Today is the fortieth anniversary of one of the most important and memorable days of my life. On December 25, 1975, I was in New York City, where I was attending graduate school. That day I had a set of experiences that has helped shape me and given a foundation for the rest of my life.
Though I missed my family back in Utah, I decided to stay in New York City for Christmas, given the cost of a flight. I was living in International House, on 122nd Street and Riverside Drive (across from Grant's Tomb). But I spent Christmas eve with a family who lived a few blocks away in Manhattan (on Amsterdam Ave., I believe), one of the few families with children I knew from the church I attended. I stayed the night with the family and spent Christmas morning with them. Being with a family for Christmas eve and morning took away much of the sting of being away from my own family. Then I returned to International House.
It was a grayish day. I remember looking out of a window and seeing the city looking particularly bleak. For whatever reason I felt bleak inside too: empty, aching, alone. I tried to shake the feeling. I remember going to a common area so I could be around other people. That eased things temporarily. But when I went back to my room, the intensely bleak feelings returned. As time for bed approached, I told myself I would feel better the next day after a night's sleep. And I got ready to go to bed.
But as I sat on my bed I had the impulse to reach over to my bookshelf and get my scriptures. I opened them to the Gospel of John and started reading in the chapters where Jesus speaks to his disciples following the Last Supper. I don't remember how deliberately I opened to those chapters--it felt almost as if the book opened there of its own accord--but it was the perfect spot for my needs.
As I read parts of those chapters, I had an experience unlike any I had ever had before. It didn't feel as if I was reading the words: rather, I felt the words being spoken to me. It felt, very clearly and powerfully, as if the voice of Christ himself was speaking directly to me:
"Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14: 1, 6)
"I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." (15:5)
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.
"A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.
"And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. . . .
"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (16:20-22, 33)
Those words--and the voice I felt speaking them--filled the emptiness, brought warmth and life, softened and even took away the ache. I felt something substantial and vital in me, something that had come from elsewhere but that had become part of me, laying a solid foundation--a foundation that I've felt has never left me, despite many challenges and failures I've experienced in the intervening years.
Then something else remarkable happened. After reading from the Gospel of John, and still in the wake of the experience, I knelt and prayed. I had prayed every night since coming to New York City. But this felt real and alive in a way that my prayers had not usually been. For the past four months, I had prayed every night for each member of my family--my parents and my siblings--but with the passage of time, their names had almost become mere labels. Even my memory of their faces had become vague. But this night--December 25, 1975--as I thought of each of them (Mom, Dad, Nancy, Annette, Larry, Daren, and Lynda), I not only remembered their faces clearly, I felt the essence of who they were; I felt their presence more vividly and substantially even than I usually did when I was with them. Somehow what had happened to me as I felt the voice of Jesus and heard his words had enabled me to know and sense the reality of those who were closest to me in a deeper and more powerful way.
As might be expected, that way of experiencing things did not continue with the intensity I have just described. In fact, there have been bleak moments since then, times of emptiness and aching and feelings that I have been far away from where I want to be. But the experience of that evening left an indelible mark. I have remembered it clearly for forty years and cannot forget the reality and power and significance of what I heard and felt.
That is one of the experiences that have made of me a follower of Jesus Christ.
But it was not the first, and has certainly not been the last.
Age 12 and beyond
The first time I bore my testimony in public--in a Fast and Testimony Meeting (see note 2) when I was 12 years old--I declared that I knew that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God." I still remember the clarity of the conviction I expressed that day (probably in late 1962), which was based on having read the New Testament Gospels. As I had read them, likely as an 11-year-old, I felt very clearly that these were honest reports of events that had actually happened, that these accounts conveyed the experiences of people who had actually known Jesus Christ and had actually experienced the things recorded in the Gospels.
I have since become aware of theories suggesting that the putting together of the gospels may be more complicated than I had realized at age 12. But I still hold to my early conviction. Even allowing for the collecting and editing of words and information, I sense strongly the reality of the events recorded in the Gospels.
My reading of scholarship related to the Gospels has confirmed my confidence in them. Of course, scholars differ in their interpretation of the Gospels and of their authenticity, and a plausible case, on purely intellectual grounds, can be made for different views. But I find myself compelled to reject views that start with the assumption that miracles don't happen, that prophecy is impossible, or that God is not a real, personal being. If you start with the assumption that miracles don't happen, then of course you'll be skeptical of the miracles reported in the Gospels. On the other hand, if you are open to the possibility of miracles, if you've experienced them yourself or know of others who have, then the miracles recorded in Gospels are entirely plausible. The resurrection of Christ in particular is well attested, with hundreds of witnesses and with some very specific accounts--from Peter and John racing to the tomb, to the women, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Christ's appearance to ten and then eleven of his disciples, to Paul's encounter with the very Jesus that he was persecuting--that seem to me clearly to have their source in authentic personal experience.
Are the New Testament texts reliable from a scholarly point of view? In a short but detailed book, F. F. Bruce makes a good case that they are. (See The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? It is well worth reading.) Raymond Brown, a highly respected Catholic scholar, has done solid and insightful work on the Gospel of John in particular that I find far more persuasive than criticism by scholars who are skeptical of that gospel's authenticity. In an essay titled "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," C. S. Lewis has applied his characteristically penetrating insight (and his sparkling wit) to New Testament scholarship. Both that essay and another titled "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?" demonstrate how Lewis's expertise as a reader of literature can be used to illuminate the Gospels. (For my own direct response to some of the criticism skeptical of the New Testament text, see another of my blog posts at http://faceofother.blogspot.com/2007/04/text-of-new-testament.html.)
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts his conversion to Christianity, based in part on his reading of the Gospels--an experience that convinced him that the events they describe "almost certainly happened" and that also revealed to him the compelling personality of Jesus Christ, a person with a distinctively human and individual character yet through whom shone the light of holiness and divinity. Another discovery that helped lead to Lewis's conversion was the way that the gospel accounts, arising from the down-to-earth Jewish mentality that was hostile to myth, nevertheless carried profound mythic significance. He described this discovery in another essay titled "Myth Became Fact," in which he argues that the distinctiveness of Christianity lies in part in the way a powerful mythic story "comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences." In the New Testament we find God speaking to us, not through the minds of poets writing in mythic or romantic modes, but through living people and real events taking place in the world of concrete human experience. (See note 3.)
Christ's power, glory, and moral perfection
I've referred to several writers who have supported my sense that Christianity is distinctive among world religions in having its foundation in real events, including resurrection, involving a divine person who "was made flesh, and dwelt among us," a person who was fully human but who also possessed the power and glory of God. Based on my own careful reading, I am fully persuaded that the New Testament accounts derive from eye-witnesses, from people who "beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father," "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). I find further confirmation of the authenticity of these accounts and of the realities they describe in the Book of Mormon--another book of scripture for whose reliability I believe there is solid evidence--and in the experiences of modern witnesses.
I respond with gratitude and awe to Christ's power and glory. But I choose to follow him above all because of his moral character. I find my own feelings echoing those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote: "My moral image and ideal is Christ. . . . [T]here is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more loving, more wise, more courageous and more perfect than Christ" (quoted by Richard Freeborn in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, ed. Charles Moser, page 304).
Christ's moral perfection--his goodness and love--make him worthy of worship and discipleship. I also experience his moral character, along with his teachings and the example of his life, as a personal call made to me to change, to become what I have it in me to become, to become ultimately like him: perfect in love, obedience, courage, humility, integrity, and wisdom.
His life and teachings make it clear that this kind of change requires a profound transformation, a kind of death and rebirth, a consecration of my life to his service and the service of those around me. The call to change can seem daunting and overwhelming. But besides exemplifying what I want to become, Jesus Christ is also the central figure who assists us as we engage in the process.
My feelings about the call to change are incorporated in a poem that I wrote in the 1970s--possibly before that day forty years ago I have described above. The poem plays on the fact that, though we celebrate Christ's birth in December, it may very well have taken place at another time of the year, possibly in the spring--that is, in the same season in which he was crucified and resurrected. Christmas is thus a reminder of his entire life, including his agony in the garden, his suffering at the hands of Roman soldiers, his suffering and death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection.
The poem is titled "Spring Birth":
The words that warmed the winter nights
And set a boy's soul listening
Are not now quite so comforting
(Although they warm with stronger fire
And gather in one living Word).
The words are not so comforting
Because they turn my mind to spring —
The first green hints of shoots and stems
That, for full growth, point to the need
Of the death and burial of the seed.
Winter scenes seem coldest now
As signs of wakening life appear
And hope of spring joins with the fear
Of movement toward another winter.
Even watching the night-time sky
Whose stars seem fixed in place and kind,
1 see a pattern of change designed
By the seasons' steady, slow rotation
And remember a light that touched the earth
To teach the wonder and the pain of birth.
The morning and the evening star
That in one season rose and fell,
Buried in darkness only to swell
Sun-like in everliving light,
Shines now to urge my following,
Though by a way I fear to go,
A way requiring me to know
Of both the birth and death in spring.
The help Christ offers
I also know him as one who understands us, loves us, and comforts and heals us. One of my favorite verses in the Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City" attests to the power Jesus has to understand us, a power that comes from his having experienced the fullness of human life:
For he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
There is scriptural support for this view of Jesus. We read in Hebrews 4:1, concerning Jesus, that "we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." The Book of Mormon prophet Alma affirms that the Son of God was to experience human life so that he could understand our experience from the inside and so extend mercy and assistance:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-12)
I believe it is clear--from my own experience and what I know of human history--that human beings need divine help if they are to rise above their challenges and defects and overcome the powers of evil and destruction and have any hope of coming to the fullness of their possibilities. I believe that Jesus Christ provides that divine help, through his example and teachings and through the fellowship and strength he offers us and which we can obtain if we will put our trust in him.
There are times when the things we say about Jesus Christ seem to us to be just words, when we seem to be talking to ourselves in the dark. In our capacity for self-involvement and abstraction, we humans seem able to turn everything we experience into nothing more than phantoms in our minds. Yet despite my struggles with this tendency, I have been blessed with a lifetime of events and relationships that tell a very different story--that enable me to affirm with certainty that our experience puts us into relation with things and persons that are "other and outer" (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis), that there are experiences to which we rightly respond with gladness, "Is this not real?" (to borrow a phrase from Alma), knowing that the answer is "Yes!"
My experience forty years ago, and countless experiences before and after, persuade me that Jesus Christ is all that he claimed to be, all that the scriptures testify he is. I choose, therefore, to believe in him and seek to know him, trust him, and follow him.
Note 1: I started this post on December 25, 2015, and did a very rough and sketchy draft, which I worked into a complete post on December 27, followed by a bit of tinkering on December 28 and later.
Note 2: Once a month the worship service in the church I belong to--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--is called "Fast and Testimony Meeting." Members are invited to fast for 24 hours and contribute the cost of the meals skipped (or more!) to help people in need. On other Sundays, part of the worship service consists of prepared talks given by designated speakers. But on "Fast Sunday," there are no designated speakers; instead, anyone in the congregation who wishes to can stand and "bear testimony": offer a declaration of faith, sometimes accompanied by a brief sharing of significant life experiences. Often a dozen or more people stand and bear testimony in this way in Fast and Testimony Meeting.
Note 3: I've borrowed the idea in the preceding sentence from what Humphrey Carpenter imagines Tolkien to have told Lewis as Lewis was struggling to understand the meaning of Christianity. See The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979) 44.