A Note from Walter: This guest article is from one of the finest men that I know. He is an Institute teacher and actually now teaches Institute teachers. I have had the good fortune of rubbing shoulders with this friend for 16+ years now. Sound like a long time? Not really… Not nearly long enough!
He has done his work in my family. We are all better people because of it.
Originally written for his family, this piece was modified for publication. Names, including the author’s, have been changed to preserve privacy.
Years ago, when my immediate family was assisting with food preparation for a wedding reception, a great lesson presented itself. My youngest son was helping us bring food into the cultural hall of the church building. On our way in, we passed a crew member that had been hired to set up a backdrop and some decorations for the reception. From the widely broadcast smell coming from this man’s clothing, hair, and breath, it was very obvious what his particular life’s challenge was. Much like the dust cloud that perpetually wafts around Pig-Pen, the Peanuts cartoon character of Charles M. Schultz, the strong smell of tobacco radiated all around the man!
My young son was being raised in a somewhat sheltered environment in northern Utah Valley. Most of his neighbors and friends adhered to a strict code of abstinence from tobacco. For this reason, at that time his exposure to the smell of tobacco—among his family, neighbors, and in most of the places he frequented in our community—was quite limited. Such a smell was certainly uncommon in our local church building. So, when the overpowering unfamiliar smell of tobacco wafted by us, he looked over at me, wide-eyed, and mouthed a silent, “Whoa!!”
Once out of earshot, I put my arm around my young son’s shoulder, and whispered to him, “Actually, that’s about the BEST smell you might EVER smell in a Latter-day Saint church.” And then I added, “Let’s talk about that later…”
On our drive home, I explained to my son: “Smelling tobacco in one of our church buildings, especially if it is smelled during a worship service in the chapel, is one of the best smells you might ever smell there! Why? Because it means that a brother or sister who is struggling with their own variety of life’s challenges is there—in the chapel—without shame, knowing where to turn for strength to overcome!”
I then told my son of an experience that I once had, years earlier, with a nephew. At the time, my nephew would have been about 5 years old. I was driving in a little sports car, with my nephew in the passenger seat, along a busy parkway. As I came to a stop at a red light, my nephew craned his neck and glanced up beside us. In the truck beside us, he saw a man smoking, tapping his cigarette on the top of the cracked-open window. My young nephew said to me, “Uncle James, smoking is BAD!” And then—without even a pause—he said, “My dad smokes…”
Over the next few dramatic moments of silence, I watched as my young nephew’s cherubic face registered discord and then confusion and then hurt. Years earlier, his father had become estranged from the family. He hadn’t seen his father in years. But somewhere in his young memory, somehow it registered that his own father was a smoker. And that was BAD, right? After a few moments of silence, still sitting at that stoplight, my young nephew turned towards me and profoundly said, “Uncle James, sometimes…sometimes GOOD people do BAD things… Don’t they, Uncle James?” I quietly whispered to my nephew a reassuring affirmation: “Yes, Aaron! Sometimes GOOD people do BAD things.” At the time, I wasn’t thinking so much about my nephew’s estranged father. Rather, I was thinking about myself and about others whom I love. Each of us sometimes makes poor choices.
After telling my tobacco-shocked son about that earlier wise expression from his then-very-young cousin, I concluded our little tobacco-smell-in-the-chapel lesson by saying to my son, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if ALL of our sins had smells?! What if dishonesty had its own pungent smell that emitted from anyone who had fibbed? ‘Whoa! There goes a liar!’ What if disobedience to parents had its own recognizable stank smell? ‘Whoa! There goes an Old Testament stoning candidate!!’ What if pornography had an acrid smell radiating from any person who had looked upon it? ‘Whoa! There goes a person who struggles with the ‘lust of the eyes’!’ What if not forgiving others radiated its own sharp smell? ‘Whoa! That person is holding a pretty big grudge, aren’t they!!’ If all sins had their own pungent smells, what might EACH OF US smell like as we gather to worship in a chapel?”
I reflected on these instructive experiences with my son and my nephew when I recently heard President Dieter F. Uchtdorf teach:
“…artificial discipleship not only keeps us from seeing ourselves as who we really are, but it also prevents us from truly changing through the miracle of the Savior’s Atonement.
“The Church is not an automobile showroom—a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation.
“And are we not, all of us, in need of repair, maintenance, and rehabilitation?
“We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.”
(Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “On Being Genuine,” April 2015)
As my young son grew and eventually entered the mission field, I received a tender letter from him explaining that our little tobacco-smell-in-the-chapel lesson had come back to bless him that week. My son had found himself as a guest in the living room of a humble, leather-clad, aging, Hell’s-Angels-style Harley Davidson biker. The colorful barrel-chested biker also happened to be a chain smoker. And yet, the man radiated love! He radiated kindness! He radiated inquisitiveness! He radiated simplicity!
My son lovingly taught the humble man about the Savior’s Atonement and about the glorious latter-day Restoration of the gospel. A discussion about the Word of Wisdom, at that early stage, would have certainly been premature—meat before milk, as it were. And so, there in the smoke-filled living room of a humble seeker of truth, my son smelled the tobacco in the air and bore testimony of the healing power of the Savior’s Atoning sacrifice.
In his letter, my son rehearsed to me how wonderful it was to be filled with the Spirit of God, teaching the Lord’s gospel, and pondering the simple question: What if all of our sins had smells?
In 1989, Walter Penning formed a consultancy based in Salt Lake City and empowered his clients by streamlining processes and building a loyal, lifetime customer base with great customer service. His true passion is found in his family. He says the best decision he ever made was to marry his sweetheart and have children. The wonderful family she has given him and her constant love, support, and patience amid life's challenges is his panacea.