Chapter previews for "Falling into Grace: How a Mormon Apologist Stumbled into Christianity"
Chapter 1: Under the Covenant
I stood in the church foyer looking into the chapel and on the congregation as they sang a hymn to start their worship. They were blissfully unaware of my presence and the destruction that awaited them. Beautiful organ music floated beyond the door and tugged at me gently, enticing me to join the others.
My heart was cold as steel, and loathing consumed me. I could feel an ungodly power coursing through my veins. I was their enemy now. There was no going back. It was time to right the wrongs they caused me. Every molecule of my body ignited, and like a stick of dynamite, I exploded.
The building, the singing, and the congregants were gone in an instant. There was nothing but smoke and ash.
I awoke feeling appalled. The dream felt so real. Lying in bed that night, sweat formed on my forehead and my heart pounded. I loved the restored Church, it was the only holy and pure organization on earth, and it was an integral part of my identity. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I’d be as angry as I was in my dream.
Adrenaline still flowed through me. As horrified as I was, there was a part of me that wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more destruction. I wanted to force them to respect, maybe even fear me.
What did it mean? Was it a deception from Satan, or was it revealing my true underlying nature? Was I evil? Was I destined to fight against the Church?
I leaned back against the headboard and exhaled deeply. There was nothing to worry about. I had God-given freedom of choice. Regardless of destiny, it was ultimately my choice who or what I would become. I would never let myself be swayed by the powers of darkness.
I reminded myself that I was literally a child of God. I was there when Jesus presented the Father’s plan to send us to earth, to erase our memories, and test us. I was there when Satan and his followers revolted. I was a defender of the light. I joined God’s army and helped push back the Devil and his minions.
I knew this was true because the prophets had revealed it. In 1820, a young man named Joseph Smith, Jr., went into a grove of trees one morning to pray and ask God which church to join. There he claimed he was visited by God, the Father and the Son, Jesus, who told him not to join any of the Christian sects because they were all wrong.
Joseph was called as a prophet to restore a fallen and fragmented Christianity back to its former glory. He founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormonism or the LDS church, in 1830.
Ever since his martyrdom on June 27th, 1844, the Church was led by prophets and apostles who held the keys of the Melchezidek priesthood. This priesthood was passed down to me by the laying on of hands. It was a burden and an honor to bear the authority to act in God’s name. With it, I could perform saving ordinances and change someone’s eternal trajectory.
Of all the people in the world, only a few had the privilege to be born under the Gospel covenant. I was part of a noble lineage, a seventh generation Mormon through my maternal line. My ancestors knew the prophet Joseph and travelled with handcarts to Utah to escape unprecedented religious persecution.
My dad was a convert. He explored many religions and was still searching when LDS missionaries gave him The Book of Mormon. It was a volume of scripture from the lost tribes of Israel descended from Joseph. Its location was revealed to Joseph Smith by an angel, and he was able to translate it through the gift and power of God.
My father read the book in a single day. Not long after, he was baptized. I was blessed to have so many faithful relatives, but because of my dad I also felt the energy of a new believer. If I was faithful, I would serve a two-year mission for my church when I turned 19. I would be the first missionary ever to come from the Flournoy line.
Whenever my grandpa talked about my mission his eyes would tear up. “You’re the torchbearer,” he would say. My service would inspire my three younger brothers to serve. It was vital that I go.
Every member of the Church had the chance to receive a special prophetic blessing from a man called the Patriarch. Each church building had one Patriarch who was called to give these blessings. He was usually wise in years and very close to the Spirit.
I was nervous when I went for my blessing. Spiritually speaking, I was supposed to be clean and spotless. Sin could interrupt the subtle art of receiving revelation. What if I wasn’t worthy enough? What if the old man placed his hands on my head but no words came out?
My mom drove me to the Patriarch’s home, and he asked me a few questions about myself. We’d never met, but then, we didn’t need to. He had me sit in a chair and he placed his weathered hands on my head.
He addressed me as Brother Michael and said I belonged to the tribe of Ephraim. He told me it was my choice whether to serve a mission, but if I did, I would treasure that experience my whole life. He said I would get married and have kids.
Near the end of the blessing he said, “And now, Michael, I tell you that our Father in Heaven knows who you are. He knows your name, He knows your mind and heart and your sweet spirit and has great desire for you to become all that you are capable of becoming and to live righteously in this life- that you will be a blessing to your own family and to Heavenly Father who has a great vision for you in your life and may you see that vision as well.”
I clenched my fist as I recalled the words in bed. I didn’t believe I was meant for great things. Why did the Patriarch say that? I thought about my impending two-year mission and my heart grew heavy. I would never live up to my family’s legacy. There were so many miraculous stories about what they’d done in faraway lands.
One of my uncles was approached by a Catholic priest on his mission and asked why he was there. He answered with a song called “High Places” from the production Star Child.
Some men choose the downward road
Afraid to walk in light untold
Too blind to ever recognize their plight
And some may choose the low low land
I know that some men walk in sand
And never know the joys of taking flight
But we’ve been called to walk in high places
Far from the crowd
Where light and truth and love abound
Yes, we’ve been called to walk in high places
And all the days we walk on earth
That’s where we’ll be found.
Something pricked the priest’s heart and he converted to the Church. That was just one story among dozens. Soon it would be my turn.
I lacked confidence and was shy to a fault. When my dad baptized me at eight years old, they had to close the curtains in the font and coax me into the water. I was afraid because Dad had been telling me he needed to hold me down for a long time to wash away all that sin.
Baptism was the immersion into a covenant with God. Through baptism I promised to keep God’s commandments and to bear the burdens of my fellow man. In return, God promised me a place in the first resurrection and eternal life.
Baptism was for the remission of sins. The day of my baptism I became spotless and clean. It should have been a special moment, but looking back, all I could remember was fear.
Looking ahead, I knew my anxiety would ruin my mission too. I was supposed to be the torch bearer, the first missionary on my dad’s side and the next legend on my mom’s. I was going to let everyone down.
My heart still thudded in my chest as I sat in bed. I told myself the dream was just a yearning for control. The men and women in the congregation hadn’t noticed me because I was only a footnote, an invisible saint.
I wasn’t evil and I wasn’t going to turn against the Church someday. The prospect was laughable. I just needed a way to repel the disappointment my lackluster mission would cause my family.
Chapter 2: An Unexpected Encounter
One Sunday morning, my kid brother David woke up believing it was Saturday. As my parents tried to get him ready, he became argumentative. My Dad convinced him to go to church, with the promise that if no one was there, we would come straight home.
We got in the car and drove twenty minutes to the ward, which is the name for an LDS congregation. It was a brick building without a cross. Crosses were never placed on LDS buildings because we chose to emphasize His resurrection over His death.
We walked through the foyer, which was adorned with artwork of Jesus and his disciples during New Testament times. As usual, we were late.
We walked through the doors to organ music. Everyone was sitting in the pews in their Sunday best. The men wore white buttoned up shirts and ties and the women wore dresses and skirts.
“What are all these morons doing here?” David cried.
Dad covered his mouth and we made our way to one of the front pews. There was no assigned seating in the ward, but there was an unwritten rule that certain families took certain seats. Everyone’s eyes bored into us as we took the walk of shame and sat down.
It felt comfortable in the chapel, with its familiar wooden pews with cushioned seating. The bishop and his two councilors were in elevated seating up front, facing the congregation.
The hymn finished. Everyone bowed their heads and folded their arms in front of them as the opening prayer was said.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” the prayer began, “we thank thee for this Sabbath day and for the opportunity to gather together to worship here. We pray for those who aren’t here today that they will be able to make it next week. We pray that thy Spirit would be here today…”
Prayers were said in old English, and they were always addressed to the Father. After the prayer, announcements were made and communion, which we called the sacrament, was passed down the aisles.
Young men around age twelve did the passing. First we took bread, a symbol of Christ’s flesh, and we followed it down with water, the symbol of His blood.
Taking the bread and water was a way to renew the baptismal covenant. It was a form of repentance for commandments I had broken throughout the week. As long as I didn’t have major sins in my life, partaking made me as clean as the day I was baptized.
Church lasted three hours back then. We had Sacrament Meeting where members of the ward were assigned to speak on various topics, then there was Sunday School and classes for different ages and genders.
I enjoyed the last two hours of church. It was an opportunity to see my friends Thomas, Brandon, and Andrew. Together, we made up the Odd Quad. They were some of my only friends at the time.
We went to Priest’s quorum, the class for sixteen and seventeen year old boys. We had gone on a camping trip recently at a dam. The LDS church used to be associated with the Boy Scouts, so camping happened a lot.
Before class, my classmates began to joke about the dam. “I really enjoyed swimming in the dam water,” one of them said.
“I liked climbing the dam trees,” another said.
“Guys,” I said in mock exasperation, “would you please stop talking about the damn dam?”
They gasped and I knew I crossed the line. Cursing was a no no in the Church. I should have known better, especially after partaking of the sacrament, but I couldn’t resist getting a reaction.
After church we drove home. David continued to grumble about how unfair it was that he lost three hours of his Saturday.
Dad pulled off to the side of the road. “That’s enough,” he said sternly. “Either admit it’s Saturday, or get out of the car.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the door opened and David got out. As we drove away I wondered what it must be like to be so convinced of something, and yet be so wrong.
That year I went to a week long devotional called Especially for Youth, or EFY. I roomed with Brandon in a dorm at Trinity University in San Antonio. Thomas and Andrew took the next dorm over.
I preferred being with Brandon. He wasn’t as high energy as the other two. He was kind and non judgmental. Andrew was a gamer and technology guru. Thomas was extremely charismatic. He was born to be in the spotlight.
Aside from these three guys, I didn’t really open up to anyone. That week we hung out with a group of other teenagers and two councilors. They held faith promoting lectures, group activities, and dances.
The Church held dances about once a month for boys and girls ages 14-18. The other members of the Odd Quad were fearless when it came to approaching girls. I usually leaned against the wall trying to look cool.
On Thursday evening we were ushered into a room for a special meeting. They dimmed the lights and put on a video about Jesus. People from different backgrounds testified that Jesus was the Christ, and that He changed their hearts. The song, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” was played in the background.
I watched halfheartedly. Jesus wasn’t high on my priority list. In fact, if it wasn’t for my friends and the pretty girls at church, I probably wouldn’t go. If I had a choice, which I didn’t.
My mind wandered and I found myself thinking of my family. I wondered what my siblings thought of me. My sister Sarah had always been my closest friend. David and Luke were much younger so their opinion didn’t matter. Then there was Daniel, the middle child and my arch enemy. He had to be the most annoying brother in the history of little brothers.
We had been in countless fights. Did he fear me? I remembered then that my mother had a miscarriage before I was born. If I had an older brother, would he be a bully like me?
An inner voice told me he wouldn’t. As I sat in that crowded room, a picture took shape in my mind. My brother would be amazing. He would love me to no end. He would care enough to stay up talking about insignificant things, because what mattered to me would matter to him. He would be my friend and mentor, helping me in all aspects of my life.
I looked up and saw Jesus depicted on the screen. The Spirit fell on me like a blanket. I realized it hadn’t been my inner voice talking to me at all. The Holy Ghost was quietly explaining who Jesus was. He was my older Brother, the first spirit child of our Heavenly Father.
Christ’s perfect righteousness was manifested to me, and in contrast, I saw myself for the wretched sinner I was. I felt ashamed, knowing I must be repulsive to a holy God. I desired for God to destroy me and cleanse the earth from my selfishness. To my surprise, God sent love instead of wrath. I could almost feel the words of Christ filtering into my soul.
You are quick to do evil
And slow to do good
You care about your glory more than you do about mine
Many of the things you do displease me
But I love you anyway.
The girls started crying first, and soon the wave hit the rest of us. We were floored by what was happening. The video ended and we were ushered into testimony meetings with our small groups.
Everyone was misty-eyed and one young man who was holding the doors open almost fainted.
The Church held a Fast and Testimony Meeting every first Sunday after the sacrament was passed. People would stand at the podium and bear witness that Jesus was the Savior and Joseph was His prophet.
Since Latter-day Saints fast each first Sunday, I’d always been more focused on my growling stomach than what the speakers were saying. Now I had a personal stake in the matter.
We went into a small room and the meeting began. A girl got up, wiping tears from her eyes. “The Church is so true you guys.”
One by one, everyone got up, affirming their belief in Jesus Christ and in His restored gospel. Even after we returned to our dorms for the night, I continued to weep because of the undeserved favor I’d been shown.
Several things solidified in my mind. Jesus was real, and He was intimately acquainted with me. I realized I needed to change my behavior toward my siblings. I also knew the Church was true. It had to be. Why else would the Spirit come so boldly into that room? All the stories my family told me were valid. Joseph really had been called as a prophet in the latter days. God had given his authority to men on earth.
Miracles were real. I was certain after that night that God had more miracles in store for me.