Bread or Stones: Understanding the God We Pray to

Devotional Talk Given at 
Brigham Young University-Hawaii 

March 31, 2009
S. Michael Wilcox 
Religion Instructor & Author
CES Institute of Religion

Well it’s wonderful to be here. I’m supposed to say Aloha, right? I’ve always wanted to do that and I got to do it, finally. 

I think that the majesty of a church, the power of a church is best judged by the integrity of its youth and by the beauty of its music—and we certainly had that idea validated this morning, so I appreciate the wonderful music.  

A number of years ago when my daughter was about your age, she was just out of high school, she went to one semester at BYU and then she got an opportunity to go to the Soviet Union (former Soviet Union) and teach English in Russia. Now this was before e-mail and cell phones, and communications between the United States and the Soviet Union were not going to be really good. She was eighteen; we were a little bit worried that there might be moments or times when she would need to talk with a parent, and not be able to because of communication difficulties.  So I decided that I would write her a series of letters and try and figure out each situation she might find herself in that maybe she would want to talk to a mother or father over. So I wrote about a dozen letters and sealed them in envelopes, and on the outside of each envelope I put the topic of the letter: When You’re Discouraged; If You’re Tempted; When You Get Homesick. Now I tried to guess as many of those as I could, and I gave them to her at the airport.

She opened a number of them in Russia; some of them were not needed, and she opened them when she got home—to see what I had said. But I have often thought about the scriptures in a very similar manner. The scriptures are our Father in Heaven’s letters; only He knows more than I did as a father what you and I would need.  There are times in our lives when we need to open the letter and communicate with our Father in Heaven, and understand what He is like and His concern for us.  I would like to share this morning, with you, four letters from my Father in Heaven that have been very important to me—that I hope will be indicative of the power that the scriptures can be for us as we face different trials and challenges of our lives. 

The first letter is called "The Fourth Watch." That letter comes from the sixth chapter of Mark.  The Savior has fed the five thousand that day, and in the late afternoon, early evening, He is sending his apostles down into the ship. He will dismiss the multitude. He wishes to pray that evening, and then He will meet the apostles a little later on the shore and they are to pick Him up.  In late afternoon, early evening, the apostles get on the ship; they push out in the Sea of Galilee. The Savior dismisses the multitude, and prays.  The Savior could pray a long time; so, He prays late into the night. We read in Mark what takes place with the apostles:

And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray. And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land. And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea. (6:46-48)  In John’s account of this particular story we read that the apostles had rowed the equivalent of about seventy-five football fields against the wind.  There are times in our lives when we toil, rowing against the wind. We are trying to make progress and sometimes it seems that there are forces that are against us. There may be some great blessing that we deeply desire. There may be some trial that we want deeply to be over. And it doesn’t seem like we are making any headway against the wind. We wonder if the Lord is listening. 

Now we need to understand something about our Father in Heaven, and that is that He is a fourth watch God. 

The Hebrew night was divided into four watches. The first watch—six o’clock at night to nine [p.m.], second watch—nine to midnight, third watch—midnight to three in the morning, fourth watch—three in the morning to sunrise.  Sometimes that creates a bit of a problem for us, certainly for me. I worship a fourth watch God. One who tends to feel that it is good to let His children toil in rowing against the wind to face a little opposition. My problem is that I am a first watch person. Now there is something inside of me that understands that it is good for me to toil in rowing against the wind. But certainly by the second watch He would come. And when the second watch has passed and He still has not come. Sometimes I forget that as Mark says, He is watching. He watched them toiling and rowing. 

I began to make some assumptions that are often dangerous to make—maybe you make the same. We begin to assume that, number one, He is not there. That is why He’s not responding. And then we calm down and understand that He is there; He is always there. Then the second assumption is if He is there, He must not be listening. And then again, in calmer times—He always listens. Well then the third assumption is He must not care. No—He’s there, He listens, He cares. Maybe the most dangerous assumption, the fourth assumption is I must not be worthy. Now that fourth assumption we are probably correct on. But when has that ever stopped Him from responding; we are as worthy as we can be. We must assume that we have not yet reached the fourth watch; and He is a fourth watch God. 

The scriptures are full of fourth watch stories: Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove—“At the very moment I was ready to sink into despair” (JSH 1:16). Do you ever feel that way? “Just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light” (JSH 1:16). It was when the widow of Zarephath was gathering two sticks to make a final meal for her and her son that Elijah came walking through the gate to save them from the famine (1 Kings 17). It was when the water was spent in the bottle and Hagar had placed Ishmael under a tree because she did not want to see his death, that the angel came to say, Hagar, what aileth thee? and showed her a source of water (Genesis 21:17). 

We worship a fourth watch God. So when the trials aren’t over and the blessings don’t come, don’t assume that He is not there, or He is not listening, or He doesn’t care, or you’re not worthy. Always assume you have not yet reached the fourth watch.

Now occasionally people have said to me, “I’m sure I’m past the fourth watch.” I was once talking with Sheri Dew and she said later, “Mike, I think I’m in the ninth watch—now what?” Well, when you feel that you have passed the fourth watch, then we need another letter.  We need another letter called Tight like a Dish. Now that is an expression I think you all will understand—‘Tight like a dish.’ It’s the description of the Jaredite barges.

Now I have a tendency, because I’m an English major, to edit almost everything I read. It’s just a habit I can’t get out of with whatever I read—textbooks, newspapers, novels, biographies—I’m always editing. I edit the scriptures as I’m reading them. There are actually times where I say, “Lord, I could fix this verse for you if you would like me to.” And one of the verses that I used to think I would edit is Ether chapter two, the seventeenth verse; the description of the Jaredite barges. Can you realize what word I might write if I were editing this? This is how it reads: 

“They were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish”—that’s once. “And the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish”—twice. “And the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish”—three times. “And the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish”—five times. 

I would have written redundant. We get the impression they are waterproof. It’s like taking a jar and sealing it and throwing it. These are not submarines; they float light like a fowl, we are told, on the water. But the problem is that great waves are going to be washing over them, and so they need to be waterproof. 

Now being ‘Tight like a dish’ causes two problems for the Jaredites’ crossing of the sea. Number one, minor problems, it was probably Mrs. Moriancumer who pointed them out to her husband: “We can’t breathe in here, and we can’t see, so unless we are going to get the Promised Land in sixty seconds, we’ve got big problems. Did you get the instructions right?” 

And so Moriancumer, the brother of Jared, goes back to the Lord, and he presents his two problems. Now you learn something about your Father in Heaven in the solution or the handling of these two problems. Of the two problems—no air and no light—the Lord solves one of them just because He is asked. He tells them to put the holes in so they can have air. And sometimes when we go to the Lord, we simply ask and we will receive. He tells us the solution. The second problem we have to seek and find; for the second problem the Lord says, “You come up with a solution.” Now He put some parameters on that. He tells them, “You can’t go by windows”—probably not invented yet, and the second, “You can’t go by fire”—oxygen is a problem anyway. All that tossing around in the sea with coals flying everywhere probably wouldn’t be good, so you come up with a solution. 

Now you are the brother of Jared. I want you to listen with his mind at what the Lord says because the twenty-fourth verse is a really interesting verse of Ether chapter two:  

"Behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth."

Now the reason they need ‘Tight like a dish’ ships is because there are going to be mountain waves. Now what causes mountain waves in the ocean?—wind and storm. And what did the Lord just say the source of the winds were? “The winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and the rains and floods have I sent forth”—do you have a solution to the problem? 

If I were the brother of Jared, I would have said, “Lord, we don’t need these ‘Tight like a dish’ ships at all. Since waves are the problem, and waves are caused by wind, and wind comes out of your mouth—blow softly. Blow softly. Breeze us to the Promised Land. We’ll sit on deck, we’ll fish, we’ll get tanned, we’ll play shuffleboard.” How many here want the first watch cruise version of life?—that’s me; I’m a first watch person. I don’t like mountain waves. 

And then the great lesson: We know God can still the storms of our lives—we know that; there are precedents. But he prefers to do something else:

"Behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. What will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?" (Ether 2:25)

What we need to understand about our Father in Heaven is that He prefers to prepare us to face the storms of life, the contrary winds, rather than to still them. So if you are past your fourth watch and He has not come, don’t assume that He is not there, that He doesn’t care, He doesn’t listen, or that you are not worthy. Assume your ship is tight like a dish. You will not sink.  Somewhere in the past of your life, experiences have been placed by a wise and foresighted Father in Heaven to prepare you to face the very things that you are facing. As the lion and the bear came to David, before Goliath, to prepare him to face Goliath, so will lion-and-bear moments come in your lives before the Goliath moments come. Because if your ship was not tight like a dish and you have reached the fourth watch, He will come to you and still the storm. So if the storm is not still, we must assume our ship is tight like a dish. 

Sometimes we don’t understand the Lord’s answers because the answers that we are getting may not be the ones we particularly want. And so we go to another letter I call Bread or Stones. 

In Luke, the eleventh chapter, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them about prayer, He introduced it with a parable, and then He said, 

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, (meaning being human, imperfect) know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give (good things, give) the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" (9-13) 

Now the Lord’s prayer is introduced with a phrase; the Savior says your father in Heaven knows what you need before you ask Him (Matthew 6:8). We are also counseled in the scriptures to tell the Lord our desires. Now that may cause a problem. I know what I desire and God knows what I need. I am always hoping that those are the same. But what if what I need and what I desire are not the same?—and the Lord says, “Mike, you get to choose what you need and what you desire.” I’m afraid in my worse moments I may say, “Well if it’s just the same to you Father, I’d like what I desire, rather than what I need.” 

C.S. Lewis calls the desired need the ‘expected good’; and, the needed good he sometimes called the ‘given good.’ All things given from God are good; and, sometimes if what I desire is different from what I need, if what I expect is different from what I’m given, I may, if I’m not careful, turn the given bread into a stone. I may turn the given fish into a serpent. I may view the given egg as a scorpion because it is not what I anticipated, what I asked for, what I hoped for—what I desired.

What we must understand about our Father in Heaven is that He only gives bread; He never gives stones. He only gives fish; He never gives serpents. He only gives eggs; He never gives scorpions. 

May I illustrate: As long as I can remember I wanted to go on a mission and I knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Denmark. My mother is Danish; my grandparents were born and raised in Denmark; I idolized my grandfather—I wanted to go to Denmark on a mission. Everybody in our family went to Denmark. My grandfather went to Denmark, my uncles went to Denmark, my cousins went to Denmark. If you’re in my family, you go to Denmark. So I, as my mission call approached, began to pray to the Lord that He would send me to Denmark.  

The problem was back in southern California, where I grew up, they didn’t teach Danish in high school. They taught French, and I had four years of French. So as my mission call approached, I began to have a feeling of impending doom that I was going to go to France instead of to Denmark.

France would have been okay, except that I had a French teacher from Paris who was so proud of her French language; if you mispronounced something, she would throw chalk or erasers at you. She would walk up and down the aisles throwing a piece of chalk, and then she would turn on you and fire a French question at you. Just the look in her eyes would drive every French word right out of my brain, and I would try and answer, and she would get mad, and she would throw the chalk at me, and I thought, if this is what the French are like, I don’t want to go to France; two years of that would be bad. I want to go to Denmark.

But I had a feeling of impending doom that I would go to France. As my mission call approached, I finally realized that it was probably not appropriate to tell the Lord where you wanted to go on your mission, so I changed my prayers. I did not feel that it was inappropriate to eliminate one country from all the countries God could send you to. And so I began to pray, “I’ll go anywhere Lord, please don’t send me to France. They speak French in Tahiti.”

On the day my mission call came, I was at work.

I was driving home from work, and I knew my mission call was there, and I knew it said France, and I didn’t want to go home. I lingered at work; I drove slowly, hoping for red lights. And finally I was so discouraged that just before I turned the corner to my home, I pulled off to the side, turned the car off, parked it, and gave one final prayer. You’re going to think I’m making this up, but I actually prayed this; I said, “Father in Heaven, I know my mission call is at home, and I know it says France. Thou art all powerful; thou art merciful and loving. Please—thou canst do all things—please change it in the envelope.”

With a certain amount of hope, I drove home and opened my mission call. What did it say?—France. Of course it said France. Actually, I think it originally said Denmark, and the Lord said, “We need to teach this boy something, so let’s send him to France.”  Now, could I have ruined my mission?—yes. I could have spent two years wanting to be in Denmark, but I learned to love the French people, love their language—beautiful language.

God listens to prayers in all languages, but He answers them in French. They are beautiful, wonderful people. I had a great mission. I found out when I got home that I had French ancestors, and, that I served in some of the cities where they had lived.  God did not give me a stone. A stone, when you want bread, is something useless. God does not give useless things. He did not give me a serpent; a serpent, when you want a fish, is something harmful. He does not give harmful things; He only gives bread, and fish, and eggs.

Sometimes we don’t get answers because there is no place for God to put the answer. In the Doctrine & Covenants, the ninety-eighth section, in the first few verses, the Lord introduces another idea of another letter. I call it Holding Places of the Heart.

"I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament—the Lord hath sworn and decreed they shall be granted. He giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good." (1-3)

Now God tends to do everything backwards; we worship a backwards God, in a sense. I say, “Lord, help me understand and then I can believe.” But in the scriptures, the Lord says, “No, believe and then you will understand.” I say that’s backwards, and He says, “No, you have it backwards.” So here the Lord says, “Be comforted, rejoice, give thanks, then I’ll answer your prayers.” And I say, “Lord, answer my prayers, and then I’ll be comforted, rejoice, and give thanks.” That is backwards.

Now sometimes the reason the Lord doesn’t answer is because He has a wonderful answer, a comforting answer, a rejoicing answer, and He says, “Where do I put it? There is no place yet in your heart, in your mind for me to put the answer. But life will create a holding place for the answer. So be patient; in time it will come. I have recorded your prayers. I know your needs. I will answer it when the holding place has been created.”

Let me give you an example of that if I may:

My parents were divorced when I was one year old. My father, for not the best of reasons, left the family. That caused certain concerns, certain problems, certain challenges for my mother, my two sisters, and myself.

If you were age fourteen and you were me and you prayed, “Father in Heaven, help me be at peace and forgive my father for having left his family,” that’s a good prayer; that’s a good desire—I received no answer.

At eighteen, you’re praying, “Father in Heaven, help me be at peace and find solace, and comfort, and forgiveness about this particular episode.”

My father had very little to do with us as we were growing up. One day a year he would take us to Lagoon in Utah. That was my only contact with my father, growing up. I got married. I’m praying. I had two daughters, two sons. Now I’m over thirty years of age. 

One day I was preparing to give a talk on parenting. Now my mother was an absolute saint. I can’t imagine a boy being given a greater mother than the mother I was given; and everybody who knows my mother would agree with that. I was thinking, as I was preparing to talk about how to raise children, that I would talk about my mother. But the Spirit seemed to say, “You need to talk, and you need to think about your father.” I wondered, “What do I say about my father? I hardly know my father. I was not raised with him; I had no contact with my father.”

Just at that moment as I’m pondering about my father, my two sons—I had two at the time, my third son wasn’t born yet—they were about six and two years of age; they came in and they stood in front of me where I was sitting in the family room; they just stood there in front of me staring at me, the older brother standing behind his younger brother. I looked at those two boys and the Spirit just washed my brain with memories of things I had done with those boys. Simple things, nothing important: Trick-or-treating, carving Halloween pumpkins, Christmas mornings, blowing out birthday candles, looking at turtles at the pond, piggyback rides, listening to their Primary talks, listening to their prayers, bedtime stories, the first puppy, catching a fish in the same fishing hole I caught my first fish in.    

Nothing critical, nothing important. Just the everyday memories that I as a father had shared with those boys in six years of my being a father. As I was thinking of those things, the Lord said, “Now Mike, life has carved a holding place in your heart, and I will give you the answer”; and this is what He said: “Now that you are a father, now that you know a father’s joys and love, would you be the son who lost his father? Or the father who lost his son?” 

Do you understand what the Lord was saying to me? I began to weep. I just sobbed. I grabbed those two boys and I just hugged them, sobbing—not for me—for my father. Because I knew the tragedy of his life greater than he knew it. I knew what he missed. I knew that it was a greater tragedy for him to have missed all those wonderful things with his family, than it was for me, as a son, to have missed them with a father.

My wife came in, she said, “For heaven’s sake Mike, what’s the matter?” I was sobbing, clinging to my boys. I said, “I can’t talk about it now.” I went up to the bathroom and just cried and cried, cried myself dry—for my father.

God always had an answer. But why didn’t He give it to me at age fourteen, or eighteen, or when I was married, or when I was the father of two daughters? It had to be when I was the father of boys and had shared enough life with those boys to comprehend the answer that God would give. The easiest thing in the world for me to forgive was my father for having left the family. But it took life to create the space for God to put the answer. 

May I share one final, tiny, little letter with you, because we’re on the islands? We have talked about waves, and sea, and stilling storms, and rowing against the wind; I thought that would all be appropriate for here. The Doctrine & Covenants begins with an image, created first by Isaiah, of the isles of the sea (you have heard that expression all the time): 

"Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together."

The Doctrine & Covenants begins with the islands of the sea. You are living on and many of you are from a symbol of God’s love for all the world. 

The very first time I came to Hawaii, I was sitting on an airplane next to a young African American basketball player from Detroit. He kept looking out the window, nervously. All through the flight, he kept looking out the window nervously, and finally he turned to me and he said, “How do they find it in all this water?” I could tell that he had images of circling around the Pacific, which is a big ocean, trying to find these tiny little islands out there.  How did they find it?

I think it is interesting that one of the first missionary labors, the very first foreign speaking mission, was to an island of the sea in French Polynesia. And if God will see that the gospel is taught on Fiji, and Tahiti, and Hawaii, and Samoa, and Tonga, He will see that it will be taught in China, and India, and Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. And if there is a temple on Tahiti, and Hawaii, and Samoa, and Tonga, and New Zealand, all the islands of the sea—places that many people wouldn’t even be able to find on a map—if God is going to put a temple on all those tiny little dots of land in behalf of the people that live there, it is His assurance, His testimony to all of us that He will put a temple in Beijing, and Cairo, and New Delhi, and Jakarta, and Moscow. 

You are on God’s chosen symbol that He remembers all His people, all His children, and many of you will be His message as you go back to those countries and represent His voice, His assurance that God is aware of all.  May you search God’s letters when you need them; may your fourth watches come quickly; may your ship be tight like a dish. May God, as He does, always give you bread, and may you recognize that it always is bread. May life carve the holding places in your heart, and may you realize as you walk on this living symbol of God’s love for all the world that if the gospel is preached on the islands of the sea, it will be preached in all the world one day with its fullest blessings. For that day I hope and pray for in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.