Saturday, October 27, 2007

Becoming Churched

While mother was sick, I went to Church each Sunday with my dad. Dad was a counselor in the bishopric and so we went early and entered a quiet, almost empty chapel. Dad had business to attend to before the meetings and I’d find “my” bench, the second brown, wooden bench in the center section, sit down, and fight the feelings of aloneness and detachment that began to swell in me like seasickness. Being alone is uncomfortable. Being small and alone is terrifying. To my right, metal trays clanked as priests prepared for the sacrament. To my left, people slowly trickled in through large double doors. As the minutes went by, more and more people came, towering over me, moving, talking, smiling, but not at me. I was invisible. However, about the time the feelings worked their way into my eyes where they threatened to spill out in tears, the organ began to play. Organ music is unlike any other–especially when playing hymns. Most music communicates directly to the ears. Organ music communicates deep into the marrow of the bones and then quivers its way through every cell until at last it reaches the ears. Felt before it is heard, organ music has a tangible element that wrapped me in its goodness and began to comfort away my fears.
Dad sat on the stand with Bishop Duncan and from where I sat in the huge sea of the congregation all I could see over the podium was Bishop Duncan’s snow white hair and Dad’s brown, spiky crew-cut. It was a strange feeling being among so many people and yet feeling so alone. The beauty was that once the meeting started the feeling of aloneness vanished. I forgot all about me and was suddenly part of something more–I never understood what, but I could feel it, and I knew it was real.
This particular day Dad was conducting. His familiar voice sent extra comfort into my heart as he gave the announcements. Then came more organ music and all those people joined in for the opening song. By that time–just minutes into the meeting–more than just comfort filled me. Utter joy enveloped me. I can’t sing. As Dad used to say, “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” but I loved the hymns so I’d open the hymn book and sing with my heart letting everyone else’s voices wrap around mine to disguise it.
After the singing, came the quiet moments of the Sacrament. I’m not sure how old I was. I know I hadn’t been baptized yet and didn’t fully understand the Sacrament, but what I felt means more to me now than all the understanding I’ve since gained. A quiet, transcendental feeling lifted me, instructing me without words and filling me with awe at the paradox of ordinary bread and water representing the most crucial moment in the history of the world.
I realize now that sitting alone made me more perceptive to what was going on. When I was sitting with Mother the borders of my awareness extended only to her. Like a satellite my world rotated around her going where she went, doing what she told me to do, not thinking or experiencing anything but her. When she was there to care for me, I was oblivious to most everything else. But being alone I had to care for myself and that meant being aware. Thus my borders expanded to the very walls of the chapel. I saw things and felt things that I would never have experienced had she been there.
After the Sacrament, Fast and Testimony meeting began. My tall, handsome father stood, bore his testimony, and invited the congregation to share theirs. I knew Dad was speaking to everyone, but for some reason that day I felt like the invitation was especially for me. I had never had that feeling before–had never born my testimony. But I’d been to testimony meetings every month of my life and so I knew how it was done. There were no microphones in those days, people just stood where they were and began to speak. Usually I loved to hear the many different ways of saying the same thing–the gospel is true!–but that day I didn’t hear a word. All I kept hearing was Dad’s invitation and the words bubbling up from my overflowing heart.
As each person sat down, I’d command myself to stand up. But despite the desire, fear cemented me to the wooden bench. Faster than ever the hour passed until I realized that if I didn’t stand next I wouldn’t get to. That thought pushed me up, and I stood to bear my simple testimony. I don’t remember how I began, but I know that I was saying, “I am thankful for my parents,” when my Dad stood and thanked the congregation for their testimonies. Startled, I stared at him hoping he’d see me and invite me to go on. Instead he announced the closing hymn and the person who would give the benediction. My face burned in what I was sure was real fire as I sank to the bench without an amen.
I didn’t sing the closing hymn, nor did I feel the organ music surge through me. Instead I battled the feelings tearing at my heart. The prayer said, I ran from the chapel and didn’t stop till I reached home. Mother tried to tell me it was all right, and when Dad got home he apologized. I could tell he felt almost as badly as I did. He explained that it was only after the meeting when people told him what he’d done that he knew he’d interrupted.
It was five years before I attempted to bear my testimony again. I had one and I knew I had one. Even though my first attempt at bearing it was a disaster, the feelings that had prompted me continued to grow in proportion to the fear that kept me from doing so until one Sunday the feelings overpowered the fear, the legs stood firm, and the words came. It was then I learned how much stronger faith is than fear. Faith fed by years of organ music, congregations singing, people doing what’s right, people making mistakes yet trying hard to do what is right, talks and lessons accompanied by the warmth of the Holy Ghost, and especially the spiritual banquet of the sacrament slowly healed my fear.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I still love Sacrament meetings. They heal.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Becoming a Writer

My father loved books. Especially Church books. He read the scriptures and every new book about the scriptures that came out. I remember watching him read and marveling at the power of words that captivated him so that he wasn’t even aware I was in the room. I could do almost anything while Dad was reading and not get in trouble. He was far away--in his book.
But watching him read made me wish with all my heart that I could decipher the code to unlock the words so I could read myself. I wanted to go to the places he went and know the things he knew. Sometimes when he set a book down and left the room, I’d pick it up, breath in the scent that wafted off the pages as I opened the book—new books had a light, meadow smell and old ones a heavy, oily smell. I’d close my eyes to savor the taste and then slowly open my eyes as if somehow the scent was a magic power that would allow me to read. But still the black marks were only black marks. Other times when I stared at the black marks long enough, they seemed to lift from the page and dance. As soon as I focused to see better they settled onto the page and behaved. I never seemed to be able to keep them dancing.
But there was something more than the desire to read that drove me. I wanted more than anything to write my own books, and I knew I had to learn to read before I could write. I’m certain the desire to write came into this world with me. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a major part of me. Long before I could read or write I spent hours making up stories and longing to be able to write them down so they wouldn’t float away like leaves in the ditch.
One day before I started kindergarten, Dad came home with a teacher’s edition of the Dick and Jane readers and gave it to me. It was a thick green book that contained all the first grade primers and instructions for teachers on how to teach reading. I opened to the first picture page and Dad helped me sound out the words. Now that he explained it, it was so simple. Each mark had its own sound. All I needed to do was learn the sounds. For the next few weeks, I pestered mother while she dusted and scrubbed asking what sound each letter made and learning the digraphs and diphthongs. Before long I was hurrying through Dick and Jane and devouring any book I could lay my hands on. My favorite were fantasy stories, especially the classical fantasy stories by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.
Maybe because I loved them so much, I had always figured that must be what Dad read so intently. One day I picked up a book he’d been reading—the kind with no pictures—and discovered to my horror that his books weren’t stories at all. Every book that had ever been read to me was a story. But Dad’s books were ideas and thoughts that other people had. I smiled to think that for years I had longed to read his books so I could talk with him about the stories. But in Dad’s books nothing happened to talk about. It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate Dad’s books and then we talked and I discovered ideas were even more fun to discuss than stories. That’s when Dad’s books became my passion also.
It wasn’t long after I learned to read the first Dick and Jane books, I began making my own books. I’d write my story along the bottom half of a page, illustrate the story on the top half , fold the pages, collate them, staple them together at the spine, paint a bright cover, and go door to door selling them. Most people said, “No, thank you.” But Mrs. Torrey and Aunt Nora always invited me in to inspect my books. They’d give me milk and cookies and we’d eat as they oohed and awed over the cover. They’d read the text out loud, praised my great story telling abilities, and ask when I was going to write my next book. How I loved those women.
After our conversation, Aunt Nora would reach into her apron pocket, pull out a penny or a nickel, and buy my book. Mrs. Torrey would tell me how much she’d like to buy my book, but that she just didn’t have any money right then. It didn’t matter. I’d tell her she could have the book anyway and her delight at such a gift was more than enough payment for a five year old. Come to think of it, it’s still enough payment for me. What more could I ever have asked?
Years later as I suffered through the years of rejection slips and returned manuscripts, memories of encouraging words over cookies and milk kept me going. After all, someone, someplace had liked my writing! When I finally sold my first story, I wished that Aunt Nora and Mrs. Torrey were still alive so I could thank them. When I glimpsed my first book sitting on a bookstore shelf, I said a little prayer of gratitude for two women whose small acts of kindness made all the difference in my life. Hopefully someday and in some way I can be as encouraging to someone else.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Footsteps of Paul

On May 21st to June 2nd of 2008, I'm taking a group on a cruise to explore some of the places where Paul the Apostle taught. We'll focus on the life changing doctrines he taught while walking in the very places he walked--and sailing in the very places he sailed!

We'll also exlore the religious center of the ancient Aegean area, Mykonos, Turkey’s Ephesus, the Acropolis in Rhodes, The temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, and the historical, architectural and spiritual sites of Rome to name but a few.
At this point the trip includes: Rome and Naples, Italy; Athens, Mykonos and Rhodes, Greece; Ephesus, Turkey; Limassol, Cyprus; and Alexandria, Egypt.

For more information contact Concord Cruise and Travel
1-801-229-7600 or 1-888-305-9959

As I get more information on the trip, I'll post it here. So keep checking!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Scripture Power

I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by wonderful parents. My father loved the scriptures and many a family meal was seasoned by scripture discussions. I grew up listening to stories of Captain Moroni and Nephi and all the great Book of Mormon prophets told not from a book but from my father’s heart. They were as much a part of our home life as the furniture. Because of this I loved the scriptures and read them whenever I had time or was in need which I thought was often enough. But I had only been married eight years when I found out that “whenever” isn’t often enough.
At that time I was called to be on a committee to help write lesson manuals for the Church auxiliaries. I was the youngest person on the six member committee and intimidated (to put it mildly!) by the other very accomplished men and women. The committee met weekly at five o’clock in the evening which meant that the men came directly from work and didn’t have time to eat, so sandwiches were provided. During the first few minutes of each meeting we ate and talked about our week.
It wasn’t too many weeks into the assignment when I realized that one of the reasons these people were so wonderful is that every one of them started their day with scripture reading. They didn’t just read scriptures once in a while when they had time. It was part of their daily routine just like brushing their teeth or eating breakfast. They never missed and it wasn’t because someone had told them they should do it. They did it because they loved it. They did it because it fed their souls. That was very evident by the way they talked. If time were a problem and they had to leave something out of their day, they would rather leave out the brushing of teeth or the making of the bed or the eating of breakfast than the scripture study! Mind you, none of them told me these things in those words; it was just evident.
But then something else began to occur to me. Week after week as we ate and talked about our lives, I realized that these people didn’t just read the scriptures. What they learned each morning was an integral part of their lives. They’d mention stories about the problems they were having with their teenage children and how one morning as they were reading scripture the thought came to them of what to do to solve the problem. They’d tell about caring for older parents and how just at the point of utter discouragement their morning reading buoyed them up and allowed them to serve with charity. Week after week the stories continued, not in a preachy or holier than thou way, but with a feeling of gratitude and a matter of fact certainty that scripture reading always brought those kind of results.
As I already stated, I loved the scriptures and I knew that the prophets had asked us to study the scriptures daily, but I had four children under the age of seven and somehow figured that exempted me. But as I listened and learned from these amazing people, I realized that I was cheating myself. Because of their example, I began to make scripture study a daily priority and to experience the blessings for myself.
Often in Church I’d heard stories of someone pondering a problem. Seeking answers, they’d go to the scriptures and miraculously open to the very verse that answered their problem. I’ve never had that experience. What I realized as I began to study daily is that it wasn’t always the words I was reading that brought the answers. I could be reading about Alma digging trenches and building walls to fortify cities, and somehow the answer would come to me as to what a particular child needed or what decision I needed to make to solve a certain problem. What I learned is that by setting aside time and going to a sacred place (the scriptures), I created time and space for the Spirit to speak to me about what I needed to know and to do. Yes, I learned the scripture stories and the doctrines of the gospel, which has been an enormous blessing in my life, but the greatest blessings came from what was communicated to me “between the lines.” The scriptures have lifted me when I was discouraged. They have comforted me when in physical pain. They have guided when I could see no way out of a problem. They have increased my joy when I was already happy. They have empowered me to do things I never imagined I could do. In short, I have been nourished by the good word.
Jacob once asked, "After ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?" Jacob 6:7 The obvious answer to that question Jacob is, “No!” There is no way you can remain in the trenches of discouragement or darkness or despair if you are constantly nourished by the good word. I learned that for myself. There is transcendent power in the words of the scriptures. There is comfort, love, peace, and joy in making them part of our daily lives.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Mother's Recipe Box

Mother was starting to get better. She was out of the bed more than she was in it, and she got dressed in real clothes in the mornings. But we were still going to people’s houses during part of the day so she could rest. One morning, however, I begged to stay home. I could help her. I was big enough. I wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be a help. I made all kinds of promises and pleaded until finally she agreed.
I was so excited when my brother, Bryant, was picked up and I was left to take care of Mom. I felt so grown-up and was even more excited because of the feeling of stability that staying home gave me. This was affirmation that things would be normal again. Life would return to the routine I knew and loved. It was proof to me that Mother wasn’t going to die and leave us. But the morning didn’t play out the way I thought it would. It was supposed to be warm and wonderful—the happy ever after ending of a terrible ordeal. But it wasn’t. Mother was irritable.
She wanted to be back to doing the work that defined her life. But her energy didn’t match her desire. She’d dust a few things and then have to sit down. She’d sweep and have to lie down. She’d wash a few breakfast dishes and collapse on the couch only to come back and find the water cold and the suds gone, so she’d start over. I tried to help, but was aware that I was in her way. I watched. I listened. I tried to figure out a way to win her favor. After all, my future depended upon it. If I was of help maybe I’d get to stay home the next day, too.
I have no idea what happened next—whether I did something wrong or said something I shouldn’t but suddenly she was very upset with me and told me I had to sit on a chair for forty-five minutes. It must have been something awful because the normal time-out was a half hour. Mother pulled one of the chrome with green nagahyde chairs to the center of the room and plopped me on it. I was not to move off the chair. Disciplining me had exhausted her. She went back to bed.
I watched the red second hand swirl past the big black numerals on the clock. It didn’t go around once before that grew boring. I twisted my legs around the cold chrome chair legs and wished I could at least have a book to read—wondered if I dared ask her for one. I scanned the spotless kitchen noticing how the light reflected in the polished wax floor. Then glancing at the counter I saw something unusual—a pile of cuttings from magazines next to mother’s recipe box. Usually nothing sat out on mother’s counters—ever. But this pile had been there for several days now and every time mother passed it, she commented on how she needed to get her recipes organized. The night before I’d heard her tell Dad that this was one task she could do. After all it didn’t take much energy to organize recipe cards, but even that she couldn’t seem to get to. She had decided to leave it out until it was done. It was her way of forcing herself to do it no matter how tired she was. Even I had recognized the sound of discouragement in her voice.
Suddenly, as I saw the pile and remembered her words, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Surely if I organized the cards for her she’d not only commute my time on the chair, but let me stay home every day ever after to help. I’d just learned to read and I knew all about organizing written things into alphabetical order. So I scooted the chair to the counter and opened the metal file box. There were already a lot of cards in the box. The first cards had titles that read, Orange Rolls, Bread Sticks, then Cornbread Muffins. No wonder mother was so distressed. This did need organizing.
Quickly I emptied the entire box onto the counter. The white index cards spilled everywhere. In addition there were light-brown tabbed cards, but instead of the alphabet like at the library, they had words on them. I didn’t bother to even read them. They were only printed on one side and so I turned the cards over and carefully printed letters on the tabs. There weren’t 26 cards with tabs, so I doubled up the last letters of the alphabet so that I had a card for every letter and put them into the box. Then I began the task of organizing. I remember feeling so proud. Certainly this would change mother’s irritable mood. I would make her so happy. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about this task any more.
Quickly I put the Apple Strudel card under the A tab and the Chocolate Delight Cake under the C tab, Savory Beef Flank under the S tab, and the Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie under the P tab. I worked fast, filled with a consuming sense of purpose and delight. Soon I had the cards that had been in the box alphabetized, but I wondered what to do with the loose clippings on the counter. I knew that pile was what really bothered mother. Many cards in the box were written on, but there were also a lot of clippings taped to cards. That’s probably what she wanted. But I couldn’t get to the tape without getting off the chair. I pondered what to do and finally decided that if I just took the box into mother’s bedroom and showed her what I had done so far, she would be so delighted she would let me off the chair. I could get the tape, finish the job, and bask in her satisfaction.
I know my smile filled my whole face. I could feel each side of it hooking onto my ears. I had a surprise and didn’t even think about the fact that I was getting off the chair before it was time. After all what would that matter when mother saw how I had helped her? I walked boldly into her room, the box stretched out in front of me as if I were carrying a crown to the queen. Mother opened her eyes half way, but before she could say anything, I did. “You know how you wanted to organize your recipes? Well, I did it for you. Look.”
She took the box, opened it, and squealed. “What have you done?”
This reaction was even more than I had expected. “I alphabetized every one for you,” I said proudly.
“You what?” Only then did I realize that she was not delighted. She sat up with more energy than I had seen in weeks. She grabbed my arm, pulled me back to the kitchen, put me on the chair, told me to stay there another forty-five minutes and that if I dared touch anything, I’d have to answer to my father when he got home.
Shocked, I watched her scoop up the clippings and recipes and disappear back into her bedroom. I’d never in all my life seen her so mad. Baffled I could only stare after her. I’d done something wonderful and she rewarded me like this? The sickness had changed her. This wasn’t my mother. Why wasn’t she praising me and thanking me? Instead she was so mad I dared not ask. Quietly I wept out my forty-five minutes and then spent the rest of the day trying to stay out of her way.
It wasn’t until many years later while sitting in my first day of seventh-grade-cooking class that I understood what had happened. The cooking teacher had a desk full of items we would need to purchase for the class. She showed us the text book, an apron that would have our name embroidered on it, a recipe box, and the white-lined index cards on which we would write our recipes. Then she held up a stack of light brown cards with tabs. Each tab had a word printed on it. I recognized them at once. Shuffling through the stack she read the words I hadn’t read that long ago day: appetizers, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.. As she explained that we would organize our recipes under these labels knowledge in the form of lightening jolted through me. That’s why Mom had been so mad those years before. Recipes weren’t alphabetized! I hadn’t organized her box, I’d unorganized it! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—finally I understood.
I learned a great lesson from this experience that I have tried to remember. Sometimes when people hurt or hinder you, they are actually trying to help you. I also gained a deep sense of gratitude for the fact that Father in Heaven judges us not just on our actions, but on the desires of our heart.

Monday, October 1, 2007

My Grandmother's Bible

Probably because I didn’t have a grandmother, I grew up acutely aware of the wonder of grandmothers. From stories and from hearing my friends talk, I knew that grandmothers loved you no matter what you did. I also knew that rather than wait for special occasions like Christmas or your birthday to give you gifts, Grandmothers made occasions so they could give you gifts. Even though both my grandmothers died before I knew them, true to her grandmother calling, my Grandmother Mills gave me one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.
It happened shortly before my eighth birthday. My father was going through some old boxes and found a small pink Bible that had belonged to his mother. At one time it must have been red, but it had faded and frayed with age. Dad looked at it a few minutes, leafed through the pages, and then handed it to me. “This was my mother’s,” he said. “Do you want it?”
Of course I did! I’d never had anything that belonged to my grandmothers. Excitedly I took the book into my hands savoring the feel of the hard, cloth cover. Opening the pages, I discovered it had no pictures, but delighted in the old, stale odor that emanated from the browned paper. It wasn’t marked with handwriting in the margins and lines under the words like my father’s Bible. Instead the lonely printed words lined up on every page waiting to be discovered, but I didn’t try to read it I think because I’d often heard adults say that the Bible was too difficult to read.
For the next few days, the book was never far from me, and at all times I was aware of where it was—as if it were a center that I radiated around. I took the Bible into the orchard, I held it during lunch, I used it for a table when I played dolls, I slept with it under my pillow delighting in the sensation of it emanating through the pillow to warm my dreams. Often I ran my fingers over the pink cover savoring the feel. I didn’t have a grandmother, but I had her book. She had once held this and now I was touching it. That was as close as I would ever be to her, and I tried imagining how she looked when she read the book, and where she put the book when she wasn’t reading it, and how often she read the book, and what she thought of the book.
For days this went on and then something happened. The details of where I was are unclear to me. In my memory I remember mostly the sun—as if I were outside at noon on a very bright day. But that may just be because of what happened. What I do remember is that it suddenly occurred to me that I should read the book and at the same time I was amazed that I hadn’t determined to read it before. I loved to read. Here I had a book and I hadn’t even tried to read it because of the things I’d heard about how different Bible language was and how difficult to read. But I could read! I could read well. Why had I let what I’d heard stop me? So I opened the book and read the first verse my eyes lit on: “When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing” (John 9:7).
I had no trouble reading the words, but that wasn’t the miracle. As I read, the most amazing feeling pulsed through me. I felt lifted as if I could fly and bright as if I’d suddenly become the sun, and my mind tumbled with thought. I knew the verse was about Jesus, and my body resonated with feelings assuring me without words, “Jesus is the Christ. Jesus Christ really lived and really died for you. It is true. Jesus is our Savior. Jesus is the Christ.”
I don’t know what I did next. I do know the feeling stayed with me for the next few days slowly fading until I deflated to normal. I no longer carried the book around. Instead I put it in a special place in my room where I could see it every time I entered the room and let it remind me of what had happened. Often, I read the same passage again and many other passages, yearning for another similar experience, but the intense feeling of light and love didn’t come back. However, I couldn’t read the book without the memory of that first experience returning to slightly warm me. More importantly, the things I learned have never left me.
It would be a few years before I recognized that it was the Spirit that touched my soul that day and taught me eternal truths. Until then I only understood that it was my grandmother’s Bible that had precipitated the blessing. I now realize that on that sunny day, God gave me two blessings—a testimony of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and an assurance that even though my grandmother had moved on she was and would always be a part of my life. For both gifts I will be forever grateful.