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.”
Wright, who writes a column for Mormon Times titled “Wright Words,” focused his message on bearing testimony to others. He began by encouraging attendees to bear testimony not just to a congregation or an investigator, but also personally to siblings and loved ones.
He highlighted the word “look” in 1 Nephi 11, and how the word is an “immediate invitation” to see what is really important.
“Are you directing the people in your life to look?” Wright said. “Feel the passion and the energy behind that word: look.”
He encouraged others to actively share what they know, both to bless others and to strengthen their own testimonies. Wright added his witness to a principle taught by living prophets, that “some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”
“At the times that you feel the most alone remember that you have a loving Father in Heaven, and He is always with you,” Wright said. “He knows what you’re good at and He knows what you need help with, and He stands prepared.”
In the 'covenant of safety'
Sister Pearce presented on the Holy Ghost and how it relates to covenants, repentance, forgiveness and gratitude. She said that in order to understand the Holy Ghost, or any principle of the gospel, we must understand “every other true principle of the gospel” embedded in it.
“We will always have him if we’re in a covenant relationship,” Sister Pearce said. “Our covenants bind us. We are bound to him in covenants so as we’re kept close to him. We will ultimately grow to be like him and to be part of his eternal kingdom.”
Pearce, the daughter of the late President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, included stories from her childhood in the Hinckley home. From one childhood experience, she illustrated the need to trust in the Lord and the safety of his covenants.
“I believe that as we recognize that we are in this covenant of safety, that we are more free to recognize what we’ve done wrong and to seek forgiveness,” she said.
Sister Pearce said that gratitude is a way to increase our ability to always have the Spirit and to claim our covenant privileges. After following the counsel of President Henry B. Eyring, the first counselor in the First Presidency, to write down instances where they had seen the Lord’s hand in their lives, Sister Pearce and her husband felt a greater abundance of the Holy Ghost that buoyed them up during hard times.
“We can claim the privileges that he extends as we offer all that we are and express gratitude over and over again,” said Sister Pearce. “As we do so, He will touch our lives with His power. The Holy Ghost will give us light to the journey back home.”
Following the plan of salvation
Ridges, who, along with his wife, just completed an 18-month mission at the Buena Vista Institute of Religion, which serves Southern Virginia University students, spoke about the plan of salvation and how it serves as our map to higher ground. He emphasized the importance of utilizing the scriptures, the words of modern prophets and correlated material as a basis for understanding the doctrines of the plan. With these resources, he explained many aspects of the plan from a doctrinal standpoint and combated accepting false doctrine or rumor as fact.
“At the beginning of every single course we teach in the church, we have a good review of the plan of salvation,” said Ridges. “If you know where you’re going, it’s harder to get lost.”
He emphasized key points, such as the love of Jesus Christ and the power of his Atonement, which is at work during each phase of the plan, and the importance of enjoying the journey.
“We’ve got a lot of wonderful doctrine in our journey to higher ground,” said Ridges. “May we enjoy it and may we use the atonement in our journey to higher ground.
Hannah Benson Rodriguez is a communications and marketing assistant at Southern Virginia University. She currently resides in Buena Vista, Va.