Influences of Righteous Lives
Commencement Address given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii
April 9, 2011
Elder Paul V. Johnson
Commissioner, Church Education System
Graduates, it is a privilege to share this wonderful day with you, your family members and the marvelous people at BYU-Hawaii. This is a day to acknowledge your achievements and celebrate with you. It is a time for you to look forward with excitement to your future and to look back with gratitude for those who have been an influence on your lives.
My wife and I recently toured a mission, and the experience brought to mind again the powerful influence my mission president had in my life. He almost didn't have the chance to exert this influence on me. Let me tell you a little about him.
His name was Gasta Berling, a Norwegian who found the gospel of Jesus Christ when he was about the age of many of you graduates. When he started reading the Book of Mormon he couldn't stop. For three straight days and nights he went to work during the day, and read the Book of Mormon all night. In these three nights he read the whole book and received a powerful witness of its truthfulness. Even though he was a little older than normal missionary age, he served a mission. He also translated the Doctrine and Covenants into Norwegian.
As a young child, President Berling contracted Rheumatic fever, which caused heart valve damage. He had some problems with decreased energy as he grew up, but overall he was quite healthy as a young man. But by 1971 his health had deteriorated and the problems with his heart were acute. He had very limited energy and could no longer carry out even small day-to-day functions. In August of 1971 he underwent open heart surgery by a world-renowned heart surgeon and received a mechanical heart valve. This procedure improved his health dramatically and extended his life. Less than one year after the surgery, he was serving as a mission president, with plenty of energy and with good health. I served under him for most of the last two years of his time as mission president. I remember sitting in a room with him and if it was very quiet I could hear the mechanical valve in his heart make a faint clicking noise. I was grateful then for a heart surgeon, whom I did not know at the time, but who saved my mission president's life.
As the years have passed I have become even more grateful that President Berling was able to serve as my mission president. He was one of the best missionaries I have ever seen. He loved people and was sensitive to their needs. He was a man full of faith and open to inspiration and revelation. The gospel of Jesus Christ was central to his life and I could feel that. He had a great influence on my life.
I've come to know a lot more about the surgeon who extended President Berling's life. He is brilliant, gifted and disciplined. He made the most of his gifts and his education and ended up at the top of his profession. But even in such a demanding profession and with numerous accolades associated with his contributions to the field, he never got sidetracked from the gospel of Jesus Christ or his family. He made proper decisions early in his life and did not turn from those decisions. He treats people like the Savior would treat them, and not just in public. He is a Christian behind closed doors. He is a true disciple. His power is in his righteousness. After all these years, he still is in the business of mending hearts, although he doesn't use scalpel or suture now. I am grateful that he is the commencement speaker here today, Elder Russell M. Nelson.
What about you? What decisions will you make? How can you use your education and the spiritual lessons you have learned?
Whether you make your contributions to the world in an operating room, a board room, a classroom or most importantly, in your own living room, you can and will make a difference in the world and the kingdom if you move forward with a righteous life. Voices from the great and spacious building would have us believe that our righteousness is a heavy weight that keeps us from reaching our potential. This is, of course, a lie. If we live righteous lives, the Lord will help us reach our eternal potential.
We won't necessarily be in a high-profile profession or calling. But if we develop our character, as Elder Nelson has, the Lord will help us accomplish our unique mission, and will use us to bless the kingdom and the world by blessing individuals. A surgeon's act in 1971 on a person I did not know at the time continues to be a blessing to me.
May the Lord bless you as you go forward from this place that your gifts, preparation and righteousness may merge to allow you to accomplish what the Lord has in store for you. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Photo by Monique Saenz.