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My thoughts, like yours, have been centered on General Conference in recent days as I prepare to sit at the feet of the prophets on October 1st and 2nd. My prayers have included repeated appeals for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to assist in the preparation of messages for those meetings, and to assist in my understanding of the meaning of those messages in my life.

My thoughts on this have led me to compile a list of six activities that I believe will increase the usefulness of General Conference in my life. Perhaps they will be useful to some of you as well.

1. Listen to What They Say

The easy availability of conference messages in so many formats may make us less committed to put ourselves in a position to listen to those messages as they are being delivered. I believe that we need to make needed sacrifices to listen when the messages are delivered.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland related the following story about people who longed to hear the prophet speak:

“I was recently in Vava’u, Tonga. It is a little island which is 1-1 1/2 hours away from Nuku’alofa by plane and twenty-four hours away by boat. By boat it is the worst trip that can be made. (If you don’t believe that, ask Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, who went there recently to organize a stake and could not get a plane.) When the area conference was announced for Tonga, it was determined that only one boat would be available for the Saints from Vava’u. The boat held 150 people. If you stuffed bodies into every possible corner of the ship, you could get close to three hundred people. Eight hundred Tongans jammed onto the boat and stood up for twenty-four hours without sleep, without food, without drink, without anything-because they knew that a prophet of God was going to be in their islands and they were not going to miss him for anything in the world.

“Do you want to go to conference that badly? Do you care that a prophet of the Lord is speaking in the neighborhood? Do you care enough to flip on a television set, a radio, or to come to this building to watch a priesthood meeting? Eight hundred people stood up for twenty-four hours to get to conference, and they didn’t think anything about it. ‘The President of the Church is here,’ they said. ‘That’s our prophet, and we may not see him again soon.’ And they came” Jeffrey Holland (BYU: September 26, 1976).

I shared this story in a sacrament meeting talk a few years ago, and after the meeting a brother from Tonga came forward to speak to me. “I was in Vava’u on that occasion,” he said. “As the boat weighed anchor and began to move away, there were people from that island leaping off the dock and swimming out to the boat, hoping that somehow they might find a place there so that they could hear their prophet speak.”

2. Read What They Say

Harold B. Lee shared this experience:

“A man came to me and said that he had heard that some man appeared mysteriously to a group of temple workers and told them, “You had better hurry up and store for a year, or two, or three, because there will come a season when there won’t be any production.” He asked me what I thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, were you here in the April conference of 1936?’ He replied, ‘No, I couldn’t be there.’

“And I said, ‘Well you surely read the report of what was said by the Brethren in that conference?’ No, he hadn’t. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘at that conference the Lord gave a revelation about the storage of food. How in the world is the Lord going to get over to you what he wants you to do if you are not [listening] when he says it, and you do not take the time to read it after it has been said?’” (“The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” BYU, 8 July, 1964, p. 9).

3. Believe What They Say

In Luke 24:24, the Savior chastised the two disciples who traveled with him on the road to Emmaus. They were distraught over the events of the previous days and over the death of one whom they thought would be their Messiah. He said to them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”

Here is one example. In October Conference of 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley said that he wanted to speak about temporal matters and about the need to get our houses in order. He said, “There is a portent of stormy weather ahead to which we had better give heed.”

Just ten years later the economic picture in this country became bleak indeed. I am grateful that my wife and I had the courage to find a way to pay off the mortgage on our house before that crisis came.

If we had been slow of heart to believe, we might have faced a terrible dilemma.

4. Do What They Say

I would never criticize the inspired men who divided the Book of Mormon into its present arrangement of chapters and verses, but I have frequently found it unfortunate that the break between Helaman 9 and Helaman 10 occurs where it does. In chapters 8 and 9, the prophet Nephi announces the murder of the chief judge, and then, when accused of complicity in the assassination, identifies the true murderer. The people were amazed.

“And now there were some among the people, who said that Nephi was a prophet. And there were others who said: Behold, he is a god, for except he was a god he could not know of all things. For behold, he has told us the thoughts of our hearts, and also has told us things; and even he has brought unto our knowledge the true murderer of our chief judge” (Helaman 9:40 – 41)

It is at this juncture that chapter 9 ends. But chapter 10, verse 1 is clearly a continuation of the same event:

“And it came to pass that there arose a division among the people, insomuch that they divided hither and thither and went their ways, leaving Nephi alone, as he was standing in the midst of them” (Helaman 10:1).

The people, who are trying to decide if Nephi is a prophet or a god, are divided and go their separate ways, “leaving Nephi alone.” Regardless of the conclusion they embrace regarding the true character of Nephi, they ought to stay with him long enough to hear what he has to say and to do it.

Years ago I came into the living room of my home one Saturday in early April. I had been in my room listening to the words of President Hinckley on the radio, but I wanted to make sure that my family had not missed an important element of his message and so I came up the stairs to evaluate. The TV was on. The Prophet was still speaking. But my wife was in the kitchen fixing lunch and my children were playing in the back yard. They had divided hither and thither and gone their ways, leaving President Hinckley alone, as he was standing in the midst of them.

Perhaps an additional passage of scripture will help emphasize the need to do what the Prophets instruct us to do.

“Also, thou son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against [many translations render the word ‘against’ as ‘about’] thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the LORD. And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezekiel 33:30 – 32).

5. Tell the Lord What You Want His Servants to Say

Lorenzo Snow said this in 1900:

“When the brethren arise to speak you should ask the Lord to let them say something that you want to know, that they may suggest something to you that will be of some advantage. If you have any desire to know certain matters that you do not understand, pray that these brethren in their talks may say something that shall enlighten your mind in reference to that which troubles you, and we will have a grand and glorious Conference, a better one than we have ever had before” (Conference Report, October 1900, p. 5)

I had this experience 50 years ago.

“The story begins in Santos, a coastal city in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was serving as a missionary. I had been struggling with a terrifying inability to control my thoughts. I don’t know why it happened or even how much of it was a result of my own weakness. I remember feeling that I was not pursuing a course of my own choosing, but that did not diminish the pain I suffered with the problem. I said then and have said since in discussing this matter that I was in Hell. I hated to leave the apartment, so great was my fear of what my mind would do to me on the streets. I fasted and prayed and sought a blessing from my companion and district, but all without discernible results.

“During this experience I got a call from the Mission President. Elder Spencer W. Kimball was coming to dedicate a new chapel in São Vicente, which was in my Zone. The President indicated that Elder Kimball would have time in the morning for a Zone Conference with the missionaries of the Santos Zone and he asked me to make the necessary arrangements. I was to organize the meeting so that Elder Kimball would have time to interview each missionary, and to speak to them in a combined session. I was jubilant over the prospect. I would explain my problem with thoughts to this member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Certainly he would be able to help me. I felt such a need for help that I prepared for the meeting by fasting again, pleading with the Lord to empower his servant to know what to say to me.

“I planned the conference carefully. After the opening ceremonies, Elder Kimball could interview the elders while we conducted some business and the Mission President spoke.

“President Hicken spoke for about an hour, and his assistants also spoke briefly. The elders being interviewed left the chapel and returned, one at a time. Because of where I was sitting, I would be the last one interviewed. The elder next to me had been out for about five minutes. It was nearly my turn. I was praying silently, my head down, for the Lord to give me a solution to my problems during the interview when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. It was Elder Kimball.

“’Elder,’ he whispered, ‘I’m out of time. I need to deliver my message and travel to São Vicente for the dedication of the chapel. Would it be all right if I interviewed you the next time I come to Brazil?’

“My heart felt like a dishrag; wet, twisted, wrung out. I needed this interview! I had fasted and prayed in preparation. How could this be happening? And, of course, I smiled and said, ‘That will be fine, Elder Kimball,’ As he walked to the front of the chapel, I leaned back with tears in my eyes, and cried out ‘Why?’ in my heart.

“Elder Kimball waited for a moment while an assistant finished speaking, and then he gave a powerful sermon on controlling thoughts. The message may have been a blessing to others, but I knew, sitting there and listening, that it was intended for me. I learned two things that day. I learned how to control my thoughts and I learned that the Lord could respond to my very personal needs through the inspired public utterances of his servants.”

6. Thank God for the Prophets

In the talk Elder Holland gave at BYU about the saints in Vava’u, Tonga, he also shared this experience:

“A man who’d been away from the Church for half a century came back to Utah and took a job as custodian of the local chapel, promising the bishop that he’d come to church and stop smoking. But he did neither. The bishop did not rebuke him, but he kept asking. ‘Do you remember the promise you made?’

“The man said, ‘Yes, I remember, Bishop.’ The bishop would smile and shake hands and walk away, but the man did not come to church and he did not stop smoking. One night, inside the chapel when he was working late, he was overcome with the most terrifying, paralyzing fear he had ever experienced in his life. (I heard him say this with his own lips, though I do not know the man’s name.) He said, ‘I have never been so fearful, so frightened, so petrified in my life. I’ve been afraid. I have been in dangerous, frightening circumstances, but there is nothing in this world with which I can compare or any way in this world I can describe the experience I had that night.

“’Every creak and crack and dark corner of the chapel terrified me, and I began to run.’ This was a grown man speaking, a grandfather. ‘I began to run from the building and fled to my home. But I was also just as terrified in my own home, and I could not control my emotions. I ran from my home and went to a shed behind my house. And for the first time in half a century I fell to my knees and I prayed. I said, ‘O Lord, save me from whatever this is that terrifies me so.’ Quaking, trembling, perspiring on his knees in this shed out behind his home, he continued his prayer. He said, ‘I was lisping like a child the only prayers I knew, when there came into my heart the words of a song that I had not heard nor sung for the half century. I think I did not ever know the words, and I surely do not know them now. But I heard them with symphonic accompaniment and angelic choirs. I heard them, music and word, in that shed behind my home in the middle of that night.’

“It’s a hymn that you know, my young friends, and the opening line is ‘We thank thee, O God, for a Prophet.’ The man said, ‘I stopped trembling, and I stopped crying, and I know I heard the angels sing. I’ve never missed a church meeting since that day. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, and I’ve tried to do everything I should have done for all those years. But I want you to know that I did not then, and I probably do not now know, the words to the hymn that I heard sung that night in a shed behind my home with a celestial symphony and an angelic choir.’ It was indeed a message to a world that’s fearful and frightened and desperately in need. “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet . . .” (“Remembered and Nourished by the Good Word of God” Jeffrey Holland [BYU: September 26, 1976])

This quote from President Boyd K. Packer provides a useful summary to the points outlined above.

“On one occasion, Karl G. Maeser was leading a party of young missionaries across the Alps. As they reached the summit, he looked back and saw a row of sticks thrust into the snow to mark the one safe path across the otherwise treacherous glacier.

“Halting the company of missionaries, he gestured toward the sticks and said, ‘Brethren, there stands the priesthood [of God]. They are just common sticks like the rest of us . . . but the position they hold makes them what they are to us. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost’” (“From Such Turn Away,” Ensign, May 1985, 35).