Update: Todd Coontz Is “Shocked” to Find He Spent a Lot of Money on Himself

January 17, 2018

While I was away, I missed some important developments in the saga of “Dr.” Todd Coontz, the South Carolina-based televangelist I have written about previously. I put the “Dr.” in quotations because, although Mr. Coontz uses the honorific, there is no evidence he has a doctorate in any subject–he has an MS in Agriculture from Texas A&M University (Gig ’em, Aggies!).

The preacher lived a life of luxury. But the feds just indicted him on tax fraud.

In case you don’t remember “Dr.” Todd:

Coontz was the minister of Rock Wealth International Ministries from 2010 to 2014, according to the indictment. He authored numerous books on faith and finances, also including “Breaking the Spirit of Debt” and “7 Most Common Money Mistakes   and How To Avoid Them.”

He also operated the for-profit companies Legacy Media and Coontz Investments and Insurance, according to the indictment.

Specifically, “the indictment charges the 50-year-old Coontz with three counts of failure to pay taxes [perhaps that’s the triple favor] and four counts of aiding and assisting in the filing of false tax returns.”

I hadn’t realized he stopped being the “minister” at Rock Wealth in 2014. It seems he has relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he runs the Dominion Family Worship Center. As far as I can tell, he’s still running Rock Wealth, but apparently his title there has changed. But I digress.

Some interesting details in the indictment:

William Todd Coontz enjoyed a life of luxury, federal prosecutors contend, by claiming as business expenses the $1.5 million condo he and his family lived in as their parsonage and the luxury vehicles they drove, including three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Land Rover.

He also claimed a Regal 2500 boat, 400 charges at movie theaters, $228,000 in clothing purchases and $140,000 in meals and other entertainment as business expenses with no proof the expenses were for business, according to a federal criminal bill of indictment returned by a grand jury in Charlotte on Thursday.

He spent $21,000 at designer jewelry store David Yurman and $14,000 at Diamonds Direct jewelry store, the indictment said. …

“This is a classic example of ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ ” U.S. Attorney Jill Rose said in announcing the charges. “As a minister, Coontz preached about receiving and managing wealth, yet he failed to keep his own finances in order. Coontz will now receive a first-hand lesson in ‘rendering unto Caesar’ that which is due.”

I recognize that prosecutors often employ some rhetorical flourishes when announcing indictments, but I have to disagree with Ms. Rose: As I have noted in previous posts, “Dr.” Todd has been pretty open about why he wants your money and what he’s going to do with it. Despite a few throwaway lines about giving to missionary funds, he basically promises to take your money and pray for you in return. Here’s what you get for a $1,000 donation:

As a treasured Partner, you also share in the anointing and financial mantle on Dr. Todd’s life as he agrees to faithfully pray for you, your family, and your finances on a daily basis.

Again, he gets $1,000 to further his “anointing and financial mantle, which apparently involves cars, boats, jewelry, clothing, and a lot of dinners and movies. You get prayers. One would hope he has enough integrity to say a half-hearted “bless my donors” prayer once in a while, but that might be too much to ask for.

Of course, the good preacher denies any wrongdoing:

Coontz “unequivocally asserts his innocence … and will vigorously defend himself against these charges,” his lawyer, Mark Foster of Charlotte, said in a statement. “Todd Coontz has always endeavored to follow the law and to be a good citizen, father, and minister. He trusted others to manage his finances and taxes for him and was shocked to find out he was under criminal investigation by the IRS.

Blaming the accountants is a time-honored tactic when facing tax-evasion charges, but it doesn’t square with the facts of the case:

The indictment accuses Coontz of a check-cashing scheme involving travel reimbursements for speaking appearances and for book sales.

Coontz regularly traveled to speak at various ministries that generally paid him a speaking fee and his travel expenses. The indictment said Coontz hid income from the IRS by claiming the travel as a business expense while using reimbursements as personal income.

To conceal the payments, Coontz told his travel assistant to have the ministries make the reimbursement checks payable to “Todd Coontz” and to send the checks to his personal address. Coontz then cashed the checks, the indictment said.

Coontz also told his travel assistant to bill the churches for a full fare first-class ticket, although the tickets cost “substantially less,” the indictment said.

He is accused of concealing and cashing 102 checks from 2010 through 2013 for travel reimbursements, speeches and books and other products totaling about $252,000. In 2014, he cashed 32 checks totaling about $105,500 that also were not reflected in his accounting records, the indictment said.

Basically, Coontz was double-dipping: claiming business expenses as a deduction at the same time he was being reimbursed–at an inflated rate–for those same expenses; he then deposited the reimbursement checks in his personal accounts without declaring them as income. Sorry, but he can’t claim to be an expert in finance and investing and then say he’s shocked at illegal activities because “trusted others to manage his finances and taxes for him.”

I’m not shocked, nor should anyone familiar with this smarmy leech. He’ll have his day in court, and he must be presumed innocent by the judge and jury, but if the government has a paper trail for the charges, he may have to live with “the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others” from a prison cell.

 

 

 

 

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Come on in, the water’s fine

October 4, 2016

A number of years ago, a Mormon guy told me I was “the worst kind of anti-Mormon there is.” Why? Because I pretended to be reasonable, fair, and well-intentioned (apparently, I’m none of those things) in an effort to tear the LDS church down, one member at a time. He continued, “You’re basically someone standing in a pool full of sharks saying, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine!'”

At the time that really bothered me because I have never intended to draw anyone out of the LDS church. Looking back on the heartache I went through when I went through my “crisis of faith,” I think my main concern was that I wanted someone–anyone, really–to understand what I was going through and why, and to tell me I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just “looking for excuses to leave.” Really, I wanted validation, and of course, that kind of validation is impossible to obtain from believing church members. Predictably, I received quite a lot of negative responses, and the only validation I got was from people who had been through the experience before me.

I didn’t watch LDS general conference this last weekend, but I see that a lot of people are talking about a talk from M. Russell Ballard wherein he discussed the safety and spiritual benefit of staying in the church compared to the lack of these things “the world” offers. I don’t have the transcript of the talk, so I’ll just quote from the Deseret News summary:

To these members, Elder Ballard asked, like Peter, “To whom shall [you] go?” The decision to leave the Church can have a long-term impact that can’t be seen at the moment.

He said, “If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.”

Elder Ballard urged members, “Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.”

Before making the spiritually perilous choice to leave, Elder Ballard encouraged members “to stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth.”

The organization, doctrine and teachings found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be found in no other place, Elder Ballard said.

Accepting and living the gospel of Christ can be challenging, as it has always been. Elder Ballard said, “Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace.” Not every hiker needs to stop, and there is nothing wrong with doing so if circumstances require a break. The danger comes when someone decides to leave the trail entirely.

If I had read that back when I was going through the turmoil of collapsing faith, I probably would have been hurt and angry. Indeed, back at that time I wrote a parable about those who were telling me I had to “get with the program” and go back to church, despite what I knew:

There once was a boy who lived all his life with a cardboard box over his head. His parents taught him that he should never take the box off, for doing so was dangerous and foolish. The box protected him from the scary world outside of it.

On the inside of the box, he could make out some letters, and he could see the outlines of the box around him. His world was brown cardboard. His parents taught him to study the inside of the box carefully, for in it it was all the wisdom he needed to navigate life. Inside the box was security and safety. Inside the box was reality.

Some of his friends told him that they had taken off the box and life was much better, but he didn’t believe them. His parents made sure he stayed away from these people, who clearly wanted only to hurt their boy.

But as he grew older, he found that he kept bumping into sharp and painful objects that he couldn’t see because of the box. His parents told him that those things weren’t real, that he was safest and happiest inside the box. But each day brought more injury as he seemed to constantly run into painful things.

“Just take the box off so you can see where you’re going,” said his friends.

“No! You can’t! You’ll hurt yourself, and you might even die!” warned his parents.

After too many painful days, he made up his mind to see what was out there on the other side of the box. The light hurt his eyes briefly, but after a moment, he could see colors and trees and sky. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined.

He looked around and saw his friends, who smiled at him and welcomed him to a better world. And then he saw them. His parents and friends came groping toward him, boxes on their heads.

He called out to them, “Take the boxes off! You’ll see that there’s so much more out here! Trust me!”

But his parents told him sadly, “We have failed as parents. All we ever wanted was for you to be happy, and now you’ve rejected us and everything we hold dear. Please, son. Put the box back on, for us. You’ll see that we know what’s best.”

“But Mom, Dad. It’s so beautiful out here, and the world is full of possibilities. Can’t you just lift the box, if only for a moment? You’ll see that I’m telling you the truth.”

His parents turned sadly and told their friends, “We have lost our son. Let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens when you take off the box.”

And they groped their way slowly away from the shining sun.

But these days, the pain has long passed, and I don’t worry about what people say about me. I don’t often think about the differences in my life after leaving the church, but it strikes me that, as I wrote in the parable, I have a much broader perspective about life and my place in it.

As a church member, I always viewed life as “us” (members of the church) and “them” (the world outside the safe environs of God’s kingdom). I was taught all my life that life outside the church was rudderless, morality-free, and scary. If I didn’t have the church, what would become of me? I still shake my head at those who have told me that, without the gospel in their lives, they are sure they would be drug addicts or sex addicts or in prison, or something. Maybe we were taught that who we are deep inside–the natural man–is evil, an enemy to God. I certainly internalized that.

I will say that leaving the church left me feeling pretty vulnerable, without what I call the superstructure of the church, its practices and worldview, through which to frame and experience life. But this ended up being a good thing. I was forced to dig deep inside and figure out who I am and what I believe (hint: what I found isn’t evil or an enemy to God). I was forced to deal with people as people, not as members and non-members. It never occurred to me until I left the church that I had put up walls between myself and non-members; it wasn’t that I was shutting them out, but I always saw my relationships with them in terms of their possible interest in the church. (How crazy is it that for about 2 years, I found myself thinking “that guy would really benefit from joining the church”?)

And I’ve discussed elsewhere my battle with depression (and a suicide attempt) in the wake of my faith crisis, but even that turned out to be a real “blessing,” if I’m allowed to use that word. As a church member, I had spent my whole life telling myself how happy I was because of the church. Happiness was keeping the commandments, and I was keeping the commandments. Therefore, I was happy, end of story. But I learned subsequently that I’d been clinically depressed for many years, but it was impossible to admit that because I was so focused on telling myself how happy I was.

So, yes, it’s been an interesting journey, one filled equally with pain and joy, but I wouldn’t trade it for what Elder Ballard is offering. Not a chance. Mormonism works for some people, I get that. But, unfortunately, it’s a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, and nothing fits everyone properly. (Of course, it doesn’t help that the foundational claims of the church do not hold up to minimal scrutiny.)

You see, the life I had before was the life Elder Ballard and his fellows had prescribed for me. I was following their script, not mine. And it didn’t work. But rather than rebel against it, I had just denied who I was and tried to become the character in the play they had written for me. But who I was slowly faded into the background, and I sometimes wonder if there would have been anything left that was “me” had I stayed on that path.

While I was going through the turmoil of those days, I found an excellent therapist in Utah who understood what I was going through. She told me something that changed my life: “You have to get to the point where living a happy and authentic life is more important than any relationship.” This was completely opposite of what I had been taught all my life: put everyone else first, not least the church and God; subordinate your will to God and His prophets. Authenticity means being true to yourself, but the gospel is about denying yourself.

So, to whom shall we go when we leave the church? Does it matter? We go where our heart, our brain, our conscience takes us, and we find a happy and authentic life. Elder Ballard seems to be suggesting, as my mother would about people breaking the Sabbath, that people who leave only “look happy” but aren’t really happy.

But we are. I am, anyway.

So, yes, come on in, the water’s fine!


No Way Out?

September 1, 2016

I was thinking this morning about my long struggle with depression. For most of my life, I just lived with it, undiagnosed and untreated, and I’m convinced a lot of that had to do with my belief that being a member of the LDS church and keeping the commandments made one “happy.” I was doing what I was supposed to do and trying to nurture a relationship with God, so I told myself I was happy because happiness naturally follows the kind of life I was living. On the rare occasions I admitted how bad things were, I just blamed myself for not being faithful enough and not being content with my blessings.

I was miserable. Sometimes I hated myself so much I contemplated suicide. Ironically, what kept me from making the attempt was my belief that, even if I killed myself, it wouldn’t be the end. I’d just be sitting there in the spirit world, as unhappy and self-loathing as ever. So, what would have been the point?

Obviously, the reality of my life didn’t match what the church told me my life should be. I just accepted that my life was as good as it was going to get, and that meant I was happy. Perhaps, I thought, this was what happiness was, and people who weren’t living like that must be even worse off than I was. Essentially, I didn’t know what happiness was because I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve said before that it wasn’t until after my loss of faith that I was able to acknowledge and treat my depression. Of course, it took a suicide attempt to get there. I stopped telling myself I was happy, and it was easy to recognize that the words had always been empty. I found a good therapist and got on the right mix of medications.

I finally decided that happiness is being comfortable in your own skin, enjoying your life without constantly feeling you need to do better. Self-improvement is a worthy goal, but I think we were caught in the trap of never stepping back to appreciate how far we’d come. There was always some other imperfection or failing we had to address. And I guess by “we” I mean “me.”

Life is good.

Sorry I’ve been so busy that I haven’t gotten back to the novel, but I will. I promise.


Oh, Inverted Y

June 6, 2016

I’ve been ill, so things have slowed down on the story, but it’s coming. In the meantime, as with many of you, recent events at Brigham Young University have left me wondering how to express my unhappiness at my alma mater. I decided on something simple: the Oval Y logo inverted. If you attended BYU and want to express your support for academic freedom, unlinking the honor code from criminal investigations, and ending the practice of expelling those who go through a faith change, the inverted Y is not a bad way to do it. I’m kind of hoping it catches on.

oval_y_blue

I have mixed emotions about BYU. Having spent 7 years there as an undergrad and grad student, I have wonderful memories of good friends, students and professors, and great experiences at “The Y.” I have close family members who are employed by BYU or who attend the university, and I love them and wish them the best.

Some might say that speaking out about these issues shows disloyalty, but I think a loyal alumnus helps the university become that much better by encouraging positive change and growth.

So, if you would like to spread this graphic around as a sign of solidarity, feel free.

Thanks.


The Incidental Prophet, Part 6

May 10, 2016

My second full day on the ranch was a Sunday. My family honored the Sabbath by doing only necessary work on Sundays, such as milking the cows, gathering eggs, and irrigating the fields if our water turn happened to come on Sunday. Grandma woke me early and informed me over breakfast that church started at 10:00, so I must be finished with my chores, washed, and dressed for church by 9:15.

“I’m going to have you feed the lambs, since you already know how to do it,” she said.

“How am I supposed to know how much water and milk powder to mix?” I said, a little concerned.

“It tells you right on the bag. I’ve already got some water heating on the stove for you.”

I slowly carried the hot pan of water into the washroom and mixed it with some cold water in a can someone had set out for me. Grandma had said you could tell it was the right temperature if you could stick your finger into it and feel it was pretty close to your body temperature.

It took a little trial and error, but eventually I got the temperature right. I spilled too much of the mix on the floor, but eventually I got it to where it looked (and smelled) about right.

It was another beautiful morning, and even though it was June, I see my breath as I carried the wooden crate of bottles out to the lamb enclosure, traces of frost still clinging to some of the grass that was growing outside the fence line.

Once again, the lambs came running as soon as I approached. For a moment I thought how good it felt to be wanted and needed, but then I realized it was more about the milk. They had it easy, I thought: just show up and be fed. Of course, they had no idea their destiny was to end up supplying wool for sweaters or, worse, a nice Easter dinner with Grandma’s mint jelly on the side. But then it was their duty to fill the role they were born for, and I knew it was mine, too.

I got back to the house just as Grandma came in with a basket of fresh eggs. “Go wash up and put on your Sunday clothes,” she said. “I’ll fix some breakfast.”

I was hungry, so I washed quickly, combed my hair and put on a white shirt, a tie my dad had given me when I was ordained a deacon a couple of years earlier, and my Sunday slacks. I gave my shoes a light rub with my dirty shirt, and headed into the kitchen, where Grandma was putting two “eggs in a basket” on my plate. She knew this was one of my favorites: a slice of white bread with a hole cut in the center, an egg dropped in, and the whole thing fried in butter.

“Let me get a look at you,” Grandma said, suspiciously. “No, that won’t do.”

She went to the sink and retrieved a dishcloth and some soap. By the time she finished scrubbing my face, neck, ears, arms, and hands, my skin felt raw and tingled.

“Didn’t your mother teach you how to wash up?” she said, knowing full well the answer.

“Sorry, Grandma,” I said as I dug into the eggs.

“Things will be different for you here,” she said. “This is my place, and you do what I say.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said sheepishly, taking a sip of milk.

After breakfast, I put the dishes in the sink to soak, and Grandma and I walked out to the truck.

“Any of you fellas coming?” she shouted towards the bunkhouse, where some of the hands were sitting on the stoop, looking like they were just barely awake.

I was surprised when Lyme walked out, dressed in a clean white shirt, tie, and slacks.

“Since it’s just the three of us, we can all sit in the cab,” Grandma said. “You drive, Lyme.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, taking the keys.

We drove for what seemed a long time until we reached a collection of houses bordered by a gas pump and store, and a small clapboard church. “Burr Ridge Ward” read the words over a stylized beehive carved in a sandstone frame over the church door. Dad had showed me when I was a boy the remnants of a square and compass that had once adorned either side of the beehive but had for some mysterious reason been sanded off. I never knew why, but Dad had just said, “I guess it’s considered too sacred now, but they used to be on every church building you’d see.” I wasn’t sure why those carvings were supposed to be sacred, but he said I’d understand someday.

We arrived too late for priesthood meeting, but Grandma said she’d let me drive the truck in once she was sure she could trust me. So, we started out with sacrament meeting, where we would partake of the emblems of the body and blood of Christ–bread and water, because wine was forbidden to Mormons.

Church was pretty much like it was at home. Because I was a visitor, I was asked to stand and introduce myself. I’ve always been uncomfortable in front of people, so I stammered a little and could feel my face going red.

Grandma stood. “This is my grandson, William, who is spending the summer here from Utah.” she said smiling and patting me on the shoulder. “Oh, but he likes to be called Will.” My face went even redder.

“Well, welcome!” said Bishop Carver, a large, red-faced man with unruly brown hair that he had unsuccessfully tried to comb into something presentable. “We’re glad you’re here.”

In those days, particularly in small congregations, meetings would have only one speaker. Today’s speaker was Lazarus Menlove, a spindly looking man with a long, sloping nose and ears that poked out perpendicular to his head.

“Brothers and sisters,” he began, louder than I had imagined someone so physically unimposing could be. “I want you to know that we live in a day of miracles! I reckon most of us think those days are gone by, that miracles happened in Jesus’ time or with the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I’m here to tell you we have the same privilege of receiving miraculous answers to our prayers in the present, even today.”

This sounded promising, as I’d never heard of anyone speaking of miracles in our midst, especially not in a tiny hamlet like Burr Ridge. Looking around the congregation, I got the distinct impression that no one else in the chapel was buying any of it. A couple of attractive girls who looked to be roughly my age were whispering and giggling, until they saw I was looking. The one turned away, embarrassed, her face as red as her hair. The other girl, who had hair as black as obsidian, stared right back at me with blue eyes that looked like she could see right through me. For a moment I thought she had smiled at me, but I couldn’t be sure. Then she looked down and pretended to find something interesting about the hymnbook.

“I thought I was going to lose both the ewe and the lamb!” Lazarus was nearly shouting. “But it weren’t no use. The lamb was coming feet first, and it was all I could do not to tear the mama apart getting it out.”

Well, that was something you didn’t hear often in church.

“I reached my arm inside the ewe, and there was blood ever’where,” Lazarus continued, as I stared, spellbound.

“The pore little lamb was all blue and still, and the mama was just wailin’ in that way you’ve all heard, as if she was going through the fires of hell.”

I for one hadn’t heard anything like that before.

“Then all on a sudden, I knew what I had to do,” he said, his face looking rapturous. “I laid my blood-soaked hands on that mama ewe and called down the blessings of heaven by the authority of the priesthood I hold.”

Grandma was shaking her head in disapproval, but I couldn’t look away. He had me, as if a light were shining in his countenance.

“I’d no sooner said ‘Amen’ when the spirit told me to reach my hands inside the mama ewe one more time. She’d lost a lot of blood, but like Nephi of old, I knew better than to question the workings of the spirit.”

I would have given anything to feel the workings of the spirit, but I would have to rely on people like Lazarus for the time being.

“I shoved both my arms into the mama, up to my elbows, and tugged hard as I could. Suddenly, the lamb shifted and, verily, it came sliding on out.”

That was a heck of a story, I thought. But he wasn’t done yet.

“I knew I’d saved that ewe, but the lamb was dead. Beyond hope,” he said almost in a whisper, looking directly at me. “But the Lord wasn’t going to let me lose that lamb, too. I laid my hands on that lamb and commanded it to live.”

He paused for what seemed like an hour. I had to know. What had happened?

“Why, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’a been there, but that lamb started jerking, coughed out a bit of blood, and stood on its feet jus’ like it was a prize-winner at the fair. I think it might be the best-looking lamb of the spring.”

Grandma sighed, and as I turned, I saw her roll her eyes a bit.

After the meeting, she went directly to the bishop and said, “Well, I am quite sure the Lord isn’t pleased to hear such–well, indelicate–talk in his house on his day.”

“Now, Sister Murdock,” he said, patting her hand and chuckling. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Well, that man needs a good talking to,” she said.

Grandma looked annoyed, but she took my arm and said, “It’s time for lunch.”

Back in Utah, we would walk home after sacrament meeting and have lunch before returning in the afternoon for Sunday School. But there wasn’t time to drive all the way back to the ranch, so she had packed some sandwiches and lemonade in a basket, which she had me retrieve from the back of the truck.

She spread out a blanket, and she handed me a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper–liverwurst, Grandma’s favorite. Not mine, but it wasn’t bad. Grandma noticed Lyme sitting alone under a poplar tree, so she called out, “Get on over here! We can’t have you starving, now, can we?”

Lyme looked a little embarrassed but took a sandwich.

“Come on!” Grandma said, patting the blanket. “Sit down and eat with us! My goodness, you needn’t fear us, young man.”

Lyme looked quite flustered now, but he sat down obediently, and Grandma poured lemonade into two paper cups for us.

“What did you think of the meeting?” she asked me.

“Well,” I said hesitantly, trying to chew my sandwich. “Is it always like that? I mean, with all the gory details and blood and that?”

Lyme laughed, a little bit of sandwich escaping his lips.

“Oh, no,” Grandma said. “I’m afraid you got we here call the baptism by Menlove. I do not know what goes through that man’s head. Just wait until Fast Sunday! Hardly anyone gets a word in edgewise once old Brother Menlove gets a-going.”

Fast Sunday, of course, was the first Sunday of the month, when we would fast for two meals–usually supper the night before and then breakfast. There were no speakers scheduled on Fast Sunday, but the bishop would get the meeting started by “bearing testimony,” which is a Mormon tradition of sharing one’s faith, but no one ever said, “I believe.” It was always, “I know.”

“I know God lives.”

“I know Jesus is the Christ, who died for my sins.”

“I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”

“I know David O. McKay is a prophet of God on earth today.”

I always wanted to know, but so far, I couldn’t say I knew any of that for certain. Fortunately, bearing testimony also involved giving thanks for the blessings in our lives.

“I’m thankful for my parents.”

“I’m thankful for my sister.”

“I’m thankful for the bishop.”

These things I could do. It was the knowing part that threw me off.

But every congregation had at least one person who would deviate from the script, and you never knew what was going to happen. Clearly, Lazarus Menlove was this ward’s wild card.

Sunday School was uneventful. Once again, I had to introduce myself, but no one seemed particularly interested in me. A couple of boys my age sat in the back while the teacher, a stout, middle-aged woman, struggled to maintain control while teaching us about Helaman leading his 2,000 “stripling warriors” into battle. I had always thought this was one of the most exciting parts of the Book of Mormon, but no one else appeared to be listening. The teacher seemed surprised and grateful that I was paying attention.

The dark-haired girl I had seen earlier sat in front of me, and I really wanted to see her eyes again. There was something about them. But she never even glanced in my direction.

After church, Grandma served us a supper of pot roast, which had been cooking in a dutch oven over the fire all day. After supper, we sat on wooden chairs on the porch, both of us holding either side of Grandma’s Book of Mormon. I started reading, while she sat quietly, eyes closed and smiling.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

I’d never read the Book of Mormon all the way through, cover to cover, but I knew a lot of the stories. I knew with Grandma’s help, we’d get through it together.

At the end of the first chapter, Grandma closed the book, and we knelt again to pray.

“Your turn,” she said, smiling.

I don’t know what it was, but the words just poured out of me, and I pleaded with Heavenly Father to help me know like Grandma knew, like the people in church knew, like Joseph Smith had known.

As I helped Grandma to her feet, she hugged me and said, “Oh, my boy, you too are highly favored of the Lord. Like everyone else in this world, you’ll pass through afflictions, but you will know. You will.”


The Incidental Prophet – Chapter 2

April 7, 2016

The mountain was all I had expected it to be: the wind was blowing in intermittent but powerful gusts as I stood on the bare rock–at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, Nebo rises up far above the timberline. Buttoning my coat against the cold, I looked out on Utah Valley to the north, the smoking stacks of the massive new steel mill reflected in the green-tinged lake to the west.

Every time we had driven past Geneva Steel, my dad had grinned proudly and said, “That’s what progress looks like, son.” I thought it just smelled bad and covered the valley with a rust-colored blanket of smoke. Built during the war to be close to Utah’s coal mines but out of range of Japanese or German bombers, Geneva had brought industry to what had previously been a sleepy Utah valley that had been home to a small college and not much else.

To the south lay Juab Valley, at its center Nephi, a small town named after a Book of Mormon prophet known for cutting off a drunken man’s head and stealing the brass plates on which the books of the Old Testament were written. Quiet and only sparsely populated, Nephi was probably what Provo had been before the steel mill arrived, though I wasn’t sure because I was too young to notice then. But it did seem like the perfect place to hide for someone who had just chopped off a fellow’s head and stolen his scriptures.

I kept looking back and forth at the two valleys, and I thought, Here at the summit I am master of both worlds: the rural, slow-paced past, and the exciting, albeit murky and smoke-filled, future.

“Wake up!” Mom opened the door.

“Aw, Mom, it’s not time for church yet,” I muttered, wiping the crumbs from the corners of my eyes (Dad always called it “eyebread,” for some reason, and it made him laugh).

“The bishop just called.” I hadn’t heard the phone ring. “He wants you to come in early and talk about your baptism.”

I would be turning 8 in 2 weeks, and as every Mormon knows, turning 8 is a big deal. According to the scriptures revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, at 8 you become “accountable” for your sins, and thus you need baptism to wash away your transgressions. From that point onward, you had to watch yourself, and repent whenever you fell short. Otherwise, you’d have to answer for those sins at the judgment day.

I never told anyone, but the thought of having even one unrepented sin scared me to death. We would sing in sacrament meetings on Sunday about Jesus, “for me, a sinner, He suffered, He bled and died.” Even though we didn’t have crosses in our churches and homes, I could picture in my mind Jesus in agony on the cross, gazing down on me as if disappointed that I hadn’t taken advantage of his sacrifice for my sins.

Mom seemed to take extra care that morning scrubbing my face, and even behind my ears, straightening my clip-on bowtie, and combing my hair into a brylcreemed slick.

The church was a new red-brick building just around the corner from our house, but I always took the shortcut past the chicken coop in our backyard and around the crab-apple tree by the fence.

I walked into the quiet church–priesthood meeting had ended, and the men had gone home to fetch their families for Sunday School–and sat down on a padded bench in the hallway outside the bishop’s office. A little lightbulb labeled “Bishop in counsel” glowed orange, so I knew not to knock on the door.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and Sister Henry came out, wiping tears from her eyes, as the bishop patted her shoulder and said, “We’ll talk again.”

Was I going to come out in tears? I hadn’t given it much thought, but suddenly I was terrified at the prospect of having to confess all my sins to this man who I knew had been called as a Judge in Israel. Could I even remember them all? If I missed even one, the bishop would know. That was his job.

I could see Jesus in my mind, shaking his head sadly at me.

“Come in, young man!” the bishop said, beaming. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all.

“You’ve got an important date coming up, haven’t you, son?”

“Yes, sir,” I said trying not to look as frightened as I was.

“I’m sure you know all about baptism and what happens, right?”

“Yes, sir, you get dressed in white, and you go into a big bathtub, and a priesthood holder says a prayer and then dunks you in the water. After that, you don’t have any more sins.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much it,” he said, stifling a laugh. “It’s a big step, and we are here to make sure you’re ready for it.”

“Oh, I know I’m ready, sir. I want to be washed of my sins.” I didn’t mention how scared I was of having to repent perpetually ever after.

“That’s good!” he said. “And do you know what happens after you get baptized?”

“Uh, you get confirmed, right?” I didn’t quite understand that word, but I knew it meant you would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

“Well, yes, they do call it a confirmation, but the important part is that the Holy Spirit will begin working in you, and that’s very important.”

“Um, yes, I know,” I spluttered.

“The reason why it’s so important is that it’s the Holy Ghost who tries to keep you out of trouble and helps you repent when you sin. You see, once you have the Holy Ghost with you, you’re never alone, unless you drive him away. Strive to keep him in your heart and your mind, and he’ll help you come safely home to your Heavenly Father.”

It actually made me feel better knowing this. If I just did what I was supposed to do, the Holy Ghost would guide me through life, and I wouldn’t have to be afraid of messing up. I felt forgiven already, and I hadn’t even been baptized yet.

After that, the bishop filled out a form with my name, birth date, parents’ names, and other important stuff, which he said would be sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake and kept forever to show that I had joined the kingdom of God on earth.

That would have scared me to death before, but suddenly I was excited and happy to be taking on this responsibility, and I walked home without even noticing my surroundings.

A few days before the baptism, a bright green convertible, with its top closed, unexpectedly pulled up to our house. It was my uncle Bob all the way from Montana, where he managed the family’s large cattle ranch since my grandfather had died. Bob was wearing an odd, cream-colored suit and matching fedora. His wife, Gloria, climbed out of the passenger’s seat dressed in a red-and-white sundress with matching hat and sunglasses. Her skin looked almost orange and slightly leathery, her hair much blonder than I had remembered. I figured it must have been the weather up there.

“Howdy, young man!” Bob shook my hand vigorously. “Where’s your dad?”

“He’s out plowing the 51 acres,” I said.

“Well, we’ll catch up with him later,” Bob said, already striding towards the front door.

“Will? Is that you?” called a voice from the back seat of the car.

“Grandma!” I yelled, clambering over the seat and throwing my arms around her neck.

“Oh, my wee one, I’m so glad to see ye!” she said amidst hugs and kisses. She’d never completely lost that lilting rural Scottish accent.

Grandma was the best. She made it clear that when she was around, we were her sole focus in life. “Why do you think Heavenly Father gave me such a big lap if not for grandchildren to sit on?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

Looking back, she was the one person in my life who never needed me to live up to her expectations. Dad wanted me to be a hard worker, and Mom wanted me to strive for greatness, but Grandma loved me no matter what, and I knew it.

By the time Dad got home, Uncle Bob was reading the Deseret News, his feet on the ottoman, while Aunt Gloria did a crossword puzzle in the corner of the sitting room. Ellen was helping Mom peel potatoes, and I was at the other end of our sitting room, at the table with Grandma, shelling the latest batch of peas from the garden. Grandma pretended not to notice that almost as many peas went into my mouth as into the bowl.

“Whew, you smell almost as bad as you look,” Bob laughed, pointing at my dad.

“That’s what hard work smells like,” my dad said, not really looking up as he walked toward the kitchen.

“I know,” Bob said, pretending to be offended, “but at least you shouldn’t bring it in the house with you.”

Dad wiped his face with his handkerchief and leaned to kiss and hug Grandma.

“I’ve missed you so much, son,” she said, a little teary-eyed. “I wish you weren’t so far away.”

“I know, Mother,” he said, holding her tightly. “Maybe someday we’ll all be close together again. I just don’t think circumstances are right.”

After dinner, Dad and Uncle Bob sat at the table, talking about the ranch.

“Well, I don’t get out there all that often,” Bob said, “but my foreman keeps me abreast of what’s going on.”

“You’ve got to be more involved, or we might lose it,” Dad said, looking a little, well, fierce might be the right word.

The ranch in Montana was always a sort of mystery to me. Dad’s maternal grandfather, Daniel McCurdie, had been a miner in Scotland, when he and his wife had met Mormon missionaries sometime around 1870. At that time, those who joined the Mormon church–officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–were expected to gather to Utah to prepare for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Great-grandfather McCurdie, being a poor man with seven daughters, could not afford to relocate his entire family, so he and his wife, Mary, decided that he would leave for Utah and then send for the rest of the family when he had saved some money. In the meantime, Mary and her daughters moved to Glasgow, where they worked in a lace factory.

Daniel McCurdie was a hard worker, but he was an even harder drinker. Arriving in Utah, he secured work in the Park City Silver mine, and ended up with quite a few shares of what would become a very lucrative enterprise–only to lose them in a drunken poker game. Scraping up whatever money he didn’t drink, Daniel finally began sending money back to Scotland. By this time, the oldest daughter had married outside the Mormon faith and had chosen to stay in Scotland.

It took about 10 years before Mary was finally able to leave with her two youngest daughters–Grandma Grace McCurdie and her younger sister Annie–to cross the ocean to America. Grandma always said she was glad they had to wait, as her sisters had to walk across the plains, whereas she traveled in style in a railroad train.

Once Mary had arrived in Utah, she laid down the law with Daniel: no more drinking (well, not as much, anyway), and they were going to be proper farmers. They spent a couple of years saving up to buy the properties in Spring Lake, a tiny settlement built around a pond that somehow was called a lake, and then they loaded all their possessions in a single wagon and walked the 60 or so miles to their new home.

Despite their properties not all adjoining each other, Daniel and Mary managed to provide for their large family, and eventually they built the small, two-bedroom clapboard home where we now lived.

Grandma was the last of the daughters to marry, her sister Annie having died of something referred to as “summer complaint.” She met Grandpa Murdock when she was working at the small community store just west of the lake, and he was passing through on his way from St. George heading north to homestead in Montana.

He was quite taken with her, and he immediately made up a story about needing to rest his horses for a couple of days. They were inseparable while he was in town, and when he left, he kissed her on her cheek and said, “I’ll be back for you in the spring.” She blushed deep red, but she hoped he had meant it. True to his word, he had returned in April and asked for her hand. They married in the Salt Lake temple and honeymooned during the trip to Montana.

Grandma said that growing up on a small farm had not quite prepared her for living on a large cattle ranch, and she did not enjoy the harsh Montana winters at all. But Grandpa Murdock was not only a skilled rancher but an astute businessman, and soon he was the owner of the largest ranch in western Montana.

Dad was the firstborn, and Bob came a couple of years later. A younger sister, Ellen, lived only a few months, which broke Grandma’s heart. Dad said his father pushed him hard, telling him that he needed to be strong and driven to someday take over the ranch. Bob, on the other hand, never showed much interest in the ranch, but always had some pipe dream about exploring the world or becoming a Pulitzer-winning journalist.

Dad worked hard on the ranch, but then Great-grandpa McCurdie died unexpectedly back in Utah. For some reason, when Grandma Murdock returned from the funeral, she encouraged Dad to leave Montana and take over the small farm and pastures in Spring Lake. I think he might have been disappointed, as if he was being put out to pasture literally, but he loved his mother, and once he got the old truck out of the barn and had it running, he packed a few bags and drove down to Utah to take care of his grandmother’s farm.

He may have thought it was just a temporary move, but the first time he walked into the tiny adobe church the settlers had built, he saw Moira, the daughter of Irish immigrants who lived a half-mile or so north of the lake. Theirs was a brief courtship, and soon they were married, and she moved into his grandmother’s house to set up household.

Even then, he always told Moira he was going to take her to Montana someday to live on the ranch, where they would have a better, more prosperous life. Somehow, even after Great-grandmother McCurdie died, they stayed put. Then I was born, and two years later, Ellen came along, named, of course, after Dad’s sister.

Then one day Dad received a phone call from Grandma Murdock, saying that there had been an accident, and Grandpa had been killed while driving in fence posts. After that, I don’t know much about what happened, as no one ever talked about it. All I knew is that, despite everything, Dad stayed on the farm in Utah, and Bob began running the ranch. It didn’t much matter to me, as I didn’t think I’d like living up there in the cold. We had spent a Christmas up there once, and we couldn’t even go outside the whole time because the winds just howled, and the snow blew horizontally like someone shooting cornflakes at your face. I hated it there, but being with Grandma made it bearable.

And now we were all together for my baptism. I tried to explain to Grandma how excited I was, and I told her all about the Holy Ghost and how it would keep me from doing bad things.

“Oh, hold on there,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ll make mistakes like everyone else does. Just remember to learn from your mistakes, and you’ll be just fine.”

Somehow that sounded less comforting than the bishop’s explanation.

“Who’s going to baptize the boy?” Uncle Bob asked casually. Why did they always refer to me as “the boy”?

“What do you mean?” Dad said suspiciously.

“Well, it’s not like you’re all that strong in the gospel,” Bob said, clearing his throat. I wondered what he was talking about.

“He’s my boy, and I’m going to baptize him,” Dad said, his jaw tight. “I hold the priesthood, and it’s my right.”

“Of course it is!” Bob said, a strange smile on his face. “No one is saying otherwise. I’m just wondering if he might do better with a more prominent priesthood line.”

“Just because you got ordained a high priest by an apostle, it doesn’t mean you’re better than me, not by a damn site!” Dad said hotly. “I was ordained to the priesthood by our father, and he was as good as any one of those old men in Salt Lake.”

“Quentin, I’ll not have you disparaging the Brethren,” Mom said in a voice I’d never heard before. “The boy will be baptized by his father, and that’s the end of it.”

“Why don’t we ask the boy?” Gloria said, looking up from her crossword.

“My father is baptizing me,” I said firmly, glaring at her and then at Uncle Bob.

“Well, that’s settled then,” Bob said, turning back to the paper. “Hmmm. They say the church might hit a million members this year. That’s something, huh?”

That Saturday afternoon, Dad and I left off our chores early. Dad took a second bath that day, and he came out of his bedroom shaved and neatly groomed and dressed.

“It’s your turn, Will,” Mom said, pulling me by the arm into the bathroom. I don’t think I was ever scrubbed that hard before or since, but eventually, I emerged pink and a little raw, dressed in a starched white shirt, creased dark slacks, and a real tie that Dad taught me how to tie.

As we walked past the crab-apple tree toward the church, I thought this was the last time I’d see that tree the same way. When I came back, I would be accountable, and I would do my best to stay away from sin.


The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

April 6, 2016

I’ve had some ideas in my head about writing a novel, and I thought I’d put it out here, first. So, I hope you enjoy what is essentially a running rough draft.

The Incidental Prophet, Chapter 1

I speak with God. As His servant and mouthpiece, I reveal His will to the world. Millions of people around the globe look to me as a prophet, seer, and revelator. But mostly I’m just full of crap. Twenty years ago I was called as an apostle, a “special witness of Jesus Christ,” and I still don’t know what that means, exactly. I haven’t had any special witness of anything, unless you count my glaring awareness of my weaknesses. It really tears me apart sometimes.

Every time I speak, millions hang on my every word, and they expect me to tell them what God has in store for them. I do my best, but I rarely feel inspired, and the words are always mine, not those of an unseen deity. But it doesn’t seem to matter much. No matter what I say, within hours someone has posted it on Twitter or Facebook, often superimposed on a beautiful picture with a flowing script. I cringe every time I see that, especially at my name so carefully placed at the end of the quote. It doesn’t help that every April and October, I’m on television around the world for what we Mormons call “general conference.” I have to be extremely careful, as everything I say ends up recorded and printed. Once I ad-libbed at the beginning of a general conference talk, and soon I was quoted everywhere: “Life is good.” – President William C. Murdock. How profound! How embarrassing!

When I enter a room, everyone stands and remains standing until I take my seat, and sometimes they keep standing until I tell them to sit. More often than not, they’re liable to break into a chorus of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still makes me more than a little uncomfortable, though I’ve trained myself to stop blushing when it happens.

It wasn’t always like this. My dad, who valued hard work and perseverance more than anything, never thought much of me, or so it seemed. Growing up on a farm in Spring Lake, Utah, where Dad grew hard red winter wheat and raised cattle on several acres of pasture, I thought I would end up farming all my life, but my mother had other ideas. Maybe it was sort of a good-cop-bad-cop thing, but as critical as my dad was of everything I did, my mom regularly reminded me that, at least according to her, I was destined for something important.

“Right now, he’s destined to bring the eggs in from the henhouse,” my dad chuckled. “I don’t know why the hell you have to fill his head with nonsense, Moira. He don’t have much of a head for anything, far as I can tell, so why set him up for a big fall?”

“Oh, hush, Quentin, and mind your language,” Mom said, folding me into her arms. “Will, you go on out and get the eggs, and then you get back to your homework.”

Even at age 7, I thought getting the eggs was a little beneath me. My sister Ellen, who was 5, was certainly capable of gathering a few eggs, but Mom was teaching her things girls needed to know, like sewing on a button or making Dad’s breakfast (it was always the same: Cream of Wheat, in a glass, with milk and pepper). And at that point, I didn’t understand why I still had homework in July, long after school had adjourned for the summer.

It was 1947, and for most people, things were finally starting to return to normal after the rationing and deprivations of wartime. We really hadn’t noticed the war much because, like a lot of our neighbors, we lived mostly off what the farm produced–eggs, milk, bread, beef, pork, and lamb. Mom had a huge vegetable garden out in front of the house. When it was our water turn, Dad would put the dam in the ditch that went along the side of the gravel road and open the gate to flood our front yard. We usually made boats out of newspaper and floated them around the yard.

“Won’t the garden drown?” asked Ellen, her freckled face looking genuinely concerned.

“No, dummy,” I said disgustedly. “The plants like the water. They need it.” Don’t girls know anything?

I liked watering days because they usually meant we didn’t have to weed for a couple of days until the mud dried enough. This day, however, it was time to harvest the peas, so Mom helped us put on our galoshes, and Ellen and I waded into the mud, each carrying a large wicker basket.

It was harder work than it seemed, as you had to pick the pods that were ready but take care not to disturb the smaller ones that we would come back for in a week or so. And of course, you had to avoid the geese, who were clearly not afraid of a little mud. Ellen was terrified of them, as we never knew when they would suddenly charge at us, wings flapping, neck stretching out straight, and squawking loudly with their beaks wide open. Mom always said it was worth putting up with their unpleasant temperament to have something nice to eat for the holidays. Whenever the geese came close to Ellen, I brushed them away with my basket.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” I said, though truthfully I was almost as afraid of them as she was.

We picked for a good hour until our baskets were full and our fingers were stained with green. “Let’s go, it’s almost dinnertime,” I said, and headed for the front door. On our farm, dinner was the big meal we ate at noon, while supper was the evening meal. At school they called it “lunch,” though I never understood why.

Then I heard Ellen sobbing behind me. I turned and saw that her rain boots were stuck fast in the mud. Her face was red–her blonde hair made it stand out all the more–and she was trying her hardest to hold back the tears, though they streamed out anyway.

I set my basket down on the lawn and went back to get her. “Now, you wait here while I get your basket over to the lawn.”

“Don’t leave me here!” she blubbered.

“It’s only for a second,” I said, laughing. “It’s not like I can set it down in the mud, silly.”

After depositing her basket on the lawn, I trudged back through the mud, turned around in front of her, and said, “Come on, I’ll carry you.”

I squatted down, and she climbed on my back, putting her arms around my neck.

“Not so tight! You’re choking me!” I sputtered, but she had me in a death-grip.

I pulled hard, and her feet popped out of the boots, one after the other.

“There! You’re out!” I said, as she gripped my neck even harder and then let out a sigh of relief as I carried her across the lawn.

We retrieved our baskets, and as we came to the porch, I could see Mom’s round face and pinned-back brown hair through the screen door. She opened the door and looked down at Ellen’s grass-stained socks. “Ellen! What have you done with your boots?”

Ellen started crying again, so I said, “It’s OK, Mom. They got stuck in the mud. I’ll go get them.”

Mom muttered something about teaching Ellen to wash socks, and I went back to the garden for the boots. The sun was shining warm on my face, and there was just enough breeze to deliver the delicate fragrance of alfalfa, which grew in the pasture across the street. I looked up at Mount Nebo, which rose up directly behind the neighbor’s horses, who were lazily nibbling on the purple and green alfalfa.

As long as I could remember, the mountain had seemed to call to me. I often pestered my dad to take me on a hike to the top, but he always begged off, “Not ’til you’re older, son.”

Someday I would be old enough, and the mountain would be mine.