Two months after graduating high school, I sat with my little brother and two of my closest friends at the sacrament table in our local wardhouse. It was a plain table covered in Formica, standing immediately below the podium.
The laminated prayer cards were glued over a microphone that pivoted out on a tiny drawer when tugged. I sat at the sacrament table that fast Sunday in August 1990 for the first time in many months. I’d been an unruly child raised in a broken home, and I had generally acted the part, even if my mother had forced me to continue attending church on most Sundays. I’d always loved to read—one of my mother’s best gifts to me—and I settled on atheism as the outlet for my unruliness.
But the pleasures of adolescent dissipation had worn thin by the time I came to contemplate adulthood. As part of an attempt to get my life in order, I had met with my bishop to develop a plan for reform. He’d felt it best to disfellowship me as part of our solution, and I had agreed.
I felt a sense of liberation in his calling my adolescent behaviors by name. (In reality, my petty sins were much less dramatic than the sins many ward members assumed I had committed, but they were sins nonetheless.) Whatever I came to decide about my belief or disbelief in God, my life was not on a good path and could stand a course correction.
My close friend Tyler, a good and believing young man who had prayed countless times for me to get my head straight, recited the prayer over the bread with a quavering voice, asking God to “bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it.” We then distributed the bread to the deacons, who carried it to the congregation.
I’d spent the night before on a friend’s two-stroke Yamaha motorcycle, riding off the tension of my restoration to full fellowship and the impending encounter with belief or disbelief. In my young mind, that Sunday would be my last chance
to discover whether there was a God.
As a mark of my spiritual immaturity, I somehow decided that if I could ride the motorcycle up a short but steep cliff, then there was a God: my strenuous version of the ancient practice of casting lots. Several times I rode the bike up the cliff until it stalled and collapsed off to the right.
Finally, one of those glimmers of wisdom that preserve young men’s spinal columns persuaded me to abandon the pointless quest to ride over the top of the cliff. I rode back to my house, still unsettled, and inspected, read, and prayed over the Book of Mormon. Nothing. Not a thing. Around midnight I complained to my mother that I had received no answer to my prayers. She had always loved me well and wisely, and she reminded me that God was not a vending machine, that he would not do whatever I wanted the moment I wanted it. So I went to bed. It’s been almost twenty-five years now, and I have no memories of the next day before Tyler began the prayer over the bread.
Then it was my turn, the blessing on the water. My first vocal prayer in months. I pulled the tiny drawer with the prayer card forward and began to recite the words I had heard hundreds of times before.
“Oh God . . . ” I fell mute.
For the first time in memory, my mind was entirely clear of its restless inner voice. In that quiet, I felt the presence of another. That presence was real to me, though it seemed neither physical nor entirely verbal. The closest I could come at the time or since is the bare term love.
Love without eroticism, without direction or restriction. That sense, that presence, overwhelmed my ability to speak. The taste of tears on my upper lip surprised me. I didn’t cry often, but I wasn’t embarrassed this time. After a long minute, I tried words again, “…the eternal Father.”
An episode of peaceful tears punctuated each phrase from the sacramental prayer. After several eternal minutes, I mouthed the “amen,” opened my eyes, and stood up. My mother beamed, and most of the congregation looked unsettled, in a positive way. My brother and friends wept quietly beside me.
That experience launched me on a life of believing; atheism has not been an option for me since. But the experience itself was not alone—it occurred in the company of many other important decisions and experiences both before and
after—and neither have I been alone throughout my walk of faith. I have experienced and wondered over the many ramifications of my conversion.
While my belief in God has never flagged, I have spent decades working to understand and make sense of that belief. What does my belief mean? How do I put that belief into words? What happens when I try?
As I’ve studied and lived the gospel over the last two decades, I’ve been struck by the power of these basic doctrines and the difficulty of capturing them in words. Although these fundamentals appear simple on the surface, they contain a universe of possibilities.
This was an excerpt from First Principles and Ordinances by Samuel M. Brown.
First Principles and Ordinances, by Samuel M. Brown is a part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series and is available on Amazon.