Astonishing and Humbling Contrasts

Neal Kramer rides again!. See his earlier posts here, here, and here.

I am reeling from the vast contrasts I have experienced in the past 10 days. Late last night I returned home from one of the most wrenching and emotionally intense experiences of my life. I slowly and gingerly took off my jacket and placed it on our bed, grabbed a glass of water, and then sat down on the sofa in my basement. Suddenly but profoundly, all the emotion I had been trying to hold back for nearly 36 hours just burst to the surface. I collapsed into convulsive and uncontrollable weeping. I felt overwhelmingly violated, drawn unwittingly by my civic duty into a real world more distressing than any I had witnessed since I read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. My wife and daughters sought to comfort me but solace seemed impossible. I had served as a juror in a rape trial. I was forced to follow, with grim intensity and concentration, detail after detail of foolish decisions, brute force, intimate violation, shock, terror, loss of humanity, and self-destruction. Vast destruction of the soul. My mind was flooded with images of hell taken straight from an unfinished basement in Orem, Utah. It was an utterly obscene experience. I will spare you the details.

As I recovered, I first begged my 22-year-old senior at BYU daughter to be more prudent about where she went and when. And I mean begged. I wanted to clasp my five daughters and eight granddaughters close to my bosom in the safety of the home my wife and I have so carefully cultivated for all of them. And then my soul was flooded with gratitude for apostles and prophets who had taught me to respect and honor womanhood, admonished me to keep myself pure, who had urged me to reject and be disgusted by pornography and sexual exploitation. I was eternally grateful for sacred covenants binding me in purity and power to my family. I was suddenly aware of how precious our somewhat banal daily righteousness is. Scripture study. Prayer. Family activities. Chaste hugs. Homemade ice cream. And I was deeply grateful for my righteous, loving, sweet, clean sons-in-law. True men of Christ. I have never been more grateful to be an average, wholesome Mormon. Hug your sons and daughters and praise God for his tender mercies to so many of us.

A week ago from last weekend, I experienced a contrast now even more precious to me than when it happened. I was able to attend a regional stake conference for 135 stakes here in Utah and Wasatch counties. We heard from four specially assigned church leaders who had prepared remarks to challenge us to repent and be truly grateful for the Lord and His church: Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Ann Monson Dibb of the General Young Women’s Presidency, President Boyd K. Packer of the Twelve, and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency. It was a marvel of the fusion of technology and spiritual communication. I had tried to be as obedient to my Stake President’s wishes as possible by attending the temple on Friday and the adult meeting on Saturday night. My response may indicate nothing more than my feeling blessed for having been obedient.

I want to share something from each of the talks with all of you. I hope I can convey the inspiration I found during those two hours.

Elder Jensen is a sensitive, generous, and unassuming man. His talk reflected his character. The focus of his talk was for us to develop empathy for people we may casually think of as different. He told us about his brother, Gary. Gary had the blood flow to his brain temporarily halted during birth. It left him with permanent brain damage. It left him simple and trusting, but different. He was open to the tricks and mockery of others. Elder Jensen related a simple story of a boy telling Gary to have a dog lick his ice cream cone and resume eating it himself. It brought a great derisive laugh from the boys around him. This laid the foundation of a talk about learning to accept those with differences, to expand our personal circle of empathy, a necessary virtue for true followers of Christ.

This talk was directed to church members. Elder Jensen then proceeded to remind us that inside the church, in part because of commitment to high ideals and the pride that can come from believing we have achieved them, we have the unrighteous tendency to think of some church members as different: “divorced, unmarried, childless, depress, struggling with same-sex attraction, not having gone on missions, racial minorities.” (my notes)

Elder Jensen then reminded us, quite powerfully, that it is the lot of all of us who seek to keep the commandments to fall short. He then suggested that this self-awareness (undergirded by doctrine) should teach us to “be more genuinely concerned for and understanding of those (like us) who fall short” of achieving LDS ideals.

He turned inward and told us that as a priesthood leader for most of his adult life he had found himself thinking that he was “looking for lost sheep.” He then focused intently on each of us (through the TV) and said he now knew that he was not among the ninety and nine but that he too was a lost: “each of us is not merely a finder of lost sheep—we are lost sheep.”

He then led us through Carol Lynn Pearson’s (mentioned by name) beautifully simple lyrics to a primary song:

That’s how I’ll show my love for you
I’ll talk with you, I’ll walk with you
That’s how I’ll show my love for you

One last quotation: “I seriously doubt that there will be anyone in the Celestial Kingdom who is not kind.”

It was sweet and beautiful. A gentle call to repent, to change perspective, to reach out in love to those we may have avoided because they are “different.”

Ann Monson Dibb is a wonderfully vivacious, intelligent, and righteous woman. Many of you know she is Pres. Monson’s daughter.

She focused her talk on learning to discern that which is truly real from what is only counterfeit. She used examples from home life and personal service to make her point. Very much in the vein of our prophet. Home made dinner rolls and peach jam as opposed to something hastily purchased at the supermarket.

The most compelling moment in her talk (I’m embarrassed I didn’t take better notes) came when she talked about true love as opposed to counterfeit. In beautifully simple language and carefully crafted narrative she told a story about an evening with her mother for her father to come home. He called to say he wanted to stop somewhere before he got home (maybe the hospital?). Her mother was not disappointed, recognizing the inspiration that has accompanied these small missions of mercy for our prophet throughout his life. He finally arrived home and immediately went to his wife. Tenderly stroking her hands, he asked about her day, his full attention focused exclusively on her. He then told her about his day. It was a few minutes of sweet and lasting love.

Sister Dibb then suggested that this is real and not counterfeit love. She did not say to beware minimizing such a thing that I remember. Today I know that’s what she meant. I remember my wife’s own tender expressions, filling me with gratitude and peace, confident that we are one.

President Packer’s talk was divided into two parts. The first was a reminder to be ever grateful for those who “earned our comfort (here in Utah and Wasatch Counties) for us.”

The second half seemed directed exclusively to me. Because of my work at BYU, I have had occasion to ponder and meditate about technology and conveyance of the Holy Ghost. I have been involved in committees thinking about distance education and the “spirit of BYU.” I had come to be particularly worried that our commitment to technology might pull us away from our spiritual mission.

President Packer spoke about how the Brethren have grown comfortable to communicate with people around the world in important and spiritually sensitive situations. He spoke of communicating “almost in person” by broadcasting. He said that whenever the brethren hold a video conference “the spirit is always present” in all places.

I sensed both relief and gratitude that the Lord blesses the communications, including what I took to be worthiness interviews and the extending of a call. He said “authority has to be conveyed in person” but the rest can be handled with the technology now employed.

He specifically said that in the cases, “the technology just fades away.”

He also spoke of having to speak into a camera without a video connection with a large audience: “I can see them in mind’s eye.” He connects.

He blessed us “that inspiration will be with us” and that we would “have faith not fear.”

Pres. Uchtdorf continues to be magnified as the mantle of the First presidency comes to rest more comfortably on his shoulders. He is a dynamic speaker, often plumbing spiritual depths and seeking to enlighten us about the gospel of Christ. I will present highlights of a highly motivational and intellectually satisfying talk. He was clearly calling us, in the spirit of the other talks, to raise the bar for ourselves.

He urged to study the gospel carefully, not “quick and shallow” but “thorough and introspective.” That suggested a concern that many of us have become superficial in our thinking about the gospel, seeking neither intellectual nor spiritual insight, just going through the motions or relying on what we already know.

He encouraged us to “listen to the Spirit today.”

He reminded us that Satan “keeps us from using our time wisely, and setting goals.”

He encouraged “calm, periodic, reasoned assessment” of our lives.

He spoke of “increasing faith in God” and “strengthening marriages and families”

He reminded us that “God wants us to succeed” in our attempts to achieve the goals he had just set for us.

He then warned that “pornography, violence, and intolerance will destroy marriages and families.”

He incited us to think of the church around the world as a family, trying to bring us together, hoping not to drive us apart. He then told us how we might do it.

He then began to speak like Alma the Younger.

He spoke of conversion.

By your actions you will “show your level of conversion.”

He described conversion as “conscious acceptance of the will of God”

Emphasizing that conversion is neither superficial nor passive, he boldly stated that “you must labor for your conversion.”

The ultimate challenge of his talk to all of us was to “re-light the fire of personal conversion in your life.”

1. Have a current temple recommend
2. Study the word of God daily. Search for answers.
3. Speak with your Father in Heaven daily.

My notes say that “Utah County and Wasatch County are no exception.”

This talk, obviously in the spirit of prophetic teachings by President Hinckley and Alma the Younger, suggested that LDS on the Wasatch front have become spiritually complacent. It was a call to return to basics with the twist that conversion is what we seek and that true conversion must be accompanied by different behavior and true repentance.

These are obviously my filtered views of the meeting. I’ve tried to be faithful to my notes.

I had the feeling, perhaps because of my complacency, that this conference was meant to move us away from ease and comfort and toward renewed commitment through increased conversion.

I felt the love of each speaker and their genuine concern for our spiritual well-being. I am very grateful to have been there.

These two events, juxtaposed so closely in time created a stark contrast between the degraded on the one hand and the sublime wholesome on the other. The Lord has shaken my soul, trying to reawaken core of my conversion and expand the reach of my commitment.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I appreciate the messages of those talks and the spirit you felt there. Putting it in context, the contrast of the two events, really does make it powerful. I’m glad I read this.

  2. Beautiful. I love that primary song. Maybe the adults would do well to sing it from time to time. Thanks Neal.

  3. molly bennion says:

    Thank you, Neal, for an inspiring post. And thank you for so telling a statement of the personal cost of serving justice. May your reward for tough and generous duty be rapid healing.

  4. I needed to hear both these stories. Thanks you for sharing them.

  5. Thank you for writing about these experiences, Neal. I can see how their juxtaposition in your life makes them all the more meaningful. Along with others who have commented, I am also glad that I read this.

    I will note in passing that this is the second time (that I know if) where Dieter F. Uchtdorf has grouped intolerance with pornography and violence.

  6. Thank you! My husband and I had to miss the conference because we were out of town, and so I’m grateful to read about it. Most of my ward member’s reactions were the same as yours; they loved every word.

  7. I am sorry that you had to hear all the gory details in your trial experience. I have read that some jurors need counseling after they render judgment in these circumstances. But, lucky for you, you had some expert counseling in your regional meeting. I can’t help but think that Heavenly Father and Jesus see these kinds of things every moment of every day. Since we know they have human emotions, it’s hard to understand how they see these things without destroying the world.

  8. Token Average Member says:

    #5 I hadn’t noticed that until you mentioned it. An excellent observation – thank you!

  9. Neal,

    Thank you for sharing this. The contrasts (paradoxes?) you share struck home for me in two specific ways. Someone I know, not immediate family, just discovered that her husband has allegedly been abusing one of their sons, and perhaps some of his son’s friends. This is a shattering experience because both sides of the family are known to me, and are faithful church members. I agonize for both sides, the family of the victims, and the family of the accused.

    I contrast that with something that Darius Gray said in Q&A after the Seattle showing of “No One Knows” this week. He mentioned some of the problematic language of parts of the Book of Abraham when it comes to race, and a discussion he had with a friend. He said that he prayed for an answer, and the answer he got was that he hadn’t studied it enough on his own, and needed to put in the effort to get the answers. He said now that he has done some more in depth study, he has a new appreciation for the many blessings promised there, and sees it as much more positive than he had previously believed.

    It is easy to grow complacent, comfortable in what we think we know, and lose our focus. Thanks for sharing these experiences with us, and helping us to remember to have more faith, and less fear.

    BTW, I love Bro. Jensen, and have had some great experiences with the talks he has given. One of my most favorite GAs.

  10. Thanks for writing this up, Neal. It is poignant.

  11. Man, I just love Elder Marlin Jensen’s gift for teaching beautiful Gospel truths.

    Would it be improper to pray and ask God if he would have Elder Jensen called as an apostle? I would love to hear from him every General Conference. I’m only slightly kidding.

  12. Thanks, Neal. I want to do my civic duty, but I hope I never have that type of jury experience. As a father of four daughters, I can know what goes on in the world without wanting to see more clearly the depravity of man.

  13. Hear, hear, Ray.

    -Father of three daughters

  14. Neal,
    Thank you for reminding me of the wonderful parts of this church and its culture.

  15. Wow. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your notes.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    Thanks, Neal.

    re: Elder Jensen as an apostle. My father, working at the Church History Library, and my mother in proximity, had a lot of occasion to witness Elder Jensen while his responsibilities kept him close. I’ve heard them express the same hope. :)

    ~

  17. Well done and thank you tremendously for the notes.

  18. Neal: that is a fine and tender rendition of food for the soul, of steeply contrasting flavors.

    As you recounted the bitterness and sourness of the trial experience and the pain of having to dwell that deeply into a troubled soul sharing his pain, I had to think of the Saviors ability to take all of that, and infinitely more into himself, and upon himself, and still act in love and dwell in peace. It brings a new depth to the words, “God so loved the world..”

    Thanks for sharing the desert of the conference and well recorded notes and finely assimilated lessons.

  19. That was a great post. Thank you.

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