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How President Uchtdorf upended my apple cart

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, leave the General Women's Meeting at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 29, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, along with his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, have upended my apple cart. They didn’t mean to. But now there are apples all over the street. And I had them in such a tidy display.

I’ll explain what I mean, but first it requires some time travel.

Back in 1968, I was called to serve a mission in Bolivia. And since the day I set foot in La Paz, I’ve felt a kinship with Hispanic people.

Over the years, I’ve lived in Mexico and visited Guatemala. I still dream of getting to Cuba.

Hispanic culture lifts my heart.

The language flutters off the tip of the tongue.

The colors are bright and bold, the music quick and fun.

Hispanic culture is airy.

By contrast, everything German has always hit me as heavy.

I’ve always felt a heaviness in the language, in the food — even in the folklore; all those dark figures lurking in the forest with their heavy eyelids and big shoes.

The composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner, to my mind, seemed intent on pushing around great mounds of earth with caterpillars. They didn’t write for the piano. They came across as piano movers.

Then along comes President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to toss a wrench in my smoothly running world. Before him, I thought the slimmest volume ever published must be the encyclopedia of German humorists. But he was witty. And he spoke with a buoyancy and grace few can muster.

His wife was much the same. The words in the little book she recently published float down the page.

They’re warm, not chilly.

Smiling, not somber.

They’re both airy.

Oh, there’s still a German heft to President Uchtdorf. He’s a clear thinker with the mind of an engineer. But he carries such weighty traits lightly, like a bumblebee. Or, better, like one of those made-of-metal airliners he dearly loves.

However you phrase it, the truth is the Uchtdorfs have undermined my well-rehearsed and carefully crafted caricature of the German people.

And in the process, I’ve been reminded — once again — of a vital truth.

For those of us who would divide the world into tidy little tribes, the gospel will make us feel foolish.

Stereotypes are killers — culturally and spiritually.

I was reminded of that when the Nazi soldier and the American Mormon prayed together in the film “Saints and Soldiers.”

I realized it again when I saw a piece of cardboard nailed to a screen door in rural Wyoming with a scripture from Ephesians on it. The scripture read:

“For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.”

But the truth is, I should have realized such things — and held onto them — that day in 1968 when I stepped off the plane in Bolivia. The first scripture I memorized all those years ago was about breaking down barriers. I thought it was a scripture about the Bolivians and me. It was really about everyone — and anyone — who finds a home in the kingdom of God. It’s another line from Ephesians:

“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”

There will always be differences among people — different cultures, different countries, different colors, different character traits. But in the kingdom, you don’t define people by their differences but by their similarities.

I hope I can keep that thought in mind this time.

I’m great at learning lessons. Not so good at retaining them.

Luckily, I’ll now get a reminder every time President Uchtdorf steps to the pulpit.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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