Everybody loves a good conversion story…and this is a really good one.
Because if you’re at all familiar with the Mormon religion (or just even met one at the door), you’d probably agree that it’s a pretty big leap to convert from Mormonism to Catholicism.
But when Stephen Johnson, former US Air Force Pararescue jumper, started searching for Truth, that’s exactly where his incredible journey led him.
That’s not to say it was the straightest of paths.
Before finding the Church he took a wrong turn at atheism, got lost in New Age practices for a while, and then hitched a ride with Evangelical Protestantism.
But none of those encounters completely satisfied his thirst for Truth - a Truth that answered all his burning existential questions and made faith reasonable.
And in this Art of Catholic podcast, Stephen shares with Matthew how he began to question the Mormon faith of his childhood while deployed in the Middle East (facing very slim odds of survival), and how he eventually reasoned and studied his way to Catholicism.
They discuss things like:
- What it’s like growing up in the Mormon Church
- The theological catalyst that led Stephen to leave Mormonism and embrace atheism
- How the question of morality drove Stephen away from atheism, into New Age practices, and eventually into Protestantism
- How the Church Fathers and the Bible finally led Stephen home to Catholicism.
Let’s be honest. It’s always a thrill to hear the amazing ways God works to bring souls home to His Catholic Church.
It reminds those of us in the bosom of the Church how blessed we really are and serves as witness to those outside the Catholic faith that maybe they should take a harder look at Catholicism.
God bless and enjoy!
P.S. Have you tried the Science of Sainthood for FREE? Check it out HERE!
You know how there are certain people, when you see them at Mass, you’re just kind of like, what's this guy's story? I mean, I don't know, maybe it's just me. But close to about a year or so ago, I started seeing this dude come to Mass at my parish who was just obviously a little bit of a different ilk. I live in Steubenville, which is a very Italian area, and he obviously was not, first of all, his name did not end in a vowel. It's Johnson. And also he had this long blonde hair that was naturally blonde. So obviously this guy, again, wasn't Italian. But there was something else about him that I just kind of couldn't put my finger on. And I remember talking to my parish priest about all the different families that were moving to our parish, because we're exploding in my church.
And I said, well, what about the blonde guy with the ponytail? Like, what's his story? And he said, oh, you gotta meet him. He's got a great story. He's a convert from Mormonism. And I thought, well, alright, that's different. And so my wife and I had him and his family over for a Sunday brunch. We got to know them and I love this story and I thought it would be great to share it with you guys. So let me just give you the tale real quickly. His name is Stephen Johnson, and he is a husband and father. He's a former Air Force Pararescueman. We're gonna hear what that is in a second. A former Mormon, former New Ager, a former Evangelical Protestant, he got a Bachelor's degree in Theology and Biblical Studies at Liberty University. And for those of you who are cradle Catholics, that's a Protestant school in Virginia that was founded by Jerry Falwell. He's now pursuing a Master's in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. And he came into the church just a couple of years ago. So Stephen Johnson, welcome to the Art of Catholic Podcast, and more importantly, welcome home to the Catholic Church. It's great to have you.
Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot. It was, I mean, you touched on a bit of the story, but there's a lot to it and I'm looking forward to sharing it.
Well, before we jump into your conversion, I mentioned something in your bio, and that's the fact that you were an Air Force pararescueman. And I’ve met a couple of people - I never knew what that is. I’ve got a brother who's in the Special Forces. I have three nephews who have done tours in the Middle East. I'd never heard anything about pararescue. And since meeting you, I met a couple of guys, but tell people what that is exactly.
Okay. So the different branches, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, each of them has their own component, which falls under the branch of what's called SOCOM, which is the Special Operations Command. And so within SOCOM, that's where you find Navy Seals, that's where you find Army Green Berets. Pararescue is within, it's under SOCOM and it's the Air Force's own Special Operations. Comparatively, it's much smaller than either the Navy Seals or the Army Green Berets. Both of those are boasting about 20 to 30,000 operators, whereas pararescue and its counterpart combat control only have about three to 4,000 operators each. So it's a lot smaller.
So this is pretty… but it's intense. So you guys are doing some serious stuff then if you're in that kind of a group of category of military, this isn't like normal infantry stuff.
No, our niche, it's peculiar because of our size and the capabilities that we bring to the battlefield, we’re so much smaller and unique and refined. What we did, we embedded into other special operations teams. Now what that means is Navy Seals and Green Berets, they operate what's called unilaterally, which means that they're all internal, you know, so they're small teams or their platoons, whatever they call them, are they have everything that they need to complete the mission, you know, so they have snipers, they have gunners, they have demolitions experts. They have the team sergeant, the team commanders, they have everything. We don't operate unilaterally. What we do is we take our guys and embed them into those teams just to give them those additional capabilities. And so as a pararescueman, what I would do was bring the rescue capacity to these, either the SEAL team or the Green Beret team. And so we always operated on our own as being, you know, me and maybe the combat controller as the sole Air Force guys on these much bigger teams.
Well, I actually wanna know, so what did you do exactly? Like what were you helping them to do? Rescuing what, themselves? I mean, what was it all about?
So my training was was pretty extensive, pararescuemen go through EMT paramedic training. So we have that capacity where we're doing battlefield trauma. We can do minor medicine, so we could administer medications, we can do splinting, we can do chest tubes, we can do neck cris, throat, cris intubate, all sorts of injuries that you would see on the battlefield. We were trained to do those things. So the medical capacity was definitely the bread and butter, and that's where we spent most of our time. Beyond that, we were also trained in different forms of battlefield insertion. And so you're familiar with like airborne operations, and that normally falls into one of two categories, which is just your static line insertion method, which is like those big round parachutes, you know, and you see <laugh>, you know, a hundred people jump out of a plane with these big round parachutes to get into the battlefield. The other option is called a halo jump or a high altitude low open jump. And so this is something a little bit more high speed that we are able to do. And that's just, it's basically free fall parachuting. And so we would jump out at anywhere between 12 and 15,000 feet with all of our equipment, our guns, our rocks and everything else, and go into the scene that way. We also did, well, go ahead.
Yeah, I was gonna say, people might be wondering, well, why am I asking about the pararescue stuff? You know, I thought this was a conversion story. I wanted to ask this off the top because it kind of gives you a little bit of flavor for Stephen, because you're a pretty low-key guy. And I was laughing just because even last week at Mass, you were sitting in the front row and I was probably about four rows back on the other side, and you got little kids, and some of them were like, crawling out of the pew, you know, into the aisle. And you don't even change your expression. You're just like, I see a hand come out, just grab them and pull them back. And you're, you literally stay the same all the time. And so people might get the wrong impression, like, oh, this guy's super low key.
And I mean, you are in a sense, but you have this really intense background, that kind of plays into who you are. And I have to think in some ways, kind of fuels some of the movement that you had toward the Catholic Church as well. There's a lot going on inside of your head. And you also have a kind of a will of iron, you would have to in order to go through the training, because I've talked to some other guys who have told me. Yeah, like the pararescue training, like, it's super intense. It's really hardcore. Very few guys make it. So I kind of brought all this up just to give people a little bit of a flavor for who you are. And let's jump into your story then about your conversion and your movement into the Catholic faith, because as I said before, you were born a Mormon. And you know, a lot of us don't have a lot of knowledge of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as they're officially known. So what is, give us a little bit of a thumbnail of the Mormon church and kind of like what was it like to grow up as a kid in the Mormon church?
Yeah, sure. So the Mormon church, as far as, I mean, let me preface this by saying that the LDS church fully considers themselves to be a denomination and not just a denomination among other denominations, but the full restoration of the church that Jesus Christ established 2000 years ago. So one of the main tenets of the LDS faith is that shortly after the death of the last apostle, who we know to be John, after his death, the church just crumbled. It fell apart. The authority structure, which they called the priesthood, was slowly but surely wiped out. And then the church just eventually detached and became disassociated with the institution that Christ established. And so for 1800 years, they hold that there was this great apostasy that there was no remnant of the church left. And so in the early 1800s, a man named Joseph Smith claimed to have received a vision where Jesus Christ and God the Father both came to visit him and revealed to him that all of the Christian sects were an abomination, and that he was being called to restore the true full gospel of Christ.
And so there's a whole bunch of other backstory to this with him receiving other angelic visitations, being shown where the golden plates were, which is this other testament of what had happened in the New World, right? The America's. So I'll touch on that briefly and then I'll move forward. Part of the origin story of the Mormon Church is that during the time of the prophet Jeremiah, there was a segment that broke off from the larger group of Israel, built boats and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and landed somewhere in the New World. It's not made perfectly clear where that was, whether it was South, Central or North America, but at some point, this group of Israelites landed in the New World, formed their own civilization, and that civilization began to grow and had its own histories and wars and divisions.
And all of that is contained in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is the history of this break off civilization of Israelites in America. They recorded all of this, and then at around the year 400 AD this record was buried somewhere in the hills of New York. And this angel came to Joseph Smith to tell him, this is where you're gonna find it at the appointed time, you're going to retrieve these plates and you're going to translate them. And this is what Joseph Smith did. He produced the Book of Mormon. And there the Mormon church starts and he begins with a few small acolytes, mostly his family and coworkers and people in the smaller region. And then it just grew precipitously from there. And there's all sorts of interesting little bits that we could go into about the various persecutions and the conflicts that arose between the locals and this new Mormon group, which was very aggressive and very provocative towards the locals.
So fast forward to present time, what it's like growing up with that framework. To me, it felt completely natural. It's what I knew. It's what I believed. When I was a preteen, I took a family trip to this, you know, the homeland, the Mormon homeland where Joseph Smith was really operating when he was going full steam ahead. And this is in Nabu, Illinois, and far west Missouri, Jackson County, where the background of the Mormon story was really taking root. And it was a really powerful experience for me as a young man to visit those sites, to see those things. And I mean, I was touched by it because that's the story I knew. And there is a lot of sheltering and isolation. Yeah. Insulation that happens for the average LDS person, where this is the story, and we're living it out. And our families are centered around it. Our culture is centered around it. And so it's, I guess it's not unlike a lot of other religious experiences in that regard.
When you say that they consider themselves now another denomination... And yet in their history, they thought that every other thing was an abomination until Joseph Smith came along and started all of this and restored everything. What's the vision of that right now? Did they consider themselves kind of like, I wanna say for lack of a better term, Protestants, or like, what, where do they fit in today's categories?
So there's been an evolution in this. At the start, there was a huge separation. And this big dichotomy that was placed between the Mormons and the local, their local Protestant neighbors, is that there was another, you know, the other sort of relationship that existed is we are the true church of Christ. You are all apostates belonging to the abomination over the course of the last two centuries, that's softened. And it softened, it seems to me, in a very deliberate way where there's an attempt right now to really blend itself in, into the broader Protestant Christian world, and to seem like just one of the other choices out there as far as denominations go. And this all really happened during the 1950s and 1960s when this big movement happened. And so up until this time, the Utah corridor, which is the hotspot of the Mormon population, was really isolated.
And they operated and did their own thing. But in this larger political movement to send out missionaries to have a greater proselytizing and evangelical impact, both on the United States and then even out into the broader international world, this effort was made to more mainstream the LDS image. And what's come along with that is an incorporation of more mainline Christian terminology, Christian phrases, images. And so just in the last two or three years, the main icon of the church, the logo, it used to be that image of the angel Moroni, that golden angel that you see standing on top of the temples. That was the image and the logo that had marked the LDS church. But two years ago, they changed it to this image of Christ. So a lot of those peculiarities and things that made the church unique, it has now been softened to make it look a lot more part of the fold.
So it's interesting because, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, I mean, you're the former Mormon. I'm not, but it's not Trinitarian. Right? And so let me just ask you this. What's the view of the Trinity or the person of God who's the Father, who's the Son, does the Holy Spirit play a role, what's the theology there?
So they explicitly reject Trinitarian theology. And what they hold is that God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, are not just three separate persons the way that we would be able to affirm they're three separate beings. So they haven't, in their theology, parsed out, really the difference between person and being. They use the two terms, almost equivocally, where they mean the same thing. And so with that underpinning their theology, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, are totally different. And what they do is they lump them all together in what they call the Godhead. But the Godhead is almost like a quorum or a presidency, something else that you would see imaged in the church where you have a president and two counselors. And that would be the status of Christ and the Holy Spirit is almost the highest, most powerful, most perfect creations of God, those nearest to him. And they work in sort of a ministerial capacity doing the functions that God the Father has decided for them to carry out.
So what's the origin story then of God the Father himself? I mean, because I think I read that they believe that he was a man who then became God, is that right? Or am I, you know, what's the story there?
Yeah, that's exactly it. So they believe that God the Father whose name is Elohim. That at one point in the distant past, he lived on his own planet, had his own mortal existence, born to parents, grew up, matured, went through the different LDS ordinances, the same way that a, you know, a modern person today, LDS person would do, live the law of the church faithfully. And then at the time he died, was exalted and lifted up to this divine status where he could now father spiritual children of his own and perpetuate this, what they call the planet of salvation, which is a movement from the spiritual world, the preexistence into physical existence with the aspirations of one day becoming exalted ourselves so they're carried on once again. So it is this very naturalistic theology in which evolution sort of is the mechanism. Where you're born, you advance, you evolve, and then at some point you become exalted. And you get to do exactly what God has done, which is father spiritual children, create worlds, give them this physical existence themselves, and then assist them as they move towards exaltation.
I want to comment on that in a second. But first of all, if God the Father was a man, then where does everything come from? Like, what's the ultimate origin of everything for Mormons?
So what they would say is that there are two eternal principles, matter and intelligence. And so none of this has really been defined. Mormon theology is very superficial, and there's a really, really strong case of ambiguity that exists when discussing Mormon theology about what's official, what's not official. But this goes all the way back to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Parley Pratt, some of the earliest theologians of the Mormon Church, is that these two eternal principles matter and intelligence, that this is where everything comes from. So you can think of these just two endless infinite oceans, a swirling mixture of matter, which is composed to create all physical reality, and then this infinite ocean of undefined consciousness, which is taken out bit by bit and put together, you know, so we would think of Aristotelian categories of form and matter, it's not a perfect analogy, but it can help you see what we're talking about. It's just an infinite ocean of form, infinite ocean of matter. And these two things are brought together. But what's not answered is, at least as far as I know, is well, how did it begin? What was the, who was the agent that acted and brought the first things together - that's not answered, right?
Okay. So what about Christ? Where does he fit in the picture?
So in this scheme Christ is the oldest son, so in the heavenly realm where God the Father is with the heavenly mother or mothers, they're begetting spiritual children. The oldest and the first spiritual children begotten by Elohim is Jesus Christ, who they refer to back in the pre-existence as Jehovah. So Jehovah is Jesus Christ before his incarnation. So Jehovah is the oldest of Elohim’s spiritual children. Lucifer is his younger brother, as are all of us, his younger brothers and sisters. So this, they've taken these terms, right, that are used and are certainly scriptural things like God the Father and the Son. And what they've done is they've just extended that what we would say is analogical terminology, made it equivocal and applied it to everybody. So Jesus Christ, the Son is his son in a real, true biological way, the way that you and I would think of son and begetting. But so is Lucifer, and so are you, and so am I. And so is everybody else.
Now, I'm sure that it's on a lot of people's minds, like, so you’ve got to ask the question about whether or not there's still polygamy in Mormonism, and we know that was the case. I don't know what it is now, you can tell me that. But it seems to me that the idea of multiple wives would be derived from their belief of the afterlife. And because it seems like you're talking about begetting spiritual children, and I mean, the more wives, the faster that's going to take place. Am I totally off kilter here or is that where that belief comes from?
That? Yeah, that's it. Okay. So,
Like other things, this falls in that category of deliberate ambiguity where there are at least three primary justifications for the practice of polygamy. You know, the first is there's a spiritual necessity for it. That the whole point of the entire cosmos is the generation of children, spiritual children, to endow them with physical bodies. So I'll just put this in brackets, is that to have a physical body is the highest thing that one could achieve. So as a pure spirit, you're actually limited and lesser, you're further down in the order of perfection than you would be if you had a physical body. So it's almost inverse of what we consider to be true, right? God is pure spirit, pure actuality, infinite and eternal. And those things are possible because he is purely spiritual. And in Mormon theology, it's actually not the case. To have a body is the highest, it's the crowning, it's the achievement. And the more fulfilled your body is at the time of your death, meaning that you've undertaken the ordinances, you've been baptized, you went through the temple, you've done those things. You get to keep your body in its full capacity, meaning that you don't lose the generative principle, which is necessary for the eternal exaltation. Does that make sense? I could flesh that out a little bit more.
Well, what does it mean then? What would you do with the scripture passages where Christ talks about the fact that there's no marriage in heaven? What do they do with that?
<laugh> Yeah, it's a great question. And this is one of those passages that, that played a role in my own coming to understand that what the LDS church claims to be and what Christianity claims to be, is that there's just this bridge that exists there, right? Because we hold that Sacred Scripture and the whole New Testament, are inerrant and that it's divinely protected from error. And that we have this tradition which allows us to interpret it and to understand its teaching. On the other hand, the LDS church believes that the Bible itself has been corrupted. So part of the LDS folklore is that at the Council of Nicea, you know, men who had their own power motives came together and determined the canon. And what they would say, and this is their own vernacular, is to say something to the effect that the plain and precious truths of scripture were lost at that point.
So the Bible in the mind of the LDS person is already suspect. And you can see how this could be weaponized, you know, because if I'm an LDS person, an LDS theologian, and there's some bit of biblical scripture that disagrees with LDS theology, well it's already sort of shaded in this suspicion. So when you run into passages like that, which pretty flatly reject the notion that there is marriage, the institution of marriage, as we know it continues past this life, well, it can just be sort of brushed off as inconsequential because it's already sort of been tainted and tampered with. We hold it up and respect it and revere it as being scripture. But it's problematic.
You know, what's interesting to me, Stephen, is that in some ways, you hear these echoes almost of Catholicism in some of the way that they talk about things like, for example, becoming gods, right? There's language of that in sacred scripture, and we've heard church fathers say, you know, similar things. But for us, the deification process, that divinization, is a participation in the divine nature of God. And so Mormonism in some ways teaches this deification, but you become divine in and of yourself, and then you are like gods on your planet. That's not Catholic teaching at all. And I don't want people to be confused about that. But all I'm saying is I hear some echoes of Christian Catholic belief that that plays out in Mormonism, which is why things, you know, get confused. A lot of times baptism would be another example of this, but the Mormons believe in the baptism for the dead. Is that right? Am I getting that right? I keep asking you that because I don't really know. So you're the expert. What do they believe about baptism?
Okay, so baptism, they consider it to be an ordinance of the church. So they don't typically use the language of sacrament the way that we think about it. They use the word ordinance, which has a lot more Old Testament connotations to it. They would consider sacrament as eating bread and drinking water at their Sunday sacrament meeting, which is, they call it a renewal of their baptismal vows. So at baptism, they have something like a profession of faith where they're making a vow to follow Christ, to be his disciple. Then they go through baptism, which they always do in a full immersion way. And then those ordinances or those vows are renewed every Sunday at their sacrament meeting. Baptism for the dead is something quite different. And where they get it from is first Corinthians 15.
And in there there's just this short little shout out St. Paul gives to this practice of baptizing for the dead. And it's not really explained what it is that he's describing there, but in the broader context of first Corinthians 15, what you see there is Paul's more or less rebuking, this group in the church of Corinth for telling the believers there that there will be no resurrection. And so Paul's making this argument, no, there will be a resurrection. And here's the reason. And he lays out this, you know, this description of the gospel, and then to counter the people who are arguing that there will be no resurrection, he points out that they are baptizing people, dead people, they're baptizing them. And so Paul says like, why would they be doing this if there was no resurrection?
So he's almost pointing out this blind spot that they have, where they're doing this action, doing this performance thinking that it's gonna benefit the deceased person, but they don't hold that there will be a resurrection. So the question is why are they doing that? So the whole point of first Corinthians 15 is to argue for the resurrection. Mormons take that small mysterious passage. And they developed it all the way to this temple ordinance. So you see the big beautiful Mormon temples scattered throughout the country. Primarily what's happening there is what they call baptism for the dead. So the LDS church is huge into genealogical work, big time, you know, so if you look at like all the biggest databases and archives of genealogy, most of that is done solely by the LDS church. And they have big, big resources just poured into this research.
The reason that they do that is because they take these names to the temple and they do proxy baptisms for the dead. And so what they'll do, and I did this many times as a youth, you go into the temple with a group of say 20, 30 young people and they have a big baptismal font there. And you go into the water and they do what looks just like a normal baptism. They say your name, I baptize you on behalf of such and such who is dead. And then they baptize you and they come up and they say the same thing again, I baptize you for such and such who is dead. And so at one of these baptism for the dead sessions, they'll baptize 150, 200 deceased people. And they do that thinking that in the afterlife, those who have not received this ordinance of baptism while living are in what they call spirit prison, just waiting for their ordinances to be done. The moment that they've been baptized through proxy baptism, they're released from spirit prison and get to enter into spirit paradise.
And so it's a work that they see as being just of immense good because of what it's doing for souls who have departed.
So again, it sounds like this kind of echo of Catholicism with almost like redemptive suffering for people who are in purgatory. I mean, there's like this kind of thin thread that almost kind of connects, but it's this bastardization in a way. But let's pivot from, you know, just talking about the Mormon church to your story with regard to it. So what was kind of the catalyst for you to begin to make your way out?
Sure. Yeah. So, when I was in my high school years, I, you know, started to drift away from the church. My family is very active and I continue to be very active. All throughout my high school years, I was going to what they call early morning seminary, which is bible study that takes place before the normal school day begins. Not bible study, but scripture study. Most of it is spent in the Book of Mormon. I was doing that every day of the week and I had more than one meeting at my local building throughout the week. And so I was, I guess I had my obligations to the church, which I was fulfilling as a young man, but internally I was much more attracted to just worldly things, you know? So I was into girls and I was into sports and I was, you know, just the typical high school student I guess in that regard.
When I was about 17, I started dating the girl that would eventually become my wife and as our relationship was developing and getting more serious, you know, she and I began talking about getting married and, you know, what this would look like, what our future would look like. And all of this was, you know, the backdrop of this was this two year mission that I was meant to serve, right? So for the listeners, every Mormon young man from the time that they're able to walk is encouraged very strongly to do what is called a two year service mission. So at the time that they're 18 or 19 years old, they leave home and they go and they do a mission, serve a mission. And so you can be sent anywhere in the world. There's very limited contact back home once you've left.
And as I was approaching that age and I knew that this was coming. I had my girlfriend on one hand, and my, you know, what I felt was my obligation to serve my church, to maintain my honor and stay connected to this community. These two things just really, you know, struggling between <laugh> between each other and within me. And so when I was about, you know, six months or so away from hitting that age where I was, I knew I was gonna be serving a mission. I knew that if I left to serve my mission, my girlfriend was not gonna hang out. She was not gonna wait. She was gonna go off to college, <laugh>, she was gonna start dating other men. And I was gonna get a dear John letter. I knew it was gonna happen.
I had seen it countless times with some of my peers, my older brothers and so on. And so at that point I just <laugh> the military service is sort of held up as this, this loophole, this out, right? So it's all very honor based. If you want to be a decent man, if you want to marry a good girl, and if you want a good girl to marry you, you have to serve your mission. Or if that's not possible, then you at least need to serve in the military. And so when I was reaching my 18th birthday, I knew that that was my out, I was like, okay, I can get the best of both worlds. I can keep my honor and I get to marry the girl <laugh>. So that's what I did. I went to the recruiter's office instead of turning in my application to serve a mission, and that's how I ended up in the military.
That makes sense. Yeah. So theologically though, what, what was the catalyst then? So you don't want to go do the mission because you don't want to lose the girl, but you're going to go to the military. And so now what?
So I mean, there, there's some practical reasons behind it too, because I knew I was gonna be getting married quite young, and I did, I got married just two weeks after I turned 19. And at that point, I really needed a way to provide, and the military is just instantaneous, you know, income and medical benefits and everything else. So it just made sense. It was really checking every box. And as far as pararescue goes, why that particular job field? Initially it wasn't something that interested me at all. I was a high school swimmer and I did pretty good at that, and I was very comfortable in the water and I was a boy scout and I liked doing outdoors activities, but I knew that it was going to be absolutely miserable, you know, <laugh>, I knew that I was gonna get beat up for the next two years just to make it through the pipeline and then it's gonna be a rigorous deployment cycle and training cycle after that.
So I knew it was going to be more of a challenge than I really wanted to do. My older brother who had just returned from his mission was in a similar position. He was getting ready to get married, and also needed a way to provide for his wife and his young family. And so we arrived at this decision to join the military together. While we were at the recruiter, we learned about this job because neither of us had heard about pararescue before. But it just so happened that at one of our first visits with the recruiter, there was a pararescueman there. And you know, this is a big brawny dude, and he's just a stud, you know, he's built like a machine. He's probably 50 years old or so, and he just, he looks like he could crush a triathlon, no problem, <laugh>.
And so both of us are just really impressed by this guy. My brother more so, and so, he jumps straight in, he's like, pararescue, that's what I'm doing. And there's these physical tests that you have to pass just in order to qualify for pararescue, and they're pretty extensive, water test, run tests, calisthenics. And you also have to pass a mental aptitude test as well just to qualify, so to keep the doors open. And because my brother encouraged me, he was like, well, just come try it. You know, if you don't wanna do it, that's fine, but you know, if you change your mind, there you go, the door will remain open. So he talked me into doing it, and we both did the physical test. We met the mental requirements. And so he was going full speed in that direction where I wanted to do something more like a desk job.
I was like, no, I'll do intelligence, I'll work at a computer. That sounds great to me, <laugh>. And so that was the direction I was moving. But then at the final physical test, we both passed it and we were at home that night having dinner with my parents and we were talking to them about, you know, our soon to be departure and going into basic training. And my parents like, you know, they set their fork and spoon down and they get like this really serious look on their face and they're like, Stephen, you should not consider pararescue. You've already said you don't want to do it. We can see Neil jumping out of airplanes, but we can't see you doing it <laugh>. And so when they said that <laugh>, okay, Mom and Dad, alright, thanks for making my decision for me. So at that point, I signed my contract to go into pararescue, <laugh>. And so that's how I ended up in that specific job in the military with all of this LDS stuff on the back.
So theologically then, what was the, you know, what was the catalyst for you to begin to think outside of the Mormon box?
Okay, yeah. So that was, I had gone through all of my pararescue training, about three years of training. Shortly after I got to my first unit, I was given deployment orders and I was gonna deploy with what's called a combat, or sorry, a crisis reaction force. And this is, this is a high speed Green Beret team. And so there's different echelons of operators in the military, right? So at the very top, everybody knows about Delta Force and Seal Team Six; below them are these, what they're called is Tier Two eams. And it is just luck of the draw as a brand new pararescue. And I was assigned to work on one of these crisis reaction forces, which are a high speed team. And what we were doing was holding alert over the entire Middle East.
So we would go and station ourselves in the United Arab Emirates, and we would be in this posture to go out to any place in in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and this huge ring, we could get there very quickly and react. This is in 2014. And so I'm in the UAE for about two weeks. And all of this in 2014, if you recall, is right when ISIS is blowing up and becoming this thing, you know, ISIS is this terrorist group, which seemingly came out of nowhere. You know, we all knew about Al-Qaeda and we knew about the Taliban, but then all of a sudden there's this huge civil war in Syria, which is giving birth to this new terrorist group, which is taking over huge parts of Syria moving into northern Iraq. And by this time, our official conflict with Iraq was a year old.
We had been out of the war for a year at this point. And so we're in the United Arab Emirates watching this happen in real time. And orders come down saying, you guys are going into Baghdad. So we have an embassy in Baghdad, we have this airfield in Baghdad, the international airport, and there's a real serious threat that these things are not gonna be ours for very much longer at the rate that ISIS is moving. So we are sent out as the first people there to go to Baghdad, secure the airfield, and to give support to the embassy. And when we got there, it was empty. It was a ghost town, and it was the most eerie thing I've ever experienced in my entire life. Like there was no air support, there was hardly anybody there to make the meals that we were eating.
It was desolate. And so this time was just incredibly intense. You know, I'm 21 years old at the time. I barely know what I'm doing. Like I've got these handful of skills that I picked up throughout my pipeline training, but as far as real world application, like I'm drowning. At this time also, ISIS has this publication wing, which is putting out propaganda like crazy. And I don't know if you or or any of your viewers would know what I'm talking about, but they were putting out these videos of them just creating carnage, wherever they went, just mass executions, destroying villages, blowing up stuff. The weapons that these people had was just unbelievable as this new fledgling organization. They had weapons systems and funding that made al Al-Qaeda look, you know, like small fries.
And so we're, we're getting all of this dumped on us in our first couple weeks. They're in Baghdad. We're watching this, these propaganda clips, and we're seeing the carnage and we're getting intel reports about the land that they were taking over and how quickly they were moving and how effective they were fighting. And I was terrified. It's hard to express how scared I was knowing that this was probably where I was gonna die. I was preparing myself. I was writing letters to my family, to my wife, to my mother, my father saying like, I love you, but I don't think I'm coming home from this. And it was all set and ready to go as soon as the fight came, which could be any day. And so it was during this time, while I'm processing all of this, I was like, it's time to get right with God.
You know, throughout my military training, I definitely flew off the wagon and I was, you know, just living very worldly and had abandoned my faith more or less. And it's like, it's time to get serious about this. So I began reading the Book of Mormon for the first time as an adult on my own. And it didn't take very long for me to get into this, into the Book of Mormon to say, this is nonsense. This is confusing. It's not drawing any kind of coherent picture. There's contradictions that are just glaring. You know, one of those contradictions comes in the book of Jacob, which is the third book in the Book of Mormon, where there's this explicit condemnation of polygamy. And it condemns David and it condemns Solomon for their practice of polygamy. And it says that God like forbids it, it's an abomination to him.
And as soon as I read that, I was like, what am I reading? I'm reading our sacred text condemn something that I know is historically a part of our church. In the back of the Mormon scripture, you have this huge, it's its own book called The Doctrine and Covenants, which is, you know, it's close to 150 independent revelations about the guidance of the church. And these are revelations that Joseph Smith said that he received, which outline in detail what he is supposed to do as the prophet of the church and what he, I mean, it's creating this institution, it's basically the constitution of the church. This is what the church is, this is what the church believes, how it functions, so on and so forth. And in their D&C 132 is the section on polygamy where God is commanding Joseph Smith and the higher authorities of the LDS church to practice polygamy, how to do it, like what are the rules to it. D&C 132 was never taken out of scripture. It's still there. So if you look at the book of Mormon Doctrine & Covenants, if you flip to the back, D&C 132, it's right there like how Joseph Smith received this revelation to practice it. And so these two things are really contradicting what I just read in the Book of Mormon and what I know is in D&C 132. And so it just, it caused this huge break in, you know, in my mind, like I'm functioning inside of what is a contradiction, and it just, it shattered me. And so it began this probably a year and a half long process of discerning and understanding LDS history about, you know, what is this all about? Who was Joseph Smith? Where did the Book of Mormon come from? And doing this immense deep dive into the history of the Mormon church. And just bit by bit, it was just revealing itself to me to be a fiction.
So obviously you made it home from the front, thanks be to God. And when you ended up segueing out of, you didn't move into just like another religion, you just kind of went into nothingness.
Yeah. Which is very common for the individual who leaves the Mormon faith. And I have a couple theories as to why that is. And the most prominent one is that because the LDS church, from the time you're a young person, you believe, and you say that this is the true church, this is Christ’s one true church, and its sense is its own sort of edifice with its own theology and way of speaking about things in its own lexicon. That's what I knew. I knew that I wasn't Christian and everybody else who called themselves Christian had some deformed, defective, lesser version of it. And so when I left the LDS faith, that all just got dismissed, you know, because, you know, why would I hold onto something that I already kind of hold in my mind as being deficient in some way. So when I left the LDS church, it just completely went away. And this is true from what I've been able to gather from most people who leave the LDS church in the same way I did, where all spirituality sort of gets thrown out.
But you ended up moving into this kind of a spiritual thing later. Like you find your way what, into the New Age movement next? Like where did you go from there?
So immediately after leaving the LDS church, I was really taken up by the new atheist. So this is the time of Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris. And, you know, for whatever reason, you know, I chalk it up to God's divine providence, is that that material was sort of, was suggested to me right as I was leaving the LDS faith. And so I'm taken out by this whole new worldview that offers this really compelling explanation, scratching that religious itch, you know, this is where you came from, this is what's going on here. And so it was filling in those gaps that had been left behind. And, yeah, I was enamored by it for probably about three years. And then I ran into this problem as I was beginning to understand and develop my own way of thinking was the philosophical shortcomings of materialism and atheism.
And the biggest one was morality. You know, how do I get morality to fit inside this atheistic worldview? I mean, it seems perfectly consistent with atheism, to deny the reality of morality, which was something that I had a really difficult time stomaching, but where does it fit? You know, if this is just chemistry in motion, and these things are biological accidents that happen with time, chance, and randomness, where does morality fit into that? And yeah, this was one of those other things that really just caused me a lot of cognitive dissonance and discomfort to my own way of thinking, why should I behave in any specific way? Why should I choose to be honest rather than lie? And it just slowly became more and more untenable for me.
And then at some point, it just smacked me that ifI want to hold onto morality, I have to bring God back into this picture in some way. You know, Christianity was out. It was, you know, a non-starter because, you know, out of all of the worldviews, that was just the dumbest one. You know, that's the one that the <laugh>, the superstitious bumpkins held onto. And I'd put that to rest. So I looked elsewhere and, New Age, I had a number of friends that were doing various New Age practices, mostly meditation and yoga and some of those other things. And so I began dabbling in those as my own spirituality, I guess sort of started to come back to life. New Age, the New Ageism is really just a hodgepodge, right, of various things kind of just pulled together. And so with any sort of deep investigation or look into what New Ageism is, you follow these threads, which lead to a whole other religious foundation, you know? So you follow one thread and it's gonna take you right to Buddhism. You follow another thread and it's gonna take you into Hinduism. You follow another thread. Well, it's borrowed some from Christianity too. And so I wasn't interested in that. I wanted to get to the bedrock, whatever that might be. And so I took the trails that led me into the Eastern religions. I went as deep as I could into Buddhism and Hinduism to try to understand, okay, well what is this? What is this describing? What is this telling me about the nature of reality and how do I fit into it? And every time it just came up lacking, you know, like with atheism, the concept, the idea, this sense that there is this moral law pressing on me also became really difficult to make work within a Buddhistic or Hindu worldview.
So is that eventually what moved you then? Because you moved into Protestantism eventually, right? And so you ended up one of those bumpkins <laugh> you referred to earlier, but how'd you make that leap?
Was it because of morality?
It was, yep. Ultimately it was because I couldn't answer the question in any sort of satisfactory way. Like, what is wrong with this world? Why is there evil? Why do I have this sense that, you know, I'm supposed to act in a certain way, there are consequences when I don't act in a certain way. How do I explain them? And now I, I wrestled with this problem for what seemed a really long time. And then, you know, by being led by the Holy Spirit, I had just this, this overwhelming sense like, okay, it's time to give Christianity a fair shake. And at this point, I didn't have a Bible in my house. When I left the Mormon church, I got rid of all of my religious, you know, paraphernalia got rid of all of it. And so I didn't have a bible in the house, so I went to my local thrift store just a block away from me.
And I went to their old book section and, and I grabbed a used copy of the NIV Bible. And I opened it up and started reading in Genesis. And by the time I finished reading Genesis 1, it was just… it was like fireworks going off in my brain. It was… I was seeing this with new eyes in a way that as a child who had known these stories, never experienced it, just this holistic whole body, emotionally, mentally, spiritually engagement into this text and seeing there's God there, he is my creator who created everything. Now he's the source of this weight that I have pushing on me, knowing that now I'm not the center of it all, but somehow I am still very important because he made me and I was just… I was breath taken. My breath was taken away from me.
And so I read Genesis 1 and I jumped straight ahead to Matthew 1, and I read through Matthew, and it was more of the same, more of just electricity, you know, I could feel it just something like, I knew I was, I was at the door of something. And so I read Matthew, decided to go back to Genesis, read the Bible all the way through. And by the time I was done, I was like, this is it. There's the puzzle pieces now laid out. I get it. All of those questions, I had, those insecurities, the conundrums, objective morality, sin, evil, like I get it, <laugh> as much as I could at that point that, you know, that I didn't know that there was still so much more to learn, right?
So I knew it. I was like, I'm Christian, I have no idea what that means. I don't know how to do it, but I am a follower of Christ. And so just down the road from me was a Calvary Chapel, I didn't know anything about Calvary. I I didn't know anything about the Protestant - Catholic divide, none of it. I just knew that that's the place I needed to go. And so I went there and as I'm walking in the door, the pastor stops me. He’s never seen me before, and he introduces himself and asks who I am. And I ask him like, you know, so what do we do here? And he's like, this is what we do here. We stick to scripture. That's all you're gonna hear from me while I'm preaching. I'm preaching straight from scripture. That's it.
And he uses this word there, this term that I'm not familiar with, sola scriptura. He says, we are sola scriptura. And by this time, familiar enough with the Bible having finished it, to know that that's all I wanted. It's like, so when he said that, I was like, I'm in, you know, I made it <laugh> <laugh>. So eventually, <laugh>, I asked him, I said, when, when can I be baptized? And so he had a date set a couple weeks out for baptisms. I was able to walk into the ocean, living down in south Florida, walked into the ocean, received baptism, and it was great. It was wonderful. You know, I was happy. I knew that I was on the right track, you know, things were falling in line.
A lot of my old ways, things I was attached to were slowly just falling off. And it was a sense of peace that I had really never known before. Knowing that, you know, this is, it was almost a sense of achievement that okay, you know, I'm here. I made it after this long path out of Mormonism and through atheism and dabbling in new age and eastern spirituality that this is where I'm supposed to be. Eventually, I met with my pastor. He invited my wife and I over, and he's asking the backstory, and I filled him in on what I could, and he encourages me to, he's like, you should go to Bible college. I had my GI benefits and, you know, I had college just kind of waiting there for me.
And when he extended that challenge to me, I was like, yeah, I could do that. I could. So I signed up and applied for the theology program at Liberty University. And while this is going on simultaneously, I'm doing one-on-one mentorship with my pastor, and he prints out the Calvary Chapel distinctives, and they have five distinctives, and we're going through them, and it's covering things like free will versus determinism, justification. And then the last one on there is rapture. So Calvary Chapel is what they call a pre-millennial pre-tribulation rapture. And so we don't have to dive into that. Not deep anyways, but all of the passages for the other distinctives that he was pointing me to in scripture, I could read those and say, okay, you know, this makes sense, for all of those except rapture.
And so the passages that are pulled out for rapture come from First Thessalonians four, Matthew 24, a couple places in Revelation where they build this argument that the church of true believing Christians are going to be plucked out of the earth before the great tribulation happens. And so true believing Christians are not going to experience any of that. And so while we're studying this, I'm looking as deep as I can into this, and I'm telling my pastor, I don't see what you're seeing here. I don't see anything that sounds remotely like a secret rapture, where true believers are gonna get sucked out of the earth. And so we went back and forth on this for a couple months, and then at some point, the light bulb turned on, and I could see clearly, I get it. You have a tradition, you have your own specific interpretation that you're reading this through, and that's why it's not crystal clear, because you are reading this with a tradition just like this other denomination over here that doesn't believe in this rapture is reading it through their tradition.
This is happening while I'm doing my undergraduate work, and I'm getting exposed to the ancient church. And so I'm becoming familiar with Ignatius and Polycarp, you know, some of the apostolic writers and the earliest church fathers. And I'm seeing like, okay, this is what they were doing. You know, they're talking about baptismal regeneration, and they're talking about the Eucharist, and they're talking like in these very liturgical terms about what a Christian is, what a Christian does, what a Christian believes. And I was like, my Sunday church is great, you know, the stage lights and the music and the communion once a month, which is only symbolic is great, but it's nothing like what the early church was doing. So where did that go? Why is that not around anymore?
Why is that not what I'm doing? And right around this time is when I'm, because I'm looking for these things online, I'm running into more Catholic sources that are talking about what I'm reading St. Ignatius talk about. And so the points are coming together and they're connecting that there's this continuity. Christ established a church, he built it on the Rock of Peter. He promised it was going to be here till the end of the age. The Catholic church here 2000 years later is saying the exact same thing. We have <laugh>, we have St. Peter, we're built on him. We're rested, you know, in this foundation that has this scaffolding of church fathers and historic writings that you can rest assured that what Christ said was going to happen has happened. And we have this continuity throughout time that just confirms it.
So I know that a lot of people, I want to wrap this up in just a minute, but I bet a lot of people are wondering right now. Stephen, where was your wife in all of this? Like, what was her path like as you're doing this?
<laugh> Yeah. Yeah, I would tell you to ask her, but since she's not here, I'll speak for her. <laugh> My wife is an incredible woman. Just absolutely incredible. And she has this trust in me that… it's an incredibly precious thing that exists right there at the foundation of our marriage is this trust. And she has to just follow. And she is just a beautiful example of what feminine love is supposed to be. And I remember about the time that I was coming to the realization that the Catholic church is the true church of Christ. We were driving together through where we were living at the time in rural Utah, and we were passing just a local mission parish there. You know, it's the only one in like a hundred miles in any direction.
And I <laugh> she's driving and I say, Tamar, stop the car. I need to get out. And so she's baffled, she's confused. She's like, what are you talking about? I said, I'm gonna go into this Catholic church and talk to the priest. And she's like, what do you mean? I said, just come back and pick me up in 15 minutes, <laugh>. And so she did. She let me out. I went inside and she came back and picked me up and you know, so I laid it all out. I started vomiting this out. Like, this is the church, we found it, like, it's right here. It's beautiful. And she looks at me and she says, look, I trust you. I know that you're gonna lead us in the right direction, so if this is the direction you're heading, and you know, she's seen this whole thing unfold.
She's been a part of it. And so she's aware of this journey of truth that I've been on, and things have come, I've entertained ideas and then I've let them go. But this is, for whatever reason, her trust, her submissiveness, all of those excellent qualities that I love about her, just really shined through and allowed us seamlessly and in a very peaceful way, which doesn't exist for a lot of couples who go through a faith transition has maintained in our household, and it's extended into the lives of my children. And they've been able to see this and experience it along with us. And it is beautiful. And yeah, my wife just, she's allowed it to happen.
That's awesome. It's a beautiful story. I know we've only scratched the surface. There's so much more you can get into and kinda the Reader's Digest condensed version and a lot of other questions I'd like to ask you, but alas, we should probably wrap this up. One last question for you. Sitting where you are now as a Catholic, having gone from Mormonism into atheism, into New Age, into Evangelicalism, or whatever it is you want to call it, and now you find yourself Catholic, there are a lot of people who listen to this podcast who are on a similar journey to yours. What would you tell them? Like what kind of encouragement would you give them, sitting where you are now?
I would say seek the truth. Seek the truth, and go where it leads. And it's not always going to be easy to make those movements because it is going to necessitate that certain things about you die. And as disciples of Christ, we shouldn't just, you know, haphazardly or lackadaisically move in that direction. But we should want it. We should want those things about us which are keeping us away from Christ to die. Because when that happens, we're seeing the fulfillment of Christ's words in action in our lives. He says, whoever loses his life, for my sake, will find it. And it's you, you can experience that. You can step into that promise and really feel what it's like to follow Christ up the hill of Calvary as things that I know that I love and I'm attached to fall away and they die.
And you can give them a peaceful burial and say, look, this is where I'm going. I'm gonna continue up this holy mountain towards my Lord because that's my home. And he'll provide for you, he'll protect you. And the more it's gonna cost you, the greater your reward's gonna be. So just have faith that our God is a good God who can uphold his promises and will, and he wants servants who are gonna go the extra mile for him. And so look at it that way is this is a challenging calling, but it's going to purify you. It's going to perfect you. It's going to lead into greater glory, which is just closer proximity with Christ and having that proximity now where I am, where I get to kneel and receive my Lord, it feels like the finishing line and every step beyond this is just, it's beautiful and it's easy. It becomes easier because we get more and more assistance.
Yeah. Sitting as a guy who just celebrated his 25th anniversary into the church this last Easter. I can tell you from where I sit back to you, like you don't even know the half of it yet. I mean, as wonderful as it is for you sitting where you are, every day that goes by, that you really grasp the Catholic thing by the horns, and you live it to its fullest, it will transform your life from the inside out. And every day is deeper because every day is an invitation from Christ through his grace to move more deeply into him, to be, to live, you know, in him we live and move and have our being. That's a reality in Catholicism that just doesn't exist anywhere else, particularly because what you just mentioned, we receive him literally into our bodies and we become one with him through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
And I think that your journey, Stephen, it's like the epitome of faith and reason coming together. You dealt with questions along the way and Catholicism never shys away from questions. We are a very reasonable faith. And if you want, you know, to read more about that, read Fides et Ratio by John Paul II, we don't shy away from issues and apparent contradictions and controversies and things like this because we don't fear the truth. And if you seek the truth as you were talking about, I'm here to tell you, dollars to donuts, you're gonna end up as a Catholic <laugh>. I don’t know how else to say it, because that's the only way that two guys like you and me could find ourselves, you know, talking on a podcast called The Art of Catholic, as varied as our backgrounds are, the truth will lead you home into the church of Jesus Christ. Right?
Well, listen, it's been a pleasure to have you on and I look forward to seeing you at Mass when we can partake together, you know, at the table of the Lord, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And it's just a joy to see your family there. And I'm really happy to be able to introduce listeners to your story, Stephen. I think it's gonna help a lot of people come in more deeply and commune with our Lord and perhaps into the Catholic faith as well. So thank you very much for coming on.
Yeah, thanks for giving me the opportunity to chat,
Of course. And maybe we'll do it again sometime soon. That'd be great.
All right. God bless you. Bye. Hope you guys enjoyed that podcast and please remember to subscribe to The Art of Catholic and also that this podcast is sponsored in part by people just like you. So if you'd like to join them, become a donor of the show and help me produce more of these, get more of them out there, I'd really appreciate it. You can get free books that I will send to you, you can even get a membership in the Science of Sainthood, so you can do that by clicking the link below or just by going to www.scienceofsainthood.com/donate. And if you're wondering what in the world, you know, the Science of Sainthood is all about, if you've never experienced that, it's basically an online platform that provides spiritual formation, dynamic spiritual formation and guidance for regular Catholics. It's for people who are ready to really make progress in this spiritual life and want to learn how that actually happens.
Because the spiritual life is not a free for all guys, we're not made just to kind of tread water and hope that we're in a state of grace when we die. We are supposed to make progress. We are supposed to mature in the spiritual life, and there's a process by which that happens. So just like we grew up in the natural life from infancy into adolescence and adulthood, that's how you grow up in this spiritual life as well. That's why Saint Augustine himself calls it the Science of the Saints. That's where I got the name for the Science of Sainthood, Saint Catherine of Sienna calls it the Holy Science of Love. It's not like the science you did back in elementary or junior high school. This is the science of the spiritual life by which you fall more in love with Jesus Christ and become what it is that you were made to be, which is basically a saint.
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The way we change that is not by, you know, pointing our finger at all the bad things that are going on. Bad things have always been going on. The way we change that is by starting with us. We get serious about our interior life. We become transformed, and we allow the Holy Spirit to move through us to affect others. And this is our path to salvation. Okay? Tthis is the way evangelization is supposed to happen. In order to evangelize, we have to first be evangelized. And that means primarily getting serious about your interior life. Jesus Christ himself calls it the one thing necessary, and when Jesus says that, we better listen. So that's what the Science of Sainthood is all about. That's why I founded it,, several years ago, it transformed my life. And I can't stop talking about it now, because I know what it'll do to you.
I know how it will change you, and how you'll fall more in love with Jesus Christ and his beautiful church that he has given to us. So check it all out scienceofsainthood.com. Finally, speaking of Jesus, if you would like to walk in his footsteps, in his land in the Holy Land, join me in April of 2024 for a once in a lifetime pilgrimage. It's a five star pilgrimage. We're gonna spend three nights on the Sea of Galilee, then we're gonna head into Jerusalem, see all the incredible shrines and holy sites, that will, they'll just take your breath away. There is nothing like going to the Holy Land. I've been there several times already. It just changes you, It affects you in a way that you can't understand until you've been there. Just ask anybody who's gone in the past. So if you'd like to join me and experience his world firsthand and make it your own, go to scienceofsainthood.com/pilgrimage.
I put a video up where you can learn all about it, or you can just go to scienceofsainthood.com. You can see it there as well, but it is a once in a lifetime trip. So check that out as well. So that's it for now., more podcasts are coming, more great interviews. And just pray for me and know that I'm praying for you, we need each other to make it through this world and come out saints on the other side, which is what it's all about. So let's close, as we always do, with the words of St. Paul from Romans 12:12. Say it with me guys. It's our theme. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer.