Dean, Foundations & Interdisciplinary Studies at BYU-Idaho
We began today by singing one of my favorite hymns: “The Light Divine.”1 “The Light of God rests on the face of brook and flower and tree.” You'll notice that these are all beautiful things. Beauty is one of the surest signs in this world that God lives and loves us. When we see the sun rise, or hear a bird sing, or smell a flower, or listen to the low ceaseless roar of the ocean, it kindles hope in our hearts. It makes us happy.
Beauty is the presence of God’s power in all things. It is a truth that shines; it is the power of life; it is a principle of order, of structure, of form and balance. Most of all, it is love. When we see or hear or touch or smell or taste a beautiful object, we feel our Creator’s love.
The beautiful things of this world call to us. They are placed here to remind us of our true home. A loving God bore us as his spiritual offspring, and he will never forsake us. He wants us to return one day and live with Him. We have a divine nature and an eternal destiny.
The Irish poet John O’Donohue tells us that “beauty is the secret sound of the deepest thereness of things.”2 What he means by “thereness” is their eternal nature and their source in the love and creativity of God. They have always been there, and always will. Mortality gives a disturbing illusion of the temporariness of things. Everywhere we look, things seem to unravel, to proceed from order to disorder. Scientists call this the principle of entropy. But behind all the apparent entropy are things that are and always will be there. When we see the beauty of something, we perceive its eternal and changeless nature.
The Book of Moses tells us that all things were created spiritually before they were temporally.3 All things have a plan that is as eternal as their being. Life is striving to become the plan. Only when a creature becomes its plan does it fill the measure of its creation. Essential to the process of becoming is the process of knowing. We need to know God, we need to know ourselves, and we need to come to understand the plan God has for us. God teaches us in many ways: through the instruction of the Spirit, through the teaching of prophets and other teachers, through scriptures and great books, through the examples of others, even through the incomparable and surprising wonders of the natural world. God has also inspired artists and musicians and poets to create great works of art that are embedded with truth. They can teach us many things about the plan God has for us if we will only look.
A couple of semesters ago I had a student in one of my classes who was from Minnesota. She told our class that she was glad she came to Idaho, even though it was so ugly. I expect that she said this because Idaho is not as lush and green as Minnesota. I was a little offended, and recommended that she take the short drive to Mesa Falls or Harriman State Park or the Tetons. But then I remembered that I had a similar experience in my younger years.
For my first teaching job, I took my young family to Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was very different from Idaho. Instead of lawns, most people had gravel. Instead of wood and brick, the houses were made of adobe and stucco. Instead of grass and trees, there was sand and creosote. They had things that they called rivers, but there was no water in them. They had mountains, but they weren’t covered with trees; instead they appeared to be nothing but dirt and rock. Everything seemed to poke you, pinch you, bite you, or sting you. I looked about me and decided that it wouldn’t be long before we moved away and went somewhere more attractive.
But as it turned out, we stayed for 17 years. We raised our children there, built an opera company, served in the Church, and came to love the people of the Mesilla Valley. We built a house in the desert and got to know its myriad plant and animal life: the cactuses, the mesquite, the jameston weed, the jackrabbits, the lizards, even the snakes and tarantulas. We camped and hiked with our children in the mountains. My wife built Christmas wreaths out of pods from yucca plants. We first endured, then tolerated, then embraced the hot green chili that grew in the fields along the Rio Grande. We discovered that there were toads in the desert that slept in the sand for 11 months of the year, but when the summer monsoons came they would come out of their torpor and hop all over the streets, yards, and sidewalks, and lay eggs in the short-lived pools of standing water. In a few days the puddles were filled with polliwogs, then in a few more they would change into toads and burrow into the sand again. We also discovered that every three or four springs, when the winter had been just right, millions of orange Mexican poppies would blanket the valleys and mountainsides. Nearly every evening—spring, summer, fall, and winter—we were treated to a magnificent sunset. And the weather! As former Idahoans, we especially enjoyed our annual New Years’ Day picnic. We came to love New Mexico. Just like Idaho and Michigan, we found it to be beautiful. We just needed to get to know it.
All too often we overlook beautiful things. Sometimes in our mortal lives we feel alone, trapped inside our own heads, beset by the “thick of thin things.” It is important to cultivate a habit of seeing and contemplating beauty in things. In times of trial this habit of beauty will strengthen us and teach us what we need to know. The philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind.”4 It is not likely that we will begin to pursue beauty in the midst of our dark times. But if we have made its pursuit a habit now, when the dark times come it will be like a true and loyal friend who never leaves our side in the midst of our affliction.
Today I would like to suggest five places that you can find beauty while you are here at BYU-Idaho. I invite you to arouse your faculties of perception and look for it. First, I invite you to look for beauty in the world around us. We are surrounded by beautiful things, if we only have eyes to see them. Every morning there is a sunrise, and every evening a sunset. There are flowers in the gardens in spring, fields of abundance in summer, a riot of colors in autumn, and pure white snow and the world at rest in winter. We can surround ourselves with beauty—not just great paintings and mighty symphonies (although those are good too), but simpler, easier things, like a snapshot of a friend, a well-set table, a clean room, or a well-edited homework assignment. There is joy in that kind of order, and the love of God, which is desirable above all other things.
In fact, the Lord has told us that the entire earth is here to make us happy. In Doctrine and Covenants 59, after talking about living the commandments, keeping the Sabbath, and fasting and prayer, the Lord tells us:
“And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances…the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards; Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.”5
The abundance of the earth is ours to enjoy. There are only two conditions the Lord sets: “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.”6 Confessing God’s hand means giving Him the credit. But it also means being grateful. To be grateful we must notice all that God has done for us, ponder it, and let it sink down deep into our hearts.
Second, I invite you to see the beauty in the people you encounter while here at BYU-Idaho. This truly is a remarkable gathering place, and everyone who comes here has a story to tell about why they are here. Everyone has gifts that they either brought with them from the preexistence or have worked hard to develop while here on earth. In most cases, it is some of both. These gifts help each person accomplish the tasks that they are set to do in this life. Paul talks about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, and compares each of us, with our own spiritual gifts, to eyes and ears, hands and feet of a single body.7 He tells us to covet earnestly the best gifts.8 But the greatest gift, he says, is charity.9
Without charity we live our lives in our own little worlds, neither giving anyone else the benefits of our gifts or receiving any benefit from theirs. I believe charity is at the heart of President Clark’s counsel to remove from our faces the mask of indifference. I have so enjoyed the smiling faces I have seen since his devotional talk earlier this semester. This is true beauty. When I see you smile, I see your true nature and it makes me happy.
I am sure your teachers also appreciate it when you bring your most precious gifts to their class, listen attentively to them when they talk to you, and participate in class discussion. It’s even nice to laugh at some of their jokes. As part of my assignment as dean I get to visit classrooms for our various Foundations courses. Many times I see students and teachers engaged in vigorous learning. But sometimes a kind of malaise hangs in the air. I define malaise as boredom combined with a dread of what’s to come. Is this going to be on the test? How hard is it going to be? Are we going to get a study guide?
I tell my students that if they’re bored at a classical musical concert, they need to pay closer attention. This also works for devotional talks. Try it in class. Don’t put the burden of proof on your teacher to demonstrate to you why the course is important. Instead, listen carefully, look for truth, try to see the beauty in what you are learning. Make the connections yourself, discover how what you are learning relates to everything else you have studied, and how you will put it to use in the rest of your life. Then teach what you have learned to your fellow students. Don't hide the light of your enthusiasm for learning under a bushel. Your teacher will appreciate seeing your face without the mask of indifference in class.
This then leads to a third place to look for beauty. While here at BYU-Idaho I invite you to discover the beauty of learning. Make sure that your life doesn’t get so hectic and distracted that you only make a shallow acquaintance with shallow things. There are deep things out there, things of eternal moment, things that carry sufficient potency to change the course of your life. But they are not easy. They do not yield their treasures at first glance. They are like rich veins of precious minerals buried deep in the earth. You can’t just walk around and pick them up off the ground. Generally those things that are easy to get are worth just about what you pay for them.
The 13th Article of Faith says, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”10 Doctrine and Covenants 88also commands us to seek “out of the best books words of wisdom” and to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”11 We should study “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.”12 It sounds like Foundations, doesn’t it?
An important reason why we are commanded to study these things is that they testify of God. When we look at the beautiful things of this world, we see the power of God's redeeming love. God’s love is in the miracle of new life, the vigor of youth, the abundance of maturity, the tenacity of old age. It is in the seas teeming with diversity, the lichens breaking down the rocks and forming new soil, the boldness of extremophile bacteria living in the most hostile of climates. It is in the creative work of man, in the great gothic cathedrals and Rembrandt’s paintings and Mozart’s piano concertos and Emily Dickinson’s poems. And it is in the obedience of all things to the will of God, the stars and planets rolling on their wings, the earth bringing forth life, all creatures filling the measure of their creation. As the 88th Section attests, “any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.”13 They deserve more than a cursory glance. They deserve more than memorizing them for the test and then dumping them to make room for the next information glut. They deserve as much of your time and attention as you can muster.
Fourth, I invite you to ponder the beauty of our Savior’s atonement. Each week in sacrament meeting we have the opportunity to reflect on the beauty of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and the potential it has to change our life. The sacrament we keep on Sunday is a reenactment of the Last Supper, when Jesus called his apostles to him the night before his crucifixion and fed them. He did this to commemorate the Jewish Passover, which in turn commemorated the deliverance of the Children of Israel out of Egypt, and the making of a covenant between God and Israel, his peculiar people. Finally, the Deliverance of Israel from Egypt was itself a similitude of the redemption and resurrection wrought by our Savior’s atoning sacrifice.
Like Israel we are in bondage—Israel to Egypt, ourselves to sin. Like Moses, our Savior works great miracles on our behalf to deliver us. And as with ancient Israel, the result of this miraculous deliverance is a covenant relationship—God promises to be our God, and we to be his people. It is interesting to me that the Lord commands us to commemorate our great redemption by eating and drinking. As you can probably tell, I like to eat. Of course we have to eat to live. But with many of us it goes way beyond that. We love the taste of food. Food is a token of hospitality, of friendship. When a friend comes in from out of town, we eat. When the family gets together we eat. When my father died the people in his small town consoled us with food: they told us they were sorry, and they brought us ham and sloppy joes, cheesy potatoes and homemade cinnamon rolls, cupcakes and casseroles, vegetable and fruit plates. Someone even roasted a turkey. Food is important to us, and so we are commanded to commemorate our redeemer’s great sacrifice by eating.
Probably in one of your Foundations of Science classes you learned that bread is mostly made up of complex molecules called starches. When you digest them, starches are first broken down into simpler sugars and then converted into the energy that fuels your body. When you partake of the sacrament, don’t be in too much of a hurry to swallow your emblem of bread. Hold it in your mouth, chew it, mix it with your saliva, and notice that as the enzymes convert the starch to sugar it will become sweet. This reminds me of Lehi saying that the fruit of the tree of life was “most sweet, above all that [he] ever before tasted.14
The sacrament prayer tells us that we eat the bread in remembrance of the body of the Savior. Like us, our Savior had a body. From his earthly mother he received the ability to be tempted, to suffer pain, to die. But from his divine Father he received the ability to overcome temptation, to endure, to rise again. The sacrifice of His body makes possible our deliverance from our bodies. Just as bread strengthens our body, so Christ's atonement gives us strength, changes us, purges out the old man, makes us new. Because of Christ's experience with His body, he is patient and longsuffering with the weaknesses of ours. Thus he offers us forgiveness for our sins, and through our repentance he leads us by the Spirit from grace to grace. The author of Hebrews writes:
“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”15
As we drink the water we are reminded of his blood that was shed for us. With it we are washed and cleansed. Like water, true repentance washes the tastes of former actions away. It is cool and refreshing. It cleanses former tastes to prepare the way for new ones, as the Spirit washes away our former life to prepare the way for our new life in Christ. It fills our veins with the power of the Spirit. When you haven’t had enough to drink, you become weary and weak. A good drink of water floods energy back into your body. So does the Spirit. Just as water is as essential to life as bread, so is the Spirit as essential as the flesh. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”16 The water at the sacrament reminds us to take time each day to seek living water from the scriptures, the words of the prophets, prayer, and fellowship with the church.
At some times and in some theologies men have believed that when the priest consecrates the sacrament it is transformed into the literal flesh and blood of the Savior. We believe in an even greater miracle: We bless and sanctify the emblems so that they will turn our minds to God, so that he can turn us into a new man or woman. It is not the emblems that are transformed, but us. As you sit in sacrament meeting, don’t forget to turn your mind to the beauty of the sacrament as it is administered and the miraculous atonement it commemorates.
Finally, I want you to give due attention to the beauty that is you. John tells us, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”17 You are a son or daughter of God. This is not figurative. What has remained a great mystery to the rest of humanity throughout all ages of the earth is sung by little children in the dispensation of the fullness of times. “I am a child of God and he has sent me here.”18
And it doth not yet appear what we shall be. My voice students often ask me what they are going to be. Am I a soprano or an alto? Or maybe even more to the point, do I have the talent, intelligence, and commitment to succeed in my chosen profession? Or perhaps, how will I make use of the talents God has given me and that I have worked so hard to refine, and at the same time be a father or mother in Zion, serve in the Church, and hold fast to my covenants? I have to tell them that at this moment in time, I’m afraid I don’t have a detailed answer to these questions. It doth not yet appear what we shall be.
But we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. We need to remember that God, who knows all things, who sees the end from the beginning, sees the beautiful and divine potential in each of us. He has a plan for us, and if we trust and obey him, he will work that plan on our behalf. This is why everyone that hath this hope in him purifieth themselves, even as he is pure.
Brothers and sisters, I testify that God lives and loves us. I testify that he has filled the world and the hearts of men with beautiful things for our wonder and enlightenment. I testify that he has a plan for each of us. And I testify that as we live his commandments and confess his hand in all things he will give us a life that is more beautiful than any we could possibly imagine for ourselves.
1 “The Light Divine,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 305
2 John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2004), p. 50.
3 Moses 3:5
4 Quoted in O’Donohue, Beauty, 17
5 Doctrine and Covenants 59:15-19
6 Doctrine and Covenants 59:21
7 1 Corinthians 12:14-22
8 1 Corinthians 12:31
9 1 Corinthians 13:13
10 Articles of Faith 13
11 Doctrine and Covenants 88:118
12 Doctrine and Covenants 88:79
13 Doctrine and Covenants 88:47
14 1 Nephi 8: 11
15 Hebrews 4:15-16
16 Matthew 4:4
17 1 John 3:2-3
18 “I Am a Child of God,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 301