Sunday, April 20, 2008

Visit from an Apostle

I arrived at the special session of our Stake Conference for new members, investigators and "returning members" fifteen minutes early. Still, the room appeared to be packed already. There was a phalanx of missionaries all standing at the back of the room. I found a couple of empty seats toward the back, and sat down next to a young Hispanic-looking man who was wearing a light blue floral print shirt that was open at the collar with a gold pendant.

As I often do at church, I felt oddly out of place. I wasn't a prospect for conversion or reactivation in the usual sense. I wasn't any kind of prospect to become a fine, upstanding heterosexual patriarch raising a brood of kids unto the Lord. Not even in the most optimistic Mormon scenario. It is sometimes hard for me to shake the feeling that if people knew who I was, they would put me right out. And I was wondering what I could possibly learn here.

Elder David A. Bednar and newly called member of the Quorum of the Seventy Elder Kent D. Watson arrived, and the opening hymn began. I offered a hymnal to the young man sitting next to me, and he shook his head. Then someone else offered him a hymnal, and he indicated that he wanted to look on my hymnal with me. He leaned against me, and we held the hymnal together and sang, he a little bit more hesitantly than I. And then it occured to me, perhaps he was the reason I needed to be here. Maybe he needed a friend to hold the hymn book and sing along with. And then it dawned on me that this was a room full of real people with real, very strange and different lives and different stories. We were not all stamped out of a mold for some prefabricated pattern. There was no set plan I was supposed to be following. I was just here waiting to see what happened. And, yes, I belonged, just like everybody else.

Elder Bednar first addressed the new members. He talked about how there's a difference between being converted to the doctrine, and feeling like you fit in, and he apologized for how "lousy" (his word) long-time members are about helping new-comers navigate through the maze of "bewildering" terminology and the peculiarities of Mormon culture. He wasn't trying to excuse, he told us, he was just trying to explain: the Church is a "laboratory for the faithful" in which we "experiment" on each other. And that segued into his message to those falling under the category of "returning members." Somebody once did or said something to you that made you angry, he explained, and it's not to excuse what happened. But that's because the whole purpose of this thing we call Church is for us to learn, and he encouraged us not to get discouraged by others' mistakes, not to deprive ourselves of the blessings by getting angry about what others have done.

I thought, it's not so much what was said or done to me. It's that I almost killed myself because I was in too much pain, and nothing much made sense in the context of Church any more. But I understood what he meant. We can't get discouraged by the failed experiments. We have to somehow get up and come back and keep trying.

Later, in the general session of Stake Conference, Elder Watson spoke, and at one point he made reference to "the vain repetitions of cultural Mormonism made by seasoned priesthood holders." He wasn't criticizing anybody; he was speaking about a priesthood blessing offered by a new member of the Church, who didn't talk in the cadences of stereotypical "Mormonspeak." And by then, I was beginning to get the message. That sense I had earlier from the Spirit, about how the externals that make us seem to fit in, to feel like we're a part of the crowd, like we belong, none of that matters. It's the substance, the inner truth, the reality that we are all children of God that is the purpose for our being and for our gathering together, and that qualifies us to receive the gifts that are being offered.

Over time, I have come to a deep appreciation of the wisdom and spiritual maturity of our stake president, Lewis Bautista. He spoke to us about that feeling we have so often when we are struggling alone in the storm, wondering why the Lord won't come to our aid when we feel we need him most. And the answer, he explained, is that the Lord sometimes makes us wait because of the strength we need to develop in pressing on in the struggle. That message was important enough for me to hear. But as he introduced Elder Bednar, he said, "I invite you to listen to the Holy Spirit as you hear him." And that reminded me again, that we were here, not to receive some general message based on what somebody thinks we ought to know, but to be individually taught what we each came here needing to learn.

Elder Bednar underlined his talk with a quotation from 3 Nephi 11:15, about how the multitude witnessing Christ felt his side and his hands and his feet "one by one." This is how we always come to Christ, he said: one by one. His message was about the loads we each bear, loads which the atonement of Christ does not relieve us of, but that it strengthens us to bear. Happiness, he said, is not the absence of a load, but the right load.

I needed to hear this message, and I needed the gentle calls to repentance embedded in all of the talks that day, and I needed to be reminded of all the things God has promised me. And the Spirit was there, speaking to me as well, just as President Bautista reminded us. As I heard the speakers, the Spirit was saying, "You are here because you belong here. You are one of the Saints too, and this instruction is for you too. So listen..."


Ron Schow said...

Beautiful post, John.

I too find the spirit in my branch where I attend and most especially as I enjoy serving with and for the good people there. Most of them do not really understand me, but the spirit does.

J G-W said...

"the spirit does": indeed!