Sunday, April 10, 2011

GA Visits During My Mission

Years ago I spent two years serving as a missionary for the LDS Church in Norway. During my time there I had occasion to meet several of the church's general authorities. Each of these occasions has left certain notable memories in my mind.

The first of these occasions was when Elder Dean L. Larsen of the First Quorum of the Seventy visited for stake conference in Oslo. Following the weekend's meetings, Elder Larsen had a couple of hours to burn on Monday before catching his flight home. He could have done a little sightseeing around Oslo. He could have rested. Instead he asked my mission president to assemble the mission office staff for a personal training session. I happened to be a member of that staff.

The first thing that impressed me about Elder Larsen was that he took time to sit down with half a dozen young missionaries instead of tending to personal matters. The second thing that impressed me was that he was wearing exactly the same kind of Swedish double-knit suit that I was wearing. He was well groomed and well kempt, but his suit, shirt, tie, socks, and shoes were about the same cost and quality of the clothes the young missionaries were wearing.

Elder Larsen spoke to us for a few minutes about being more effective missionaries. I remember him telling a story about becoming a shot put champion in high school by taking a chance and doing what he felt was right instead of following the pattern that everyone said was the best method. Then Elder Larsen told us to ask him questions—any question at all.

At first we stammered around. None of us could think of anything to ask. He prodded us until we began asking questions. His answers were kind, often coming from the scriptures. Occasionally he replied that he didn't know. After he left for the airport, it dawned on me that none of us had asked anything bizarre or inappropriate.

On one occasion Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came by the mission office with his sister. They were on their way to a conference elsewhere in Scandinavia and had stopped to visit one of their ancestor's homesteads just outside of Oslo.

Those of us in the office were a bit star struck to see a man walk in whose picture was on the wall of the office. Elder Hunter was very unassuming and low key. He acted as if he were nobody important. He was a man of few words. When we asked how his transatlantic flight had been, he replied merely, "Oh, uneventful."

I had several occasions to interact with Elder Robert D. Hales, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. While I was in Norway he was called to preside over the Europe Area. He subsequently made a number of visits to Norway, where our mission president was a personal friend.

For one of these visits my mission president asked the missionaries in Oslo to put together a talent show for Elder Hales. Since our mission president and Elder Hales had worked together in scouting, the president encouraged us to use a scout campfire approach for our entertainment.

It turns out that 19-21-year-old young men with encouragement of this nature are far sillier (and even raunchier) than anything you see at scout camp. Some of the office staff sang a barbershop song. It really went downhill from there. A few acts pushed up against the edge of propriety. We surged confidently past that point when one elder that had been in a heavy metal band used a butane lighter to shoot a pillar of flame from his mouth in the darkened room.

Several more acts were down right inappropriate. But the kicker came when two elders performed a "magic" act on the mission president, Elder Hales, and the two assistants to the president. They cut off these men's ties, put the severed ties into a bag, and promised to magically restore the damaged neckware. After the third failed attempt, the elders said, "Oops!" and ran offstage.

Everyone laughed, including Elder Hales. But it didn't take a genius to see that behind his smile he wasn't very happy about the evening's entertainment. The next day our mission president revealed to the office staff that Elder Hales had taken him to the woodshed after the event.

On another occasion, I was riding in the mission van with another missionary and Elder Hales as we took him to a meeting across town. The other elder asked how much light one must have received from the Holy Ghost before denying this testimony would turn the person into a son of perdition. Elder Hales replied that he wasn't sure what the official doctrine was on that point, but that he felt that he had had sufficient light since childhood to know that it wouldn't be a good idea to tempt God about it.

At this point, Elder Hales bore his testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ. The elder bluntly asked if he had seen a vision. Elder Hales kind of skirted that question and replied that his testimony of Jesus wasn't based on a single event. Rather, it was a knowledge that had grown brighter and brighter until it was rock solid.

The next time I saw Elder Hales was when he came to speak at the LDS institute of religion adjacent to the college where I was studying. I was slated to be at work at the time of the speech, but a friend asked me to accompany her while she sang at the event, so I rearranged my schedule. I was sporting a full beard at that time, so I thought I wouldn't be recognized. But Elder Hales publicly recognized me as one of "my missionaries." Then I was a bit embarrassed about the beard because returned missionaries had been advised to maintain their mission grooming standards.

Each time I personally interacted with a church general authority during my mission, I and the other missionaries initially regarded these men as superhuman celebrities. Each time, these men showed their humanity and humility. We then knew they weren't superhuman. I later realized that such imaginary assessments were inferior to what these men really were—fallible beings striving to serve God to the best of their abilities ... and with real power from God.

1 comment:

John Teal said...

I have to say, I concur with each of your observations, it has been how I have found church leaders to be, generally humble and unassuming.