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Richard McKowan

Gospel Changes Hearts, Brings People Together

Brothers and sisters, it’s a privilege to be with you. I appreciate the music, the information that you’ve been given, and every part of this program so far. So I just appreciate the chance to be here.

      I think I’m on safe ground when I say that we live in turbulent times. I think I’m safe because a prophet actually wrote that we were in a letter to the Saints asking us to pray for this nation and for the world and for peace, and the things that it deserves and things that it requires. We sense that, I think, collectively, but we also sense it individually. We are all captivated by events around us that create tumult and some disruption. One of the things that in my ecclesiastical calling I had the privilege and opportunity of doing recently was calling a new branch presidency for a long-term nursing care that resides within the Salt Lake Central Branch. And I called in the old presidency and their spouses and had them sit around a table, and asked what lessons they had learned in the experience of nearly three years of presiding over this facility.

      Sister Tolman mentioned this, and it has become an aspiration. She said, “I’ve learned that those who embrace the gospel grow old happy.” And I’ve decided that that is entirely my aspiration. I just want to grow old happy, and I think I have a road map that permits that to occur.

      Now each of us in this world has the privilege of defining things in the way that we want to, and organizing the evidence around us in a way that we want to. Evidence doesn’t come constructed in patterns. In my legal background I spent 18 years in the law, I can just tell you that sorting through and figuring out facts as a consequence of evidence is hard work, and the same thing applies to us as we try to determine whether we are doubting or whether we are faithful. And the evidence can be organized in various ways, and today I’d like to spend a few minutes kind of talking through this issue with you in terms of the things in my life that have helped me to find faith and to find for myself the organization of that evidence in a way that would support faith.

      So let me start with this principle or lesson, and that’s this: That the commandments have been given to us, and if followed, they will permit us to live relatively happy, trouble-free lives. They are here, I think, to guide us, to give us a blueprint that will keep us out of trouble. And if you begin to think of the Ten Commandments as those that tell us how and what to worship, and those that admonish us to avoid conduct that will get us in trouble, and then you add to that the Word of Wisdom and you begin to get a principal set of things that will keep us out of trouble and as a stake president of an inner-city stake where we bounce right up into Main Street, and have a lot of low-income, Section 8 subsidized housing, with people whose lives have been made miserable by really remarkably bad decisions that they made between the ages of 13 and 23. It is painful to watch them try to dig their lives out of these decisions as they become addicted to various things and to different kinds of conduct. And so, let’s accept that as a given. But let’s also accept this: that there are certain things that our Father in Heaven is prepared to give to us. He is prepared to grant to us, but they are conditioned upon us asking for them.

      I will just mention to you that everybody in this room has had some moment in their life when their life felt like it was in a downward spiral. They have felt wounded by virtue of the things that went on around them, where you would, and we have all sensed an unfairness. We have felt this compounding of pressure on ourselves because of the feelings that others have brought upon us. Because you mentioned the mayor’s race, President, I’ll just mention that nobody calls me mayor, and that means at the end of the day that I lost that race in 1995 to an incumbent. It was an interesting race, and this is, there’s no reason I should remember this, but I lost by 524 votes, and somehow those numbers just catalyze in your mind and stay there.

      But I would just tell you that after that I felt a bit wounded. I had put my life on the line for this opportunity, and was denied the privilege by a small margin, and by things that I thought were unfair. As I began to wrestle with that, I began to recognize in myself things about three months out that really began to disturb me. I had become cynical. Now in the words of the scriptures, that meant that I’d become hardhearted and stiff-necked. And let me tell you how that manifests itself: It manifests itself in being judgmental, and in being kind of cynical and unrealistic in our expectations of things. And I had begun to go down a road that disturbed me in remarkable ways. And about three or four or five months down the road of this compounding and this feeling that somehow things should be better for me, I recognized that they were not going to be better for me unless I began to change the way I was conducting my life. And I went through a renaissance, a revitalization, a spiritual awakening, personally, that was remarkable and made worth the entirety of losing an election, which was small in the sum of things.

      And let me tell you what I did. I realized that I needed to have a blueprint. There needed to be something in my life that would alter it, and that something was those verses in Moroni 7, between 37 and 48, where there are descriptions of faith, hope and charity, and particularly those verses in verse 48 where it says, “Wherefore, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart that you may be filled with this love,” (Moroni 7:48) which is the pure love of Christ, which is charity. And I read that scripture every morning multiple times. I read it every night multiple times. And I prayed that my heart would be filled with the pure love of Christ, and over the period of time I believe that this concept that had begun to envelop me began to erode. And I began to feel a happiness with what went on. And I began to change my attitude and the cynicism left, and the argumentativeness left, and it left me realizing that this was a blessing I was entitled to but one that I had to ask for.

      And there are others in that same category. The idea of gifts is so important that it appears in the New Testament, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Book of Mormon. And in the Doctrine & Covenants it’s clear that we are asked to seek those gifts which we need (See D&C 46: 13-26). We believe that our weaknesses can be converted to strengths, and the way that that occurs in my opinion is when one begins to pray for those gifts that they need to overcome weaknesses. We are entitled to have this charity, we are entitled to have wisdom, we are entitled to be insulated from sin as the Savior referenced in the Sermon on the Mount. But they are conditioned upon our praying for them. And so I would say that the first lesson I would say in terms of my trip to faith was that.

      Now let me just mention to you that judging is one of the things that I believe I began to learn lessons about. You can become and I can become very judgmental, and I strive to be nonjudgmental but carve out a caveat and an exception for things related to politics. I don’t think that’s right, but nonetheless I have carved that out. So, let me tell you something that happened. First of all, it’s clear that the Savior has said that we should “judge not that we be not judged,” (See Luke 6:37), and that “for what judgment ye judge, will be given back to you,” (3 Nephi 14:2). Now that’s a powerful concept, and it ought to moderate our thinking and our behavior and big ways. Now let me just tell you a couple of things about that, when I learned that lesson.

      My children grew up loving to play soccer. And I became a preeminent soccer coach for 18 or 20 years. I don’t mean preeminent in any ways other than those preeminent in my family. But we, with five children, I coached them all. There’s a marvelous thing, by the way, that happens when you’re driving kids around in a car, and I’ll give you two things you should do: Never let soccer players take their shoes off in your car. The second is that they don’t believe you’re there, and when they talk you can hear things that are going on with your children that are remarkable, and I just would encourage you to be the taxi cab service whenever your children need a ride.

      But this happened to me, and I, it was…we played a game, 12-year-olds, down at Rowland Hall Field, and after the game that we had won 3-1, I noticed something quite disturbing, and that was this entire team running laps. I counted them—10 times around the field. I was so miffed, so perturbed, so upset that I was ready to engage in mortal combat with the coach. So it was fortunate that I walked out of the gate with the coach and was about ready to say something to him when he said, “It’s really hard when you have a parent like that.”

      And I said, “What do you mean?”

      He said, “Well, listen to him.” This parent was berating a child for his inadequate performance on the field, and the coach said, “Every time we lose, that father makes that son run 10 laps, and my team’s such a good team they decided to run with him, and because I just think I ought to, I just run along with them as well.”

      My capacity to judge on inadequate facts was remarkable. I was absolutely wrong. I had judged a hero to be a goat, and this is what happens when we are inadequately prepared to judge. Don’t judge. It is unbecoming, it’s not good for our souls, it’s not good for our beings. Now we can do the same thing with people. And I would just tell you that we can do this frequently. We can observe people on the outside, the way the Lord cautioned us not to, and miss entirely what’s in their hearts.

      One night as a bishop in Washington, D.C., Ronald came in. He looked every bit the part of a vagrant who was asking for a handout. And he sat down in the chair, and he began to say this story: He said, “I’m 43 years old. For 33 years of my life I have been addicted to something. Five years ago I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I spent the best two years of my life. I picked up every part of it—I went with the missionaries, I paid tithing, I was able to get a job, I was able to get an apartment, I was able to save a little money. It was the very best time of my life, and then my friends re-entered my life, because I had put together a little money. And they began to entice me back to a world on the streets where I once again began to engage in activity that was absolutely destructive to my health. I became addicted again, and I am here to ask if you will take me back.”

      And so Ronald came back and began to emerge once again. But I tell you that I had misjudged Ronald. And I just promise you that I bet you’ve done the same with others. He was bright, he was articulate, he was remarkable. And he lived at that time as a homeless person, and so would go to the shelters at night. He was so good that he bought a ticket to go down to North Carolina  to do family research. But he knew that that bus ticket would be stolen if it was in the homeless center, so he had us keep it for him, and called the day that he needed it. He is a remarkable individual. He climbed out of despair, he got an apartment, he got a job, his life was changed, and he had to come and make that happen because I misjudged him right out of the chute.

      Now let me just tell you that I believe that the Lord will follow up on His commitment that we educate ourselves. The scriptures are filled with references to the notion that we should seek knowledge, that we should seek learning, that we should seek wisdom, and this is one of those things that I think therefore that we can seek without reservation. I know that the Lord will provide if we are on the mission of educating ourselves. He will help us do it. And we need to have faith that He will.

      When I was a bishop in Washington, D.C., there was a young man who was 18 years old. He had been on probation, he wasn’t able to join the church for nine months, but he came and joined our congregation and was there every Sunday and every weeknight for activities. After a period of nine months of getting to know him, he was baptized.

      I pulled him into the office one day and I said to him—his name was Lamar, but he went by “Twin.” He had a twin brother, and I actually didn’t know his name for a long time; it was just “Twin,” and he was “Twin 2.” Twin 1 was on the streets. Twin 2 was in the church. So I said to him, “Twin, I’m impressed with you. When we talk in priesthood about things and concepts you seem to get it, you’re able to tie things together.

      He says, “I think I can do that. I get it. I know the difference between Laman and Lemuel, and the bling and all the rest of that, and Nephi. I know the difference between those, and I want to be more like Nephi.”

      And I said, “And I’m really impressed that you’re willing to always be involved in setting up tables and taking them down for our activities.”

      And his response was, he said, “Well, Bishop, somebody’s got to do it.”

      So I asked him this question, I said, “So Twin, why did you flunk, or how is it possible that you flunked ninth grade three times?”

      There was a long, pregnant pause, and he said, “Bishop, I can’t read.” We had failed him in the school system, and we failed him in the Church. And yet, as I walked out of the bishop’s office that evening, sitting in the chair directly across from me was Elder Mecham. Now Elder Mecham was from Spanish Fork, and he and Sister Mecham had come on a mission. They had been there for three days. And Elder Mecham’s eyes were about as big around as saucers. Because Spanish Fork and Washington, D.C., are, if you didn’t know it, a little different.

      And they were acclimating themselves, but Elder Mecham had been an elementary school principal and a teacher, so as we walked out I said, “Elder Mecham, I want you to meet Twin. And I want you to teach him to read.”

      And he said, “I can do that.” It was about six months later, at the stake talent show for the youth, that a curtain opened up and on those fake steps that you see on stages, seated on those steps was Twin. And he read, as his talent, a poem. And those of us who knew Twin stood in the back, overjoyed, weeping for the transformation that had occurred by virtue of this education the Lord will provide if we choose to learn to become wiser and educate ourselves. I know that to be a fact.

      Now the Lord will also help us carry burdens, but there are times when the Lord will perform miracles. And I came to understand that there are times when the Lord literally may intervene to help people along the way. Sometimes it doesn’t happen quickly. When I was in D.C. I got a call from a bishop in Cedar City who said, “There’s a young man who has just been shipped to Walter Reed Hospital. He was in my ward, he was a convert there. And he is not going to make it, but they’ve shipped him from Germany and they wanted him to come to Walter Reed.”

      And so we visited with him. His name was Travis. Travis had been in a Humvee that had hit a mine that had blown up and killed his colleagues, and badly, badly injured him. And we visited with his wife and his young daughter and him in the hospital at Walter Reed that was in our jurisdiction. The doctor says he’s not going to make it, but there were the prayers of family and others and, of course, blessings given.

      Now, six months later, Travis woke up out of a coma, and it was a miracle that he was there, and the doctor said, “This is a miracle. But he’s never going to walk. He’ll just never be able to walk, he’ll never be able to function.” So about six months after that Travis started coming to church in a motorized wheelchair. And then there was this remarkable moment when everybody in the chapel was seated, and the chapel was one where the aisle was down the middle. When everybody knew something remarkable was happening, and quiet came over the chapel and the prelude, and you know that’s unusual. And people began to look around. And as they did they saw coming down on a walker, Travis, limping and struggling, but on his own power, coming to church to sit in with the rest of the congregation.

      I want you to know that the place was enveloped with a spirit that said, it may not always happen, but sometimes miracles happen. And at least the Lord will help us carry these burdens. And so this remarkable experience fed my faith, and helped me to understand better the notion of faith in this process of healing. I just tell you that the gospel changes people, and we all know that. Your president said that 75 percent of you here have probably served missions, or maybe 85 percent. And you’ve seen it happen.

      Let me just tell you about Clarence. Clarence was an alcoholic. He came from North Carolina. His profession was bartender, not really conducive to sobriety. But nonetheless, Clarence began to age, and as he did his wife passed away, younger than she should have. But in 1992 he was watching television. He watched television, there was an ad that came on. It said that he could have a free [set of] scripture and as he sat there he thought, “I have never in my life,” and he was in his late 50s at that time, “I have never in my life been to a church. I need to change this.” And so two missionaries brought the scriptures to him, and he began to sit down and learn it, and he was the first convert in that congregation in D.C. at the, I can’t remember what they called the branch then before it became the Washington D.C. Third Ward.

      But the thing that was remarkable was that he never missed a meeting. He was there for the next 20 years, and probably 18 years, and he never missed. And the only time he missed was for a family reunion and to go do family history. But he was a quiet man and frankly all of the jokes that he used to tell about the bishop that was going to be Bishop Romney if President Romney were elected really were about me. Because the White House was in our boundaries, and I thought Clarence would be the perfect person to home teach President Romney if he’d been elected.

      But one of the times I asked Clarence, I said, “Clarence, you need to tell your story.”

      He said, “Bishop, I can’t. I’d freeze up on you. There’s no way I can talk in front of an audience.” But one day Clarence went home quietly and lay in bed and fell asleep for good. And I met with his family, a large African-American family that had come up from North Carolina. And this is what they said: None of them were Latter-day Saints.

      My wife and I met with them. And they said, “We want you to do this funeral exactly the way Latter-day Saints do this funeral. You took a miserable man and your church helped him become our favorite uncle. He is a good man now, and he wasn’t before. And this that you’ve done has changed him. Please let us be part of this and let us have this burial be the way your traditions dictate, not the way ours do.”

      Now, let me mention that there is a…that one of the remarkable things that happens in this earth is that sometimes we begin to get insights that we didn’t understand. So the 10th Article of Faith, in part, says we believe that Zion, the New Jerusalem, will be built upon the American continent and that Christ will reign upon the earth. I’ve never really quite understood that. But while I was in Washington I think I got some insights. Now let me just share those with you. Our government is set up not to be quickly responsive. It’s set up to be deliberative, and it has checks and balances. It’s based on the fact that the majority can dictate what the others do. And governments are set up that way if they are republics or democracies and the like. And what I would suggest to you is that I got to see that I got to see that bareknuckle operation really front and center as I worked with the governor and then administrator and then Secretary Leavitt. And we began to wrestle that world, and began to try and recognize its nuances and to wrestle in it. And if your context is that the Savior will come and rule in that world, I think it’s not the right context.

      But something quietly is happening in urban centers all around the world. It’s not unlike this congregation here that represents 60 nationalities. Our ward in Washington had, easily, 25-30 nationalities—many, many from Africa and from African nations there. And I suspect there were 12 African nations represented in our ward. And so, during the day I would be involved in this political struggle, this back and forth, trying to gain majorities and use leverage and whatever was available. And at night, I would go to this congregation and the principles that were articulated in Doctrine and Covenants 121 that dealt with the fact that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by the virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge” began to radiate to me. When the Church started, Zion began to be where the Saints were, and there were migrations. And in the 1890s they began to slow that. They said: Stay where you are and build Zion there. And it took a long time to build Zion around the world. But first they started with meetinghouses and now we know the extension of temples around the world globally.

            But I’d just tell you that in urban centers, diverse populations of Latter-day Saints congregate. Some are unnatural in terms of their political affiliations and the like. But all operate under this principle, and that principle permits them to live together in harmony and collaboration. While democracies have the tendency to polarize, should probably not even say the tendency right now—while democracies are actively polarizing, the gospel is actively collaborating. It brings people together. It says it in Doctrine & Covenants 46:12. It tells us that we should seek the gifts, that all of us have a gift, and that it is important that all of us be at the table, that all might be profited thereby. That is the critical element—that we are only all profited when all gifts are at the table. And so I would encourage us to do that.

      Now brothers and sisters, I would just tell you that we each have an obligation to construct and to build our own bastions of faith. I have done so. I feel committed in my capacity to tell you that I have a testimony of God, the Eternal Father. I don’t know how this miracle works, because there have been billions on this earth. But I would just tell you that somehow He knows each of us personally. And that He is there for us, He has given us guidance and He is prepared to give us more if we will ask. I have a testimony of His Son, Jesus Christ, and of His role as our Savior and Redeemer, and the author of the Atonement. And I am so grateful for that knowledge and for that capacity. And finally I have a testimony of the Holy Ghost, as a prompt, as an influence, as a guide, and as a revealer to us. This is the greatest gift that we can be given.

      Now I joined the church at the age of 24. I joined it because a woman that I proposed to said, “I want to be married in the temple. And I am prepared to marry you but not while you are a Presbyterian. I want to marry you as a Latter-day Saint.” It is the best inducement on the planet. I met regularly with the missionaries. It was not a hard struggle, but it took months, and the answers to lots of questions. The Lord loves questions. If you only ask, He will give you the answers. And it took me a long time to figure that out. But He will answer, and He will provide. Joseph Smith was the master asker of questions. His question as a 15-year-old boy reopened and reconvened our relationship with God, who now reveals to each of us if we will but ask. And I say it in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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