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A 'journey to higher ground' at Southern Virginia University conference

By Hannah Benson Rodriguez

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Attendees learn how they can "journey to higher ground" at the 16th Annual Education Conference at Southern Virginia University on June 1, 2012.

Nathaniel Sidwell

BUENA VISTA, Va. — In an effort to follow the words of the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin and “journey to higher ground,” hundreds gathered at the 16th Annual Education Conference at Southern Virginia University on Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2.

The first day of the conference began with keynote addresses by Dr. Madison U. Sowell, Southern Virginia’s provost, and his wife, Dr. Debra H. Sowell, a dance historian and professor of humanities at the university. Other presenters that day included Jason F. Wright, New York Times bestselling author; Virginia Hinckley Pearce, bestselling author and former member of the Young Women general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and David J. Ridges, author and Church Education System instructor.

Journeying through the storm

Debra Sowell focused her presentation on three aspects of journeying to higher ground: the steps of the journey, journeying to higher cultural ground and journeying through the inevitable storms of life.

When speaking on the journey to higher cultural ground, she shared experiences from her own upbringing (during which her mother trained her to treasure refinement), gave practical advice and highlighted a CES devotional address titled “Our Refined Heavenly Home" by Elder Douglas L. Callister, who was released from the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 2009.

“Making the journey to higher ground means making conscious cultural entertainment choices, not because we’re some kind of cultural snob, but because ‘one of the purposes of our earthly probation is to become like our heavenly parents in every possible way,’” said Sowell citing Elder Callister's talk.

When speaking about the times when the journey to higher ground leads through storms and rugged terrain, Sowell shared a story about a storm in the life of Elder John H. Groberg, an emeritus general authority, from his book “In the Eye of the Storm” and quoted his words on how to get through the storms of life.

“‘Our duty is to swim, not wonder or complain,’” she quoted. “‘We need to get to shore and must leave the reasons for the storm with the Lord. If all the effort we put into asking ‘why’ were used in swimming, a lot more of us, with His help, would reach the shore.’”

Inviting the Holy Ghost into our lives

Madison Sowell, who received a doctorate from Harvard and previously served as director of the honors program at Brigham Young University, focused his presentation on five ways that to actively invite the Holy Ghost into homes, teachings and lives. He began by quoting the Book of Mormon prophet Alma, saying we “ought to search the scriptures.

“If you want to search the scriptures, you have to pay the price: you have to interrogate them, you have to dialogue with them,” he said.

He drew his next point, to “pray vocally as well as in thy heart,” from the Doctrine and Covenants. He highlighted the need to pray with a sincere heart, which often means praying specifically.

His third suggestion, from the Book of Isaiah, was to “sing unto the Lord.” He highlighted the power of music with a story from his service as president of the Italy Milan Mission, where one young missionary who had recently lost his mother chose to stay on his mission because of the hymn "Abide With Me."

Madison Sowell’s fourth and fifth suggestions were to participate in priesthood ordinances — such as the sacrament, temple ordinances and priesthood blessings — and, in the words of Moroni, to “bear testimony of (Jesus Christ).”

“It’s not enough to participate in priesthood ordinances — you need to seal it; you need to bear your testimony,” said Sowell. “Each of us needs to journey to higher ground: the highest ground of eternal life.”

Sharing testimonies

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