I don’t know what I expected. I usually try not to make expectations. I think of a few times in the past, I was burned by bad expectations so now I try to expect nothing. Like a monk clearing the mind of all thoughts.
And so, when you make no expectations, when you have no forethought, you end up in situations like mine: down a rabbit hole. In a completely new world. Both amazed by it and intimidated.
You might be thinking this post is about Taiwan, but it’s actually about my experience thus far with The Church of Latter-day Saints.
If you recall from an earlier post, I ran into 2 missionaries on the bus and because I’m a curious, open-minded individual who’s always looking for more blog post inspiration, I went to their church one Saturday to watch their semiannual conference. They invited me to come back to talk to them more and I said yes, because: 1) I can’t say “No,” and, 2) I am generally interested in learning more about Christianity and Mormonism.
So every Thursday evening I’ve been meeting with the sisters, Sisters Knight and Price (Sidenote: I think with those names, they could make a great sitcom duo.) The first meeting was pretty general and covered basic stuff. (We are children of God. Adam and Eve are our ancestors.) I had read a little of Genesis already so I asked some clarifying questions about that. I got a Book of Mormon. I learned how to pray. I led a prayer. I actually think praying is quite easy. It’s just talking to yourself but starting with “Dear Heavenly Father” and ending with “In Jesus Name Amen” so God hears you.
The most jarring thing about the meeting was at the end when Sister Price asked me if I would be Baptized in a month. It was like a stranger asking if I’d like to get married.
At the beginning of the meeting, they’d asked me about my thoughts on religion and Jesus and what I was hoping to get out of these meetings. And I responded honestly: I believe in a Creator, but I think Jesus was just a very good person and I hope to learn more about Jesus and Mormonism in this process. I have an open-mind so if I began to feel that this gospel was true, I wouldn’t reject it. I’d be open to conversion.
So hearing “would you like to be Baptized?” was a shocker considering I’d admitted I did not believe Jesus was the Son of God. That seems kind of prerequisite. You’d think a non-believe might say, “Sure! Why not?” because they have nothing to lose, but I think that’d be incredibly rude to all LDS members everywhere. Feigning belief because “why not?” I can pursue knowledge and experiences because “why not?” But I can’t lie just because “why not.” I would only be Baptized if I felt the call. If I felt certainty in every atom of my body, which is something I’ve never experienced ever. It would be like deciding to get a tattoo times ten billion.
“I mean,” I responded, “if I feel the call, sure.”
“Of course! Of course!” She hurried to say.
“And I don’t think that would happen in a month.”
So they encouraged me to read scripture and pray, and that’s what I did.
The next meeting was all about God’s plan. They pulled out some stickies that made a diagram of human existence. This is fascinated to me, but I think for the wrong reasons. They explained that God’s plan for us is actually Jesus’ idea. We all lived with God in our pre-Earth life, but things got dull. So Jesus and Lucifer both thought up these plans. Lucifer’s was to send us to Earth and force us to follow God’s commandments and then we’d get to comeback to him. Jesus’ was to allow us the free will to follow God and the commandments. God chose Jesus’ plan so everyone that wanted to go Jesus’ way is a soul from pre-Earth life. Those that refused are with Lucifer in a “dark place” (this was not elaborated on even though I was curious about it). When we die we go to the spirit world. In the spirit world we’ll wait to be resurrected once everyone’s gone through the queue of life. If you got baptized and did good on Earth (aka follow the commandments), you’ll join Heavenly Father in the Celestial kingdom. If you weren’t a bad person but you weren’t baptized, you’ll go to the Terrestrial Kingdom (so hopefully where me and most of the people I know will go if this is true). And if you were horrible, you go to the Telestial Kingdom. But all these places are still better than where Lucifer is hanging out so it can’t be that bad.
I was fascinated by this. For one, I feel better able to understand a Pro-Choice argument. I know Christian traditions vary on this concept of a pre-life Earth, but if I believed every single human on this planet chose to come here, I would be pretty pissed that some souls are being denied.
But more interesting to me was the potential for a great story: the conversations between God and Jesus and Lucifer in pre-Earth life; the drama in scenes of the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ coming to Earth given this view of pre-Earth life. So this was a problem. I was seeing a story unfold in my mind as they laid their diagram on the table. That’s a problem because to them this is not a story. This is fact. Just like I believe rocks swirling the sun bombarded and congealed into Earth, a giant rock crashed into Earth and made it vomit out the moon, just like I believe the sun will swell and engulf the Earth, they believe God sent every soul here to allow them to choose to return to him.
Another week goes by. I pray, I read some of the scriptures. I attend a Baptism. I feel at times what the Sisters describe as The Holy Ghost, the spirit of God that acts on Earth. In my opinion, it’s this feeling of positivity in the face of adversity. I share this thought at our next meeting. The theme is about what we do on Earth to get to the Celestial Kingdom. Repent. Atone. Be baptized. Keep the commandments. Renew each week (by going to Church every Sunday). They invite me to Church on Sunday in Taipei and to a “Fireside Chat” for investigators. I mention how I would love to go but already have plans for Sunday. I’ve RSVP’d for a 40km bike trip in Taoyuan.
Saturday rolls are and after getting back to my apartment around 10pm I feel like there’s a lot more I ought to have accomplished with my day. I should do to sleep, but I don’t feel tired, so I decide to do some work for the coming week. I end up awake for another 5 hours, vacillating between tired, but pushing through so as to accomplish something and not tired enough to close my eyes else I feel I’m wasting time. My attitude spirals: I’m dumb for staying awake this late. I have a long day tomorrow. I should just cancel. But then I’ll spend all day in my apartment. And the day will be wasted (I was also pissed because my podcasts wouldn’t download onto my iPhone, which I feared was a sign it’s swirling the drain of electronic death. I decide to wake up at 7:30am as planned and if I feel like crap, I’ll go back to sleep. Elsewise, I’ll go biking.
I woke up feeling exhausted but renewed, like the expression: runnin’ on empty but going a hundred miles per hour*.
I prayed and thanked God for this second wind. I feared I’d crash later, but I had to go now that I was rolling. Not more than 5 minutes later, I get a message from the Meetup. It’s been cancelled due to poor weather. I take this as a sign I should go to church. A 40k bike ride on 4 hours of sleep may be too much, but church should be doable, right?
So I get on a bus, and the subway, and at the subway exit I realize I’m not sure if I should go right or left down the alley. I go right (because why not? 50% chance right is right.) But I continue to look around and see a nicely dressed white couple headed left. They are OBVIOUSLY going to church, I think. So I stop and introduce myself and follow them. I sit next to them in a pew and the wife explains parts of the service to me. This week is special; any member of the church can come up and give their testimony.
I’m amazed and in awe of what I hear. People that say religion is evil and should be banned or think it’s dumb have never witnessed anything like this (or if they have they are heartless). Those giving testimony were moved to tears. Tears of immense thankfulness like how I imagine one would cry if a loved one were saved from death. Immeasurable thankfulness for God and the Gospel poured from behind the podium in the form of words and tears and it filled the space of the Chapel. It felt good.
And then the service was over and I thought I’d go hang out in a café until the Fireside that evening, but I was invited to stay for Gospel study. The topic for today was honesty. A bald British man was leading the discussion. There was another “visitor” where who said he was Catholic and was visiting to see this other faith after his friend attended a Catholic mass.
It felt a lot like a Princeton precept. The preceptor was asking open-ended questions. The students were answering them using a mix of evidence from the book and from their personal experiences. And like many a precept I attended at Princeton, I had not done the reading. But, unlike a precept, I didn’t need to say anything. The Catholic visitor was asking questions like “is it alright to steal if you’re going to die of starvation” and other thought provoking questions like that, but I was just listening. Like my hair**, my mind is a sponge, absorbing idea after idea in the belief that one day I’ll ring it out and the things I like best will remain. I make one secular comment about how if we didn’t keep a lot of the 10 commandments (if there were no basic laws), civilization couldn’t exist. This is just the type of precept comment that shows you’re engaging in the conversation but have not done the work required to actually engage in the conversation.
Gospel study concluded and the discussion leader spoke to me a bit. He found out I was a science teacher and introduced me to his wife who was also a science teacher after being a biochemist. We sat next to each other as the Women’s meeting began. It was similar to the first meeting, expect it was only for women. The topic for today was revelation.
The leader asked us to write down a moment we received revelation. I wasn’t really sure what revelation meant, but I thought the most recent thing to happen to me was at the end of senior year, after everything (class, thesis) was over and I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life (both in the long-term and the short-term), but it all felt OK. To me, that was revelation.
Ladies came up to share testimonies of their revelation and it was quite moving. I don’t think you necessarily need to believe in God to believe in the concept of revelation, that feeling that you ought to do something or that what you are doing is right. One of the sisters said most people think of revelation as a lightning bolt, you know, a Eureka moment, but that most revelations come more like sunrises, gradual and grand. I like this imagery. I like this thought, that something can build slowly and beautifully, piece by piece and then all at once it is bright and clear and complete***.
The meeting ended and I went in search of a café nearby where I could eat and read quietly. I found a place that served a chicken Caesar pita sandwich and then stumbled upon another café where I could have pot after pot of tea. I sat in the quiet café sipping Jasmine Milk Tea for almost 4 hours. It was wonderful. I read and journaled and when my eyes didn’t want to stay open, I listened to some podcasts****.
At 7 I returned to the chapel for the Fireside. The demographic was approximately 50% white missionary, 50% Taiwanese citizen, and me. The topic of tonight’s Fireside was the Plan of Salvation. The talk was all in Chinese, expect for the Missionary President’s wife’s testimony, which was in English. I had a little earpiece translator that kept breaking and Sisters Knight and Price had to go replace it. I felt like a burden. And I sat and listened, but I think my exhaustion was finally catching up to me because I kept zoning out. And as the Missionary President spoke I realized why he looked so familiar. He looked like Martin Scorsese without glasses. And I realized I was in the exact center of the chapel, just like the night before I watched Gone Girl***** from the exact centre of the theatre. I tried briefly to recognize some symbolism in this observation, but found myself too tired and opted to just play the Gone Girl soundtrack over in my mind.
When the meeting was over, I jetted out of there quite quickly (the Sisters had already left to make curfew back in Keelung). Walking down an alley towards the subway station, I became aware of my breathing. It was quickened. I was thinking about all I had heard that day. I felt my eyes start to water with emotion.
And I felt my throat tighten like my trachea was being transformed into stone, and I clawed at my throat as if to find the source of my strangulation, but there was nothing. No hands around my neck but my own.
I was simultaneously in awe of this physical reaction and terrified. I prayed and said: “I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to believe.”
I had had an allergic reaction before in NYC, but this was 1000 times more terrifying because there was no external reactant that could be identified, removed, and avoided. This was all internal and thus could come back whenever.
Was this a thunderbolt of revelation? If anything this experience proved things were NOT clear in my head.
I think it was a panic attack. If it was a revelation from God, it was God choking me “Get yo’ butt back to church girl and ask to be Baptized!” But I don’t think that’s how God would do it.
I think this was a variation on a theme recurring in my life and I think in most people’s lives. Me, as always, thinking, what are you doing? What do you want? I repeat these words frequently as if they’re mantras, but really they’re more like koans: he answer seems like it should be so simple but the question is labored over for years and finding an answer means enlightenment.
What are you doing? What do you want? Something sturdy. A rod to cling to in a storm of choice and possibility.
When I was younger and much dumber and ignorant, I used to think organized religion (I think that term is redundant, actually. I think religion, by definition is organized whereas faith is an individual process) was more for people who couldn’t handle living in a world where there was no design and they had no purpose. The nihilists were the strong ones. I’ve long since abandon this view, but now I think the opposite is true. It takes a strong mind to believe something fully that is cannot see, to follow down an unknown path but with a belief in its destination. Those I admire most have questioned and do question their faith and beliefs. They dig deep into their questions to find their truth, and having found it within themselves, they grasp even tighter. And me? I float away******.
*Is possible to trademark this because I’m pretty sure I invented it.
**When I was a swimmer, people used to think my hair was dry when really it was sopping wet. It’s the kinks I think. They conceal the moisture.
***Like how we all wish out senior theses went, right Princeton graduates?
****Everyone needs to try listening to podcasts. My friend Matt told me about podcasts and they are AMAZING. I didn’t realize the breadth of programming until I went looking and there is so much. And listening to podcasts is so easy when you’re walking to school/work, or taking public transit, or workin’ out. Seriously people, check podcasts out. Radio ain’t dead.
*****Stop reading this and go watching this movie if you have not watched this movie yet. In fact, go watch it again.