Remembering and Stretching Help Us to Grow
Good morning. President Richards is very kind and warm in his comments and introduction. But another thing you need to know is that I do have some interesting peculiarities. My children tell me that I have an offbeat or perhaps bizarre sense of humor. And to let you know a little bit about how that works, when President Richards said that we should be prepared to follow the impressions of the Spirit, the thought that came to my mind was, “The impression might come to me to just run screaming off the podium and get out of here so that I don’t have to share this devotional message.” So I started immediately praying that the Comforter would come, and help comfort my heart. And I appreciate the music we just heard, and Brother Pearson’s testimony. It did bring comfort, and hopefully what I share will in some way contribute to what you have felt thus far.
There are many memorable stories that begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” My desire is to share a few thoughts with you today that perhaps may be memorable. So to begin, once upon a time, when I was a college student like you, I was called to be the teacher development teacher in our ward. Now, teacher development was something that we, a calling we had in the church in those days. Most of you, well, none of you students and perhaps only a handful of other people in the audience will even know what teacher development was. But teacher development was a particular course where they had someone called to teach all of the teachers in the ward principles of good teaching. And so while they were in an assignment they would take the course, and the instructor would teach them, and then observe them in their teaching opportunities to see how they were performing and applying the principles that they were being taught in the class. I never perceived myself as a great teacher. But I was at least willing to accept the calling and do my very best.
In that assignment, I was watching one of the teachers, and she wanted to make a particular point in the lesson and to do so was using an experience from her personal life. And so as she began, she apologized for using a personal experience. The thought struck me then, and I shared it with her, and I have reflected on it a lot since then: The only experiences that we have are personal, so we should never apologize for using a personal experience for sharing with others things we have learned that we have found of great value.
In the spirit of sharing some personal experiences that I have found valuable, I’d like to convey some thoughts that perhaps will help us remember lessons learned.
Remembering is an important element of becoming. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that remember may be the most important word in our language. He stated, “When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be ‘remember,’ because all of us have made covenants; our greatest need is to remember,” (“Circles of Exaltation” [address to religious educators, Brigham Young University, 28 June 1968], 8).
There are over 350 scriptural references admonishing us in one form or another to remember. One of my personal favorite scriptures on that is Alma’s counsel to his son Helaman, where he said, “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God,” (Alma 37:35). That message must have had a profound impact on Helaman, because we see that same message being conveyed and communicated other places in the scriptures. That scriptural passage went to his son, who then taught his sons, Lehi and Nephi. In the seven verses that summarize Helaman’s message, found in Helaman chapter 5, we find the word ‘remember’ 13 times. And then in verse 14 of chapter 5 it emphasizes, “And they did remember.”
The last time I had an opportunity to speak at a devotional at LDS Business College was on my father’s birthday, 2½ years ago. Because of the timing I had spent a lot of time reflecting on the things my father taught me and remembering the lessons that I had learned. As President Richards indicated, today I find myself at another unique inflection point, because my wife and I have been called to serve a mission. As a result I’ve spent some time remembering other lessons learned from personal experiences.
If you pay attention to things in the world around you, you can learn a lot because everything that we see is to help us focus on Jesus Christ and can be very instructive; even simple things. In fact, Yogi Berra—just checking to see if anyone recognizes the name—a few—Yogi Berra is a Hall of Fame professional baseball player and manager, who is known for his wit and offbeat sense of humor. And he made some very interesting comments about just observing. He actually made a lot of interesting comments, such as, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Or, another classic, “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” Anyway, he noted this interesting insight, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
A similar message from a more spiritual source, President Boyd K. Packer, also stated, “We learn from experience and observation,” (Teach Ye Diligently). Unless we are quick to observe, as Amaron noted of Mormon, some lessons may not readily be learned or appreciated at the moment. But upon reflection and serious pondering, deeper understanding can come and will distill upon us as the dews from heaven. Learning through observation can come in profound ways from very simple things. One of those simple things is a common, everyday, elastic band.
I would like to talk about that elastic band, but in order to appreciate my qualifications to talk about it, you need to know a few more things about me. First of all, I grew up in northern California where we had early-morning seminary. Our classes began at 6:30 a.m. every day. During my senior year in high school, I delivered 500 newspapers to apartment buildings and newsstands in our town, and had to be finished in time to get home and get to seminary on time. Now, since most of you are probably connected to some digital device and have no idea what a newspaper even is, I brought one, just as a visual aid.
In the olden days, long sheets of paper, news stories and advertising and other important information, was printed on these pieces of paper called newsprint. And to make them easier for paperboys like me to deliver them safely on to the sidewalk or the front porch of people receiving them, you’d put an elastic band around them so you could throw them with a little bit better accuracy. Thank you for catching.
My days started very early, and I saw a lot of elastic bands that year. At the time I really didn’t take much opportunity to think about an elastic band. In fact, if I ever did think about them it was with some level of disdain. But fortunately, I have come to realize that some of life’s lessons are not always learned or appreciated in the moment. Some things take a little bit more time to ponder. As I have grown older, and hopefully a little wiser, I have come to recognize that the Savior, as the master teacher, frequently used common, everyday images to convey His message as He taught the people. He used things that were very familiar to them.
With the passage of time and some reflection I have thought more about elastic bands and have gained a greater appreciation and some insights about this simple, common, everyday item. As you consider an elastic band all by itself, it really isn’t worth very much. After one is created, when viewed in its natural state, it’s not very attractive, and it really does very little. They come in various sizes, shapes, colors, but most of us just ignore them or throw them away if we happen to see one lying on the ground. However if you stop to think about how an elastic is used, it teaches profound lessons of life.
An elastic can only fulfill the purpose for which it was created when it’s stretched. In the stretching process, its value increases. In that sense, our lives are very similar to elastic bands. Our value increases when we are stretched. Think for a moment about some of the stretching experiences that you may have had in your own life. Each of these stretching moments helps us look inward but also heavenward, to find out who we really are. And as the Lord allows these stretching opportunities we find out that we are truly dependent on Him for all things.
During my working career at the Church, as President Richards has shared, I’ve had a couple of significant stretching experiences that have been particularly poignant and have allowed me an opportunity to learn from the Brethren some lessons that might also be valuable for you. So, just to give a little bit of context to what President Richards said, let me share a couple of these personal experiences that have provided me with these unique opportunities.
The first happened about 20 years ago, just before general conference. President Gordon B. Hinckley, who at the time was serving as a counselor in the First Presidency, invited me to his office, and in essence said, “Roger, we would like you to be accountable to the First Presidency for the allocation and expenditure of the tithing funds of the church. How do you feel about that?”
Clearly when a prophet asks you to do something, “no” is not an option. So I responded, “President, if you have confidence in me to fulfill that assignment, I’d be willing to do whatever you’d like me to do.”
He then said, “Fine, then let’s move forward on that basis.” In that role as the budget officer of the Church, I met regularly with the First Presidency and other brethren to consider how the tithing funds would be allocated to the various programs and activities of the Church.
After experiencing that opportunity for a number of years, after one of our regularly scheduled meetings, President Hinckley invited me into his office again. This time he said, “Roger, the brethren in Church Education,” at the time that was President Eyring as the commissioner of Church Education, and Elder Ballard, who was chairman of the Executive Committee, President Hinckley said, “Those brethren think that they need to have you working with them. How do you feel about that?” Again, “no” was not an option. So I moved into the role that I’ve now had the privilege of occupying for the last 15 years. And in my most recent assignment I continued to enjoy frequent association with the presiding brethren of the Church. As a result, I’ve learned much by listening and observing.
There are many stories behind the lessons that I’d like to share with you today. Right now I’m just going to share some basic principles and perhaps a little bit of context. Perhaps, in some future occasion, I’ll have an opportunity to elaborate and give more detail. But for simplicity, I’ve summarized these lessons into four general categories:
1. The importance of time
2. The importance of wise money management
3. The importance of working and counseling together
4. The importance of having character in your working environment
So if we start with the importance of time. In our organization, meetings start on time, which usually means early. Once I was running a little late for an important meeting, which included the First Presidency, and got there five minutes before the scheduled meeting time. Unfortunately, I was the last person in the room, and I had the agendas for everything we were going to cover in the meeting. That’s not a very comfortable situation to be in, by the way. Which leads us to the next interesting principle, and that is respect for other people’s time.
President James E. Faust once taught, “When you are early for a meeting, you are wasting your own time, but you have the right to do that. But, if you are late for a meeting, you are wasting other people’s time, and there is a commandment about that. ‘Thou shalt not steal’,” (Exodus 20:15). Another great lesson is that punctuality has both a beginning and an ending time. Elder Maxwell said that we talk about things eternal, but our meetings don’t have to be endless.
Another important thing and the most value or limited resource that we have in the Church is the time of the Brethren. If you were to take the cumulative time of the 15 men that we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators, for one week, you would have a total of 9 million, 72 thousand seconds. If the total membership of the Church was divided equally into 15 groups and each of those men spent one week without eating, sleeping or doing anything else except focusing his attention on each one of us as an individual member of the Church, we would each get 6/10 of one second of an apostle’s time. Now when you think of how much of their collective time is spent on church education, as students and faculty, staff of this wonderful institution, you know that you are part of a very special group that is important to them.
Second, the importance of wise money management. The first principle is that there is never enough resources, in time or money, to do every good thing. So be wise in choosing the things that you will do. That principle is applicable to the Church and also useful in our lives as individuals and families. Elder Hales gave a marvelous talk a few years ago about what it means to be a “provident provider,” and I commend the entire talk to you. But in brief, in his message he said, “The three most loving words in a relationship are, ‘I love you,’ and the four most caring words for those we love is, ‘We can’t afford it.’ ” He went on to say, “We all need to learn to say to one another, ‘We can’t afford it, even though we want it,’ or, ‘We can afford it, but we don’t need it, and we don’t really even want it,’ ” (“Becoming Provident Providers Temporally and Spiritually,” General Conference, April 2009).
Second, when budgeting for your expenses, it’s important to remember a principle that was affectionately referred to as “Hinckley’s Law.” That is, things will take longer and cost more than the original estimate. And third, spend less than you make.
Next, the importance of working and counseling together. Every person has unique experiences and knows something that you do not know. Find out what others know, and learn from one another. A great example of the consummate learner was President Eyring’s father. Professor Henry Eyring was one of the most notable and respectable chemists of his day. During his career he received every national and international recognition for chemists, with the exception of the Nobel Prize, and there are many who think that he should have received that during his career as well.
But even with all his education and experience, Brother Eyring was always seeking to learn from other people regardless of their station in life. One example comes from an event shared by his son, President Henry B. Eyring. He said one afternoon on his way home from the university, his father stopped at a service station to get gas for his car. For those of you who don’t know what a service station is, back in the olden days you used to pull into what we call a gas station and an attendant would come out, he would put gas in your car, he’d wash your windows, he’d check the oil, and everything with a smile.
Anyway, while Brother Eyring was waiting for the service to be completed, he got out of his car, struck up a conversation with this young man at the gas station. When he got back into the car, President Eyring asked him the question, “Dad, why did you take the time to talk to a gas station attendant?” His father said, “Look, I can learn something from anybody. Everyone has had experiences that I haven’t had.” And so he took the opportunity to learn from someone else.
Next, learn how to ask insightful questions. I have learned that sometimes questions are asked for a person to gain understanding of a particular subject to learn something you know that they don’t know. President Hinckley was also the consummate learner and was always reading and inquiring of others in his quest to learn as much as he could. Sometimes questions are asked to see if you understand the subject. And sometimes questions are asked to direct a message to somebody else in the room, and you’re just being the catalyst. But make sure you learn how to ask insightful questions. Next, use the most effective, which is frequently the simplest way to communicate.
Fifth, handle things at the appropriate level. Know when to make a decision, and when to act. And also learn what needs to be discussed and presented for approval. Finding the balance between those two is more of an art than a science, and learning the art comes with experience and counseling together. It’s also important to know that not everyone sees things the same way. Unity comes through counseling together after thoroughly discussing the issues. And 90 percent of revelation comes in knowing the facts and then asking the right questions, and getting inspiration from the Lord.
In our organization, particularly Elder Ballard, but many have taught about the importance of councils. The purpose of councils is not to convince others to agree on our position, but to seek revelation. Everyone should prepare properly for counseling together. But once the council has begun, we should set aside our own personal beliefs and issues and be willing to seek for spiritual guidance.
Next, timing is everything. When an idea is not approved, it may not be that it’s a bad idea, it may just be that it’s not the right time. Some things take a little bit of time to mature and develop, or for circumstances or situations to change in order for that idea to be implemented.
Another important one, be careful about integrating sacred things into common usage. We are taught in sacred places that things should be treated as sacred, and they should not be allowed to become part of our daily vernacular or daily conversation. So be careful of using ideas or words even, that are taught in sacred places and have them become common.
Next, when faced with challenges, it is wise and humble to ask what is the Lord trying to teach us with this? Or what do we need to learn in going through this experience?
Next, the importance of character in your work environment. First, Elder Holland taught us that when you are in a position of leadership, you don’t necessarily have to have your hands on everything, but you do need to keep your eyes on everything.
Another important lesson I have learned is to pay attention to the details. We should remember the adage, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” If you always do your best, others will notice. If you make a mistake, others will notice. In fact, President Monson notices every misspelled word on any document that we take to the Board, so we have to be very careful in proofreading, at least once or twice or three times, to make sure that it is correct. It’s better when you do your best.
Which leads us to the next principle, and that is credibility takes a long time to develop but can be lost in an instant. If you make a mistake, take responsibility for it and move forward. Learn from it, but don’t repeat the same mistake. And also don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” followed by, “I’ll find out and I’ll get back to you.” Another important lesson is to make sure that you take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. An appropriate humor often helps to diffuse a very tense moment. We’re running out of time, I won’t tell you a story about that one.
The last principle on the list is one that I heard frequently from President Hinckley, and this is because of my tendency to want to make sure all the details were correct. And, worrying about what might happen “if,” he said, “Roger, you worry too much. Have faith, things will work out.” So if we return to the concept of stretching, some of the more challenging moments in life come when we are being stretched. Perhaps the most challenging times are those where we can’t see the end from the beginning. So I would just suggest that we all follow the philosophy and attitude that President Hinckley was known so well for, and that is, go forward with faith. Or, perhaps as President Harold B. Lee taught a young Boyd K. Packer, “The trouble with you is that you want to see the end from the beginning. You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness. Then the light will appear, and show the way before you,” (as quoted by Boyd K. Packer, “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ—Plain and Precious Things,” general conference, April 2005).
Regardless of the circumstances of each of our lives, know that God loves us, and His love is all-encompassing. He will not let us be stretched to the breaking point when we are obedient to His commandments. For He will not suffer us to be tempted or stretched above what we are able to bear.
The ultimate stretching that ever took place was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then on Calvary. The Lord’s heart, soul, and body were stretched to include all of us. He understands our worries, He understands our joys, He understands our trials, He understands the stretching that is taking place in each of our lives. The prophet Alma declared, “He shall go forth suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled…that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people,” (Alma 7:11-12). Jacob tells us that the Lord “remembereth…and stretches forth his hands all the day long, with his arm of mercy extended…” towards you (Jacob 6:4).
Perhaps one final thought on remembering lessons by observing. During some of the most painful moments of the Savior’s life while He was on the cross, He was concerned about the welfare of others: His mother, His disciples, the criminals who were being crucified with Him, and even those who carried out the crucifixion. As we experience our own stretching moments we likewise need to think beyond ourselves and think of the needs of others. As we think about the frequently cited parable of the Good Samaritan, we should cultivate the attitude of the Samaritan, rather than the priest and the Levite. Each of the latter two asked, “If I help, what will happen to me?” The Good Samaritan asked, “If I don’t help, what will happen to him?”
If we want to become like the Savior as He has commanded us to do, we need to be stretched, even if it feels unpleasant. Sometimes it may even hurt. But in the stretching process we will grow and increase in value to Him, and to our fellow beings. To that I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.