Like Nephi, I was born of goodly parents. I knew the stories of how my great great grandfather had come from Norway in the 1870s, who, when he turned eight during a Wisconsin winter, was taken out and baptized in a river. This was done in the still of the night so as not to arouse the antagonism of suspicious neighbors. The point in this narrative at which my brothers and I looked at each other in disbelief was where the missionaries chop a hole in the ice, and baptize our relative. He comes out of the water, stunned, and stands there for about thirty seconds, not knowing what to do. As he goes to step forward, he falls his length and has to be carried home. But that is a war story—one I am happy to own, but not really a pillar of my faith.
My family lived in New York State, but we went to church in New Jersey. There was no seminary where I grew up. Who knew how much doctrine I absorbed at church meetings? Sunday School through my teenage years was little more than a socialization process where the six or eight of us in my age group—each from one of ten different towns in two different states—talked about the next stake dance. We enjoyed each other’s company because we knew that somehow we were different from those we hung out with at our respective schools. Unified in purpose, we used to show up late for Sunday School after sneaking out regularly to buy candy at the corner store. But, in those days, we had to go out of town to get to church—not to miss it.
Undoubtedly, during my high school years, I was subconsciously learning to navigate spiritually in a wilderness of values that ranged from sociopathic to those of my Jewish friend Jeffrey Shreiber or those of my Greek Orthodox friend Leonard Behr—ones more parallel to my own intuitive but increasingly vague sense of right and wrong. Whatever gospel learning I was doing was more passive than active, more nebulous than clear. I knew of course that the Mormon difference involved abstinence from tobacco and alcohol—although two members of our young church group used both quite unabashedly, much to my confusion. My family lived out in the country on land that bordered forested hills, and I was content to spend most afterschool hours exploring those hills in ever-widening circumferences. Thus my life proceeded. I was a good student in high school, programmed to be Mr. Worldly Wiseman, probably bound for Cornell University—from whence I would move on to graduate school and become Mr. Doubtful Richman.
But, one day during my senior year of high school, on a Sunday after church during those hectic fifteen minutes when families are trying to herd themselves to their cars, two missionaries stumbled into conversation with me. It was a brief one, maybe five minutes, but full of heartfelt conviction and with an edge of unpretentious authority that I found both startling and compelling in men so young. After all, these guys were only a year or two older than I was and they knew exactly what life was all about. They suggested that I, having been the lone Mormon in my high school for four years, probably ought to consider going out west where the church was strong—perhaps even to Brigham Young University.
Why? To see what other LDS youth were like. Imagine, they said, thousands of young people just like yourself working through life together. To this day, those two young men have no idea just how profound a talk we had that afternoon. They had spoken directly to me, to my questioning soul, to my insecurities, in ways that my parents or church leaders had not been able or inspired to do during the previous ten years of my life. On the other hand, it was more probable that I simply had not had the ears to hear. So I forgot about Cornell, put in a late application, was accepted., and came to BYU in the Fall of 1961.
I was so overwhelmed by the mountains and the wonderful dry air that my weekends often began on Thursday and ended on Monday. I don’t remember much about the inside of classrooms during that freshman year. But I was dating a lot of LDS women and seeing what spiritual things seemed to be important for them in their lives. It was amazing to me how many things that I had never even heard of or contemplated were axiomatic to them, to my roommates, and to the members of my campus ward.
I decided to cap off my pilgrimage in Utah by attending April conference that Spring. Owning no car, I hitchhiked to Salt Lake City. When I got to Temple Square, I reconnoitered and saw that, who knew why?, the southwest door of the Tabernacle was not being used by those hundreds of persons who thronged the other doors. So I walked in through that southwest door at about five minutes to ten, snuck up the stairs and realized belatedly that I was up in the choir loft and that—Oh my golly! —this was obviously the Tabernacle Choir that I had heard so much about but had never seen. I kind of perched there near the top step, pretending not to notice the inquisitive stares of the choir members, and listened to that magnificent organ whose base registers were booming two feet from my delighted ears, and listened to apostles and a prophet talk. As the final amen was said, I moved quickly forward, down and toward the center, and in seconds was moving past the line of men who were obviously forming a kind of joyfully benevolent human fence for President McKay. But I focused my gaze upon his eyes and reached forward, hoping to shake his hand. He looked down at me with warm, penetrating eyes, his stunning white hair seeming to radiate light about him, and took my hand firmly, shook it, and said “Thank you for coming to conference.” I wanted to say, “No, thank you,” but tears were running down my face and the words would not come. Prepared by the music, attuned to the messages I had heard from special witnesses for Christ, I had had what I would call my first profound spiritual experience. It would be one that I would discuss with my roommate, a man from Idaho, who was just putting in a semester before he would go on a mission.
(Now I must insert parenthetically that, in my entire youth during the fifties, the concept of any of us personally serving a mission was never mentioned in any Sunday school class or priesthood meeting. Nor did any bishop ever talk to any of us about it or ask us if we wanted to consider serving a mission. There were no firesides on the topic. There was no missionary tradition in our branch, for none had ever been sent from it. )
Missionary work back in New York had been limited to home teaching. The route my father and I had ran from Spring Valley, New York, to Easton, Pennsylvania, to Leonia, New Jersey, and back to my home in Orangeburg. We had ten families, with two or three new ones to look up each month. It took us eight to ten hours on a given Saturday, picnic included. We were not hundred percenters.
During my sophomore year at BYU, I met a young woman named Nancy, from Oregon, with whom I fell in love against all my better judgment. But who can argue with one’s heart? Yet just when this single Pilgrim was getting used to the idea of marriage, Nancy, for whom the idea of a mission in a young man’s life had been an integral part of her growing up in the church, said to me during one of our dates: “Let’s consider our future very carefully. I don’t want it ever to be said that I stood between you and a mission.” Well, thus prompted, I began reading the Book of Mormon—for the first time. It was an incredible experience. My brain, otherwise uncluttered with academic distractions—for I barely knew where my classes were—devoured the stories of Lehi and Nephi and of Christ’s visit to the American continent. I received a powerful affirmation of the truths that I read there. And I decided I wanted that mission.
“A mission? What’s a mission?” Although not overly encouraging, my parents agreed to support me. I would be the first missionary sent from our North Jersey branch. I was at BYU when the letter came. The call to serve in Brazil was pure excitement. Now, money was too tight for me to fly back east for a farewell. So I sent a testimony on tape to my own farewell.
There followed scores of experiences on my mission that continued to cement the freshness of what for me was then only a recently acquired articulation of a testimony. It had been born of my experience at General Conference that previous Spring, ratified by my reading of the Book of Mormon, consolidated by my equally recent reading of the New Testament, and nourished by the daily experiences of the mission and the love I felt for Nancy. Through the very formula we preached to investigators—study, pray, and attend church—I soon gained the same certitude that I had felt in those two elders at our branch meeting three years earlier. Nancy, whose own mission to Chile had overlapped mine, returned. We married, began our family, and functioned over the years in numerous church callings. At critical turns, it seemed, we gratefully felt the nudgings of the Holy Ghost.
I need to tell you about one of those experiences. My first job was teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where we raised our family for twenty years. During the early years, I found that I needed to work an extra job in order to make ends meet. So, one day a week, after a long Sunday nap, I would work the midnight to nine shift at Roadway Express, moving cargo in and out of trailers. That was a different world and, while in it, I functioned on autopilot. The daily demands of family and my classes during the week literally eclipsed the memory of my work on the loading docks. After about three months at that job, one of my fellow workers told me about a new RCA color TV that he could let me have, in the box, for $50. We didn’t even have a TV at that time, let alone a color set. I was pretty excited about that opportunity, and I told him that I thought we could afford it. I would see him next week. The following Sunday it was my turn to give a lesson in priesthood on receiving the Holy Ghost. As I prepared, I prayed for fresh inspiration. Immediately I was impressed with a sudden stroke of ideas—words, really—which in short told me that “you should have nothing to do with the television or you and your family will suffer needlessly.” Well, we really wanted that TV, but what could I do but follow what, to me, had been a very personal revelation? That night at Roadway Express, I learned that my colleague was no longer working there, having been arrested for stealing a truckload of televisions.
Fired by a radical optimism and tempered only occasionally by a circumstantial pessimism, my own spirit has found peace and promise whenever it engages in the easy dialogue offered in the lessons of our standard works.
It is satisfying to read the plain and simple truths of the American prophets as translated by Joseph Smith. There must needs be an opposition in all things.
And it is an equally rich experience to contemplate the Christic metaphors found in John: for truly Jesus is Bread of life, Light of the world, the Way, Good Shepherd, Gate, True Vine.
So many of life’s moments reflect the truths of these metaphors. When we take the sacrament we affirm that Jesus is the Bread of Life. When we read the scriptures we are impressed by the lighted truth of his word. When we serve missions we learn his Way. When we visit each other’s homes or meet together on Sundays, we emulate both the sheep and the Good Shepherd. When we garden, or discipline our children or ourselves, we know and live the lessons of the True Vine. When we enter the temple gate, it is a representation of our entering the door that Jesus said He was, and we do find pasture there.
My testimony is founded on specific moments of personal revelation—experiences that I cannot deny or explain away—moments that have usually followed decisions that I have consciously made to engage or not to engage in a specific undertaking. Those moments, through the years, have been cemented and maintained by the society and activity of the church—usually in exact proportion to my commitment. We have seen this marvelous growth process replicated in the lives of our own children and in our grandchildren.
One of the lessons found in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon is that Jesus is the same today, yesterday, and forever. As a young student of the gospel, I used to dismiss this statement as impossible to understand. But the older I get, the more personal experiences that I accumulate and can revisit, the more understandable this truth is to me. Jesus is the empire, the nation, in which we all aspire to become citizens. We are his colony. Our forebears Adam and Eve were the first of Heavenly Father’s colonists on this earth. Jesus really is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We, the colonists, are the ones who change. As students of earthly empires, we have seen them rise, and change, and fall: Babylon, Greece, Rome, more recently England, France, Spain, and Portugal—because they were in every case built upon shaky foundations. Daniel saw that great vision wherein the rock cut out of the mountain without hands rolls forth and breaks down the other empires. I believe the rock that Daniel saw and that was later personified in Jesus’ serious wordplay with his disciple, Peter, is the rock of revelation. The Lord of that empire communicates frequently, regularly, and as needed, and occasionally dramatically, with his colonists. Of this I testify.
Christopher Lund was raised in Orangeburg, New York. He served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil from 1964 to 1966, and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Portuguese. He then earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, with, respectively, a thesis on the novels of Ciro dos Anjos (1970) and a dissertation on “Conceptismo in Three Seventeenth-Century Portuguese Poets” (1974).
In 1973, Professor Lund was hired by Rutgers University to build a Portuguese program there, and he remained in New Jersey for approximately two decades. While he was there, among many other things, the Library of Congress contracted with him to catalogue its Portuguese manuscripts, an undertaking that helped to create and feed his continuing interest in unpublished literary works. (His catalogue of the collection appeared in 1980, but he continued to do archival research there long beyond its publication.)
He and his wife, the former Nancy Irene Robins, have three sons and two daughters.
Posted June 2013