I was waiting for a ride in downtown Salt Lake, directly across the street from Temple Square. Instead of allowing myself to get impatient after 15 minutes of people watching, I decided to pull out my miniature Book of Mormon. Nothing can instill a bit of patience and peace into your life like turning to the scriptures.
I had read just a few verses when a stranger approached me, asking what I was reading. As a person who often squeezes in scripture study on public transportation or lunch breaks, I was used to the query. In fact, it had generated a lot of intriguing discussions.
"The Book of Mormon," I answered simply. Usually, people respond with a polite "oh" and then move on to a new topic of conversation. Occasionally someone will use this as a jumping off point to tell me how much they love the scriptures, their own religion, or Mormons. A few people ask follow-up questions.
But this man completely caught me off guard.
"Do you actually believe that trash?" he asked in obvious disgust. (Full disclosure, he didn't actually use the word "trash." He used a much harsher expletive that I won't repeat, but that's beside the point.)
I was already into this conversation deeper than I wanted to be, so all I could muster as a response was the truth. "Actually, I do."
I feared I knew exactly where this conversation was heading, and I didn't like the destination.
The stranger began telling me all the reasons I should not believe in Mormonism, and it was clear he was familiar with its teachings. I cringed away from the idea of confrontation, but something unusual happened. I began listening to this stranger, not with the intention to leave a religion I've discovered for myself to be true, but because I wanted to understand his perspective. I wanted him to know he was heard.
As I did this, the conversation suddenly became natural, intuitive, easy.
The stranger began telling me how my beliefs keep me from understanding there is nothing but black vagueness in the next world. There is no such thing as the celestial kingdom, only outer darkness and nothingness for us all, and those lies about a greater life were keeping me from true happiness now.
But when the man asked if I were genuinely happy, in that moment I could unreservedly say, "yes." And a large part of that happiness results from my spiritual beliefs and the hope, meaning, and light they bring into my life. "It brings me happiness and comfort to believe in a next life because then I know the loved ones who have died, my sister and my grandparents, I'll see and be with them again," I added.
"You shouldn't hold onto the past," he replied. "Forget about them. Find happiness now."
It was in that moment, while someone was testing everything I thought I knew, that I fully understood. The gospel and remembering my loved ones, those things did bring me indescribable joy—here and now. "Even if we get to the next life and you happen to be right," I said, "I won't regret for one second believing what I believe now. That hope and those ideas, those are what make me happy."
We talked for a few minutes more, and what surprised me most of all was that this person who at first seemed belligerent, unkempt, and threatening ended up teaching me a profound truth: "Don't wait to be happy. There's no heaven later. You need to build heaven here and now. Don't worry so much about what you have to do and rules. Find happiness now."
I needed to hear those words exactly at that moment. That week I'd allowed myself to become so wrapped up and consumed with my to-do list, I'd forgotten the entire purpose behind those tasks and our existence: "Men are that they might have joy." While it's naive to think we'll be blissfully happy every moment of every day, I often get caught up so much in the minutia of living and all of the nit-picking of cultural rules Mormons often set for themselves that I forget the important commandments. When did I last take time to love God, love others, love myself, and love the life God has given me?
I am a strong believer that heaven is what we make of it. If we can't find happiness now with all the blessings God has given to us, then all the blessings in heaven won't make a difference. Grace, gifts from God, and joy in the gospel come when we learn to truly appreciate the tiny moments we often take for granted.
Here and now is a miracle. Here and now can be heaven, as long as I'm willing to make it that way.
And to think I learned all of this about my own faith from a man who hates my faith. To think if I would have turned away, fought back, or refused to listen, I would have missed out on this divine message my Heavenly Father was teaching me through one of the most unconventional angels I've ever met.