From my very first experiences there, the temple has been a guide in my life and a model of the home I should try to build.
The first temple I ever saw was the Mesa Arizona Temple. My family lived in the Phoenix area when I was in kindergarten and first grade, and almost every Sunday we would stroll the temple grounds. Even among temples, the grounds of the Mesa temple are noted for their gardens and beauty. There was the visitors’ center with its Christus statue and theaters where we would watch Church films, and the reflecting pool leading to the temple itself. On the other side of the temple was a very cool cactus garden. Though I knew nothing about what went on inside the temple, I knew it was a beautiful place and a special place. It was unlike any other place I had ever been.
In 1989, my family moved from Arizona to Oklahoma. I didn’t see another temple until 1994, when I was 12 years old and in between sixth and seventh grades. (Five years is a long time when you’re 12.) By then my family had moved back to Charlotte, and on 23 July I went on my first youth temple trip, to perform baptisms for the dead at the Atlanta Georgia Temple.
It was a long day. The youth and chaperones met at the stake center, where our ward met on Sundays, before sunrise. As I recall, I think I may have been asked to offer a prayer. We then loaded into a caravan of cars, SUVs, and minivans and drove for four and a half hours on Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where the temple is located. At the time, the only temples in the United States east of the Mississippi River were at Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta. (The Orlando Florida Temple would open that fall.) So though the distance seems far now—and it certainly felt far then—and though we spent so much time in the car to spend so little time in the temple, we were nonetheless grateful to have a temple so close that we could organize these excursions a few times a year.
When our group arrived at the temple, the first thing we did was go into the temple annex. This was a public building with Distribution Services, some other temple support and utilities functions, and large restrooms, where some members of our group changed from the shorts and T-shirts they had worn into Sunday clothing. (I didn’t realize there would be an opportunity to change clothes, so I was left wishing I had something other than those uncomfortable dress clothes.) Once everyone was ready, we walked next door to the temple proper.
Youth groups attending the temple entered by a side door directly into the baptistry. A male temple worker stood by the door checking our names off the limited-use recommend, which listed the youth who had been interviewed and found worthy to attend the temple by a member of the bishopric. (I remember that I had been interviewed by a counselor in the bishopric.) Inside, the baptistry was much like that of other temples. A small seating area with a few rows of benches was at the center, facing the baptismal font, where youth waited their turn to change and be baptized for the dead. To the left was the girls’ changing room; to the right was the boys’. At the back of the room was a counter where you received your baptismal clothing. A couple of rooms for confirmations and a door connecting the baptistry with the rest of the temple filled out the space.
There was one very unique feature about the Atlanta temple’s baptistry at the time. Unlike the baptismal font in almost every other temple, Atlanta’s font was not on the back of oxen. Rather, it was much like a baptismal font in a regular meetinghouse, with a couple of differences. The entrance to the font was flanked by space for the officiators, with two witnesses on the right and a recorder on the left. At the back of this platform was a single bench where youth would wait before actually going into the font. On the wall above this bench was a relief carving of a baptismal font on the back of 12 oxen. At the time, I think many youth were a bit disappointed that our temple didn’t have the usual, grander font that we always heard of and saw in photos. Looking back on it now, however, it’s cool that we got to perform baptisms in a temple that was unique. (In 1997, the Atlanta temple’s baptistry was renovated and expanded and—much to the delight of youth in my ward—the baptismal font placed on the backs of 12 oxen.)
I don’t remember much about how our session went. One small detail I do remember occurred when I was receiving my baptismal clothing. I knew the temple was a special and sacred place, and that it would be a few years before I would be able to participate in and see everything that went on there. I guess I was a little unsure exactly how I was supposed to act, what I could see, and what information I could know. So I went up to the counter, around the corner where a gap in the counter allowed temple workers to enter and exit the clothing area. A very kind temple worker visually estimated my size, then got down a white jumpsuit that she thought would fit me. Then she asked me to turn around. So I turned around, right on the spot, thinking that perhaps she was doing something I wasn’t privy to. Since I was standing in front of the counter rather than at the gap, she positioned me a couple of steps to the left—so she could make sure the jumpsuit was the right size. That was the only reason she had asked me to turn around. Nothing secret.
After our time at the temple, our group went to the nearby bookstore that specialized in Latter-day Saint materials. Then it was back into our caravan and up I-85 to Charlotte, with a stop along the way at Pizza Hut for lunch.
Though I don’t remember a lot of the details of our trip that day, I will always remember how I felt being in the temple for the first time. Though I was unsure of what was happening, I didn’t feel nervous or uncomfortable. On the contrary, I felt very comfortable, almost relaxed. I began to understand the significance of the fact that the temple is the house of the Lord. As children of God, as we make covenants with him and keep his commandments, it becomes our house also. Though we are there to do work, we should also feel comfortable and, yes, even relaxed while we are there, because it is our home, too.
And though I knew the temple was a special place, I began to understand why it’s so special. Certainly it is a beautiful place—I find a number of temples to be lovely and sometimes stunning pieces of architecture. But it is not the shimmering marble or the delicate woodwork or the crystal chandeliers that make it so valuable. Certainly it is a peaceful place—inside and out there are places for quiet contemplation and restful reflection. But there are, too, in parks and at public libraries and at cathedrals and basilicas and mosques. So what sets the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apart as houses of the Lord?
I believe the answer lies not so much in what they are so much as what we do in them. In the most recent general conference, President Thomas S. Monson stated: “Until you have entered the house of the Lord and have received all the blessings which await you there, you have not obtained everything the Church has to offer. The all-important and crowning blessings of membership in the Church are those blessings which we receive in the temples of God.” (Ensign, May 2011, p. 93)
Baptism and confirmation, church attendance and partaking the sacrament, daily scripture study and prayer—these are all important. Indeed, they are vital, and we will be immensely blessed as we strive to make them a part of our lives. But the blessings we receive from these actions alone represent just a small portion of the blessings the Lord has promised us. The remainder of these blessings are found in the ordinances of the temple, including the endowment and temple marriage, and in returning to perform these ordinances on behalf of those who were unable to receive them in mortality.
I am eternally grateful for the blessings of the temple. The things I have done and experienced there permeate every aspect of my life and that of our family. Our goal is to make the temple central in our lives and to model our own home on the house of the Lord. There are many improvements we have yet to make, but our focus is in the right place and we’re trying. And the Lord is blessing us for it.
This article appeared on pages 22–23 of Issue 3 | July 2011.