“Time to Fly,” New Era, Apr. 1994, 41
“Do you see how they fly, Stephen?” Dad thrusts his arm upward, pointing a finger to the V shape rippling through the sky high overhead. The chill October wind whips at my face as I try to understand the excitement in his voice. It’s late afternoon. We are standing alongside our minivan. We’ve pulled off the side of the road somewhere between St. George and Cedar City, Utah, on our way to the Missionary Training Center in Provo. My call has come and I’m going to Baltimore, Maryland.
“Watch,” he says. “You’ll see it in a moment. It happens quickly. It’s a wonder.”
I resist the urge to look at him. He’s the real wonder here. His enthusiasm makes you think he’s the one leaving on a mission.
“Now!” Dad’s voice shouts above the wind. The lead goose slips out of formation and slides to the back of one leg of the V. The flock speeds on toward its destination. Shortly the geese are black specks in the sky, arrowing into the dusk.
“Did you see what they did?” he asks, as we climb back into the van. We buckle our seat belts and he continues: “They work together. Singly they would perish on the long flight, but they take turns leading the way. One leads for a while, slashing the air for the others. Then he quietly moves to the back and another takes over.” We pull out onto the road.
“How do they know what to do?” I ask.
“They’ve learned to trust the order God put in things.”
He’s trying to tell me something. This is his way. As Provo gets closer with each passing mile post, though, my thoughts fly to my mission, to my future.
“What you say is true. This will change your life forever,” I tell Brother and Sister Frost in response to her statement. And it will. I’ve been teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ as a missionary for nearly two years now. Soon I’ll be going home. I’ve learned that whenever people accept the gospel, it changes their lives. Of course there are those who, after searching a lifetime, find in the gospel nothing but great relief from life’s most difficult questions. Usually though, it’s the other way, the refiner’s fire, a test and building of faith. But always, always, the gospel brings change.
Elder Jepson and I have been teaching the Frosts for three weeks now. With their permission, we started calling them Brother and Sister. He’s an accountant, and she worked as a legal secretary before their children were born. I’m not sure where we are with them. We’ll need to move forward carefully with our teaching.
I wait for one of them to speak. It’s an important moment. I hope Elder Jepson recognizes it and doesn’t suddenly lose his shyness. The Frosts are a handsome couple, she blond and he dark. Not Hollywood-like at all, but vibrant, a handsomeness born of hope for their lives. I like them both.
Sister Frost speaks, “I think it also means leaving our family, our friends.”
“You might bring some of them with you. Lead the way,” I say. I wait again for someone to fill the silence. They have told me several times how their families feel about Mormons. “We personally have nothing against you Mormons,” they said to us the evening we first knocked on their door. It was to convince themselves of their open-mindedness, I suspect, that they invited us in. In three weeks now we have become close friends.
Sister Frost glances at her husband, but he continues to stare into the carpet. He seems to be deep in thought. She’s not saying what she wants to do. She just keeps pointing out the practical problems—the difficulties of the choice. I think she’s waiting for him to do something, but I’m not sure.
Two days ago, we asked them to be baptized. He is treating us with the distance that we felt the first visit. I recognize the signs. He is on the edge. We must wait now, no matter how loud the silence screams at us to fill it. I want to step in. I want to persuade. I’ve learned though that seconds on a clock wing their way with their own voice.
I look over at Elder Jepson. Two months in the mission field, six feet tall, two-hundred pounds. He has a lot to learn. Elder Jepson is shy, and it may be weeks before he can give the lessons. I know this family is important to him, though. It will really hurt him if they veer away from the Church.
Elder Jepson looks like he’s studying the carpet, too. His coarse red hair dangles from the top of his forehead.
Brother Frost clears his throat.
“Your church asks a great deal—too much I’m afraid. My wife and I have talked a lot. We’re impressed—truly impressed—with your church programs. But all of our friends, all of our family, they believe differently. We’d have to offend them by not drinking with them. We’d have to go to church every Sunday. We’d be … like you say, changing everything.” He talks again about the many fine programs in the Church. But in the end, using accountant’s language, he says, “The ledger page doesn’t balance.”
It’s clear he’s slipped off the edge now. It’s 8:40 P.M. and I’ve been up since 5:30 this morning. I’m tired and I want to go home. I know we’re not supposed to weary in well-doing, but I think we have done all the good we can. I can’t expect Elder Jepson to help here. I must try to hold on to everyone’s dignity. It’s up to me to exit us gracefully and hope the Spirit will work on them after we have gone.
Brother Frost thanks us and wishes us well, but thinks we should look for others who might be more willing followers.
I feel the emptiness I’ve felt a hundred times before. I feel alone. Awkward. We’ve given so much time and effort these last three weeks. I look over at Elder Jepson to see if he’s ready to go. He is staring at Sister Frost and she at him. A tear moves from Elder Jepson’s left eye, down his freckly face. This surprises me. I look at Brother Frost. He’s looking at me and doesn’t notice. I look at Sister Frost. Her eyes brim with tears.
“May I speak?” Elder Jepson’s voice, husky now, breaks the uneasiness. He brushes the tear away, then turns slowly to face Brother Frost. His large farm-toughened hands grab at his knees. He slides forward on the couch, locks his eyes onto Brother Frost’s, and begins.
“I came 2,500 miles to find you. I feel we were guided to you.” Elder Jepson looks down like he’s trying to find what to say next.
“I love your wife, Brother Frost. I love her because she sees. She has told you all of the problems; she has given you all of the pictures a man could want so he could understand and solve them, and you’re running from them. Why?”
I’m stunned. I look at Brother Frost. The room, sedate only a moment before, is intense now. Brother Frost, I think, is puzzled, trying to figure out what Elder Jepson is doing. I want to interrupt, but something says to move aside—for the moment.
Before anyone else speaks, Elder Jepson continues. “And I love you, Brother Frost. I know about your job and your accounting degree. About your dreams, your courtship and marriage, and your three children. I know about your child that died two years ago. I know about your despair. And I know that you’re all wrong about what it means to be a member of the Church.”
Brother Frost rises on his seat. I squeeze the scriptures I have in my hand. Brother Frost has let us know he believes he and his family are good. He has told us how the family goes to a church from time to time, how he is honest, how he has always read a little from the Bible and how, when he was 12, he made up his mind he would never use certain words, and he never has. I’m afraid that Elder Jepson has offended him. I better salvage what I can, quickly. I start to say something. Brother Frost raises his hand—a sign for me to be quiet—and continues staring at Elder Jepson. Then he says, “We’re not perfect, Elder Jepson, but we are decent people. I believe I know all that I need to know about your church and your God. We could easily join you, but we don’t want to.” Brother Frost speaks kindly but firmly. The discussion is over.
But Elder Jepson softly begins again: “You say that, but you never talk about the Savior. Oh, you can talk about God but you have never understood. You tell us you like the Primary because it teaches children to speak in public at an early age and sing in a group. You think sacrament meeting is good because you feel fellowship there. You think the Book of Mormon has some interesting stories in it. You think we’re introducing you to a club. You take out your accounting pads and start adding and subtracting. When you total the benefits of the club against the costs, the club comes up short.”
Elder Jepson has kept his voice even and soft. Brother Frost keeps the emotion out of his face, except for a hint of a smile. Sister Frost looks at her husband now, worried. I decide to stay on the wing of this, for a moment longer, not sure why.
Calmly, Brother Frost says, “You have a lot to learn, Elder Jepson. Life always involves totaling columns of benefits and burdens. But you’re right. Your club, if you will, doesn’t do as much for us as our present club. I’m sorry. That’s how we see it. I’m glad your church works for you. But the programs, as nice as they are, don’t offset the difficulties joining your church would bring us.”
Brother Frost is being gracious. I’ll talk to Elder Jepson later about leaving people with a positive feeling, even if they don’t join. At least some of his shyness is leaving. There’s hope.
Elder Jepson leans forward again. “Brother Frost, you’ve misunderstood. Those programs—Primary, Sunday School, youth activities—those aren’t what this church is about. And it’s not about not smoking or not drinking or paying tithing and fast offerings either. It’s not even about friendship and fellowship. Not only have you added the wrong columns, you’re in the wrong ledger.” I remember now that Elder Jepson took an accounting class the semester before he came on his mission.
Brother Frost responds, “Then why do you try to convince people that your church is so wonderful because of those things?”
“I didn’t come here to tell you you need those things. I came to invite you to know the Savior. If Elder Simpson and I leave tonight, and we leave you believing that you can put this church on a ledger sheet, then we have failed.
“Brother Frost, this is the Savior’s church. Next week the programs might change or disappear, but the Savior won’t. He’s waiting for us to ask for help in our lives. We didn’t come to change your life; we came to teach you that your life will change from the choices you make and that you can choose with heavenly guidance. We came to tell you that Heavenly Father listens to every cry for help from a sincere heart. This church is about Him and His love for you and for me. This church is where the fullness of His gospel and its saving ordinances are found. The rules we live by and the programs are only helps so we may return to Him. We didn’t come here to ask you to join us; we came to ask you to join Him.”
I am moved. I am amazed. I’m not prepared for this from my shy, red-haired companion. I didn’t dream he had that in him. I feel a burning within me. I sense a fire in the room and imagine the hint of a distant melody. Elder Jepson’s speech is eloquent, powerful. I should have been the one to do this. I am the senior companion. I have the experience. I am the leader here. I see the Frosts are touched and I want to be the one that has done it.
I hear the voice in my mind say “I” again, with pity and selfishness in its tone. This time, with effort, I stop it with a memory of a chill wind, wild geese, and my father pointing skyward at dusk.
The Frosts look at one another. Brother Frost says, “Dear, what do you think?”
Eloquently, she tells us all what she sees. She speaks about a new feeling, new courage, a desire to move forward. Brother Frost keeps nodding his head, smiling, agreeing. The music hints around us, again.
I know I will soon move beyond the feeling and the sounds of tonight, but not the memory of it. It will sustain me. I will beat against many head winds as I journey back to my Maker, but I will not fly without the music of this night playing somewhere in my heart. I understand it is time for me to move over, and I make room for Elder Jepson.