The story I’m about to tell is an indictment of my own weaknesses and idiotic deficiencies. But please read it until the end so that you can learn from my mistakes, and learn what this stake president’s grimace and smile meant to me when it was all said and done.
Not too long ago, we joined a new stake. Upon showing up to church we noticed a man sitting on the stand with a stern face, that later transformed into sort of a grimace as the meeting went on. At first I thought it might have been the speakers that he was scowling at, (it was one of those days at the pulpit) or maybe he was just a grouch. I had no idea. I knew nothing about the man. Only what I was able to see from the outside. But as the meeting persisted, it became obvious that this man was the president of our stake.
I remember thinking to myself… “what is wrong with this man, and why would the spiritual leader of so many people look so unhappy.” After all, as the saying goes… “if the gospel makes you happy… then you ought to notify your face.”
I tried to stop my judgmental thoughts and figured that maybe he had a lot on his mind that day. I told my wife, that someday I’d like to meet him and really get to know him to determine what he’s really like. Usually, when you get to know someone, you come to find out that your initial superficial judgements were way off. I know that, and I wanted my feelings to change.
Well, a few months went by and the stake president made a few more appearances in our ward meetings. Each time, his demeanor remained the same… and each time, I wondered why the long face.
On another day, I was standing in the foyer chatting with a couple other guys. He came out of a meeting in the relief society room with one of his counselors, and when I looked up, I saw the same facial expression. A grimace was the best way to describe it. But I also noticed a slight limp, one I could tell he was trying to cover up.
A couple weeks later, we had a baptism taking place on a Saturday for someone that was in our ward boundaries. It was a small baptism, a few family members and some friends. To my surprise, the stake president showed up with his wife to this Saturday baptism. You don’t often see a stake president attend a ward baptism based on an otherwise normally busy schedule. He had that same grimace on his face. Not much emotion or variance in his facial expressions. But when he was given a few minutes to speak at the end of the meeting, he rose from his chair slowly. The grimace remained, but the emotion in his voice began to swell as he started to bear his testimony. His words were not normal. It felt as if he needed to leave his heart in that room. His words, and the spirit in which they were said, pierced my soul as I sat there wishing I had taken better notes, wishing I had more fully implemented the advice given to Samuel when the Lord told him to “Look not on his countenance, for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
I wondered… as I sat in that baptism, “have I judged this man wrongly based on his outward expressions?” His face remained clenched, but his words and his soul seemed to embrace me in a way that only the Savior could. He finished his testimony, sat down, the meeting ended, and he quietly limped out of the room without any fanfare.
A few more weeks went by, and I got a text message from someone in the stake asking if I’d be able to meet with the Stake Presidency on that upcoming Sunday. I knew it wasn’t for a calling based on the nature of the text and the fact that I’d just received another calling. I also knew that you don’t normally meet with all three members of the presidency for a calling.
When I walked into the Stake Presidents office, I saw two smiling faces, (first and second counselor) who stood and shook my hand. The stake president remained seated in his chair with a grimace, and as I shook his hand, I could see him try to force a smile and I wondered what this was going to be about.
The second counselor offered a prayer to begin the meeting, and as I opened my eyes at the end of that prayer, I could see the stake president trying to shift his weight as he sat on one side of the chair. It seemed as if he was trying take the weight off of that side of his body. I figured maybe he’d hurt his leg, or had some back problems, or maybe a sciatic nerve was acting up. The slight grimace seemed to depict a consistent pain as he sat there in his chair.
It was just the four of us in this room and the president began to speak. He told me of his great desire to do missionary work, and to have this stake be a place where missionaries want to come and serve. A place where the members reach out in love to other members of the community to share the goodness of the gospel with them and their families. He began to express guilt, remorse, and anxiety over not doing enough in leading the missionary efforts in the stake. His humility and love for the gospel began to overtake me. The grimace on his face remained. But the love in his heart swelled. And the love in my heart for this man swelled.
So why was I in that meeting? A relatively new and unknown member of the stake.
He had heard that I had helped other wards and stakes around the country improve their missionary and ministering efforts using online methods and tools. When I heard this, I was shocked. Shocked because I’d heard him speak previously about his fear of the effects of technology and social media. I figured I’d be the last one he’d want to talk to. Even in this meeting together, he confirmed his fear of what social media is doing to the youth and adults. But as he sat there in this meeting with me, he was openly recognizing that we need to use whatever tools available to us to be a leavening force for good and follow the lead of the apostles in doing so. At his age, he expressed a desire to be open and receptive to how digital tools can help build the kingdom. There was almost desperation in his voice. An urgency in his soul. As if he felt the need to hasten the work. To hasten his work. To oppose the darkness with an overflowing tide of messages of goodness.
Admittedly, he had no desire to learn technology and social media and was concerned about venturing into new territory, but if it could help the missionary work in the stake or in the church, he was all about it. His humility and openness astounded me. There was no unrighteousness dominion. No display of superiority. No leadership complex. It was all about the work. I saw a man who was seeking God’s will in every way. The meeting went on, the presidency asked a few more questions, counseled together, and sent me on my way.
A few weeks later, I happened to end up sitting next to this stake president during a sacrament meeting. The meeting ended up going over time. A few of the stories from the pulpit that day got a little uncomfortable.
As everyone got up after the last Amen and began conversing with one another after the meeting, I was left sitting there next to the stake president. He didn’t stand up. He just quietly sat there in his chair. I sat there with him feeling a little awkward about how the church meeting ended and I said something about the uncomfortability of the meeting.
And then, as if time was standing still, and we were the only two people in the chapel, he looked over at me, smiled, and said “What a wonderful meeting we had today!” His simple statement pierced me.
That was the last time I’d ever see the president. That meeting was only a few weeks before COVID shut everything down.
But in the coming weeks I received an email from him as did the rest of the stake.
The subject line was: “My testimony”
In the email he says: “It has been my desire to get better and to stand before the congregations of this Stake and testify of the goodness of Christ. As Church meetings will soon resume, it does not appear that I will be able to attend and stand and testify as I desire, and as the Spirit presses upon me to testify. And so I am sending my testimony of Christ to you in this email. I love Him with all my heart.”
In the end, he used technology to give his last testimony to the members of his stake. The rest of the email made me feel as if I was sitting at the feet of a modern day King Benjamin. Like Nephi or Paul, I began to reflect upon my own wretchedness. How I had wrongly judged this man without even knowing him.
Soon after his email was sent to the stake, he was gone. I had no idea what he was going through. I learned later that he had been fighting cancer for many years now. “For the past six years I have lived from priesthood blessing to priesthood blessing” he mentioned in his email.
The cancer was growing in his back causing unimaginable pain as he sat through and endured the various church responsibilities he had on Sunday and on any given night of the week. And yet here was I, sitting in the congregation, ignorantly judging a man because of the grimace on his face. A grimace often caused by a cancer growing inside of him and the thought of his impending last day.
I will never forget the grimace and the smile of this stake president. It has come to represent all that is wrong with myself and all of humanity. We go about judging people without knowing them, who they are, where they came from, or what they’re going through. We jump to conclusions of judgment instead of conclusions of mercy and understanding. We look on the outward appearance which causes us to miss what is in the heart of so many of our brothers and sisters.
His grimace, on one hand, represented a man, good to the core, who spent the last years of his life in immense pain, with his hand to the plow as he fulfilled his commitment and service to the Lord. He grit his teeth, buried the pain, and went to work until his work was done. He gave everything to the Lord and a grimace was the only outward evidence of his pain.
His smile, on the other hand, represented one of the greatest rebukes of my adult life. In the simplest of ways, his calm smile and merciful words toward the participants of a church meeting taught me to see the good in every person and in every situation instead of finding the bad or judging unrighteously. He wasn’t trying to rebuke me. He was just truly finding the good in the circumstance and in the people he was called to serve. Had I not been able to meet this man, and learn what was in his heart, I might have continued on with my ignorant judgments of outward appearances.
What is the point of embarrassing myself by writing this?
It is to help someone out there not be like me. To always view your brothers and sisters in the most merciful of ways. To give anyone you meet the benefit of the doubt and to understand that they may be going through something that you can scarcely imagine. To understand that behind each grimace is a story, and if you learn that story, you will probably ending up loving that person for who they are and what they’re going through.
One of the last things that this stake president conveyed to me was his desire to learn how to do digital missionary work and to help other members of the church share messages of goodness with the tools we have in front of us. He told me he was busy planning stake conference but was doubling his effort on missionary work once he got through stake conference.
He knew very little of technology or the internet, but now his example to me is out there for the world to see through the same technology he wanted to understand and utilize for ministering and missionary work in his stake. The story behind his grimace and the power behind his smile changed my life forever.
I hope, and I’m sure he hopes, that it blesses at least one person’s life.
This is for you President. May your testimony reach the virtual millions on this earth who need to hear it during these most challenging of times.
(My kids arranged a medley of hymns and dedicated it to him in the same mountains he lived most of his life in):
“I testify that there is peace in Christ” – Ronald L. Davis