Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why I Believe

A friend of mine started posting a series of essays by her friends and family members on her blog. Each essay is on the topic "Why I Believe." I have read several of the essays she has collected and really enjoyed reading each persons individual journey. Today I had a free afternoon so I wrote my own essay for her collection. I am glad to have recorded some of the experiences I share in my essay that I don't think I have ever written down. Writing this was a great experience for me. If you have any inclination to write your own "Why I Believe" essay, I would encourage you to take some time and do it. Keep it for yourself and your family, submit to my friend for her collection, or share it with the world, it is just good to record it. I shared mine with my friend and it will be on her blog. I wanted to share it with all of you too.

Why I Believe
By Stephanie Waite

I was born and raised by faithful life-long members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. So, in my childhood they taught me about Jesus and my Heavenly Father. I was taught the doctrines of repentance and faith and choosing the right. Eventually, when I turned 8, I was baptized.

Many might believe that this teaching and training by parents are my reason for believing. And I will say that their efforts in parenting are what guided me to my belief. But my parents teaching is not why I believe today.

I believed my parents when I was a child. But, I did not really live their teachings very well. I was a naughty kid. I am not saying that lightly. I mean, it is just the truth. I was not really kind to my friends. I hurt them physically frequently. I was stubborn and selfish and insecure.

I believed the LDS church was true because I had been taught that. But, I didn’t know it for myself. I was going to church every week and all that, but my heart had not been converted.

As my childhood turned to adolescence, I may have stopped scratching my friends and acting out but I found other ways to get attention from my peers. By the time I was 13 I had been going to our youth program for a year and had felt the Spirit on more than one occasion. I knew I needed to be better and I was trying.

Shortly before I turned 14, I started going to seminary, a before school class where you study the scriptures. I had an amazing teacher who had a huge impact on my life (thank you to Garth Tesch.) I began reading my scriptures on my own everyday.  I had made some good new friends and had really begun to change.

During that year, I had been trying to get one of my best friends, who was a member of our church but not really active, to come with me to seminary.  She had come a couple of times and told me she felt the Spirit there. I knew deep down that this was a good thing for her and I really wanted her to come with me. I had spent a lot of time and effort trying to encourage her to join me. I felt so happy that she was feeling the Spirit there.

Two days later, my friend called me one night. I was sitting in my parents’ study looking at a picture of the Savior they had there. I was alone. My friend told me excitedly that she had sneaked out of a church activity with a boy and done some things they ought not to have done. She was bragging about it. I was crushed. I was so hurt that she would go do these things after feeling the Spirit and all the work I had been doing to help her get back to church. (I did mention I was selfish right?)

But as I listened to her, what could I say. Was I any less guilty than she? No. My own sins, as I knew them to be, were beyond what she had just told me. I could say nothing. I hung up the phone and the wheels of my mind started turning.

If I was this hurt by what she did. How hurt would my parents be if they knew all that I had done? After all, they had been working my whole life to bring me into the church. Geez, how hurt must my future children be. How disappointed in me must they feel. They surely have seen all my doings. They must be so bummed to be getting a mom who is such a sinner.

Then I looked up and saw the picture of the Savior looking at me.

He knows. He knows everything. And so does His Father. They have been working so hard to get me back to them and here I have been screwing it all up.

At this point, I got up and went into my bedroom. I spent the next three hours sobbing. I don’t think I can describe how low I felt to anyone who has not felt the full weight of their sins on their own back. But I felt them that night… keenly. They were overbearingly heavy on my shoulders. I wondered how I could live with the weight of them. I was so weighed down in sorrow that I felt I was not even worthy to utter a prayer.

Yet, praying is what I had been taught we were supposed to do to be forgiven. Still I shrank before my Maker knowing how I had hurt the Savior. I knew that what I was feeling, that weight of sin, was just a small drop of what he had felt in the Garden of Gethsemane. I was so very sorry to have caused Him such pain. How could I now ask anything from Him?

After three hours, I gathered my courage and knelt before my Maker. The only words I could think were, “Father, please… please forgive me.”

Immediately … and I mean immediately, all the weight was gone. It was lifted from my shoulders. I could feel it evaporate off of me. I was filled with a sense of love and peace that was beyond description. I knew that I had been completely forgiven for all those sins that had been weighing me down. I knew I was accepted of the Lord.

When evangelical Christians talk about being “born again,” I imagine this might be the kind of experience to which they are referring. I had been baptized years before, but that night I was truly born again. I felt changed in a mighty way. I knew exactly the weight of the burden the Savior had taken from me. I knew I would spend the rest of my life in His service in gratitude for His sacrifice for me.

This experience is why how I know that the Savior is real and that through His atonement He has the power to forgive sin.

Several months later, after spending a year reading about and studying the history of our church, I had another experience that gave me a solid testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith. I went on a trip to visit the church history sites. I had been praying for about a year to know for myself whether our church was really all it claimed to me- the only church with a fullness of the truth of the Savior’s gospel and led by the Savior himself through a prophet in our day.

One of our last stops was at the Sacred Grove where Joseph Smith went to ask God which church he should join. He recounts that in answer to his prayer, God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to him and told him that he should join none of the churches he had been considering. He was told that the Savior’s church was not on the Earth at that time but it would be restored to the Earth through him.

I was familiar with the story. But, I wanted to know for myself if it was true. So when the group leader gave us time to go find a spot and pray in that grove, I hoped for an answer. I was disappointed. I was so concerned by the mosquitoes buzzing around me that I was not able to focus very well on my prayer. After a short time, I gave up and found a friend and headed back to the visitor’s center where we were to gather for a testimony meeting.

During that testimony meeting, something amazing happened. It felt as if a veil was lifted off of my understanding and I felt my heart burning within me. I am not talking about heartburn, though it was a physical feeling. It felt like my heart was glowing embers of a fire. It didn’t hurt. It just felt so warm. Into my mind came scriptures I had read about the truth of spiritual things being witnessed by a burning of the bosom. I knew that was what I was feeling.

I also knew that it had been burning for a while but I had only just then, as the veil of my understanding was lifted, been able to recognize it. This told me that I had been having witnesses of the Spirit my whole life but I had not recognized them as such. I needed to be more aware to recognize them.

I shared my testimony and walked out of that room. I found comment cards in that visitor’s center and wrote myself a note. I wrote down how I felt. I told myself never to forget what I knew right then. I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that he really did have the vision he claimed to have, and that the Book of Mormon was a true book of scripture. It followed logically to me that if Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Book of Mormon was true then this church he restored must also be what it claimed to be.

I wrote on those cards, “I know it and I know God knows that I know it.” I am bound by that witness. I am committed. I am all in.

Beyond these experiences of my youth, I have had countless manifestations both big and small of the Spirit guiding me and working in and through me in my life. I have felt the Spirit as I read the scriptures, including and especially the Book of Mormon. I have had prayers answered in miraculous ways. I have seen the Lord’s hand in the workings of the church. I have been physically healed in a powerful and immediate way by a priesthood blessing given when I had pneumonia in college. I have had witness after witness of the truth of the doctrines of the church as I have put them to the test by living them.

In my adult life, I have been faced with trials that test faith. I have had doubts enter my mind that could derail me from my faith if I let them. They are small things, inconsistencies I could focus on, questions I can’t find answers to, or historical things I just don’t understand about the church, its doctrine or some of the leaders.

But the fact remains that I know what I have felt. When I am faced with those questions, trials, or doubts I choose to believe.

Never was this choice more poignant than when my daughter drowned. Here I was, doing all I could to follow the Savior and choose the right. And one day as I am sitting 10 yards away inside my house, my 14 month old is drowning outside in our spa. I had received warning promptings to prevent bad things from happening before. Yet on this day, it was as if there was total radio silence from heaven.

God did not stop that bad thing from happening. And as we fasted and prayed for her to recover, she only got worse. We only felt peace when we prayed “thy will be done” and turned her over to the Lord’s care.

After she died, religion didn’t help they way you think it should. It didn’t feel the way I had been taught it would feel. I didn’t feel the Spirit comforting me. All I felt was pain and loss and sick to my stomach at the nightmare that was my reality.

That is how it felt at that time. And in those circumstances, I made a conscious decision to believe anyway. Now as I look back, I can see how the Lord was with us. I can feel how we were surrounded by the Spirit and angels were ministering to us daily. I read my writings from that time and feel the Spirit that was all through me at that time. But, I was unable to feel it then over the overwhelming pain I was experiencing.

I later heard Elder Scott, a modern day apostle who had lost 2 of his own children, say that trying to feel the spirit after great loss or grief is like trying to appreciate the delicate flavor of a grape after eating a jalapeƱo pepper. His analogy was perfect.

Five and a half years later, I see how much my life has been blessed and how my family and I have grown in ways we could not have without Camille’s death. I have seen people join the church and grow closer to God by reading about our experience. I may not like it, but there was a purpose in her passing that was within the Lord’s wisdom.

To this day, if ever I read or hear something that makes me doubt. I step away and choose to believe. Believing makes me happy. It gives me hope. It helps me survive.

I feel like losing my daughter was like me stepping out of the boat like Peter did to walk on the water. I have felt everyday since then has been a miracle of me walking on the figurative water. As long as I keep my eye focused on what I know (and that is that the Savior loves me and is guiding me home) I am okay. I dare not take my eye off of Him and be distracted by the storm around me. It is too bleak, too dark. I survive and thrive only by keeping my eye on the Savior. I choose to believe and He keeps me afloat.

I believe. 

To read more essays on this topic, visit my friend Laura Laurent's blog HERE and click on the tab "Why I Believe." You can even submit your own essay if you like.