I recently heard that my old stake president from when I was a young man is struggling in his health and may pass away shortly. I wish it was different and have been praying for him and his family for awhile now. His children and grandchildren are very close to him and will miss him greatly. President Wells was the stake president in the Vacaville California Stake from the early 90’s to May of 2000. Prior to that, he served as a counselor in the stake presidency (while I was in high school). He is definitely considered a pillar of spiritual strength in the city in which I grew up, not only among Mormons, but among those who knew him in any capacity.
Most youth don’t really get to know their stake president nearly as closely as they know their bishop. The stake president speaks in a number of meetings each year, but doesn’t really spend a high percentage of time addressing the youth, so there are usually youth who aren’t very aware of who their stake president really is and what he is like. This is normal, but it is too bad because stake presidents are usually incredible.
I was blessed to know President Wells because I was friends with a number of his children and was able to hang around with one of his daughters who was my age. In my youth what I knew best about him was that he and Sister Wells had raised an incredible family. I witnessed almost endless moments of my friend standing up for our beliefs in various situations during high school. If she had any fear of others, you’d never know it. Her siblings were all very similar in their desire to do what was right regardless of what everyone thought of them. I admired Kathryn’s faith very much in high school, but like a typical teenage boy, was not very good at expressing it. If our high school based their opinions of the Mormons only on what they saw in Kathryn, they would have known about all they needed to know about our faith. The same can be said of her siblings.
Over the years I learned from President Wells through stories I heard from his children. I learned about the way he held “father’s interviews” and that strengthened the way I was doing them (having learned from my dad who held really enjoyable interviews with me when I was young). In college, when his daughter was trying to make some big life decisions, she often talked about his counsel and advice and so I was able to glean more truth from him that way. I even bought his book about gardening, which I use like a gardening bible. Everyone who borrows my copy of his book ends up purchasing their own copy. (Actually, you might as well go check it out… “Successful Home Gardening, Second Edition”)
But I think I learned the most about why he and his sweetheart had been so successful at, well, everything, years after he was our stake president. A few years ago his daughter Kathryn and her husband Dave and their young family were traveling to Utah to visit her parents (President and Sister Wells had moved from California to Utah). They invited us to meet them at President and Sister Wells’ home for dinner and visiting which we excitedly accepted. The Wells family is a very warm and united family and I was kind of excited see President and Sister Wells again, as I had not seen them in many years.
When we arrived and entered the home, I noticed a sign hanging over the mantel in their family room. Usually these kinds of signs say sweet, mushy, homey things like “Families are Forever” or “Home is Where the Heart Is” or something like that. I was not expecting to see their sign say “Obedience is the First Law of Heaven”. For some reason I’ve never thought of the words “obedience” and “law” as warm, comforting, welcoming words. They’re not usually painted onto signs hanging over mantels (I couldn’t even find the quote on Pinterest, believe it or not). But in that moment, I “got it”. I know what President Wells’ legacy may end up being. I know where their family’s power and faith come from. They value obedience to God out of love.
In our society’s quest to hold up freedom, self-expression, individuality, and rights, we seem to be devaluing the law and power of personal obedience to God’s laws. People don’t want to talk about obedience because it seems to rub against freedom and rights. But, when it comes right down to it, we obtain God’s power and sanctification when we freely, cheerfully, choose to be obedient to Him. And rather that being limited by obedience, we gain a freedom that only God can provide. We gain peace and spiritual confidence, and our faith increases. We feel His presence when we’re striving to obey Him as an act of love (John 14:15).
I will be sad when President Wells does finally pass away. I know he will be quickly “back to work” on the other side of the veil, blessing his family and others that are still required to plug along down here on earth, as well as teaching those in the spirit world who never received the chance to be taught the gospel during their mortal lives. But I think I’m going to try to remember that sign over the mantel a little more often, and that will be my way of honoring him and his family. I’m also going to worry a little less about what rights I have and spend more time working on the responsibilities I have to obey Heavenly Father because I love Him and His Son.
President Wells, and the extended Wells family, thank you for living your lives in a way that encourages us all to live and love the First Law of Heaven…and our Heavenly Father who invites us to enjoy the blessings that come through willing obedience.