Wednesday, April 8, 2015


"It is best to read the weather forecast before we pray for rain."
--Mark Twain 

The first time I witnessed a seizure I was on a Mormon mission in Bulgaria. I had been in the country for about a year and I was living in the Capitol, Sophia. The man who had the seizure was a quirky and likable thirty-something with epilepsy. Aside from a sometimes overpowering body odor, which was common in the economically distressed post-communist country, I can't think of anything bad to say about him. With an ear to ear smile and an eagerness to please anyone willing to look passed his embarrassing stutter, he had found an accepting community in Mormonism. Everyone liked Pepe.

As you might expect, when Pepe fell to the floor in a convulsive fit during a church function (Family Home Evening), everyone present went on high alert. Save Pepe! A small army of young Mormon missionaries surrounded Pepe, frantically trying to decide what to do. None of us knew whether Bulgaria had an emergency system set up like America's "911" program. The only thing we could think to do was to pray.

One missionary put his hands on Pepe's head and commanded Pepe to be healed and made whole. In a matter of seconds, Pepe stopped shaking and after a couple of minutes he was on his feet apologizing for the inconvenience. We were amazed.

If this was all the information I had about the situation, I might still wonder if I had witnessed a miracle. But, education has a tendency to thwart the miraculous and the supernatural. As I came to find out, seizures rarely last longer than a few minutes. Whether we prayed for Pepe, called for medical help, or sprayed cheese whiz on our faces and tickled each other, Pepe would have snapped out of it on his own in about the same amount of time. It was my ignorance which kept my faith alive.

A few years later, after I had learned a thing or two in college about the human body and seizures, I found myself at a get together with some fellow young adult Mormons (BYU students). We were staying at a ranch in Blackfoot, Idaho (Utah junior). While one of the girls was riding a horse in the corral, the horse spooked and began galloping. The fenced-off area was only about a quarter acre--not much room for a horse running at full speed. When the horse was about fifteen feet from the fence, it abruptly stopped, causing the girl to fly over the horse's head and roll--ribs first--in to a large wooden fence post. She was unconscious.

As with Pepe, a swarm of young true-believing Mormons rushed to aide her. Seeing her convulsing to and fro and gargling bloody foaming spit from her mouth, I gently held her head out of the thick mud and kept her airway clear. I knew that her seizure would only last a few moments, but my concern grew when she did not regain consciousness after her convulsions ended.

One of boys, also a returned missionary, handed me a small viol of consecrated oil. This extra special magic healing oil is very important to Mormons, who bless the oil in advance and keep it in a viol on a key chain for just such an occasion. I didn't feel comfortable asking god for a blessing (this was around the time I started to quietly acknowledge my doubts about Mormonism, and for all I knew, god had spooked the horse in the first place), and I told him to do the blessing himself. Besides, I was focused on not letting her suffocate on her own spit.

His prayer was typical of Mormon blessings: "Please, god, heal her, don't let her die, etc." Hardly inspired. Hardly helpful.

I held her head for 10 minutes or so until EMTs arrived (it was an isolated area), all the while keeping her airway clear and her neck and spine straight (she tried to roll around a few times), and talking to her positively about the situation in case she could hear me, despite her inability to respond. Once the EMTs arrived, they put her on a stretcher and airlifted her to a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, she stayed in a coma for a few days. After awaking, she had a few cracked ribs, some amnesia and loss of some motor skills.

Expectedly, everyone left the ranch somber and worried for their friend. They "kept her in their prayers" and rushed to visit her when she regained consciousness. In the minds of many, god had responded to the young man's blessing with oil in a positive way. Even the injured girl was grateful to god for "healing" her.

As I pointed out, this second incident occurred around the time I first acknowledged my doubts about Mormonism. I was still attending BYU--surrounded by Mormon culture--and I had an inner struggle with the situation. Part of me wanted to chalk up the whole thing as yet another example of superstitious religious folk reading into situations and assigning divine intervention to make them feel better (my current position). But being on the cusp of a faith crisis, I was truly worried that the real reason I refused to offer the blessing was because deep down I felt unworthy to do so.

Mormons have several "rites of passage" for youth and young adults, the most well-known of which is the mission. Before one can go on a mission, however, one must first complete another rite called a "patriarchal blessing." I received my blessing a couple days before I left on my mission. The Mormon Patriarch assigned to my area was an elderly man, who had been a bishop, a stake president and a mission president--all highly respected positions in the Mormon community. As I recall, he and his wife had recently returned from Haiti on a mission trip.

He brought me into his study and explained the process to me: he would put his hands on my head, say whatever words he felt god tell him about my future life in Mormonism, and he would mail me a transcript. It would be my life's horoscope. This sounds like a great deal--direct revelation from god concerning my entire life. However, like most things which sound too good to be true, this life-changing blessing comes with a catch.

Should I disobey god, the deal is off. Should I leave the church, the deal is off. Should anything specified in my blessing not happen, it is because I sinned or did something wrong. You see where this is going.

The reason I bring this up is because in my patriarchal blessing is a clause, which I later found to be rather common in these sorts of blessings, where I was promised that I would be allowed to heal sick and infirmed people through god's power. During my faith crisis, this really messed with my head. Had I simply been unworthy at the time this girl needed a blessing to save her? Would god really make her suffer more because of my sins, stubbornness, or disbelief?

I know now that no matter what the outcome had been for this poor girl, Mormons would find a way to call god merciful. Even if she had died, some would have said "Well, it was her time to go. She is now in a better place. God needed another angel in heaven to help people come to Christ. He allowed her to die as a mercy. Had she lived she would be in pain." And so on. God cannot lose. And because he cannot lose, he cannot be supported through reason and logic. If he cannot be supported through reason and logic, how can I believe he exists and base important life decisions on this belief?

When I realized that I had no good reason to believe that god exists, my faith crisis became less of a crisis and more of an intellectual adventure. My decisions mattered on a more intimate scale. The world became infinitely more fascinating and complex. Natural explanations for creation, to me, are more satisfying and honest than "god did it." Magic doesn't explain anything. It only raises more questions. I would rather admit my ignorance and say "I don't know" than accept an unsupported answer as true because it makes me feel good.

These days, my conscience is not clouded with concerns about my "worthiness" when I help someone in need. I no longer feel bad about refusing to ask god to save that girl. I feel that focusing on first aid and helping her breath was far and away the right and moral choice. 

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