Imagine spending eight to 10 hours of this beautiful spring weekend parked on the couch listening to about 30 religious speeches.
That’s how millions of Mormons will be spending this April weekend – glued to the television, listening to the radio or taking advantage of satellite and Internet broadcasts from Salt Lake City where more than 100,000 people will be watching it live.
We call this General Conference. And, we’ve been doing this twice a year since 1831 – every October and every April for all those years.
It’s a Mormon ritual and we love it. We happily, even excitedly, tune in to be taught and uplifted by the leaders of our church.
While growing up in Utah, I remember listening to General Conference on the car radio or watching it on our local CBS News affiliate station.
It sounds like drudgery, doesn’t it? Listening to one speaker after another for hours on end during two of the most beautiful weekends of the year?
Typically, the first weekends of October and April are beautiful, and most people want to be outside enjoying the weather.
Not us Mormons.
No, we turn on our televisions, set the DVR in case we miss something, pull out journals, pens and paper for serious note taking, settle in for each two-hour session, and soak it up like other people who are outside soaking up the bright spring sun.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? But, General Conference is a staple in our religious culture.
Silly fools that we are, we live for it. I think we spiritually thirst for it like nomads thirsty for water in the desert.
But, why, what do we get out of it?
For starters, spiritual sustenance and manna, hope, courage, strength, faith, knowledge, revelation, wisdom, peace, comfort, insight, love, compassion, understanding, a sense of belonging and well-being, and motivation.
What I like most is the feeling that pours into our homes as we watch it. I imagine it’s how an infant feels while being cradled by a loving parent singing a soft, melodic lullaby – safe, protected, and nurtured.
So, while it sounds crazy, we love conference weekends. It’s like church, but better because we can wear pajamas if we want.
Although I rarely do because my Great Aunt Anna would scold me good for being so slovenly during Conference. She sat up straight in her old rocking chair, dressed in her finest Sunday clothing and didn’t miss a word that was spoken. She loved and reverenced those prophets and apostles so much that she wouldn’t even consider not wearing her finest clothes around them, even if they were just on TV.
While I won’t be dressed in my finest clothes, I will be taking in every word, just like my sweet Aunt Anna. And you know what? I’ll be sad when it’s over. When the Tabernacle Choir sings the last hymn and the closing prayer is said on Sunday evening, I’ll feel like it all went by too fast, and I’ll want to run around my house and gather up all the sweetness that distilled on my home over the weekend and savor it until October when I can experience it all over again.
Today as I left my house to go for a walk in the woods, I noticed the tiny buds on our magnolia tree and a few blossoms.
Spring is trying to happen, I thought, as I walked down the driveway, bundled in my fleece jacket and gloves.
As I walked along the trail, I saw a robin perched on a limb, its bright color a beautiful contrast to the brown, leafless trees.
Spring will come, I thought. After every long, cold winter, spring always comes.
It just always seems to take a little longer than we think it should.
Like life, so like life.
Change, improvement, second chances, sun on our path, light emerging out of darkness — it all comes.
It just takes more time than we want.
Like my unemployed friend whose full-time job is finding a job.
The wait is killing him.
“I keep being told to be patient. But, patience doesn’t pay the bills,” he says.
True. Waiting can be the hardest part.
On the eve of Easter, I think of those who watched the Savior die on a cross.
I can’t fathom the grief, sorrow, and pain they felt watching Him be crucified.
That unbearable Friday when He died; that Saturday in the tomb.
Those days had to be excruciating for those who loved and worshipped Him.
But, then, miraculously, on Sunday, he rose.
Like the long-awaited spring, He appeared, giving the world the priceless gift of hope.
As I walked along the trail, I thought of all the people I know who have made miraculous comebacks.
My brother, so addicted to drugs, we lost hope in him. Drugs enslaved him, and stole the man we knew and loved.
We couldn’t see a road back.
But, day by difficult and long day, he overcame addictions.
He rose after a long, steady fall. And continues to rise every day to fight his battle and reclaim his life.
My other brother, diagnosed with vascular disease, and then bitten by a brown recluse spider, lost his leg.
An avid boater, fisherman, hunter, brick mason, and handyman, he was suddenly housebound in a wheelchair, unable to walk.
He lost his way; thinking his so-called life as an amputee was no life at all.
He felt aimless and without purpose.
Until he discovered he was still a dad, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle, a friend, and that even without a leg, he could love them all fiercely and deeply.
He could help the sister through cancer, the brother through addictions, the daughters trying to create their own independent lives, the nephew trying to raise four small children.
While his life is not the one he planned or ever envisioned — and neither is his amazing wife’s — they too rise every morning, greet the day with gratitude, and fully live the lives they’ve been given.
I nearly cried as I walked this morning, thinking of one beautiful example after another of the people I love who rise after a fall.
That is the real meaning of Easter, isn’t it?
Just when you think spring will never come, you see a Robin on the grass to remind you that winter is on its way out.
Just when you think the phone will never ring with a job offer, it does.
Just when you think you or someone else can never recover, you do.
Change happens, people make comebacks, life gets better.
Last Friday, President Scott Wheatley, our church’s leader over the area from Vienna to Herndon, Virginia and everything in between, wondered what we could do as a community to help the Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey.
He contacted Kevin Calderwood, a church member from Reston who is now serving as a mission president in the New York South Mission of the church, overseeing 200 LDS missionaries. President Calderwood quickly responded and said the people there needed warm clothing, blankets and coats.
We sent out the word last Saturday that these good people needed our help.
I sent an email out to my neighbors, and other members of our congregations in this Northern Virginia area did the same. We also invited some of our church members in surrounding areas to join us by bringing clothing items and gift cards in $25 increments to help our missionaries buy food because they have depleted their own funds eating out. They can’t get back to their own homes for meals and they are spending all their waking hours hauling furniture out of homes and helping people one house at a time.
Local bishops announced an “Emergency Gifts of the Heart” donation event to be held at one of our buildings the next day. One couple in Frederick, Maryland immediately left the church, rallied their neighbors and joined other church members, packing up vans, trucks and a long trailer they towed to Oakton, Virginia because they felt the urgency of the call to help.
On Monday afternoon, the day before the election, when I showed up at the donation site, Stuart and Trina Neel, who organize a similar non-emergency “Gifts of the Heart” event like this twice a year, were busy putting up signs to direct cars through an efficient drive-thru where donors could drive up, drop off their donations and exit the parking lot. Our church members know this drill extremely well after participating in it for at least the last 10 years. In fact, Kevin Calderwood, the NY South mission president, is the church leader who really built up this event in the area all those years ago.
Little did he know then that the giving model he perfected would be the same one that would benefit him and those he serves so many years later when faced with perhaps the most challenging assignment in his life as the leader in an area hit by the “storm of the century.”
Slowly the volunteers came. They picked up yellow “Helping Hands” vests, went to their posts and the work began. Volunteers then started coming in hoards and didn’t stop all night. The cars lined up from the drive-up and drop-off area, out the parking lot and down Hunter Mill Road. And the line never let up all night long.
Vehicles stuffed from floor to ceiling continued to be unloaded by teenagers who used their day off from school to gladly help. They rushed the items into the gymnasium where a woman from Rockville had positioned her wheelchair for the evening to direct the teenagers where to put their bags of donations.
Then, hundreds of volunteers hurriedly grabbed bags, tore them open and began the massive sorting. When stacks of clothing became too high, they piled them neatly below the tables — infants, boys, girls, young women, young men, men and women. We saw boxes full of brand new towels, brand new coats. Families came together and every child had a job to do. The biggest challenge of the night was tracking down enough boxes for all the donations.
Becky Probst from Reston walked into the church and asked Trina what she could do to help. “Do you have a van?” she asked. “I have a van,” Becky said. “Then go find boxes — as many and as fast as you can.” Becky left and wondered where she could go that hadn’t all ready been cleaned out of boxes by other volunteers. Finally, she pulled her car over to the side of the road and said a prayer. “Help me find boxes,” she pled. The name of a man she’d worked with on a different project years before popped into her head, and that led her to another man who owned a moving company. She emailed him and he responded promptly asking,”How many do you need and when?” Without hesitation, he offered all the boxes we needed AND trucks, and drivers.
In one night, we filled five 26-foot trucks with not an inch to spare and still had boxes we would send up later with another church’s load later in the week. We collected over $45,000 in $25 gift cards, had 400 or more volunteers receiving, sorting, boxing, loading, about 2,500 boxes, 10,000 diapers and over 100 bags of summer clothing we donated to the MS Foundation locally.
Channel 9 and Channel 7 news reporters joined us along with Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Everyone was astounded at what we were able to do in 48 hours.
I put a collection bin on my porch and every time I returned home from an errand, I found more clothing. The bin overflowed, filled up my porch and the sidewalk leading up to the porch. The charitable goodness of my neighbors overwhelmed me. And, by far, the most frequent comment I heard was, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to help!”
We had no idea what our community could do in a weekend but when motivated purely by love and a desire to help others, we learned they could do miracles.
When the five-truck caravan arrived in New York and the back doors were opened, I hope the people there felt the love behind every jacket, pair of pants and warm quilt.
And you know what the second most often asked question was?
“What else can I do?”
I got emails from people wanting to take time off work to drive up and help. One was from a church leader in Mount Vernon that said, “I have people chomping at the bit to get up there and help! Just send me the word when it’s time and they’ll be off.”
For now, it’s hard for the rescue workers to accommodate extra people. They can’t feed and house more bodies with an infrastructure so badly ruined, but soon they will have need for manpower, and I have no doubt those calls for help will be answered swiftly and generously.
One of our church leaders was once asked how we get members of the church to do so much service. He wanted to know how we get young men to postpone college for two years while they serve missions and why older couples leave their grandchildren and aging parents to serve humanitarian missions. How do you get people to do so much?
The simple answer was this: We ask.
I’ve seen the same thing in good people everywhere over the last week.
To everyone who helped with this emergency service event, thank you.
It’s amazing how much good we can do in the world when we just respond to a simple call for help even if it’s as small as a $25 gift card, a coat, or a warm pair of mittens for a cold set of hands.
Last week we went to the beach in North Carolina. Annie invited a group of her high school friends to join us.
Every night after dinner we asked each other probing questions and talked about the big concepts of life.
Is there a God?
If so, what is He like?
Does God have a plan for us or are we in complete charge of our lives?
What beliefs and values shape your life?
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
What is faith?
Why do some people have faith and others don’t?
How can someone really live by faith?
Why is it so central to some people and irrelevant to others?
How do you know whether something is true and is there such a thing as truth?
This group of 19-year old college students astound me with their passion for answers to these questions.
They are achievement-oriented and live their lives “on purpose.”
They believe that being their best matters.
They believe in being good people and they know right from wrong. Even though there are many questions on their minds, they are clear about their own ethics and morals. They are true to what they believe even though they are still sorting out what it is they really believe.
They all come from different religion backgrounds and some grew up without any religious influence in their lives at all.
Yet, they yearn to define themselves. They want to stand for something.
Part of me wanted to tell them all the answers to these life questions because after living so many years, I’ve figured a lot of things out.
But part of me relished the conversation, the struggle, the growth that comes from figuring out life on your own.
I enjoyed listening to what they wonder about, what scares and worries them.
I learned their fears and questions aren’t much different from my own, and that while I have a strong set of beliefs and values, I have much to learn from them.
I wanted to tell them what it’s like to grow up and finally have all the answers.
I discovered two problems with that.
First, we only learn by experience and by figuring things out ourselves.
Second, and most important, I still don’t have all the answers.
Even after all these years of forming my own beliefs and relying on a certain set of religious guideposts, I still have a lot to learn.
And I love learning it from optimistic, bright, questioning 19-year olds whose minds are on fire with curiosity.
There is power in their intellectual form of gymnastics as they ask hard questions, and seek inspired answers.
Our conversations reminded me of Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s words: “The time has come for us to stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of who we are and what we stand for…This is a time to move forward without hesitation, knowing well the meaning, breadth and importance of our own mission…It is a time to do what is right regardless of the consequences…It is a season to reach out with kindness and love to those in distress and to those who are wandering in darkness and pain…It is a time to be considerate and good, decent and courteous toward one another in all our relationships…It is a time to nurture yourself spiritually, intellectually and to have no fears, no doubts about your future.”
This stellar group of friends are living up to these words, giving me no doubts about my future because I feel assured that as I age and they take my place as the responsible adults in life, I am in capable hands.