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President J. Lawrence Richards

The Parable of the Pencil

Thank you, Ben and Kyri [musical number]. Well, I hope you’ve learned something so far today from the music and from Ashley. I’m sad today. I’ll tell you why I’m sad—I’m sick, and this is the first time since we’ve been in this building that I haven’t been able to stand at the door and shake your hand. And so I feel a little void today, because you lift me up.

So I wonder if we can just—let’s do a group handshake, okay? I’ll put my right hand out; will you put your right hand out, please? And just…okay, thanks very much. I feel better. Thank you.

Now, like Brother Nelson, I love to hear you sing. And there’s a chorus in a song that talks about the future, “Now, Let Us Rejoice.” And the day that “Jesus will say to all Israel, Come home.” And then I heard Ashley talk about her picture in her house before she walks out the door. And it is the Atonement associate with that picture that helps you and I get to that point of “Now, let us rejoice in the day of salvation…[when] Jesus will say to all Israel, Come home.” (Hymns, number 3)

But we’ve got to get through life, every day. And so Ben and Kyri reminded us that there is a plea from the Savior to “Abide With Me.” To abide with me, and that “I need thy presence ev’ry passing hour.” (Hymns, number 166)  And so in a real way, brothers and sisters, we don’t have to wait for the benefit of Hymn number 3, “Now, Let Us Rejoice.” Because through the Atonement, we can feel the presence of the Savior in every, every passing hour.

Now one final thought that Craig said about the burden of this institution—and he meant well. There is no burden here, because this is the Savior’s institution, and you are His. The only burden that we as staff and faculty have is the burden of staying out of Heaven’s way and doing our very best that we may be His hands in the moment that He needs us for you. So whatever burden we may feel as faculty and staff and administration, it is very much like what is said in the Book of Mormon, that the burden is “made light.”[1]

President Monson has told us that, for he who is called, they are prepared—their backs are prepared for it. I butchered his quote, but I hope you understand.[2]

Today, for a few minutes, I thought I would share with you five principles. It’s summer, and so we are a little more relaxed in the summer. I’ve got five principles for you that I’ve been pondering, and I want to do it by quoting the Brethren and some of my favorite poets, and then I want to give you a parable. It’s called “The Parable of the Pencil.” So I invite you to listen, because there is a message much deeper than the way I’m going to deliver it. Okay? Now, I have a runny nose, and you made my cry, so it’s running even more. And I’m on such meds, quite frankly, you are all moving in a little constant wave that you are going through out there. I’m glad I don’t live far away—I don’t have to drive far to get home, or I could be a danger.

Here’s principle number one: The nature of your education invites you to become your very best self. Here’s President Lorenzo Snow, president of the Church: “The whole idea of Mormonism is improvement,” he said. “Mentally, physically, morally, and spiritually. No half-way education suffices for the Latter-day Saint.”[3]

Now, Elder Dallin H. Oaks: “In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”[4] And I would append to that, “your very best self.”

Listen to President Monson: “In the search for our best selves, several questions will guide our thinking.”  Here is the first one: “Am I what I want to be? Am I closer to the Savior today than I was yesterday? Will I be closer yet tomorrow? Do I have the courage to change for the better?”[5]

Principle number two—are you ready?  Your potential is unlimited. I shared this quote from President [Russell M.] Nelson with the brand-new students last week, so I’m going to share it with everybody again. And those of you who heard it the first time, this time I invite you to feel it. To feel it. Here’s President Russell M. Nelson: “The Lord has more in mind for you than you have in mind for yourself! You have been reserved and preserved for this time and place. You can do hard things. At the same time, as you love Him and keep His commandments, great rewards—even unimaginable achievements—may be yours. ....

“You faithful students…can accomplish the impossible. You can help shape the destiny of the entire human family! You will be scattered like seeds in the wind to build up the Church in all parts of the world. As you know and apply the teachings of the Lord in your lives and in your work, you can change the world. You will become a precious part of His perennial pattern: the Lord uses the unlikely to accomplish the impossible!”[6]

Now, you should take confidence in that, brothers and sisters, and quit listening to voices that tell you that you can’t. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

Now, President Linda K. Burton, president of the Relief Society: “You have been sent to earth in this dispensation of time because of who you are and what you have been prepared to do.”[7]

Now, Dallin H. Oaks: “When we have a vision of what we can become, our desire and our power to act increase enormously.”[8]

Here’s a little poem from one of my favorite poets, Edgar Albert Guest.  You’ve probably all heard it, but it goes to this issue of your potential being unlimited and you thinking that you can or that you can’t accomplish something. Here we go:


Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

      But he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one

      Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

      On his face. If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

      That couldn’t be done, and he did it!


Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;

      At least no one ever has done it;”

But he took off his coat and he took off his hat

      And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.

With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,

      Without any doubting or quiddit,

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

      That couldn’t be done, and he did it.


There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,

      There are thousands to prophesy failure,

There are thousands to point out to you one by one,

      The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,

      Just take off your coat and go to it;

Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing

      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

(“It Couldn’t Be Done,” Edgar Albert Guest, Poetry, )

Now, President Monson again: “First: learn what [you] should learn! Second: do what [you] should do! Third: Be what [you] should be!”[9] Now what is this “be” thing that you should be? Here’s my poet again, Brother Guest. It’s called “My Creed,” and it gives me a little insight about what I should be; maybe it will have some relevance for you, too:

My Creed

To live as gently as I can;
To be, no matter where, a man;
To take what comes of good or ill
And cling to faith and honor still;
To do my best, and let that stand
The record of my brain and hand;
And then, should failure come to me,
Still work and hope for victory.

To have no secret place wherein
I stoop unseen to shame or sin;
To be the same when I'm alone
As when my every deed is known;
To live undaunted, unafraid
Of any step that I have made;
To be without pretense or sham
Exactly what men think I am.

To leave some simple mark behind
To keep my having lived in mind;
If enmity to aught I show,
To be an honest, generous foe,
To play my little part, nor whine
That greater honors are not mine.
This, I believe, is all I need
For my philosophy and creed.[10]

Now, principle number three: What you desire the most, you will get. So aim high. Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “What we insistently desire, over time, is what we will eventually become and what we will receive in eternity.”[11]

Now here’s—I’m sure that C.S. Lewis, on the other side of the veil, is a bishop somewhere. I’m just convinced of it. So here’s C.S. Lewis. This is a fun one. You have to listen closely; it’s short. But I’ll pause at the end so you can ponder this one. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” [12]

Do you get it? What we desire most, we get.

Here’s a little poem from Alfred Grant Walton, and I share this with you because sometimes in our pursuit of our education here we become so focused upon jobs that we inadvertently convert jobs and wealth and money to things that matter most. That is not true. That connection should not be drawn. We know from the scriptures clearly that if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all things will be added unto [us].” So here is Brother Walton:

Wealth is not the things we own–

A stately house upon a hill,

Paintings, rugs and tapestries, 

Or servants taught to do one’s will.

In luxury, a man may dwell,

As lonely as in a prison cell.


Wealth is not a plenteous purse,

The bonds that one has stored away,

A boastful balance in a bank,

Or jewelled baubles that fools display.

The things that really gratify

Are things that money cannot buy.


Wealth is health, and a cheerful heart,

An ear that hears the robin’s song,

A mind content, some treasured friends,

And fragrant memories lingering on.

Living is an inward art–

All lasting wealth is in the heart![13]

Principle number four: Don’t let yourself become discouraged and give up. Listen to President Uchtdorf: “My dear brothers and sisters, there will be days and nights when you feel overwhelmed, when your hearts are heavy and your heads hang down. Then, please remember, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the Head of this Church. It is His gospel. He wants you to succeed. He gave His life for just this purpose. He is the Son of the living God.”[14] And He will help you.

Here’s a little poem by Walter D. Wintle:

If you think you are beaten, you are;

If you think you dare not, you won’t;

If you like to win, but don’t think you can,

It’s almost a cinch you won’t.


If you think you’ll lose,

you’re lost;

For out in the world you’ll find

Success begins with a fellow’s will

It’s all in a state of mind.


For many a game is lost

Ere even a play is run,

And many a coward fails

Ere even his work is begun.


Think big and your deeds will grow,

Think small and you’ll fall behind;

Think that you can and you will;

It’s all in a state of mind.


If you think you are out classed, you are;

You’ve got to think high to rise;

You’ve got to be sure of yourself before

You can ever win a prize.


Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man,

But sooner or later, the [one] who wins

Is the [one] who thinks he can.[15]


Now, brothers and sisters, you couple that principle with the second one I gave you about your potential. And as I said to the entering students, I will say to all of you again, if you are in doubt and haven’t been to the temple to do initiatory work lately, I invite you to go and do initiatory work. And when that good brother or sister who has done 47,000 initiatories already that day, you tell them to slow down, because you want to hear the words and the promises. And when you do, and you do it with an open heart, not doubting yourself, trust me—in that sacred place the heavens will open, you will understand your potential more, and you will—in spite of the days of discouragement, when heads hang down and knees are feeble—you will not give up, because you are His.

And as the old statement back in the day—you weren’t even born yet—there was a little cartoon with a young little boy who is represented many different ways; sometimes he was scraggly and dirty and unkempt, and he just looks right in the picture and he says, “God don’t make no junk.”

Do not let yourself become discouraged or give up. And if you feel that way sometimes and you can’t get past it, you come see me. I’ve got a great big box of Kleenex, and we will talk and we will lift each other up.

Okay, remember the Apostle Paul to the Philippians, Philippians 4:13? “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Paul to the Philippians.

So how do we do that? Well, we go back to Ashley, and you know it. You know the verse well. It’s in the third chapter of Mosiah, verse 19: “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit”—insert principle number one, your education invites you to be your very best self. Now, back to the scripture: “and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the [Father] seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”  

Principle number five: You have entered into the kingdom of God on the earth by your baptism, and you have chosen to walk the strait and narrow path.  Stay on it.

Now, one of my other favorite poems, from Samuel Walter Foss, about this choice between a “strait and narrow” and a “calf” path:

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;

But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do. …

The trail was taken up next day,
By a lone dog that passed that way.

And then a wise bell-wether sheep,
Pursued the trail o'er vale and steep;

And drew the flock behind him too,
As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o'er hill and glade.
Through those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about;

And uttered words of righteous wrath,
Because 'twas such a crooked path. …

This forest path became a lane,
that bent, and turned, and turned again.

This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load,

Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.

And thus a century and a half,
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;

And this, before men were aware,
A city's crowded thoroughfare; …

Each day a hundred thousand rout,
Followed the zigzag calf about;

And o'er his crooked journey went,
The traffic of a continent.

A Hundred thousand men were led,
By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;

For thus such reverence is lent,
To well established precedent. …

For men are prone to go it blind,
Along the calf-paths of the mind;

And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.

They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.

But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf! …[16]

Brothers and sisters, you have been called to a strait and narrow path, leading to the Tree of Life. You have friends and family members and a world—the great and spacious building—that you may be tempted to Google every once in a while to see what they are thinking. You have been invited and have entered the kingdom of God through baptism. You are on a strait and narrow path. Stay on it.

Okay, how are we doing? Are you okay? I want to leave you with a parable. We’ve got some slides with this parable, and it is called “The Parable of the Pencil,” and here’s how it goes. I’m going to read it to you.


The Parable of the Pencil

One day the pencil maker was talking to his pencils before putting them into the box.

He said to each one of them, "There are five things you need to know before I send you out into the world. Always remember them and never forget them, and you will become the best pencil you can be."

"Number one: You will be able to do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in Someone's hand."

"Number two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, but you'll need it to become a better pencil."

"Number three: You will be able to correct any mistakes you might make."

"Number four: The most important part of you will always be what's inside."

"Number five: On every surface you are used on, you must leave your mark. No matter what the condition, you must continue to write."

The pencils understood and promised to remember, and went into the box with purpose in their hearts.


Now replacing the pencil with you, let’s see how these five points apply. Always remember them and never forget them, and you will become the best person you can be.

Number one: You will be able to do many great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in the hand of God, and allow other human beings to access you for the many gifts you possess.

Number two: You will experience a painful sharpening from time to time, by going through various problems in life, but you'll need it to become a stronger and better person.

Number three: Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and your hard work, you will be able to correct any mistakes you might make.

Number four: The most important part of you will always be what's inside this tabernacle of clay.

And number five: On every surface you walk; through every encounter you have with family, and friends, and the rest of humanity, you must leave your mark. No matter what the situation, you must continue to do your duties and to write your story.

You are like a pencil. God created you for a purpose.  The blessing of membership in the Church is that you have a good idea of what that purpose is.  Every day, every moment, and through every decision, you have the opportunity to live that purpose as it unfolds to you.  And in so doing you are writing the story of your life. 

You are in charge of what that story will be even if outside influences throw you a curve and you break your “lead” on something.  “For all these things,” the Savior said, “shall give thee experience and be for thy good.”

Now, brothers and sisters, I leave you my testimony. This is a wonderful period in your life. The Lord has so much in store for you, you cannot imagine it. And He is willing to bless you with those things to the degree that you are willing to say, “Thy will be done,” even when it may not make sense.

I’ve read you promises of apostles and prophets that you can do that which is unimaginable, and accomplish hard things. The Lord is on your side. He’s on your team. Let Him be your coach, that the day may come when together you and I, together, will stand in front of the Savior when He says to all Israel, “Come home.”

And in the meantime, if you do not have a picture of the Savior by your door, have one in your mind, that every day when you walk out of your apartment, you think about Him and His Atonement, and the prayer in the great song that was sung by Ben and Kyri, that “I need thy presence ev’ry waking hour.” He will be there in His way, with His quiet voice, to instruct and to lift and to enlighten, I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] See Mosiah 24:15)

[2] See “Duty Calls,” President Thomas S. Monson, May 1996 Ensign, President Monson said: “Remember that this work is not yours and mine alone. It is the Lord’s work, and when we are on the Lord’s errand, we are entitled to the Lord’s help. Remember that whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.”

[3] Teachings of President of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, chapter 1: Learning by Faith, (2011).

[4] “The Challenge to Become,” October 2000 General Conference, .

[5] “Becoming Our Best Selves,” October 1999 General Conference, . Italics in the original.

[6] BYU—Idaho Devotional, January 26, 2015, .

[7] “Wanted: Hands and Hearts to Hasten the Work,” April 2014 General Conference, .

[8] “Desire,” April 2011 General Conference, .

[9] “To Learn, To Do, To Be,” April 1992 General Conference, .

[10] .

[11] “According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts,” October 1996 General Conference, .

[12] The Great Divorce, 2002, HarperCollins.

[13] “Wealth,” .

[14] “Have We Not Reason to Rejoice?” October 2007 General Conference, .

[15] “Thinking,” The Little Things and Such: Motivational Poems You Know and Love Now with Reflection Questions by Roger Edwardo, quoted on Wikipedia, .

[16] “The Calf-Path,”, .


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