I have a son who is in prison. He made a mistake, but that is another story.
This story is about how General Conference changed my life (and my son’s).
In October, I sat with my General Conference notebook in hand, ready to write down words and feelings that struck me. What I heard, depressed me.
In his talk, “Parents: The Prime Gospel Teachers of Their Children,” Sunday School General President Tad R. Callister stated:
“As parents, we are to be the prime gospel teachers and examples for our children—not the bishop, the Sunday School, the Young Women or Young Men, but the parents. As their prime gospel teachers, we can teach them the power and reality of the Atonement—of their identity and divine destiny—and in so doing give them a rock foundation upon which to build. When all is said and done, the home is the ideal forum for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (General Conference, Oct. 2014; Ensign, Nov. 2014)
This talk hit a nerve; a painful one.
We were never able to have children. We found our son, Cory, through the foster care system. He moved in with us a week before his sixteenth birthday. Months after we adopted Cory, he decided to take the missionary discussions and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a couple months later. It was his choice; the missionaries told me he had accepted their challenge and set a date before I ever heard from him that he had made the decision. We did not want him to feel pressure from us; we needed it to be his decision. I know Cory had a testimony at the time he joined the Church, but he was still growing and learning, as we all are.
There came a time when Cory’s birth mother, whom he had not had contact with since he was five-years-old, reached out to him on Facebook. Days later, he decided to move a few hours away to live with her. It was a difficult time, but a journey I knew he needed to make. More difficult times followed, and a series of poor choices that landed him on probation. Eventually, Cory came back to us. However, he violated his parole and did not show up for court dates, which lead to a prison sentence.
President Callister’s talk broke my heart. I never had the opportunity to teach Cory from an early age. Tears pooled in my eyes and eventually spilled down my cheeks. I was angry and hurt by the injustice of our situation.
I know kids sometimes go astray, even when they are brought up in with the gospel in their lives, but I still felt cheated that my husband and I, never had those opportunities with Cory.
It felt like many of the talks during the Saturday sessions and Sunday morning, focused on the responsibility of parents to teach their children. I felt sorry for myself.
Mercifully, when yet another speaker began to reference parents teaching their children, the Spirit softened my heart and told me that I could still teach our son, even in prison.
President Jeffrey R. Holland said:
Between Sunday sessions I started my first of weekly letters to our son, teaching him the basic principles of the gospel: the Plan of Salvation, the Godhead, baptism, how to receive answers to prayers, why we have temples, the restoration, repentance, the word of wisdom, and more difficult topics like pornography and the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage and what we believe as stated in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
These letters also gave me the opportunity to tell Cory in writing, every week, that I love him. That too, is a blessing to both of us.
I knew I was being prompted to write and teach. Once I received that clear message, to paraphrase Nephi, I “went and did.”
The odd thing is, later, when I re-read the Conference talks, I discovered to my surprise that they were not all on this topic. However, the Spirit was telling me what I needed to hear.
“What is said is not as important as what we hear and what we feel,” said Elder Robert D. Hales (General Conference, October 2013)
I never could have imagined the blessings that would come from these weekly lessons.
After the second one, Cory called asking if I could give him more scriptures about answers to prayer and later, repentance. Since then, we have enjoyed many conversations about gospel topics.
One week he telephoned to state that President Utchdorf was a favorite because he enjoyed his stories and the way he explained gospel truths. Sometimes Cory commented on an Ensign article that we had not even read yet—he made us step up our game in reading this monthly gift.
Not long after I began writing, Cory shared my letters with other inmates who joined him in studying the scriptures. We sent a Book of Mormon and Church pamphlets to a couple of inmates. (They asked for missionaries, but unfortunately, there are no missionaries who serve in that area.)
In December, he distributed the pass-a-long cards that came in the Ensign. We joke now that Cory is serving a mission in prison.
In April, Elder Russell M. Nelson asked,
“Because of what I have heard and felt during this conference, how will I change?” (General Conference, April 2015)
I have not always loved General Conference or looked forward to it. When I was younger, I was happy to not have to get dressed up to attend meetings and drive to the chapel, but I did not relish the idea of 4 hours on Saturday and another 4 on Sunday listening to old people speak. Funny how age and testimony changed my perspective. Now, I look forward to General Conference and the messages that will come specifically to me.
“As you prepare for General Conference: I invite you to ponder questions you need to have answered. For example, you might yearn for direction and guidance by the Lord regarding challenges you are facing. Answers to your specific prayers may come directly from a particular talk or from a specific phrase. At other times answers may come in seemingly unrelated word, phrase, or song.” (Ensign, Sept. 2011)
I know what President Uchtdorf promised is true.
When I taught seminary, we spent the Friday before April and October General Conference talking about the prophet, first presidency and apostles. I challenged them to pray about and ponder something they needed an answer to, like confirmation they should go on a mission, what college they should attend, what is their mission in life, what are their talents and gifts. Maybe they need to know the Church is true or maybe they just need a little encouragement that the path they are on is right.
Whatever you need to know: pray, ponder, and listen for the Spirit to teach you during General Conference.
On the Monday after General Conference, my Seminary class shared our favorite talks and feelings from the weekend sessions. That was always one of my favorite days of Seminary, to see and hear how some of them prepared and received answers to questions, assurance of their choices, and other promptings. Some felt the Spirit.
“Those who will address us have sought heaven’s help and direction as they have prepared their messages. They have been impressed concerning that which they will share with us.” President Thomas S. Monson (General Conference, Oct. 2009).
I am grateful that I prepared myself to be taught by the Spirit during General Conference, and that I listened and went and did as the Spirit instructed. I love General Conference. This was just one of several instances where the Spirit has taught me something I needed to know.
“It is the Spirit which will bear record to your heart as you read the scriptures, as you hear the Lord’s authorized servants, and as God speaks directly to your heart,” said President Henry B. Eyring (General Conference, April 1991)
The thing is: What is I had not listened to the prompting of the Spirit during General Conference? What if I dismissed it or thought it was too hard a task or debated if it would really make any difference? If I had not listened and acted (“went and did”) I would not know the tender blessings, the moments when I have hung up the phone in tears after a spiritual conversation with my son. I don’t believe Cory would have the testimony he has today if I had not written all those letters.
I cannot thank my Heavenly Father enough for how General Conference changed my life, (and my son’s).
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from Cory. He said reading the testimonies of others in the Ensign inspired him to write out his own testimony. He asked if I would type it up and send him a copy so he could keep it in his folder with his Patriarchal Blessing. He gave me permission to share it with you here. (First declined. Then he teased, “How many people read your blog, like two or three? Go ahead. But, it’s not the best version of my testimony.” I think he means his, like all of ours, is still growing.)
Articles on Preparing for General Conference:
Seven Ways to Get More Out of Conference by Matthew Garrett
“There are messages in each general conference are given as a gift and a blessing from heaven specifically for our personal life situations,” taught President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (Ensign, Sept. 2011)