The First Sunday

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“The First Sunday,” Ensign, May 1971, 59


The First Sunday

At the front of the chapel the side doors were open, letting in a brighter light than came through the milk-glass windows. Standing at the pulpit, Bishop Payne said, “The opening song for our fast and testimony meeting this morning, brothers and sisters, will be ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ page 13. Brother Royal Dastrup will offer the invocation.” The organ began and Sister Lund stood up, her white baton in her hand.

Holding the hymnbook with Helen, Glen sang and looked over the rows of heads at Clark, who sat at the sacrament table between the Terry and Keith boys. The white linen tablecloth covering the trays cut all three of them off at the chest.

He had ordained Clark a priest that morning, and now Clark would bless the sacrament for the first time. Hands on Clark’s head, in the name of Jesus Christ, and by the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, he had passed to him all of the rights and privileges of being a priest. And he had blessed him that he would always be receptive to the guidance of the Holy Ghost, would go on a mission, be married in the Lord’s temple to a true companion, raise a righteous posterity, achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom. As he spoke the blessing, Clark’s thick, brown hair had grown warm under his hands. Clark had been sixteen for a week already.

Glen wondered at times if he had given up wanting those blessings for himself that he now desired for Clark. He knew men in the Church who made their sons’ lives more important than their own, depending on them to achieve what they had aspired to earlier. At sixteen, Clark’s basic personality was probably already a finished product. All the love, punishment, encouragement, gifts, discussions, prayers, understanding Helen and he had been able to give had been accepted. The Church had its basic meaning for Clark too, although he probably didn’t know it. His first test would come when he went on his mission at nineteen. Boys used to be tested much earlier. Glen’s great-grandfather Swensen had helped drive an ox team across the plains when he was eight, and his grandfather Swensen had quit school at fourteen to take a job herding seven hundred head of sheep.

Glen looked at his watch and then up at the clock on the south wall between two windows. It was 11:05. He was going to bear his testimony because he wanted Clark to hear it today especially. Every night on his knees he prayed that Clark would keep himself clean and safe, always be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost. He had become afraid for Clark during the past three or four months.

Glen watched Clark bow his head for the opening prayer, the diffused off-white light from the windows falling on the rows of bowed heads between them. He always enjoyed the moment of silence before the prayer, all the ward members bowing their heads. He was glad they lived in an older, established section of town, not in one of the newer subdivisions. He liked the Seventh Ward meetinghouse because it was older, but the one he liked best was the old stone Mount Pleasant pioneer meetinghouse in Sanpete County. As a boy, every summer he went to Mount Pleasant to spend a month with his grandfather and grandmother Swensen.

His great-grandfather Swensen, who was a stonemason, had helped build the meetinghouse. All the stone and lumber used in the building were native to the area. But the thing he liked best were the high stained glass windows, three to a side, each a picture. The south windows showed God the Father and the Son appearing to the boy Joseph Smith, the angel Moroni giving the Prophet Joseph the golden plates, and the Prophet holding the Book of Mormon and bearing testimony to the world. The north windows showed the Nauvoo Temple, the martyrdom of the Prophet at Carthage, and Brigham Young with the Saints entering Salt Lake Valley in covered wagons. His great-grandfather Swensen had helped build the Manti Temple and many other buildings and homes in Sanpete Valley.

Glen wanted Clark to listen to his testimony this morning, the same way he had listened to Grandfather Swensen in the old meetinghouse in Mount Pleasant. Standing silhouetted against a window, his old speckled hand on the back of the next bench, his grandfather told about his two missions to the southern states; about his father, who had helped settle Sanpete valley. Glen’s great-grandfather Swensen had fought the Indians, had had President Brigham Young in his house to eat and sleep, had been driven out of Nauvoo over the frozen Mississippi. The Prophet Joseph Smith had baptized his great-grandfather into the Church and ordained him an elder.

As a boy, sitting next to his grandfather as he listened, the sun bringing the old stained glass windows alive, Glen lived the stories.

But the pioneers were all on his mother’s side. His father’s family had no pioneer background, and Helen was a convert. He would like to have had both sides of his family and Helen’s going back in four clear lines of pioneers, missionaries, bishops, stake presidents, even General Authorities, without any breaks. It would have given Clark the feeling of strength, truth, and the enduring quality of the gospel. But Glen would even have been satisfied if his father and his brother Mark were active. Their leaving the Church could affect Clark now.

After the invocation, Bishop Payne stood up again and called for the blessing of babies. The sisters on the rows in front of Glen turned to see two young fathers stand to take their babies from their wives to be blessed. Clark sat straight, nervous in front of the whole ward in his new suit they had given him to emphasize how important it was to be ordained a priest. Last Monday, on his sixteenth birthday, Clark had come to the office at nine o’clock, and Glen had driven him over to the city and county building to take his driver’s test. Glen had consistently talked driver safety to him, and he had tried to be an example of a good driver. Yet when he had Clark out practicing, he still felt the urge to grab the steering wheel. He had given Clark the promised set of keys to the new car after he got his license. The boy had been warned, however, if he got a ticket for a moving violation, he would lose all driving privileges for three months.

Glen glanced at Helen. Hands clasped in her lap, purse on the floor, she kept looking up at Clark too. Kirsten and Valerie sat on the other side of her. Steve sat with the deacons on the first side row in front of the sacrament table, the rest of the Aaronic Priesthood boys behind them. Some of the boys already leaned forward to rest their foreheads on the top of the next bench.

In the foyer in the glass case were pictures of Seventh Ward boys on missions and in the service. On the wall, with each boy’s name and the date on a narrow brass plate, were the lists of boys who had earned Eagle Scout badges and Duty to God awards. But in the ten years he and Helen had lived in the ward, there had been some boys who didn’t turn out exactly right. Two or three had even turned hippie, used drugs.

It was drugs that worried Glen most when he thought about Clark. He had seen the pictures and articles in Life and Look and had watched the special television reports.

Drugs affected the brain cells and could change a boy into someone his parents and friends had never known before. And all the time, love, work, faith—the whole investment in a life—vanished.

“The first baby to be blessed this morning, brothers and sisters, is the son of the Melvin K. Thompsons, to be named Eric Melvin Thompson.”

As Brother Thompson spoke into the traveling microphone, Helen put her hand on Glen’s knee and he covered it with his. He had named Clark sixteen years ago, had blessed him with health, strength, a happy boyhood, always to be active in the Church, grow up clean. Even then he had blessed him to go on a mission, get a good education, marry in the temple. He had thanked the Lord for their son and asked him to bless them as parents that they might have the wisdom to raise Clark in righteousness. And after the sacrament, like the other new fathers each fast Sunday, he had borne his testimony. For over a month he had thought about what he could say in his testimony this morning that would touch Clark and fasten the day in his memory forever.

Clark still sat straight and nervous behind the sacrament table. Glen felt the warmth of Helen’s hand under his. He had lost that early closeness to Clark. He didn’t hold him now, bathe him, help him put on his pajamas, teach him to say his prayers, kiss him. How could he know what Clark felt and thought when he hardly ever touched him anymore? Perhaps a boy sixteen really did think about atomic destruction, biological warfare, pollution, population explosion, world starvation, and decided finally that it all proved that God did not exist. And even if Clark didn’t think about the universal sense of chaos, it surrounded him, had to affect him.

After the blessing, when Brother Thompson held up his son for the whole ward to see, the sisters on the bench in front of Glen turned and smiled at one another. “The second baby to be blessed this morning is the new daughter of Brother and Sister Richard K. Carter, Jenifer.”

The sound of a car honking came through the open doors. The new red car was parked outside, waxed, shining in the sun because Clark had washed it again yesterday. After Clark had driven for a month without an accident or ticket, he could start dating in the car at night, but he couldn’t drag Center Street. Every night from eight until past midnight the high school kids drove up and down Center, girls parking their fathers’ cars to get in with boys, groups of boys gathering around new cars.

Bob Miller was confirming his son now: “Brother David Mark Miller, by the authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood in us vested, and in the name of Jesus Christ, we unitedly lay our hands on your head and confirm you a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and say unto you, receive the Holy Ghost.” Helen took her hand out from under Glen’s to turn to Kirsten and Valerie. Kirsten had the coloring book and crayons out. Glen looked from the girls to the back of Steve’s head, then up at Clark again.

He wished that his grandfather and grandmother Swensen were still alive so that he could send Clark and Steve down to Mount Pleasant every summer for a few weeks. He wanted them to walk with their great-grandfather Swensen evenings as he had. They needed to smell the hollyhocks, lilacs, lombardy poplars planted by the pioneers, and to pick apples from the hundred-year-old trees to eat as they walked in the twilight, the water shining in the ditches. He wanted them to hear the stories of the families that had lived in each house, have each one traced back to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and England. They needed to go to the cemetery to see the graves of their great-great-grandfather and grandmother, have their great-grandfather tell them about his parents and show them the gravestones of pioneers killed by Indians. One line of identical white stones marked the graves of six children from one family who had died of diphtheria. Clark and Steve needed to hear the stories of the droughts, grasshopper plagues, and floods, and about the hard winters.

Glen’s great-grandfather Swensen had left his wife and four children to go back to Denmark on a mission. He had only five dollars in his pocket and an extra shirt and two pairs of hand-knit socks wrapped in a bundle. Grandfather Swensen had gone on two missions to the southern states before World War I. He had been shot at, mobbed, tarred and feathered. He had helped dig up the bodies of two elders who had been martyred, put the bodies in coffins, and sent them back to Utah. For two years he had gone without purse or scrip, every day had to ask for food and a bed.

During Glen’s own mission he hadn’t experienced the tests that his grandfather and great-grandfather had known, so he didn’t have faith-promoting stories to tell Clark and Steve. And in the eighteen years since his mission, Glen had noticed in himself a loss of the desire for perfection. He was the Sunday School superintendent, active, but he had lost something. His life hadn’t become more and more intensely spiritual every year. Instead, it seemed to become only more physically comfortable. Religion seemed so abstract, as if meetings, attendance, winning awards and badges had taken a primary importance. He had failed to really fling himself against the challenges of life and service to mankind.

Helen held up the hymnbook again for the sacrament song, but Glen watched Clark bend to break the bread into the chrome trays. Two or three rows back a baby cried when the sacrament song ended. Then the Terry boy knelt to bless the bread. The deacons stood and took the trays, Steve passing the right side. The three priests took the trays back, then Clark knelt. Glen felt Helen’s hand slip into his. His eyes shut, he followed each word. Blood, the word blood, which Clark might confuse with flesh, have to start over—but he didn’t. Helen pulled her hand away to reach down to her purse for her handkerchief, then turned to shush Kirsten. Glen drank the cool water from the little paper cup.

Clark sat straight. Glen hoped that he was humble, clean, that he felt something, because if he didn’t feel it now he might never. Breaking the bread and blessing the bread and water was one of the few real religious experiences a boy could have until he went on his mission. Even if he couldn’t put what he felt into words, he had to feel it, be lifted a little, encouraged. A boy should want to be clean to prepare and bless the sacrament. It was a test. But looking up at his son, Glen couldn’t tell. He hoped he felt those things, had developed enough spirituality for that. Blessing the sacrament had always meant a lot to Glen when he was a priest; it was something he had wanted to stay clean for. He hoped that it meant enough to Clark. It had to.

The bishop thanked the Aaronic Priesthood, particularly Clark because it was his first time, and the three boys walked down off the stand to sit with the other priests on the side rows in front of the sacrament table, Clark on the aisle. “And now, brothers and sisters, we come to the testimony-bearing part of our meeting this morning. I would like to bear my testimony to the truthfulness of this gospel. My family and I have been truly blessed, and every day we see the hand of the Lord in our lives. The time is now yours for testimony bearing.”

It was 11:30. Glen would bear his testimony toward the end of the hour so that Clark would remember better. The two young fathers stood, one after the other, to bear their testimonies; then Brother Hansen rose above the heads to take the traveling microphone from the deacon, as he did every fast Sunday. “I know that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that our prophet today is divinely inspired, and that the Book of Mormon is true.”

Listening, Glen looked at the south windows. The stained glass windows in the old Mount Pleasant meetinghouse changed with the sun, shadows, and fluttering leaves; the angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young seemed almost to come alive. Brother Hansen said how much he loved every member of the ward. The Seventh Ward meetinghouse was one of the few old churches still left in town. The new meetinghouses had a little different feel. The Mount Pleasant pioneers had quarried the stone and cut the timber for their meetinghouse; built it with their own hands, so that it was theirs; touched every piece of it except the windows, which they had had made in Italy.

Brother Maxwell’s voice sounded behind Glen, and he turned just enough to see him standing, holding the traveling microphone. “My dear brothers and sisters: I feel impressed this morning to rise to my feet and tell you of an experience my good wife and I had while visiting our son and his family in Los Angeles last week. Those of us living here in Utah in the safety of the valleys of the Rocky Mountains really don’t know how truly blessed we are.”

It was 12:10. Brother Maxwell was retired, and he and his wife spent a lot of time traveling to visit their children.

Fairview, Ephraim, Fountain Green, Mount Pleasant, Jerusalem, Freedom, and the other towns in Sanpete Valley had changed very little since Glen was a boy, except that now retired people were moving in. After forty or fifty years away, living in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or Washington, D.C., they returned with their money to buy the old brick family homes and put in new kitchens, bathrooms, and central heating. They came, Glen knew, to escape the congestion and riots. They wanted tranquillity, something they had had as children in the valley; they sought it in the old houses they were able to buy back but refused to live in until they had been remodeled.

Sister Clinger stood up and started telling about her miraculous recovery from her stomach operation and how grateful she was for the power of the priesthood to heal.

The sound of honking came again through the open side doors. Every summer when they went down to Mount Pleasant for the Swensen family reunion, Glen always took Clark and the other children to visit their great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ graves. Two years ago he had arranged with the new owners of his great-grandfather’s house to take the children through, but it had all been paneled, carpeted, with aluminum windows put in. When Aunt Emily sold the house, he and Helen got two chairs and a small drop-leaf table. He had wanted the old brass bed he had always slept in, but Aunt Kristin got that. In the evening before they came home from the reunion, Glen always drove down to Manti for the children to see the lighted temple on the hill. As they drove toward it after leaving Ephraim, brilliantly white in the darkness, it hung before them in the air like part of a celestial city.

Sister Clinger sat down. Glen glanced up at the clock, tightened his legs, put his hand on top of the bench in front, rose above the heads. Faces turned to look at him, then turned back, but Clark didn’t raise his head from looking down at the floor. Glen saw the bald spots, blue hair, wigs, hats. Speaking into the microphone, he told of his grandfather and great-grandfather, described the windows in the Mount Pleasant meetinghouse. Heads turned to look at the white windows. He told of the army, his mission; how grateful he was for his family, for Helen; how important it was to him to ordain Clark a priest. He said, “I know that if a man will live the principles of the gospel, he will receive the promised blessings. And he will be able to stand amid all the chaos, evil, and uncertainty today and keep his family safe. It is my testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, as is the president of the Church today. I bear you this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” Clark still didn’t turn to look at him.

Helen put her hand in his when he sat down. Sister Broadbent bore her testimony; then there was a pause, people turning to look up at the clock. Bishop Payne stood up and announced the closing song and prayer, and Sister Lund responded by coming forward and lifting her baton. Glen held the book with Helen and sang.

After the prayer, the whole ward relaxed, talking, going home for dinner. Glen stood up, sidestepped out to the aisle, took Helen’s hand, and let the girls go ahead. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Congratulations, Glen. Clark’s a fine boy. I enjoyed your testimony too.”

When he turned, it was Max. “Thanks, Max. We’re very happy with the progress he’s made.”

Others congratulated him and Helen before they got to the front steps, where Bishop Payne stood shaking hands with the ward members as they left. He always went out of the side door and around the front to shake hands. “Clark’s going to be a real asset to the priests quorum, Glen. He’ll make a fine missionary in three years. And we appreciate your testimony and support too. It makes us all a little stronger.”

“Thank you, bishop.”

When they got out on the sidewalk in the hot bright sun with Kirsten and Valerie, Steve was already running across the lawn, chasing one of the Christensen boys. “Steve, come on now, son, we’re going home to dinner.” Clark, who had come out the side door, stood at the curb with the other boys around a car with the hood up. Because Glen didn’t want to yell, he sent Steve across the lawn to tell Clark that they were going. Clark turned after a minute and walked with Steve toward them.

Clark bent to look in the window. “Ron Pearson bought a new sports car. Hey, Dad, can I drive home?”

“Oh, son, you’d better let your father drive this time. There will be a lot of children on the streets, with all the wards letting out.”

Glen looked at Clark and past him to the knot of boys still standing around the sports car, the sun reflecting off the bright green hood. He had never let Clark drive with the whole family in the car. “Think you can handle it, son?”

“Sure. I’ll be careful.”

He undid his seat belt and slid over next to Helen. “I guess he’s got to start sometime, honey.”

He reached over to hand Clark the keys, but the boy already had his own in the ignition. Clark started the engine, signaled for a left turn, looked behind, and pulled out slowly. He honked as they passed the sports car, and the boys waved, whistled. “You did a good job blessing the sacrament, son. Your mother and I are proud of you.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

He waited for Clark to say something about his testimony, but he didn’t. Glen fished for the middle seat belt, snapped it together, then pulled it tight.