It is a privilege to again be here at BYU-Idaho today. I never come to Idaho without thinking of wilderness. I suppose that is because there is so much beautiful and pristine wilderness in this state. I first experienced Idaho wilderness nearly 40 years ago when I brought a group of Explorer Scouts from California for a 100-mile “run” down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I am sure there are those in this audience who have likewise visited that wilderness. What an experience!
For me it was magnificently challenging! The scenery is breathtaking. The rapids and the whitewater get one’s adrenaline flowing freely! In fact, I was washed out of our raft twice in the rapids during the course of that trip! It was an experience that I shall never forget!
My thoughts turn to a different wilderness of personal experience; this one in the swamps of Florida. As a part of the rigorous training to become a U.S. Army Ranger, I spent three weeks in those swamps on Eglin Air Force Base in northern Florida. This was not nearly the delightful experience of the Middle Fork!
Night after night we slogged in pitch-blackness. You could not see your hand in front of your face. All that was visible were two luminous tabs on the back of the cap of the man in front of you. Venomous snakes slithered between our legs; alligators bellowed. Burdened with rifles and equipment, sometimes we would step into sloughs and find the water over our heads. It was a tough and challenging experience, but completion of that phase of training brought a special exhilaration and feeling of accomplishment.
My ultimate wilderness experience occurred in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. I was an infantry platoon leader. Our combat missions took us deep into enemy controlled territory. On one occasion, our battalion was engaged in moving at night through “Indian country.” We were going cross-country through an area of rice paddies checkered with patches of jungle, employing armored personnel carriers as our means of transport. Sometime well after dark, the vehicle I was riding in became deeply mired in a rice paddy bog. Three other vehicles became similarly mired not far away.
Not wanting to slow the movement or leave the battalion strung out in a potentially vulnerable column, the battalion commander elected to continue moving. He left me in command of the four stranded vehicles with the “reassurance” that he would send a reinforced party back to our aid once it was daylight.
So, there we were; some 20 men in four stranded personnel carriers strung out over about a quarter of a mile in enemy territory. It was tense! I made my way from one to the next to check on the welfare of the troops and their supply of ammunition. This was also an “adrenaline experience”—not only because of enemy soldiers that might be lurking in the blackness, but because my men were anxious and potentially trigger-happy.
Somehow, I made it safely to each one and back to my own vehicle. I then called in artillery fire to register concentrations around our position that might be needed if we were suddenly attacked. In addition, I asked for the artillery to fire flares periodically over the surrounding area, enabling us to see the battlefield more clearly.
It is difficult in the tranquil setting of this devotional to adequately convey the sense of security that came from these flares that would illuminate the landscape. Truly, they were a light in the wilderness! In a manner of speaking, it is about “light in the wilderness” that I would like to speak this afternoon.
“Wilderness” figures prominently in scripture. For instance, sometimes the Lord has employed the wilderness as a “finishing school” of sorts to tutor and prepare His children. Moses and the children of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness are just such an example. John the Baptist thrived in the wilderness on “locusts and wild honey” as he prepared for his ministry as the forerunner of Jesus Christ.1
Wilderness has served as a venue for intense prayer and fasting. The Savior Himself departed into the wilderness for a period of 40 days of such deep spiritual preparation before entering upon His mortal ministry, culminating in His titanic confrontation with Lucifer, testing and strengthening His mastery over the Evil One.2
Sometimes, the wilderness has served as a temple—a sacred place for sacred experiences. Moses went up into a mountain and there spoke face-to-face with the Lord, “as a man speaketh unto his friend.”3 The Brother of Jared and Nephi each went up into a mountain to receive instruction for building a ship or barges.4 These were the most sacred of occasions where these men, who would become holy prophets, were provided eternal insights into the God of the universe.
And sometimes a wilderness experience has been even more than these. Sometimes, living the wilderness experience has provided a metaphor for life itself. Such is the case with the wilderness experience about which I have chosen to speak this day. I refer to Lehi’s profound dream in the wilderness about the wilderness.
“Into the wilderness”—this is a phrase that is used 23 times in the book of 1 Nephi in referring to the experiences of Lehi. Dismayed by the wickedness around him in Jerusalem and prompted by the Spirit of the Lord, Lehi left behind all of his worldly possessions.
“And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness. And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him. And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness, and he left his house,and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:2-4; emphasis added).
Imagine how difficult that would be! To leave everything behind, the comforts of wealth and finery, pleasant associations, and the relative ease of urban life, trading it all for the privations of wilderness living—and not for a just few days, a week, a month, or even a “tour of duty,” but for years, even the rest of your life!
The wilderness as a metaphor for the mortal experience itself is evident in one of the most remarkable visions every recorded. I refer, of course, to Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life, as recorded in 1 Nephi 8. I shall focus today on what you and I can distill from it regarding this mortal “wilderness experience” that we are now enduring.
Verse two of chapter eight is significant: “And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness, he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or in other words, I have seen a vision (1 Nephi 8:2).
While he was in the wilderness, Lehi had a vision. Visions—inspiration—can come “in the wilderness” if, like Lehi, we are engaging the wilderness as though it were a temple. Now, I do not suggest that we need to go into the Idaho primitive area, or into the swamp, or the jungle to receive revelation. Quite the contrary, I do mean that we are already living in a wilderness—this wilderness we call mortality—and that, like Lehi, we can experience revelation in this wilderness. But we must look upon this wilderness experience as a time of refinement, or, to quote the words of another Book of Mormon prophet, as a “time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24, 34:32). Visions come in the Lord’s time, not in our own time; but Lehi’s experience teaches that they do come if we are preparing for them.
Note how this exceptional revelatory experience begins. In his vision, Lehi said that, “I saw a man and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me. And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him” (1 Nephi 8:5-6). And Lehi did follow the man in the white robe, an angel.5 Significantly, Lehi then records, “And it came to pass that as I followed him, I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste. And after I had travelled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies” (1 Nephi 8:7-8).
The wilderness, by its very nature, is “lone and dreary.” Even though its beauty in some cases may be magnificent—like the Middle Fork wilderness area—the difficulty of subsistence and sometimes the difficulty of the path through it can make it seem both “lone” and “dreary.” And in this mortal wilderness, new inspiration may not flow moment by moment. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks once observed, we believe in “continuing,” not “continuous,” revelation.6 There are simply times when navigating the wilderness of life that answers—even important answers—we are seeking are not yet clear; but we move forward anyway with a confidence in revelation already received coupled with earnest prayer and an unshakeable trust in the Lord that He will yet “have mercy on [us with additional direction], according to the multitude of His tender mercies.”
Lehi’s righteous perseverance in his vision did not go unrewarded. Notwithstanding the darkness and the difficulty of the way that he initially encountered in attempting to follow the “man in the white robe,” he persevered, and in due course he came upon “a large and spacious field,” and in that field he “beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that [he] did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and [he] beheld that it was most sweet, above all that [he] ever before tasted” (1 Nephi 8:9-11). And then the culmination of his personal experience—Lehi records: “And as I partook of the fruit thereof, it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy” (1 Nephi 8:12, emphasis added).
After reaching the tree and tasting of the fruit, Lehi then began to discover other details in the vision that had previously eluded him. For one thing, he noted that there was “a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking of the fruit” (1 Nephi 8:13; emphasis added). Nephi, who was permitted to see the same dream, advises us that this was a river of filthy water representing, of course, the evils of the world. Its close proximity to the tree of life reflects the built-in tension of the mortal experience as you and I know it. The principles of happiness and righteousness found in the gospel of Jesus Christ unfortunately are not far removed from the evil that we see all about us. Even in those moments when we feel close to the Lord, the adversary is never far away. You and I daily face the temptations of that filthy river that would sweep us away from the “tree of life” were we to allow that to occur.
But thankfully, we learn from Lehi that the Lord has not left us in such a precarious position unaided. For running beside the river of water, between the tree of life and the chasm of the river, he saw a rod of iron extending along the bank of the river. This rod of iron, we learn from Nephi, is the word of God. As we grasp it—meaning as we study and strive to emulate scriptural and modern prophetic teachings—we cannot be swept away in Lucifer's torrents, though we may see them raging about us.
I suggest four lessons to be distilled from Lehi’s vision that can help us personally. I believe that they pertain particularly to you, the “rising generation,” who in so many respects are standing upon the very threshold of life. I believe that if you can keep these four lessons in mind as you move forward with your education, with your occupations, with your service in the Church and community, and most of all, as you move forward to establish your families, you will negotiate the perils of the wilderness magnificently and enjoy the unspeakable happiness of the “fruit” of the tree of life.
Here are the four lessons:
Remember! The fruit of the tree sustains in the wilderness. Devour it!
Remember! The iron rod brings safe passage through the wilderness. Grasp it!
Remember! Opportunity is created by the wilderness. Seize it!
Remember! Roses bloom, even in the wilderness. Take time to smell them!
I turn now to a brief discussion of each of these four lessons. First, remember! The fruit of the tree sustains in the wilderness. Devour it! As I look back over my own “wilderness experiences,” I cannot do so without some humorous memories. For instance, the Ranger course was entirely devoted to learning to lead long-range combat and reconnaissance patrols in wilderness areas.
Part of the training was learning to live off the land, while carrying relatively small amounts of food with us. As a means of assuring that none of us Ranger candidates cheated by stuffing our pockets with goodies, the Ranger cadre established a simple rule that was strictly enforced: each man was allowed to carry no more than what they referred to as two “lickies” and one “chewy.” For example, this would mean two packages of Lifesavers and one candy bar. Occasionally, the cadre would conduct unannounced inspections to make sure that the “licky and chewy rule” was being observed. I still remember one unfortunate Ranger candidate found with an entire box of candy bars!
In the Vietnam wilderness there was no such “licky and chewy rule.” We ate primarily C-rations—“combat rations”—that we could carry with us. But, sometimes a hot meal was ferried out to us by helicopter in a jungle clearing somewhere and served from insulated containers. I still recall, as though it was yesterday, what feasts these jungle meals seemed to be.
Fortunately, in the spiritual wilderness of mortality, there is no such lack of sustenance––provided we are willing to seek it. The fruit of the tree of life that brought such joy to Lehi—the love of God—is in rich abundance. But, like the manna that sustained the ancient Israelites, this fruit must be picked daily. The fruit of the tree is to be found in the holy scriptures. It is to be found in our earnest prayers. It is to be found in service to others—in avoiding any inclination to becoming self-absorbed. It is to be found in the temple of the Lord. But, like manna, this spiritual sustenance has a limited shelf life and must be replenished constantly.
And so it is that as we navigate our way through this mortal wilderness, we can choose to be amply nourished or not. A lack of spiritual sustenance is a self-imposed privation. We can attempt to survive on the spiritual equivalent of a can of C-rations or a couple of “lickies” and a “chewy” if we want, or we can feast constantly at the table of the Lord. The choice truly is ours. The fruit of the tree sustains in the wilderness. Devour it!
Now to the second lesson. Remember! The iron rod brings safe passage through the wilderness. Grasp it! Once again, as I wander the corridors of memory, another wilderness experience from my Ranger training days emerges. Three weeks of the training were conducted in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia—also a wilderness, by the way! In addition to honing our patrolling and combat skills at the Mountain Ranger Camp, we learned to scale steep cliffs and then to rappel down them. The mountain phase of my training occurred in the winter. Snow was on the ground and slick black ice covered much of the face of these cliffs we were ascending and descending. It was treacherous, and some Rangers fell and were seriously hurt.
Each of us chose a “Ranger buddy”—another Ranger with whom we went through the training. One day, my Ranger buddy and I were ordered to scale a steep cliff in a “two-man party climb.” In a two-man party climb, one man climbs while the other “belays” for him with a safety line. Then the first man belays while his partner climbs past him to a further place up the cliff, and so on as the team leapfrogs its way to the top.
So, naturally, on this fateful day we searched along the base of the cliff for what looked like the easiest way up. We found a spot where the cliff did not appear to be nearly as steep. For the first 25 feet or so it was only about a 45-degree angle. While we couldn't see beyond that point, it still looked like the easiest way up the cliff.
My buddy went first while I belayed for him. Climbing up the 45-degree slope, he disappeared around a corner of the rock wall. Finally, a tug on the rope was my signal to climb up to his location and then past him. When I reached his location and looked up, I was stunned to see that, from where we were, the wall shot straight up into the air and then curved back overhead in a rocky overhang. It was now my task to scale the sheer face of the wall and then to somehow climb up that overhang using rope stirrups that I fastened into the wall with steel pitons, or rock-climbing nails.
I still have vivid memories of dangling from that rocky overhang with one foot in a rope stirrup, looking down from the dizzying height of 100 feet at the ground below, while I attempted to fix another rope stirrup further up the rock face. Exhausted, I finally made it over the edge of the cliff at the top and assisted my partner as he climbed up to where I was.
This cliff-climbing experience has become something of a parable in my life about the foolishness of trying to find the easy way out of things. It is significant to me that the iron rod in Lehi’s dream extended along the “straight and narrow path leading directly to the tree.” This way may not always be “easy” in the sense my partner and I were seeking when we climbed up the cliff, but nonetheless, when compared to the consequences of falling into the “filthy river,” there is always an “easiness to the way” of the Lord as Alma reminded Helaman.7
There is indeed a close proximity in this world between good and evil. You and I are aware of it every day. Our scriptures sit on a shelf in our homes or apartments next to a television set or computer that is capable of bringing all manner of filth into our lives. In the midst of our best efforts to think good thoughts and to be filled with the Spirit, we so often find ourselves bombarded by Satan’s missives. It really is true: in this world the tree of life with its marvelous fruit is not far from the river of filthy water. But, the straight and narrow path and the iron rod beside it stand between us and the filth. We need but to hold on tight to the iron rod as we move along the path. The iron rod of principle is always there. Grasp it and hold on tight!
I turn now to my third injunction to you. Remember! Opportunity is created by the wilderness. Seize it! Near the end of his life, as recorded in the second chapter of second Nephi, Lehi—having lived now so many years in the wilderness—made this profound observation: “It must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.”8 An “opposition in all things” is indeed a principle of life. There really is no easy way up the cliff!
So far, I have spoken about the “opposition” that exists between the principles of righteousness and the wiles of the adversary. But now I turn to another “opposition”—a close “cousin” to the first—that appears in this wilderness of mortality. I speak of the opposition of ease, of the failure to make the effort to succeed and accomplish. We live in a “fast food” environment. We want to sit in our car and order our food and then pull up to a window in a restaurant where it is handed to us. We want air conditioning everywhere. Instead of going to see a friend, or even telephoning him, we send a text. Rather than exert ourselves in a real physical contest, we are too often content to enjoy a virtual one in front of a computer or television screen.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with these modern conveniences and technological marvels. We all enjoy them. The problem becomes when technology and convenience infect our thinking with the idea that we must always drift to the “easy way.” My young friends, life is challenging! There really is no easy way! Hard work, study, and determination are as essential in today’s world as they ever were in previous eras. And the good news is that it is the “opposition in all things”—the difficulty—that creates the opportunities for those willing to make the effort to seize them!
Some may remember the film, A League of Their Own, which was in theatres a number of years ago, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. It is a film about a women’s baseball league created during World War II when most male athletes were overseas fighting the war. Tom Hanks plays the role of a gin-soaked, gimpy former all-star, turned coach. Geena Davis plays the role of the star player on his team. When her husband returns home from fighting in Europe unexpectedly, the Geena Davis character decides she wants to leave the team and return home to Oregon with her husband. When confronted by Tom Hanks as to why she is leaving at a critical point in the season, she declares that it had simply become “too hard.” Now, I will be the first to admit that it is not often when Hollywood comes up with a line in a movie that is worth remembering! But Tom Hanks’ response to the “too hard” statement in this movie is worth remembering.
Said he, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it; the hard is what makes it great!”9
Young people, the hard is what makes it great! A willingness to enroll in the challenging classes, to set worthwhile goals and a timetable for meeting them that require effort and stretching oneself—these are the qualities of character that lead inevitably to success in this life simply because those who are willing to make the effort are the ones who will find and seize the opportunities that mortality’s natural circumstances create. At the end of the day, it may not be the subject matter of a particular class—or the specifics of the goals and timetable—that will have mattered. What will have mattered is that in not taking the easy way—in following the more challenging path—you will have developed a character that hungers for challenge and that seizes opportunity when it presents itself.
Beloved young people, I have lived more than seven decades now. I admit that hardly seems possible! But I am here to tell you—more than anything else, and whether we are talking about spiritual or temporal things—I have learned this one lesson above all others: there is no easy way up the cliff! Remember always this lesson of life—in opposition there is opportunity! Seize it!
Finally, I come now to my fourth “wilderness lesson.” Roses bloom, even in the wilderness. Take time to smell them! When I urge you to move forward toward life and career with vigor and purpose, I mean to suggest a brisk, purposeful march, not a headlong, pell-mell sprint that shuts out everything else that is worthy and enjoyable in a beautiful world, leaving you exhausted, empty, and “burned out.” In my experience, if some of us are seduced by the trial of ease, others of us become bewitched by the pursuit of fame and fortune to the exclusion of all else. Balance is needed.
By way of illustration of that point—and the beauties that are out there for our enjoyment if we will but pause to do so—I share with you this piece that appeared a few years ago in the Washington Post:
“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
“Three minutes went by, and a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
“The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tugged him along, hurried, but the [lad] stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
“In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
“No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.”10
The music is out there. Listen for it! Roses really do bloom in the desert! Take time to smell them! So, here they are, once again—my four wilderness lessons:
The fruit of the tree sustains in the wilderness. Devour it!
The iron rod brings safe passage through the wilderness. Grasp it!
Opportunity is created by the wilderness. Seize it!
Roses bloom, even in the wilderness. Take time to smell them!
My thoughts take me once again down my hall of memories of nearly a half-century to a dark night in a Vietnamese jungle clearing and the reassuring flashes of artillery flares that provided light in the wilderness. Lehi’s experience stands as a metaphor for us all. There really is vision—light—in the wilderness of mortality. We need only have the eyes to see it. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1 Matt. 3:4, Mark 1:6.
2 Matt. 4.
3 Ex. 3:1; 19:3; 33:11.
4 See Ether 3 and 1 Ne. 17.
5 See Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Ministry of Angels,” Ensign, Nov. 2008, 29.
6 Dallin H. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 14.
7 Alma 37:46.
8 2 Ne. 2:11.
9A League of Their Own, 1992.
10 G. Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,”, Washington Post, April 8, 2007.