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President J. Lawrence Richards

The Covenant of the Fertile Field

Charlotte, thank you. That was beautiful. What a talent. [A student had just played “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” as a piano solo.] I hope you all had a chance to think about that event. I did. You know, our Church rises and falls on that event. It either happened or it didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen, we’re just having a good time. We could probably have a better time, but we’re just having a really good time. But brothers and sisters, it did happen. Joseph Smith did kneel. He did go, querying two things to his Father in Heaven: first was his standing before the Lord, and the second had to do with the great question that we all know about, which church he should join. And so it happened, and thank you Charlotte for letting us reflect and ponder on that event.

I had a grandfather who was an apostle. He wrote a work called A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and I was reading part of his journal not too long ago, and he described an experience when at the age of 24 he went with his bride and a couple of his children  to preside over the mission in Holland.  And one day he had a missionary come in and say to him, “President Richards, I’ve got a problem. We were just meeting with a minister of another religion and he invited me to join his church.”

And Grandpa, in his very unique way, said to him, “Well, if he has something better than you have, you should join his church.”

That kind of took the missionary back for a moment. Then Grandpa went on to explain, and he said, “If you can find another church wherein the Gospel of Jesus Christ  was restored to the Earth by John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John, Elijah, Elias, and other prophets, you should join that church. If you can find another church that produced a set of scriptures that was another testament of Jesus Christ that was produced in the way the Book of Mormon was produced, you should join that church. If you can find a church that has prophets and apostles in the same organization that Christ had when He was upon the Earth, you should join that church.”

The missionary soon understood the lesson, and I share it with you, brothers and sisters, that you cannot find upon the face of the Earth anything that so closely resembles what the Savior Himself did when He was here—with all the power and with all the authority and with all the priesthood keys, as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And so I hope every one of you are proud to be a Mormon boy or a Mormon girl in this great church.

We had Elder Ballard here a couple of months ago, speaking to the donors who provide the scholarships you receive. The donors were here; we thanked them in your behalf. We have appreciated the letters most of you write to thank them.

While [Elder Ballard] was here, he said a couple of interesting things. The first relates to what President Strazo said.  It was to teach these young people that they are in fact children of our Father in Heaven. Now, here’s the challenge: How many of you spent years in Primary? How many of you know “I Am a Child of God” by heart? How many of you are old enough to remember when the words were different?  So you have sung that song since you were very little. The question is, do you believe it? Do you believe it? Do you believe it in the depths of your soul so you wake up every morning with faith and confidence in who you are, and in your boundless capacity to be what Father in Heaven would want you to be? Do you believe it enough to be loyal to the Honor Code that you signed when you enrolled? Do you believe it enough that every day you will give your best? Do you believe it enough that every night when you pray, that you kneel before your Father in Heaven and ponder in your heart how you have seen His hand in your life today? Do you believe it enough to serve a mission? Do you believe it enough to take a calling by your bishop when it is not convenient?

I hope you believe you are in fact a child of God, precious to Him, and therefore you are precious to us. As I look into your faces, I see truth; I see wisdom beyond your years. I see in your faces a desire for good things. I see in your faces a willingness to be obedient. I see in your faces a willingness to learn in the Lord’s way. And may Heaven bless you for what we see in your faces.

Okay, that’s not my talk. How is it so far? Is it okay?

A few people have pointed out that we’re here on a momentous occasion, and you didn’t know it when it happened to you. This is the first month, the eleventh day of the month, and at 11:11, you are in here in the year 2011. So I hope that on the top of your notes, you just wrote 1-11-11, 11:11. And you can tell your grandchildren you were here.

Brothers and sisters, I want to talk to you today about a covenant. I want to talk to you about the Covenant of the Fertile Field. But to do that, we have to go back and lay a little groundwork that comes from the 16th chapter of First Nephi. Now of all the recorded events in the Book of Mormon, perhaps the one that you and I are most familiar with is Father Lehi and the family’s journey into the wilderness. We’re most familiar with that for one of two reasons, or maybe both. Number one, in our yearly resolve to read the Book of Mormon, we at least get up to the Isaiah chapters before our stuttering begins in our reading, and the 16th chapter comes before those stuttering chapters. Maybe this is the most familiar to you because it is a great story in this record. It would make a great movie script; why, it has everything in it. It’s got wilderness, it’s got stolen riches, it has attempted murder, it has family arguments, it has a broken bow, it has a parent’s anguish. It has a ball of “curious workmanship.”

Now that’s a great record, and that’s a great story. That record’s even more appealing because it’s true, and it was recorded by an eyewitness to those events. And it was recorded by Nephi years after those events took place, so that he had the benefit of wisdom that comes from the passage of time as he looked back upon this event and memorialized it in writing under the guidance of inspiration and revelation. So from the key events in that history, we have the chronology of two great families, two great peoples or nations whose destiny was chronicled for just over a thousand years.

Now I invite you today to ponder with me and apply some of the key elements in that 16th chapter of First Nephi. Now imagine with me, you’re with the family. You left all the material possessions in Jerusalem—which we don’t know the details of, but we know that it was probably a pretty comfortable life. And you left it all, and you’re now sleeping in the wilderness in tents. This is not a Scout overnight hike. This is not even a Young Men/Young Women stake pioneer trek. This is serious camping in the wilderness. Often with no fire and eating raw meat.

Father Lehi wakes up one morning and just outside his tent “to his great astonishment,” the record says, he sees on the ground a “ball of curious workmanship.” It was made of fine brass, and it contained two spindles, one of which pointed the way that they should go in the wilderness. So Lehi gathers his family, and what provisions they had. They cross over the river Laman, and for many days they follow the direction on that ball as they go even deeper into that wilderness. The record tells us the family learned from their own experience that the Liahona worked on three principles, which are the elements to the key of the Covenant of the Fertile Field—their faith, their diligence, and their heed.

Now if the family got contentious or they were rude or slothful or forgetful, the ball didn’t work. It was that simple. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice if every time you thought a bad thought, you kind of got poked in the side with a sharp stick? Why, you’d be jumping up and down in the meeting. It was kind of that way for the family. When they were forgetful or slothful, discourteous and contentious, it didn’t work.

Elder Bednar summarized it this way. He said, “Thus, the primary purposes of the Liahona were to provide both direction and instruction during a long and demanding journey. The director was a physical instrument that served as an outward indicator of their inner spiritual standing before God.  It worked,” he said, on “the principles of faith and diligence.” (“That We May Always Have His Spirit to Be with Us,” Ensign, May 2006, 28-31)

Now let’s pause here in the story. Let me ask a question. What do you have in your life that is the equivalent of a Liahona? Let’s let you ponder that. What do you have in your life that can point the way through your wilderness, that provides periodic messages that are timely and tailored just for you, and that work upon the principles of faith, diligence, and giving heed?

I can think of three. The first is scripture. When we are willing and prepared to change, giving heed, the scriptures speak the loudest to us. You know that. When we want to speak to God we pray; when we want Him to speak to us, what do we do? Read the scriptures.

Here’s the second one: prophets. When we exercise faith to follow the prophet’s counsel without the necessity of hearing “Thus saith the Lord,” we can more clearly sort out wrong from right, good from evil, good-better-best, those who would lift us up and those who would set a snare for our feet. It’s that simple.

The third Liahona that I can think of is our individual patriarchal blessing. When you diligently follow the counsel and give heed to that blessing, here’s what President Monson promised you: “Your patriarchal blessing will see you through the darkest night. It will guide you through life’s danger …. [ And ] your blessing is … a personal Liahona to chart your course and guide your way…. Patience may be required as you watch, wait, and work for a promised blessing to be fulfilled.” Continuing, he said, that in 1958, the First Presidency wrote a letter to stake presidents. It read in part, ‘Patriarchal blessings contemplate an inspired declaration of lineage of the recipient  and, when so moved upon by the Spirit, an inspired and prophetic statement of [life’s] mission for the recipient, together with such blessings [and] cautions and admonitions as the patriarch may be prompted to give for the accomplishment of such life’s mission…. It [has always been] made clear that the realization of all promised blessings is conditioned upon our faithfulness to the gospel of the Lord, whose servant the patriarch is.’” “Your Patriarchal Blessing: A Liahona of Light,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 65; Letter quoted is First Presidency Letter to stake presidents, 28 June 1958)

Here’s your first writing assignment in your semester notebook: I invite you to write down which one of those three personal Liahonas—scriptures, prophets, or patriarchal blessing—you need to dust off, polish up, to pay a little more attention to, or to follow more closely. Now you’re going to be tempted to put down all three. Don’t do it. The task is too big. You will only get discouraged. This is not about being discouraged. This is about one of those that, for you, would make a difference this semester. So I invite you to think big but act small, and pick either the scriptures, following the prophet, or your patriarchal blessing. And you write down which one for you, you’re going to dust off, and exercise more faith, diligence, and give more heed to.

Okay are you ready? Now, some of you may be skeptical that the scriptures, the prophets, your patriarchal blessing can really have that kind of impact. For you, I would encourage you to read it in the Old Testament or three times in the Book of Mormon about the brazen serpent raised up on the stick to protect the Israelites against fiery flying snakes. And all they had to do was look, right, and if they were bitten they’d be okay. But some of them said, in their little hearts, “No, it’s got to be more complicated than that.” Or they said in their little hearts, “No, it’s my body. I’ll do with it what I want.” And for them, they were bitten. And what was the consequence? They died. I just love the clarity of that story, don’t you? There’s not a bunch of what-if’s or “ya buts” in that story, are there?

Now to you who may be skeptical about the power of the scriptures and prophets and patriarchs, I invite you to listen to Nephi’s words. He said this: “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” (v. 29)

And if you don’t like Nephi, I’ll give you the Savior’s words: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great. Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind.” (D&C 64:33-34)

So I invite you to lay your skepticism aside and exercise faith, diligence, and give heed. For any of those personal Liahonas to work in your life, you’ve got to believe, you’ve got to have faith. You’ve got to be willing to just go do it.

Now, let’s rejoin the record, and let’s highlight one of the things that’s often overlooked in that 16th chapter. It’s mentioned in the 14th verse, and then again, so that Nephi wanted to make sure we didn’t pass it over, he mentions it again in the 16th verse of that chapter. And it states this, that when following the Liahona, it kept them in “the most fertile parts of the wilderness.”   I want to talk about the fertile parts of the wilderness.

Imagine with me that scene. We don’t know exactly, the course this caravan traveled.  But I just invite you to consider the region of the world, and in your mind, what that wilderness might have looked like. We know food was scarce. We know they brought some provisions but not enough. We know the wilderness was a dangerous place, because they didn’t light fires. So you can conjure up in your mind what you think that wilderness looked like—either a Sahara desert, or what this valley looked like when the pioneers first got here. It would be wrong to consider it a lush garden, don’t you think?

And yet, this Liahona, this little ball of curious workmanship with a spindle, kept them in the most fertile parts of that wilderness, as long as they had faith, diligence, and gave heed. Now what is the application? For every one of us in this room, we’re going to be asked to pass through some wildernesses. Some of them we want, some of them we don’t invite. Most likely, all of them we need, if we didn’t invite them ourselves. There will be places where our journey has scarcity , and danger. There will be times we feel somewhat lost and uncertain, or are not confident about who we are or where we are going, or even what our bearings are. Father Lehi saw such a place at the beginning of his dream. You remember it. He described it just as a “dark and dreary” wilderness. (1 Nephi 8:7)

So what purposes does a wilderness have for you? Well, it can turn you to greater dependency upon God. That’s a good thing. It can bring us to a realization that we really do need a plan, and we need some priorities. It can build character, and it can temper and forge and eventually exalt us. So no matter what the desolation is in today’s personal wilderness, there is a safe way you can travel through it, keeping in the most fertile parts. It is the same way Lehi and his family did it. It is the Covenant of the Fertile Field. It is a covenant to have faith, diligence, and to give heed to the personal Liahonas in your life—scriptures, prophets, patriarchs.

Let’s examine each one for a minute. Faith: Speaking to his son Helaman, Alma stated that the Liahona worked according to their faith. “Therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way that they should go, behold, it was done.” (Alma 37:40) I ask you to ponder these questions in your heart: Do you have faith the scriptures can talk to you in a very personal way? Do you have faith that prophets give counsel to the world and to the Church in general? Do you have the faith that your patriarchal blessing is a piece of revelation that continually opens itself to you wider, in the application of your life. The older I get, the more I am convinced that with faith there is another element, and that is patience. I’m coming to understand in my life how intertwined those two principles are, and as a result, I’m coming to understand more and more Moroni’s observation when he said we “receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith.” (Ether 12:6)

When I allow patience to be an element of my faith, then I understand Alma’s discourse of the seed better, and his admonition to exercise faith, diligence, and patience. For someone in this room right now, if it relates to patience, will you please hang on? Just hang on.

President Benson made it very clear that at times we have to hang on and wait for the “pressing influence of Satan,” he said, to leave us. And he will go. But as your friend, will you please hang on? The Lord promised Joseph that “thine adversity and thine affliction shall be but a small moment.”

Okay, number two. Faith is number one, coupled with patience. Number two: diligence. Faith is a principle of action, and therefore it powers our diligence. I’m going to say it again: Faith is a principle of action, and therefore it powers our diligence. When we are diligent in keeping the commandments, we put ourselves in a position to hear the tailored messages from scriptures, prophets, and patriarchs.

When Lehi’s family was “slothful, and forgot to exercise faith and diligence … those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey.  Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and they were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions.” (Alma 37:41-42)

So it was for Lehi, and so it is for us. Our diligence, coupled with our faith and our patience, will keep us in the most fertile parts of our individual wildernesses. And sometimes we are asked to do hard things, and we don’t understand the true purposes of them..

There is a parable told of a man who was given a job by God, and it was to push against a giant rock. And the man pushed and he pushed and he pushed, and the rock would not move. And so he became discouraged and he became frustrated. He became so frustrated that he quit pushing against the rock, and he prayed. And he pled with God, and said, “Why is it that I cannot move this gigantic rock that I have been asked to push against?”

And the parable continues, God came to him. The man asked God directly, “Why can’t I move this rock?”

And God answered, “It was not your job to move the rock; it was just to push against it.” Sometimes  what we think we are to gain from our efforts as we sojourn  in our wilderness may not be what God wants and intends us to gain. The man in the parable thought the objective was to move the rock. But God’s objective may have been different—lessons in persistence, lessons in patience, the development of great strength.

All right, number three: heeding. That’s our third element of the covenant. Our faith and our diligence and our patience are incomplete without that last component of the Covenant of the Fertile Field. We must heed the instructions we get from scriptures, prophets, and our blessings. It takes courage to move forward in positive ways, to put away those things that stand in the way of our success, to march through our wildernesses with courage, rather than waiting to be rescued or acted upon.

In an address Elder Bednar gave at Brigham Young University, he talked of being quick to observe. (“Quick to Observe,” May 10, 2005) Being quick to observe is at the heart of giving heed. Let me ask a question: When you were first introduced to the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth, how quick were you to observe and to give heed? Do you still observe it, or for some unfathomable reason, do you think you are beyond it, because you are not in Young Men's or Young Women's anymore? When you signed the Honor Code, including the dress and grooming standards at the College, how quick were you to observe and give heed? Did you immediately cut your hair and shave? Or did you wait until the last minute to do so?

The degree, brothers and sisters, with which you are quick to observe and give heed is a key to unlocking the strength of the Covenant of the Fertile Field. And in that same connection, may I just suggest this: that we lose blessings in our lives that God is willing to grant when we do not give heed. Blessings are lost, because temporal wisdom is applied to what was really a spiritual decision. And I will testify to you that that applies to the Honor Code and the dress and grooming standards.

And so in conclusion, there you have it. The Covenant of the Fertile Field is that we exercise faith, including patience, that we are diligent, and that we give heed to scriptures, prophets, and patriarchs. And in return, the Lord promises us that He will keep us in the most fertile parts of the wildernesses that we must travel before we reach our next temporary place of rest – our own land Bountiful. It is this Covenant of the Fertile Field that will make your semester what it is supposed to be. It is this covenant that will quicken your understanding and allow you to see and behold what Heaven has in store for you in this season of your life. And if you need to change, and bind the Lord to this covenant, then accept His terms and change. You have the power to do so.

Elder Richard G. Scott counseled this: “We become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day.” I’ll read it again: “We become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day.” (“The Transforming Power of Faith and Character,” Ensign, Nov. 2010) And so, my beloved young friends, you are much stronger than you think. You have the power to be what you want to be, one day at a time as you travel the course of your life.

Your willingness to change will invite the Holy Ghost to show you what you need to do. He will help you avoid wells without water. So I invite you not to be casual about your opportunities here in this temple of learning. It’s our individual and collective casualness in our lives that lures us away from the Covenant of the Fertile Field and leads us to the slothfulness spoken of by Alma. The measure of your peace during your sojourn in the wilderness is tied to your living the gospel. It’s as simple as that, my friends.

There is power in living true principles. So let me give you a practical test you can apply to yourselves. If you are engaged in or contemplating an activity that you think might be questionable, first of all, it probably is. But if you still struggle with knowing, I invite you to ask yourself these three questions about the action or activity: 1) What does it do for me? 2) What does it do to me? And 3) How will I feel about myself?

If you honestly answer those questions and ponder their implications, you will know what to do and where to go.

Now I leave you my testimony. I pray the Lord will bless you in all your righteous efforts to pass through the wildernesses you are in or about to be in, that you may do so with faith, patience, and giving heed to scriptures, prophets, and patriarchs. I pray that you will understand the heaven-decreed reason to push against your particular giant rock. I pray that you will have faith in yourselves, in your boundless capacities to learn what you need to learn, and that you might do what you need to do, that you will become what Father in Heaven wants you to become.

Speaking for the staff and the faculty and the administration, we pray Father in Heaven’s greatest blessings to be upon you. We encourage you to be prepared to receive those blessings. The gospel is true. Jesus is the Christ. His Spirit is here if you seek it. I pray that you may feel it. I pray that you may feel it today in a special way, that you will have courage about your wilderness, and then you just hang on. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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