Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fires, Hymns, and Organists: Recollections of the Provo Tabernacle

It was roughly 3 in the morning when my cousin Steve shook me awake. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, it took me a moment to remember that I had fallen asleep on my other cousin Patrick's couch while the three of us had been hanging out.

"Mike, wake up," said Steve. "The tabernacle is on fire."


Life is weird at 3 in the morning. Things that are not so seem so and vice versa. Things get especially surreal if you've already been asleep for a while and are awakened by the news of something being on fire. So it was with me. A few minutes later, the three of us were standing in downtown Provo in the cold December blackness, witnessing the event from a safe distance.

There stood the old tabernacle. Flames peeked out of broken windows and a great black plume spilled upwards from the roof. We watched the inferno for a while until the cold and grogginess became too much for me and I went home to bed. Steve and Patrick, however, were still watching when the roof collapsed and later described it to me.

In the weeks that followed, when I would drive by the charred husk of that old building, I reflected on the few experiences I had there. Like many BYU students, I'd participated in a stake conference or two within those walls. One conference in particular stands out as one of my fondest memories.

I had been called as a stake choir director in my singles stake. I'd taken a course on choral conducting at the Y and so I knew a little more about conducting than what you find in the front of the hymn book. It was fun to put those skills to use as I helped prepare the choir to sing "The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning."

During one rehearsal at the Manavu Chapel, after drilling parts and pinning down the breaths and dynamics, I gave a mini lesson on the background of this particular hymn in an attempt to make the experience of singing it more personal for everyone. Most members of the church know that "The Spirit of God" was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836. During the Kirtland period, many of the saints were hounded by mobs in Jackson County and Clay County Missouri, suffering eviction from their homes, destruction of property, and violence. In Joseph Smith's dedicatory prayer, he pleaded with the Lord:

"We ask thee, Holy Father, to remember those who have been driven by the inhabitants of Jackson county, Missouri, from the lands of their inheritance, and break off, O Lord, this yoke of affliction that has been put upon them. Thou knowest, O Lord, that they have been greatly oppressed and afflicted by wicked men; and our hearts flow out with sorrow because of their grievous burdens."
(D&C 109:47-48)

In the midst of these hard times, there was also a great outpouring of spiritual manifestations and miracles. During the dedication, some in attendance reported the rushing of a mighty wind like on the day of Pentecost, and others were reported to have spoken in tongues.

"Angels appeared to some, while a sense of divine presence was realized by all present, and each heart was filled with 'joy inexpressible and full of glory.'"
-Eliza R Snow

My point in sharing this with the choir was that, to me, "The Spirit of God" is an encapsulation of that circumstance: hope in the midst of turmoil. That even when wolves are after you and the way seems hopelessly bleak, the gospel engenders the hope of a brighter day.

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
And angels are coming to visit the earth.
We'll sing and we'll shout with the armies of heaven:
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!

Before this mini lesson, the choir had been starting to sound pretty good as we buckled down on the technical aspect of things. After the mini history lesson, however, I asked them to sing again. And this time, as they focused on the meaning of the words, I was nearly blown backward through the chapel walls. It was as if the choir had doubled in size or had been joined by unseen angelic recruits. Truly inspiring.

A week or two later, we were in the tabernacle on the day of the conference. The choir sounded great. We had been instructed that I was to bring the congregation in on the last verse, as is traditional. When I turned around to face the congregation, there was a whole stake of singles singing at me. The panorama of that stately building was a sight to see. I'll never forget it.

Let's fast forward several years to a few weeks ago when Nicole and I volunteered to help with the City Center Temple open house. Like everyone else, I was excited to see what had been done to turn the shell of the old burned-out tabernacle to make it into a temple. I was on wheelchair duty which mostly meant waiting by the entrance, covering the wheels of other people's wheelchairs with plastic. Lucky for me, it also meant pushing people in wheelchairs through the temple tour if there was no one to assist them. A few minutes into my shift, I had the opportunity to push an elderly gentleman through the tour. He didn't say much. In fact, I don't recall him speaking at all, but the two ladies with him (his wife and daughter) informed me that this was, in fact, Parley Belnap, a retired professor of organ and music theory at BYU. This man had trained in Paris and Belgium, been the organist for the BYU Jerusalem Center, and had played countless recitals on the organ in the old Provo Tabernacle.  I had heard his name before because, when I was working for Tantara Records at BYU, an album of his organ playing was in our inventory. His wife and daughter were delighted that I'd heard of him and further delighted to hear that I'd been in the School of Music at BYU. I took care to give his wheelchair the best vantage points I could along the tour, knowing this place held many more memories for him than I.

At the end of the tour, they included me in the family picture and emailed it to me.

Much has been and will be said about the beautiful symbolism inherent in the tabernacle's transformation and rebirth. But the most poignant part of my experience with it is that it gave me the chance to push Parley Belnap through that beautiful building. I don't know what exact ailments incident to age or illness had him wheelchair bound and hardly speaking and I don't even know how lucid he was. But his very presence inspired a reverence in me. The places that old man had been, the many accomplishments he had to his name, all fading in the dim light of old age, becoming history. We'll all go that way eventually. But the thing I remember most about the tabernacle are the words,

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
Shall lie down together without any ire
And Ephraim be crown'd with his blessing in Zion,
As Jesus descends with his chariots of fire!

We're all going the way of the tabernacle, but we're going together. And one day, we'll all be one beautiful temple: Zion.

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