Look, Watch, and Pray

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

August 26, 1999
President Eric B. Shumway
President of BYU–Hawaii


Aloha.  And aloha, too, from the bottom of my heart.  Especially to you who are new to this campus or who are returning do I express our love and welcome.  I am always moved by this sight of our university family coming together in devotion.  Looking into your faces and feeling your collective spirits, it is as if the very heart of the international Church of Latter-day Saints is beating right here.  The spirit of God rests down upon this campus and is prepared to work miraculous things in our hearts and minds if we are prepared to received them.  More important, the Lord intends to work His miracles on this planet through you as he establishes his Zion across the world. 

My words today are directed especially to you students.  I would like to speak to the subject “work, watch, and pray.”  I would like to emphasize again certain sources of knowledge and understanding that as students on this unique campus we are blessed to have and are expected by divine mandate to use.  Heavenly Father told Adam and Eve that this planet was created for them and their posterity.  Think of it.  It was created for you—for us.  Like this planet, this university was built for you, and the Lord has brought you here to train and groom and prepare you for his service in the world.  Like the temple, this university was dedicated for learning and other spiritual functions.  Also, like the temple it is a place of faith, a place of prayer, a place of glory, a place of holiness, a place of god.  In the church, the temple is often referred to as a university because of the emphasis on learning there.  Likewise, the university is often described as a temple—a temple of learning. It is profoundly significant that the Lord should build a temple and a university in this same place.  J. Reuben Clark attached so much importance to learning at the university that he said it was “akin to worship.” Learning—that is, gaining knowledge and experience—is connected directly to eternal life and eternal progress, and this is my first point.

Every class offered on this campus, every textbook, every computer assisted learning procedure, every instructor, every counselor, is a vital resource that will open up opportunities for you to learn.  Please do not be casual about them.  This is your time, your opportunity, and your choice.  Seize these opportunities with a profound sense of duty and privilege.  Every year my heart breaks over some student’s casual attitude toward this privilege.  They toss it off as a thing of naught. 

Sister Margerie Hinckley, wife of President Hinckley described a moment of deep regret in her life when she was sitting among a group of magnificent women in Argentina who of course spoke only Spanish.  In Sister Hinckley’s words, “These were delightful, beautiful women.  I wanted so much to be a part of that group.   I was straining to catch any Spanish word I could and failing miserably.”  Sister Hinckley then describes how in this moment of regret and confusion, her memory takes her back to a Spanish class she had taken years before.  “I could see the class as plainly as if I were back there.”  She remembers the sights and smells of the classroom, including a friend who sat right by her, looking over her shoulder, and popping gum in her ear.  In Sister Hinckley’s words, “I did the very minimum required to get a respectable grade in that class and I promptly put every Spanish word out of my mind when I left.  I took the class because I needed the credit.”  Is that familiar? 

“I certainly did not take it to learn Spanish.  Who needed to know Spanish anyway?  I didn’t know a single person who spoke Spanish.  I missed out.  I missed out on a valuable experience because I did not have a love affair with my Spanish textbook when the opportunity was there and the time and season were right.  So you students, no matter the class, how irrelevant it may seem, you learn, learn, learn as if your life depended on it, and perhaps it will.  Learn the thrill of digging for fossils on the mountainside, or working over a test tube until dark, or getting on the trail of something in the library and searching it down feverishly for hours.  Learn to be a real student, an excellent student.”  

Bob Thomas, beloved and highly influential teacher on the Provo campus in my undergraduate days, lamented once in a talk that most students don’t have close interaction with faculty because they do not come to the teacher to learn, but to explain or complain: explain why they missed a quiz, complain about having to get up so early, or about a test score or the difficulty of the writing assignment.  What Sister Hinckley and Brother Thomas are saying is you jump into your studies with both feet.  Consider them a matter of life and death because it may be what you learn, even in a class you didn’t want to take, may save your life some day and someone else’s. 

Let me share with you an encounter I had with a student like the one that Dr. Thomas was talking about. He was bemoaning the fact that he had to take Introduction to Literature.  He was especially indignant when he discovered that one of the pieces of literature we would study was Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.  I cannot reconstruct the dialogue exactly, but it went something like this:

STUDENT: Hey, I read Macbeth in the 9th grade.  Why do I have to read it again? What a waste of time.  Been there.  Done that.

ME: But you were thirteen years old at the time.  Now you’re twenty-one and a returned missionary.  Wouldn’t your present maturity help you get a lot more out of the play?

STUDENT: I still remember the story—that’s enough.  The queen kills the king so her husband can be the new king.  She kills herself.  The others kill the new king.  That’s about it. 

ME: But the play is infinitely more than that thumbnail sketch.  Macbeth is a veritable treasure trove of insights central to the human predicament: relationships in marriage, the problems of evil in basically good people, ambition, suffering—the real heavy stuff of life. 

STUDENT: Whatevah’. 

ME: Ok.  What was your favorite movie as a teenager?
STUDENT: Grease. 

ME: How many times did you see Grease?

STUDENT: Maybe ten times. 

ME: What great thoughts or insights do you get out of watching Grease?

STUDENT: Hey, in Grease, you don’t think—you feel. 

ME: You mean to tell me you would watch Grease ten times—that’s about twenty hours—for the animal feeling, but you resent the six hours of having to read and watch and discuss a literary masterpiece full of profound human, as well as eternal, insights. 

STUDENT: Hey man, I’m an accounting major, minoring in IS.  When will I ever use Shakespeare in my life? 

ME: You’re a human being, aren’t you? 

STUDENT: Obviously.

ME: You’re going to be married, aren’t you? 

STUDENT: When the right girl asks me.

ME: You don’t think an accountant will ever need relevant insight to the uses and abuses of power, pride, temptation, or how human choices set in motion events that draw themselves and others into suffering and destruction?

STUDENT: Who needs it?  I can get that stuff from the Old Testament.

ME: It’s certainly possible, but do you get it out of the scriptures?

STUDENT: Hey, that brings up another thing that bugs me.  Why do I have to take all these religion classes in the same subjects I took in seminary in high school?  I’m a returned missionary.  Why can’t you waive religion requirements for return missionaries? 

Ok, Brothers and Sisters, enough of this dialogue.  Granted, this is an extreme student and an extreme case.  But frankly I hear echoes of this student’s arguments every time someone complains about having to take a general education course or something he or she is not particularly interested in. 

The university is where you do that.  College is where you expand your horizons, expand your interests, expand your desires for greater knowledge.  It is true we have greatly reduced the number of GE courses that are required.  Most majors have been trimmed and refined so that students who stay on task can easily graduate in four years.  But it is our goal to make every course on this campus a masterpiece of learning. 

In contrast to the above student, let me introduce you to Stanley Wong, now president of the Hong Kong Mission, a graduate of BYU–Hawaii.  When we were settled in his office a few weeks ago, his first words were, “I graduated from BYU–Hawaii with a degree in business, but my best academic experiences was creating a journal for one of my religion classes, in which we organized and wrote up all of the great thoughts and feelings generated by the class.  I remember how some students groaned that the teacher was making an English writing class out of a religion class, or was just requiring busy work.  Some argued it was way too much work for two credit hours.  But for me it opened the doors of my capacity to think and write about my deepest religious feelings.”

President Wong’s comments remind me of a more recent student in business from Fiji who took my Introduction to Literature class.   He fretted and stewed an assignment to write a love poem.  Athletic and very macho, he had never written a love poem before, much less in English.  He pleaded for another kind of assignment, but I wouldn’t let him off the hook.  With this particular assignment, the students gathered at our home for dinner, at a session of reciting their original poetic works.  Nervous and fidgety, Semisi was there with his wife.  When he stood and began to recite his poem, entitled, “My La’ie Morning,” I felt a slight sensation run through the whole group, not unlike what we local people call “chicken skin.”  Without mentioning his wife’s name, Semisi recited his poem.  We all knew that she was his “La’ie Morning.”  And all of beauties of this garden of Eden we call La’ie — the sun, the air, the trees, the ocean, the birds, the healing breeze—all were ascribed to his La’ie Morning.  After the applause, Semisi’s wife said with a smile and a twinkle in her moist eyes, “Well, President Shumway, I don’t know what grade my husband will get on this poem, but it has certainly saved our marriage.”  I do not think the marriage needed saving, but I do know that no matter what success Semisi achieves from his business degree or his employment, his ability to write an occasional love poem to his wife will provide a dimension of romance and humanity, even godliness in his life that his major course may not have offered him. 

Again the point of all this is to stretch, expand, be grateful for hard teachers who care about your competence as well as your soul.  Give every course your special best, especially in courses not in your major.  They can all have a profound impact on your life.  

Our son, Jeff, graduated from BYU–Hawaii in history and when on to complete a PhD in Latin American history, but he will tell you one of the most life changing, life-enriching courses he took here was Dr. Preston Larsen’s music appreciation course.  Today Jeff’s little home is like a veritable symphony hall.  And I never visit there but what he insists that I enjoy a new musical experience he has prepared for me.  Usually a little lecture for me and then a listening experience to the new music he has just purchased. 

What about the student failing a required GE course who complained to me about the professor of the course as the most boring teacher he has ever had.  “He’s the number-one sleep-maker at this university,” cried the student, “He’s so boring, the clock stops in his class.”  I agree, Brothers and Sisters, a truly dull and boring teacher is more than problematic.  He is a pestilence at a university.  A boring teacher can stifle a teachers’ desire for learning more than anything else, but, frankly, I don’t know any such teacher on this campus.  There may be one, but I don’t know one.  Let me tell you one of my favorite stories from the late S. Dillworth Young, late-member of the first council of seventy.  I heard him tell this about himself.  He said that as a general authority, he traveled every weekend and seldom got to attend his own ward.  On rare occasion, he found himself at home on a Sunday and went to church with his wife.  Here is his story as I remember it. 

He said, “As I settled down in the chapel at sacrament meeting, I was greatly annoyed that Old Brother Smith of the high counsel was the opening speaker.   I turned to my wife and said, ‘Just my luck, the one time I get to come to my own sacrament meeting and who’s the speaker?  The most boring speaker in the church.’  Well, my wife frowned at me and said that wasn’t a very nice thing for a general authority to say.  I sat there glumly looking up at Brother Smith, who had a sweet smile on his face.  I had heard him talk a dozen times before.  Finally, I said to myself, ‘Well, at least he as a nice smile.’”

Elder Young went on to say, “The longer I sat there, the more ashamed I became at my attitude; so ashamed that I determined that I’d try hard to make up for the talk by concentrating on other aspects of the sacrament meeting.  So when the opening hymn was sung, I sang with gusto all of the verses, concentrating on the text of the hymns.  I listened carefully to the opening prayer and made it my own.  During the sacrament hymn, I sang fervently and thoughtfully.  I listened with attention to the meaning and beauty of the sacrament prayers.    While the emblems were being passed, I concentrated hard on Jesus Christ and His Atonement.  I pondered on life and teachings.  By the time Old Brother Smith started speaking, I was thrilled at how wonderful the meeting had been so far.  Surprisingly, even Brother Smith’s opening words were interesting.  Then I became quite absorbed at what he was saying.  At midpoint of his sermon, I was even excited about his address; it was brilliant.  And when he concluded with a resounding testimony, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Well, honey, that’s one of the finest talks I’ve ever heard anywhere.’  To which my wife responded, ‘Sweetheart, Brother Smith does this every time he speaks and always has.’”

Then Elder Young turned to us, his audience, and asked, “And where was I when Brother Smith was giving those powerful, eloquent sermons?  I was in ‘Boredville,’ being bored, feeling sorry for myself.” 

Brothers and Sisters, as Elder Young’s story pointed out, boredom is usually a choice or a condition of the student or the listener.  Generally, boredom is a measure of our preparation or lack thereof.  The process of learning, studying, reading the assigned material, looking at the assigned visuals, discussing the subject with fellow students, and sincerely preparing is never boring, but it does require your heart and your soul. 

That’s the hard work part of my address.  Now for the watch and pray.  I am convinced that one of the greatest sources of knowledge and power in this world is consistent, humble, personal prayer.  The greatest thing missionaries teach investigators or parents teach their children is how to pray and how to get answers to prayers.  Of all the resources at your disposal, intimate, private prayer is the surest means for coping and for hoping.  One of the most important things to remember about true prayer is that it requires a humble willingness on my part and your part to put ourselves in the Lord’s hands.  This means that all prayers are answered but not always in the way we want.  Remember that a “No” answer is just as good—maybe better—as a “Yes” answer, if it’s the Lord’s answer.  You will know it’s the Lord’s answer if you humbly ask. 

I remember the sweet, humble sister on this campus who prayed that her boyfriend would ask her to marry him.  When he dumped her, she was devastated and wondered why the Lord let her down.  I told her that the Lord had answered her prayer: “You weren’t dumped; you were rescued.”  She hadn’t thought of that.  Today she is so thankful; she really was rescued from that guy. 

I’m thinking about the faithful young man, a return missionary, who desired, worked, and prayed to become a seminary teacher.  He wasn’t chosen.  Then he joined the army, aspiring to be an officer, but was washed out of officer candidate school.  There was a period of self-doubt and the inevitable asking “Why?”  Recently, he graduated with a medical degree and in hindsight, he recognizes all of those disappointments were the Lord’s real answers to his prayers nudging him in the direction he could serve best.  All those disappointments gave him experience, maturity, and humility. 

I played basketball on a full-ride scholarship at BYU–Provo my freshman and sophomore years, then went on mission.  I came back with high expectations of making the team again.  I worked on it, I prayed for it, and told the Lord all the reasons I should and wanted to make it.  Well, I was cut from the team, lost my scholarship, and had to work as a custodian to support myself.  Talk about pain and humiliation.  Now I see the Lord wanted me to be a student, not a competitive athlete.  Then my life took the direction the Lord wanted. 

We really need to learn to stay with Christ.  “Not my will, but thine be done.”  We are instructed by scripture not to ask amiss, not to ask for that which is not right, and that we should always submit to the will of God.  That counsel is good because most of the time we ask God to remove obstacles from our path or to protect us so that nothing bad ever happens to us, so that we can sail breezily through without any storm or conflict.  We are instructed in scripture, that to ask aright, or to ask for the right things, is to constantly plead for faith, hope, charity, knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to cheerfully endure.  Instruction in scripture is to give thanks for all things.  We are to watch and pray that we enter not into temptation greater than we can bear.  I am amazed how many of us can say prayers without praying, mouthing beautiful soaring words, but our hearts remain earthbound.  The heart and soul prayer is bound out of struggle and distress and an inward awareness of a great need.  Again, why do we pray?  Because the Lord commands us to pray.  You students must know that an intimate, praying relationship makes you partners with our Heavenly Father. 

I have a close friend, who through a series of tragic choices lost his wife and children, his privilege to come to BYU–Hawaii, and his membership in the church.  After a long time, he came to report that he was being restored to the church, and, miraculously, his family was coming back to him.  Knowing the complexity of this man, his environment, and his struggles, I asked how he was able to rise from the ashes, as it were.  “Prayer,” he said.  “Everyday, every hour, every minute, everywhere I go, whoever I’m with, it’s a constant conversation with Heavenly Father in my heart.”  As I listened to this man, the prophet Alma’s admonition rang clearly through my mind.  He said, “Yea, cry unto him for mercy for he is mighty to save.  Yea, humble yourselves and continue in prayer unto him.  Yea, cry unto him for power over your enemies.  Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is the enemy of all righteousness.  But this is not all.  Ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.  Yea, and when you do not cry unto him, let your hearts be full, drawn out unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.”  (Alma 31:18-28). 

We have learned, Brothers and Sisters, from sad experience, that one of Satan’s most desperate, far-reaching efforts, is to keep you from praying.  His basic premise is to isolate you to keep you away from any spiritual connection to Heavenly Father.  Nephi teaches us that we must “hearken unto the spirit that teacheth a man to pray.  For the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but that he must not pray.  But I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint.” 

How does the evil one get us not to pray?  Sometimes he and those who assist him just laugh at it.  They insist that prayer is superstition, a sign of weakness.  Unfortunately, Satan has been very successful within academia over the last hundred years especially, for the things of the spirit, religion generally and prayer specifically, have been trivialized by many intellectuals.   For them, God is a figment of a frightened and ignorant mind.  And early on, God was simply invented out of human desperation because of a terrifying world they couldn’t explain.  Certainly not all academic-types are vulnerable to this kind of anti-religious, anti-prayer, anti-god doctrine,  but many have been wearing their anti-religious ideologies like a badge of honor and denouncing the life of the spirit with their own type of passionate revivalism.  Consider 20th Century philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous declaration,

“that man is  the product of causes that had no pre-vision of the end they were achieving, that man’s origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves, and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms, that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave, that all the labors of the ages, all the inspiration, all the devotion, all the noon-day brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast depth of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.  All of these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can  hope to stand.” 
Then, as if he’s rising to this great statement, he says, “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.”  What an eloquent and monumental lie. 

But Satan is more clever than just orchestrating passionate denunciations of things of the spirit.  The Korihor’s of the Earth will always have limited influence upon those who long to believe.  Satan is generally more successful in supporting simpler, more effective motions of keeping you and me from our needs: notions like you’re not worthy; you’re full of sin.  Remember Brothers and Sisters, that if total worthiness were a prerequisite to sin, few prayers would be uttered upon this earth, even among people in this room.  Sometimes even more effective are the Satan-supported suggestions that you’re too tired to pray, too sleepy, or too busy.  “Wait until later for a better time and place.”  “Things are going pretty well; you’ve got things under control.  You prosper.  Look at what your hands have built.  You don’t need this as much as so-and-so.”  And thus does the scripture state, “Ye are lulled into a sense of carnal security and led carefully down to hell. 

Tragically in our day, Satan has been able to disrupt the prayers of many people by helping to saturate our environment with lustful ideas and images.  These images, even given just a little place in our minds, drives into a sort of solitary confinement, imprisoned by our own sensualism, locked away from any sweet, spiritual communication.  I’m referring to pornography: the pornography of violence and sex.  Why is pornography so insidious and evil?  Why do our prophets so urgently exhort, warn, plead with us to avoid it like the infectious disease that it is?  I do not believe it is because you will run out and act out the hideous suggestions; more likely, it becomes simply a carnal preoccupation of the mind.  As Elder Oaks often points out, our stomachs have a marvelous mechanism to vomit out, or eliminate through the bowels and bladder, the swill and poison of contaminated food and water.  But the brain cannot automatically regurgitate and eliminate the poison of pornography.  It requires enormous struggle. 

A basically good person, trapped by carnal thoughts and sensual images due to a diet of pornography is one of the most pitiful persons on this earth.  One such person described it as a living horror.  He said, “I get no respite.  I can’t pray without those familiar images flooding my mind.  I cannot sit at the sacrament table without fighting them off.  I have no sweet moment to ponder things in the temple because of the intrusion of old sexual fantasies.  I seem to have no control.  In my carefree days, I thought it was cool, intriguing, and irresistible fun to feed my desires just to look.  But now, when I am about to have a warm, spiritual experience, it is like the devil jumps up and says, ‘Oh yeah?  Remember this?’  Because I have fed on entertainment from him, it’s like I, myself, have become his personal entertainment, wiggling on the end of his spear.”

Pornography is aggressive and ruthless mainly because it appears otherwise.  It savages our tender, pure feelings toward love and intimacy.  But beyond that, it floods the mind and fills the soul with dissonance that makes prayer difficult.  The internet is fast becoming a chief information source in our society.  It has also become, in the words of a cowboy philosopher, the uncontrolled manure spreader in the world.  Consider this quote from the San Francisco Chronicle, “In the first comprehensive poll of sexual habits in cyberspace, a team of psychologists concluded yesterday that erotic pursuits are among the most frequent uses of the internet, and that sex is the most searched word online.  Sexual activity online is a form of escapism, particularly in males.”  Imagine the irony of it: an escape to mental prison. 

Brothers and Sisters, you keep your personal internet channel with Heavenly Father open and free from all contaminates.  The work-hard-pray-continuously formula is still the best way I know to succeed as a student and in everything else.  The formula will reveal hidden treasures of knowledge: knowledge about yourself, knowledge about the Lord’s purposes for you.  I am grateful beyond words that I can testify that this is true.  I have tasted the sweetness of personal revelation through consistent, humble prayer.  I have learned that it is only through the grace of God that we are saved from our mistakes and weaknesses after all we can do. 

Exactly forty years ago this fall, in a steamy little missionary apartment in Tonga, suffering from culture shock, an identity crisis, unbearable homesickness, discouragement with the Tongan language, and self-doubt, I knelt weeping before the Lord, asking to be rescued from my despair.  I had plead for this with humility and desperation for several weeks.  The result was the first, unmistakable divine communication of my life, unforgettable in its sweetness and power.  There was no vision or thunderclap, but it was as if I was enfolded in Heavenly Father’s love, and his promise of support was impressed indelibly upon my mind.  All of those promises came to pass. 

I know many people who have had similar experiences.  In nearly every case, there was a great need, and the petition was usually in connection with the Lord’s work or some personal sorrow.  Your being here at this time is such a special moment in your life; a moment of great significance in your eternal learning.  For your are indeed now on the Lord’s errand.  I know you can make claim upon the Lord’s promises to bless you and sustain you if you ask, nothing wavering.  I am eternally grateful for a wife and a companion whose life of continuous prayer brings light and peace and joy to our marriage and family.  Our children tease her affectionately about the legions of angels she has at her command through prayer.  “Could you spare me an angel or two today, Mom,” they frequently ask. 

I bear testimony also to the truthfulness and the eternal significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our lives.  I bear testimony to the divinity of the calling of our prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley and all of the prophets since Joseph Smith to the present time.  I testify to the truths within the Book of Mormon, particularly as they relate to our conduct and to our relationship with Heavenly Father and His Son and their work here upon the Earth.  And I bear this testimony to you in love, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.