FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Do you remember dissecting a frog in your high school science lab? Or maybe you sliced open and studied an earthworm? Perhaps you were adventurous, and with a buddy you operated on a bean, cheese and green chili burrito from the school cafeteria to prove it was inedible.
Not that anyone would ever do that.
I loved those lab sessions — there’s just something special about laboratory learning. I’ve attended hundreds of class sessions during my life — you have, too — but the ones I most remember involved active, hands-on education. I miss being young and rolling up my sleeves to actually participate in the lecture instead of just jotting down notes in an overstuffed Trapper Keeper.
Perhaps I’m having more of those opportunities than I realize.
A few months ago I had an experience that’s been slowly simmering on my mind’s back burner like my wife’s famous chili: I knew it was special as it was being made, but I didn’t appreciate how delicious it would become with time and patience.
I was visiting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Front Royal Ward in Front Royal, Va., and decided to stay after their meetings for a baptism. I sat toward the back with a friend and we enjoyed the prelude music that filled the chapel in the moments before the program began. As we waited, we began whispering about our week ahead, our work, our families and, quite frankly, how hungry we were.
Among the crowd of 30 or so that afternoon was President Michael Shake, first counselor in the Winchester Virginia Stake presidency. We noticed President Shake sitting on the stand reverently awaiting the program and looking out at the members and friends as they settled into their seats.
My friend and I noticed how thoughtfully President Shake surveyed the congregation. Then, in a blink of our eyes, he was standing, strolling past the pulpit and down the stairs toward the center section of the chapel.
He cut a straight and narrow path to a pew across the aisle from ours, looked at a particular sister, took her hand with both of his and said, “Hello. How are you?”
She met his wide, warm smile with one of her own, answered him quietly, and the exchange quickly ended. Then he turned and walked back to his seat. The entire episode lasted 60 seconds.
My friend and I raised our eyebrows and wondered what we’d missed. We’d been sitting across from the woman for at least 10 minutes. We may have smiled as we walked in, but we didn’t know her name and we certainly hadn’t said “Hello.”
More importantly, we hadn’t really seen her the way he had.
After the baptism concluded, we wasted no time weaving our way through the crowd to chat with President Shake. His first response was big-eyed surprise. “You saw that?”
He humbly explained that he prays for those spiritual nudges and to have his eyes and ears open to the needs of his brothers and sisters. He didn’t know why she might have needed extra acknowledgement that day, but he hoped he’d been helpful in some simple way.
Not surprisingly, President Shake quickly pivoted the spotlight away from himself, pointing out the many occasions he’d seen others act similarly and suggesting that we would have done the very same thing.
And yet, we hadn’t.
On several Sundays since that day in Front Royal, I’ve told this story to mutual friends including a few who’ve known Michael Shake since he before he was president or, before that, bishop. Their reactions indicate that I might be the last living person to notice this lesson.
This desire to reach out and lift those around him isn’t part of what he does — it’s part of who he is. And why wouldn’t he take those opportunities when they present themselves? He’d asked for them.
I’ve wondered why the memory lingered longer than most, and why it impacted my friend and me. But like any session in any lab, sometimes the lessons take time to develop.
I now recognize that President Shake did more that day than simply see a soul who may have needed the personal interaction. Without knowing it, he taught all of us watching how to listen.
When I asked him for his permission to share this experience with a worldwide Deseret News audience, he was predictably modest. "God does his work through any and all who are willing," he said. "What Mike Shake or Jason Wright do when working in the lab is the work and glory of the lab master. You have my permission to use anything I do or say that invites and encourages God's work to move forward."
I'm thankful that he saw an opportunity to continue teaching and provide yet another hands-on lesson.
The world is blessed by people like Mike Shake who are willing to work in life's spiritual labs and who remind us that there's more to religious learning than studying scriptures and attending class.
And the world is blessed that the spiritual learning lab is always open and the spirit is always willing to teach through those we admire.
We just have to enroll.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at [email protected] or jasonfwright.com.