I love Brigham Young University–Idaho and I love the students who attend here. I’ve been blessed by my church service on campus and the opportunities it has given me to more deeply know of your great faith and your enthusiasm for living the gospel. A former ward member, a wonderful sister currently serving a mission in France, was recently discussing in an email her companionship’s effort to aid those who are less active in their reigniting of the gospel fire in their lives.
She boldly wrote to her friends and family, “Making and keeping covenants is so vital. Raise your hand if you've made a covenant with God! Now keep your hand raised if you are keeping your covenants! If your hand is down, I suggest you make some changes/call the missionaries. Cool. Glad that's settled. If you live the commandments and keep your covenants, the gospel will bring you more joy than you can ever keep track of.” I hope to borrow some of her boldness in discussing covenant keeping today.
In 1986, I was contemplating two great gifts in my life. I had a wife and I had hair. Now while I was grateful for both, I knew that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away1 and sure enough, I was blessed to be the oldest grandson of Stanford Alma Burnham, a man of great wisdom and no hair—none—we are talking billiard ball smooth. Once he caught me bemoaning my genetically predicted future (I had just learned of the male pattern baldness gene and its bestowal through your mother’s father side of the family). He said in all seriousness, “Jeffery, don’t think of it as less hair; think of it as more face.” And thus I have ever thought. I am grateful today, in fullness of face, to address you.
So it was 1986 and I did have two great blessings, and one was the year and half long marriage to my best friend in all the earth and the second blessing was the anticipation of a visit from my parents. Kristi and I lived in Provo, feeling fully actualized as kind of a Bobby and Betty BYU: both of us working on our marriage and family majors, both of us teaching missionaries at the Missionary Training Center, and both of us making 475 square feet of apartment space into a home—our home.
A year and a half into that married bliss, my parents were coming to Salt Lake City for my father to receive back surgery. My father was due for a several week recuperation, which would place him under my mother’s direct care and they would both be staying at the home of my wife’s parents and within visiting range of two dirt-poor college students.
Near the end of my parents’ time with us, my father presented me with a poem. I had received other letters and thoughts from my father over the years, but I had never received a poem. It had my interest. Now my father was a man who would sit by my childhood bedside and explain in vivid detail how cells work, how blood flowed though veins and arteries, how muscle and bone combined to help us run and walk and move. He knew things about stars in the sky, about pine trees in the White Mountains of Arizona. He had been a seminary teacher, turned deputy sheriff; he wore boots and had a shiny badge. He made seemingly endless piles of French toast and homemade syrup every Saturday morning.
Mom and Dad had nine of us, and providing for such a brood saw my Dad take weekend security jobs at ASU football games or lonely midnight shifts securing shopping malls and stores. Those long nights offered him the occasional respite to sit and ponder. During one of these late night vigils, he once penned an 11-point document entitled, “True Happiness: What I Want To Teach My Children.” To me, it reads like scripture, for example, this counsel, “Happiness follows effort. It occurs when the mind is at peace with the soul and the heart, when we are one with ourselves. It frequently occurs in the midst of hardship, trial, poverty, pain. It is frequently absent in the midst of wealth, ease, comfort and physical pleasure.”2 My father thought often of his children and how he might teach us principles of happiness, even when he could not be physically present. And once again he was teaching me, this time through poetry.
The poem tells of a young husband and father, who has gone into the mountains near his home to have solitary communion with his Heavenly Father in prayer.
The young man has a plea:
"What gift can I give dear Father,
To show my love for thee?"
The Father responds:
"There is no gift that thou canst bring
Except thyself—just thee"
The man is perplexed and seeks to probe further, but the response, “only thyself—just thee” is all he receives that morning and he must head down into the fields of his day’s work, pondering over this message from the Lord. Near the end of his day, weary and worn, he returns home and coming up the path is greeted by shouts of joy and hugs from his small child. The heart of this young father is filled near to bursting with love for his child. Slowly, with his little one clasped in his arms, the father turns and looks again at the mountain where earlier that day he had poured out his heart regarding something holy he could offer to the Heavenly Father he loved so much. It seemed to the young man as the last stream of sunlight hits the mountain peak that he felt an answer pierce his heart.
I desire to speak today of gifts of self that can be offered heavenward and also forward in time to the hands and hearts of the generation that will take your place. I believe that your hearts can turn even now to your children. President Henry B. Eyring has said:
God knows our gifts. My challenge to you and to me is to pray to know the gifts we have been given, to know how to develop them, and to recognize the opportunities to serve others that God provides us. But most of all, I pray that you will be inspired to help others discover their special gifts from God to serve.4
Soon after I had received this poem from my father, the president of Brigham Young University, Jeffrey R. Holland, had a talk published in the Ensign magazine.5 Knowing how you feel about President Clark, as the president during your time at this university, I’m hoping you can appreciate what I felt for my university president. I would devour anything printed or published by President Holland, who served at BYU from 1980-1989. He and Sister Holland often spoke together at the beginning of each semester as do President and Sister Clark. In our day those beginning of the semester devotionals were popularly known on the Provo campus as, “the Jeff & Pat Show” and we loved to gather, as you do now, to hear our President and First Lady give us counsel.
A certain story from that talk had a profound influence on my understanding of what it means to be a father. President Holland described a scene he chanced upon while walking through the Salt Lake International Airport following a lengthy trip he had just completed. In those pre-9/11 days you could accompany a friend or family member right to the boarding area before they departed or be present at the gates to greet loved ones who had just flown home. President Holland said that as he came into the terminal that, it was clear there was a missionary returning home due to all the “conspicuous-looking missionary friends and missionary relatives” around the terminal. He says:
I tried to pick out the immediate family members. There was a father who did not look particularly comfortable in an awkward- fitting and slightly out-of-fashion suit. He seemed to be a man of the soil, with a suntan and large, work-scarred hands….There was a mother who was quite thin, looking as if she had worked very hard in her life…[she seemed filled with] anticipation only the mother of a returning missionary could know. There was a beautiful girl who—well, you know about girls and returning missionaries. She appeared to be on the verge of cardiac arrest…Two or three younger brothers and sisters were running around, largely oblivious to the scene that was unfolding. I walked past them all and started for the front of the terminal. Then I thought to myself, ‘This is one of the special human dramas in our lives. Stick around and enjoy it.’
Slipping into the back of the crowd and watching as passengers started coming off the plane, President Holland said he soon:
Found [himself] starting to bet (Church-approved betting, of course) as to who would make the break first. I thought probably the girlfriend would want to most of all, but undoubtedly she was struggling with discretion. Two years is a long time, you know, and maybe one shouldn’t appear too assertive. Then a look…convinced me that the mother was probably the one. She obviously needed to hold something, so the child she had carried and nurtured and gone down into the valley of the shadow of death to deliver would be just what the doctor ordered.
Now we are going to leave President Holland there at the airport for a few minutes, betting with himself, but I promise we’ll come back to him. Many of you have experienced this type of greeting upon your return from your time of service as a missionary or from military duty. And as you are reacclimatized to non-mission life you are inundated with questions about your plans for the future, and because you are, say, a red-blooded, Mormon male you declare with gravitas and a sense of mission, “Well I’m headed back to BYU-Idaho, because that’s where the girlfriend is and I’m going to see how things work out with her. I’m going to room with my old companion, Elder Jones, my trainer, who taught me the ways of mission life there in the Coachabamburrino South District, where we both experienced dysentery and the joys of preaching the gospel together and bonded for life. I’m taking along this amazing new phone you all have given me, so I can update all the family and the thousands of other friends I’ve discovered I have, on every move I make throughout the day, complete with pictures; and you can know what I’m thinking about (deep, meaningful thoughts) revealed at any given moment, even whilst working out on the rowing machine in the Hart or standing in line in the Manwaring to get a frozen yogurt—suddenly noticing that sister from the 142nd Ward who we did the combined snowshoeing activity with, the one with the cute freckles on her nose—but yes those are my plans.”
Now those are marvelous plans and let’s connect those plans to the Lord’s plans for you. When the Prophet Joseph Smith experiences his nighttime visits with the Angel Moroni, in addition to discussing the all-important plates of gold containing the message that will change the world, this assigned angelic minister also:
Commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament… instead of quoting [Malachi 4:5-6] as it reads in our books, he quoted…the fifth verse thus: Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
He also quoted the next verse differently:
And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.6
Malachi 4:5-6 reads:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Note the differences between the Old Testament Malachi passage and the version given by Moroni to the young Joseph. The words reveal, priesthood, plant and promises stand as significant additions to our understanding of Elijah’s purpose in returning to the earth. The Restoration is only, relatively speaking, a few minutes old, when the young seventeen-year-old Joseph is told of sealing power and promises made to fathers and promises planted by God through Elijah into the hearts of children and that if this doesn’t happen then the whole point and purpose of the earth is wasted. And the questions I’d invite you to consider are: What is this priesthood? What is it that is supposed be in my heart that will cause me to turn? Where or toward what am I turned in my life right now? And how do I turn?
Twelve and a half years after this night with Moroni, Joseph Smith will stand with Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and the priesthood keys that will seal and make families eternal are restored by that very prophet Elijah. And when Elijah speaks, he returns to the language of Malachi when he says, “Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi…To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse.”7
Elijah has come to turn hearts of children to their fathers and also to turn the hearts of the fathers, which appears to suggest that the fathers need to turn from whatever direction they are facing and turn toward their children. Perhaps a brief quotation here from an apostle who served the Church during your grandparents era, Elder Matthew Cowley, can aid us as he describes unique gifts to both women and men, that aid us in turning our hearts.
You sisters…belong to the great sorority of saviorhood…[and while you] may not hold the priesthood…You are born with an inherent right, an inherent authority, to be the saviors of human souls. You are the co-creators with God of his children. Therefore, it is expected of you by a right divine that you be the saviors and the regenerating force in the lives of God’s children here upon the earth.
Our sisters can draw upon many notable examples of such savior-work, beginning with Mother Eve. Sister Patricia Holland shared regarding Eve that she:
Was given the identity of, ‘the mother of all living,’ years, decades, perhaps even centuries before she ever bore a child. It would appear that her motherhood preceded her maternity, just as surely as the perfection of the Garden preceded the struggles of mortality.8
That phrase, “her motherhood preceded her identity” suggests something of the heartfelt pondering that can occur for you young women, over the children that you will “mother” in the future. Would not such reflection, the turning of your heart now to your children, influence choices you make each day?
Concerning men, Elder Cowley went on to teach taught that, “Men are different, men have to have something given to them to make them saviors of men, but not mothers, not women.”9 Priesthood power is given to my brethren that might make saviors of us. Elijah restores specific priesthood keys which unlocks a pathway into “that order of the priesthood meaning the new and ever-lasting covenant of marriage.”10 We as men learn in that order of the Priesthood to do as the Apostle Paul directed, “to love our wives even as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it.”11And then in accord with heaven’s timing, and the choices made as husband and wife, we can let our hearts turn to our children. Consider a great archetype, which has been placed before us in the life of Father Abraham.
In Abraham’s own record found in the Pearl of Great Price, this patriarch among patriarchs recounts his own journey and pilgrimage, forsaking the world of idol worship that belonged to, “My fathers [they] having turned from…righteousness, and…[now turned] unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen.”12 Instead Abraham chose a different path, to find and serve and receive knowledge from the true and living God (see Jeremiah 1:10). Again from his own record Abraham tells us that he desires:
After stating this desire, Abraham then pursued with full energy of heart, the course that led to the life that the Father lives. Abraham 1 and chapters 12-15 of Genesis present us with test after test that unfolded for Abraham: his faith tested as he lay on an altar, his own life about to be sacrificed; his marriage tested while waiting on the Lord for the protection of Sarah who is in the Egyptian Pharoah’s bedchamber; Abraham’s trust in the Lord’s promise of land was tested when he and his nephew Lot struggled to make use of the land; his desire for peace was tested after reaping the spoils of war in the battle of the four kings in which Abraham rescued Lot and could have chosen to rule as a conquering king; time after time Abraham demonstrated the integrity of his heart and his focus on becoming a greater follower of righteousness, one who is seeking to establish Zion, to serve as a prince of peace.
My wife shared with me recently a picture found posted on that genius collective mind known as Facebook. The image is of a Jane Austen, Victorian-era type woman clasping the arm and looking into the face of her gallantly dressed gentleman/super-hero of her day. The caption reads, “‘When I grow up I want to marry a grown man addicted to playing video games.’ Said no woman ever.” My brothers what is it you desire to become? Elder Richard G Scott has taught, “We become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day. Righteous character is a precious manifestation of what you are becoming.”14 Let us examine yet another example of testing from Abraham’s life and a choice he made that reveals his character, and demonstrates how one can turn their heart to their children, even before they are born.
In Genesis chapter 15, Abraham seeks to better understand the covenant promises made to him by the Lord. Abraham and Sarah have both been faithful through the multiple tests and trials. And yet the promised child for Sarah and himself has not been born. Thus in this chapter Abraham, now in his 80s, wonders if perhaps he has misunderstood what God intended. Does God desire that Abraham’s house be established through the lineage of Eliezer, Abraham’s faithful steward? There may be occasions in mortality where some of us wonder with Abraham about the timing of the Lord’s promises. In the words of Elder Richard G. Scott:
Some of you may feel lonely and unappreciated and cannot see how it will be possible for you to have the blessings of marriage and children or your own family. All things are possible to the Lord, and He keeps the promises He inspires His prophets to declare. Eternity is a long time. Have faith in those promises and live to be worthy of them so that in His time the Lord can make them come true in your life. With certainty, you will receive every promised blessing for which you are worthy.15
“And the word of the Lord came unto [Abraham, in answer to his question] saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.”16 And the Lord takes Abraham out under the stars, “Look now toward heaven and tell the stars [count the stars], if thou be able to number them…so shall thy seed be.”17
The King James Version tells us that Abraham believed the Lord, but the Joseph Smith Translation of this verse at this point adds significant detail, describing how the Lord chose to show in vision the life of Jesus Christ, which made Abraham glad and his soul found rest in what the Lord had revealed. Ancient rabbinical sources and other apocryphal writings that have only recently come to light and would not have been available in Joseph Smith’s day further describe this vision as one that may well have included a heavenly journey by Abraham into the very throne room of God.
Led by a heavenly messenger, Abraham is shown the city of Enoch, or Zion. A blessing that Abraham had long sought for was to unite with Enoch’s Zion, and it would appear that in this setting that Abraham is told by the Lord to state whatever he desires and it would be his. Looking out over this heavenly splendor of Zion, “it appears that Abraham could have asked for and received this gift, but chose otherwise: he chose to remain on earth to receive fulfillment of the blessing of a posterity that would bless the earth, bless all nations and build Zion”18 here in mortality. In essence, Abraham makes his choice and says simply, “I want to be a dad.”
My good brothers, reflect on your desire to be a dad. By your choices each day you are becoming what you will be. Join Abraham in the great journey to become something, a greater follower of righteousness, a father who seeks to care for the next generation, and pursue the priesthood order, even the new and everlasting covenant of marriage (see D&C 131:2) that leads to fatherhood and to motherhood and to saviorhood. Within that order of the priesthood—with sealing power restored by Elijah—is the divine sanction given to create a life together. The distractions and dead ends that Satan seeks to lure you away with are certainly numerous and challenging, but we can demonstrate our faithfulness while enduring the tests that come our way, even as father Abraham, by reminding ourselves of what we desire to become.
I had occasion once to visit with a young man who shared a source of strength for him in turning away from the temptations of pornography. A bishop had once counseled him to consider his own feelings if ever he were to find his own father viewing such images, “How would you feel?” The young brother described the disappointment and sorrow he imagined would come if ever he found his father in such a setting.
Then the bishop asked, “How would you feel if your own children saw you?”
What if we all followed such counsel when faced with temptations to tamper with this procreative power? Picture him, your son, with your spouse’s eyes and your nose and that Stanford Burnham hairdo. Picture her, your daughter, with hair and a smile that says, “I’m here, love me.”
Such pictures held in your mind’s eye, “the eye of faith.”19 will aid you to turn away from other images and thoughts that would otherwise seek to divide you from the love you will share with an eternal companion. Satan desires that you burn isolated and alone in lust, separated from the children you could have here and in eternity. Remember that Elijah himself has come to help you turn your heart to the promises made to your children.
Most recently from Elder D. Todd Christofferson has come this timely counsel:
We must be men that women can trust, that children can trust, and that God can trust…We cannot afford young men who lack self- discipline and live only to be entertained. We cannot afford young adult men who are going nowhere in life, who are not serious about forming families and making a real contribution in this world….We cannot afford to have those who exercise the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God, waste their strength in pornography or spend their lives in cyberspace...Brethren, we have work to do…Take heart and prepare the best you can, whatever your circumstances. Prepare to be a good husband and father.20
Finally, there is the greatest source of example and strength to aid us in our knowledge about turning our hearts to our children. Elder Holland taught:
Of the many magnificent purposes served in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, one great aspect of that mission often goes uncelebrated…It is the grand truth that in all that Jesus came to say and do, including and especially in His atoning suffering and sacrifice, He was showing us who and what God our Eternal Father is like, how completely devoted He is to His children in every age and nation. In word and in deed Jesus was trying to reveal and make personal to us the true nature of His Father, our Father in Heaven.”21
Jesus is showing us how completely the Father has remembered the promises he has made to his children, showing us how completely the Father has turned his heart towards us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”22
Do you remember earlier we left then-President Holland standing in an airport terminal? He is still there wondering who will greet this returning missionary. Suddenly the missionary appears, exiting the plane.
He looked like Captain Moroni, clean and handsome and straight and tall…his suit was worn but clean, his slightly tattered raincoat was still protecting him from the chill his mother had so often warned him about. He came to the bottom of the steps and started out across…toward our building and then, sure enough, somebody [in the crowd of family and friends] couldn’t take it any longer. It wasn’t the mother, and it wasn’t the girlfriend…[It was the father]. That big, slightly awkward, quiet and bronzed giant of a man put an elbow into the ribcage of a flight attendant and ran, just simply ran, out onto that [airfield] and swept his son into his arms.
[The elder] was probably 6′2″ or so, but this big bear of a father grabbed him, took him clear off his feet, and held him for a long, long time. He just held him and said nothing. The boy dropped his briefcase, put both arms around his dad, and they just held each other very tightly. It seemed like all eternity stood still, and for a precious moment the Salt Lake City Airport was the center of the entire universe. It was as if all the world had gone silent out of respect for such a sacred moment.
And then, Pres. Holland said:
I thought of God the Eternal Father watching his boy go out to serve, to sacrifice when he didn’t have to do it, paying his own way, so to speak, costing everything he had saved all his life to give. At that precious moment, it was not too difficult to imagine that father speaking with some emotion to those who could hear, ‘This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And it was also possible to imagine that triumphant returning son, saying, ‘It is finished. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’23
“Oh Father, what gift can I offer,
To show my love for thee?”
My Son, you have given the one gift that matters
It is thyself, just thee.
Brothers and sisters, may we all give of ourselves and seek diligently to turn hearts, beginning with our own, is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
18. E. Douglas Clark, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People, Covenant Communications, 2005, 152. See Chapter 7 of the same volume for the additional sources and fuller description of Abraham’ vision.