We are standing on the east end of Lake Wakatipu. The water shines a bright aqua blue in the light of Sabbath morning. Broom shrub spots the hillsides, splashing yellow across green slopes. It is springtime in New Zealand.
We find the sign. White with black print. Indicating church services in a chapel nestled at the bottom of a private driveway. The chapel is a house made of pearl-colored slat board. And it looks like someone is home.
My husband and I park on the main road, walk down the driveway, and crack the door. Sunbeams shoot across the carpet as we step into the small house. It’s a room with maybe 15 chairs, a podium without a mic, and a keyboard, stage right. The faces, a beautiful mix of color, are smiling at us. With no aversion in their eyes, they look directly at us, even though we are strangers. And it is obvious, they are happy we’ve come.
We exchange names, where we hail from, and sit down on the plastic chairs. The branch president asks if anyone can play the piano. I raise my hand and take my place behind the keyboard.
It feels good to be there. Good to sing, to pray, to break bread with these Saints.
They invite us to share lunch with them following the meetings, and as we eat, we learn that the Queenstown Branch has only seven active members, with a total of 27 baptized members on record. This particular Sunday visitors make up most of their tiny congregation.
During the announcements, a beautiful young Maori sister, with a handful of children on her lap, is released as Primary President and called as Relief Society President. Another Maori sister, seated behind me, is called as her counselor. She tells me she is the only active member in her family. Even her children don’t attend with her. But she feels great purpose in her new assignment; that she is meant to gather her friends and bring them with her.
The speakers for the meeting are visitors from Dunedin, a city south of Queenstown. This husband and wife have driven three and a half hours to be there. Both are native New Zealanders who joined the church as teenagers. The sister speaks about reading the scriptures every morning before we begin our day. It is one of the most powerful talks I have heard on scripture study.
Then her husband speaks, and with a clear and confident voice, he makes this statement of encouragement to the small branch:
“Safety is not in numbers,” he says. “It is in the Spirit.”
He reminds them that it doesn’t matter if their numbers are small. They are where they should be and God will bless them. He will grant them safety – spiritual safety – for being committed to the Lord.
He goes on to tell his conversion story. He testifies of Joseph Smith. He says he hasn’t been to Palmyra or the Sacred Grove. But he knows the details of Joseph’s life. And with great conviction he declares that Joseph was a prophet of a God. With every phrase he rallies these faithful members. Reminding them that real safety comes when we align ourselves with God’s spirit.
My husband and I have considered this brother’s words again and again since coming home from New Zealand. It is an idea contrary to what we typically say – that there is safety in numbers. But the more I consider it, the more I realize he is right. Sometimes with the numbers is the least safe place to be.
I needed to hear this truth. It has given me perspective and solidity. It has given me courage. And now, I want my children to know it. I want to teach them how to trust God and his prophets. How to discern truth, sift it out from the philosophies of friends, teachers, and the world. I want them to be strong enough to stand alone, if that is what the situation requires.
Whoever you are and wherever you may be, you hold in your hands the happiness of more people than you can now imagine. Every day and every hour you can choose to make or keep a covenant with God. (Henry B. Eyring, April 2014 Conference)
Courage seemed a prevalent theme during April’s General Conference. Courage to speak out. To no longer quietly observe, but to stand. For principles. For family. For the church and it’s gospel message. Not a polarizing stand. But a compassionate, courteous, hold-your-ground-because-it-matters stand.
With so many issues swirling around, and even within the church of late, I have found it wise, at least for me, to step back and remember this small Queenstown branch and how tightly they cling to the church, its programs, its teachings, and its prophets.
When you live, as I do, at the heart of church headquarters, with wards so robust some don’t have a calling, and your children attend schools were most the families are LDS, it is human nature to forget what a blessing it is to be part of this marvelous, wondrous work. Yes, the Lord’s church is run by imperfect people (and that means all of us). But it is still the Lord’s.
I especially loved these encouraging words from Elder Holland during conference:
Be strong. Live the gospel faithfully even if others around you don’t live it at all. Defend your beliefs with courtesy and compassion, but defend them… The path of Christian discipleship is a straight path, and it is a narrow path without a great deal of latitude at some points, but it can be thrillingly and successfully traveled, “with…steadfastness in Christ,…a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and all men.” In courageously pursuing such a course, you will forge unshakable faith, you will find safety against ill winds that blow, even shafts in the whirlwind, and you will feel the rock-like strength of our Redeemer, upon whom if you build your unflagging discipleship, you cannot fall. (Jeffrey R. Holland, April 2014 Conference).
Those shining Queenstown members were one of the most inspiring sights of our trip. When I think of them pulling out my chair to share not just lunch, but the choice to keep a covenant, I am immediately strengthened. I want to stand with them. I want to be a voice for truth. I want an unshakeable faith.
Have you stood alone recently in defense of the faith? Are you ever afraid to speak up? How do we stand firm, but with compassion and courtesy? Do you have an experience you could share?