Advice I Have Received in My Life
In the next life I’ll step to one of these pulpits and it will go up rather than down. Stand up, Elder Millard, just so they know that I’ve always been cursed to work with these tall people. But I’ve talked to the Lord, and I know in the resurrection I’m going to be six- foot-five. That was the height of the young man my wife was going with when I met her, and occasionally during our married life when I’ve tried to change light bulbs and had to bring out the step ladder, she’s said, “Honey, Gordy could have done that without the ladder.”
I am, in missionary parlance, the grandson of President Stephen Woodhouse, because his companion, Duane Millard, was my first companion—he being Brother Millard’s first companion. And I feel good about that. I think that whatever President Woodhouse has in him, I’d love a little of that in me. I recognized that then, 1961 through ’64. He was a little older in the mission than I. But his reputation was very good then. And when he came to Church headquarters in 1989 to be interviewed, I was honored to have a chance to interview him and to make a very positive recommendation. And the fact that he’s lasted, now, nearly nineteen years makes him the longest-tenured university president, college president, I’m sure, in the state, and one of the longest probably in the Church’s history, for Church educational institutions. So I appreciate him, and I appreciate Brother Millard. There are people you meet along the way that have a great influence on your life, and these two have served that purpose for me.
I appreciated your music, too, and was reminded of Adam S. Bennion’s great quote, “What we need in the Church is better music and more of it, and better speaking and less of it.” So thank you for being a saving ingredient in today’s meeting.
I was given this assignment in August of 2007, so it’s not that I haven’t had time to prepare. And as this day has approached I’ve been more and more intimidated because I noticed in the February Ensign that Elder Orton’s talk that he gave here some months back was printed, which means it was an extraordinary talk. Then I read about Elder Pace’s talk that he gave here last month, which must have been very extraordinary as well.
And then I thought about some advice my wife gave me a few months ago. We had been in Europe for three years, so I had been speaking foreign languages or else being translated, and my talks had been very brief. Then we were brought back to America and we went to Logan to a stake conference. I felt so liberated in English again, that I must have been more verbose than normal, because on the way home, in her subtle way, Kathy said to me, “Honey, whatever happened to those good, short talks you used to give?”
And I said, “Well, I’m older now, and I know so much more. I just feel like I need to share.”
She said, “Well, don’t.”
So what I’ve decided to do today may be successful and may not be. I’ve decided to share advice I’ve received in my long life now, going on 66 years. And in doing that, I’m reminded of a little—this is a true anecdote, where an elementary school teacher gave a quiz to fifth grade students, and one of the quiz questions was, “Who was Socrates?” And one of the answers given by a fifth-grade girl was “Socrates was a very old man who went around giving people advice. They poisoned him.”
So it’s against that backdrop that I’d like to share a little of the advice that I’ve received, all of it coming, actually, with one exception, from the period of time in which I’ve been a general authority, which in April will be nineteen years. But I do this in the hopes, brothers and sisters, of just accelerating your education, your wisdom, your experience in life so that you can have the broadest and firmest foundation.
I begin, and in each case I’ll give you a little background and then try to draw a moral from the advice that’s been given. And when it’s five to, I’ll quit, according to President Woodhouse, so wherever I am in this, I’ll be finished then. But I begin with something that I consider righteous because it came from my dad. He’s been gone now more than ten years, and whose advice was always something I treasured—an uneducated man who had unbelievable wisdom and judgment. When I received my call to the Seventy in April of 1989, we were called here and I met briefly, my wife and I did, with President Monson, and received our call. And I went home, it was later, and my parents were in bed, but I went to their home about 11 o’clock to sit on the edge of their bed and tell them that I had received this call—which probably shocked them more than it shocked a lot of other people. I remember once saying to Dad and Mom, “Why were you such good parents?”
And Dad said, “What makes you think we were?” So they were very surprised. But it’s interesting; in that very moment, my dad had the mental presence to say, “Well I have a piece of advice for you.”
And I said, “What is it, Dad?”
He said, “When you go to Salt Lake City, why don’t you graze on the edge of the herd for a while.” Now, I don’t know if you have enough of a livestock background to realize that when you have a herd of cattle or a herd of horses, for that matter, or probably a herd of anything, but I’m more familiar with cattle and horses, and you interject into that herd, that established herd, a new member, it’s very typical for that new member, especially if it’s a cow, to what? Graze around the edge for a while. And over time, brothers and sisters, that advice has proved to be invaluable to me. I came and I was somewhat tentative anyway, just by nature, but by following my dad’s advice and by looking and listening and not being overly anxious to share my opinions or my views initially, I think it stood me in such great stead. I learned so much more, and you know, if you say very little they don’t know yet whether you really have anything to contribute or not. Sometimes we open our mouths and remove all doubt.
But I’ve watched lots of people, now, come and go, and I can honestly say that this piece of advice has been so important to me. You, in your lives, will find yourselves in lots of new situations in educational settings, in employment settings, in social settings, even in relationships with people. And I would seriously advise you to go slow, to be somewhat tentative, to be modest and humble and not be so eager to dominate and contribute and show what you may have learned or may have to contribute initially. There’s a lot to be said by being more reserved, especially at the beginning, at the outset of a lot of the experiences that we have, and to just grow into it over time. There’s something about that, I think, that makes it all end up fundamentally so much sounder in the long run.
A second piece of advice I received from Elder Marion D. Hanks. How many of you remember him, even? He’s been an emeritus general authority since 1993, so for 12 years he’s been out of the public view. He’s 85 years old now, and in a rest home, unfortunately not doing very well. But I was blessed to work with him for the first two years of my time as a Seventy, and one of my very first conference assignments came at his side. You’ll be, I think, encouraged to know that they just don’t unleash new general authorities on the Church without some training, so for seven or eight weekends, we’re paired up with a more experienced member of the Twelve or member of the Seventy and sent to stake conferences for training. And I went with Elder Hanks to Dayton, Ohio in the spring of 1989.
And in the course of the conference, the first official meeting was the priesthood leadership meeting. And since I was the junior person, I was asked to go first in this meeting. And as part of what I said that day, I had picked up on a little statement that Jacob de Jaeger had made in a conference that I had been with him to. And the statement had reference to the word “brethren,” which we use as sort of a collective term in referring to the general authorities of the Church—the Brethren. And what Elder de Jaeger had said, in a different conference and a different setting was, that there are “Brethren” with a big B, meaning capital B, and there are “brethren” with a little B, lower-case B. And I sort of liked the feel of that, and I don’t remember, probably just in my introductory remarks trying to warm up and to warm up that group of priesthood bearers, I had said something about this, and I being one of the “brethren with a little B” and Elder Hanks being one of the “Brethren with the big B.” Well, I did my part, and then I sat down next to him while there was an intermediate hymn. And when I sat down, Elder Hanks put his huge hand—he was a great handball player, and if you play handball over time, you get a bigger hand than you would have had if you hadn’t played handball, especially if you play it vigorously, as he did—but over onto my shoulder as I sat down came this great big hand of his. And you have to remember now, I was 46 years old. He was nearly 70. He had been my idol all of my growing up years. And in response to what I had said about “big B and little B” he said to me, “Marlin, you can be a ‘little B’ if you want to.”
Oh, my word, I could hardly breathe I was so taken aback. That was one of the great lessons of my time as a general authority, and I think it could be a great lesson for you. We can minimize our own abilities, we can denigrate ourselves—there’s every opportunity to do that, especially if we compare ourselves with others. But we don’t ever have to do that. We don’t ever have to be a little B. And that was the import of his message to me. “You can be a little B if you want to.” Well, needless to say, I’ve never until today told that story or made any reference to big B’s or little B’s, and I hope you won’t in your life. And if you’re able to do that, you’re going to end up inevitably being, symbolically speaking, a big B, which is what Heavenly Father would want from us anyway.
Again, a third lesson, from Elder Hanks. The first meeting I went to as a general authority I forgot to take my scriptures. There were twelve of us called that April, so when I noticed this, I thought, well, there are twelve of us. He won’t pick up on the fact that I don’t have my scriptures. He was conducting the meeting as a member of the presidency of the Seventy. But sure enough, right early on, he looked at me and he said, “Brother Jensen, do you own scriptures?”
And I said, “I do.”
He said, “Where are they?”
I said, “They’re up in my office.”
He said, “Why don’t you go get them.”
So in about the most self-conscious moment of my life, I left that room and ran up to my office and came back with my scriptures in my hand. And as I settled into the bench where I had been sitting, in his best Brooklyn accent, Brother Hanks said, “When you come to choich, you better bring da books.” Well again, needless to say, I’ve never been to “choich” since that I didn’t bring the books. And I commend this to you, brothers and sisters. There are so many things competing for our attention, and when I log onto the Internet, I swim in all of the information that’s there and wonder how in the world anyone can expect to keep up with even one percent of it all. And so in the spirit of what Elder Oaks taught us last conference of there being “good, better and best,” this is the best. And to make this something that not only you take to church with you, but that forms in a sense the foundation for your life, for your learning. I hope that in all the things you acquire here or wherever you may be educated, as important as that is, you don’t lose what is far more important. And that is this. There should be a presence, a consciousness, I think, of just how important the word of the Lord is, and we should treasure it and revere it, and make it an integral part of every day of our lives.
One last piece of advice from Elder Hanks. We met every week in a committee under his direction, and it was on Tuesday morning, and so that was the beginning of the week for general authorities. We usually are given Monday off because we work Saturday and Sunday. So as a practice, Elder Hanks would have us share what we had learned on the weekend, or on the previous week. And he’d go around, in place of a spiritual thought, we just all got to share what we had learned. And in keeping with my dad’s advice to graze around the edge of the herd for a while, since it wasn’t mandatory to share, for a number of weeks I didn’t share anything. I just listened to what others were sharing.
And then, on a weekend, I’d had what I thought was a wonderful insight. I’ll share it with you. It came from the 46th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, and I don’t remember any longer how it came, but in the course of a stake conference assignment, in teaching from section 46 which is, as you know, the very best scripture we have on the gifts of the Spirit. And in verse 9 of section 46, it says, speaking of those who could have these gifts, “For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments.” (emphasis added)
And that phrase caught my attention because it seems like it would almost be an impossible thing to have a spiritual gift if we had to love God and keep all of his commandments. But then the Lord says something that is very saving and very encouraging, because it’s not just for those who love Him and keep all of His commandments. He says, “And him that seeketh so to do.” And that’s the category that I’m in, and most of us I think are in. We’re seeking to love God and we’re seeking to keep His commandments. And there’s much that can be learned, just from the spirit that that statement exudes, but for me it was an original insight at that moment for me. And so I ventured to share this in the little warm-up that we had in our council meeting that morning, thinking, of course, that this was brilliant and original and no one had ever heard of it before, and there would be comment about it. So when I shared it, it was dead still in that room. There were about seven of us there. And I thought, well, is this not worthy of comment?
And so I looked in sort of a pleading way toward Elder Hanks, and I said, “Have you thought about this before, Elder Hanks?”
And as kind as he could be, he said, “Oh, yeah, for the first time back in about 1942.” And then he could see how crestfallen I was, and he came to my rescue, and said, “But that doesn’t matter.” He said, “You needed to think about it too.” And that was a great lesson to me. It didn’t matter that he had thought about it. I needed to think about it. Every one of us, brothers and sisters, has to have his own light, has to have his own inspiration. Sure we can borrow from one another, and there is that aspect of a community of Saints. But in the final analysis, we all have to stand on our own spiritual feet, have to read the scriptures on our own, say our prayers, get our own insights, and our own inspiration into these wonderful books. And having Elder Hanks say to me, “That doesn’t matter, that’s all right. You needed to think about it too,” was a great lesson that I’ve never forgotten. So I never apologize, even when what I’ve discovered is old or I find it written in a book or said by someone else years ago. It really isn’t mine anyway, until it’s mine. And I think that’s the import of his little lesson to me.
A fifth lesson, from Elder Busche: Do you remember him—Elder F. Enzio Busche, the German general authority? Before Elder Uchtdorf there was another German. Although German really is in, you know. Those of us who majored in it are in much better shape than we were a week ago. Not really, and Elder Uchtdorf’s English is so impeccable that he doesn’t need to worry much about speaking German anymore. But Elder Busche was unique, I thought, in a way. He was very, very spiritual, and almost mystical sometimes in the closeness that he had to our Heavenly Father. And so what he shared in the way of advice to me, I think, is important because, as I’ve gone around the Church, in most mission fields there is a definite press, especially on the part of elders. You good sisters wouldn’t do this anyway, but the structure isn’t there to permit you to do it. But elders are concerned about leadership and about position. And even our parents don’t escape this, because when I talk to your parents and say, “How’s your son doing on his mission?” they will invariably say, “He’s doing great. He was just made a—district leader, senior companion, zone leader.”
And I want to say, but I don’t, “Good. That’s what he is, but how is he was more my question.” And I used to tell our missionaries in upstate New York, “This isn’t The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Status.” It’s Latter-day Saints. That’s the status that we’re after, to become a Saint, to become a pure person. But we do have this drive, and there’s a lot associated with it, especially in the mission field, which I think is regrettable, really. And that’s why, even as general authorities, it’s something that we have to guard against. I remember someone asking President Packer once why it is that Seventies are turned over so frequently in their assignments. We’ll be in an assignment for three years or four years—five years would be unusually long. And his answer was, “So that no one will have any ambition.” I think that’s such a good reason, because we are all human.
But this is what Elder Busche told me one day. Our transfer day as general authorities is the first of August each year, and at that time we’re subject to going to a different place, or being assigned to a different work here in Salt Lake City. So it’s an anxious moment for us and for our wives and children often. And what he told me was, “Never call or release yourself. Then,” he said, “you’ll always be entitled to the blessings of the Lord.” That is such good counsel. You know, every mission field is full of young men who would be fantastic senior companions if they could just get there, or who would run a district better than anybody ever has if the mission president would just be smart enough and inspired enough to make them the district leader. But what they don’t realize is that, until you’re the very best junior companion you could be, you probably won’t be a senior companion. We’re always just a step ahead of ourselves in a sense, releasing and calling ourselves. And so his advice is so pertinent. “Never call or release yourself. Then you’ll always be entitled to the blessings of the Lord.”
That’s stood me personally in such good stead in my 19 years. I never worry about what’s going to come. I just have accepted it. I never wish for it to be over, and I’ve been happy at every step of the way, in my 19 years, thanks to his good counsel.
The next piece of advice came from Elder Neal A. Maxwell. How we all miss him! I was so fortunate, I think, because early on when he was a regional representative I got to know him, and he was one of those who never forgot a name or a person. I went 10 years without seeing him and encountered him at a dinner at the University of Utah one night, and he greeted me by name, and my wife. When I became a Seventy, and especially if I was working away from Church headquarters, he would occasionally invite me into his office. I would get a call from his secretary at conference time, and she would say, “Would you have a minute to come see Elder Maxwell while you’re in town?”
And I would graciously say, yes, I think I could work him into my schedule. But interestingly, when I would go there, and it would just be maybe five or six minutes honestly, he would always have a question. There would always be an embrace and an exchange of “How are you and your family.” And then a question. And one of these questions is what I share in the way of a piece of advice from him. He asked me; he said—and this was maybe 7 years ago, so I had been into this 11 or 12 years—he said, “What are you doing differently today in your calling as opposed to what you were doing when you began? Do you teach differently? Different techniques, different subject matter? Do you use the scriptures more or less? What are you doing differently?”
And then we talked about this. And then he said this: “If you are talking about the same things in the same way this year as you were last, you are not growing spiritually.” And I’ll tell you, that’s been a check on the content of my talks as a general authority. If you are talking about the same things in the same way this year as you were last, you probably are not growing spiritually.
I think that’s a good gauge for all of us, brothers and sisters. If you’re still living, young men, off of what you wrote down during your mission, that would be an indication that you are not growing as you ought to be. Or young women too, for that matter. So, really good advice and food for thought, to stay with it and to keep stimulated and to add to whatever it is that we’ve already learned.
This piece, from President Packer. I can’t imagine why he would give it to me, and I do pray that he’s given it to others, but one day across an aisle in an airplane as we were talking, he said, “By the way, Marlin, don’t go around the Church answering questions no one is asking.” Think about that. Think about that when you prepare Sunday’s Sunday school lesson or priesthood lesson. What is the message? Be in tune, be relevant, be aware of your audience, look at people, think before you speak. Don’t go around the Church answering questions no one is asking. Do the Lord’s will rather than your own. Build his kingdom rather than your own. There’s depth to this advice that is really quite surprising.
From Elder John Carmack with whom I served in an area presidency here in Salt Lake nearly 20 years ago: “Take care of your family,” he said. “No one else will.” Think about that, because in your life, there will be a lot of things competing for your interest and your time and your attention, just like there is for mine. And often we feel like if we’re doing the Lord’s work, God will bless everything about our lives and it’s all going to prosper. But Elder Carmack’s advice, I think, is very pertinent. “Take care of your family. No one else will.” So I’ve tried, and I hope you’re trying under whatever your circumstances are, even if it includes seeking matrimony to take care of your family, because no one else will.
From Elder Carlos Asay. Some of these good men now are long since passed to the other side. In 1993, he gave a talk called “One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind,” in which he analogized the Joseph Smith story, the First Vision, to the first man to walk on the moon. And it was a seven-minute talk, which is what the Seventies usually get—seven to ten minutes. So you don’t have much time to develop a theme. But for some reason, his talk, out of all the talks given in conference, touched my heart the most that time. And I saw him a few days later in the parking lot at Church headquarters and I said, “Elder Asay, I absolutely loved your talk on the Prophet Joseph Smith.”
He said, “Well, haven’t you learned?”
I said, “Learned what?”
He said, “There are a few things when, if you give talks about them,” he said, “people will always feel the Spirit, and you can never give a bad talk.” Well, that caught my attention, because to that point I had been able to give quite a few bad talks. “Haven’t you learned,” he said, “that there are some things which, when you talk about them, you will always have the Spirit, and never give a bad talk.” And that has taught me, brothers and sisters, that there really is a grading of things that we might talk about, teach, converse about and deal with in our lives, and some of them are so fundamental, so core to truth and to those things that would be spiritually beneficial for us that, if we can focus on those and sense what those are, we are always going to be so much more useful to the Lord than if we just operated in a more scattered way.
I’m nearing a conclusion. This is the last piece from another person, then I have one little piece of advice I’d like to give you in the end. But this is from Elder [Rex D.] Pinegar. I thought about this as I read your Cultural Values here at the College, which I really admire. I don’t know if any of you could stand up and recite all six of those. But Elder Rex Pinegar served for 32 years in the Seventy, and had the best mental health, had the best attitude, the most optimism. He was always upbeat and positive and forward thinking and constructive. When he was released, I had a chance to give him a release interview, so I asked him for the secret of all of this. I said, “Why have you done this in such a positive way, and appeared to have so much pure enjoyment out of what you’ve done?” Because it’s not an easy life, and he raised his entire family—he was called, I think, at 32 or 33 years of age and served then until he was in his late 60s. And he said, “I always assume that everyone I ever met was doing the best he or she knew how.”
Think about that. “I always assumed that everyone I ever met was doing the best that she or he knew how. And,” he said, “if they were going to improve, it would be if I helped them.” Talk about a great operating statement for life—not just for being a Seventy, but for life within a family. If every husband and wife, for instance, just assumed that whatever their conduct was, was the best they knew how, and that if they were going to do better, it would be if we helped each other, just think what that would do to the caliber of our marriages.
But I just commend that to you. I’ve tried very diligently since that interview some ten years ago to have that same approach as I’ve gone to stake conferences, as I’ve toured missions, as I’ve worked in the various Church departments. We’re all human, and we all have failings. My own blind sides, my own blind spots, are so difficult for me to see. I see them much more clearly in my wife, and she sees them much more clearly in me. Just to have this as an operating statement: Always assume that everyone you ever meet is doing the best she or he knows how, and if they’re going to do better, it will be if you help them.
Well, I don’t know if these little pieces of advice have meant much to you. If you weave them together, they’ve meant an awfully lot in my life. And it is the prerogative of old men to share these things. And by the way, in the rules of evidence, there is something called the Hearsay Rule, which means you cannot introduce into evidence second-hand testimony. The reason that you can’t is because it’s unreliable and the person who said it may not be there to be cross-examined. So typically, hearsay testimony is not admissible. But there are exceptions to the Hearsay Rule, and one of them is for something called a Dying Declaration. And that is that things that people say when they’re on the verge of dying can be introduced even though the people have now died, as an exception to the Hearsay Rule. Why? Because the presumption is that if you say something near death, you’re not likely to tell a lie. So you have this Dying Declaration exception to the Hearsay Rule.
So for that reason, I read the sermons in the Book of Mormon that were given by men about ready to die, with extra care. And I think we should always do that. There’s good reason why we don’t cut off the service of our Apostles at age 70, as some advocate. Because the older these men grow, and the greater their experience and inspiration, the greater their worth, really, to the Lord and His causes, and the more credence we can give to them.
So I would like, in closing today, to borrow a little advice from King Benjamin as my concluding advice to you. And I suppose, if I were asked if I have a favorite scripture, this would be my favorite scripture because of the tender way in which I became really aware of it. Many others maybe have thought of this before, but I hadn’t until I was at a stake conference in the Pacific Northwest one day, and the stake president, who was a young man anyway, had just lost his wife. We were there to release him, because he couldn’t serve as a single man, and he was left with four or five little children to raise. Meeting with him initially just to get to know him and sort of feel out his spirit, I asked him if there was something that had given him comfort and a foundation to be as stable as he appeared to be under what were very adverse circumstances. He read this scripture to me, which I read and share as my advice to you wonderful young college students.
This is from Mosiah 4:9-10. Benjamin is saying: “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
“And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if ye believe all of these things see that ye do them.”
That conversion, brothers and sisters, of what we know or believe into what we do is the challenge of a lifetime. And it doesn’t happen all at once. That’s why accumulating these little bits of wisdom over time has been so helpful to me. And I pray that transferring this to you today may in some way be helpful to you. All of these prophets have had no other object in mind except the eternal welfare of our souls. And that honestly is my intent this morning as well: to offer something that will be helpful for the eternal welfare of yours. I know we belong to the true Church. I know that God lives. I know that Jesus is His Only Begotten Son, the light and the life and the hope of our world. I know those Beings appeared to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, and that in that moment, this dispensation that we’re a part of—that you’re blessed to be a part of—the dispensation of the fulness of times. I know the authority of God is here on earth. I know we’re led again, anew, in a refreshed way by a new prophet of God. I pray that, in your young lives, in some small way what I’ve offered here this morning will be helpful in your quest for eternal life. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.