Just by way of quick introduction: Emily and I are both originally from Oklahoma, although we didn’t meet until just over four years ago, when we were living a thousand miles away from each other. We had kind of an amazingly romantic courtship, which I will not recount in full right now, but suffice it to say that it involved daily love letters, ballroom dancing, fireworks, a carriage ride in Central Park, an after-dark parade, a wizard and a monkey. We were sealed in the Oklahoma City Temple in 2012, which was followed in pretty short order by a hurricane, multiple miscarriages, a tragic death, ovarian cancer and more than seventy foster children. So it kind of all balanced out.
When I was first introduced to Emily, I was living in New York City, where I had moved almost a decade before to study musical theater writing. The answers to your first three questions are: 1) no, you haven’t heard anything I’ve written; 2) there’s no rule about whether the words or music come first—it can happen either way or at the same time; and 3) I’m the words guy—I do the script and lyrics, so not the part you’re excited about.
There are times, however, when working in musical theatre is as exciting as you imagine it would be. One early highlight of my writing career was winning a Richard Rodgers Award. Named after the composer who wrote the music for Oklahoma and The Sound of Music, among many others, this was a prestigious national award presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award was presented at a fancy banquet, where other honorees included I. M. Pei, the architect who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. At my table, I was seated next to Pullitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote, who is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird. Across the table from me was seated musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim—but unfortunately there was a massive flower arrangement in the middle of the table blocking our view, and I never got to exchange a word with him.
I remember at one point that week loading clothes into the washing machine and laughing to myself, thinking, “I just won a Richard Rodgers Award, and here I am doing my laundry like an ordinary person!” I knew that I had made it. I was a good, faithful person, doing my best to build the kingdom and working to magnify my talents, and God had rewarded me with success. Because that is how the story is supposed to go.
The thing is… that experience was a truly extraordinary, glorious moment that has in no way played out in the way I expected. More than a decade has passed since then, and I am still trying to get my big break in a very competitive industry. And most banquets I attend these days involve having food smeared on my shirt by a toddler who thinks she’s very funny.
Maybe it was because of these frustrated expectations that I resonated in perhaps unintended way with President Dieter F Uchtdorf’s talk “Learn from Alma and Amulek”, in the priesthood session of General Conference this month.
Just to quickly summarize: In the Book of Mormon, Alma was both the son of a prophet and a virulent persecutor of the Christian church. Like Paul, he experienced a divine intervention that led to his conversion, after which he became a lifelong missionary.
In Pres. Uchtdorf’s words, “Every citizen of the Nephite nation must have known Alma’s story. The Twitters, Instagrams, and Facebooks of his day would have been filled with images and stories about him… In short, he was perhaps the most well-known celebrity of his day.”
When preaching to a particularly hard-hearted city, Alma was directed to a man named Amulek. Pres. Uchtdorf says, “Amulek was a well-to-do, well-known citizen of Ammonihah. Although he came from a long line of believers, his own faith had grown cold… But God was preparing Amulek, and when Amulek met Alma, he welcomed the Lord’s servant into his home… Amulek opened his heart to Alma’s message, and a marvelous change came over him… When Alma went out again to teach among the people of [that city], he had a second witness at his side—Amulek, one of their own.”
When I heard this message, I thought two things.
First, I really have to find my Amulek. I need that person who has the skills and connections I lack to help me fulfill that showbiz part of my mission in life.
But second, I think I resonate with Amulek because he’s not the famous one. Amulek’s conversion was so complete that he spent the rest of his life in missionary service, even though every person in his family either turned against him or was killed. In spite of that, when we think of the great heroes of the Book of Mormon, no one picks Amulek. Or Shiblon. Or Sam. Or Aaron, who gave up a kingdom to be a missionary. Or Ammah and Muloki, who were thrown into prison for preaching the gospel. Or Emer, the righteous king who was visited by the pre-mortal Savior. No one could argue that their faith was weak, or that their contributions to the kingdom of God were worthless, but we barely even know their names.
We live in a society in which notoriety is synonymous with success. And while we may not all be looking for fame, it is easy to feel like a nobody without generous servings of external validation.
One of the long-running challenges of my life has been a struggle with depression, and the adversary uses these feelings of insecurity as a weapon. He encourages me to think that the lack of universal acclaim for my writing reflects a lack of worth. He points out how little I seem to have accomplished after such a promising head start, while my peers—who are often younger than I am at this point—have often gone on to find greater commercial success.
Now, I know that everyone has their own idea of success, and that probably not everyone here dreams of having a show on Broadway. But I suspect that there are many of us here who sometimes feel invisible. We may feel overlooked, underappreciated or insignificant.
The hardest period of my membership in the church was when I reached the age where I could no longer attend the singles ward. The point at which you are officially labeled an “older single”—which is an awful way to be labeled. So here I was, a single thirty-year-old going each Sunday to a church that is very family oriented. My faith never wavered, but I would find myself thinking, “I could leave right now and no one would notice. No one would care.”
That loneliness lost its edge in time, but didn’t really go away until I stopped waiting for someone to appreciate me, and started going out of my way to care for others. I was called to be the single adult representative in my ward, and let my experiences fuel my ministry to others.
There was one single sister in the ward who was in her fifties, but looked much older. She had little money, and fewer teeth. But she had a great sense of humor, and she loved coming out to activities. Once, I missed seeing her at church for a couple weeks in a row, so the next Sunday morning I gave her a call and asked if she needed a ride. It had been too rainy for her to wait at the bus stop, and so she accepted the offer. It was pretty much no effort on my part. But maybe a month later, she mentioned to me privately that that was the first time she had ever felt that anyone cared whether she was at church.
Pres. Uchtdorf teaches that, “Deep down, many want to serve their God. They want to be an instrument in His hands. They want to thrust in their sickle and strive with their might to prepare the earth for the return of our Savior. They want to build His Church. But they are reluctant to begin. Often they wait to be asked.”
To this I would like to add: don’t wait to be asked.
I understand it’s hard. When I’m discouraged or depressed, what I want more than anything is for someone to come find me and lift me up. If someone would help me out of this emotional pit, then I know I could fulfill that great potential that I believe is inside of myself.
But don’t wait. Even if all you have in you is to do the smallest thing—smile at someone who needs it, say a prayer for someone you see on the street—those things count. And if you will make that conscious effort, no matter how small, it is the Lord himself who will lift you up. “And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage.” (Mosiah 24:14)
Elder Evan A. Schmutz, also at the latest General Conference, said, “Everyone listening today is acquainted with some measure of loneliness, despair, grief, pain, or sorrow. Without an eye of faith and an understanding of eternal truth, we often find that the misery and suffering experienced in mortality can obscure or eclipse the eternal joy of knowing that the great plan of our Father in Heaven really is the eternal plan of happiness. There is no other way to receive a fullness of joy.”
Full disclosure: There are times when it’s hard for me to feel the truth of that. There are times when phrases like “Men are that they might have joy” and “Home can be a heaven on earth” sound more ironic than comforting.
But just in the way that the Lord prepared Amulek—prepared him both for a mission that only he could fulfill, and for a glorious compensation when his mortal life was done—I know that He is also preparing you and me.
I know that the power of choice is central to Heavenly Father’s eternal plan, and because of that, it is my belief that we actively participated in selection the experiences we would have in this life, even agreeing to the trials that we are endure.
I know that would not have left the presence of a loving God if it were not of critical importance for us to do so.
I know that we came here to learn the things that we could not learn there in that safe and loving presence. I have been told in priesthood blessings that Emily and I knew and loved each other in that pre-existence, and yet we were not brought together until half a lifetime had passed. I know, however, that we will have eternity to be together, and the lessons and skills we have learned during our time apart could have been gained in no other way.
I also know that our purpose in this life, ultimately, is—like Jesus Christ showed us—to become like our Father in Heaven. The Savior descended deeper into darkness and suffering than any mortal could bear, and he also rose above all things. Thus, He comprehends all things and has received a fullness. And it’s the same for us. Man is that he might have joy, but in order to be able to receive a fullness of joy, he must endure the greatest suffering—uniquely calibrated to each of us individually. The trials and pain that we all endure as part of mortality will one day, through the atonement, become part of our joy itself.
And I have a testimony that you… are extraordinary. You are full of light, and godliness, and infinite potential. That secret feeling you have always harbored, that if people just really knew you, if they knew what was in your heart, if they knew how hard you work, that they would all be amazed—it’s true. And the work you are doing now, even those small acts of service, are not small in the eyes of God. You are His child, a being of glory, and destined for greatness. Nothing you do is unimportant.
Pres. Uchtdorf said, “the Lord sees in you what He saw in Amulek—the potential of a valiant servant with an important work to do”—whether or not it wins you a Tony Award—“and with a testimony to share. There is service that no one else can give in quite the same way.
“Our beloved Savior knows where you are. He knows your heart. He wants to rescue you. He will reach out to you. Just open your heart to Him. It is my hope that those who have strayed from the path of discipleship—even by only a few degrees—will contemplate the goodness and grace of God, see with their hearts, learn from Alma and Amulek, and hear the life-changing words of the Savior:
‘Come, follow me.’”