should go. As she prayed, she felt the Holy Spirit with her, and then and answer came to her.

“I felt that I shouldn’t date him, that I should marry him,” she remembers. But knowing that most people don’t decide to get married after one date, she asked again, “Where did this come from? Are you sure?” At that moment, a burning in her heart answered her question, and she knew she had to follow the answer to her prayer. But, she worried, what would Scott think if she told him?

Little did she know that Scott too had prayed that night, and received the same answer to his question. He was so certain that it was the right path to follow, in fact, that he went out the very next day and bought a ring.

In fact, from the first time he saw Sarah, Scott knew she was special.

“I could tell that there was something that she knew that no other girl knew, but I didn’t know what that was,” he says.

It didn’t take Sarah long to understand why Scott was the one for her.

“There was no denying that the priesthood was what I was missing, and what I needed, and Scott would be able to fulfill that, and be the father that I needed for my daughter.”

Sarah had been baptized almost four years before she met Scott. She was raised in a home with beliefs that she describes as “mixed.” Her mother was a Lutheran, but not very active in her church, and her father was thoroughly nonreligious. In high school, some friends invited her to a non-denominational youth group activity and Sarah was introduced to religious life. At the same time, she also had an LDS boyfriend, and although she says she knows he believed in the restored Gospel, he was inactive and unwilling to act on his faith.

Still, says Sarah, “Had he not been unwavering in his faith, and the knowledge of what he should be practicing, I might not have been introduced to the Church.”

Life at home got tougher and tougher during Sarah’s senior year of high school. It became so negative, in fact, that she moved in with her boyfriend’s family after graduation. She attended church with them once, but it was not anything like what she was used to.

“I went to a church that was all jumping up and down and ‘Praise Jesus!’” she says, “And I thought, ‘How can you just sit here and sing like this?’” She didn’t go back to church with them.

Then, when she married her boyfriend the following year, Sarah decided that it would be important for her family to have the same faith. She talked to her new husband, and he agreed to attend the non-denominational church she had been part of since high school. She says that at first her church family welcomed her husband into their midst, but when they discovered he was LDS, the negative comments and Mormon jokes began. They even went so far as to show anti-Mormon videos to Sarah.

“I kept thinking, if you have to beat someone else down to build yourself up, then where is your foundation, where did your foundation go?” she recalls about that time. Still, Sarah continued to go to the church that had taken her in and introduced her to religion. It was still home to her.

Then, about a month after their marriage, Sarah’s husband invited her to take the missionary discussions. She agreed, since he had been willing to attend and learn about her church. She remembers the first lesson, and that it felt good and validating of the ideas she already had about spiritual matters, and she could not find any contradictions with what the missionaries taught and what she observed. The second lesson, however, would be a game changer.

In the second lesson, the missionaries told Sarah about the Plan of Salvation, the premortal existence and the Spirit World. When she heard these things, she felt the Holy Spirit in the room, stronger than any other feeling in her life to that point, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Church was true. When the missionaries came back for the third lesson, she told them she wanted to be baptized. Two weeks later, she was.

Sometimes, people feel that a convert’s story ends with baptism. After all, that person has taken the lessons, obviously felt something, and acted on their newfound faith by entering the waters of baptism. However, most of the time, the convert’s story is only beginning at this point. So it was for Sarah, who spent nearly her first two years in the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints as an inactive member. As she describes it, she was, “In a relationship that wasn’t equal on the terms of religion…he was never really level with [the Church], and so it was hard for me to maintain the conversion that I had first experienced.”

Sarah recalls waking up one Sunday morning, when her daughter was only a few months old, and thinking, “I’m going to start going back to church. I want to go to church.” She went to her closet and soon discovered that she didn’t have any appropriate church clothes. The thought came to her mind to just forget it, and wait until the next week, but at length she found a nice pair of slacks, a blouse, and an outfit for her baby.

As Sarah walked out the door, she recalled that suddenly, “There was this really strong feeling that, ‘nobody’s going to be there that you know, nobody’s going to like you there, you don’t know anybody, why are you going?’” In response, Sarah slammed the door, got in her car, and went to church. When she arrived she saw her in-laws, and people greeted her warmly at the door. It was the first step she toward finally becoming a part of a ward family.

“It was just right, it was good. And I never missed a Sunday after that…throughout singles ward, throughout my divorce, throughout college and working full time,” she says, “I went to church every Sunday.”

Eventually, that first marriage did end. Sarah wanted to grow in the Church, and her husband was still unwilling to change his habits. For Sarah, having access to the Melchizedek Priesthood in her home had become a priority, and her husband was unable to attain it. I ask her what it means to have the Priesthood in her home now.

“Without it I would be nothing,” she answers immediately, then adds that she is trying not to cry, “The Priesthood is God’s evidence of miracles on Earth. The Priesthood is imperative in my existence and I would be unable to be the mom and wife that I am without it. It’s a huge part of my testimony.”

Sarah and Scott will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary this summer. In August, Sarah will have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for eight years. Their third child (which will make a grand total of four with Sarah’s daughter from her first marriage) will also be born in August. Their lives are incredibly busy, running an in-home adult foster care facility and caring for 3.5 children and a couple of dogs. Our interview had to be paused several times, in fact, so that Sarah could tend to a resident, talk to a child in need of his mother’s attention, or instruct Scott on what to buy at Wal-mart. But overriding the busyness is a sense of love and compassion in their home. It’s no wonder, considering what Sarah strives to teach their children.

“Just because the world isn’t necessarily good doesn’t mean we can’t be good, and doesn’t mean that there aren’t positive influences out there.”

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I Know that he Loveth his Children

When many people think of Latter-day Saints, a particular word pops into their heads: “perfect.” Sometimes, others think of Mormons as people who are perfect and have always been perfect. Sometimes, this scares people away from the Church, because they think they can never be this “perfect.” Well, I definitely know that I’m not perfect, and I also know that you don’t have to have lived a perfect life to be an excellent member of this church. All you need is a firm testimony of Jesus Christ and a willingness to be more like Him. This week, I’m sharing the story of someone whose life has not always been perfect, but who showed exemplary faith and strength through some exceptionally hard times. I hope her story is as inspirational to you as it is to me.

Kristine Case was twenty-five, living what she calls “a rough life” as the wife of an alcoholic with substance abuse issues of her own. From time to time, LDS missionaries would knock on her door, but Kristine always turned them away, saying she was happy with the Christian church she grew up in, although that wasn’t exactly true.

“I always felt like there was something more,” she says of her life prior to her conversion.

One day, yet another pair of missionaries knocked on her door, and this time she decided to let them in. From that first meeting, she says, “I just felt really warm about what they were saying to me. I wanted to hear more.”

She continued to meet with the missionaries, bringing her questions to them. For Kristine, one of the most important aspects of the Gospel at that point was knowing that she could be forgiven, that even though she had done things in her life that were contrary to the nature of God, they could be taken away from her, as if they had never happened.

“Initially I used the Church as a crutch,” she says, “and eventually developed my own testimony.”

The road to baptism was not an easy one for Kristine. One of the greatest obstacles for her was obeying the Word of Wisdom, a health code that Latter-day Saints adhere to, and a requirement for baptism into the Church.

“I put No Smoking signs all over my house. I quit drinking and drinking coffee,” she says, certainly no easy task.

Even after her baptism, Kristine still faced trials every day. During her first few years in the Church she relapsed into alcohol use several times. Her husband was also still addicted to alcohol and drugs, and the marriage eventually ended in divorce.

“Trying to raise my two children by myself in the Gospel was really, really hard,” she says. Kristine kept trying, even though she entered into what she describes as, “a really, really, dark, dark period” of her life after falling away again after her divorce.

But, as we all know, things are usually darkest before the dawn. Drawing on the firm foundation in the Gospel that the missionaries had helped Kristine to build, perhaps relying on that first knowledge about repentance and forgiveness that had led her to baptism, she was eventually able to pull herself out of that dark place.

“I think eventually I got tired of having to repent, and I said, ‘you know what? I just need to live the Gospel.’ So I did, I lived the Gospel.”

Now with nearly six years of sobriety under her belt, Kristine revels in the blessings that have come from her membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I’m a pioneer in my family,” she proudly states. She relishes the safety, security, peace, and “overabundance of love” that staying true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ has brought her. Being able to teach her children about the Gospel and what it means to her and the strength it gives her even on her hardest days is also a great privilege for Kristine.

Perhaps the greatest of all, Kristine remarried several years ago and is now sealed for time and eternity to her husband. She knows that right now it is not possible for her to be sealed to her children, but as she puts it, “I’m not worried about it…I know it will all work out.” Then she quotes a scripture very dear to her heart: 1 Nephi 11:17.

“And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”

To her, this simple sentence from the Book of Mormon reminds her that, “we don’t need to know the answer to everything, we just need to know that God loves us, and that he has a plan.” It’s a truth she finds herself referring to often, an answer for any adversity that might come her way.

When I met Kristine, I would never have guessed that this was her story, because truthfully, she seems to be pretty perfect. She’s the person in our ward who is always complimenting others, always smiling, always giving hugs. Her eyes shine with a clarity and a strength that tells you even before you speak to her that she is a woman of faith, and she is a woman who has learned from her past experiences and now uses that knowledge to help others, even if only by sharing her story on a friend’s humble blog.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

If This be the Desire of your Hearts

The honor of the first conversion story shared at A Blessed Defeat goes to none other than…drum roll please…Jamieson Livengood! Does this guy have an awesome last name or what? It fits him for sure.

Jamieson, a college student here in Ashland, has been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for exactly one year this week. When you meet Jamieson, the first thing that strikes you is his shining countenance – he seems so happy you expect his skin to start glowing. This is a young man who knows he has made the right choices for himself in this life, a young man who is outgoing and a friend to everyone he meets.  Jamieson admits that the story of his conversion is a long one, but I doubt he would change one step he took along the path that ultimately led him to where he is today.

Jamieson’s story begins in 2009, when he was working a summer job at a movie theater with an LDS friend. There, he and his coworker talked about their religious beliefs, what they thought about the afterlife, and what they believed was the purpose of life. His friend was open about his views and always invited Jamieson to come to church on Sunday. As Jamieson puts it, “I knew nothing about Mormonism and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He told me about some of the commandments…I was like, ‘That’s too much.’”

His friend didn’t need to ask for very long, though. Jamieson first attended an LDS church meeting on Father’s Day of 2009. He says he felt like sacrament meeting was “pretty normal,” as it was the part that most resembled the religious upbringing he was familiar with, having been raised by Catholic and Baptist parents (for those readers who are new to LDS lingo, sacrament meeting is the first hour of the church block. The congregation sings hymns, takes the sacrament, which is similar to communion, and listens to talks that are similar to sermons). He only felt truly out of his element when everyone broke up into separate groups, or quorums, for the third hour of church.

“Two missionaries came up to me,” says Jamieson about what happened at that point, “Because they could tell I wasn’t a member because I had no idea what I was doing [in elder’s quorum].” One week later, he met with the missionaries to take the first discussion. He continued to take the missionary discussions throughout the summer, but stopped after awhile.

“I knew deep down that it was true,” he says, “But I just wasn’t ready to change yet.”

He spent a few months thinking things over, talking to good friends who were church members, but still feeling not quite ready to move towards baptism. He says his testimony of the Gospel accumulated over time, not hitting him in one jolt as it does with some investigators. Five different missionaries taught him before he felt he was ready to take the next step.

Last May, after a choir trip to Six Flags and more deep discussions with a good friend, Jamieson felt inspired when he got back home to “[Get out my] Book of Mormon, read my scriptures, and pray.” A week later, he was ready to commit to baptism. I asked him what ultimately led him to make the decision to be baptized. Without hesitating, he rattles off a scripture reference, “Mosiah, 18:10.”

Then he grabs his scriptures and flips to it.

“Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”

On May 22, 2010, just a little under a year since those first conversations with his friend at the movie theater, Jamieson was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“And here I am today!” he says proudly, as we sit on a couch at the Institute of Religion in Ashland, having just shared a delicious lunch with our friends. Now 19 years old and a faithful member for a year, Jamieson is eligible to go on a church mission. He plans to begin filling out the paperwork as soon as the spring term is over. I asked what his parents, who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, think about his decision. He says his mother wanted him to wait until after college to serve a mission. He wanted to respect his mother’s wishes, but, he says, “I just felt so unhappy and so miserable [about postponing my mission], it was all I ever thought about.” He talked about it with many friends and mentors, finally arriving at his current decision.

“No one pressured me to go. It was all my choosing,” says Jamieson. His parents are not yet convinced he’s made the right choice and will cut him off financially unless he changes his mind. But with his unfailing optimism, Jamieson says, “At first that was kind of a hard pill to swallow…but now, I feel fine about it. Maybe being poor will keep me humble,” he adds with a smile.

It certainly hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Jamieson since his initial conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Another trial came during his first term of college. “I kind of felt like I was going astray,” he explains. The next term, he signed up for classes at the Institute of Religion, an educational facility near campus where LDS students can go to take the religion classes they would normally only get at church schools like BYU. “I took every class,” says Jamieson, adding that the friendships he made and the support he received at Institute helped him to cement his testimony and stay strong on a campus where not many of his peers shared his views.

Jamieson finds that keeping up with the little things, especially scripture study, helps him feel closer to his Heavenly Father. He makes an effort each day to read the Book of Mormon for one hour, and says that even though that might seem like a chore, the time really does fly.

“Being diligent in the scriptures like that, you just find so many things that apply to your specific situation, even though the words never change.” Spoken like a true missionary.

Selling Happy

 I’m not a newcomer to this whole blogging thing. My first attempt came during a summer course during my year in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Southern Oregon University. Basically, the blog was a requirement for an ed tech class we all had to take. But I wanted to keep it going, chronicle one of the most important years of my life and the lives of my 80 some cohort members. I had grand, sparkly, twirly plans about writing witticisms on the struggles of student teaching, our triumphs, our darkest hours, the unbreakable friendships we’d forge.

It lasted all of two posts. It turns out student teaching really is a struggle, and it really cuts into your blogging time.

My next attempt was perhaps more humble. I decided to do an experiment in gratitude, inspired by Henry B. Eyring’s conference talk about recognizing the hand of the Lord in our lives each day. I thought, what a better way to do this than to share with the online world the things I am most grateful for every day.

It lasted all of two weeks.

It isn’t that I’m not grateful for the amazing blessings in my life. It’s just that when I write about myself, I go back and read it and think, “Wow, Kelli. You sound totally lame.”

And Mormon. In my senior year of college, I took a poetry class from Lawson Inada, then poet laureate of Oregon. It was not so much a class as us getting together for 4 hours a week to talk about ourselves and maybe read some poems. One time, Lawson looked around the room and asked, “Is anybody in here like, a Mormon?” I slowly raised my hand, in that room full of atheists and recovering Catholics, and he beamed at me and cried out, “I knew it!”

That was the year I “became” LDS (or Mormon, but I prefer LDS. Teachers have a thing for acronyms), which we’ll get to later. After my conversion, I found that writing was more difficult. As a writer, I was trained to write things that were “real,” i.e. gritty, vulgar at times, bittersweet (if sweet at all). Not many happy endings. The best story I wrote ended with one cowboy going off to kill another cowboy’s cattle in an act of revenge.

I was taught, basically, that happy didn’t sell. Real people weren’t happy. Real people were fighting with their significant others, getting drunk, dropping F-bombs like raindrops in Portland, having elicit sex, killing their neighbor’s cattle, and generally giving up on life. Real readers wanted to read about real people.

Well, I happen to know that there are approximately 13 million real people out there who, if you ask around about them, seem to be pretty happy. Not perfect, just happy. I know I am. So that’s what this blog is about; telling real stories that are, on the whole, happy. We are going to sell some happy.

Hopefully, I’ll still be here after two weeks.