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December 2008

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What Earthly Good Are Heavenly Beings?


Earth life often seems to be long stretches of darkness punctuated by rare pinpricks of light.
Some years ago my dear father was giving me a tour of the Church Office Building where he worked. As we walked along a hall, a short man stepped out of an office into the hall. We paused and stared. We were face-to-face with Spencer W. Kimball. He might have dashed off to important business. Instead he came to a young gawker and greeted me warmly. I am still warmed by the blessing of greeting a prophet.

Yet must mortality be so spiritually barren that we count ourselves lucky if we have a single encounter with a prophet in an entire lifetime? Who among us would not love to spend an hour with one of our heroes? Who would not like to be personally instructed by Gordon B. Hinckley? Who wouldn’t want to spend time with beloved ancestors?

I have sometimes wished I could spend an hour with my great-grandfather. In 1879 he immigrated from England to the United States, following his girlfriend whose parents had joined the Church. As he sold Bibles across Utah, Latter-day Saints opened the scriptures to him. He joined the Church, served a mission, struggled to find his niche, and ultimately became a spokesman for the Church, serving as chief of the Bureau of Information on Temple Square for 27 years. I would love to sit at his feet and have him tell me about his spiritual journey and life lessons. I would never miss another family home evening if I knew I could be taught by great-grandfather Ben.

Heavenly classes

I would also love to spend time with Elijah. After showing a great manifestation of God’s power to assembled Israel, he hoped to turn the spiritual tide for the nation. But Queen Jezebel put out a death warrant for the disturber of her apostate religion. Elijah shrank to the desert, begging the Lord to take his life. God invited Elijah to trek 40 days across desolation to Mount Horeb where Elijah learned that God was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire; He was in the still, small voice. I would love to have Elijah teach me in periodic training sessions about finding God’s power in our lives.

I would love to spend an hour with Mary, the mother of our Lord. That sweet, devoted, faithful woman who, when asked to do the impossible, replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). She never quite understood everything that she saw. But she had the faith to keep “all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19; cf. 2:33, 2:51). I don’t think that I would have any questions for Mary. I would love to simply feel her faithful spirit as she recounted those days of wonder as mother to that remarkable boy.

Elisha is one of my scriptural favorites. In his life and ministry there is an amazing theme of seeing rightly (see 2 Kings 6:8–22). His helper saw enemy warriors but failed to see the heavenly protection all around them. “And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). So Elisha approached the Aramean army that had come to capture him. He closed their eyes so that he could lead them into Israelite captivity. When the king of Israel found he had enemy hostages, he was ready to kill them. Elisha taught him to see the opportunity to minister to his captives, thereby making them into friends. I would love to have Elisha keep me company and teach me about seeing as heaven sees.
There are so many others! I would like to sit at the feet of Moses and be taught about the lessons he learned in Egypt, the desert, at the edge of the Red Sea, and in the wilderness. I would love to have Adam share with me about making the journey through thistle and briar in companionship with such a spiritual giant as Eve.

I would love to have the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee describe the experience of being lifted from despair to peace by the Prince of Peace. I would love to have an hour with my departed father to get his counsel and one more father’s blessing. I would love to have an hour with my maternal grandfather, Harold E. Wallace, to learn about his lifetime of family and community service.

I cannot number all those whose eyes could restore my soul, whose words could stretch my faith, and whose stories could enlarge my appreciation of God. Yet as I reflect on this yearning, I realize that our heartfelt wishes are clues to eternal possibilities. Someday I hope to be taught by others who have gone before me in this journey and who have been true believers.

Maybe in the eternal worlds I can enroll for Making Room for God by Emptying Ourselves of Ourselves by Alma the Younger. I would like to pre-register for Advanced Rejoicing by Ammon. I would wait centuries for the chance to take Learning by Experience to Know Good from Evil by Mother Eve.

We could spend eternity learning from those Great Souls who have written the history of this world with their love and faith. How will we fit it all in? Eternity will be packed with learning—not only from those giants who fill the pages of scripture but also those unnamed thousands, nay, millions, who have struggled against spiritual odds and kept their eyes single to the glory of God. How will we find time for it all?

Time and eternity

Alma gives us an answer. He taught that “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8). Time binds us to mortality but disappears in eternity. Since time is not an issue in the eternal worlds, maybe we will not have to crowd into a vast coliseum to hear Joseph of ancient Israel teach about Keeping Faith During Twelve Years in Prison. Maybe we can be mentored and tutored individually. Imagine— we could sit with Joseph as he teaches us how he resisted Potiphar’s wife and, more amazingly, how he kept growing spiritually while incarcerated unjustly for year after year. I would love to hear him tell about the ways he kept himself spiritually fit and energized.

Maybe when time is no more, I can spend ten years (whatever that means in eternity) being trained by Elisha on Seeing Correctly: The Mountains Are Filled. I would like to spend one hundred years with Joseph Smith learning about Being Tutored by Immortals. He was the master of that subject.

Lucy Mack Smith reported that Joseph “would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them” (History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, p. 83). How much we could learn about spiritual sensitivity from Joseph Smith.

I would love to spend time with Nephi studying Being Naïve Enough to Trust. Nephi regularly chose simple faith over complicated sophistry. There is much that we moderns could learn from him.

Traveling across time

Some of these great lessons are available to us now as we study the accounts in scripture and seek the insight that heaven gladly grants. Anyone who has had the scriptures come to life before his or her eyes knows the miracle of having the “eyes of our understanding opened.” In fact, maybe immortals stand ready to whisper words of counsel to us even now. Maybe we can call on ancestors to look after, teach, and bless members of our families who are struggling. Maybe we can be taught and comforted by those who have an eternal perspective. Maybe we open our eyes to eternity.

A few years ago I made a list of those places in the history of this world that I would like to see. The list did not include the big historical moments such as the parting of the Red Sea; they were more personal. I wanted to be there on July 13, 1929, when Ben Goddard was honored at a reception after almost thirty years of serving on Temple Square. I wanted to see admiring friends and beloved family greet my dear great-grandfather. I wanted to see my father, who was then 12 years old, serve refreshments to guests. So I studied Ben’s life, work, and documents. I studied his patriarchal blessing and letters. I found a quiet time to imagine that scene. I went there. Because I have taken part in his life, Ben continues to be a blessed inspiration to me.

I testify that heavenly beings, eternal truths, and scenes from the history of this world are more available to us than we ever supposed. May the Lord open our eyes. The mountains and plains are full of eternity.

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Discovering New Levels of Faith


My childhood was magical. I had good parents who loved their family and the gospel. I had siblings with whom I had lots of fun. We lived in places that allowed a little boy to explore and discover. I loved to learn and had many opportunities to do it. My world was a beautiful place.

I don’t know just when I first ran up against undeniable ugliness. Though there were little hints of ugliness along the way, the goodness always swamped the ugliness in my early life. My world remained relentlessly sunny.

Yet, little by little, I came to notice the obvious. People hurt other people. People act selfishly. Life often seems unfair. Tragedy touches even the best.

I suppose I ran into undeniable examples when I was in college. (I know. I was a slow learner.) Of course my unconquerable optimism ultimately recast those examples as exceptions.

Then came marriage. Along our family journey Nancy and I experienced a multitude of miscarriages, a score of messed-up foster children, chronic, degenerative physical disorders, mixed up bosses—and most disheartening of all—my own personal failures of character.

It was enough to make a person lose faith.

Loss of innocence

Anyone who has served as a bishop may have had an experience similar to mine. In the first few months of service, as one ward member after another poured out their souls to me, I started to wonder if anyone was happy. Is everyone suffering? Maybe there are just a precious few who manage to put a happy face on it? Then, in a perverse twist from old Scratch, I began to wonder if my own happiness was imagined rather than real. Maybe I was just deluding myself when I thought I was happy and that our family life was good.

As we learn more about the world, is disenchantment inevitable? Do all sensible people lose their innocence with experience? Is cynicism the mark of the informed? Is optimism available only to those who specialize in denial?

Some months ago I got an e-mail from a past student. She was one of those bright and radiant people whom everyone admired in high school. She married a good man and they had children. Then he died. She grieved. Then remarried. But the second husband was not the man she thought he was. In her e-mail she told about some of the struggles in her life. One evening I sat in my study and reflected on her pain. I wept. How could life brutalize such a good woman? It hurt my heart to see the terrible suffering of such a good person. How do I reconcile her suffering with my conviction that God is good?

God’s assurance

Yet I take literally the scriptural reassurance:

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

As a side note, I think it is always dangerous to try to impose tidy solutions on anyone else’s life challenges. So I will try to speak primarily about my own experience and allow each person to make the application to his or her own life.

It seems to me that God has delivered challenges to my faith in carefully timed and measured increments. He provides a carefully designed progressive education for every one of His children. When I have mastered Kindergarten faith, He sends first grade challenges as an invitation for my faith to grow. As I master first grade faith, He sends second grade challenges as an invitation for my faith to grow further.

With each new challenge I make a choice. I choose to grow my cynicism or grow my faith. Time and again I am forced to choose. I am trying to consistently choose faith. As I do, my faith becomes stronger and richer. I see His goodness in places that used to seem tragic.

My experiences with pain and suffering not only enrich my faith, they also increase my compassion. I hope that I can be more tender with all of God’s children as they process the challenge that they are currently experiencing. I have reason to believe that God is caring for each of His children as patiently and wisely as He is me.

Customized challenges

Knowing that God is subtle and that His aspirations for His children are staggering, I expect that challenges will at-least-occasionally knock me off balance. But, having found His perfect goodness at the core of every challenge, I confront new challenges with greater faith.

Actually one of the side benefits of the progressive challenges is that I become ever more certain that I am not able to do all that God expects of me. I simply am not good enough, strong enough, fine enough, spiritual enough, etc. But, following a regularly repeated scriptural pattern, I call on God for the very thing He expects of me. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Lord, I desire to do Thy will; give me the capacity to do what you require.

Recently Nancy and I visited a friend whose health challenges put her in a class with Job. We have a dear friend who has unexpectedly lost a whole career of service and contribution. And we have a friend whose doctors have told her that her fetus is not viable. These are stern trials.

There is no denying that life challenges us. Pain and loss are real. Yet, maybe they are not random and senseless. Maybe they are invitations from a perfect Father to draw more of His power into our lives.

Light shining through the storm clouds

Tony Snow, who was a press secretary in the Bush Administration, announced that he had colon cancer in 2005.  The disease took his life in 2008.  Prior to his death, he wrote about the spiritual lessons he had learned through his ordeal.

We want lives of simple, predictable ease–smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see–but God likes to go off-road.  He provokes us with twists and turns.  He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension–and yet don’t.  By his love and grace, we persevere.  The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise…

The natural reaction [when faced with trials] is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa.  “Dear God, make it all go away.  Make everything simpler.”  But another voice whispers:  “You have been called.”  Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter–and have dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our “normal time.”

…You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft.  Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution.  The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies…  God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do…  Through such trials, God bids us choose:  Do we believe, or do we not?  Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations?  Can we surrender our concern in things that don’t matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?
We don’t know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place–in the hollow of God’s hand.

Along our lives’ journeys, may we take to heart the wisdom that Lehi offered to Jacob: “Thou art my first-born in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow . . .. Nevertheless, Jacob, my first-born in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.”

May we be resolute in our submission to God and our appreciation of His purposes. May we be better and our faith stronger as a result of our challenges.