Intending to Build a Tower
By Elder L. Whitney Clayton
Brothers and sisters, I am very happy to be here, and happy to have that experience in Argentina recalled for you and for me. I’m still wearing some of the “helados.” I learned that there was nothing like “helado” in Buenos Aires, or anywhere else in Argentina. And I tried it everywhere else in Argentina as well. But that was a happy experience our boys had, and a great lesson as Kathy has explained to you.
We are so happy to be here with you. I have thought and thought about what I might say to you, and concluded that I would share with you a few experiences that have been meaningful to me, and I’ll try to weave some scriptures in to help you see why they have been important to me.
I believe at this point in your lives, when you are working so hard on the things you want to become, that it is important to remember the larger picture of what you are becoming. You are getting an education, which is terrific and fundamentally important. In this world, you can’t really get too much education. So, get all the education you can possibly get. That’s a very important principle, and it will become more important as the world goes on. The world has very little patience for people who are not educated these days, at least economically.
But there is a larger sense to education I would like to call to your attention, and I do so sharing some experiences that have been meaningful to me, and I hope will be helpful to you.
I start with a scripture which I will use as a springboard for my remarks. This is one that is taken out of context; the context doesn’t really fit the use I will give to this verse, but the verse will be familiar to you. From Luke 14: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he hath sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28).
That expression the Savior gave of building a tower was used for other purposes, but with respect to where you are, what you are doing, what you hope to become, and the long life which is out in front of you—a long and happy opportunity to build a great life—I would invite you to consider thoughts about counting the cost and thoughts about ensuring that your life is complete in the rounded sense, complete in the fulfilling sense. And that, in the long run, you will be pleased with what you did with your life, with how you lived, and where it took you.
Let me then suggest a couple of thoughts. One experience I have never forgotten—it seems very insignificant today—but years ago, Kathy and I lived in Sacramento, California. We lived out on the east side of Sacramento, just north of a freeway called Highway 50. It was the freeway from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe. We would travel that freeway now and then, going out east for one reason or another.
Not long after we moved there, on the south side of the freeway, someone began to build a building. I don’t really know what the building was destined to become. The reason I don’t know that is, along the way, construction stopped and it was never started again. It was this skeleton of a building, maybe a little more than a skeleton. It wasn’t just the framing; a lot of the work was done. But it just froze. Every time we drove by, I thought about that scripture: “What man among you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first to count the cost…?”
I don’t know what the problem was. I wondered if it was an economic problem, or if there was some other issue that arose. I don’t know what stopped it. I thought how terrible it was for that building to not be completed. I’ve since seen that there was a much larger message in that, and how terrible it is for a life not to accomplish all the good, all the wonder, all the beauty that Heaven intends it to accomplish. Heaven wants you, and wants me, and wants all of us, to have satisfying, noble, uplifting, joyful, happy lives. I’ve learned as I’ve watched over a lifetime that there are paths that lead to those destinations of happiness and joy and fulfillment and satisfaction and usefulness and purpose—and so many roads that lead to other places.
That building on the side of Highway 50 is ever in my mind. In fact, the last time we were there—or maybe I was there; I’m not sure Kathy was with me—I actually drove out, years later. We were in law school there 40 years ago. I drove out to see if it was still there. You will be glad to know that it was not. The city reached that part of East Sacramento, and whatever it was that was going to be there is no longer there.
You have so much promise. You have so much potential. You have so much capacity to become something in this life. I’m not talking about becoming rich or famous. I’m talking about becoming a person of substance, a person of worth, a person who is dependable and trustworthy, a person who is capable, a person to whom responsibility can be given without fear, a person in whom another person—a husband or a wife, or other people, children—can trust without reservation. I am talking about the kind of person who is comfortable in any society and among any group of people.
People of substance, people who have made something of themselves through righteous living, develop an internal sense of well-being and an internal sense of composure and grace that other people who choose other paths don’t enjoy. They may enjoy other things, but they don’t enjoy the things that most ennoble a life.
With that in mind, let me invite you to consider some things that will help you build lives that will be useful to you. This morning, in the Meeting—the seven Presidents of the Seventy attend the Meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve, almost all of the meeting, every Tuesday morning. I just walked out of that meeting when I came over here. One of the members of the Twelve, talking about a matter that will come for final decision before long, said, “Well, the concrete is still wet for this idea.” And that’s what I’m talking about. You are young. It would be very hard for me to go back in life and decide I’m going to be a doctor, or I’m going to be a civil engineer. I’m a little too old for that. It’s a little too late for me to do a lot of things, but for you, almost all of you who are here, your concrete is still wet. Your concrete will cure, it will harden over time. It will harden as life goes on. So think carefully.
Let me tell you a couple of stories that make this thought clear. When we lived in Buenos Aires, there was a friend there, a member of the Church, who had a company that built sailboats—large sailboats, yachts, beautiful yachts. Occasionally he would take us out on the Rio de la Plata—the river that separates Uruguay to the north at that point, from Argentina on the south—and we would go sailing for the day. He used to race sailboats from Buenos Aires straight east toward Africa. Of course, Africa is all the way across the ocean. He would sail down this big river; it was twenty miles wide at that part of the river, and down at the mouth of the river where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean, it is 200 miles wide.
The race was from Buenos Aires to a place called Punta del Este, the eastern point of Uruguay. Because the river is so wide and because there is absolutely no elevation there—everything is flat—if you are in the middle of the river, you can’t see the sides of the river once you get downstream a little closer to the Atlantic Ocean. He explained how carefully he had to steer that boat by the compass. He said, “If you are only off by a degree or two, you may pass by Punta del Este without seeing it.” And where is the next stop? Africa. “So,” he said, “we learn to keep our eyes on the compass because an error of just one or two degrees can make a huge difference.”
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf—Elder Uchtdorf now—spoke about that same concept with respect to a tourist airplane that left New Zealand to fly to Antarctica only to learn, sadly, that their avionics, their systems for steering the aircraft, were out of kilter. They learned that when the plane crashed into a mountain because they had just been off for a degree or two for hundreds and hundreds of miles (A matter of Degrees, April 2008 General Conference).
In that sense, President Russell M. Nelson, in his press conference and in his first remarks to the Church upon being announced as the President of the Church, reminded us to “keep on the covenant path.” Do you remember that? He said it several times. One time I believe he said, “stay on the covenant path,” and he corrected himself. He said, “Keep on the covenant path” (President Rusell M. Nelson Named 17th President of the Church). There is safety in the covenant path, or on the covenant path.
Let me take you to a scripture that explains that concept. “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Those who venture off the strait and narrow path by even a degree or two, over a period of a lifetime, will find that the separation that degree or two has caused in their lives between the strait and narrow path and where they ended up, has taken them to destinations they didn’t want to reach. It is so easy to just allow a little bit of room off the edge.
My first mission president—I had two—used to say to us, “Don’t be tape-measure Mormons.” And it was a really clever way of saying, “Don’t measure the strait and narrow path to find out how wide it is so you know how much you can get away with.” He said, “Look for the center of the strait and narrow path, because that’s where safety is.”
With respect to these concepts, let me take you to two or three other quick thoughts. This is one, another experience from South America, that was tremendously meaningful to me. Kathy has heard me share this all over the world. It was one of the most instructive experiences I have ever had.
We arrived in Argentina in August of 2002, and there was an economic collapse. In December of 2001, Argentina had four national presidents in ten days. The value of the peso had gone from one-to-one with the dollar to one-to-four. So if you had a dollar bill, you were lucky, because you could buy a lot more things. But if you had pesos, your capacity to purchase things in the marketplace was greatly diminished. People weren’t allowed to take money out of banks, and it was hard to find an ATM to get cash.
In that circumstance, I was asked to go up to Paraguay, which is the country to the north of Argentina. It is a much smaller country geographically, economically, and by population. When Argentina became so sick with its economic malady, Paraguay—which depended on Argentina for almost everything—became sicker still.
I’d only been in Argentina two weeks. I had not been in South America since 1971 when I finished my mission. So more than thirty years later, I didn’t know anything about Paraguay. I had never been there before. I met with the six stake presidents in Asunción and asked them to tell me all the good things that were happening in their stakes. I didn’t want to talk about the problems. I thought, “I don’t have the answers to those questions. I haven’t been here long enough to have any advice for you, brethren, so just tell me all the good things.”
The first one did, and he told me a couple of problems. As they went around the semi-circle in front of me, by the time we got to the last stake president, he had completely forgotten the question, with the help of the others who had preceded him, and just listed all these serious problems. I was kicking myself mentally: “Way to go, Brother Clayton,” was basically what I said to myself. “They have listed for you, they’ve recited these very serious problems that the people of their stakes are facing in this time of economic turmoil and collapse and desperation. You don’t have any advice for them. What are you going to do?”
As I had that thought front and center in my head, a question came into my mind as a fully-framed question: “Elder Clayton, ask them this question: ‘Presidents, for the people in your stakes who pay a full tithing, who pay a generous fast offering, who hold family home evenings, who read the scriptures as a family, who magnify their callings, and who go out and honestly serve as a visiting teacher or a home teacher every single month—for that group of people in your stakes, presidents, how many people are there who have problems in today’s world in Paraguay that they cannot solve?’”
So I asked the question. I said, “Presidents, for the people in your stakes who pay a full tithing, who pay a generous fast offering, who magnify their calling, who are diligent and faithful home teachers, who hold family home evening and family prayer—for that group of people in your stakes, how many people are there that can’t address and resolve the problems they are facing on their own, without the Church having to step in and solve the problems for them?”
The stake presidents, in a single motion, looked up to me with surprise. What did they say? They said, “Well, none. All the people who do those things are doing fine.” Do you get the message? All the people who are doing those things are doing fine. This isn’t rocket science, brothers and sisters. It’s called the center of the strait and narrow path. It’s called “don’t be a tape-measure Mormon.” Don’t wander off the path. Safety is found in the center.
As you build your lives, you want to have another experience recounted to you that I had some years ago practicing law in southern California. I had a case that took me to San Diego. We lived in Irvine, which is not quite midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, and I drove nearly every day for almost half a year to San Diego because of a case that I was handling down there. And as I was driving, the temple was being constructed. The San Diego Temple is right on the side of the freeway.
As I watched, and I had been watching along the way, but as I watched, I noticed something very interesting. You would be interested, by the way—it is so close to the freeway that Time Magazine said years ago that the LDS Church didn’t understand the need to separate church and interstate. It’s a beautiful temple. If you go to San Diego today and you listen to the traffic reports, since it’s right by the freeway, the traffic reporters will say, “It’s ten minutes from downtown to the Temple, and it’s fifteen minutes from the Temple to Carlsbad.” That kind of thing. It is a monument. Everyone knows where it is.
I watched as the land was cleared. They brought in heavy equipment, and they pulled with earth-moving equipment, they pulled all the brush off. They leveled the land. They prepared the land for the building of the Temple. I watched, each day as I would drive by and look at the site in the afternoon, on my way home, as they dug the holes for the footings and for the utilities. I watched as they poured concrete and put the steel superstructure up. I watched as they began to put the floors in for the various floors of the temple, poured the lightweight concrete that made those floors. I watched as the rest of the utilities went into the building, and then when they put the exterior cladding on the outside so it looked like a temple.
I watched as they then began to do more work with the land and bring in the landscaping. I watched when they put the statue of the Angel Moroni on the top of the building. It was a day, by the way, that the traffic slowed. Until then, traffic kind of went by, but that afternoon on the way back, the traffic slowed. And it wasn’t because of an accident ahead; it was because everybody was seeing the temple with new eyes, with the Angel Moroni statue on top.
That experience reminded me or taught me some valuable concepts about building lives. Heaven starts with the basic commandments that level the land, that clear away the brush from our lives, that clear away the things that are obstacles. And then Heaven continues by laying a solid foundation, by putting within us a steel superstructure of commandments and of faith on which other things can then be added.
Ultimately, the most important things in the temple are things which are inside it. And that is true, also, even in the décor of the temple. If you go to the temple, you will note that there are messages being taught by the level of décor in various places—ending, of course, in the celestial room. When you look at a temple, you see a metaphor for the building of our lives, for the way that God helps us to become something. He starts with the basics and moves on to the finest refinements of the inner soul, when we are ready for that.
When we think about building lives, we think about keeping the commandments of God. People who keep the commandments of God don’t need to be rescued from the ill effects of poor choices. They don’t make those poor choices. People who keep the commandments of God find an inner strength because God helps put it there. People who keep the commandments of God find an internal embellishment, an internal design work almost, that makes people who have kept the commandments over years, beautiful people.
I have learned that this is something almost all of us can see in other people. We can tell a Church member from afar in an airport. You have probably had that experience. We have it all the time. We’ll see someone and say, “That is a Church member.” Someone will walk by us on an airplane and I will think, “That was a Church member who went by.” It becomes obvious over time.
Let me take you to one or two additional thoughts, and then I will close. This verse from the Book of Mormon, which is repeated in almost the same language all the way through the Book of Mormon, is not taken out of context, I think, at all, but sometimes I think it is misunderstood. In various places we find this phrase, “For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 4:4).
I don’t believe that “prosper in the land” means a Mercedes-Benz in every driveway. I do believe that those who keep the commandments of God prosper in all the ways that matter most. I don’t think the Lord cares if we have a Mercedes-Benz, and has little sympathy for those who think that is something they have just got to have. There is nothing wrong with it, but if we start judging our self-worth by the name on the back of our shirt, or the car that we drive, or the neighborhood that we live in, we have failed to become people of real substance. And there is nothing wrong with those things. They are good things and they can be very appropriate in lots of circumstances. It is when they are the way we see ourselves, when they become the way we judge ourselves as to how valuable we are as a person, that we have gotten off the track.
When we prosper in the land, we prosper because God has blessed us—with peace of conscience, with revelation and inspiration when they are needed, with a family which is happy and intact. When we prosper in the land, we prosper because we have become dependable, both for the Lord and other people. Husbands trust wives. Wives trust husbands. Children are confident in the goodness of their parents and are not deceived.
When we prosper in the land, the Lord can look upon us with kindness always, but with expectation that we will be something that He can use, wherever He sends us and whatever our position in life may be.
I want to bear testimony that God blesses us, and that God expects you to become people of substance, people of value, people of worth, people who can be trusted, people to whom He can give the Kingdom and much responsibility for bearing it off. He needs you to raise righteous children, to have happy marriages, to be the light for the world. He needs you to be everything that He wants you to be, not because it would bless Him so much, although it is His work and His glory to bring to pass eternal life (see Moses 1:39), but because He loves you and wants you to experience the joy that comes from a lifetime of good choices that grow into wonderful consequences.
I bear testimony that God lives. I know He lives. That Jesus Christ is His holy and resurrected Son, that this Church is His Church. It is the only true and living Church on the face of the earth. It is the only Church that has within its ranks those who hold the priesthood of God and are authorized to use it. I bear testimony of its prophetic trajectory. It will accomplish all that the Lord has said it will, and it will do it because there are wonderful people inside it who keep the commandments and serve God with all their heart, mind, and soul.
I bear this testimony to you and express love to you and gratitude for all that you are doing in becoming people of substance and worth, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Think Big, with Faith Not Fear
Sister Kathy K. Clayton
What beautiful, triumphant music by both the pianist and the vocalists. That was spectacular. Thank you.
I am so happy to be with you. It is a treat for me to enjoy your company and a treat for me to be adjacent my husband, whom I adore. It was fun for me to greet a few of you as you arrived. To several of you who are clearly native Spanish speakers, I indulged myself with a bit of a “mucho gusto.” I hope you don’t mind. I recalled as I did so, lots of “mucho gusto’s” that I offered not so many years ago – recently enough that it’s still a very vivid memory – when we lived in Buenos Aires on an assignment for my husband.
We arrived there, all those years ago, with my not knowing any Spanish at all. It was a little intimidating. In fact, it was enormously intimidating. I remember so clearly that arrival. We’d been on an all-night flight – some of you who are South Americans know what that is. One must fly all night to get from here to there or there to here. That all-night flight is a bit dizzying in its own right. We were picked up at the airport and hustled off to the little condominium that was to be our home for, it turned out to be, four years. We didn’t know at the time how long we would be stationed there, but that assignment ended up lasting for four years. When we arrived in the downtown Buenos Aires residence, we ascended that little elevator. Someone carried our bags into our new living room and hustled my husband off to his new office. I was left in the condominium with several of our children and one of their friends. Among our seven children, six of them were single at the time of that move, so several of them had accompanied us initially to see the world their parents would call home for the next undetermined period of time.
Left in that foreign place with those children, I walked to the window and looked out where I admired groups of beautiful, elegant Argentines who I assumed didn’t speak English. I knew I most certainly didn’t speak Spanish and I felt the blood drain from my face. One daughter, who was about your age, stood at my side. She had become my friend as well as my daughter. (That’s what happens when you get to be at the same altitude as your moms and dads – you become their friends.) She looked at me and I think read my thoughts. She said, “Don’t jump, Mom!” I was thinking of it, but I wouldn’t have done it. I did feel a little fearful. In fact, I felt quite fearful – so uncertain of how I would manage this. It seemed so much and so daunting and so hard and so over my head.
We had several sons who had come with us in addition to that daughter. Those boys took to the streets. They had some money that we had gotten from the ATM machine at the airport. They were equipped for their adventure with a 100-peso note, which in those days, during a time of economic disaster in Argentina, was the equivalent of about twenty dollars. In normal times that wouldn’t have seemed like so much, but at that time it probably looked to many Argentines more like what would trigger in our thoughts the sight of a thousand dollars. It just seemed like a lot when people were pinching their pennies so assiduously. Our boys took that 100-peso note and took to the streets to conquer Buenos Aires and Argentina in general.
They returned triumphant – that’s what made me think of “triumphant” as I listened to your beautiful music. Our boys returned to tell us and their sister of their escapades and first experience on the streets of Buenos Aires. They said they had found, right off the bat, a “helados” store. You know what that is. It’s that sticky, gooey, delicious ice cream you eat with a little shovel. So good! They proceeded to tell us that, since they didn’t speak Spanish either, they went through the line, as was the procedure at this store, and they pointed to the flavors that they wanted, then they pointed to the “cono” that they wanted their ice cream to be put into. When they got to the end of the line to the cashier, they handed him their 100-peso note. They told us how big that cashier’s eyes got and how he wagged his finger at them and said, “No tenemos cambio,” which means, “We don’t have change for that!” He would never in his wildest dreams have change for a 100-peso note in his cash register. He would have been vulnerable to desperate people who wanted that change.
I, still feeling fearful and overwhelmed by the fear and newness and the foreignness and the "differentness" of it all, said to them, “Oh, that’s so sad!” – launching into a major pity party about how “you poor boys couldn’t even get your ice cream cones in this strange place.” They looked at me with an expression of bewilderment and said, “Mom, we got our ice cream cones!”
I’ll bet some of you can guess what they did, especially the boys among you. I was feeling overwhelmed; they were feeling triumphant. I said, “What did you do?” Some of you probably know, but I will tell you. They just told the cashier, communicating with gestures, “Well, then we’ll just have to buy 100-pesos worth of gelados.” So those three boys, with six hands among them, returned to our new home with six bags. Each bag held three Styrofoam containers of gelados, with a small piece of dry ice on top of each container. The boys carried those eighteen Styrofoam containers home and put them in our freezer, the freezer in the apartment below us, and the freezer in the apartment above us. And we ate helados for days.
My message to you is think bigger. Think bigger. Don’t be paralyzed or governed by your fear. If this new place, these new studies, these new people, and – for many of you – this non-native language, feel like a lot, feel a bit daunting or foreboding or impassable and impossible, don’t let those feelings dictate your governing principles. Take some risks. Think big and conquer this grand new adventure, which is yours to embrace for the taking. Go home with bags and bags of helados, not a pity party of paralysis because you believe it is just too hard.
I know by way of testimony that the good God who loves us all is mighty in every regard, and delights to save us – save us in the ultimate sense, and save us in the immediate sense, from fear. Please, dear brothers and sisters, embrace this opportunity with great faith and subjugate the fear. Trust that there can be helados enough for days, for a lifetime, if you will step forward and think bigger with confident trust in the God who loves you and will bless you. I know that is true. I leave you my love and my testimony, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.