Convert difficulties into opportunities, for difficulties are divine surgeries to make you better. ~Author Unknown
I had a one of those weird nights last night. I’ve been getting over just a little sick and so was bundled in bed early (about 7:30pm) against the bitter cold outside. I studied on my computer for a while (online textbook) and then started to work on my Four Perspectives post.
The next thing I know, I woke up at about 5:30 am with the T.V. still on, the light still on and the laptop still open on my lap. I don’t really recall dozing off. I do recall putting my head back because I was trying to think of how to phrase a particular idea – and I guess that was enough - I was done for the night, out for the count and with no real recollection about the idea that I was trying to finish either.
It’s probably just as well that I didn’t finish my original idea because today has been kind of a eventful day in Provo, Utah. Sad, but eventful and it’s sparked a lot of divergent thoughts.
Being in Utah Provo is, of course, a Mormon town and a Mormon Pioneer town at that. Provo was originally settled in 1849 only a couple of years after the first Mormon settlers came to the Utah Territory. In fact, Provo was the first Mormon colony in Utah outside of the Salt Lake Valley. We Mormons love to preserve things, jam, peaches, tomatoes, but we especially love to preserve our old buildings. Maybe it’s because we left so much behind in the East. Or maybe it’s because we came to the middle of nowhere and had to work so hard to make Utah a viable place to live and to build our towns and cities and monuments. I say “we” like I had anything to do with it. But I do come from pioneer stock and “we” as a Mormon people do pay a lot of homage to the “early Saints” who sacrificed so much for their faith.
Anyway, one of the major preservation projects in Provo was the Provo Tabernacle. It was originally constructed from 1883 to 1898 and has been remodeled and renovated several times over the years. It really is a majestic and impressive building with towering spires, inviting stained glass windows, beautiful exterior stonework and really remarkable wood carvings in the interior. It isn’t a landmark that is just for show either. It’s a working building so to speak. Church meetings are held there pretty much every weekend. Graduation Ceremonies for BYU are held there several times a year. In fact, at one time all of the city's high school graduations were held at the Tabernacle as well because it was the largest gathering place in the area for decades. There has been a wealth of religious and civic concerts, celebrations and ceremonies over the generations. I know I’ve attended some kind of function at the Tabernacle at least two or three times a year pretty much every year since birth. I always feel proud when I drive by that we have such a beautiful and distinctive building in our town. I really am drawn to the historic nature of the building too. I imagine the generations of people that have gone up the same stairs that I have, sat on the same benches that I have, listened to the same organ that I have. While I'm in the Tabernacle I try to visualize the congregations of the past like the ladies at the turn of the last century in their big Gibson-Girl type hats and the men in their high stiff collars. I’ve seen pictures of pioneer day celebrations from the 1920’s and smiled at the homemade bunting and banners draped across the Tabernacle's carved banisters with such obvious pride. I also think a lot about the meetings and the prayers must have taken place there during war times when Provo was still a relatively small city. It must have been very emotional and very apparent that so many brethren were missing - away at war and so many others working the endless shifts at the (now defunct) local steel plant to support the war effort. Provo itself has waxed and waned and changed over the years, but the Tabernacle has remained - the ever-constant fixture and touchstone in our community.
At about 2:30 this morning, Friday, December 17, 2010 a massive fire broke out in Provo’s Historic Tabernacle. The first thing I saw this morning when I woke was that news broadcast and an image of orange flames and smoke billowing out of the windows and roof of the Provo Tabernacle. I went to the window and could actually see the smoke rising against the morning sky. In just the few the reports that I saw before going to work this morning it was easy to see that the news wasn’t going to be good. The roof had collapsed, the firefighters were shooting water through the shattered stain glass windows and rivers of water (at least the water that wasn’t immediately turning into ice in the sub-zero temperatures) was pouring out of the doors and stairwells. There was no doubt that the pipe organ was gone, the hand-hewn benches were gone, the intricate hand-carved panel that extended across the front of the stand was gone. It was total devastation. I’ve been scanning various news sites on and off throughout the day, reading some of the reactions from people like me. People who gathered around the Tabernacle in the early light with a mixture flames, smoke, disbelief and their own Tabernacle memories reflecting in their tear-filled eyes.
I really hope it was an accident because I’d hate to think that anyone would set a fire like that on purpose. I've had a few hours to process the news now and whether accident or arson I keep thinking about the devastation that pushed the early Latter-Day-Saints across the plains. Nauvoo was a town that the Mormons built in 1839 in the state of Illinois on a bend of the Mississippi River. By all accounts it was a beautiful town complete with its’ crowning glory - a beautiful Temple. The Temple was only barely completed before the Mormons were driven out of the state by violent anti-Mormon sentiments in the area. The Saints had to leave their beautiful town and their beautiful Temple-which was then burned to the ground. But they made the trek across the plains and started again, planted again and built again. And the Provo Tabernacle was part of that legacy.
We do have a legacy – and in Provo we have a legacy to build. To be honest, as much as I loved the historic nature of the Tabernacle, those hand-hewn benches were really uncomfortable. I’m not sure whose backside those were made for, but it sure wasn’t mine (what did the ladies ever do in the days of bustles?) And if you ever had to attend Stake or regional conference in the summertime, the speaker didn’t have to try very hard to invoke hell-fire and damnation because Man! It was HOT in there! And the acoustics and sound system were such that if the “baby choir” really got going (you know all the babies in the congregation making all the noises babies make from gleeful to growling) it was kind of hard to hear the speaker. Also, as Provo has grown, if your Stake Conference was scheduled at the Tabernacle, you really had to plan to get there early to have any hope of finding a seat, not to mention a place to park.
Sometimes as awesome as history is (and it is), moving forward is even more important. I would never, ever go so far to say that the today’s Tabernacle fire was a blessing in disguise. I can’t see any blessing in that burned-out shell of a building and I will miss it every day. But now that the deed is done and the devastation has occurred, all that's left is an opportunity. We still have a lot of worshipping and gathering and graduating to do here in our community. There is still music to be made and songs to be sung. I hope that this devastation will evolve into an opportunity to create a monument for our time and for the generations to come. A new landmark for Provo – one that appreciates the past while embracing the opportunities of the future. And while we're at it, central air and more comfortable seats.