Lessons of Life

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Elder Samuelson
Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

February 15, 2007
Elder Cecil O. Samuelson
President, BYU Provo

Aloha! Once again, it is a great privilege to be with you here at BYU-Hawaii. Each time I come, I am encouraged by what I see and am lifted by what I feel. For those of you I have not greeted before, I am delighted you are here and have, or will have, developed the feelings and affection that come from the blessing of being at such a special place with such remarkable purposes.

As in previous visits, I pay heartfelt tribute to President and Sister Shumway. They have become dear friends to Sister Samuelson and to me and we continue to marvel at their accomplishments and contributions on this campus. We love them as I am sure you do as well. Likewise, it is a special, appreciated experience to be with other dear friends from our visits to this institution and from previously shared encounters and endeavors. As I think about you, I better understand why it is that we refer to each other as brothers and sisters.

Today, I have felt some inclination to share with you lessons of my youth and young adulthood that have been tremendously influential to me and may also have some value for you. In retrospect, I am struck by seemingly small things that turn out to have great, positive impacts.

While I can think of many examples, not necessarily recognized at the time, I will restrict my observations with the hope that you will readily identify some important concepts.

I will focus my comments on the teachings of one of the great heroes of the Restoration and one of the truly remarkable teachers of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. While I know all of the current First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve and other General Authorities personally and could present excellent examples from their lives and discourses, the man of whom I speak today, Elder James E. Talmage, died several years before I was born.

He was an eloquent speaker and writer and a great influence on many subsequent Church leaders, members and educators even to our time. While now known largely for his extensive, doctrinally sound and spiritually inspiring authorship, his personal life also teaches some wonderful lessons from which we may benefit.

One of those he inspired to become a professional educator was President David O. McKay. My grandfather was a missionary in Scotland with Elder McKay, and his missionary journal documents that Dr. James E. Talmage, prior to his call to the Twelve, visited Great Britain at least twice while David O. McKay was president of the Scottish Conference, or all of the Church in Scotland. Brother Talmage visited with and encouraged young Elder McKay to continue with his interest in becoming a career educator.

Like some of you, Brother Talmage had a lack of self-confidence as a young man and early on seemed to have little direction in his life or sense of what he might accomplish or what he might become. He was an immigrant boy from England without much of worldly treasure when he first met Karl G. Maeser at Brigham Young Academy in Provo. Brother Maeser saw something of great promise in this seemingly insignificant young man and James took advantage of the encouragement that he was given. This, of course, is what can happen with each of you when you listen to the counsel of President Shumway and his faculty associates who are able to perceive things about you that you have yet to identify in yourselves.

Brother Talmage excelled in his studies in Provo and Brother Maeser helped him to go on for further education at Lehigh and Johns Hopkins Universities where he also distinguished himself. James Talmage later returned to Brigham Young Academy in Provo and had additional assignments in both Church and secular education prior to his call as an Apostle. There is much more that I could tell you about him in a biographical sense that would be both of interest and value. I encourage you to study his life in more detail as well as the lives of other great men and women as you seek inspiration for your own lives.

Today, I will move on to some lessons that I have learned from Brother Talmage with the hope that they will be as beneficial to you as they have been to me.

I don’t recall with accuracy when I first became aware of James E. Talmage. I know that some of his books were in my parents’ library and that I had used his Articles of Faith book in preparing the two and one-half minute talks that youngsters used to give in Sunday School. For me, the first memorable introduction to him occurred when I was just nineteen and had received my mission call to Great Britain.

My father had a good friend and associate by the name of Burton Talmage. He was not a son of Elder Talmage but was a close relative. I didn’t know Burt Talmage well, although I had met him several times and I knew how highly he was regarded by my father. When Burt learned of my mission call, he did something that was very kind and really quite extraordinary. Even at that time, I realized that he made the effort not because of me, but because of his affection and respect for my father. Brother Burt Talmage presented to me a beautiful, leather-bound edition of the Articles of Faith with this personal inscription inside, “May you find this book helpful to you on missions.” He then signed his name and the date. He had also imprinted my name on the leather cover just like my missionary scriptures.

To this day, I keep this very special book with the set of scriptures that I used as a young missionary. I have by now used several different sets of scriptures and have also had several paperback copies of the Articles of Faith which I have marked and studied and used, but this wonderful volume holds a special place in my heart. When I received this very remarkable volume, I read it through completely before I began my mission and used it as the basis for missionary study and talks. It quickly became a dear and valued friend and resource.

As I read and studied, finally realizing how little I really knew about some basic things that I fully believed, I found helpful kernels and pleasant surprises in every chapter and on almost every page. Because of his vast vocabulary, I had to look up some of the words that Elder Talmage used, but his meanings were always clear and insightful. Let me share one example and then ask that you think about the implications of this sentence for you and for me.

On page 57 of the 1957 edition we read: “Sin is any condition, whether omission of things required or in commission of acts forbidden, that tends to prevent or hinder the development of the human soul.”

In other words, Elder Talmage was teaching that we can commit sins in two basic categories. I had always understood that there are things like lying, stealing, cheating, being morally unclean, violating the Word of Wisdom, and participating in inappropriate entertainment on the Sabbath day that constitute sin. These are examples of sins of commission, or things we do or have done.

The second category of sin, however, was one that I had not thought so much about. That is, that by not doing certain things I was also guilty of sin. These constitute sins of omission. Examples might include not telling the entire truth while being careful not to lie overtly, or not correcting the store clerk who gives you change for a twenty dollar bill when you had only given her a ten, or by not helping or reporting a classmate who you know is cheating on an examination when you have not cheated yourself, or while you are remaining morally clean you have failed to help a friend or roommate also obey the law of chastity or avoid the trap of pornography.

You can obviously think of many more examples of both sins of commission and omission, but I will rely on the words of King Benjamin who taught his people, “. . . I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29).

I don’t believe with this group at BYU-Hawaii there is much need or utility in spending our precious time together discussing sins of commission. We all make mistakes, but most of us are clear on those most serious things we should never do. It is my guess, however, that for all of us there are some sins of omission that might not be quite as clear to us. Let me ask you to think about yourselves and see if you can identify seemingly small acts of omission or neglect that prevent you from becoming the saint that King Benjamin described. I know that when I am personally thorough and thoughtful, my own list sometimes grows uncomfortably long.

Before returning to Elder Talmage, let me share a few examples that may seem unimportant and even mundane but which may betray our real identity as “natural [women and men]” who the prophet describes as “an enemy to God” and will be until we “[put] off the natural [women and men]” that we are or have become (see Mosiah 3:19). As Nephi taught, we should “liken the scriptures” (see I Nephi 19) to ourselves and so perhaps these examples and others that will occur to you will be helpful as you think about this matter of sins of omission.

On our campus in Provo, crossing a street in a carefully marked crosswalk on the way to class or a Devotional is akin to taking one’s life in his or her own hands. I’m sure that most of the drivers who do not stop for pedestrians consider themselves to be good Christians and in many ways they are. It is not that they are hunting for “road kill,” but they are distracted or focused on things other than careful, Christ-like driving. I think you know the distractions of the day and they are truly dangerous!

When Sister Samuelson and I lived in England, we often commented on how courteous drivers are in that very small land of many cars and much congested traffic. We occasionally contrast that with how hazardous it sometimes is trying to get out of the stake center parking lot after stake conference. Please understand. Many and often most Latter-day Saint drivers are careful, thoughtful and courteous. But why not all of us, all of the time?

It is now common for a cell phone or pager to go off in a meeting or a restaurant or a play or a concert. Even more disappointing, some folks just answer and talk out loud as if no one else were present. Some apparently think that the act of silencing these intrusions is not necessary or appropriate. These are admittedly egregious examples but are probably common to all of our experience. Each of you will have your own list of “pet peeves” constituting the sins of omission of those with whom you are acquainted. I hope that we can all—and I’m speaking to myself as well—be more focused on our own deficiencies, all the while trying to be more patient and forgiving with respect to the shortcomings of others.

What about the “weightier matters” (see Matthew 23:23) concerning omissions? Unfortunately, the pattern in our society of couples living together and starting a family without the blessing of marriage has become common and seemingly acceptable. It is no longer a rarity to learn of those who have abandoned their children or have failed to provide them with their basic needs, including proper education concerning life and the Gospel. Even faithful Latter-day Saints are too often casual about seeing that the essential temple ordinances are performed for their kindred dead or are neglectful in sharing the Gospel with non-members even when Heaven has provided clear opportunities to do so. How often do our minds wander as we casually partake of the sacred emblems of the sacrament? Again, you can add to this list without difficulty.

My point in mentioning all of these things is that Elder Talmage brought these sins of omission to my consciousness in his wonderful teachings and writings and his relative, my father’s friend Burt, dropped them in my lap in a way that I had never encountered before. I could go on with many other examples from the Articles of Faith that have been helpful and made a difference, but this one will suffice for today.

Let me now turn to accounts of living appropriately with conviction from Elder Talmage’s own life that you might find interesting, helpful and instructive. Both anecdotes are found in a biography written by his son, John, entitled The Talmage Story. I think you will find them amusing and illustrative of the unique person James E. Talmage was. I especially hope that you will be able to garner for your own use the lessons that these reports teach. By the time he was your age, he knew who he was, what he valued and the importance of not following the crowd unthinkingly even when it was a good crowd.

In the early 1890s, Brother Talmage was serving as president of the University of Utah. These were still the “horse and buggy” days, but a new mode of transportation was becoming popular. James Talmage obtained a bicycle which he intended to use as his transportation between his home and campus. He never had enough time to do all that he wished and he felt that the bike would allow him to travel more quickly and conveniently. This is his son’s description of what transpired.

“James acquired one of the new machines, not as a hobby or physical conditioner but as a practical means of transportation. . . .

“Some time after James had achieved reasonable proficiency in handling his machine on standard roads, he showed up at the front door one evening a full hour late for dinner and scarcely recognizable.

“May [his wife] nearly went into shock, for her husband was a frightening sight. Battered, bruised, and bleeding profusely, clothes torn in a dozen places and covered with dust and mud, James looked as though he had been caught in a riot, or at least a fight of unusual violence. Neither, it developed, had been the case.

“Half a block from the Talmage home a single-plank footbridge crossed the ditch of running water that separated the street from the footpath. Until now, James had dismounted when he reached this point in a homeward journey, and crossed the narrow bridge on foot. Today, he had decided that he had reached the point in his development as a cyclist where he should no longer resort to this prudent maneuver, but rather ride over the bridge in the manner of an accomplished veteran of the two-wheeler.

“Having so decided, James approached the bridge resolutely, confident that he would negotiate the tricky passage in a manner to be proud of and to impress neighbors, if any should chance to be watching, with his skill and casual daring. He turned sharply from the road toward the bridge with scarcely any diminution of speed. The result was spectacular and observers, if any there were, must indeed have been impressed, but in a very different way from that intended. The professor’s bicycle went onto the plank at an oblique angle and quickly slid off the side, throwing its rider heavily into the ditch bank.

“Dazed, bruised, bleeding and humiliated, Dr. Talmage was not convinced that the difficult maneuver was beyond his skill. Rather, he was stubbornly determined to prove that he could and would master the difficulty.

“For the next hour, the president of the University of Utah might have been observed trundling his bicycle fifty yards or so down the road from the bridge, mounting and riding furiously toward the plank crossing, turning onto it with grim-lipped determination — and plunging off it in a spectacular and bone-shaking crash into the rough ditch bank. Uncounted times this startling performance was repeated, but in the end mind triumphed over matter, will power over faltering reflexes, and the crossing was successfully made. Not just once, but enough times in succession to convince James that he was capable of performing the feat without mishap at any time he might desire to do so. From then on, he never again dismounted to cross the bridge, albeit he never made the crossing without experiencing deep-seated qualms which he kept carefully concealed from any who might be watching” (John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,1972], pp. 138-40).

This account brings to mind the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Likewise, “if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” Once Brother Talmage made a decision, he stayed with his convictions until he had accomplished his task. He did not, however, reach his decisions capriciously or without careful consideration. These traits served him well in his studies, in his teaching and administrative career, his apostolic ministry and his personal life.

Now, another account, again recorded by his son John, that reflects his dedication to his own properly considered priorities rather than the priorities of others. Whenever you feel peer pressure, think of this experience of Elder Talmage.

“In later years, James’ long hours of work, unrelieved by periods of recreation, were cause for real concern among family, friends, and associates. President Heber J. Grant, [the President of the Church] for one, repeatedly urged Dr. Talmage to take up some form of sport, if only for its therapeutic value. Himself an enthusiastic golfer, President Grant tried to get his friend to try that sport, confident (as are all golfers) that if anyone were once thoroughly exposed to golf he would be captivated by its subtle but powerful attractions.

“As President Grant’s urgings increased in frequency and intensity, so did Dr. Talmage’s demurrers on the grounds of lack of interest and lack of ability to master a complicated skill so late in life. President Grant was certain the skill could be mastered and that interest would automatically follow. Finally a compromise was reached, and a test agreed upon: James would give the game of golf an honest trial, and work at it until he was able to hit a drive which President Grant would rate as satisfactory, ‘a real golf shot.’

“‘If you hit just one really good drive, nature will do the rest,’ President Grant assured his pupil-to-be. ‘You won’t be able to resist the game after that.”

“It was agreed that James would make his own choice after he had acquired the skill to hit the specific shot. If he felt the fascination of the game, as President Grant was certain he would, he would take up golf and play with reasonable regularity. If, after giving the game a fair trial, James still felt no interest, President Grant would cease his efforts to get Dr. Talmage to play.

“On an appointed day, the two, accompanied by a number of the others of the General Authorities who played golf and who had joined the friendly argument on the side of President Grant, proceeded to Nibley Park [a Salt Lake City golf course] for James’ first session in what was expected to be a series of lessons.

“James removed his coat and was shown how to grip the club and take his stance at the ball. The coordinated movements involved in making a golf stroke were carefully explained and then demonstrated by President Grant and by others. Finally, it came James’ turn to try it himself.
“What followed astonished all those who watched, and probably James himself. Instead of missing the ball completely, or weakly pushing it a few feet along the grass, James somehow managed to strike the ball cleanly and with substantial force. It took off in a fine arc and with only a minimum amount of slice. Some who saw it described it later as ‘a truly magnificent drive,’ which was probably a considerable exaggeration. However, there was consensus that the ball went close to 200 yards and stayed in the fairway. It was a drive that would have gladdened the heart of any golfer short of the expert class, and it bordered on the phenomenal for a novice.
“The spectators were momentarily struck dumb, then burst into enthusiastic applause.

“‘Congratulations,’ said President Grant, rushing forward, beaming, with outstretched hand. ‘That was a fine shot you will remember for the rest of your life.’

“‘You mean that was a fully satisfactory golf shot?’ James asked, cautiously.

“‘It certainly was!’ said President Grant.

“‘Then I have fulfilled my part of the agreement?’

“‘You have — and don’t you feel the thrill of excitement?

Now you’ll be playing regularly. As a matter of fact, we can go into the clubhouse now and I will help you select a set of clubs.’

“‘Thank you,’ said James, putting on his coat. ‘If I have carried out my part of the agreement, then I shall call on you to live up to yours. You promised that if I hit a satisfactory drive and did not feel the spontaneous desire to play, you would stop urging me to do so. Now I should like to get back to the office, where I have a great deal of work waiting.’

“So far as is known, James never again struck a golf ball, or made the attempt” (The Talmage Story, pp. 226-28).
Now, please understand that I am neither speaking for nor against golf. Likewise, I am not suggesting that any of us should take an invitation from the President of the Church lightly! It does seem to me to be helpful to consider all that we do in the context of the basic values we have and the fundamental promises we have made.

Almost anything that we undertake of value, whether it be our education, our missionary experiences, our marriages and families, our citizenship and our community service, requires making sacrifices and commitments to be able to succeed in achieving our goals and enduring to the end. Meanwhile, there will also be an almost constant barrage of distractions, some terrible and some seemingly good, that have the potential to take us on paths different from the ones we intended to follow.

Elder Talmage was able to teach with great clarity and emphasis the importance of being aware of sins of omission and resisting them even when they might seem quite insignificant at the time. He was also able to model the importance of persistence in doing that which he felt was right, whatever the cost or whatever the pressures he felt to do otherwise. On the other hand, he was very willing to stop doing anything that did not contribute to his chosen progress. I wonder what he would think of video games!
When we fully understand these principles, we are then equipped to move forward in our lives and reach the potential Heavenly Father has placed within each of us. Thanks be to God for teachers like Karl G. Maeser who made a difference for youngsters like James E. Talmage and for leaders like Eric Shumway who is making a difference for students like you. Thanks also to people like my father’s friend, Burt Talmage, who followed what must have been a prompting to do something very significant for a young man just starting out in life.

Might we all have the wisdom, the discernment, the devotion and the courage to accept the many ways and means that Heaven helpfully offers to each of us as we strive to become what our Father in Heaven and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, expect of us is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.