What I Know Now That I Wish I Had Known Then

Betty Oldham

 

Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional

July 1, 2008

 

 

Brothers and sisters, this is a humbling experience.  From up here I see neighbors, friends, and colleagues scattered throughout this auditorium; thank you for being here.  To each member of my family, no matter where you are this afternoon, I express appreciation for your ongoing, unending support.  How I love and rely on you!  And to you students, I want you to know how impressed I am by your faithful attendance at devotional, for your willingness to be taught—no matter who the speaker is.   

 

I invite the Holy Ghost to be with us today, that I might appropriately share those thoughts that have come to my mind and the feelings that have come to my heart as I have prepared for this assignment.  I pray that you, too, will invite the Spirit into this meeting and that you will have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what the Holy Ghost desires to teach you.

 

One of my friends from the Executive Office and I sat in the top row of Section C during the first devotional of this semester when President and Sister Clark served as the speakers.  I had already received the invitation to serve as today’s speaker, so I paid close attention as you filed in that day and filled this auditorium to near capacity.  I was totally overwhelmed at the thought of me standing here and was overcome with feelings of inadequacy.  I even shed a few tears—not out of fear, but because I sensed the responsibility that had been entrusted to me to provide a message that would bless your lives and bring about worthwhile change.

 

Sitting up there in Section C that day, my mind went back to when I was a student at Ricks College, to the time when the Hart Building was the newest physical facility on campus.  That was a long time ago—too long ago for me to remember for sure which day of the week devotional was held or whether it was in the morning or the afternoon.  But I remember coming to devotional.  Week after week, I sat right down there on the floor in a section of chairs that was reserved for a service organization I belonged to.  As Valkyries, we were asked to dress in our service uniform on devotional day and to sit as a group during the devotional hour.  It was a great time of camaraderie and sisterhood.

 

Back then I thought I knew everything!

 

Hindsight, a lifetime of living, and a bit of maturity tell me that perhaps I did not know quite as much as I thought I did.  Without question, there are things I know now that I wish I had known then!  Oh, to go back, to take a little wisdom and insight with me.  I would do some things differently, make wiser choices, be a better person.  For instance:

I wish I had known what a privilege it is to be a student at this institution.  I would have made better use of my time.  I would have studied more for the learning and less for the grades.  I would have attended devotional for the right reasons.

I wish I had known that parents do not live forever.  I would have been kinder to my father and mother.  I would have been more inclined to seek their counsel and heed their advice.

 

I wish I had known that this life is not about me.  I would have been a better friend to my roommates, more tolerant of what appeared to me to be their quirks.  I would have thought less about what I wanted and more about the needs and wants of others.

 

Some of you are probably thinking:  “Sister Oldham, I am light years ahead of you.  I already know all that stuff.”  But there is a difference between knowing about something, knowing of it, and knowing.  In other words, it is possible to intellectually know something, without really knowing.

 

The dictionary defines knowledge as an “. . . acquaintance or familiarity with a fact . . . that [which] has been perceived or grasped by the mind.”1  But the knowledge I am talking about does not come from the mind, it comes from the heart.  It involves an additional layer—a layer the scriptures refer to as understanding.  Elder David A. Bednar taught that “understanding is built upon knowledge” and that it comes as ”we use our hearts and the process of revelation to obtain a confirming spiritual witness concerning the truth of what we have come to know.”2

 

Today I want to talk about four things that show up on my long list of things I wish I had known when I was a student at Ricks College—things you may already know about but perhaps may not fully understand, things I wish I had understood when I was your age.

 

First, I wish I had known that how we serve in the Church is far more important than where we serve, and that giving our best effort is far more important than status or titles.

 

As you probably know, Elder Bednar served as president of BYU–Idaho prior to being called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Shortly after that change in assignment was announced, Robert Wilkes was invited to serve as interim president of the university until President Clark arrived the following August.  President Wilkes had previously served as a mission president and in key administrative positions here at the university.  One day while serving as interim president, he received an email from one of his former missionaries.  It read, in part:

. . . Over the years, I have . . . wondered if you [trusted] me . . . . As missionaries return, and they discuss the accomplishments of their mission, I have noticed that many of the great ones were zone leaders or assistants.  It has always bothered me that I was not [called to serve in these capacities]. . . . The reason that these reflections come now [is] because I want to accurately portray my missionary service to my children.  I do not want to say that I was a great missionary if I was not.  I had success, but if it [came] despite me then I had nothing to do with it and I have no claim to it.  I just need to know if I was a dependable tool in your tool belt—perhaps a hammer or a nail rather than a . . . specialized tool.3

I remember the heart-wrenching anguish I felt for this young father as I read his email to President Wilkes.  I sensed his insecurity, his doubt, his desperate need to have his missionary service validated—all because he had not carried the title of “zone leader” or “assistant.”

My mind went back to a time when I doubted my self‑worth and usefulness.  I had been feeling a bit restless and perhaps even a bit discontented with my church calling.  For many years I had served in various music positions.  I loved these callings, and I always tried to do my very best in them.  Yet there came a point when I began to feel as though I was in a rut, stuck on the very bottom rung of the “Church-calling ladder.”  Other women seemed to float in and out of what appeared to me to be more important callings—serving first as Primary president, then as Gospel Doctrine teacher, then as a counselor in the Relief Society.  I wondered what was wrong with me, what the flaw was in my character that the bishop did not feel I was capable of doing anything beyond music, why he felt I could not be trusted with “more.”

Then something said one day in a sacrament meeting caught my attention and humbled me to the core.  The speaker, a middle-aged gentleman, had not held any “high-profile” positions in the ward for as long as I had known him.  Yet he was steady and true.  I knew first-hand of his second-mile efforts as a home teacher, of his behind-the-scenes work with the Scouting program, of his good heart.  He began his remarks that day with the phrase, “How grateful I am for the opportunity to serve . . . .”  I did not hear anything else he said.  The words “how grateful I am” kept ringing in my ears.  I felt ashamed of my attitude, ashamed for not having been grateful for the opportunity to serve.

This man was not worried about status or titles; he was sincerely grateful to serve in whatever capacity he was called.  I think he understood what Alma meant when he said:

. . . why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?

 

I know that which the Lord hath commanded me, and I glory in it. . . . yea . . . this is my glory . . . and this is my joy.4

Each of us ought to glory, to find joy in performing the work to which we have been called.  Yet there has been a long-standing tendency within the Church for us to look beyond the mark.  Clear back in 1842,

[Joseph Smith] . . . spoke of the disposition of many men to consider the lower offices in the Church dishonorable, and to look with jealous eyes upon the standing of others who are called to preside over them; [he went on to teach] that it was the folly and nonsense of the human heart for a person to be aspiring to other stations than those to which they are appointed of God . . . to occupy; [and] that . . . everyone should aspire only to magnify his own office and calling.5

If I were to ask you to tell me about your favorite Book of Mormon hero, you might mention any one of the predominant players such as Nephi, King Benjamin, or Moroni.  Verses in the book of Alma vividly describe some of these leaders.  For instance, we learn that “. . . Moroni was a strong and a mighty man . . . a man of perfect understanding . . . a man who was firm in the faith of Christ . . . .”  We also learn that “. . . he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah, yea, and even the other sons of Mosiah, yea, and also Alma and his sons, for they were all men of God.”6

Some of us are prone to want the rank and position, the responsibility and visibility of a Moroni, an Ammon, or an Alma!  But those callings are not prerequisite to becoming a man or woman of God.  By simply serving faithfully, by being disciple-leaders as taught by President Clark, it can be said of us as it was said of a group of unnamed stalwarts in the Book of Mormon—a group who often go unnoticed:

Now behold, Helaman and his brethren were no less serviceable unto the people than was Moroni . . . insomuch that they were highly favored of the Lord . . . .7

In March of 1832 Frederick G. Williams was called to serve as a counselor to Joseph Smith.  The charge given to Brother Williams and the blessing promised him at that time are as applicable to us as they were to him:

Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you . . . .

 

And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father.8

That promised “crown of immortality” is extended to all who come to understand what J. Reuben Clark Jr. meant when he said:  “In the service of the Lord, it is not where you serve but how.”9

Let me tell you about two men who know how to serve.  On July 10, 2005, I wrote in my journal:

Brooks and I helped clean the church yesterday morning.  Gary Morris was there too.  Gary is kept alive because an electronic pump keeps his heart going.  His health is so terribly fragile, and three hours of pushing broom seemed to be about all he could endure.  And Harold Rigby was there.  Harold has Parkinson’s disease and has trouble walking and keeping his balance.  Yet there he was, vacuuming the church and emptying garbage—slow, but sure.  I’m grateful to have been there and to have learned from their examples of quiet, selfless service.

In our own church service, no matter what that service may be, may it be said of us as it can be said of them:  “. . . well done, thou good and faithful servant . . . .”10

Second, I wish I had known the importance of a positive attitude and that there is reason for us to find joy in our journey through mortality. 

During a recent Relief Society lesson, the sisters in my ward discussed a quote attributed to Hyrum Smith:

Be not discouraged, neither allow the spirit of doubt or gloom or despondency to come into thy life, for these are tricks of the evil one to destroy thy faith and thy usefulness.11

 

As part of the lesson, the sisters identified some of the things they find discouraging:  the ever-increasing price of gas and food, a broken dishwasher, health challenges, failed marriages, wayward children.  Had you participated in the discussion, you may have added to the list such things as teachers who expect too much or too little, roommates who are flippant about the Honor Code, and the rejection you feel as weekend after weekend all your friends seem to have dates and you sit home alone.

 

We read further from the statement by Hyrum Smith:  “But look upon the bright side of life.”12

 

We shifted our thinking from the negative to the positive and identified some of the things that make up “the bright side of life.”  Our list included such things as a rainbow, the song of a bird, living prophets, having a temple in Rexburg, husbands who honor their priesthood, children who walk in truth and righteousness, grandchildren.  Had you participated in the discussion, you may have added things to the list that pertain to your enrollment at BYU–Idaho:  a track system that allows many more of you to be here; the faithful tithe payers of the Church who help make your tuition affordable; and an Honor Code that, when adhered to, allows the Holy Ghost to minister on this campus.

 

We read from the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Alma, likening the scriptures to ourselves, adapting the words of Ammon to fit our circumstance:

. . . how great reason have we to rejoice; for could we have supposed when we started [on this mortal journey] that God would have granted unto us such great blessings? . . . have we not reason to rejoice?  Yea, I say unto you, there never were [women] that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began . . . .13

That day in Relief Society we decided that we truly do have great reason to rejoice!

 

The group went on to unpack the rest of the statement by Hyrum Smith.  It teaches us how to move from the negative to the positive and lays out some significant blessings for doing so:

 

. . . be cheerful, humble, prayerful, and pure in thy devotion, and in thy habits, and the Lord will remember thee in mercy.  His power and blessings will be upon thee. 

 

Therefore, look unto the Lord in humility, and thou shalt be comforted in the answers to thy prayers and be guided in the path of thy duty, day and night.14

We decided that looking on the bright side of life means to be optimistic; being cheerful means to be good natured and happy; being humble means to be teachable and submissive; being prayerful means acknowledging the Lord in all things, recognizing our dependence on Him, and being grateful; being pure in our devotion means being sincere and having no hypocrisy; being pure in our habits means having integrity and being honest in all of our dealings; and that looking to the Lord in humility means to trust Him.

We concluded that the process laid out by Hyrum Smith provides a full‑circle opportunity.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  If we can develop and maintain an optimistic attitude, if we can “look upon the bright side of life” on a consistent basis, the next five elements will, in large measure, be natural byproducts of that optimism.  And then, as these elements become part of our fiber, part of who we really are, it becomes much easier for us to “look unto the Lord in humility,” to trust Him explicitly.  And once we trust the Lord explicitly, it is much easier to “look upon the bright side of life” on a consistent basis.  Together these elements become a helix that feeds on itself and grows stronger and stronger as the cycle repeats itself over and over.  And once this helix becomes part of the very sinews of our character, we then have the right to lay claim to and will recognize in our lives the blessings identified by Hryum Smyth:  first, the Lord will remember [us] in mercy; second, His power and blessings will be upon [us]; third, [we will] be comforted in the answers to [our] prayers; and fourth, [we will] be guided in the path of [our] duty, day and night.

What marvelous promises!  Truly, each of us has great reason to focus on the positive, to “be of good cheer,”15 to find joy in our journey.

Third, I wish I had known that beyond loving us, the Lord loves me, and that He is involved in the very details of my life, just as He is interested in and involved with your life and the life of each of His children.

Let me tell you about a former BYU–Idaho student.  I have lost track of this young woman and could not contact her to ask permission to share her story, but I do not think she will mind my doing so.  For today’s purposes I will call her Molly, although that is not her real name.  I read from my personal writings—first, from a letter written to my son on October 20, 2002, and then from a second letter written two months later on December 15:

 

It was my privilege this past week to randomly contact students and offer them tickets to the dedication of the Gordon B. Hinckley Building.  And not just any tickets, but GOOD tickets—like Chapel Center Section, Row 1 or Chapel Center Section, Row 2.  Do you know how close these students will be to the Prophet?

 

What I came to realize as I visited with these students is that there was inspiration in how they were identified and then selected to receive a ticket.  Certainly, the Lord is mindful of the tiniest sparrow.  And He is mindful of the average, low-key, back-row student at BYU–Idaho who would never have expected or thought himself or herself important enough to be invited to a special gathering with the Prophet.  I have been touched by their surprise at being selected.  Most of all, I have been touched by their humility and gratitude for the opportunity.

 

And from the second letter written in December:

 

Molly was one of the students who received a ticket to the dedication of the Hinckley Building.  She called this week and asked if she could come by the office to see me, which she did Thursday afternoon.  I immediately sensed that she wasn’t comfortable visiting with me in the outer office, so I suggested we go into the conference room.  I closed the door, we sat down, and then she began her story.

 

Molly said she had been dating a young man from her hometown who is not a member of the Church.  Just prior to the dedication, he had asked her to marry him and she had accepted his proposal.  She said she had not planned to go to the dedication as she had hardened her heart to counsel because she was tired of being told her decision was wrong.  She wasn’t anxious or willing to go where she might have to once again sort through her feelings and justify to herself or others what she was planning to do.  And then, out of the blue, she gets a call from me inviting her to have a front-row seat at a meeting where President Hinckley and President Monson are the featured speakers.  She said she reluctantly came to the office, picked up her ticket, and almost begrudgingly went to the dedication.

 

Molly got all teary eyed and said to me, ‘Being there changed my life.  Something President Hinckley said, something I felt that day softened my heart.  I could see that I had been praying for the wrong things.  I could see that I was placing myself and my posterity for generations to come in jeopardy of receiving eternal blessings.  It has not been easy and it did not happen overnight, but I have broken off my engagement.  Your offering me that ticket was the answer to my parents’ prayers.  Thank you.’

 

All I could do was sit there and cry right along with Molly.  I tried to help her understand that any thanks she had to express should be directed to Someone other than me.  I was merely the vehicle through which invitations were extended.  Truly, in each and every case, I felt prompted and guided as I decided which students to contact.

 

I continue to read from the second letter: 

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story:  Molly is not a full-time student this semester.  She stayed in Rexburg during her off-track time to work and pick up a few night classes.  She should not have been on any list that was submitted to our office for the dedication.  But her name was there, it caught my attention, and her life has been forever blessed.  You can’t tell me that the Lord was not mindful of Molly and her precarious situation; of her parents’ prayers and concern; of her heart, which He knew could be touched.

Brothers and sisters, that level of involvement is not held in reserve only for other people.  Just as the Lord was there for Molly, He is there for you and for me.  He knows our needs, our desires, our circumstances, and our challenges.  He stands ready to succor us, to strengthen us.  His promise is sure and is extended to each of us—individually, personally:

 

. . . for I will go before your face.  I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your [heart], and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.16

 

It takes faith and effort and a bit of practice to see the hand of the Lord in our individual lives.  We can begin cultivating that ability by taking time each day to ponder the following questions suggested by President Eyring last October in general conference:  “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch [me] or [my] children or [my] family today? . . . Did God send a message that was just for me?  Did I see His hand in my life . . .?”17

 

I promise that as you consistently reflect upon these questions, evidence will come that the Lord loves you—individually, personally—and that He is involved in the very details of your life.

 

Fourth, I wish I had known that the way we serve, the attitude with which we approach everything we do, and our ability to acknowledge the Lord’s hand in our lives are a reflection of our faith in and understanding of the grace and mercy extended to us through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

 

I recall a conversation I had with Elder Bednar one day when he served as president of BYU–Idaho.  As a member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy, he had been on a stake conference assignment the weekend before.  He commented to me that if he were to be assigned one, and only one, point of doctrine to talk about for the remainder of his life, he would want it to be the enabling power of the Atonement.  He said, “I don’t think the membership of the Church understands the enabling power very well.”

 

To be honest with you, I was not sure what he was talking about.  I had never before heard the phrase enabling power linked to the word atonement.  Yes, I knew about the redeeming power of the Atonement.  Even as a little girl I had been taught and I believed that Christ voluntarily laid down His life and took it up again so all of us would be resurrected.  And I had been taught and believed that He suffered in Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary, taking upon Himself the sins of the world, so that we, through repentance, could go back into the presence of the Father.  Mistakenly, I thought the Atonement was only for “later,” that it had nothing to do with the “here and now.”

 

I did not know about nor did I understand an additional dimension of the Atonement, an enabling power that provides us, as described in the Bible Dictionary, with the “strength and assistance to do good works that [we] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to [our] own means.”18

 

Brothers and sisters, this enabling power comes to fruition, it becomes evident, as we, among other things, serve faithfully, look forward with optimism, and acknowledge the Lord’s hand in our lives.

 

Please travel back with me to the evening before the announcement was made that Ricks College would become Brigham Young University-Idaho.  Earlier that afternoon, President Bednar was informed that President Hinckley planned to announce the change the next morning at a press conference in Salt Lake City.  There was not much time to pull loose ends together, and members of the President’s Council and a few other administrators were at the office late that night making last-minute preparations.  It was close to 11:30 when things were finally wrapping up and winding down.  I was at the copy machine; President Bednar was leaving the building.  I said to him, “President, does any of this scare you?  Do you feel a bit sick to your stomach?”  I will never forget his response.  Without even a hint of a hesitation, he said:  “If I thought I had to do this by myself, I would be scared to death.  But I know who is in charge.”19

My good young friends, I, too, have come to know who is in charge.  Over the past eight years as we have transitioned from Ricks College to BYUIdaho, I have watched a miracle unfold on this campus.  No, not a miracle, but an ongoing succession of miracles.  Most of them have come quietly, insignificantly when considered on their own merits.  But combined, when viewed as an aggregate, they provide evidence beyond doubt that Someone who sees all and knows all is aware of and involved with the very details of everything that happens at BYUIdaho and in our individual lives.  They provide evidence of an enabling power that helps us accomplish things that in and of ourselves we could never accomplish.  They provide evidence that, beyond later, the Atonement is for here and now.

Yes, I know who is in charge!  I need Him to be in charge!  I invite Him to be in charge!  I cannot do it on my own—not now, and not later.  And neither can you.

 

It does not matter what positions we hold in the Church.  As long as we do them well, if we give our best effort, we are covered by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ and that service becomes acceptable to the Lord.

 

It does not matter what happens to us or what our circumstances may be, as long as we endure well, looking forward with optimism and with a “perfect brightness of hope,”20 we are covered by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ and we become sanctified and acceptable to the Lord.

 

This life is all about coming to know the Savior.  It is about inviting Him into our lives, about letting Him be in charge of the very details such that we become all that He wants us to be, all that He needs us to be, all that He knows we can be.  It is all about coming to know and being able to say, individually and personally, “The Atonement is for me.”  Oh, how I wish I had known that when I was your age!

 

May each of you come to know the giver of all good gifts.  May you serve Him faithfully—no matter what you are asked to do.  May you find joy in your journey—recognizing His hand in your life, relying on His grace and mercy.  May you truly come to know that “. . . all things [are] done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.”21

 

I know He lives!  Of that I testify, in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

1 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, The World Publishing Company, 1968.

2 Elder David A. Bednar, Understanding is a Wellspring of Life, Ricks College Education Week Devotional, June 3, 1999.

3 Used by permission of Robert M. Wilkes.

4 Alma 29:6, 9, emphasis added.

5 History of the Church, 4:603, 606; paragraph divisions altered; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on April 28, 1842, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Eliza R. Snow.

6 Alma 48:11, 13, 18.

7 Alma 48:19-20, emphasis added.

8 D&C 81:5-6, emphasis added.

9 In Conference Report, April 1951, 154; also shared by President Boyd K. Packer, Called to Serve, Ensign, November 1997.

10 Matthew 25:21.

11 https://www.ldssplash.com/gospeltopics/enduretotheend/enduring_to_the_end.htm.

12 Ibid.

13 Alma 26:1, 35.

14 http:// loc. cit.

15 See D&C 78:18; also D&C 61:36, D&C 68:6, D&C 123:17, and John 16:33.

16 D&C 84:88, emphasis added.

17 President Henry B. Eyring, O Remember, Remember, Ensign, November 2007.

18 Bible Dictionary, Grace, 697.

19 Previously shared in Summit Magazine, Fall 2004, Vol. 17, Num. 2.

20 2 Nephi 31:20.

21 2 Nephi 2:24.