|Chapel in the Provo Utah Central Stake Center (including a magnificent pipe organ)|
It's early afternoon on Sunday, April 19. I'm at home following wonderful--inspiring, empowering--Stake Conference meetings for the Provo Utah Central Stake. The following is not a detailed account but a few notes about some of the highlights.
First, some definitions and background:
Definition 1: "Stake" = an ecclesiastical unit in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comprising several wards (congregations).
Definition 2: "Stake Conference" = a series of meetings, usually held twice a year in a given stake, to which members of the stake are invited.
Some background: The Provo Utah Central Stake is one of the oldest stakes in the LDS Church. Established in the 1850s, it was the first in Utah Valley. All stakes now in the valley (and there are dozens of them) trace their origin back to this stake. That means that in the High Council room in our Stake Center are pictures of stake presidents going back to pioneer times (the 1850s). Since moving into the stake in 1983, I've served in various callings in the stake and wards in the stake, including counselor in the stake presidency from 1997-2007, with President Lewis Billings and then with President Brian Wolsey. Later (from 2009-2015) I served as bishop of ones of the wards in the stake.
I'm now an assistant clerk in my ward and also serve as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple.
On my own (temporarily)
I've been alone for the past few days, except for my 29-year-old son, who lives (more or less on his own) in our basement. My wife, Margaret Blair Young, left on Wednesday for an almost week-long trip to Denver and Seattle. She flew to Denver (staying with her sister Lisa), then left early Thursday morning for Seattle so she could attend a meeting titled "Women’s Leadership in the Great Lakes of Central Africa" sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Seattle. Speakers included Roger A. Meece, former ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Muadi Mekenge, program director for sub-Saharan Africa – Global Fund for Women; and Whitney Williams, Founder and CEO, williamsworks, and co-founder and vice chair of the board for Eastern Congo Initiative (a non-profit organization founded by Ben Affleck). Margaret had a great time, made important contacts, and learned more about the Congo (and learned that the speakers share her vision of the Congo and its potential).
How I was involved: I looked up the meeting partly to see where it was located so I could help Margaret find it (long distance, by phone). I noticed that registration for the meeting was required and wondered if Margaret had registered. She thought she had but wasn't sure.
So I called the World Affairs Council of Seattle about an hour and a half before the meeting was to start, discovered that she had joined the organization but not registered for the meeting (which was sold out), and told them she had flown there especially for the event and that it would be very sad if they didn't let her in. They told me they were pretty sure there would be at least one absence and that they should be able to admit her--which they did. I was happy to smooth the way for Margaret to make it to the meeting. She was in Seattle ONLY for that day and mainly for that one event.
Flying back to Denver was even more of an adventure. Snow had fallen in Denver. It took Margaret 3 hours (with the help of an airport worker) to find where she had parked her sister's car. Then it took another hour and a half (part of the time lost) to make it to her sister's house--at 5 or 6 in the morning. She got a few hours sleep and went on to have good days in Denver. On Saturday, she attended presentations given by her friends Terryl and Fiona Givens--about faith and doubt and the wonders of life. (The newspaper article linked here gives a flavor for what they're all about: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865566746/Scholars-Terryl-and-Fiona-Givens-discuss-life-love-and-their-new-book-The-God-Who-Weeps.html?pg=all,)
Margaret is still in Denver. She'll return on Tuesday, in time for her to join me in serving in the Provo Temple.
Like most men in the Church, I'm a home teacher: I visit the homes of several members, offer my help, and try to be their friend. I wanted to make sure the people I visit knew (and remembered) that we wouldn't have regular church meetings this weekend but would have stake conference instead. I started--a couple of days or so ago--by taking a letter from the stake presidency (copied in part below) to my home teaching companion, John Dalley. He was under the weather, so I left the letter with his dad.
|John Dalley (center) on the day of his baptism in Sept. 2014, with the sister missionaries on one side and me and Rod Elwood on the other.|
Later, while walking our dog, I found John outside and asked if we could visit some of our assigned families on Sunday. If all goes well, we'll be doing some of that today. This encounter with John--and later with people I visit as a home teacher--felt magical for a couple of reasons. The weather has been gorgeous, and it's nice to get out and about. The other reason is that it's often VERY hard to find these people--to find them at home or even get hold of them by phone. Running into John was the first in a series of magical moments.
I spent much of the day on Saturday in my pajamas, grading exams while (part of the time) watching selected episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. About 4:00 p.m. I got dressed and ready to locate some of the people I visit as a home teacher. I had called and texted the first one (who lives across the street) without getting a response. I knocked on her door, which started her dog barking, and hearing that (but not my knocking) brought her to the door and we had a nice conversation on her doorstep.
I then drove a couple of blocks away and knocked on another door, waking up another woman I visit, which led to another brief chat, at the end of which she was almost willing to smile. Then I drove to another woman's apartment. I called her (got no response), rang the doorbell, left a copy of the stake presidency's letter at her door, and was back in my car--when she pulled up behind me, just returning home along with her kids. We had a nice conversation and set up a possible time to meet on Monday.
By then, it was just about time to attend the Saturday evening session of Stake Conference. But to keep up the theme of magical encounters, I'll skip ahead to a post-meeting event. I went to a local grocery store to get a few supplies. Just as I was checking out, another woman I visit appeared, along with her son. This woman works at the grocery store and works the night shift (till midnight) all this week. So this really was the best way to visit with her. Her son (about 20 years old, stationed at Camp Lejeune) was here briefly because of his father's life-threatening hospitalization--so this was a rare chance for me to meet him. He asked me how he could arrange to have missionaries visit a friend of his in Spain, and so I could help him with that task, I gave him my phone number and e-mail address.
I don't know if I've effectively conveyed how these various encounters felt to me: they just seemed to fall into place. I was in the right place at several moments to see people it's usually much harder and more awkward to locate. I felt somehow that, by going out when I did, by having the desire to be out there and available, I had been allowed to play my part in a little episode of happy encounters, events that had lifted up all of us who were involved and strengthened our bonds.
I kept thinking--in connection with these encounters, but also the one young man's desire to contact missionaries and a host of other things I'm involved with--that when you feel the impulse to do something good, you need to do it. Resisting or putting things off is generally not a good thing. (This reminds me of Ivan Karamazov's resolve to report Smerdyakov's confession--but then his decision to put it off till the next day, a delay that proved to be fatal. You Brothers Karamazov fans out there will know what I'm talking about.)
This weekend's Stake Conference
So . . . before the grocery store trip, I attended the Saturday 6:00 p.m. adult session of Stake Conference. There were four speakers, President James Pettersson, Sister Tiffany Sorensen, Bishop Dana Dean, and President Edward Carter--each of whom gave very real, very genuinely felt and honestly expressed, very inspired and inspiring talks, the first three mainly about effectively using ward councils. I was especially affected by the last speaker, President Carter, our stake president, partly because he involved us in a discussion, partly because of the topic. Actually, he brought up several things, including some legal issues related to religious freedom (he's a journalism and legal scholar--has published articles about the Supreme Court, etc.--so he had some useful insights).
But the main topic was how the sacrament (the sacrament of the Lord's Supper) can help us achieve lasting conversion. The discussion was powerful and thought provoking. I got to stand and read some verses from 3 Nephi 18, one of which I had a hard time getting through because it struck me with great emotional force as I was reading it. (That verse is 11, the words of Jesus in connection with the wine to be drunk as part of the sacrament: "And this shall ye always do to those who repent and are baptized in my name; and ye shall do it in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you, that ye may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you." I've read those words many times before, but reading them out loud, during a Spirit-filled meeting, was especially powerful.)
Earlier in the day I had felt a bit depressed--from inadequate sleep and from being alone, separated from Margaret for several days. But the magical moments of meeting people and the powerful Stake Conference meeting turned my feelings around--lifted me up, renewed me, made me feel in harmony with the flow of life, made me feel, "Yes, this is the way I want to feel. This is the way I want to live." I anticipate the usual ups and downs. But I hope I hold on to the memory of this weekend and its reminder of what life can be like.
Which leads me to Sunday: I was asked to be the chorister--the music leader--for the 7:00 a.m. priesthood leadership session. I got to the meeting 10 minutes early so I could put up the hymn numbers and be ready. I think I did a decent job (though nothing like the expert job Carol Dean had done leading the music the evening before). I heard several good talks about caring for those in need and lasting conversion. What struck me about a couple of them was the personal approach. One talk was entirely the life story (with ups and downs) of an unnamed person--I'm guessing maybe the speaker himself. And President Carter, before talking about teaching and ministered, talked about his life--about his ambition to do something great but the feelings he and his wife kept having to turn down what might have led to opportunities to be part of the newspaper world in Chicago or work in a major law firm. He said he's come to feel that the seemingly small and simple things in life--raising a family, serving others--can be among the most powerful and meaningful.
I had a brief break before the next session--the 10:00 a.m. general session. I was to be there at 9:30 a.m. to be a greeter at one of the chapel entrances. I loved doing that--greeting people, shaking hands. At the end I got to return to the door and hand out cards with the stake's vision and goals for the year.
The talks were excellent (on self-reliance, conversion, answering difficult questions). President Carter again was a bit personal, talking about the challenges of the past four months (tearing a tendon, the death of a young brother-in-law, having an operation, waking up during a night after the operation in momentary panic, feeling abandoned and hopeless). But for me, some of what made the meeting powerful was the music. Several numbers were done by a choir of Primary children. Those numbers had a supernal spiritual clarity and power. My favorite was one with this chorus:
God gave us familiesSet to music--and with the children's voices and all the thoughts and feelings that poured through me as they sang--this was like a vision from heaven. I felt the truth and power of what was sung through my whole being.
To help us become what he wants us to be.
This is how he shows his love,
For the family is of God.
The other number that struck me was a congregational hymn in the middle of the meeting. We stood and sang "How Firm a Foundation," verses 1-5 and 7. This hymn has special meaning to me because we often sing it in family gatherings at my parents-in-law's home, and it's a favorite of my father-in-law, especially the last verse. As I sang it along with hundreds of other people today, my emotions threatened to overwhelm me at several points, and I dug the nails of one hand into my palm to help me focus and keep singing.
Of course, I don't want to embarrass myself by bawling--but I'm grateful that my feelings are tender, that I'm responsive to truth and goodness and beauty, that tears flow as sweet, warm feelings come. Those who know me will attest that I'm a thinker--that logic and analysis are a big part of who I am. But I've increasingly come to feel that knowing truth is more like direct apprehension than analysis. That is, when we see light--when we see objects illuminated by light--when we see and feel the freshness and beauty of the world, we are experiencing reality more truly and fully than when we analyze the experience. Likewise, the feelings we have about truth, about love, about people, about life--the felt insights into what is real and good: this is to experience reality more fully and directly than a logical analysis would provide, whatever the value of such analysis.
After the conference meetings
At the beginning of the 10:00 a.m. session, names were presented for us to sustain (give our approval for) priesthood ordinations. One name presented was Joshua Carter, President Carter's 18-year-old son, to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and be ordained an Elder. Because I'm the Carters' home teacher--and because until recently I was their bishop--I was invited to take part in the ordination after the end of the stake conference session. It was a sweet event, with both Joshua's mother and his father becoming emotional. I joined the circle as President Carter ordained his son. Afterwards, Joshua and I embraced. I've known him and met with him--and hiked and camped with him--for the past 4 1/2 years, more or less--since he was about 13, I think. So we have a strong bond.
After returning home, I felt I wanted to get down in writing some of what I had experienced during stake conference weekend.
In the spirit of my feeling that I should follow a good impulse when it comes, I interrupted the writing of this blog to Skype with my son Michael, when I noticed he was online. We had a great talk--and since he was visiting my daughter Kaila, I also got to see my grandchildren, Oliver, Alex, and Gabby, and reminisce (among other things) about being present by phone when two of them were born. (I called from England just as Kaila was giving birth to her first child, Gabby; and my wife and I called from the airport in Beijing, as we prepared to return to the US, just as Alex was being born.)
Later in the afternoon, I visited with my daughter Julie and her boyfriend Travis (they came over so Julie could photograph and digitize an amazing painting we have--a creation of Chiloba Chirwa). And I did some home teaching--with John Dalley (see above); and upon dropping John off at home, chatted with Leon Harward (a neighbor) about his fishing exploits. He showed me a photo of a 15-pound German brown he caught recently. I'll be heading off soon to spend time with Margaret's parents and extended family, and then I'll spend some time later this evening with my son Rob.
So the magical moments continue. I have plenty of work to do--tasks to be accomplished. And it's important for me to do them, mainly because whether I do will affect the welfare of people. But I hope I leave space open for the promptings of the moment and to enjoy what each moment brings.
Appendix: Stake presidency letter and Stake vision and goals
The stake presidency wrote a letter inviting people to attend Stake Conference. It includes the following paragraphs:
The faith that we have in Jesus Christ can motivate righteous action, help us overcome challenges and give us strength to persevere in obeying god's commandments. Jesus Christ, under direction of His Father, is the Creator. He is the Savior and Redeemer of the entire world. Yet he understands each of us, in our trials and blessings, personally and intimately.
One of the great blessings of our time is the many things and people to testify of Jesus Christ and His gospel. We have the Holy Ghost to guide us in truth. We have scriptures that lead us to Christ. We have modern prophets who receive revelation and teach God's will today. We have the priesthood ordinances, including in the temple, to give us access to eternal covenants and blessings. We are under divine mandate to share these blessings with all of God's children, and we have been asked to lift the poor and needy; comfort the afflicted; teach the gospel in our families; perform vicarious ordinances for our ancestors; and share our testimonies with those around us. In this stake conference, we look forward to rejoicing with you in these opportunities.Here are the stake vision and goals for 2015:
We are children of God with divine destinies and eternal potential, and we will achieve exaltation in God's Celestial Kingdom, through the Atonement of Christ, as we exercise faith in Jesus Christ, obey the commandments, make and keep sacred covenants through priesthood ordinances and participate in the work of salvation.
Goal No. 1--convert baptisms: Families pray for missionary opportunities, invite friends for meals and FHE.
Goal No. 2--temple ordinances: All youth do temple baptisms and 10 percent of members submit names.
Goal No. 3--gospel teaching: Families teaching gospel in weekly FHE, daily prayer and scripture study.
Goal No. 4--retention: All new converts have calling, friend, and word of God and each ward finds 5 families to bring back to church participation.
Goal No. .5--self-reliance and assisting the poor and needy: Families commit to live the law of the fast.