Humans in Conference
By Marvin Payne

Elder Boyd K. Packer said it. Something about how the Brethren are just folks. He told the great story about the sister who threw a rock when everyone else was throwing flowers in the path of Brigham Young’s carriage and shouted something like, “He’s no better than my great-uncle Mortimer!” Or some name to that effect. Elder Packer wasn’t particularly offended at that bizarre behavior, because she may have been right, which was the whole point.

I’m not sure I captured it accurately, because I was balancing on the roof of our cabin and it was raining, occasionally snowing. The radio in the open Volkswagen below was up as high as it could go, and there was some distortion. I think a sister spoke in that session, or a very tender Seventy.

(Once Brigham Young University emailed me for my social security number so they could pay me lots of money just because of the kind of guy I am – no, really I did some television writing for them with my friends Roger and Melanie Hoffman and Steven Kapppp Perry, all of whom ought to be paid lots of money just because of the kind of guys they are, except for Melanie who is a girl. I felt uncomfortable about sending that sacred number through snare-filled cyberspace, so I gave it to them in code. I indicated the first two digits of the final four like this: “If you were this, you would sit just below the Twelve in General Conference.” Hints like that. They got it just fine. I didn’t think crooks would be familiar enough with General Conference to cause me any grief.)

I was on the roof because the night before it had taken my six-year-old son John and me much longer than we’d anticipated to assemble the new TV antenna, which turned out to be more on the order of the space station Mir than anything else in our town. Many pine branches bit the dust to allow it room enough to orbit. It’s probably good that we don’t live in a coastal area, because the gravitational pull of an object this massive could adversely affect the regularity of the tides. I don’t think Utah Lake has tides. Maybe now it will.

This October, my wife and I had felt that if the kids could see conference as well as hear it, they might understand that the Apostles and Prophets are real people. We haven’t had TV for several years (Saturday we were terrified by the promos for upcoming network shows that popped up like scorpions among the soothing commercials for books like “David O. McKay and Me” by John F. Kennedy, and pitches for really modest marathon-running attire).

The only time we miss having TV is conference time. (Actually, I sort of miss having television access to the BYU football season. But then, even millions of BYU fans with televisions do, too.) So we wondered which relative we would descend upon for the weekend. Then I had a flash of archeological insight. Wasn’t there a time when people could watch TV for free? When there was this odd concept of “airwaves”? “Public” airwaves?

So John and I drove down to Radio Shack and bought an antenna to hook up to the set we use for Wallace & Gromit, old Muppet shows, and the Barbie Runs for President movie. It wasn’t until halfway through the second battery of Seagull Book and Mr. Mac ads (Do you know that these stores will actually pay you to buy their merchandise?) that Laurie, inside on the cell phone, confirmed that faces were at last discernible.

Then I started comprehending what the speakers were getting at. I did wonder, though, why I wasn’t getting more warmth in the vicinity of my bosom while I attended to their testimonies. Pretty soon I realized that it was probably a natural consequence of hypothermia. Answering an emergency call from my Quorum President to help set up chairs for the Priesthood Session warmed me up, some. (I’m just gonna capitalize everything that feels to me like it might qualify as a proper noun, or even merely a moderately well-behaved one.)

Priesthood Meeting was great partly because someone else had to set up the visual reception apparatus. I just sat on the front edge of the gym stage with my son and his son and drank it in. (It’s always a little tricky taking good journal notes during the Priesthood Session because it’s dark. I have in the past pulled my chair into the hallway or held a flashlight in my teeth. For this October, I forgot my flashlight but sat in a column of light from the little passage that leads up the side of the stage. In a spirit of helpfulness, others switched off the light more than once, but I finally arranged the side curtains (we theatre geeks call them “legs”) in such a way that the light only hit my right knee, where my journal lay. Some conferences nothing works, and my Priesthood Session notes just look like maybe I’d been drinking Jose Cuervo all Saturday afternoon. All I can say is that it’s good that President Eyring’s encouragement to write down evidences of the Lord’s hand wasn’t given during the Priesthood Session.

Now, “President Eyring.” Doesn’t that have a great sound to it? I love this! I raised my hand high, right there on the roof! I so enjoyed that development that it wasn’t until the second day that I realized with some soberness that my affection for him probably means that I should do what he says.

Thinking of President Eyring brings me to what this column is about, Humans in Conference. I mean the Brethren, President Eyring, for example. When his emotions are about to break, he usually hides it with a smile. I’ve seen many women, some of whom seem quite unsilly in other ways, begin waving their hands as though fanning their ears when an emotional break threatens. President Eyring smiles. Sometimes we smile when we’re embarrassed. I wondered if maybe President Eyring, though, smiles involuntarily just because being moved around by the Spirit at the expense of his poise pleases him. I think that’s it. Really human, in a good way.

The Priesthood Session brought a couple of other nice humanities out where they could be seen and enjoyed. At the end of his quite wonderful prepared remarks, President Monson was drawn off-script by the red hair adorning a father and son in the priesthood choir. I love it when he goes off-script. It’s like if an actor playing Moses goes off script and you suddenly realize, “Oh! He actually is Moses!” That was one. Here’s another:

Immediately after the closing prayer (we stayed until then, in order to be dead sure who won), my son Sam asked me if I’d ever seen a Prophet in a sweater before. I admitted I hadn’t. (Once Elder L. Tom Perry came to a play I was in – came to see his grandniece-in-law – and was wearing a sweater under his suit jacket. This had about the same effect as if a Non-Apostle showed up at the theatre in swim trunks. We really expect way too much of these guys.) But in the meeting, both Sam and I were struck (“struck” is the right word) by the fact that the President of the Church was wearing a sweater under his suit jacket. This was very much a matter of sartorial addition rather than subtraction, because the dark suit was there, the white shirt was there, the conservative tie was there, and the sweater was black. Anybody who’s ninety-seven years old has the unassailable right to fortify himself against the coming of Autumn, but it was just downright humanizing to see that sweater.

(I forgot until right this moment whacking away at the iBook that many years ago I went Christmas caroling to President Hinckley’s apartment and he was wearing a white jogging suit. That was at home, though.)

What about Elder Wirthlin, who began practically to expire at the pulpit? His testimony of charity was born as eloquently by him as by Elder Nelson, who had sprung to his side to hold him up. The weaker Elder Wirthlin got, the stronger he became. Had he, indeed, passed away while bearing that testimony, I have to think he’d have been sealed up to glory in the very act of doing the most human thing any of us will ever do.

There were many more – confessions having to do with passing out chocolates, deceiving horses, community licks of a single butterscotch candy, being scared nearly to death by the General Conference microphone. Elder Kopischke’s pronunciation of English gave us, instead of “committee meetings,” the much more human “comedy meetings.” He didn’t know the extra sweetness of the gift he was giving us. I thank him, anyway. Elder Hilbig was, in my journal notes, “surprised by tears.” Those frequent surprises are always the best.

Probably, other glimpses of our leaders’ “plain and precious parts” moved you. I guess we go to conference hoping to experience divinity, not humanity. Still, it’s so comforting and encouraging and friendly to drink the water of life from earthen vessels.

It was a great Conference. I would have driven home courteously, had I not already been at home. And this television will stand adjourned for another six months.


“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)



2007 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.