Thursday, December 08, 2011

Stories that make the heart ache

Living in Utah is a different experience. Of course, there’s the cold—it’s been in the teens this past week and no snow in sight, so it’s a bit chilly  out there. There’s the inversion layer, which makes downtown skyscrapers look like fingers reaching into dirty water.  And last but not least, there’s the Mormon influence. Truly, there are so many people in Utah just entwined in this religion, never considering the idea that perhaps they have been misled.
One of the joys of working in ministry here is getting to listen to people’s stories. Last night, my friend Bill McKeever and I hosted a young couple from St. George. They have a zeal for living for God ever since they left the Mormon Church in the summer of 2010. It was a 16-month process for them to leave, but leave they did and now they are sold out for Jesus. Talking to them last night, they recounted the painful stories of dealing with family and the feeling of near-abandonment, where they visit close relatives who no longer speak intimately, just about the weather and other benign issues. (I understand what this feels like from a first-person perspective.) From their LDS friends, this couple has received little compassion, just questions, such as “Have you divulged temple secrets?” or “Have you properly disposed of your temple clothing?”  Trust has been lost. So superficial and so sad.
Today, I spent the afternoon manning the Utah Lighthouse Bookstore in Salt Lake City, which is run by Sandra Tanner. She’s in Tennessee at a television taping, so they needed help watching the store.  Yes, books are sold there, but even more important is having a visible place (right across from Spring Mobile Park, the home of the AAA Salt Lake Bees) where people from any persuasion can feel safe to come in and ask questions.
That’s exactly what 25-year-old  J____ did early this afternoon. He walked in the door as I was working on a chapter for the book Bill and I will have available this summer (Kregel Publications). My initial reaction? Honestly, it was, “Shoot, I’m smack in the middle of this, hope this guy doesn’t bother me.” Geez, what a carnal and selfish reaction, but hey, I sin, just like you! J_________ wasn’t in the store for more than 30 seconds when he looked at me and blurted out, “I’m LDS and I’m searching.”
I asked him to sit down and, for three hours, we conversed on a variety of issues, everything from the reliability of the Bible to the Trinity and authority in the church. He’d ask a question and I’d talk for 20 minutes. He’d ask another, more commentary from me. At the close of an issue, I’d ask if he understood my explanation. “Yes,” was the typical response. But when I asked him to tell me what I said about the Trinity, he still had a misconception (thinking the Father is the Son), so we had to work extra hard on that issue. Then he said, “You know, I think I’m getting this.” Progress was being made.
We were in the middle of our second hour of conversation—nobody else has bothered us—when a midde-aged couple walks in. In this small 700 square-foot store, there’s no whispering because you’ll be heard anywhere in the room. So I continued my talk with J______________. Meanwhile, I feel that this couple is superficially looking at the store’s book offerings but is listening to the conversation (which is fine). Finally, S_________ stands across the table, causing J_________ to look at her. I turn and ask, “Hi, ready to check out?” “No,” she said, “I’m just listening.”
Then she pulls up a chair and motions for J________ and I to continue our talk. So we did, for another 20 or so minutes. During a pause in the conversation, S________ hesitantly put her hand up and says, “I’m LDS, but I just found out last week that Mormonism is false.” Her words are a jolt to J_________ and I, as I think we assume this was an Evangelical couple. Tears fill her eyes. My heart became sad.
Then S_______ looked up at J_______ and asked, “Are you LDS?” “Yes, sort of still,” he said. “Oh, OK, I thought that might be the case. Let me tell you, if I had observed this conversation last week, I would have felt sorry for him (pointing at me). I would have thought, that young man is having to listen to this lost man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But I don’t think that anymore. Now I feel sorry for both you and me.”
It was apparent that I had an invitation to share the Christian gospel. The three Mormons in the room knew that their religion offers no hope and is not based in truth. But none of them were ready to jump ship quite yet. They all have searching left to do. The husband of S___________ decided that there is no God, that he’s tired of getting deceived, and therefore he wants nothing to do with God. He’s not arrogant, just hurt. (Unfortunately, we see more people jump into atheism after leaving the church—it’s a natural reaction to not be burned twice.) Meanwhile, the couple’s two kids (16 and 12) are fully engulfed in the church, not knowing that Mom and Dad are planning to abandon the faith they grew up in. They don’t know what to do and fear a splitting of their family. They are tempted to stay status quo and finish raising their children, but S_________ said, “How would I be able to look them in the face when they find out it’s not true?” She knows this is not a good choice, but how will she tell them? Will they be angry? Will this cause division in their family?
Before they left, I had a chance to pray for the couple, and then I finished the conversation with J_________. In just a few short hours, I was greatly reminded why I’m here in Utah. This is not a game, folks. So much is on the line. Even though he is 25 and served a mission, J_________ doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, as his dad is a bishop. What will the reaction be from his dad’s congregation when they realize that the bishop’s son is considering becoming an “apostate”? (None of his family or friends know about his search. Can you blame him?) And the couple feels burned. “What are we supposed to do after spending our entire lives in this church?” S_____________ asked. These are good people who just don’t know where to turn.
If you’re a believer, would you take a minute to pray for these folks? J__________ and S___________ can trace their genealogy to the days of Joseph Smith.  For the rest of the story, please know that I am asking a Christian couple who have been through a similar situation to call S___________ and her husband—they said it was OK. And Bill and I will have lunch with J___________ in a few weeks, as he took a copy of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and promises to read the first six chapters on the Bible. I bet he devours the book.
Perhaps I’ll go visit the bookstore tomorrow and see who’s next to come through the door.

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