This coming Monday, September 28, at 7 p.m., "Just Let Go," a movie about a Utah man who forgave the young drunk driver who killed his pregnant wife and two of their children, will premiere at the Regal Hollywood 14 Theatres in Topeka and at over 400 other movie theaters around the country. (Interestingly, in my last blog post--about the power of forgiving others--I wrote about Chris Williams, the man who is the focus of this movie. I didn't know anything then about plans to make his story into a feature-length film!)
This powerful movie stars Emmy nominee Henry Ian Cusick and Oscar-nominated Brenda Vaccaro. Its soundtrack includes "Rise and Fall," a beautiful and touching song by Ryan Innes, a "Mormon soul singer" (as he's sometimes called!) and a former contestant on NBC's "The Voice." (I was so moved by some of the words of that song: e.g., "Every sinner has a future. Every saint has a past." A music video of the song and scenes from "Just Let Go" is already on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a6CbfgXb0w.
This film has a special Topeka connection, since its screenplay was written by Vance Mellen, who grew up in Topeka, attended my LDS congregation here, and graduated from Topeka High before earning his bachelors and masters in fine arts degrees from Brigham Young University and the Chicago Art Institute, respectively. (Another hometown person who has "done good"!)
"Just Let Go" is the centerpiece of what's being called "A Night of Forgiveness" on Monday night. In addition to viewing the film, movie-goers will also be able to see a live introduction to it by radio personality Delilah, watch a live performance by Christian recording artist and pastor Lincoln Brewster ("On Our Side"), and hear commentary and discussion from Chris Williams, some of the actors in the movie, and a researcher on the power of forgiveness. Some of the proceeds from the film will be donated to Human Journey, the web platform for the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge, which empowers people to forgive.
The following BeliefNet.com article about "Just Let Go" gives more information about the film and "A Night of Forgiveness" and includes links to the trailer for the film and information about other theaters showing it: http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/peanutsandpopcorn/2015/09/one-night-... .
Unfortunately, tickets for this movie premiere in Topeka on Monday are on the pricey side ($12.50 per person of any age; and no movie passes will be accepted). However, considering the compelling story, universal message, and broad interfaith nature of this event, I definitely want to view this inspiring movie and take part in the rest of "A Night of Forgiveness." If you're able to attend also, I think you'll be glad you did!
The Confederate battle flag was permanently removed from the South Carolina state grounds on July 10, about three weeks after the horrific, racially-motivated massacre of nine African Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Despite decades of protests by African Americans and other people who considered the flag to be a symbol of racial oppression and hate, it had waved on the Capitol grounds since the early-1960's. Not long after the church shooting, though, photos surfaced of the killer, 21-year old Dylann Roof, draped in a Confederate flag. South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, who had previously been a supporter of the flag, changed her position and urged state legislators to pass a bill to take down the flag permanently. Members of the state's House and Senate--many of whom had also previously wanted to keep the flag--overwhelmingly voted to remove it from the state grounds. The flag was taken down and will now be housed in a museum.
What brought about such a quick change of heart in many former supporters of the Confederate flag and the historic removal of the "Stars and Bars" from South Carolina's Capitol grounds?
Certainly, many people were appalled by the murder of nine people who had welcomed Roof to their Bible study; prayed, read, and visited with him for about an hour; and then were gunned down by him because he hated African Americans. But I think that it was the forgiveness that the grieving families of the victims quickly extended to the shooter that deeply touched so many people around the globe--including many of South Carolina's white political leaders--helped those leaders to empathize with the family members of the victims and other African Americans in their state, and enabled them to see the Confederate flag as African Americans do: as a painful reminder of past injustices committed against black people.
For instance, when Governor Haley--surrounded by the families of the nine slain Emanuel Church members--signed the bill that authorized the removal of the flag, she said that the tragedy "forever showed the state of South Carolina what love and forgiveness look like." She attributed the historic bill to the families' forgiveness, which caused a change of heart in the legislators.
During the Senate debate about the bill, Senator George Campsen, who had also previously been a Confederate flag supporter, spoke of the "sheer grace" that the families showed the gunman at the bail hearing. "They have inspired me," he said. He called the families' forgiveness "one of the greatest testimonies of Christian faith that I have experienced in my life."
Many other legislators--black and white, Democrat and Republican--voiced their support (sometimes for the first time) for removing the flag, citing the forgiveness that the victims' families extended to the shooter.
After the House and Senate voted to remove the flag, another state senator, Gerald Malloy said, "Dylann Roof did not cause this flag to come down. The families of the Emanuel 9 caused this flag to come down. It wasn't his sin, but their grace."
Certainly, the families of the nine people who were killed at the Emanuel Church didn't offer forgiveness to Dylann Roof because they thought--or even hoped--that their actions would bring about any large-scale social or political change. As sincere disciples of Jesus Christ, they undoubtedly just wanted to follow the Savior's teachings about forgiving others who cause hurt or harm. But their expression of forgiveness had the effect of softening the hearts and opening the eyes of South Carolina's governor and many state legislators, who then removed a longstanding source of pain for African Americans: the state-endorsed flying of the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds.
The families' expressions of forgiveness for the gunman had another widespread, positive effect too. After the murder of the nine Emanuel Church members, Charleston didn't see the rioting and violence that Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, had had within the past year after the deaths of unarmed black men in run-ins with police. South Carolina state Senator Tom David observed that the "grace freely given" by the families of the Emanuel Church victims resulted in a statewide groundswell of love for neighbor and compassion. (This quote and some of the other quotes by state senators that I've included in this post are from a newspaper editorial: "Their grace, not S.C. killer's sin.") http://cjon.co/1CXVHfE. ABC News, http://cjon.co/1CXYPbo, also reported that "experts say that immediate forgiveness probably helped to forestall reactionary violence in Charleston, denying Roof the race war that police said he told them he wanted to start."
Though we can see that forgiveness can sometimes have a powerful effect on communities--and even states!--its power is usually felt on a personal or family level. There is amazing power for good that can be unleashed in individuals and families when we and other people forgive people who have wronged or hurt us.
--Forgiveness has the power to heal or maintain health.
Bitterness over the wrongs that others have inflicted on us can consume us. Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University wrote in his book Forgive for Good, "Besides anger and hurt, the loss of joy, love and intimacy mar the lives of those who do not forgive" (as quoted in "Man exercises a year of forgiveness after drunk teen driver kills wife, two children" http://cjon.co/1MNBqt7).
On the other hand, the forgiveness we extend to others can help us heal from the hurt they have caused us. By choosing to not dwell on and hold grudges about the inconveniences, disappointments, hardships, losses, or anguish that others have brought into our lives and "pray[ing] for them which despitefully use [us]" (Luke 6:28), we put ourselves on the path to spiritual, emotional, and psychological healing and health.
The ability to forgive others also has an impact on our physical health. Researchers on forgiveness (which has become the subject of hundreds of scientific studies since the mid-1980's) have found that the inability to forgive raises blood pressure, lowers immune response, and can cause or worsen depression.
The forgiveness we give others can also help bring healing to the person who hurt us and to their loved ones. I haven't read or heard anything yet about the effect that the forgiveness extended to Dylann Roof has had on him and on his family. But I have read or seen numerous stories about individuals who forgave someone who killed a family member and, by doing do, unburdened and comforted the offender and his family and motivated the perpetrator to make positive changes in his life. (For example, see this powerful and touching YouTube video about Chris Williams, a former Latter-day Saint bishop in Utah who forgave the drunk teenage driver who killed his pregnant wife and two children: "Forgiveness: My Burden Was Made Light.") http://cjon.co/1MNBvwR
--Forgiveness has the power to sanctify and save the person who offers grace.
Forgiveness of others is a core teaching in Christianity. (It is also taught in Judaism and Islam and, very likely, in other faiths as well.) Jesus instructed his disciples in all ages to follow His example. Surely, His example of forgiving the Roman soldiers who were crucifying Him and of praying that Heavenly Father would "forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34) sets a high bar for those of us who seek to follow in His footsteps. By forgiving others who hurt us, as Jesus did those who hurt Him, we will allow Christ to work through us, change us, and help us become more like Him and Heavenly Father.
Not only will forgiving others help us develop the vital divine quality of mercy, but it will also help us to be forgiven by God for our sins and live with Him again. Jesus taught that if we want to be forgiven by God for our sins, we must extend forgiveness to other people.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Forgiving others is essential to our own personal salvation. That reason alone should motivate us to want to and try to forgive.
--Forgiveness has the power to inspire others.
People who forgive others, especially after great personal loss, can inspire other people to do the same. For example, after Chris Williams publicly forgave the drunk teen driver who killed his pregnant wife and two children, he received over 800 emails. The Deseret News http://cjon.co/1MNBqt7 reported, "Some were messages of condolence. But many were vows to let go of anger and resentment. 'If you can forgive,' they said, 'I can too.'"
As mentioned earlier, many South Carolina legislators were touched and changed by the grace that the families of the Emanuel Church victims gave Dylann Roof. Over the past few weeks, that example of forgiveness has been the subject of many news stories and editorials in and outside of South Carolina. (For example, editorials citing the positive impact of the families' forgiveness even appeared in a couple of newspapers in Mississippi, where some citizens have begun asking for that state to remove the Confederate "Stars and Bars" emblem from its flag.)
I have been very touched and inspired by those families' examples and know other people who have been also. (I was also very moved by the prayers for forgiveness that I heard during a prayer vigil that my husband and daughter Susan attended at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Topeka two days after the killings.) No doubt, such Christlike actions have prompted many people to ask themselves, "Could I have forgiven in that instance? Do I have that kind of faith?" and to commit to being more forgiving.
Chris Williams and other well-publicized examples of forgiveness--particularly, the Amish in Pennsylvania after a troubled gunman killed five school girls in 2006--have been mentioned in LDS General Conference talks and, thus, continue to inspire: e.g., Pres. James E. Faust's "The Healing Power of Forgiveness" http://cjon.co/1MNBzwC and Elder Dallin H. Oak's "Followers of Christ" http://cjon.co/1MNBxF0. I expect that the families of the Charleston victims will also be spoken of in many future sermons and lessons about forgiveness across faith and denominational lines and will be a source of inspiration for years to come.
And, certainly, the grace that we individually show others who have hurt us has the potential of touching them and people who know them or us and of inspiring them to extend that same forgiveness to others as well.
Yes, forgiveness can have many powerful influences on the forgiver, the forgiven, people around them, and even, occasionally, a community or larger group. But forgiving others can be very difficult at times. Some of the families of the people killed in the Emanuel Church acknowledged that they struggled at first to forgive Roof. One of the ministers at the Topeka prayer vigil I attended soon after the shootings said that he knew that he also needed to forgive the gunman--and he wanted to be able to do so--but that he still had conflicting feelings of hurt and anger too.
Jesus indicated that forgiveness needs to come from our heart (see Matthew 18:35); it's not just a matter of saying the words, "I forgive you." What can we do then when we know we need to forgive someone but are having a hard time letting go of all-consuming grief, resentment, desires for revenge, and other unhealthy and harmful feelings?
I have two suggestions, both of which come from the scriptures and both of which I've tried and have found to work.
Jesus taught, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." (Matthew 5:44) Though the Savior didn't call those commandments a prescription for forgiveness, if we follow them, they certainly can help give us a change of heart towards our offenders so we can forgive them. Much as we might not want to be kind to people who haven't been kind to us, serve them, and pray for them, such actions--sometimes, over a period of time--can help replace our negative feelings with loving, forgiving ones and can help heal our hearts.
The English poet Alexander Pope wrote, "To err is human, to forgive divine." Sometimes we humans may need to seek divine help in order to forgive others and develop the godly quality of mercy. When we have trouble forgiving someone, we can pray to have charity, the same kind of love that Jesus had and has. Since He was able to forgive, even in very difficult circumstances, if we pray earnestly for Christlike love, we will receive it and be able to forgive others too.
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ... (Moroni 7:48 in the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. This scripture is one of my favorites!)
As a Christian, I have found that these simple but powerful spiritual principles and practices can help us forgive others from our hearts. I highly recommend them! But, since everyone--whether a person of faith or not--will benefit from being forgiving, I will mention too that there are also secular, psychology-based practices that some people have found to be valuable. (For example, Stanford University's Dr. Luskin has a website, Forgive for Good http://cjon.co/1CXVitA.
Several weeks ago, when I was in Chicago visiting my daughter Lisa and son-in-law Matt, I got to sing in the LDS Hyde Park Ward's gospel choir, which Matt directs. In introducing our song--"Amazing Grace"--Matt reminded the members of that wonderfully racially-diverse congregation that President Obama had sung that hymn just a few days earlier during the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel Church and one of the nine people killed there. What a choice, healing, unifying spirit that song brought both at the funeral and in our Sunday worship service!
Of course, that hymn is about the amazing, saving, renewing, life-changing grace of God that is offered to all of us--all fallible people--because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. But its title is also a good reminder that the grace we extend to one another can also have great power too: power to heal or maintain health, sanctify and save, and inspire others to forgive others. Whether forgiving others is second-nature to us or is still a struggle, our earnest efforts to forgive people who have hurt us can significantly bless us as individuals, others around us, and, as we saw in South Carolina, sometimes even the larger community. The grace we extend to others is powerful and, truly, amazing too.
Well, maybe that title is a little overstated. I haven't been wastefully extravagant (the real meaning of prodigal) or haven't been living a wild, self-absorbed, partying life, as the prodigal son in Jesus's famous parable did. (See Luke 15:11-32.) But I was "lost" to blogging for this Holy Ground website for nearly two years and am now back! I don't know that anyone (i.e., former readers and the Holy Ground administrators) kept vigil for my return, as the father in the parable did for his son who strayed. (See Luke 15:20.) And I certainly don't expect to be given now a ring, robe, or fatted calf (the father's gifts to his repentant son) for coming back. But I can always hope to be welcomed back by some former and new readers!
I really didn't expect to be gone this long. My volunteer blogging efforts definitely brought me a lot of joy and other blessings. I really liked to write about faith-related matters and experiences for a general audience and hoped that I was contributing in some small ways to greater interfaith understanding. I also found that regular blogging helped me to be more in tune with the Holy Spirit, since, when I was writing consistently, I was constantly thinking about spiritual topics and receiving spiritual impressions about different themes for my blog. It also made me happy when readers occasionally told me that some of my posts uplifted them or gave them new, helpful information or insights or, sometimes, even a good laugh!
However, writing almost weekly about "Living Faith," as I did for the first couple of years I was blogging for this website, required a lot of my time, which became harder to find as I became even busier with other activities and responsibilities. As my time became tighter (and, to some degree, as I also began wondering how many people really were reading my posts), my blog submissions became less and less frequent: down from weekly to about twice a month, monthly, or even once every six or seven weeks.
I told myself I could keep blogging if I'd write only once or twice a month and just write shorter posts. (As you can see from my past blog submissions to Holy Ground, I tended to write fairly lengthy entries, rather than short, easy-to-read-in-one-short-sitting posts.) I reminded myself that I didn't have to write the definitive piece on each topic that I chose. And, though I always want to write posts that are interesting and worth reading, I tried to convince myself that every submission didn't have to be super insightful, informative, engaging, and creative. (This is not to say that all my earlier posts possessed all those qualities! But I did spend a lot of time in the past trying to make them so.)
While I pondered ways to get back to writing more regularly, my life became even busier (but, unlike the prodigal son, not with "riotous living"!), and I stopped writing altogether. After a while, I even stopped feeling guilty about going AWOL: I was in survival mode! (Ironically, so many of the activities and events that took up so much of my time the past two years would've been great topics for blogs: e.g., the weddings of two of my daughters; the birth of my sixth grandchild; the death of my father; a day each week spent watching and playing with preschool-aged grandchildren; a daughter starting college; a daughter returning from an 18-month mission to Brazil; helping another daughter prepare for a mission to New Zealand; planning several big church-sponsored Christmas and Black History Month events for the community; editing a friend's book on Topeka African American history; preparing for and running a half-marathon; big trips to Massachusetts, California, Utah, Arizona, and New York; major home and yard improvement projects; service with and for several community organizations, etc.)
During the time I was away, I occasionally thought of returning to blogging. (I wonder how many times the prodigal son thought about coming back before he actually made the decision and commitment to return home.) Unlike the prodigal, though, I didn't hit bottom before I decided to return. But, like him, I "came to [myself]" (see Luke 15:17) and realized what I'd been missing by being away. Though my life is still busy (as I think most people's lives are), it's not quite as hectic now as it was. I'm confident that I can make time to write again. I'm ready to return to blogging about "Living Faith"!
To make blogging more workable for me, I've decided to write once a month (at least), not weekly, as I usually did for the first couple of years. For the sake of the readers' time--and mine too--I'll also try to make the posts shorter than they usually were in the past. (No promises, though, on brevity! Though my maiden name is Witt, brevity has rarely been part of the soul of this Witt-by-birth!)
I appreciate very much the patience of the Holy Ground administrators--past and present--with me these past two years. (Maybe they, like the father of the prodigal son, have watched and waited, after all, for this "prodigal" blogger to return, as is evidenced by their keeping my blog up on the website all this time!) They don't need to give me a ring, robe, or fatted calf, though. Getting back into writing; having another reason to ponder deeply about spiritual experiences and truths; feeling closer to the Spirit; and, especially, sharing thoughts, experiences, and information that I hope will be helpful and meaningful to readers will be reward enough!
Though it's now been four weeks since I took part in a Mormon pioneer handcart trek with about 120 teenagers, I keep thinking about that spiritually intense experience--and not just when I see the wristband I got on the trek and am still wearing.
That three-day trek, which took place in western Missouri in early-June, was partly planned to give Latter-day Saint youths from the greater Topeka area the opportunity to learn more about the faith, faithfulness, and sacrifice of the early Mormon pioneers, who traveled by foot, wagon, or handcart to Utah in the mid-1800's. Even more importantly, the experience was designed to help the youth grow in their own faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ and His Restored Gospel and Church.
The youths, ages 14 to 18 years old, were divided into 12 different "families." Each family had a married couple for a "Pa" and "Ma." My husband, John, and I were blessed to be a Pa and Ma of a trek family of nine great children: four sons and five daughters.
Like everyone else involved with the trek, we wore pioneer clothing. All family members were given the name, age, and country of one of the 3000 people who had started off by handcart to Utah during the late-1850's. (I walked in memory of 48-year old Helena Mortensen of Denmark.) Usually traveling in "companies" of four families, each of the trek families pushed and pulled its own handcart, which was loaded with most of its members' earthly pioneer possessions (which were packed in five-gallon buckets!) and some other supplies. We trekked across dusty gravel roads, plowed fields, tick-infested grass, and mud: about four miles the first day, eight miles the second day, and six miles the last day.
As we wended our way, about every mile or so we stopped for a living history vignette or representative emigrant experience that was drawn from the lives of the handcart pioneers or from general Mormon pioneer history. For example, at our first stop, each Ma "gave birth" to a baby (actually, we were just handed a realistic-looking, weighted doll who was named for a real baby who was born to pioneer parents on their way to Utah), who had to be carried and cared for by family members during the trek. We had a "cholera" checkup. (Cholera, which killed many mid-19th century Mormon emigrants, hit all of our trek's Pa's, who then had to sit in their family's handcart for part of that day's journey and made the pushing and pulling of the carts by the youth more challenging.)
During our travels, we also "met" several early Latter-day Saints (reenactors, of course!), who shared some of their experiences in living their faith before and during their westward travels. We also met a few of the people whom some of the pioneers encountered on their trek.
In the evenings we cooked Dutch oven meals, had all-camp activities (such as a pioneer dance and a speaker), then slept in tents. (The young women from two families slept together under one huge tent made from tarps and a handcart. The young men in the same two families slept in similar, but separate, accommodations. The Ma's and Pa's had the "luxury" of sleeping in their own more traditional tents.)
From my conversations with many of the youth and from my observation of many others, I could tell that the teens had a lot of fun, made some new friends, learned a lot about LDS pioneer history, had numerous opportunities to feel the Holy Spirit, and learned many important spiritual lessons from the trek.
I certainly did too. Though the trek was four weeks ago, the experiences and lessons from it continue to be fresh in my memory and spirit. While we learned and relived a lot of LDS pioneer history on the trek, brushed up on our camping skills, strengthened existing friendships, and made new ones--all great blessings!--I also greatly appreciated the trek's many spiritual lessons (or reminders), which can bless all of us now on our individual treks through life. Here are 10 of the strongest, most important spiritual messages that I got from the trek.
1. Remember, learn from, and appreciate the people who have prepared the way for you.
Though I'm a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, over my nearly-39 years in the Church, I'd learned quite a lot about the pioneers of my adopted faith. However, when I actually spent three days walking many miles in their boots, so to speak, wearing pioneer clothing, and experiencing firsthand some of the challenges they faced, I had a better sense than ever before of what it must've felt like for early Church members to leave their homes and venture to a new area in response to the call of a modern-day prophet.
On the trek I gained a better idea of some of the suffering that many of the pioneers experienced. For instance, one night we were each given 1/4 cup of flour for our dinner. Even though I'd been told (but didn't let on!) that we'd be given more food later, as our family combined our flour and prepared small, bland pancakes to have for our dinner, I could empathize with some of the real handcart pioneers who really did have to live at times on just 1/4 cup of flour for a meal.
After two days of trekking with our family's "new baby," I cried when I learned that the real pioneer child for whom our family's Elizabeth was named actually died en route to Utah. I could feel the pain that the parents of the real Elizabeth may've felt as they buried her on the side of the trail, then continued their journey, knowing they'd never see her grave again. I admired them and other pioneers who lost loved ones on their journey west but kept going, trusting in the promises of the resurrection and of a future reunion with their beloved family member.
When the young men and most of the Pa's were mustered into the "Mormon Battalion" on our last morning and left the Ma's and young women, I got teary too, even though I knew--unlike those original pioneer women--that we'd see our men again soon.
Towards the end of the trek, we were each given some written information about the handcart pioneer in whose memory we had each walked. I was struck by the faith, sacrifice, and family unity of "my" pioneer, Helena Mortensen, and by the blessings that her family had been promised--and received!--for their faithfulness.
These and many other experiences I had on the trek helped me better understand both the difficulties that many of the LDS pioneers faced and the depth of their faith and commitment to the Savior and His Gospel. The trek reminded me of the importance of learning about the people who have preceded us and paved the way for us--both the pioneers of our faith and our own ancestors too--following their good examples, and keeping their memory alive.
2. Stand and stay in holy places.
The official theme of the trek was a verse from modern-day revelation: "Stand ye in holy places and be not moved." (Doctrine & Covenants 87:8) That scripture had both literal and symbolic meanings for us on the trek.
We physically started and ended our trek experience in two places that are sacred to Latter-day Saints: Far West (near Cameron, Missouri), where a temple site was dedicated in the 1830's but where, because of persecution then, a temple was never built; and Adam-ondi-Ahman (near Jameson, Missouri), which Joseph Smith called an "outdoor temple," where significant sacred events have happened in the past and will happen in the future.
While the youths and adults on the trek were able to stand--physically--in those holy locations, the trek's theme, "Stand ye in holy places and be not moved," also had very important spiritual meanings: e.g., stay on the path of righteousness; have the firm faith of our pioneer forefathers and don't be swayed; and prepare yourself or stay worthy to enter the Lord's temples, the holiest places on earth.
On our last day of the trek, as we headed to Adam-ondi-Ahman (which represented Utah for the historical purposes of our trek), a man dressed as Jim Bridger, the mountain man, told us (as he told the vanguard company of Mormon pioneers in 1847) that he didn't think we'd be able to grow crops in Utah. He encouraged us to settle elsewhere. Acting the part of 1847 Mormon emigrants, we politely rejected his counsel and stayed on our course to the place where a modern-day prophet of God had directed us to go. Like those pioneers, on our individual treks through mortality, we today should also follow inspired counsel, keep striving to be faithful and righteous, stay on paths and in places where the Spirit can dwell, and not let other people influence us to get off course.
3. Faith and righteousness will keep us safe.
The main message I got out of a vignette "by" Mormon pioneer and gunsmith Jonathan Browning (it was actually presented by one of his descendants!) was that righteousness--not guns or other worldly sources of security--will give us true safety and protection now, as well as in the future. "Browning" explained that the guns from his shop had the words "Holiness to the Lord--our preservation" inscribed on them, as a reminder of the source of true peace and security. Each trek family made a flag and wrote those words on it and displayed it in its handcart as a reminder of that important spiritual message, which each of us would do well to remember long after the trek.
4. Keep on trekking, even when times get tough! Don't give up!
Many babies were born while their pioneer parents journeyed west. People got sick, died, and were buried en route to Utah. Weather wasn't always ideal. Handcarts and wagons sometimes broke down. Food sometimes ran short. But despite the challenges and difficulties, the real Mormon pioneers kept going and moved forward to reach their goal: Utah, "Zion."
Though the people on our trek had it relatively easy, compared to the real Mormon pioneers (e.g., we only had to trek for three days, not three-plus months; we never went hungry; we had porta-potties; and the weather was very pleasant), we did experience some difficulties. We were warned about the likelihood of snakes in the area where we'd be trekking. (Fortunately, I never heard of any snakes being spotted, but some people were worried about them.) Some teens said they heard coyotes howling close to our camp one night. Quite a few youths and adults had to deal with health challenges (e.g., bad allergies and tick bites) on the trek. For some people, it was physically demanding to hike over dusty gravel roads, through tall grass and mud, and up and down hills. The handcarts became considerably heavier--and, consequently, harder to push and pull--when families had a "sick" Pa or Ma, who had to ride in the cart. One handcart broke and the "sick" Pa riding in it fell in the mud.
Despite some challenges, no one on our trek gave up. Everyone kept pushing (literally and figuratively) and moving, step by step, towards the desired goal--the "holy ground" (in our case, Adam-ondi-Ahman) at the end of the trek. So should we throughout our individual treks through life: keep moving forward, even if progress is slow, and endure to the end!
5. Be of good cheer, even in hard times.
A vignette we saw about William Clayton, an early LDS Church leader, included information about how he came to write the lyrics of the well-known hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints." The hymn, which has been known in some other Christian churches as "All Is Well," truly reflects Jesus's frequent counsel to His followers to "be of good cheer." (For example, see Matthew 9:2 and 14:27, Mark 6:50, and John 16:33.) Though I love all four verses of the song, in the interest of space, here are the inspiring and uplifting words of just the second verse:
Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard? 'Tis not so; all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take. Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we'll have this tale to tell--All is well! All is well!
(Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #30)
Our trek family sang this song a number of time while we trekked. Each of our family members was cheerful during our three days together, even those who had to deal with bad allergies or tick bites. People in other families commented that they never heard anyone complain on the trek. Even the "sick" Pa who landed in the mud when his family's handcart broke came up smiling!
Though we can't always choose our circumstances, we can choose our attitude about those circumstances. How uplifting and pleasant it is for everyone when we all choose to be cheerful and positive, remembering that "God will never us forsake" and that "all things work together for good to them that love God." (Romans 8:28) Be of good cheer, even in hard times, for all will be well!
6. There's great strength, safety, and joy in having a Gospel-centered family.
Like real Mormon pioneer families and other families on our trek, our trek family prayed, studied the scriptures, and sang hymns together. We talked about the Gospel and how it applies to our lives. We had several family councils to decide how best to handle some situations we faced. We also worked together to get necessary jobs done: e.g., pushing and pulling our handcart, cooking, cleaning up, and setting up tents. We talked, played games, and enjoyed each other's company. We helped each other. As trek parents, John and I sought opportunities to visit one-on-one with our trek children and get to know them. Though we spent lots of time together and worked to build a strong, united family, we didn't isolate ourselves: our family members interacted with and helped other trek families too.
I really enjoyed and quickly came to love our trek sons and daughters. Though I can think of things now that I could've done to be a better trek Ma, I still think we had quite a strong, unified trek family. The activities, described above, that our trek family did to grow spiritually and become "knit together in unity and in love one towards another" (Mosiah 18:21 in the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ) were ones that John and I had used in our own home with our own children. My experience with our trek family underscored for me the value of building a Gospel-centered home and renewed in me the determination to keep my own family--even now, when most of the children are grown and out of the home--strong and united by following Gospel principles and practices.
I hope that all of my trek children--and all the other youth who participated--felt that they had a similarly happy and inspiring family experience on the trek and now have the desire and goal to build their own Gospel-centered home in the future. There is strength, safety, and great joy in doing so.
7. Women can and need to be strong. Men can and need to be tender.
On the last day of the trek, we reenacted the enlistment of the young men and some of the Pa's into the "Mormon Battalion"--complete with "military men" on horseback! (In 1846, after the Latter- day Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, and settled temporarily in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, before moving to Utah, representatives of the U.S. Army recruited about 500 LDS men to fight in the Mexican War. In their husbands' absence, the wives of the Battalion members, assumed additional family responsibilities, such as taking care of livestock, gathering in hay, repairing wagons, and preparing for the trek to Utah.)
After all the young men on our trek--and a few Pa's--passed "inspection" and were mustered into the Mormon Battalion, the Ma's and daughters on our trek took on additional family responsibilities too. In our case, we were left to push and pull our handcarts totally on our own. (And most of the handcarts were considerably heavier then, since a "sick" Pa had to ride in them!)
Our "Women's Pull," as this part of the trek was called, started off without too much trouble, but then we hit an area of deep mud. One handcart got stuck and broke. Since we didn't want any other handcarts to break, some women found a less muddy route. (The mud there only went up to the top of my hightop boots!) Concerned, though, that the handcarts, if loaded, wouldn't be able to make it through there in one piece either, we set up a literal bucket brigade through the mud to pass about 140 5-gallon buckets (in which all trekkers had their personal belongings) from the handcarts to drier land. Several of the Ma's even carried their "sick" husbands through the mud on their backs! (Strong women!) Then we pushed the lighter handcarts through the mud without any more of them breaking.
Once the handcarts got reloaded, the buckets from the broken handcart were distributed to the other carts, and a handcart was found for the "sick" Pa who'd been riding in the one that broke, we resumed our journey. After traveling quite a distance through relatively uneventful, rolling land, we spotted our young men and Pa's who'd been mustered into the Mormon Battalion standing still, with their hats over their hearts, at the top of a steep hill. While the young men and men watched silently, we women, working together, pushed and pulled our handcarts up that hill and were then reunited with the men and young men.
The Women's Pull was a memorable experience for all of the young women and Ma's and a big confidence-builder for some of the young women, those who had initially felt that they couldn't do the physically hard work that needed to be done. This activity taught or reminded the young women and Ma's--plus the young men and the Pa's who watched us--that women can and need to be strong--physically, yes, but also spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.
While we women were trekking through mud and pushing and pulling the handcarts on our own, the young men and adult leaders of the Mormon Battalion marched for a while, then listened to speakers talk about respect for women, the contributions that women make to their lives, and the importance of mothers. The young men were given paper and a pen and asked to write a letter of appreciation to their mothers. Then, at the end of the Women's Pull, they stood at the top of the steep hill and watched silently and respectfully as the young women and Ma's made it to the top.
Afterwards, some of my trek sons mentioned how sad they felt to see their trek sisters struggling up the hill and know that they couldn't help them. (That feeling is a preview of how each one will likely feel sometime in the future, when he's married and his wife is in labor!) It was sweet to hear the young men express their concern for the young women's well-being, their desire to help, and their admiration for the young women. What a great experience this Women's Pull was to help everyone realize how strong young women really are and to bring out the tenderness of the young men!
8. We all need help at times; so serve!
Service to others is a key teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the trek, we had numerous opportunities to serve each other. Family members helped each other individually and worked for the good of the family, e.g., cooking, setting up tents, pushing and pulling the handcart. When members of another family needed something--whether it was a charcoal lighter or handcarts in which to carry their supplies after their handcart broke--people were quick to give assistance. As individuals and even as families, we couldn't have made it through the trek without the help of others. The trek was a great reminder that we need each other and, consequently, should keep our eyes open for people we can serve and be willing to let others assist us when we need help.
9. The greatest rescue of all time is Jesus Christ's rescue of us from death and the effects of sin.
On our second day of trekking, we stopped near a stream that had steep, muddy banks. Two people told us about the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies, which left late in the summer of 1856 for Utah and got caught in early snows in Wyoming. With limited food and few supplies for cold weather, many of the emigrants suffered and died on the trail. Rescue parties from Utah were sent to help them. A couple of 18-year old young men from a relief party waded back and forth through freezing water in November to take weakened emigrants across the Sweetwater River in Wyoming to safety.
After telling us about what Latter-day Saints call the "Sweetwater Rescue," the presenters compared that rescue to an even greater rescue: Jesus Christ's rescue--through His Atonement--of us from death and sin. Then the young men in our company and some of the Pa's carried the young women and the Ma's across the stream while a violinist on the other side played "Amazing Grace." (Afterwards, they also pushed the handcarts, which contained a couple of "sick" Pa's too, through the stream and up the bank.)
When the young men started carrying the young women and Ma's across the stream, it would've been easy to think about the 18-year olds who walked back and forth through freezing water to rescue the handcart pioneers in 1856 (even though our stream wasn't very deep and its water wasn't freezing). However, with that violin music playing, my thoughts turned to the Savior's love-motivated sacrifice for us and rescue of us.
When it was my turn, one of my trek sons carried me across the stream and all the way to the top of the steep, muddy bank. His tender act of kindness helped me feel deeply the Savior's great love and brought me to tears.
While there have been many noteworthy rescues of people in need throughout human history--and there are many people today whom we can help rescue in various ways--truly, the greatest rescue of all time is the Savior's rescue of us from death and sin.
10. Always remember Christ.
Each family on the trek was supposed to have an evening devotional on the theme "Always remember Christ." As part of the devotional, each family member was to write "Jesus Christ" on a bright orange paper wristband and wear it as a way to remember the Savior: His teachings, His example, and His Atonement.
Although most trekkers have undoubtedly removed their wristbands (I'm still wearing mine, though!), there are other ways that followers of Christ can always keep Him in our minds and hearts: e.g., reading the scriptures daily, praying frequently, keeping pictures of Jesus up in our home, wearing a CTR ("choose the right") ring, getting into the habit of asking, "What would Jesus do in this situation?", etc. By trying to always remember Christ, His followers show gratitude for what He's done and are more likely to make good choices and keep the Spirit with them. Though it can be challenging to always remember Christ, it's certainly an important goal for His followers to keep working on.
The recent handcart trek that I was blessed to go on definitely made Mormon pioneer history alive and personal. I enjoyed the many great people who took part in it and had fun hiking and camping. And I greatly appreciated the trek's many spiritual lessons and reminders, which are important now, during our individual treks through mortality.
I've never met Brady Tanner and only visited once in person with one of his family members--and, then, only briefly. But, in the process of preparing a story recently about Brady for the LDS Church News (a weekly publication that gives news about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members), I feel that I have gotten to know the Tanners fairly well and have learned a lot from them. I find Brady's story to be very inspiring and uplifting. I hope that you will too!
Brady, a one-quarter Cherokee Latter-day Saint from Lawrence, Kansas, was recently inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame for his many accomplishments as a powerlifter. Since I think I'm doing well if I can chest-press 70 lbs., I was awed to learn that Brady came home from the 2011 World Special Olympics Games in Athens, Greece, with a silver medal in the squat (he lifted 500 lbs.) and gold medals in the bench press (335 lbs.), deadlift (525 lbs.), and overall combination lift (1360 lbs.)! He has excelled in many other powerlifting competitions too. Wow! What strength!
Though I was very impressed by Brady's physical accomplishments, I became even more impressed-- and spiritually touched--by the character, faith, and great examples shown by Brady, his family, and some members of his Church family.
Brady was born two months prematurely and weighed only four pounds, He didn't walk until he was three years old. Diagnosed as a child with Rubenstein-Taybi Syndrome, which delays mental growth and impairs speech development, he didn't talk until he was six--and then only family members could understand him. (Even today, only family members are able to understand his speech.) He was eventually classified as trainable mentally handicapped.
Brady's mother, Janie Tanner, who (through emails and phone calls) was my main source of information for my story about her son, said that, because of his RTS, "Brady has no negative initiative thinking, which means he enjoys everything he does, everyone he meets, and is always a very happy young man." Wouldn't it be a great if we all tried to have (or asked God to help us have) similar positive attitudes always?!
It sounds as though we might, if we spent some time around Brady. His mother said, "Brady has an incredible spirit and has taught everyone he comes into contact with how to love life and live it to the fullest."
She added, "Brady is exciting to watch because he gets so pumped up and is very enthusiastic. While in Athens [at the World Special Olympics Games in 2011], he was an inspiration and an example to all. His coaches said the enthusiasm he brought to the practices was contagious and helped the other athletes work hard and have fun."
Janie spoke about other exemplary qualities of Brady. She said, "Brady doesn't use his handicap as an excuse to get out of doing things; he uses it to push himself harder." Training four days a week, two hours a day, to develop his physical strength, he has continually worked with great determination and persistence to reach his goals. During the 2006 national Special Olympics competition (at which he won multiple medals), he tore cartilage in one of his knees. After surgery, a period of recovery, and his doctor's OK, he was back to lifting. Brady's drive, strong work ethic, and endurance have helped him achieve many high goals. By developing similar qualities in our own lives, we too will be able to reach many of our high goals.
Brady's mother said that when her son took part in different meets, his main goal wasn't to win medals or beat other athletes. He primarily wanted to see if he could beat his previous-best records. I appreciate that admirable goal and think it's much better--in whatever we do--to focus on improving and doing our best, not on trying to beat others and be the best.
I also appreciate Brady's humility. Both the online and print versions of the Church News article about Brady include a photo of Brady and his family at his induction into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. He is beaming in the photo, obviously very happy and appreciative of the huge honor being bestowed on him. But, after all the public acclaim and publicity he received for that recognition, Brady happily went back to his food service job at the University of Kansas and returned to his regular workout schedule. What a great example he is of not letting fame and worldly honors fill him with pride and a feeling of superiority!
In speaking with Brady's mother for the article, I came to admire her and her husband, Gary, too. I was inspired by the faith and positive attitude that they had while raising a child with special needs.
Janie told me, "Raising a handicapped child is not an easy task. Gary and I had faith in God and knew we had to trust in Him that He wouldn't give us more than we could handle. We depended on our Heavenly Father to help us do the best for our son. As Brady grew, our faith also grew. We came to realize that we were the lucky parents who were chosen to raise this special child. No longer did I feel sorry for myself and wonder, 'Why me?' I was excited that God chose us."
I was in awe of the great amount of time and love that Brady's family gave him. After Brady showed interest in powerlifting, his parents became his initial trainers. (As a college football coach, Gary especially knew a lot about strength training.) They spent two hours, four days a week, helping Brady to learn safe lifting techniques and develop his strength. His two sisters also spent many hours helping him with his workouts. His family definitely believed--and showed--that love requires both quality time and quantity time. What great examples the Tanners are of a strong family (in more ways than one)!
I was also struck by a comment that Brady's father shared. Speaking of the role that family members have had in helping Brady with his physical training, Gary said, "We know the things Brady can do well and the things he can't do well. We don't dwell on the negative but try to accentuate the positive. Brady doesn't believe he has any boundaries so it is up to us to make sure he stays safe and within the boundaries that we have set for him. We would never hold Brady back from trying something new but always keep safety in the forefront so he can't get hurt."
Though Gary's comment described the approach that the Tanners have taken to help Brady develop physically, I realized that it also describes Heavenly Father's approach to help all people--His children--develop spiritually. He loves and accepts us for who we are right now and gives us experiences and opportunities to help us develop our strengths and turn our weaknesses into strengths too. He wants and encourages us to do and be our best. Though many of us may not like or understand the value of having divine boundaries (commandments), God has set them up for our good. If we stay within those boundaries (that is, if we keep God's commandments), we will be safe, protected, and blessed. I appreciated that Brady's father--whether consciously or not--was using with his son some of the same principles that Heavenly Father uses with us, His children. We can't go wrong as parents if we seek to follow Heavenly Father's example!
Because of Brady's difficulty with language, which his mother said is on the level of a five-year old, Brady lost interest in church for a few years. I was very happy to learn that a concerned friend from the Tanners' congregation took the initiative to talk to the bishop (the lay leader of the congregation) and suggest that Brady have his own one-on-one teacher. The bishop asked the friend to be Brady's teacher! Later, after the first teacher moved, another spiritual tutor began working with Brady. Through that outreach and personal instruction, Brady came back to church and started to understand the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. His mother said that after his class each Sunday, Brady excitedly tells his parents what he learned that day with his teacher. Brady's church activity and spiritual progress are great reminders of the eternal, positive impact that one person can have when he or she reaches out one-on-one to bless the life of another person.
Brady's growth under his personal spiritual trainers also shows the importance of not assuming that, just because someone has a mental handicap, he or she is incapable of understanding important spiritual lessons. Janie Tanner further illustrated this truth when she told me about her son's response last year when he and other family members attended the open house for the LDS temple in Kansas City, Missouri. "His eyes lit up, and I knew that he got it! He understood why we have temples!"
My daughter Karen and her family attend the same congregation in Lawrence that Brady and his parents do. Karen says it is very touching to see Brady, now a 32-year old deacon, passing the sacrament (the LDS term for what other Christians call the "Lord's Supper" or "communion"), along with the 12- and 13-year old deacons.
Though I hope to be able to meet Brady in the near future, I have already been inspired and blessed just by learning about him, his family, and some members of his church family. The title of the print edition of the Church News story about Brady describes him (on several levels) very well: "An Uplifting Life"!
If you'd like to read the entire Church News article about Brady, you can access it here.
I first caught wind that something tragic had happened during the Boston Marathon this past Monday when I got a text message in the afternoon from my daughter Bequis, who lives and works in the Boston area. She wrote, "Just wanted to let you know I had to work today and I was no where near the marathon. I am safe, trying to find out more info."
Not sure of what she was referring to, I turned on the TV so I could get more information too. What I learned was extremely sad and unsettling. Initial reports indicated that two people--an eight-year-old boy and a woman in her 20's--had been killed by two homemade bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Shortly afterwards, I learned that another woman, a Chinese graduate student, also died from one of the explosions and that about 180 people were injured, many very seriously.
Knowing then what Bequis alluded to, I thanked Heavenly Father for her safety and prayed for the family members and friends of the people who died and for the people who had been hurt or traumatized by the horrific, senseless violence.
Like many other people in the United States and around the world, on that Monday and in the days that followed, I followed the media's reports about the tragedy, which grew to include more violence and death and finally ended with the apprehension of the last, surprisingly-young suspect.
Though the news was often heart-wrenching or frightening and I ached for the people whose lives had been impacted by the violence, I kept remembering that the scriptures say that we should thank God "at all times" and "in all things": for example,
I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:1)
Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:7)
Aside from Bequis's safety, I wondered if there were other things about that extremely sad situation in Boston that I could be thankful for. After some pondering, I recognized quite a few additional reasons for gratitude:
• I am grateful that the violence--though terrible--wasn't as bad as it could have been. If the bombs had exploded when more runners were near the finish line or if another bomb that was found later had detonated, the number of people who were killed or injured would have likely been higher.
• I am thankful for the medical professionals, firefighters, and law enforcement people who, after the explosions, immediately sprang into action to care for the wounded and restore safety and order. I am very thankful that there are people in our country who are willing to work in those demanding jobs, which, in some instances, require them to put their own lives at risk so they can help and protect other people.
• I am also grateful for many other people who responded quickly to help athletes and spectators who had been injured by the explosions: e.g., people who took off their belts or shirts to make tourniquets to keep some wounded people from bleeding to death, strangers who spoke comforting words to calm those who had been hurt, and other people who rendered assistance. I appreciated the kindness and humility of one man who worked close to the second blast and helped some of the injured in that area. When asked later by a journalist if he thought of himself as a hero, the man undoubtedly spoke for many other Good Samaritans that day when he deflected the praise by simply saying, "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time but was able to do the right thing." I was also thankful for the Bostonians who brought food and drink to famished, dehydrated runners or invited into their homes athletes who weren't able to return to their hotels. I appreciated the help that all these people gave to others at a critical time and the great examples they were of kindness and selfless service.
• Though the news about the bombings was often heart-wrenching or frightening, I was thankful that several media stories focused on the goodness, compassion, and proactivity of some of the many people who quickly reached out to others in need. It was truly heartwarming and inspiring to have some good news that was related to that unfortunate tragedy.
• Though I'm certainly aware that the United States isn't a violence-free country, I am grateful that acts of terror, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, are relatively rare here.
• I am thankful that technology exists that enabled law enforcement officers to identify the suspects and, eventually, put a halt to their acts of violence.
• I am grateful that, in addressing the people of the United States on Friday (after the last suspected bomber was apprehended), President Obama cautioned people against blaming entire groups of people (which I interpreted to be religious or ethnic groups) for the actions of the suspects. Though many people in the United States don't condemn groups for the negative actions of some of their members, unfortunately, some have done so in the past. I appreciate the president's counsel and hope it will be heeded.
• I am thankful that "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) is available to everyone who was hurt in any way by the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy and ensuing events--and to every other person who faces serious losses or trials in their lives.
Jesus promised, "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
[Christ] will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)
Though the grief of losing a loved one who is young and full of promise probably can't be totally erased, it can be alleviated greatly by knowing that life continues after death, that family bonds can continue after this life, and that God, our Heavenly Father, will be both merciful and just. I am thankful for that peace-giving knowledge.
For people who were injured or traumatized by the Boston Marathon explosions, I am thankful that, because of the things that He suffered in mortality, Jesus Christ understands our pains and trials and knows how to help us. (See Hebrews 2:18 and Hebrews 4:15.) In especially trying times, many people may receive the same blessings that a group of people in the Book of Mormon were given during a difficult period in their lives:
[T]he burdens which were laid upon [them] were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord. (Mosiah 24:15 in the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ)
These marvelous spiritual blessings don't come automatically. To receive them, usually individuals need to take the initiative and reach out to the Lord first.
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
[Jesus said], Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:63)
When we reach out to God in faith and humility, He will be there to comfort and strengthen us. I've experienced such blessings on numerous occasions and am very grateful for the reassurance and help He can and will give all of us in our times of need when we draw near to Him.
• I am thankful that so many of the talks from the recent (April 6 and 7) General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provide very useful and uplifting words of counsel and comfort to help people prepare for and deal with the adversity, challenges, and uncertainty that are often part of life. I think that these speakers' addresses are particularly relevant for such situations, including the Boston Marathon tragedy: Bishop Dean M. Davies ("A Sure Foundation"), President Henry B. Eyring ("Come Unto Me"), Elder Richard G. Scott ("For Peace at Home"), Elder Quentin L. Cook ("Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteousness"), Elder Jeffrey R. Holland ("Lord, I Believe"), and Elder Bruce D. Porter ("Beautiful Mornings"). (All of the talks from that conference are accessible here.)
•I am grateful that the citywide gospel choir, in which my daughter Susan and I sing, will be presenting our first full concert on Sunday, April 21. Though the concert was scheduled several weeks ago, I think it's very timely to have it on the first Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombings. The concert and its beautiful gospel songs of praise to God and Jesus Christ are wonderful reminders that, even in difficult times, we should be thankful to Them for so many blessings They have given us. The concert is at 6 p.m., in the First Church of God in Christ, 614 S.E. California, Topeka. (It's free, but a freewill offering will be taken.)
Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God.... He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.... Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite. The Lord lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground. Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving: sing praise... unto our God... The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear [revere] him, in those that hope in his mercy.... Praise ye the Lord. (Psalm 147:1, 3, 5-7, 11, 20)
Even--dare I say "especially"?--when we are in the middle of hard times, I hope that we can always remember to be grateful for the blessings we do enjoy and to thank and praise God.
The national media was abuzz about a week ago with reports that, for the first time, a woman gave a prayer during a General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I will say that I was pleased that two women (not just one!)--Jean Stevens, a counselor in the Church's general Primary presidency, and Carole Stephens, a counselor in the general Relief Society presidency--offered prayers during different sessions of the April 6 and 7 worldwide conference. But I can't say that I cried or rejoiced at this "historic" moment. Frankly, I'd never realized until this year that women had never given prayers during prior General Conference sessions. In my almost-39 years as a Latter-day Saint, I hadn't noticed their absence from the conference podium when it was time for an invocation or benediction. Though I'd listened to the prayers all those years, I hadn't paid attention to the gender of the person offering them.
You may call me clueless, but please don't call me oppressed. Women have spoken in General Conference for decades (and I have been aware of that fact!) In my own congregation and throughout the worldwide Church, women regularly pray and speak in our Sunday worship services, teach in classes, and serve in leadership positions. When I was the president of the women's organization (Relief Society) of my congregation in Austin, Texas, my bishop said he considered me an unofficial counselor in the bishopric; he relied on my information, insights, and inspiration. Ever since joining the Church in 1974, I have always felt respected and appreciated and have always been treated as an equal by the men of the Church. Though our roles and responsibilities may differ, women and men, whether in the home or in the Church, are both needed and must work together as equal partners: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 11:11)
Though I thought it was nice that two women offered prayers during General Conference, I was disappointed that that "milestone" made headline news and, thus, gave the impression that LDS women had previously been second-class citizens in the Church. I was also disappointed that, for most media, those prayers totally upstaged everything else that was said or done during that very inspiring conference.
So what did I feel was particularly noteworthy about this conference (proceedings of which are available in video, audio, and print formats here)? What events or messages would I have preferred that the media highlight in its stories about this last conference? There were a lot of them. Here are some that particularly stood out to me:
• Church president Thomas S. Monson reported that the number of Church missionaries has surged in the past six months, ever since he announced lower ages at which young adult men and women may begin serving missions. There are now over 65,000 missionaries serving (over 10,000 more than were serving at the end of 2012). More than 20,000 young adult missionaries--about a third of whom are women--have received their mission calls and are waiting to enter a missionary training center. Another 6,000 young adults are in the process of submitting their missionary applications. To accommodate the additional missionaries, 58 new missions have been created throughout the world. Pres. Monson encouraged Church members who are able to do so to contribute money to the General Missionary Fund in order to assist young adults throughout the world who are willing to donate their time to serve a mission but don't have the financial resources to pay for one. (I will say that a few media sources--but not many--did include some information about the recent growth of the Church's missionary force in their stories about women praying in General Conference.)
• Pres. Monson also announced that new temples were recently dedicated in Calgary, Canada, and in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and that a refurbished one was rededicated in Boise, Idaho. He announced that new temples will be built in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Cedar City, Utah. (A few media reports did report on this announcement too. But the other noteworthy news items I mention below were ignored by nearly all media sources.)
• Pres. Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, spoke of some things that parents can do to strengthen and protect their home. I was especially encouraged and strengthened by his statement that:
[F]aith is a real power, not just an expression of belief. There are few things more powerful than the faithful prayers of a righteous mother.
Explaining that "we must separate the sin from the sinner," he warned:
Tolerance is a virtue, but like all virtues, when exaggerated, it transforms itself into a vice....The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God's law of chastity.
• Sister Elaine S. Dalton, general president of the Young Women's organization, shared a quote that she read during a discouraging time in her life: "What e'er thou art, act well thy part." Not only was this couplet, which appeared on a stone in the garden of the LDS mission headquarters in Scotland, a nice shout-out to LDS missionaries serving now in that country, but it was also a good reminder to all of us--including Sister Dalton, who was released later in the conference--to do our best wherever we are and in whatever roles we serve. She mentioned the role that parents, especially mothers, can play in instilling in a daughter "the ennobling and eternal truth that she is a daughter of God," who needs to "step out of the world and step into the kingdom of God." She also called for a "return to virtue," which would reduce the number of "broken marriages, broken lives, and broken hearts."
• Elder Craig A. Cardon of the Seventy gave a very hope-inspiring talk about forgiveness: e.g., Jesus Christ's merciful heart, the power we can receive from Christ to overcome sin and addictive behaviors, and the importance of forgiving ourselves and other people.
• Pres. Henry D. Eyring, a member of the Church's First Presidency, spoke about how we can bring ourselves and our families closer to Christ by giving service to God and other people.
• Two apostles gave back-to-back talks about peace. Elder Richard G. Scott shared ideas about how to create a peaceful, Christ-centered home. He offered words of comfort and hope to people who have family members who aren't "making good choices."
We need to trust in the Lord and in His timing that a positive response to our prayers and rescue efforts can occur. We do all that we can to serve, to bless, and to submissively acknowledge God's will in all things. We exercise faith and remember that there are some things that must be left to the Lord. He invites us to set our burdens down at His feet. With faith we can know that this straying loved one is not abandoned but is in the watchcare of a loving Savior.
Elder Quentin L. Cook spoke about inner peace, the kind of peace we can enjoy in our individual lives and in our families, no matter what else is happening around us. Like three speakers who would speak later during the conference, Elder Cook used the faithful Latter-day Saints in Africa as inspiring examples. He said that their faith and righteous choices have brought them inner peace. He also spoke about missionaries who take the Gospel's message of peace to the world, one person and one family at a time. (I thought of my daughter Rachel, who's currently serving in Brazil, and of other young adults I know who are currently serving missions!)
• Elder John B. Dickson of the Seventy also spoke of the recent growth of the Church in Africa and about the strong, joyful Church members there:
It has been said of Africans that they have very little of that which matters least and a great deal of that which matters most. They have little interest in enormous homes and the finest cars but great interest in knowing their Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and in having eternal families. As a natural result of their faith, the Lord is lifting them in meaningful ways.
• Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, gave a clear and sensitive explanation of why God's law of chastity (which is that sexual relations are only for a man and a woman who are married to each other) is so important. He explained that repentance is possible--and important--for people who have broken that or any other commandment of God.
The results of sincere repentance are peace of conscience, comfort, and spiritual healing and renewal.
Even though some may feel that the commandment to be chaste is "archaic and outdated," Elder Bednar stated that "the Lord's truth is not altered by fads, popularity, or public opinion polls." He promised that "obedience to the law of chastity will increase our happiness in mortality and make possible our progress in eternity."
• Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a counselor in the First Presidency, gave a message of hope to people who feel despair:
God's light is real. It is available to all!...It has the power to soften the sting of the deepest wound. It can be a healing balm for the loneliness and sickness of our souls. In the furrows of despair, it can plant the seeds of a brighter hope. It can enlighten the deepest valleys of sorrow. It can illuminate the path before us and lead us through the darkest night into the promise of a new dawn.
He encouraged people to start where they are, turn their heart to the Lord, and walk in the light of Christ. He also used the African Latter-day Saints as an example of people who, even in the midst of many difficulties and trials, are very joyful because of their faith in Jesus Christ and love for the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I invite each of you to open your heart to [Jesus Christ]. Seek Him through study and prayer. Come to His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Learn of Him and of His gospel, participate actively, help each other, and joyfully serve our God.
Brothers and sisters, even after the darkest night, the Savior of the world will lead you to a gradual, sweet, and bright dawn that will assuredly rise within you.
• Sister Rosemary Wixom, the general president of the Primary (the organization for children), encouraged parents to speak encouraging, faith-strengthening words to children. She also warned of "parental benign neglect" caused by technology and other distractions.
• Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Seventy outlined seven qualities that he had observed in strong, faithful marriages: both the husband and wife highly value their relationship; they have faith in Christ and obey His commandments, repent, respect each other, are transparent in their communication and decision-making, are fiercely loyal to each other, and love each other deeply.
• Pres. Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church, spoke of obedience to God's commandments--"the great test of this life"--and of the many blessings that we can receive from being obedient.
• Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles spoke about faith and doubt. Using as an example the man who brought his tormented son to Jesus for healing and said, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24), Elder Holland suggested that people focus on their faith, not their doubts, during times of uncertainty, spiritual questioning, or difficulties.
I would say to all who wish for more faith, remember this man! In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited. In the growth we all have to experience in mortality, the spiritual equivalent of this boy's affliction or this parent's desperation is going to come to all of us. When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes....
Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don't hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith….
Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.
• Using the Bible, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, another apostle, compared what Christ taught and what His followers did in New Testament times with what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do now. His conclusion (which was no surprise to me or other Latter-day Saints!) is that members of the Church are followers of Christ; we are Christians.
• Elder Eric Kopischke of the Seventy gave several helpful suggestions about what we can do to feel accepted by the Lord: honestly self-reflect about our motives, desires, and behaviors; acknowledge our sins and shortcomings and repent; and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to live daily as a true disciple of Jesus Christ. If we can feel the presence of the Holy Ghost in our lives, we can be assured that our lives are acceptable to God.
• Elder Bruce D. Porter, who is also a member of the Seventy, gave us reasons to "be of good cheer," even when we're in the midst of personal trials or when we see many problems in the world around us.
There were so many uplifting, important, and needed messages from this past General Conference! If watched, heard, or read and then applied, these talks could truly make a positive difference in anyone's life. I realize that "inspiration," "encouragement and comfort," and "spiritual instruction" are not news values for most news media today. However, I still wish that the media had focused in their stories about General Conference on some of the inspiring, valuable messages that were given during it, rather than on the women who gave prayers at it.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, my 21-year old daughter, Rachel, began serving as a Latter-day Saint missionary. My fourth daughter to serve a mission (others served in Austria and Germany, England, and Peru), Rachel was assigned to labor in Brazil.
Initially, she was to go directly to the Missionary Training Center in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to learn Portuguese and to prepare to teach the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in far-eastern Brazil. However, because of visa problems (which I understand are fairly typical for U.S. missionaries who go to Brazil), Rachel went to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, for her first month of training. When her visa finally arrived, she finished her formal language and missionary instruction in Sao Paolo. Then, after seven total weeks of training, Rachel began working as a "real" missionary in Mossoro, Brazil.
It takes about a month for letters to get to and from "Sister Christensen" (as she's called now, even in Brazil, since there evidently isn't a Portuguese equivalent for "Sister," as in "sister missionary"). However, we're able to stay in touch once a week through email. Her emails reflect her continually-growing faith and the joy she receives from teaching and serving people of all ages.
I was very touched by an email she sent recently and suspect that the sentiments and sincere faith she expressed in it are similar to those of other LDS missionaries. She wrote:
So also during church I came to a conclusion of why I am serving a mission. I was sitting with Junior [an 11-year old boy whom Rachel and her companion had taught and who was baptized into the Church] and he was playing with my watch and eating my cookies and it just hit me. I am serving a mission because of Love. I love these people! They are all children of God. I just want to hug everyone and tell them how SPECIAL they are. But this love is so much more than my love. It is the love of the Atonement and our Savior. Holy Hannah. It was during sacrament meeting and I was just thinking about love. And first, Heavenly Father loves us so much, He gave His son so that we could live again with Him. And more than just live, we can be the best versions of ourselves! And also that Christ willingly gave His life. He asked if there was another way, but when there wasn't, He continued His mission. Seriously, how awesome. I can't even comprehend this! We talked about love in Sunday School too and how we should study what Christ did and how He loved. He didn't love by judging the people first or by only helping his disciples. HE HELPED AND LOVED EVERYONE! That is my goal from now on: to never judge and just love like Christ!
Recognizing the inspiration behind her call to serve in Brazil, Rachel wrote this past week, "I know that I am where I am supposed to be! There is no way that I am in Brazil on accident. I see the Lord's hand in so many places of my life!"
As her mother, I'm excited that, over the remaining 14 months of Rachel's mission, I too will continue to see the Lord's hand in her life, as well as the ways in which she gets to be an instrument in His hand to bless other people.
In addition to writing about Rachel, I have two other recent blog-worthy experiences or topics I want to "catch up" on here:
• Latter-day Saints are sometimes reminded that church callings (e.g., Sunday school teacher, youth leader, choir accompanist, even Sunbeam teacher and bishop!) are temporary, but that our callings as fathers and mothers can be eternal. What about a calling as a pioneer trek "pa" and "ma"?!
For their annual youth conference, which is in June this year, the teens ages 14-18 years old from our stake (which includes 10 congregations) will go on a three-day pioneer trek in some parts of western Missouri where Latter-day Saints settled in the 1830's and hoped to build temples. During the trek, they'll dress in pioneer clothes, pull and push handcarts a total of 22 miles, cook outside, sleep in tents, and, hopefully come to a greater appreciation of their spiritual forebears and become strengthened in their own faith. The youth will be divided up into "families," each of which will have a handcart and--you guessed it--a "pa" and "ma"! To our surprise, my husband and I were called to be the "head pa and ma" for the trek. Among other things, we're in charge of coming up with the route for the trek (check!), lining up "pa's" and "ma's" for each "family" (almost a check!), training the "pa's" and "ma's" (still to do), arranging for places to camp each night (in process!), and coordinating with leaders who have different assignments (ongoing). Though a lot's been done so far to prepare for the trek, there's still a lot more to do.
As you might expect, I plan to blog later about our upcoming trek experiences! (Though I enjoy camping, exercising, and working with the youth, I suspect that I won't be upset that being a trek "head ma" is only a temporary--and not an eternal--calling!)
• And now I come to this weekend, April 6 and 7, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will hold its twice-yearly General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. People come from all over the world to attend in person some of the conference sessions, which are held in the Church's 20,000-seat Conference Center. I have traveled to Utah and attended General Conference several times. It was so spiritually exhilarating to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (which typically provides the music for most of the sessions) in person and to be in the same room (albeit a very large auditorium!) with many of the worldwide leaders of the Church, even a modern-day prophet and twelve apostles! But, through the miracle of television and Internet, people travel from all over the world can also watch the conference proceedings and receive the same words of counsel, comfort, and inspiration in their own language. I am really looking forward to watching all four conference sessions this weekend, either in my home or in one of our Topeka church buildings.
Over the years I've found that there are certain talks in each conference that especially touch and speak to me. I'm not unique in that regard. I know other people who feel that certain addresses were partly intended for them! We agree wholeheartedly with Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the Church's First Presidency, who said, "There are messages in each general conference given as a gift and a blessing from heaven specifically for your personal life situations."
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostle, promised, "If we teach by the Spirit and you listen by the Spirit, some one of us will touch on your circumstance, sending a personal prophetic epistle just to you."
Just one week after Easter this year, General Conference gives Latter-day Saints and other interested Christians the opportunity to receive personalized spiritual messages and to have back-to-back inspirational weekends! You can watch the conference sessions (11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. [CST] on both Saturday and Sunday) at most LDS meetinghouses (in Topeka, at 2401 SW Kingsrow Road and 3611 SW Jewell Avenue), online (at www.lds.org and www.byutv.org), and on cable or satellite TV (Cox Cable's Channel 152, Dish Television Network's Channel 9403, and Direct TV's Channel 374). The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's weekly program, "Music and the Spoken Word," will air at 10:30 a.m. (CST) on Sunday, right before that morning's conference session.
It's hard to turn down a personal prophetic epistle! I encourage everyone to tune into General Conference--and be spiritually in-tune too!
I confess: I haven't been the most consistent blogger recently and, for that matter, for some time now. My spirit has been very willing, and blog ideas have often come to me, but, because of many other commitments and demands, I just haven't had time to write very frequently.
But I'm not giving up! Though there really hasn't been much of a break in my life's action, I thought I'd try to catch readers up--briefly! (I think I can be brief!)--on some of the bloggable experiences and ponderings I've had recently. Rather than write a super-sized entry, I thought I'd take a couple of weeks to catch up (and, hopefully, get back into the habit of blogging frequently!) So here goes!
• In my last blog entry ("You Oughta Been There [and Be There]!," 4 Feb 2013), I wrote about the wonderful experience my daughter Susan and I had when we sang with the Community Gospel Choir during a program that commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After that event, Susan and I have continued to practice with the choir and learn more songs. On February 10, our choir sang at a Black History Month program sponsored by a Topeka church. (Though the congregation was packed, I wished more African American youth and whites of all ages had attended that event, which honored living African Americans who have made significant contributions to Topeka. The program was very inspiring!) The choir's own concert, which had originally been scheduled for Palm Sunday (which is now past), has been moved to Sunday, April 21, 6 p.m., at New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2801 SE Indiana, Topeka. We've been learning a lot of spiritually moving and uplifting music for this concert. If you live in the area, it'd be great to have you come and rejoice with us!
• Latter-day Saints in the greater Topeka area had a conference on Saturday and Sunday, March 2 and 3, that had a very positive spiritual impact on me. All of the speakers--whether local leaders and members who spoke on Saturday or Churchwide leaders who addressed us via satellite on Sunday--were excellent and inspiring. Comments by one particular speaker have particularly stayed with me.
A woman from Lawrence exhorted us to minister to the needs of individuals every day. She encouraged us to pray each day to be able to find "the one" who needs our help that day. "The Spirit will tell you," she assured us, using some of her own experiences as proof. She then urged us to pray to find out how to help and reach that individual. What if "the one" turns us away? She counseled us to continue to pray; the Spirit will tell us if we need to do more and, if so, what more to do. "Have the courage and tenacity to move forward again and again until the Spirit says, 'Job well done!'"
The idea of praying every day to be able to help someone who could use my help wasn't new to me. One of my daily goals for 2012 (and for the rest of my life) was to pray daily for opportunities to serve individuals in need. (See my first blog post of last year: "Goals for a New Year," 6 Jan 2012.) Though I can't say I've done so every day, I've been fairly consistent about praying for such opportunities and have received many, many of them. (It really is a great feeling to realize that Heavenly Father has needed and trusted me to help some of His children!) However, the conference speaker helped to expand my vision about the kind of service I should be open to give (long-term, as well as short-term) and reminded me that the Spirit will be with us--if we pray for guidance--every step of the way as we seek to serve "the one."
• Ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation as head of the Roman Catholic Church, effective 28 Feb 2013, I have followed with great interest the many news reports about how his successor would be chosen and who the new pope would be. Though I, obviously, am not Catholic, I will say that I've been very impressed with the new pope, Francis I, who was elected by his fellow cardinals on 13 Mar 2013. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, the new pope took the name of Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who rejected a life of luxury and served and lived with the poor. I've been struck by Pope Francis's humility and concern for the poor. As one who has been involved for decades in interfaith dialogue, I was also pleased to learn that the new pope has a history of speaking and working with leaders and people of other Christian faiths and non-Christian faiths. (Maybe he'll even come to the open house of the new LDS temple that is currently being built in Rome!)
• This weekend is Easter weekend, and the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have been on my mind a lot recently. Last night my husband, a friend, and I attended an outstanding living history presentation that depicted highlights from Christ's life and focused particularly on His trial, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. The "Walk with Christ," as the free event is called, was organized and put on by the four LDS congregations in Lawrence, Kansas, and is held in one of the LDS buildings there. Rooms in the church were decorated so well that it felt as if we'd been transported back to Bethlehem, Galilee, Pilate's judgment room, Calvary, and the empty garden tomb. People dressed in Biblical attire shared stories about Jesus. Children particularly enjoyed the live donkey and baby goats in the front yard of the church (right before they entered "Bethlehem," which was inside). Tonight (Good Friday) will be the last night for the "Walk with Christ." It will run from 6-8 p.m. at the Lawrence LDS meetinghouse, 3655 W. 10th St. (Next year I intend to give readers more notice about this excellent annual event. It's a great way to focus on the real meaning of Easter and get into the true Easter spirit!)
• About 10 days before attending the "Walk with Christ" in Lawrence, I was asked to speak about "The Risen Lord Jesus Christ" during my congregation's Easter worship service (this coming Sunday). (Adult and youth members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are periodically asked by the lay leaders of their congregations to speak on specific Gospel-related topics during their Sunday worship services.) I always consider it a privilege--a very humbling one--to be able to speak about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. After being asked to speak, I've been focusing my scripture study on Christ's suffering, death, resurrection, and the significance of those events. (I love the process of preparing to give a talk at church! I always learn a lot, much more than I can possible share with the congregation.) During the service, another member of the congregation will speak on "The Atonement: Jesus Christ's Loving Gift," and there will be beautiful Easter music. Anyone who is interested in attending is invited to come: Sunday (March 31), 11:30 a.m., in the LDS Topeka Stake Center, 2401 S.W. Kingsrow Road, Topeka.
Next week I hope to catch up on additional recent bloggable experiences and ponderings. Until next time...
Though it's been two weeks since my daughter Susan and I got to sing in a gospel choir during the Community Celebration of the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I continue to sing and think about the songs we performed and feel the same spiritual warmth, joy, and excitement that I did that evening. In the words of one of the songs we sang during that program, “you oughta been there”!
Since Susan and I love gospel music, both of us felt it was really a dream come true that we could sing with that community gospel choir. When Susan was a freshman and sophomore at Topeka High, she heard members of the school’s Black Student Union sing gospel music at school talent shows and at assemblies in honor of Dr. King. She loved the music so much that, when she was a junior, she decided to join the BSU so she could sing in its choir. Upon learning that there was no faculty sponsor for the club that year, Susan (who's fairer than I am) approached teachers in hopes of recruiting a sponsor for the Black Student Union! Sadly for Susan (and for the school!), there was no sponsor--and, therefore, no club or choir--that year.
Throughout her years at Brigham Young University, Susan attended programs there that honored Dr. King on the Martin Luther King holiday and especially loved the gospel music that was sung at them. She also went to a famed gospel singer's concert, which was co-sponsored by BYU and a local Southern Baptist church. She wished that she could've been one of the BYU students who got to sing in the backup choir for that program!
I've blogged several times in the past about my forty-plus-years love of gospel music and my desire to sing in a gospel choir. (See "Oh Happy Day," 30 May 2010; "Building a Community of Unity," 22 Jan 2012; and "Two Hours with My Sister Gladys Knight," 23 Oct 2012.) When my family attended last year's Community Celebration of the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan and I were especially excited that a community gospel choir sang in it. (Our family had attended similar programs for many years, but that year was the first one I could remember that included a community gospel choir.) Afterwards, I spoke with the choir director and asked if we could be in the choir the following year. He said we could!
Flash forward about 10 months. An announcement appeared in the religion section of the Topeka Capital-Journal about a practice for a community gospel choir that would perform at an upcoming Dr. Martin Luther King event. The notice made it clear that singers from any church or ethnic background could participate. Even though the previous year’s choir director had told me that we could take part in the next community gospel choir, I was still glad to read that open invitation! Susan and I--two enthusiastic, white Latter-day Saints—excitedly decided that we’d go to the practice and sing in the choir!
When we walked into New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church for our first practice, Charles Davis, the very outgoing, dynamic choir director I’d meet earlier, greeted us and asked if he could help us. After we explained that we were there for the practice, he enthusiastically and warmly welcomed us. Other choir members were just as friendly and helpful. (I was delighted to see that I already knew a couple of them!)
Over the next few practices, I learned that the 30 or so people who are currently involved with this community gospel choir come from over a dozen different Topeka congregations. Some are music directors for their churches. Others are "regular" people, such as Susan and I, who just love gospel music and singing. There is also an extremely talented keyboard player and an excellent high school-aged drummer who accompany us. And the music is out of this world!
Over the course of several two-hour practices, Susan and I learned five different songs: “You Oughta Been There” (a very peppy song about Jesus Christ and “what He, what He, what He’s done for me”), “Hallelujah, Salvation, and Glory” (a gorgeous song praising God), “Let the Church Say Amen” (a beautiful, no-nonsense admonition to accept and obey God’s word), “Changed” (a pretty song about the change that Christ and His gospel can make in our natures and lives), and “God Made Me” (an energetic confirmation of our self-worth).
I was intrigued by the way the gospel songs were taught to us. In my LDS congregation’s choir, we’re given sheet music, which has the notes and words of a song, and sing from it In the gospel choir, though, the singers didn’t use sheet music and, for simpler songs, didn’t even have copies of the lyrics. It seemed that most of the choir members already knew many of the songs we sang. Susan and I learned some of the songs, (specifically, the ones that had a lot of repetition in them) by hearing everyone else sing them. (I appreciated some wonderful sister altos who’d whisper to me things like, “This is an easy song. You’ll pick this one up quickly.” I hoped I would—and I did!)
For other songs, we’d go over the printed lyrics, listen to the music for our parts, and practice our separate parts and then put sections of the songs together, until we had learned each entire song. I was very glad that there were a strong alto section leader and other excellent altos sitting around me to help me learn my part!
Since I’m not a super music sight-reader anyway, it didn’t bother me not to have the sheet music. In fact, I learn my notes best by hearing them and repeating them several times. This new teaching technique helped me learn the music well and memorize the words of each song. Once I had committed the notes and words of the songs to memory, it was relatively easy then to focus on the message of the songs and sing them out with the Spirit.
The choir director, Charles, with some help from some other talented singers, did a great job of teaching us the music. He often reminded us to watch him when we sang so we’d know how many times we’d sing certain parts of the songs, when we’d sway, when we’d clap, when we’d end the song, etc. Several times he told us to sing with “attitude” (which I interpreted as conviction and personality, not sassiness)! He was very animated when directing us and brought out our musical best.
I loved taking part in the choir practices. I enjoyed so much being able to hear, learn, and sing some beautiful songs that made my spirit soar. (Those wonderful songs of praise reminded me to be better in praising and thanking God through song and prayer.) Since the songs were so spirit-charged and reflected some of my own experiences, feelings, and deeply held beliefs, once I learned them, I sang them loudly (at least, for me!) and with all my heart and spirit, just the way the other choir members did. (In fact, after each practice, I usually came home a little hoarse!)
I enjoyed meeting, becoming friends with, and learning from the examples of good, committed Christians from other churches. I was touched by the heartfelt prayers we had at the beginning and end of every practice. Upon learning that one of our members was going through some hard financial times, choir members quietly donated money to give to that person. Despite the great musical talents that so many of the singers and musicians had, everyone was very humble. For example, our very talented keyboard player always deflected any compliments given him by saying, “It’s all God.”
The African American members of the choir made Susan and me (and the two other white people who later joined) feel very welcome and appreciated. (I was pleasantly surprised that two of my sister altos even complimented me on my singing! Since I don’t consider myself a particularly good singer, their kind words boosted my confidence and meant a lot!) It didn’t matter that the choir members were from different races or different churches. We shared a special unity. Having been brought together through gospel music and our love of Jesus Christ, who is the focus of so much of that music, we knew we were truly brothers and sisters.
On the evening of the Dr. Martin Luther King commemoration at Grace Episcopal Cathedral (on January 21), the choir members, musicians, and director gathered early for a prayer. Then, all dressed in black, the choir members walked out, as practiced, and took our seats in the choir loft while the alto section leader sang a beautiful solo. Before each of the three songs we sang during the program, we filed out of the choir loft and stood in two rows facing the congregation of several hundred people. Since I was one of the shorter altos, I was in the front row. (Susan, who is taller, sang in the second row of the sopranos.)
Even though I knew the songs and my alto part, I had a few worries. What if I forgot some of the words? What if I swayed the wrong direction on a song when we’re supposed to sway? What if I didn’t watch Charles closely enough and sang when we weren’t supposed to? Fortunately, my fears didn’t materialize! I watched Charles closely and sang out—not so much to the people in the congregation but, rather, to Heavenly Father and my Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our first song was “You Oughta Been There” (by Ricky Dillard), which was well-received. Right before the address by the guest speaker, Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, we sang again: "Hallelujah, Salvation, and Glory." (After that song, which ends with a slow, strong, enthusiastic acclamation about God--“He is wonderful!”--Ms. Brooks said, “I think the CHOIR is wonderful!”) Our final song, which came right before the closing prayer, was, very appropriately, “Let the Church Say Amen” (by Andrae Crouch).
When our choir practiced once earlier in the cathedral, I was aware of the massive size of that beautiful building and its high vaulted ceiling. I wondered if our choir of about 30 people would have enough volume to be heard throughout the cathedral. Fortunately, the acoustics in the building are excellent. And, happily, when we sang that evening, we sang with even more energy, spirit—and “attitude”!—than we had done in the past. Our sound quality seemed good and strong.
It was thrilling to see that the music seemed to move the members of the congregation spiritually. For instance, quite a few people stood during the songs. Most congregation members—even the more reserved ones who stayed seated during the songs—jumped to their feet at the end of each song and gave us an enthusiastic standing ovation. After the program, many, many people came up and thanked us for the music. My husband, who’s gone to many past programs commemorating Dr. King, said that this program was the best one so far—primarily because of the music. I don’t say these things to brag, especially since I am definitely the least talented member of the choir. But the music is spiritually moving, and, with divine help, we were able to do it justice. As our keyboard player would say, “It’s all God!”
After the closing prayer, everyone in the congregation was encouraged to stand, hold hands with people near them, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” Standing in the choir loft, I took the hand of one of my new alto friends and the woman behind me reached for my other hand. When we sang the verse “We’ll walk hand in hand,” we three raised our hands in a show of love and unity. Other people in the cathedral did so also.
What a marvelous experience I had that night and during the earlier practices! (You oughta been there!) After the program, choir members thanked Susan and me for singing in the choir. An African American friend of mine who’d been in the congregation told me I had “the glow of Jesus” when I sang. (Her comment meant a lot to me!) Another friend said I’d “really gotten into the music.” Yes, I had, because the songs spoke to me and for me and became my music.
Happily, Susan and I won’t have to wait another 10 months or so until we can sing with this community gospel choir again. A church has invited the choir to sing at an upcoming program it is hosting, and we have our own Palm Sunday concert scheduled too. (Charles, the choir director, has said several times that he hopes Susan and I will continue singing in the choir. He doesn’t need to twist our arms! We’ll be there!) After seeing and hearing the choir at the Martin Luther King program, my daughter Christy signed up to be in the choir and helped enlist two of her fellow Topeka High Madrigal friends (both young men) to join too. (We can especially use more men in the choir.)
After I find out the details, I’ll try to remember to announce the choir’s Palm Sunday concert in this blog. (I expect it to be in the late-afternoon or early-evening of March 24.) Though I don’t know yet what we’ll be singing (hopefully, we’ll sing some of the songs I’ve already learned!), I am certain that the music will be touching and uplifting. After all, it’s gospel music! And, if you love gospel music and like to sing, you can always join this community gospel choir too! In one capacity or another, sometime when the community gospel choir sings, you oughta be there!