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Tim Johnson: The conference I remember best

By Tim Johnson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 4 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

President Ezra Taft Benson shakes hands with the new presiding bishop, Robert D. Hales, during April 1985 general conference.

Deseret News archives

I grew up in the Midwest, the fifth of six kids in a strong LDS family. My dad became the first stake president of an area that encompassed a good chunk of Minnesota and Wisconsin. My older three brothers served missions. And then there was me — a strong-willed punk who didn't respond well to the family's long ecclesiastical shadow.

At the end of my junior year in high school, my dad lost his battle with cancer. While my mom did her best to raise those of us living at home, I used tragedy as an excuse to leap further off a spiritual cliff. My spiral turned into a self-centered crusade for attention, and I treated everyone like garbage — with very few exceptions.

I dove into art, music and comedy, using the latter two skills to write song parodies for a local Top 40 radio station. Comedy was an outlet for me, and I loved it. However, it usually came with a sharp tongue, and it always came at the expense of others. Everyone was fair game. I loved the attention it brought my way, and it was consistent with the all-about-me lifestyle I embraced.

My extracurricular activities eventually forced me to drop out of college, and I went to work full time. I watched from the sidelines as friend after friend left on their missions. Eventually, I started to realize that all about me was, at its core, pretty lonely. People stayed away from me. Humor just wasn't as funny in a crowd of one. I began to have some questions about life, and I began to look for answers.

When I turned 20, an inspired bishop called me into his office and asked me to prepare to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. After some serious soul searching, I agreed. This started a painful process of trying to undo a lot of damage, and included a steady diet of humble pie. I learned to serve others, and it felt right. With a lot of help from on high, "all about me" was slowly replaced by "how can I help?" The songwriting gig didn't seem to fit anymore. The smiles from service seemed to bring more joy than the raucous laughs. I decided to follow my friends into the mission field.

I turned 21 in the Missionary Training Center. Jumping head first into a new 24/7 lifestyle was taking some adjustment. Even though strides were made before entering, it was hard replacing heavy metal with hymns. It was hard adjusting to short hair from a pony tail. It was hard replacing cutting comments with Christ-like quotes. It was just plain hard.

A month into my eight-week stay in the MTC, October conference began with a small army of missionaries gathered together to watch a modern-day prophet give counsel to the world that we'd soon be serving. And as I sat there listening, trying hard to adapt to a new life, I prayed for help.

Now, most people will remember President Ezra Taft Benson's talks that conference as a plea to "flood the earth" with the Book of Mormon — and as a missionary in the field we literally saw his counsel come to fruition. But it was one ad-lib moment during a talk of his that made a lifelong impression.

As he was reading from some printed copy there at the podium, he looked down and paused a few seconds. Then a few more. Finally he said, "I can't turn the page." There were a few chuckles in the Tabernacle and in the MTC, and he continued on.

It was that moment, as our dear prophet shared his own frailty, that made my soul smile. I recognized that humor didn't need to come with an edge, and life didn't require a straight face. I felt that if God himself could enjoy a light moment — and I'm convinced he did — I could do the same.

Over time I was blessed to serve an honorable mission. I was blessed to take a beautiful bride through a house of God. I am blessed with a job that pays me to be creative. And now, 25 years later, I still feel blessed by a prophet of God who taught me I didn't need to abandon my love of humor, I just needed to refine it.

Tim Johnson is the art director at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Alicia, are the proud parents of five daughters who, thankfully, look like their mom.

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