“I Wanted a Burning Bush,” Ensign, Oct. 1978, 31
I was in for a shock when I moved to the Salt Lake Valley a few years ago. At that time I really didn’t know much about the Mormons—I just had a vague notion that they lived “somewhere out West” and that they had somehow contributed to its development. My interest and knowledge both stopped at that point. I was therefore surprised to find that I had landed in a whole state full of Mormons!
I suppose my background had a lot to do with my lack of interest in any particular religion. I was born an Episcopalian, but my father died when I was nine, and I then entered a nondenominational orphanage. My experience there left me without preferences for one church over another. I later attended several different churches and found good in all of them.
As time passed in our new home and my wife and I began to realize who and what the Mormons were, I settled back to await the onslaught of well-meaning Mormons trying to convert me. But the onslaught didn’t come. The Mormons I knew were friendly, but they didn’t press. I regrouped against this surprise attack: I asked questions. But the answers didn’t seem to be quite to the point.
Then one day I met Dick Reisner. He was from American Fork, had a fine and beautiful family, and was to be my coordinator during a year of training in a new career field. He was an enthusiastic Mormon, and I was impressed. His dedication to his faith was precise and honest. He’d quiz me good-naturedly to see what I knew about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By this time I knew quite a bit; I had read the early history of the Church and knew generally of its government and beliefs.
Over the years I had evolved a simple philosophy of my own that I termed “Infinitism.” Dick was quick to point out that parts of my philosophy—such as my belief that there had been no beginning and would be no end, my belief in eternal progression, and my belief that there was a universal law of opposition in all things—had a ring of familiarity. The Book of Mormon also taught these things. I remember telling Dick how clever Joseph Smith must have been to reach the same conclusions I did.
Despite Dick’s continuing efforts, I stubbornly held out. The chief stumbling block for me concerned the principle of faith. I reasoned that if God could show himself to the sinner Saul on the road to Damascus and speak through a burning bush to Moses, then he could manifest himself to me in a similar way. Once convinced, I would surely be one of God’s strongest defenders and most able architects; but my conversion had to be at least as dramatic as a burning bush.
All too soon my training in Utah was completed. Although we had come to love this beautiful and rugged western state, as native Virginians we were excited by the prospect of a return to the East Coast. We found a home only a block from the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, and felt somewhat content.
As time went by, however, we found that Utah remained on our minds. We missed it—especially the people. And we knew why. We checked the phone book to see if there were any Mormon churches in the area. The closest one listed was in Jacksonville, some forty miles north. We figured we would do without; we didn’t want the Church as much as we did the companionship of the people who made it up.
After one particularly tiring day, I returned from work early to find my wife buzzing around the kitchen.
“Had some company today,” she smiled.
“Really. Who? Salesmen?”
“Yes. … Kind of.”
“Two Mormon missionaries.”
“Nope. Left a pamphlet. See for yourself. It’s got a telephone number in it.”
“I’m going to call them. Bet that’ll shock ’em out of their suits and ties!”
She laughed. I called them and invited them over. They told me the branch met in town over at the Odd Fellows Hall. I thought I had misunderstood, but thanked them and hung up.
The two young men who came to see us really had that missionary enthusiasm one hears about so often at sacrament meeting. They offered us six easy lessons over a period of six weeks. Why not? We thought to ourselves. It was a small price to pay for the companionship of Mormons. Besides, I had been up against some real pros.
That Sunday we arose at what was for us an impossibly early hour. In good spirits we turned our efforts to the “battle” of getting four children ready. But as luck would have it, we misjudged the time.
“Well, we’re late,” said my wife, as we drove into the parking lot.
“Perhaps,” I said, “it would be better if we waited. We don’t even know which way the congregation is facing. It could be pretty embarrassing to go in and find that they’re all facing us.”
The dilemma was resolved, however, when a pleasant-looking gentleman got out of one of the parked cars and introduced himself as the branch president. Knowing that we might show up late, he had decided to wait for us.
The children were taken to their particular classes, while we were introduced to the investigators’ class. Our instructor, Brother Carter, was obviously a learned man and knew his material well. Finding people of his intellect belonging to a church and staunchly professing a belief in God forced me to reassess my own reasoning.
We had a good time that day. Attending church made us feel much closer as a family. And although the meetinghouse was quite different from the beautiful chapels we had seen in Utah, we felt something magnificent, challenging, and rewarding in the simple humility of this branch.
Shortly thereafter I got in touch with another friend in Utah, Dennis Hill, with whom I had worked. I told him I was now attending his church. He said he was going to send me a book, even though I tried to convince him that I was attending only because I liked the people.
The book, A Marvelous Work and A Wonder by LeGrand Richards, came after our second visit to the little church. I set it aside to read “sometime later.”
The third Sunday we decided we were too tired to go to church. No one called to ask “Where were you?” and we were disappointed.
But Monday night the telephone rang out loud and clear. It was the missionaries!
“We missed you at church Sunday.”
“Yeah, well you know how it is.”
“Yes, we do.” A pause. “We promised you six lessons; we would like to begin them soon.”
“Fine! How about tomorrow night and every Tuesday thereafter?”
That was the beginning of a very fine friendship. The children loved these two young men who exuded a faith and happiness so strong that the house fairly bubbled.
I went along with their attempts to use psychology on me because I felt they needed the practice; however, I had to draw the line when they invited me to offer prayer at the opening and close of these meetings. I was happy to have them or anyone else offer the prayer, but I would have felt hypocritical praying to a God whose existence I wasn’t sure of.
The next Sunday was stake conference in Jacksonville, and the speaker was to be none other than Elder LeGrand Richards. I grabbed my book and started reading. (If I’m going to listen to a speaker, I want to know as much about him as possible.) When the day came, I managed to sit way up in the balcony where I could hear and see well. This man’s keen mind impressed me; but I was even more moved by his sincerity, conviction, and faith.
The missionary lessons continued, and we began to acquire a better comprehension of what the gospel was all about. Around the fourth lesson it began to dawn on us that these missionaries were planning to wind all of this up by inviting us to be baptized.
“No way!” I told my wife. “I don’t even trust myself in a thing so simple as prayer. I’m not about to do all of that.” She agreed.
The missionaries finally mentioned it by telling us that a date had been selected for baptism. Would we care to go? “No,” I told them. “I don’t feel the urge.”
“Well,” they continued, “this Friday we are going to baptize two others. Would you like to come and observe?”
“A block from here—in the ocean.”
“The ocean!” gasped my wife. “That’s too cold this time of year.”
“Yes, we know.” Missionaries tend to be an unruffled lot.
We went. After the baptismal service, the missionaries asked us, “Doesn’t that make you want to be baptized next time around?”
“No way!” I countered. And I meant it.
All of this time the elders had been teaching another family, a beautiful young couple by the name of John and Louise Hatch.
We had met the Hatches only briefly at Church, but were impressed by their vibrance and sincerity. At the time of our sixth and final lesson, the elders told us that John and Louise had elected to be baptized the following Friday, which happened to be Good Friday. The thought occurred to me that that would certainly be the ideal time to be baptized, that it would be a kind of “thank you” to Christ to commemorate that particular day with one’s own baptism. Nonetheless, I felt no urge to do so. I was still looking for that burning bush.
But as the elders prepared to leave following our sixth lesson, they asked, as was their custom, if I would care to offer the prayer. To my amazement, I heard myself agree; after my benediction, two somewhat astonished missionaries congratulated me. I was deep in thought when that beautiful evening ended.
The next day before I left for work, I gathered my courage, took a deep breath, and told my wife I had decided to be baptized on Friday and wanted her to join me. She would have been just as surprised if the roof had blown off or if Florida had begun to slip slowly into the sea.
“You can’t do this to me!” she said.
“That ocean is too cold!”
“I know, but I’ve decided. With or without you, I’m going to do it. Think about it and let me know tonight because I’m going to call the missionaries tomorrow and tell them so they can get me some special clothing.”
I kissed her and left her standing in the doorway. But I couldn’t leave her hanging from a cliff all day, so I called her later.
“Have you decided?”
“I’m not about to let you do it without me!”
“Fine. I’ll call the missionaries tonight. Ask the kids if they want to join in, and let me know after work.”
The two older boys elected to join us. (The two younger children were still too young.) We were baptized on Friday; and I have not doubted since coming up from the water that I made the right decision.
Why did I suddenly decide to be baptized? Because I realized the night of the sixth lesson that a burning bush was not the right thing to look for. I realized that by looking for a burning bush I was missing something just as important. Perhaps the answer lay in the simple things that had been happening to me.
I thought back to the week before we had decided to be baptized. We had once again arrived late to church. To dispel the awkwardness of the situation, a very young man, Eddie Markle, had welcomed us with a simple handshake. At that moment I sensed in him a faith so strong that I was deeply impressed. It was the kind of faith spoken of by Jesus to Thomas: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29.) I decided I wanted that kind of faith.
I realized my previous experiences had impressed me in a similar way, but, because of my desire for a miraculous conversion, I had failed to recognize the promptings of the Spirit. My encounters with members of the Church had not been spectacular, but yet they had been very significant.
Each person had—in his own way—displayed a strong yet simple faith: Dick Reisner had planted the seed; Dennis Hill had sent the book; the missionaries had knocked on my door; President Pressler had waited for us that first Sunday; Elder Richards had delivered an inspiring message; Eddie Markle had eased an awkward moment with a handshake. Each person—through his example—had let the powerful light of his testimony shine forth. And to me, having been in darkness, each example was as “the bright shining of a candle” (Luke 11:36), bringing me to a testimony of the truth.
The Mormons love their families and I love them for that. As a religious group they are, in fact, a family themselves—with all the love and learning that implies. Yet through it all one fact never changes: they have the gospel of Jesus Christ. A burning bush is not the answer. We have free choice—we can choose a darkness devoid of faith or we can light it brilliantly and forever with our belief. The Mormons believe! And so do I.