Sunday, August 30, 2015

Worshipping through sacred music. by Sarah

 10 minutes to start time. Eventually all of the chapel and cultural hall will fill up with people.

Today Sarah was one of the seven people assigned to give a talk (sermon) in Stake Conference (over 1,000 members from nine wards/parishes gathered in two buildings). It was a star studded cast: the just released stake Relief Society president, a counselor in the stake primary presidency, a member of a bishopric, and all three members of the stake presidency. All gave wonderful talks. Sarah's assigned topic was a perfect fit for her: How to worship through sacred music. It was a wonderful mix of how a talk should be: short, humorous, motivational and touching.

Hello, my name is Sarah Emmett, I’m a senior at SHS, and I’m the assistant choir director in the 18th ward. Today I’m going to talk about why participating in sacred music is important. 

Well, first of all, sacred music is important because God says it is. In D+C 25:12,  a revelation given to Emma Smith, the Lord said “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” It’s definitely no coincidence that a whole book of the Bible, Psalms, is entirely made up of songs. The Lord hears and blesses us when we sing, play, or listen to sacred music. 

Music in general has a special power over our human hearts. I know that when we listen to my Mom’s Carpenters CD in the car I usually end up feeling a little depressed. “I can’t smile without you?” Really? And I know that when my brother comes into my room listening to rap I always have a strange desire to move to Detroit. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius once said “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” All music, no matter what genre, has a power to influence our emotions like regular old words just can’t. So often, we get caught up THINKING the Gospel and forget to FEEL the gospel. No matter what questions I have about certain points of doctrine, I know that playing a hymn on my ukulele will help me to feel the spirit like nothing else ever could. My first ever spiritual experience that I can actually remember was when I was around nine, listening to I Am a Child of God. I have a distinct memory of sobbing for a good fifteen minutes all thanks to that one song.

There have, however, been a few times when I’ve forgotten this purpose for sacred music. A few years ago I performed a piano solo in sacrament meeting. Everything went fine until I failed the very last chord. I think it was quite a sight when I stomped off the stand. I was so focused on the details of the piece that I completely forgot that my job as a performer was not to get a standing ovation, or have to play Sweet Hour of Prayer as an encore; My job was to bring the spirit to the meeting. Some people may ask me to “define ‘sacred music.’” Well, there you go. Sacred music is any collection of notes that helps you feel the spirit. A celebratory gospel hymn is no less sacred than Ode to Joy or an EFY CD as long as it uplifts and strengthens the listener.

So, I’ve established that sacred music is important to us as individuals, but it’s also important to us as a group. Music is uniting. Christ said “be one.” What is more “one” than singing and feeling the same song together as brothers and sisters in the gospel? Do you realize that when you sing the closing hymn today, you’ll be singing it with a thousand other people who share your beliefs? Have you ever thought of how many people stand to sing the General conference rest hymn worldwide? And music isn’t just a tool for connecting Mormons with Mormons. Our hymns can also connect us with people of other faiths. No one is going to doubt that we’re Christians when they hear the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing Amazing Grace. When we share sacred music with others we share our testimonies.

Now this has been a good talk, right? Music is fun, the church is true, when can we leave? Well, wait just a second. My topic was why PARTICIPATING in sacred music is important. Yes that’s right. I’m on to you folks who don’t even move your lips during the sacrament hymn. I’m calling you out, you people who pretend you don’t play the piano in seminary. Some of you justify yourselves by saying “well, I’m just not that good.” When has that ever been a valid excuse in our church? When Moses tried to use it he got quite the talking to. The Lord replied to insecurities by saying “Who hath made man’s mouth? Or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will teach thee what thou shalt say” or sing. Or play. Or download on your iPod if that’s really all you can manage! The Lord will help us when we seek to praise him through sacred music.

This year at our ward’s girls camp, we YCLs [Youth Camp Leader] wanted to do something extra special. The first, and best, idea that came to us was to learn to play Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing on our various instruments, and to sing it as a group after the faith walk and before testimony meeting. The faith walk was sort of a mad dash, and left me feeling harried and unsettled. It was as if the spirit was just waiting on the outside of me, but hadn’t made it in yet. The moment we began to play everything changed. The lights we had strung everywhere seemed brighter. Our unskilled, out of tune, strums sounded beautiful. I felt God’s love so strongly as I looked out over all of my sisters and sang the words “Come the Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy Grace.” And he did. We sang His Grace, He tuned our hearts, and then He came.

The Lord has blessed us with beautiful music. He has blessed us with the gift of the Holy Ghost. He has blessed us with a whole green [hymn] book full of wisdom that sometimes even rhymes. If any of you are struggling to “feel” the gospel, I encourage you to immerse yourself in sacred music. There is no better way to feel God’s love.

I know that when we participate in sacred music we will be blessed, and that Heavenly Father will hear us and smile—even if we’re just a little bit off key. I know this church is true, and I owe that knowledge, in part, to sacred music.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

My three favorite preachers: Nancy Caulkins (l) talked about how from its beginning, service, love and compassion have and still should be the hallmarks of the Relief Society. Sarah Hodson (r) bravely talked about how we can make the Sabbath a delight--we can do it in part by reaching out to make sure that everyone (particularly women) feels welcomed no matter what their struggles, issues or doubts may be.

Sarah's talk had an immediate impact. The stake president duly noted that more people were singing during the rest hymn. It's my personal preference, but I think even more people would be inclined to sing if the chorister picked up the tempo a bit.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Two weeks ago I was informed by the powers that be at BYU that I was not permitted to teach an all ready scheduled, two week, one credit course on the Israel/Palestine conflict to the 55 Middle East Studies/Arabic (MESA) intensive Arabic students at the BYU Jerusalem Center (JC) in December. The news came as a very discouraging blow and just at a point in time when it seemed that 15 years of various BYU travel bans on my areas of research (Middle East and Indonesia) were finally coming to an end. This most recent ban had nothing to do with travel security.

One of my main motivations in getting a PhD in Middle East Geography was in the hopes that one day I would be able to be to teach at the BYU Jerusalem Center. I had participated in the BYU Jerusalem Study Abroad program in the fall of 1982 where I conducted research (with the encouragement of BYU to show that the planned BYU Jerusalem Center could be a place of academic research and not just Biblical Studies) for my masters thesis about the changing attitudes of the students towards Arabs and Israelis. I loved that experience and thought that going back as a teacher would be a great opportunity. When I was offered a job at BYU in 1992 I inquired if I, as a Middle East geographer, would be able to teach at the center, I was bluntly told no by one administrator. I thought I'd give it a try anyhow. It took a lot of patience, preparation (I regularly taught Old and New Testament classes at BYU for 10 years) and good luck (kind faculty in the department of religion who went to bat for me and a window year where older religion faculty could not or would not go and younger faculty did not have tenure yet) to finally have it happen.

My experience of teaching Old and New Testament to three semesters of students during the 2009-2010 academic year was delightful. At the beginning of that year a seasoned JC colleague told two of us newbies that the best thing to do if we had suggestions for change was to just mind our own business and not say anything. On occasion that was a hard thing for me to do. I loved the center and wanted to help in making its programs the very best. That November when we arrived at the Sea of Galilee we were told that we could not go swimming! We could wade in up to our ankles! It was the off season and no life guards were on duty. I had promised my children that we would get to swim. I inquired of the resort staff and they said we could swim at our own risk, but that would be breaking one of the many BYU rules. I asked if we could arrange for a life guard and that was turned down. Later in a rare moment where we were asked for input, I brought up the crazy no swim rule. They listened! Next semester the students were able to swim for a few hours with student life guards and faculty supervision. The next year BYU even arranged to have life guards hired for the fall and winter programs when life guards were not normally on duty. Another suggestion by Marie about not counting driving mileage for to-and-from travel to the kids' school was also implemented.

I worked extra hard at keeping all of the rules and not rocking the boat. As a family we obtained multiple levels of approval to go to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. I refrained from not going in to the old city at restricted times and in restricted areas. I even turned down an opportunity for a first time visit to Mar Saba Monastery in the restricted West Bank. We also made sure none of us walked barefoot on the marble floors of the center.

One challenge to the rules I made was when, after being asked by several students, I did write explanatory letters to the Honor Code Office. These students had already been punished for infractions while in Jerusalem and were now being punished a second time by being put on probation once they returned to school in Provo.

When an opportunity for another sabbatical came up I inquired about the possibility of returning to the JC to teach again. I was told that it could possibly happen (which I interpret as meaning I was not that troublesome during my teaching year) but given my unique situation as a non-religion faulty member and a non-ancient Middle East historian, it was not going to be easy. Plus now there were many more young tenured religion faculty in line to go. I gave up hope on Jerusalem and applied for Semester at Sea instead.

Last year I was approached to see if I would be interested in joining a rotation with two other MESA faculty in teaching the intensive Arabic students in Jerusalem (after a semester of study in Amman). I happily agreed. This meant that every three years beginning in 2015 I would get to spend two weeks in December traveling around the Holy Land (including a one week stay at the JC) lecturing and arranging lectures for the students. This first time around the two other faculty would come each for a week to show me the ropes.

During our year in Jerusalem, BYU faculty were allowed on certain occasions to meet with the few Arab members of the Church living in the West Bank (because of the Wall they could not attend services in Jerusalem). Our family loved attending Sunday gatherings in Bethlehem. Friendships established during that year have remained. As these friendships have continued over the years I have become acutely aware through phone calls and blog posts of how difficult it is to be a Latter-day Saint in the West Bank and how policies (for example faculty can no longer attend the Sunday meetings in Bethlehem--just one service couple can go) put in place by the JC in the last few years have added to that difficulty. Efforts by these local members to bring attention to these challenges were for naught. Finally last August I decided to write a couple of respectful letters suggesting how JC policies might be altered in order to better serve the needs of some of these members. In response, I got a letter explaining why certain rules were now in place. I felt compelled to reply. The harshest, most condemning thing I wrote was a quote from Elder Neal A. Maxwell which said:

“Rules are useful, but these must merely mark where the borders of conscience end. Rules have a way of pushing conscience back, and yet further back. Besides, each human and each human situation are sufficiently different that rules thus multiplied become like the unpruned tree. A lively conscience can cut through to the justice of any situation” (Of One Heart p. 24).

That was it. I wrote some letters suggesting ways to better serve the members in Bethlehem. Then I was done.

Last month I submitted my Jerusalem travel application for approval.  I thought it was just a formality given the fact that the MESA program had already scheduled me for the course. It came as a complete shock when I was informed that I could not go (the other two MESA faculty got approval). No reason was given. A follow up letter today told me it was because I was "seen as someone who would be disruptive at the center because of [my] previous disagreements with center leadership/personnel."

And there you have it. The take-away for me: Don't speak up, don't suggest, don't stand up for the little guy, and obey the rules at all costs. As one BYU colleague recently said about his chosen survival tactic: "Just keep your head down."

If what I have said (in letters to administrators who have stewardship over the Center) has ruffled some feathers then OK don't invite me back to be a faculty member at the Jerusalem Center, but why forbid me from teaching a MESA course in a BYU building for one week in December? I'll happily sleep and eat elsewhere.

I am very sad about this ban, but I am not sad that I tried to be an agent for positive change.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

First Day

 Senior at Springville High Sarah is the first to leave.

Ninth grader at Springville Jr. High Joel is next. My ninth grade converse all-stars were not high tops. They weren't cool back then.

 Fifth grader at Brookside Elementary Will is last. Two years ago the boys taught me that calf length socks were not in style.  I guess now they are. Less hair gel is also now in style. Once again Nike owes us for outfitting a walking, breathing billboard.

Hope it is a good year for all three.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Flying High

Yesterday Sarah turned 17. For a family celebration we headed up to the Zip Line at Sundance Ski Resort (thanks Diane and Lant). The zip line opened just this year. It is the 3rd longest zip line tour in the US, is 1.86 miles long and has the most vertical drop of any zip line in the US. The above photo is what happens when you loan your i-phone to your children to take a photo of their father.

First step, ride Ray's lift up the front mountain. This is the lift where Marie and I skied on a re-kindling date (in the final months of dating on and off for 13 years) that finally led to our marriage. It is also the lift where on the first ride of Joel and Sarah up this lift, I forgot in the confusion of the moment to help a young Joel (age 5 or 6) off the lift at Ray's Summit. When he saw Sarah and me below he jumped off from about six feet up. He was unhurt and I was very relieved. The lift then descends to its final off load point which meant I would have had to leave Sarah at the top and ski down to get Joel. No mishaps this time.

 Spectacular Mt Timpanogos.

 Short practice run.

 First Span--Ray's Span

Then ride Arrowhead lift up to Arrowhead Summit with this view down Provo Canyon to Utah Valley.

The view eastward to Deer Creek Reservoir (where Will broke his arm tubing).

The view northward.

Sarah flying high down Bishop's Span

Will following behind

The end point is the bald hill top in the distance. Bishop's bowl is below.


and then Marie

Marie and Joel

Dad coming in a little too fast at the bottom of Bishop's Span. Truth be told my increasing fear of heights made me a little nervous dangling at the top waiting for the word to go. But once I was moving I had no problem.

Marie and Will coming in at the bottom of Flathead Span.

Solo Sarah in the middle of Flathead Span

 Outlaw Span--the longest. Marie and Joel.



It was two hours of beautiful scenery and rushing fun.

Last Thursday I arranged to have piano movers bring a player piano and an old pump organ from my parents' house in Logan (papers were signed yesterday for its sell). The movers could not get the organ out of the basement so all that was delivered was the player piano. The two local guys who brought it to our house could not muscle it around and on to the upper landing so this afternoon two bigger and more experienced movers muscled it around the turn and down the stairs in an impressive feat of shear will and brawn. 

We are now a two piano family. Mom needled pointed the green bench. The piano rolls fill up the lower shelf.

The kids and their friends had fun playing it this afternoon.

Joels' new favorite song is "Secret Agent Man."

With the addition of the piano, the "extreme make-over" of our basement family room is now almost complete. It all started a year an half ago when Santa delivered a ping pong table. This was the beginning of a move to make the room more teenager friendly, a place where our kids could hang out with friends. In the last few weeks, I have shuffled out our old computer and filing cabinet, bought a new TV and moved out a dinosaur of a TV (salvaged from Raintree Apartments for our youth yard sale), moved out and/or shelved and organized stacks of book, moved in a new bookshelf from my parents, gotten rid of an old couch and replaced it with a couch from my parents basement, looked for a love seat (still pending), hung new pictures, moved all of our CDs into the bookshelves for easier access, dusted and vacuumed. 

The last thing still to do is to hang lots of family photos on the wall behind the ping pong table now decorated with Indonesian water colors. We also need to figure out the best place for Marie's treadmill. This makeover and the clean out of my parents house has had a ripple effect throughout the whole house as other rooms have been cleaned and organized to receive other items (book shelves, bed, posters and paintings, quilting frames, CDs, piano music, storage shelves, tables and chairs) from my parents house or from the family room.

The mustard colored chair in the distance is Joel's inheritance. It is a commode my dad salvaged from the old Logan Hospital complete with a central hole, circular lid and receptacle below.  

This was all completed just in time for Sarah and a few friends to enjoy a birthday movie last night on the new TV.  I envision many more such gatherings in the new basement.

Last Thursday--Saturday Joel and Will both competed with their Utah Storm soccer teams in a local tournament (Utah Showcase and Cup).  Neither team made it to the finals but they both had fun playing, Will with a bubble wrapped cast (it was cut off two days ago) on his left forearm and Joel on a new division A team that plays harder and faster than his former team. Will and his team's best game was the second game on Thursday when Will scored three of the five goals, with two assists. At one point we could hear one of the soccer mom's from the other team yell to her defensive playing son to "guard the bubble boy!"

Joel controlling the ball with a chest.

Saturday Grandma and Grandpa Tueller and Aunt Martha came to watch. Earlier support came from Aunt Jan and Uncle Winn and then Aunt Diane.