The Miracle of the Word
After this semester I will have concluded forty years of teaching seminary and institute, almost all of which has been in the institute program. I love teaching and being around young single adults and young marrieds. Over the years I’ve taught in Utah, New Mexico, and California. In approaching the close of my full-time teaching career, I went back and reviewed the approximate number of students and classes I’ve taught. At the end of this semester, I will have taught the scriptures to nearly 6,500 students during nearly 16,000 hours in the classroom. Both numbers would have been larger if I had not spent time in administrative assignments. Along with teaching young adults and high school students, I’ve taught weekly adult religion classes and lectured for BYU.
As I’ve reviewed the past forty years, one part of my teaching that’s been most exciting and helpful has been to travel with young adults and adults throughout the Middle East, Europe, the Orient, and the Eastern U.S. Egypt, Israel, and Jordan have been favorite destinations on the many occasions. Travel to those countries and to Church History sites has helped me more deeply appreciate the life and teachings of our Savior Jesus Christ and the prophets who traveled the ancient world and this land of the restoration. My affinity for ancient prophets such as Isaiah and modern prophets such as Joseph Smith has enriched not only my teaching but my life. Since first going to the Middle East in 1979, my goal has been, along with my wife, to teach the Old and New Testament to our seven children as we traveled. All of them on different occasions have now had that opportunity. Some have traveled with us on more than one occasion. The opportunity to teach them about events such as the Resurrection, while sitting at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, has allowed the scriptures to burn within all of us as it did with the disciples who journeyed with the Savior on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-24) those many centuries ago. This has been a teaching dream come true and one that as a young college student I dreamed of doing. Needless to say, my love for the scriptures, all of them, has permeated my life for the past forty-plus years.
And as with my children, my greatest joy with the scriptures has been in helping students like you hopefully come to love them as I do. Reading, writing of thoughts, classroom discussions, media presentations, singing of hymns, prayers, digging down in the scriptures, and most of all, feeling the Spirit, have enriched me. I’ve especially enjoyed working with students where learning and understanding was a little more difficult. An encouraging word or a conversation where I could help has made starting each new week very worthwhile.
I once knew a young female student in California who was followed by a male student as she walked to the institute one day. I should say that he saw her on campus and then followed her into the institute building hoping to get a date. He was a good Catholic boy and she a smart Mormon girl. I can’t remember if they ever dated, but when he walked into the building and approached her and they briefly talked, she wisely introduced him to me. I was the institute director. Soon this good young man found himself immersed in a Book of Mormon class. After a few classes with returned missionaries, sessions with me on sticky issues that had been fed to him by friends and religious leaders, and one or more committed sets of missionaries, he was baptized. He went on a mission, married a wonderful young woman in the temple, has five children, two of whom have presently served missions, and two grandchildren. A few years ago he asked that I come to California and ordain him a high priest. He’s a close friend, and we speak often.
As in this and many other instances, I’ve wondered what made the difference. What caused him to want to be better or to do things differently? What caused Alma to internalize the words of Abinadi, which, according to his son, caused “a mighty change … in his heart” (Alma 5:12)? I’ve come to understand that various events and experiences in the Spirit really caused the change. But what gives desire or what is it that gets us on a road or leads us to having those types of experiences? The last time I spoke here, I talked about never letting anyone or anything come between you and the Savior. Today, I would like to expand that message by talking to you about one way in which you can make certain that never happens in your life. I will begin with a personal story.
Just over 25 years ago, while teaching in California at the institute at San Diego State University, I had an experience that had a profound impact on me. A friend who had been a former Christian minister and who had subsequently joined the Church called one day and indicated that he had a friend who was a minister of a very large congregation in San Diego. The minister had asked this friend a few questions regarding the Church. Since I was an institute teacher, my friend asked if I could give the minister answers (in the business world that’s what’s called an occupational hazard). The questions he had were those that come from people who have been fed misleading or incorrect information about the Church. I spent what time I had that evening and the next morning looking over information that would help me in the discussion.
At the prescheduled time, my friend and the Reverend met me coming out of a class, and we went to my office. While I had been in California, I had been exposed to people who didn’t have the best of feelings about the Church, and I had spent much time with them explaining our beliefs. Because of those and other experiences, I had decided a few years previous not to argue or have a spirit of contention in such meetings. After being seated, I quickly suggested that we open with prayer. I requested that my friend offer the prayer, which he did. Ever since I had known him and listened to him pray, I had been deeply impressed with how he talked with God. His prayers were always a respected conversation with a friend, heart-felt, and full of the Spirit.
I had decided before the meeting that it would be important to get to know each other. I felt it would give common ground for discussion. I also knew that it would help me in how I approached the minister’s questions. In my introduction, I talked about my wife and children and how important family life was to me, my testimony of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, my love of the Old and New Testaments, my knowledge that I knew God spoke to prophets today, that the Heavens were not closed to revelation, and that God spoke to his children not only through the Bible but through the Book of Mormon and other scripture. I remember talking about my career and why I did what I did, as well as the various experiences in my life such as education and working with students. I did this in about twenty minutes.
After finishing, I looked at my friend and asked him to talk about his background, life, conversion, family, and testimony. He did so in a powerful and thoughtful way. It brought a wonderful spirit into the conversation. I noticed that toward the end of my friend’s presentation, the Reverend began to look very contemplative. He began staring at the ground, and his eyes began to become moist with tears. I knew then that the Spirit had touched him and that maybe this would not be the type of discussion I had been through on previous occasions.
My friend and I then looked at him, and he began to talk about himself. He indicated that he was 29 years old, had been a minister for a few years, and that his father was a minister of a large congregation in Arizona. He talked about his mother and her love, about his wife and their two children, and then about the importance of families. He spoke in complete sentences and in a soft but direct manner.
After his introduction, he paused, and his demeanor changed, becoming a bit more self-absorbed as he talked about his work as a minister and his background, education, church, and his deep-rooted anti-Mormon feelings. I was surprised by his change, but I was impressed with his education, knowledge, and command of the Bible which seemed much more than mine. I sensed that he could dominate most any biblical topic, especially with me. Even though I respected his knowledge, he gave me a feeling that he considered himself more important than he actually was. But I accepted that and listened further.
He talked about his life in the ministry and proudly stated that he was a prodigy in the national organization of his church and had been chosen at an earlier age to center his study in what the leaders of his church felt were problems with Mormon doctrine and history. He indicated that he had spent many hours with every piece of anti-Mormon literature he could obtain, had read the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and had prepared himself in every facet of anti-Mormon literature possible. He had become his national church’s representative in talking to other congregations throughout the country and the world about what he perceived as the problems of Mormonism. He indicated that he had become very good and could talk to congregations and quickly have them believing that our church was a cult of the worst order.
I remember that after he concluded that part of the discussion, he stopped talking, looked down, and then almost whispered, “With all that I’ve said, I want to tell you about an experience I had few weeks ago. I had traveled to New York City to speak to a congregation about your church. I was reading the New Testament in my hotel room the evening before the presentation. As I read about the Pharisees and Sadducees and the experiences of the Savior with them, I heard a voice.” I don’t remember if he said that the voice was audible or in his mind, but he did say it was clear and indisputable. He went on, “The words were, ‘Why do you persecute my people the same way the Pharisees and Sadducees persecuted me?’” He continued, “I was stunned by what I heard. I then heard it again. And again I was stunned. The rest of the evening I spent looking through the New Testament and your scriptures from a completely different perspective.” He then went on. “Needless to say, my presentation the next day did not go as planned. In fact, I found myself thinking through what had happened to me the night before. I found that I could no longer speak despairingly of your church. I didn’t know what to do. Since that day, I’ve been studying your church very intently and looking at its teachings and doctrines from a different perspective, one that I had not considered before. I now know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church and that President Kimball (the prophet at the time) is the Lord’s Prophet. I feel I now have a problem. I’ve continued for the past few weeks to talk to congregations, but my speeches are not the same. I now teach my congregation from the Book of Mormon. I just don’t tell them the references.”
His voice became even more subdued and contemplative as he continued. “I went to Arizona and spoke with my father about what had happened. He was very interested and said that I must follow my heart and that he and my mother would support my decisions. I also have spoken to my wife who is very upset. She has indicated that if I leave the ministry and our church and join the Mormons, she will divorce me and take the children. I’m devastated and don’t know what to do. I did not come today to have you answer the questions that I requested. I know the answers to those questions. I came to talk to someone who taught the doctrines of the scriptures and would maybe help me with what I should do.” After we talked about his situation for a while, the discussion ended with prayer and both of them left. As he was leaving, I asked him if we could talk again in the near future, to which he agreed. Even though attempts were made, that didn’t happen; and even though I tried for years to see him again, I’ve not been able to do so.
I should note that toward the end of our conversation, I asked him about how he now dealt with issues he had felt he disagreed with regarding the Church. He smiled and said, “If you study the Bible well, you really know that those issues are explained. It’s simply a matter of perspective and having the spirit of God with you.”
After they left, I sat alone in my office and thought about what had just happened. For whatever reason, I had confirmed to me in a way I would have never thought concerning the importance of the scriptures and the revelation that can come when one studies them in depth. Even though he had only studied the Old and New Testament with humility, I was impressed by the depth and spirit of that study, and that the Lord had allowed him that experience.
I concluded that no matter who or what you are, if you sincerely seek, the Lord through his infinite wisdom will speak to you through the scriptures. They therefore become an important catalyst in guiding you to or in continually confirming to you the truth.
If you want to know what the Lord thinks is best for you, immerse yourselves in the scriptures. President Spencer W. Kimball once said, “I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems … no divine voice is speaking, if I immerse myself in the scriptures the distance narrows and the spirituality returns” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball , 135). It’s interesting that in my experience with the minister, study of the scriptures had brought him to the truth. Even though he approached it from a negative way, he seemed to nonetheless sincerely seek to study, ponder, and pray. And through what happened in his pondering, the Lord spoke to him, inspiring him to not only know the truth but to do something about it. That’s why faith is an action verb.
You recall that Nephi wanted to see the dream of his father. He wrote, “For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord…” (I Nephi 11:1). And then again, President Joseph F. Smith wrote, “On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures…. While I was thus engaged, my mind reverted to the writings of the apostle Peter…. I opened the Bible…. As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me….” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:1-6, 11). Or, as I would say, “the Spirit spoke to me.”
Here you have two great prophets who made it a practice to ponder, think, and feel – not just read. They both knew that if they wanted inspiration and direction, they needed to immerse themselves. Just think, if you were to engage in this kind of prayer and pondering, there would be no limit to what you would learn, feel, and, thus, be directed to do. A person who seriously takes this avenue in life will become a saint. That person’s spiritual and influential power will be like a two-edged sword, and the Lord will bless him continually. His heart will increase in richness, and his mind will grow in strength. No good thing will be withheld from him, and he will gain influence over the hearts of people, and the Lord’s attributes will live within him, until his heart is linked with the Lord’s (see E.L.T. Harrison , Millennial Star, Volume 20: 641-644, October 9, 1858).
During an early period of this dispensation, as the Prophet Joseph Smith was preparing missionaries, he said, “The Lord is ever ready to instruct such as diligently seek in faith.” After that instruction, the Lord then revealed Section 33 of the Doctrine and Covenants where he said, “And the Book of Mormon and the holy scriptures are given of me for your instruction; and the power of my Spirit quickeneth all things. Wherefore, be faithful, praying always, having your lamps trimmed and burning, and oil with you, that you may be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom” (Doctrine and Covenants 33:16-17). By this we learn that in order for you to have your lamps trimmed, burning, and with extra oil, you need to be prayerful and immersed in the scriptures. As you do so, you will be quickened by the Spirit in your time of need.
Only on rare occasions does the Lord increase or fill someone or something that is empty. He expects us to take an initial step or have desire, in whatever degree, to show him that we are sincerely interested in having him increase our understanding or feelings and give us answers to our problems. Whether the Prophet Joseph Smith knew this in his preparation and in the reading of James, chapter 1, verse 5, which resulted in the experience he had on that beautiful spring day in 1820, I don’t know. I do know, however, that the Lord raises us up and gives us answers to our prayers when we really desire those answers. And one excellent way to do that is while in the scriptures. Answers to prayers or to questions of what to do when the need arises will come not when thoughts are on worldly or materialistic things but when the mind is engaged in the things of the Spirit. And those things are most notably found in the scriptures.
Sister Joanne Doxey, a former member of the General Presidency of the Relief Society said, “If we immerse ourselves daily in the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, we will have increased discernment. We will have power to do right and to resist evil, and our ability to solve problems will be expanded. Messages to help us in our day were foreseen by the Lord and were divinely placed on the pages of the scriptures to assist us and our families” (Joanne B. Doxey, “Remember Him,” Ensign (CR), November 1989, p. 89).
A few years ago I served in a church calling where I would interview members of my stake for temple recommends. On one particular Sunday, I had spent the morning in meetings and had gone home in the early afternoon to get some rest and to eat dinner before going back to the stake center for the interviews. With seven children, three of whom were young teenage boys, and a tired wife who had been trying to keep them doing Sunday-type activities and in their Sunday clothes all afternoon, it was not the kind of family setting you would see on the cover of the Church News. After dinner and on my way to the stake center, I was not in the spirit that I needed to feel in order to discern the spirit of each member I would interview. However, I knew how to prepare myself to be a conduit for the Spirit. After parking my car, I quietly crept into a side door that led directly into my clerk’s office. I could hear members conversing in the hallway waiting for me to arrive. I sat down, bowed my head, and asked that the Lord take away those feelings that were blocking the Spirit. But I didn’t stop there. After the prayer, I opened my scriptures to the Book of Mormon. I then began a process that I’ve used over the years when needing the Spirit to either teach or direct my thoughts and actions. I began flipping the pages of the Book of Mormon. I would then stop and begin reading. I remember that on that day my first stop was at Lehi’s dream or I Nephi 8. I read the story of Lehi encouraging his family to come to the tree and partake of the precious fruit. I was overcome and my heart began to soften. I could feel the loving feelings of a righteous father for his wife and children. I stopped and then began the process again. This time I stopped and began reading about the 2,000 Sons of Helaman in Alma 53. I pondered those great mothers of purity and faith. Again, I felt my heart pound and my eyes become moist. I closed the pages and started flipping again. Again, I stopped and I was at 3 rd Nephi, Chapter 18. Coincidence? I don’t think so. You remember the story, angels ministering to and fire encircling the little children. As I pondered, the burden I had felt quickly lifted. I could feel the Spirit in a way that seemed to encircle me. I closed my book, sat for a moment longer while I bowed my head and said, “thank you,” regained my composure, got up, opened the door to the waiting area, and with a happy and lifted spirit said, “Good evening brothers and sisters. It’s good to be with you. Who’s first?” For me, the searching of the hearts of those members that evening came easily.
In your scriptural ponderings, please pay attention to the quality of your ponderings. I’m not talking about time or intensity but your attitude. If you humbly allow the scriptures, along with the Spirit of the Holy Ghost, to permeate and find a place in your receptive heart, you will find the peace and the answers you seek. You will then not find yourself in any way grieving the Spirit as it tries to lead you forward. Elder Jeffrey Holland once said, “Immerse yourself in the scriptures. You will find your own experiences described there. You will find spirit and strength there. You will find solutions and counsel. Nephi says, ‘the words of Christ will tell you all things what you should do’ (2 Nephi 32:3)” (Jeffrey R. Holland, However Long and Hard the Road, p. 9).
A few days ago while in a phone conversation with a nephew who recently moved to California, he mentioned his desire to find better employment in a depressed market. He had graduated in finance and was currently completing his MBA at night school. He had started a business, but it had failed. He and his wife decided to pray with more meaning and ? listen to this ? increase their reading and pondering of the scriptures. As I listened, I was amazed. He knew the key. He said, “Uncle Al, I knew that there was a power in reading and pondering the scriptures, especially those in the Book of Mormon. I felt that if I were to get a better job, I needed the Lord’s strength and answers which I knew would come from the scriptures.” I was further amazed. He then indicated that as he and his wife pondered what they were reading, he gradually knew what to do. He then bore his testimony about wanting to have the Spirit in everything he did. He said that updating his resumé came easier, and interview requests began to appear so that he was able to put himself in a situation where he could accept an offer where he would do much better than what he had been doing. He then concluded, “I don’t know how it works, but I do know that when you read and ponder the scriptures, your thinking and feelings change.” I agreed. There is a miracle in having a prayerful, submissive heart when reading and pondering the scriptures.
In closing, I mention the 1832 revelation in which the Lord instructed the elders on how to receive the blessings of heaven and the mind and will of the Lord. In a letter from the Prophet Joseph Smith to W.W. Phelps, he called the revelation “the Olive Leaf” or the Lord’s message of peace. The name is appropriate, for the olive tree is a well-known symbol of peace, spiritual peace. The Lord said, “Behold, that which you hear is as the voice of one crying in the wilderness – in the wilderness, because you cannot see him – my voice, because my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if [the Spirit] be in you [truth] shall abound.” He went on, “And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole [body] shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things. Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:66-68).
Brothers and sisters, I testify to you that you and I are subjected to a world like unto a wilderness of the Spirit. I testify that if you will allow the spirit of truth to dwell in you by constant prayer, study and the pondering of the scriptures, you will have the light necessary to comprehend and to fulfill your needs until eventually your whole body will be filled with light, and you will become single to God. The scriptures have been given to be a major component of that enlightenment.
President Thomas S. Monson said, “His word is one of the most valuable gifts He has given us. I urge you to recommit yourselves to a study of the scriptures. Immerse yourselves in them daily so you will have the power of the Spirit to attend you. … Read them in your families and teach your children to love and to treasure them” (Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, May 1986, p. 82).
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.