"Conference adventures" could mean many things--for instance, I'll be going to a Shakespeare conference in Paris later this month. But for Latter-day Saints, "conference" means first of all General Conference, the twice-a-year gathering when we listen to Church leaders, along with prayers and music, during five two-hour sessions. ("Church" as used here means "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," the church to which I belong, in which I believe, and in which I currently serve as a bishop.) Elsewhere, you can find much written about the folklore, humor, and cultural trappings associated with General Conference.
Here I want to talk about my adventures this time around. There's one more session to go, so I may end up writing an addendum. But I feel the need write now while the desire is fresh and active. This is not going to be a detailed summary of what was said. Instead, I want to give a feel for what the experience was like.
The first session was yesterday, Saturday, April 5. I believe I watched the first session in my pajamas--something that's typical for me, especially for the morning sessions. After a brief opening talk by President Thomas S. Monson, we heard a stirring address by Jeffrey R. Holland--one of my wife's and my favorite speakers and someone we're grateful to know personally. A later speaker, Linda Reeves, gave an exceptionally powerful talk, discussing the beauty of sexual intimacy in marriage, the destruction power of pornography, the help available through the addiction recovery program, and the power of talking and testifying of and rejoicing in Christ. She also talked of how she and her husband tried to deal with the stress of raising young children and their learning that focusing on Christ and on scripture, prayer, and home evening was far more important than many of the other things they were worried about. One of our favorite lines (by "our" I mean my wife's and mine) was, "It's OK if the home is a mess." We may write that down and post it somewhere in the house.
There were other great talks in that session. But on with the adventures . . .
Between sessions, I got one of our cars inspected so it registration can be renewed (which was supposed to have happened by the end of March) and then did some shopping. The plan for the afternoon session was different than usual. I had promised my oldest son, Rob, that I would go with him to a chocolate exhibit for which he was getting school credit. (Rob is 27 and is a student at Utah Valley University.) So I needed to get myself ready (dressed, etc.) to leave about 2pm to arrive in Salt Lake at 3pm. Our plan was to listen to the afternoon session of conference on the way. I would be missing part of it, but could listen to that later. Rob would then go with me to the Priesthood session at 6pm, followed by Bombay House (our traditional General Conference dinner). I was grateful Rob had agreed to do this since he no longer considers himself a believer and is critical of some things about the Church. So to agree to spending time with me in a Church-related setting is--I was going to call it quite a concession, but I think I'd rather call it quite an expression of love for me.
Things did not go entirely according to plan.
We left a little after 2pm and did indeed listen to conference on the radio--mixing that with a bit of conversation. Rob needed us to stop along the way so he could get something to drink and wash down a pill he needed to take. So we did that--the stop taking a little longer than expected. Rob had told me the museum with the chocolate exhibit was the Leonardo in Salt Lake, and I had looked it up on a Mapquest and gotten a basic idea of how to get there. The directions got a bit mixed up in my mind and so I led us a few blocks astray but then quickly found the Leonardo and found a parking place waiting for us. It was a little after 3pm. Rob was wondering if he had remembered the name of the museum correctly--for one thing, he wondered how chocolate would mix with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit being featured at the Leonardo. But we walked to the entrance to find out. At the admissions counter we were told that, no, the chocolate exhibit was not there but was at the Museum of Natural History . . . which briefly the young woman at the counter said was at Thanksgiving Point, back in Utah Valley. We had passed it a good while back--and indeed there is a natural history museum there. But then she corrected herself: no, it was at the Museum of Natural History of Utah at the University of Utah. And she gave us the address on Wakara Way, along with the approximate location.
We headed off. The only problem was that we didn't know how to get to Wakara Way--and the University of Utah Campus blocked a direct drive to the final location. So we spent about a half hour driving around trying to find the museum--and finally found it. We were inside buying tickets about 3:40. We had missed the person Rob was supposed to get a free ticket from at 3:00. And we learned that the chocolatier who was supposed to present at 3:30 (that was Rob's required event to get credit for coming) had not shown up. No free ticket was waiting for Rob, so I bought tickets for both of us, and we had a great time at the museum, learning lots about chocolate and its history. We didn't see anyone from Utah Valley University. If they had been there, they left by the time we were where they had been.
We found a parking place a few blocks from the Conference Center and got in our seats by about 5:30. (I omit another mini-adventure involving confusion over tickets I was supposed to provide for someone else. I hope they managed to get in.) Rob let me know he might leave if anything was said that he couldn't handle, but it didn't come to that. We heard talks on the priesthood, on our need to change, on the use of technology and the Internet, on "not sleeping through the restoration" (a memorable talk by President Dieter Uchtdorf--another family favorite), on heroes, and on courage. I slept through part of the second to last talk. Sleep deprived and exhausted, I found the gentle voice of President Henry B. Eyring inviting me into slumber--ironic given that the preceding talk, by Pres. Uchtdorf, had discussed the need to wake up. I'll listen to or read Pres. Eyring's talk later.
After the session, Rob and I left by way of the outside balcony, with fresh air and a beautiful view--but we found ourselves surrounded by a slow-moving crowd, and Rob felt anxious and found it hard to listen to me because of the distraction of the voices around us. I gave a slow account of the time Rob had met Pres. Uchtdorf. I believe Rob was 13 at the time. It was April of 2000. Pres. Uchtdorf was then Elder Uchtdorf of the Seventy, and he along with Douglas Smoot had reorganized our Stake Presidency. I was to be set apart as first counselor to Brian Wolsey. Pres. Uchtdorf set apart Pres. Wolsey; Douglas Smoot set me apart; I don't remember who set apart the second counselor, Steve Park. I do remember that Margaret and our children were there; my parents were there, my mother probably with a walker. Pres. Uchtdorf was solicitous with my parents; he was patient and positive with our rambunctious children. Margaret especially remembers him telling us, "Don't inhale." I especially remember him telling us, "Brethren, be sure to smile. The members need to know that living the gospel is a happy thing." I also gave Rob an extended preamble to another thing I would finish telling him once we got to the car--about a breakthrough I had the other day when I realized why I get so upset when I feel I've performed badly in front of people. (Basically, my parents' high expectations of me when I was a child. But the breakthrough consisted in feeling compassion for them--they were doing the best they knew how--and for myself, the little boy who was growing up with such an intense feeling that he must not mess up in front of other people.)
Along with this conversation, you should imagine Rob and me walking along with the crowds beyond the Conference Center and then up the hill to where our car was parked. We then decided to go with my memory that Bombay House was somewhere on Foothill Drive. Problem: We didn't know exactly how to get to Foothill Drive. But eventually we found it, but then didn't find Bombay House where I thought it might be, stopped at a mini-mart to ask for information, and were given directions. Bombay House had in fact moved a few blocks away since we had last been there in Salt Lake, but luckily they were still on Foothill Drive, and we managed to get there. It may have been almost 9pm by this time. We had a great time talking--about the history of gender roles, the questionable historical accuracy of a medieval fantasy Rob is reading, mindfulness and T. S. Eliot's The Four Quartets, philosophical ideas found in Buddhism and C. S. Lewis, etc. (some of this was after the restaurant)--and had a great meal, with vegetarian dishes, naan, drinks (rose lassi and mango lassi), and a delicious dessert whose name I forget (sort of pastry balls in a rose scented liquid).
We did more wandering finding the freeway. (We definitely took the long way getting there.) I had reflected right after leaving the restaurant that one advantage of all the wandering around we had done, despite the stress and frustration, was that it could remind us that, even if we didn't know how to get where we wanted to go, we would eventually get there (as long as we didn't die in the process). However odd that may sound, I was genuinely feeling some assurance that, though it's best to plan and know where we're going and how to get there, the world is not as scary a place as we sometimes imagine it to be. And we have the ability to figure things out along the way.
We got home (in Provo) about 11:30pm. And had done some wonderful bonding.
The next morning, after relatively reasonable sleep, I watched the Sunday morning session, again in my pajamas. This was perhaps my favorite sessions so far--filled with light and power and goodness and joy. President spoke powerfully of gratitude. Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke of inviting others to share the gospel and then following through--extending our hands and lifting others up and walking with them (compare Peter and the lame man in the book of Acts). Sister Jean Stevens gave a powerful talk about trusting in God's love (you are not alone; you are not forgotten). Bishop Gary Stevenson discussed three LDS athletes who won medals at the Winter Olympics: Noelle Picus Pace, who wore her Young Women medallion on her neck along with the silver medal; Christopher (I don't remember his last name), who persevered through trails; and Tora Bright, who gave an anxious Kelly Clark a hug to help her calm down, and then went on win a silver medal. When asked why she would help a competitor, she said, "I want to do my best, but I also want my competitors to do their best." Elder David A. Bednar spoke of how our loads help us and how they can be lightened through the atonement.
And President Monson spoke of love. Some outsiders have spoken ill of him, as if he doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. I feel otherwise, not just because of my respect for his calling as president of the Church, but because I recognize in him a remarkable example of and powerful proponent of what Dostoevsky called "the experience of active love": charity, the pure love of Christ, put into action daily in service to the specific people we encounter. He told moving stories. He spoke directly and simply. His words may not be satisfying to those who seek complexity and ingenuity. But there can hardly be a message more important than the one he gave: our need to view all others as our brothers and sisters and to serve and love them. Speaking of Dostoevsky, there's something in President Monson's approach akin to that the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Read it; I think you'll see what I mean.
So here we are, now about 50 minutes away from the last session. Let the adventure continue!