Burning Questions: A Conference Compilation

One of my takeaways I’ve from October Conference is the preponderance of questions within the talks. Not just rhetorical ones— the typical set-up questions that direct the listener to answers within their talk—but questions meant for us to consider asking ourselves or God. These questions encouraged personal, direct communication with God, reflection on our life path, and contemplation on life’s struggle and meaning. Perhaps the Come Follow Me1 model of asking the right questions is creeping into conference talks. I like it. Here are some of my favorites. Continue reading

Forever Yours: The Poems of my Grandparents

One of the most fascinating things about my grandparents is studying their relationship dynamic—especially their courtship years. Dorothy Smith and Ellsworth Clark dated for about two years in the early 1930’s while attending the University of Utah. Theirs was a protracted, sometimes bumpy affair marked with with long absences when Ellsworth spent summers home in Idaho working the hay fields or selling suits with his father. Even when their engagement became official, Ellsworth left—at Dorothy’s suggestion—for a six-month Western States mission. This proved fruitful ground for angst-filled letters filled with both doubt and devotion.

Among all the letters my grandma saved, there are a number of poems from their courtship. Because Dorothy seems to have thrown out some of the letters she wrote (there are significantly more letters from Ellsworth in the collection), these poems help tell a fuller picture of their courtship. In reading them, I am struck how in such a relatively short time in history, love letters and poems have devolved into texts, selfies, and tweets. In all that we have gained in convenience, we have lost the ability to communicate intimately and thoughtfully. Modern convenience has robbed our minds of time spent waiting, yearning, forming thoughts, and pondering. Continue reading

Gifts from Strangers

Over the past few weeks following Jane’s heart surgery, our family received many gifts: meals, kind words, help with children, and numerous crafts, toys, and cards that otherwise helped fill our stomachs, alleviate stress, and pass our time.

It is especially humbling and poignant to receive from those we don’t know well. A girl who played soccer for Ed made Jane a blanket to comfort her in the hospital. A couple at our church reached out to inquire how Jane was doing, as they had fasted for her. A neighbor whose children are grown asked if it would be alright if he brought Jane a doll. School friends visited in the hospital and at home, and those we know just as acquaintances brought cards and gifts. On top of this, my siblings and parents have revealed their generosity in thought and deed. Last week, we even received an anonymous gift to help with Christmas. Continue reading

Give Me this Mountain

Now therefore give me this mountain. – Joshua 14:12

Every fall, when the folds of the Wasatch Mountains soften with ripening leaves, and her peaks catch light from the lowering sun, I am unsettled. My old refuge, these canyons have wrapped within her secret places of years past. As a child, we cooked enormous breakfasts on my father’s propane stove, took nature walks and collected leaves. As I grew we retreated there with boys, keeping warm under the big quilts our mothers made. My friend Mike and I wore out our copy of Hiking the Wasatch during my college years, systematically conquering peak after peak. During this time I found a favorite place—Mt. Aire—and returned there often alone, to read and think. Now, as my minivan wears down the miles at her foothills, I am too often resigned to the daily minutia that keeps me from her trails. Continue reading

Stealing Peonies

Stealing Peonies
To Annie Virginia Chamberlain

My grandma’s home in Poplar Grove was an oasis of certainty in an uncertain place. Her double lot on the corner of Navajo and Wasatch had been in the family for two generations, but it was just hers now. Inside, it was an evolving patchwork of hand-hewn cabinets and pink homewallpaper. Outside, a bright stamp of green and pink in a neighborhood of thumping cars and chain link fences. Years of raising chickens made the roses flush with color and grass so thick that mowing was an aching chore that stole the Saturdays of our fathers and brothers. On one corner there was a pine so tall we could play under its boughs standing up. On the other, a patio surrounded by roses, a clothesline, and large patch of pink peonies. Continue reading

The Things We Keep

With a toss of her hair, my daughter disappeared down a narrow tunnel called Junior High. I peer at her in there, stubborn and beautiful, through an entrance too small for my maternal and clumsy reach. So, in a surge of both yearning and domestic sanitation I decided to clean her room. It was Saturday and she was away at an all-day rehearsal. I had time.

When you clean a teenager’s room, you are compelled to overturn the rock of their hidden world and see, half-frightened, what wriggles beneath. Pull back the bed and you will find secrets: candy wrappers, forgotten notes and all the dusty things she aches to tell you but never will. Empty the closet and the smell will wrap you in melancholy. Bring everything out from its hiding place you will mark the chaotic battle between girl and woman, strewn in a sea of nail polish, socks, and teddy bears.

After a few hours I found myself surrounded by piles. Some were easy to define. Garbage. Laundry. Hair things. Pencils. Other piles were more elusive as I struggled to attach meaning to the growing piles of Things We Keep: the regrettable souvenirs, the trophies everyone gets, and the swollen, tumbling mass of church paraphernalia. It was the last pile that troubled me the most. What would I do with the trinkets, handouts, crafts, bookmarks, framed pictures, quotes, stories, empty journals (at least eight), and other minutia she had accumulated over her short 13 years of church attendance. They were thoughtfully given and kindly received, but what did they mean?

Take girls camp. She returned with a camp shirt, matching bandana, cowboy hat, stick horse, modge podge temple scene, secret sister gifts, a miniature lantern, a foam noodle flotation device and bags of candy. She had the snipe hunt. She had The Testimony Meeting Where Everyone Cries. She had a blast. Months later I sit surrounded by the material reminders of her experience and wonder if her spiritual self is suffocating under the weight of material things. And by extension, are leaders so burdened with the expectations of providing stuff  that we laden our youth—especially our young women—with too many things, often at the expense of more meaningful experiences?

 Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your alabor for that which cannot bsatisfy…- 2 Nephi 9:51

While gifts and impactful conversion are not mutually exclusive, the evidence around me revealed a dependence on gospel paraphernalia, as if growth were impossible material reward. As I recalled my own experiences as a vulnerable youth, I craved the time, respect, and attention of my leaders. I appreciated those few who got to know me personally, and showed a genuine concern for my spiritual welfare.

Now, as one who teaches youth I understand the fear of going in bare, without material support to shore up a lesson. Sometimes, gifts of treats and trinkets reflect our my own efforts to “make up the difference”. Our mind wanders from our lesson prep and searches for that one gift that will gild the lily or that clever quote that will impress. As we ask, “Is it enough?”, do we resist the urge to plug the hole of our own spiritual inadequacy with a scrolled quote and a bow? We have been reminded,

“… my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;
-Ether 12:26

When we utilize the gift of grace we are promised ensure our teaching is sufficient in the Lord’s eyes. It is enough. And yet, not every gift is a crutch. Often material gifts, treats, and incentives open the door for more spiritual gifts that may not otherwise be attainable for some. My mother has taught me that the visiting teaching message goes down much better with banana bread. Receiving the medallion in the Young Women’s Personal Progress has become a unifying symbol among women in the church. And often through the benign process of crafting or creating, doors of fellowship are opened.

Because of the subjective nature of such gifts, gospel “extras” should be a matter prayerful discretion and not fodder for the classroom arms race. With four daughters and 24 cumulative years of Young Women’s ahead of them, I look at the perils (and piles) ahead and hope that we can love them more and give them less. When Christ walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they were left with no gift but a burning heart:

And they said one to another, Did not our aheart bburn within us, while he ctalked with us by the way… – Luke 24: 32 

The courage to rely on respectful, thoughtful discussion and most importantly, the Spirit will perpetuate a pattern of learning that can be mirrored in the real world. Especially in light of the missionary age change, this generation of girls should be taught the gospel unfettered so that they are armed with the full force of gospel knowledge and power. I don’t know how the gospel message for young women became so entrenched in the cutesified world of Pinterest-inspired crafts, themes, and decor, where gospel truths are reduced to the obligatory bite-size treat, but scaling back even a little and dedicating that time instead to personal attention would yield spiritual dividends. With the new Young Women’s curriculum goals stated as conversion to the gospel, such attention to the personal, spiritual needs of each young woman is essential.

Imagine Christ, instead of walking and talking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, giving instead that same message as a handout (scrolled, of course), themed shirt (or robe?), and treat (honeycomb?) and sending them on their way. Would it have the same spiritual impact? While some may miss the superfluous, I would trade it all for my daughter to settle in for her Sunday afternoon nap feeling the love of the Lord and her leaders and think, “Did not my heart burn within me?”

di1A few weeks ago I happened to be at D.I.* looking for a used photo frame. What I saw among the stacks of used and broken pictures was a large scale version of the pile in my daughter’s room. Framed images of Christ, portraits of the prophets, discarded copies Proclamation to the World: The Family with pressed flowers still intact, framed temples, various gospel art, and quotes from church leaders and scriptures. These sad, discarded images embodied an opportunity lost to choose grace over gifts, and the need to wean ourselves from this clutter and reach for the elusive courage to embrace the gospel it unfettered by an excess of adornments.

di2 In the end, she kept a few things from the church pile, but not many. A drawing of the empty tomb. A photo of the temple. A tile with quote on faith placed among the jewelry boxes and jars. After a day of sifting through her elusive world my tenderness for her swelled, as did my hope for her honorable return from the teen tunnel. That would be gift enough.

*Deseret Industries is a thrift store operated by the LDS Church.