Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati Young Single Adult Branch Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 11 December 2011 as Branch President
When I try to account for the various ways I have interacted with the spirit throughout my life, I realize that those interactions happen at least at three levels: the common, the unexpected, and the profound.
The first and most common level for me is what I would call the everyday, simple promptings or whisperings of the spirit. I cannot say that it has always been the case that these have occurred every day of my life. The everydayness has come as I have practiced and developed my ability to recognize that they have occurred—and as I have simply allowed them to occur.
The second level is characterized by a distinct sense of enlightenment or openness, with the result that I am an able to relate to God or the world in some new and unexpected way. These level 2 interactions with the spirit certainly do not occur every day. Though I haven’t made a list, I would venture to say that I have had fewer than two dozen such experiences in my life. They are distinctive in that they are unusual, i.e. not ordinary. In all cases they have been instantaneous—just there—with no prelude or expectation that they were going to happen. In many cases I was able to recognize in the instant what was happening; but in others, I was only able to come to a clear understanding of what had happened after serious reflection.
Like the second, the third level of interaction with the spirit is also distinctive and unusual. However, it is different in that it always has been a deeply profound and consuming experience for me. In all cases, the sensation lasted for only a brief amount of time. In fact, if I added up all those moments, I might be able to account for about eight seconds. But they are eight seconds that have completely changed my life. They are intensely personal, and I think I could safely say that seldom do two people share the same experiences. My eight seconds are very different from your eight seconds—and I think it is meant to be that way.
As a complement to you and as a manifestation of the trust I have for each of you, I want to share those eight seconds with you today.
Death of Father – Plan of Salvation
On a beautiful, January winter day in Sanford Florida, I was on my way home from kindergarten. This was in 1961 before kindergarten was part of the public school system so there were no buses to take us to and from school. The schools were all private and I was part of a carpool, where mothers took turns taking us and picking us up. It was not my mother’s day to drive that day, and I remember being in the back seat of a car that was not familiar to me. I also remember that the windows were down. When we approached the cul-de-sac where I lived, we discovered that it was full of cars—which was unusual for a weekday. When we parked a few houses away, a strange man stuck his head in the back window and asked me if I were all right. I really thought that strange—because why wouldn’t I be?
He escorted me into my house—which I thought strange because even though I was only five, I knew which house was mine and I knew how to get inside. But then I noticed that there were all of these strange people that I did not know inside my house, all of whom looked at me when I entered the front door and all of whom were very quiet. I also thought it strange that I could not immediately see any of my own family any where. I eventually made my way through all the people and found my mother sitting on the couch in the den, surrounded by my three older siblings and a handful of other adults. And what was really strange was that I was aware that my mother had been crying—which I had never seen before. I also found it strange that no one greeted me or acknowledged that I was there.
When she saw me, my oldest sister came from around the back of the couch, squatted down to be at my level and asked “Do you know where Daddy is?” At that moment, I was consumed with a profound assurance and understanding that though I would never see my father again in this life, he was still alive and that I would be with him again in the next life. I knew the answer to my sister’s question—and I have never forgotten it. At that young age, an understanding of the plan of salvation and the eternal nature of men and women was awakened in my soul and seared in my consciousness. The harshness and pain of death has always been with me—always. But so has the hope of the resurrection and eternal life.
Manti Pageant – Joseph Smith and the Restoration
I left home the day after high school graduation. After spending 10 days in Mexico, I headed to Provo to start my college career. Needless to say, I was really looking forward to being independent and on my own.
I learned a lot of important things that summer. It was an exciting time, when I could finally be fully responsible for my life and free to make the choices I wanted to make. Fortunately, I had no intentions of not staying active in the church. Even though the church had always been a part of my life, I couldn’t say that I had my own testimony. Up to that point, I had relied on the testimonies of my mother and sisters. I trusted in them. But I knew I needed to have one of my own. I wasn’t sure how or even if it would come, but I believed in the promise that it would.
Partly due to my Book of Mormon class, and partly due to my desire to go on a mission, I finally started praying that summer about my own testimony. I wasn’t committed enough to focus on it in the way Enos had in the Book of Mormon—but it weighed on my mind a great deal, and I generally included some vague request for a witness in most of my prayers. I do remember at least one specific, somewhat focused attempt, kneeling one afternoon in my dorm room and asking the Lord to let me know if the church were true. In response, I realized that I felt good about the church, about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I had an impression that I already knew it was true—largely as a result of years of Primary, Sunday School and Seminary classes. That was an important realization for me and I was content to be able to let that be the foundation of my testimony.
But something unexpected happened one night in mid July. I found myself on my way to Manti with some of the new friends I had made. Ostensibly, we went to see the pageant, but I have to admit that I was more interested in the adventure and the social interaction. I’d never been to a pageant like this before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. And as I recall, it wasn’t that great—sort of a glorified Roadshow.
However, during the depiction of the First Vision, when Joseph Smith knelt in prayer, I received an unexpected witness of the Prophet of the Restoration. A profound, all-consuming sensation came over me and a clear exhortation came into my mind declaring that what Joseph Smith said happened to him really happened, and that if I wanted to know God and learn what I needed to do to return to him, then I needed to align myself to Joseph Smith and the church he re-established. Like the understanding of the Plan of Salvation that came when I learned of my father’s death, the result of this experience was that my life was changed—and has stayed changed to this day. It was powerful enough to carry me through tough times in my life when it would have been easy for me to leave the church. As I have reflected on that experience, I have realized that though a subtle distinction, I never received a witness that the church was “true,” but rather that it was what would bring me back to God.
I am pretty sure that I spent 95% of my mission telling the Joseph Smith story. France being the tough mission it was, there were some discussions that I never taught. But the story of Joseph I did teach—and I never tired of it. To this day, whenever I hear missionaries tell the same story or watch for the umpteenth time one of the various versions of the First Vision on video, I am moved. I still feel the witness. At this point in my life, I can say that I have stayed aligned to Joseph Smith, that I have followed the exhortation and promise received that summer night in Manti, and that my life has been richly blessed. I still know that this is God’s work.
LTM – the Lord loves me unconditionally
Unlike probably most missionaries, I actually liked the MTC—which in my day was just for those learning a foreign language and therefore was called the LTM or Language Training Mission. I loved the camaraderie of my district. I loved being in class 10 hours a day. I loved the focus. I was really pumped and couldn’t wait to get to France. I was confident that I could meet whatever challenge was placed before me.
But then one night our instructors told us that we were going to role-play, and that we were going to teach them the discussion we had just learned and they were going to play the part of the investigators. I knew the lesson quite well and so I wasn’t worried.
But it turned out to be an awful experience. I felt like I was stumbling all over myself, forgetting the concepts I was supposed to be teaching and the language that I was supposed to be teaching them in. It really was a catastrophe for me. I had never failed at anything so miserably. And worst of all, I felt that I had completely let the Lord down. I felt utterly unprepared. For the first time in my life, I was really discouraged.
The feeling persisted through the rest of the evening and as I was getting ready for bed. I didn’t feel much like praying that night, but as I knelt beside my bunk, I decided to just let it all out and tell God exactly what I was feeling. This type of full-disclosure prayer was also a first for me. No sooner were the words out of my mouth—or rather, out of my heart, since there were three other bunks in the room making it hard to pray aloud—than I felt an over-whelming, profound feeling of love and acceptance. I felt the unconditional love of the Savior, about whom I had just a few hours earlier so miserably tried to teach. I knew that no matter how paltry my offering was, it was still accepted by the Lord and that He would add to it His power and love so that I could be successful as a missionary and anything else I attempted to do in my life. It was rather astonishing to me to realize that someone could and would love me so much. And I have never experienced a diminishing of the love I felt over thirty-seven years ago. I know that God and His Son Jesus Christ know who I am and love me.
Rouen Mission Conference – Role and power of the church
Eighteen months into my mission, I was serving in the Normandy coastal city of Le Havre. The city had been completely destroyed during WWII, and was unfortunately rebuilt as an austere, modern concrete village. And not unlike all the other branches I had served in, this one was struggling. Like those others, there were fewer than 30 active members. As I recall, in this branch it was more like 15. But unlike all those other cities, I was finally working with investigators who were embracing the gospel and I was seeing first hand the transformative power it was having in their lives.
At about my 18 month anniversary, I found myself bearing my testimony at a zone conference in Rouen about 50 kilometers up the Seine from Le Havre. In that testimony, I shared two dreams I had had. The first had occurred when I had been out about a year. I was home from my mission, and I was crying inconsolably because my mission was over and it felt like I had completely wasted my time. It was the sadness of defeat. But just a few weeks before that conference, I had had a similar dream. But this time, the inconsolable crying was due to a sadness of wanting to still be on my mission and knowing that I could not. It was the sadness of no longer being able to do something I loved so very much.
That night I could not sleep—and not just because I was trying to sleep on the hard, uncomfortable kitchen floor in the Rouen Elders’ apartment. The conference had been a very good one. The spirit was strong. It was good for me to be there and bear my testimony. But most of all, I could not sleep because I had been overcome by the spirit, bearing witness to the role of the church and the power of the work that I was engaged in. I experienced something akin to Daniel’s vision of the stone cut out of the mountain—but it was the profound sense of the gospel filling the whole earth that consumed me. I had received a witness that the church was God’s kingdom on the earth and that the gospel it taught had the power to transform people’s lives. I cherish those same feelings that are still with me today.
Return Flight from Cincinnati – Christ can change our hearts
For the first twenty years that followed my mission, I learned that having had such profound experiences with the spirit was not going to guarantee an easy life in the church, nor would it guarantee a blissful, ideal relationship with spiritual things. Sometimes, the only thing that kept me in the church was the conscious decision that I had made after my mission to stay active. For me, it wasn’t always easy. Some things bothered me. I didn’t like several of the Mormons that I knew. I didn’t often feel a kinship or community with the saints. And to be quite frank, there were a couple of things that I just didn’t believe. I was fortunate enough to be able to answer with conviction the questions asked in a temple interview, so I wasn’t over-concerned with my concerns. I figured that some day I would be able to work through them.
As I tried to make sense of what was going on in my life, I realized that when I had returned from my mission, I had had a very full lamp—but little by little, year after year the oil was burning away and it wasn’t being replenished. I knew that it was largely my own fault. On the surface, I was living the life I was supposed to be living. I married in the temple and had four wonderful children. We went to church and were a gospel-centered family. We had lots of family time, read the scriptures and prayed together. But inside, I knew that I wasn’t the kind of person I should be. Part of my problem was that I simply did not know how to bring about the changes that needed to take place—because what needed to change was my heart. It’s not that my heart was bad, but it just wasn’t good—or at least not good enough. I finally admitted that there was a lot of repressed anger in my heart.
So I started praying . . . and praying . . . and praying. After almost seven years and still not getting where I wanted to be, I wondered if I ever would. I was able to recognize little changes here and there, but they seemed so small. I had turned forty and was having a full-fledged, mid-life crises—but this one was internal and had to do with my heart. I had decided I needed a different job, but after more that a year’s search, nothing materialized and nothing was getting better with the one I had had for almost ten years.
On July 4, 1996, I went in to my office, looked at the last several months of professional journals and publications I had saved, and sent out forty resumes in response to forty ads that looked remotely interesting in all parts of the country that also seemed remotely appealing.
Two months later, I found myself in Hamilton, Ohio. After a day of very good interviews, I boarded my flight back to Philadelphia and before I sat down in my seat, I had again a profound, intense and all-consuming experience with the spirit. Not only did I know in that moment that my life and the life of my family was going to change because I was going to be offered a job and that we would move to Cincinnati where we knew absolutely no one and had no reason to come here other than that; I also knew that I was a new man. In that moment, the change of heart that I had been praying for happened. My anger was gone. My whole disposition was changed. It was like getting a whole new set of spiritual eyes because I looked at the world through a lens and from a perspective that I had not had before. I was positive. I had joy. Christ did something for me that I could not do for myself: He changed my heart.
So those five stories comprise the eight seconds that changed my life. I know that God has a plan for us and that when we die, we return to Him and will be with those we love. I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that through the work of the restoration, I can learn what I need to know and do—and be—in order to return to God. I know that God and his Son Jesus Christ know who I am and love me unconditionally. I know that Christ’s church is on the earth and that His gospel has the power to change lives. And I know that prayers are answered and that Christ can change our hearts and transform our very souls, making us like Him and our Father. All of the rest of my testimony is derived from those things.
May all of us continue to experience and recognize the spirit in our lives. May we allow the spirit to change us, to transform us, to convert us to God and His ways is my prayer in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ.