Starting Over


Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

James Walker
Professor of English
May 27, 2004

In about 30 days my wife and I will walk out of the house we have lived in for the past 26 years, turn the keys over to the university and drive off to the other side of the island, preparatory to catching a flight to the mainland. We sold our home when we left Canada to come here back in 1978 and so will be technically free to go anywhere we like. Of course wherever we end up we will be the "older couple" that nobody will really know in our new ward and we will in the classic sense of the term be 'starting over." This will present decided challenges for us as we wrestle with questions like where to live, whether to buy or continue renting, when to put in our names for church service, and many similar questions. Unlike some of you we won't have to worry about a job, although supposedly that would be a possibility should we decide to consider it. Doubtless we will be blessed with both opportunities and obstacles in this transition. But this will not be the first time we have had to start over.

I enrolled at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1957, my first real time away from home. The freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted, to study or play, to go to class or sleep in, proved a little more than I was ready for. Besides, I made the university basketball team, and clearly in my mind that was what I was primarily at university FOR. In short, I did great on the basketball team but mediocre in the classroom. We won the Western Canada championship and I scored 13 points in the final game against the University of Manitoba. Oh yeah, and I managed to pass my classes by the skin of my teeth. I was saved by my mission call when it finally came, and headed off to the Canadian Mission in Toronto under the leadership of President Monson. I was excited about the call because we had been reading about how the Ottawa Mormon Elders team had contended for the Canadian Senior Men's championship in basketball, and I figured that was why I was receiving this call. They put together a crack basketball team, stationing them all in the same city for the season, and won permission to have them make half-time presentations on the Book of Mormon to the crowds. I had only just arrived in the field when Elder Elray L. Christiansen toured the mission. To my displeasure one of his first announcements was that there would no longer be a missionary basketball team. Missionaries were sent out to teach the gospel, not play basketball. I must have sulked for a week. I wouldn't call them my best two years, but perhaps they were two of my most valuable years. I learned how to study, how to deal with difficulty, how to talk to people, and how to keep commitments. When I returned to college after my mission, I was grateful for a second chance, and dug in with determination. Yes, I made the basketball team again, but now it wasn't what I lived for. Being able to start over made all the difference and what I learned on my mission not only equipped me for life in the church, but propelled me to success in graduate study.

In January of 1978 I was sitting in my office in the upper floor of Ashdown Hall at the University of Winnipeg nestled in the heart of downtown Winnipeg. It was 25-below-zero outside, frigidly cold, and the fumes from the Greyhound Bus Depot just across the street from my office curled up into the air and somehow managed to seep through the walls, very unpleasant. I had taught at this university for 7 years and was due to be promoted to Associate Professor in the fall. I had a 9-hour standard teaching load, all literature, no composition, and was on the department's executive committee, a position with some prestige and influence. At the time I was district president, presiding over the members in the province of Manitoba, an area larger than the state of Texas, although under the direction of the mission president. And there on my desk was a letter, an unexpected letter marked BYU-Hawaii on the envelope. When I opened it, the letter asked if I was interested in applying for a position here. I daydreamed for a minute, palm trees, ocean, warmth, and arranged to leave work early to tell my wife of this startling development. After discussing it and spending considerable time in prayer over the question, we decided to proceed. August of that year found us racing to the airport with 5 children unsure whether Larry Oler's visa documents would be accepted until we had passed the customs and immigration officer there. And then it was done. We arrived in mid-August, just as it was beginning to cool off in Winnipeg at nights, and will probably never forget the blanket of heat and humidity that enveloped us as we stepped off the plane and into the open air. In the drive to Laie, we were stunned at the beauty of the island: its amazing greenness and the configurations of the Koolau range, as well as the startling closeness and color of the ocean. Then we were handed the key to our home on the corner of Kulanui and Moana Street and walked inside. There on the floor in the middle of the family room was the largest dead roach we had ever seen, flat on his back as though sunning himself. Sharon looked at me and said, "we're going back." When we went further into the house we discovered that there was no fridge, that the kitchen sink was plugged, and that the stove had a sign on it saying "DO NOT USE" in capital letters. For someone starting over this was not a good beginning. I kept thinking "What have I done?" for those first few days and of course we had no fans, and couldn't sleep in the unexpected heat of midsummer nights.

We decided we would not stay and made connections with the University of Winnipeg about returning to our former position. But there had been a provincial election and a new party in power had slashed university budgets, resulting in cutting of faculty slots, including mine. The result was we had to genuinely start over: changing our attitudes, making the best of it, and determining to follow the "bloom where you are planted" advice we had heard from an influential speaker previously. Improvements were made to the house, we filled the place with fans for every room, and I plunged into the very different teaching load of BYU-Hawaii determined to do my best. And we came to love the people, the community, the school, after an initially difficult time in the process of starting over. It will be hard to leave. And yet as we contemplate the 3 new grandchildren coming in August and a 4th due in November, we also look forward to the new experiences awaiting us.

And perhaps this is the biggest importance of starting over, which every one of us here will doubtless have the opportunity to do, perhaps several times and in different ways and contexts, over the course of experiences that lie before us. Many of you will end up going to new places to live and work. Some will face challenges to your testimonies and values in the course of these new beginnings. Perhaps the key is to be prepared to face such challenges with the awareness that they often offer opportunity to prove our mettle, to test ourselves, to show what we are really made of. For what is really at stake here, when we individually encounter the confrontations involved with starting over is less what we discover waiting for us and more the question of how to be, that is, what we will do and how we will conduct ourselves in the face of whatever we encounter. The Lord will doubtless watch us carefully to see what we do. At times we may stumble under such pressures, but if we are watchful and prayerful, dedicated and committed, we may avoid missteps. However, if we do encounter difficulty, it is critically important that we learn to face up to our shortcomings and get back up quickly should we ever slip. Above all, never, never let worldly pressures get between you and your testimony of the gospel. Satan would love to drive a wedge right there that would dam up your spiritual progress. Recognize temptation for what it is and rise above it. Hold fast to eternal values rather than worldly ones. If you do fall, the Lord is always ready to give you a hand back up.

Over the remainder of the hour, I plan to consider a number of incidents of individuals who have had to start over. In some instances these involve people who had to repent of conduct unacceptable to the Lord. In others we will look at stories of individuals who discovered the message of the gospel and how their lives changed. In a few, we simply will see people who had to make a fresh start, what motivated them and how they accomplished the challenge of beginning anew.

At times I think of Jonah, saddled with a seemingly impossible assignment, reaching Nineveh and finding himself despised and ridiculed, even assaulted as he attempts to deliver his assigned message. I readily understand why he turned his back on the city and left instead of attempting to continue. He must have been haunted as he retreated without having fulfilled his mission, but which of us hasn't hit a similar hurdle and been tempted to back off rather than face what looked like certain embarrassment or even disaster? Many times after such failure we find ourselves looking in the mirror with disappointment, wishing we had done things better, dissatisfied with ourselves and our efforts. Few of us will find ourselves the cause of storm and tumult and even fewer will end up in the belly of a whale, but as we know, Jonah is more or less FORCED to start over, do it right. This is something of a mixed blessing. Jonah fulfills his calling in his 2nd chance, to his credit, but wouldn't it have been better for him to have made this decision on his own and returned in the full strength and commitment of his personal conscience rather than under duress?

When we lived in Winnipeg 30 years ago, a local LDS musician, Randy Bachman, had established a huge reputation in the world of rock music. His groups, "The Guess Who" and "Bachman-Turner Overdrive" sold millions of albums and his hit single, "American Woman", too screechy for my personal taste, can still be heard occasionally. Randy stayed active in the church in spite of the conflicting lifestyle usually associated with the music scene. He wasn't bashful about letting people know his beliefs either, and a stream of roadies and fans at various times touched base with the church because of Randy's efforts. When I was branch president of the Winnipeg 1st branch back in the early 70s, at one sacrament meeting, we were just ready to begin when a couple of scruffy-looking fellows with hair down to their waists walked in and sat near the front of the chapel. Internally I must have shook my head and thought "Randy, what are you doing?" But I made sure I met them after the meeting, and made a note of their names "John Moore and Glen Cranwell". To my surprise they continued to attend meetings regularly, and as weeks passed, the hair became a little shorter. We talked and I discovered they were nice fellows. They had been roadies with Randy's group, but were realizing that there really was no future for them there. Imagine my reaction when the missionaries reported baptism dates for the two of them. They had both reached a crossroad in their lives, had made commitments, and were ready to start over. Today John Moore is 1st counselor in the Winnipeg Stake Presidency and last I heard Glen Cranwell was on the high council, both model priesthood holders who had the courage to change their lives and begin again, converted and committed to a higher set of values. This should remind us that we need to be supportive and not judgmental in response to others as they encounter the challenges of starting over.

I think of my ancestors in Scotland and northern England who left behind everything they had known to follow the call of a prophet of God telling them to gather with the saints in America, ancestors who essentially came with nothing but their meager possessions and a testimony of truth. Many had no idea where they would be going, had no home or job waiting for them and in many cases no family to anticipate other than those they brought with them. I can scarce imagine such faith. One of these, Robert Harris, a member of the United Brethren, knew nothing of the church and when his wife Hannah Maria went with her sister and her husband, Daniel Browett, to listen to a preacher named Wilford Woodruff, he was not interested. But his wife was. Robert became frustrated with her interest and determined to do something about this Mormon preacher. My grandmother's journal records the following: "That evening he organized a mob. The plot was to 'rotten egg' the Mormon Preachers and then ride them out of town on a rail, and perhaps even tar and feather them. That night they went to the meeting. As Brother Woodruff was speaking, Robert gave the signal and said, 'Now is the time, boys. Let's go in and pitch Woodruff and his companions out.' As he walked toward the front, Robert saw his wife on the front seat listening intently to the words of Brother Woodruff. Again this strange feeling engulfed him and he became overpowered. He put up his hands to stop the mob. 'There is something to this religion.' The mob all bowed their heads and went out. Brother Woodruff continued his meetings and Robert attended. At the end of the sixth meeting, he stepped up to Brother Woodruff and said, 'You have made me a convert to your teachings. I desire to be baptized at your hands.' He was baptized in March 1840, just three weeks after his wife." Later, in 1841, Robert was Daniel Browett's counselor on the ship "Echo" that sailed with 109 members of the church for America. It took them 10 weeks to get from England to Nauvoo. He was among those driven out, and subsequently enlisted with the Mormon Battalion, eventually returning overland from California to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in October of 1847.

I picture the saints in Nauvoo, finally settled in their own community, establishing a thriving commerce and beginning to build the temple, and all of this ideal suddenly and profoundly threatened by the growing antagonism of the non-members more or less surrounding them, suspicious, jealous, resentful. As hostilities boiled into open confrontation and violence became commonplace, seemingly endorsed by government as the tensions heightened, it became inevitable. Short of open warfare, the saints would have to leave, and leave they did. Many simply walked out of their homes, leaving everything behind them except what they could cram into a covered wagon. Few were compensated and what compensation did come through was generally meager. They not only started over, but they also left on a journey of hardship that would result in many deaths and enormous deprivation, a willingness to start over that many have compared to the children of Israel leaving Egypt on their 40-year pilgrimage to find the promised land. It must have been so tempting to renounce their faith in exchange for being left alone, but instead they focused their energies on the enormous task ahead, and finally, on the trail and when arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they did an amazing job of collectively starting over, looking ahead rather than behind for their focus.

My father, Harris Walker, had been a small town general practitioner for over 20 years in Raymond in Southern Alberta when he decided to pursue his specialty in plastic surgery, even though he had reached his 50s. He cut his ties with the clinic he had helped to found, took his family and moved to Salt Lake City to receive his training. He had more than a few sleepless nights over this choice and his worry about whether he had made the right decision. His mentors, Drs. Woolf and Broadbent, told him there was no room for another plastic surgeon in Salt Lake City. There were already 3 of them practicing there (in his last years of practice there were 17). So he worried about where he would go to set up a practice. Finally he decided he would go against his mentors' advice and remain in Salt Lake, although he would drive to Idaho Falls every Friday to conduct a day's worth of office and surgery there. He became the favored plastic surgeon in the emergency room at the LDS hospital in Salt Lake where he handled the bulk of the emergency cases for many years, mostly from auto and other accidents where he often literally had to put faces back together again that had been more or less torn apart. He kept a file of before and after pictures which he would show us at times, and I have to tell you that his restorative work was absolutely amazing. To make up for the lateness of his decision to specialize, he decided to continue practicing as long as possible, and in consequence, was still employing scalpel and suture until he turned 73 when the hospital's charter required termination of surgical privileges. Many of his patients still praise his work years after. Here was a man who felt he could start over at a time when many would be contemplating retirement, and who not only succeeded, but did so in exemplary fashion.

One of the families we met and came to love in Winnipeg was the Finken family. They had come from Germany after World War II, one of a multitude of families displaced by war who elected to begin afresh in a new land, a land of freedom and opportunity. Unfortunately for many of these families, the "opportunity" consisted in the first place of being assigned heavy work, typically in agricultural contexts, for very little more than subsistence pay. Ironically, the Finkens were assigned to be beet workers on southern Alberta farms, in the heart of the Canadian Mormon community. They describe the wooden shack they were given for housing as having a single panel of wood for an external wall, no insulation, cracks in the walls in some locations, a simple stove for heat, and a dirt floor. So much for the land of opportunity. They fulfilled their contract there grudgingly, frustrated at their conditions. Fortunately perhaps they heard nothing of the gospel at this point. Only after they relocated to Winnipeg, found decent employment and a home of their own a few years later, were they introduced to the gospel through missionaries.

It would be fair to say they started over twice: once in relocating to Canada and a second time in shifting their values to embrace the gospel and its standards. These people became one of the finest families we have ever known, and their children upstanding models of commitment to the church. They are pillars of the church in Winnipeg, deserving of both praise and honor for their initiative and stability. Hans and Trude will always have their Austrian accents, but this only serves to remind us of the distance their lives have covered and their remarkable achievement. One of the most spiritual moments of our lives was being able to attend the Finken sealing in the Cardston temple several years ago when the entire family was sealed together, a most sacred and blessed highlight, with the spirit so strong we were all but lifted off the earth.

I think of the disciples after the Savior's death, seemingly disheartened and returning to their fishing. How chagrined they must have felt at the same time that they rejoiced at having Jesus visit them in the midst of their labors. I'm sure they were fully aware of what they had been charged to do and that they had let Him down. But note his tone to them. He doesn't berate them, but gently chides them. The wonderful line, "Lovest thou me more than these?" in reference to a comparison between the Savior and the fish is amazingly effective at letting them see for themselves without having to assume a tone of anger. Still, Jesus drives home his message in repeating the "Feed my sheep" line as a way of insuring they understand their prior conduct hasn't been satisfactory.

When Lehi announces to his family that they are leaving all their possessions behind and heading out into the wilderness, I'm sure that everybody in the family must for a moment at least have wondered at his sanity. It is testimony to Lehi's character that all of them follow him at least in the beginning. But at first it is not apparent where this version of starting over is going to lead them and the seeming aimlessness of their initial journey must have become an overwhelming temptation towards rebellion. This is one of few times that I have some sympathies for Laman and Lemuel. Even the decision to build a ship after receiving revelation must have been a back-breaker when the family knew Lehi had no knowledge or experience with shipbuilding. To go where? Can't you imagine what was going on in their minds? Talk about starting over! This one was huge! And yet the faith of Lehi and the willingness (more or less) of his family to follow his inspired leadership essentially become the foundation for the 2nd witness of Christ and the keystone of our religion.

The Lord is always looking out for us, providing opportunities. One of the best personal examples connecting this idea with the concept of starting over involved an experience I had while branch president in Winnipeg. We had an unfortunately high level of inactivity there, with the church having grown only by very small increments over the years in the city. There were only 2 branches when we first arrived, in spite of the church's having been there for many, many years. One of the families in our branch included a mother who attended sporadically, a father who did not attend, and children who came fairly regularly. For a period of time the father eluded me and I still did not have a picture of him. Then we noticed a brother come and sit right near the back door one Sunday. Neither of my counselors knew him and in my mind I decided it was probably Brother McCullough. Still, he managed to slip away right after sacrament meeting before I could get down to him. The next Sunday he was there again, and I determined he was not going to escape this time, and walked down to the exit during the closing hymn. When he went to walk out, I took him by the hand, looked him in the eye and said, "You need to see me." He was stunned. "How did you know?" he said. "You'd be surprised what branch presidents know," was my off hand remark. I steered him into my office and sat him down. "Tell me about yourself" seemed to be a fairly innocuous way of beginning, and I did. To my surprise I discovered he was not the brother I had thought he was. But he did not realize my mistake, and only later did I come to see it was not a mistake, but an inspired act prompted by the Lord. For it turned out that this man was from Texas and had tried to get as far away as possible after his excommunication, which had cost him his family, his livelihood, and of course his membership in the church. He had taken a teaching job in Canada, too embarrassed at his failures to remain in the area where people knew him. He had spent some months in Winnipeg, staying away from church, but gradually felt a pull to return and had decided to do so anonymously. I expect it would have happened eventually one way or another, but because of this moment when I was prompted to take him aside, this man began the steps towards returning to the church and became a stalwart once he was finally cleared to be baptized again. The branch came together around him and took satisfaction in his individual achievement, a source of love and support. He was so grateful to have the opportunity to start over, and he committed never to make the kind of mistakes again that had cost him so much in this life. This had to be one of the most satisfying moments of my church service.

Who can forget the image of Saul, on the road to Damascus, self-assured in the rightness of his persecution of the Christians, struck down by divine hand, temporarily incapacitated after the blinding revelation he received? Not only must this rebuke have stung him to the core of his soul, but the necessity of his reversal in his conduct must have cost him dearly in the mockery of his contemporaries and the humiliation of his having to do a complete 180-degree turn with regards to the faith he had previously led persecutions of and even assisted in the murder of at least one of the apostles. Small wonder he took the new name of Paul as though an indicator of a new identity and then struck out courageously in his conviction of his calling, with efforts that I feel must have been redoubled because of the nagging sense of responsibility over his previous actions. After the initial shock, he must have been gratified to have been given an opportunity to in part redeem himself for past conduct through being able to start over.

In a non-gospel setting, one of the most moving pieces of video footage related to this theme that I recall involved a scene that many of you may remember previously encountering. This was several years ago and involved the Olympic games. A young athlete from one of the African countries had qualified to run in the marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, not your typical weekend stroll. When I saw this footage for the first time it moved me to tears and likely still would even though I must have seen it more than a dozen times. Along the race route, this runner had had a catastrophic collision and had injured his leg badly with the bulk of the race remaining to be run. Any normal person would have limped off the course and made his way back to the athletes' village. But this person had spent years preparing for this race, had toughened himself for the long course, and was absolutely determined that he would finish the race. He applied some bandages for his wounds and continued to limp along the roadway, by this time miles behind his competitors. He would lope awkwardly for several paces and then walk a few, and continued this sporadic method over the long course. Hours after the other runners had finished the race, he came in sight of the stadium where the final 2 laps were run. By this time other events were taking place on the stadium field, but there was still a crowd in the stands, as Olympic events are typically sold out years in advance. As he pulled himself along toward the stadium, the pain and the effort were both visible in the runner, but he held it together and began to jog up the final access to the stadium, where the p.a. system announced that he was about to enter. The track was cleared and this young man in all the pride and determination he could muster overcame his pain long enough to break into a full jog as he entered the stadium to begin his final laps. Somehow this moment caught the crowd, and waves of applause crescendoed for the athlete as he fought to hold on and finish his race, his distress being apparent to the large audience. He crossed the finish line and I can't help thinking there would be a smile of satisfaction somewhere in the midst of the pain and frustration of that moment. Oh what a powerful example this man gives us, for surely our lives will be nettled with thorns and moments of disappointment in between joyful intervals. What may matter most for us is what we do with ourselves in the face of momentary failure. Will we pick ourselves up and move forward with grit and determination, or will we surrender to the moment, say it's too hard to carry on, and give up. Can you imagine the Lord watching us, knowing us individually and so well, aware of our moments of failure, our struggles and challenges? Can you anticipate the look on his face when he sees us pull ourselves up, shake off whatever briars may have caught us by the ankles, and stride back to the straight and narrow path with determination and steadfastness?

When the Pharisees and Sadducees think they have the Savior entrapped, bringing before him the woman taken in adultery (suggesting there is no question about her guilt or innocence in this matter), his brilliant and inspiring rejoinder gives us words to live by. After he had told them that whoever among them has not sinned may cast the first stone at her, he notices that the accusers have all disappeared. Then he consoles the woman by saying, "Woman where are thy accusers?" And noting that none remains to condemn her, adds, "Neither do I condemn thee", a statement so very important to all of us. But the interview concludes with his instruction to her:

"Go thy way and sin no more." He doesn't tell her that it didn't matter, but he does make it clear he is willing to forgive. And that last concept, "Sin no more," may be the key concept of the incident as it applies to us individually. Clearly he has encouraged the woman to start over, to live a better life, and to realize that if her repentance is genuine, that her previous mistakes will not be held against her. What a promise and a blessing to us individually and collectively! And the beauty for us individually is that we can have exactly this same principle at work in our own lives, to be able to start over. It does not matter where we stand today as long as we are able to move to a higher plateau of conduct tomorrow.

None of us will remain permanently on the campus of BYU-Hawaii. Individually we will all eventually be headed for life elsewhere, even though some may remain in Laie. One of our six children, our eldest son Alan, has elected to remain in Hawaii, but all the others have left for lives elsewhere, and even Alan has discovered that the world of Ewa Beach is not the same as the world of Laie. Virtually every one of us will be required to start over at least once in some future context and environment and some of us many times. But starting over does not have to be limited to where we will live and what we will do there. We may have occasion to start over in terms of those principles of conduct that we know are lacking in our lives at any given moment, including right here and right now. Some of you sitting here today may be very much in need of applying this principle in your own lives or perhaps you have a close friend or acquaintance who is. Please take the Lord at his word. He is not your accuser, but it is imperative that if needed, you take the necessary steps to change. Both Mosiah and Alma speak of the importance of a mighty change of heart, a literal change that occurs within the soul of the individual. And this change of course would be the precursor to the idea of starting over, living life differently than before. It is my prayer that we will have the courage, the wisdom, and the determination to gain the vision to allow such a change of heart to occur within us, that we can have the assuredness of the spirit of the Lord to be with us and be guided in our daily actions and decisions by these highest of motives, secure in our testimony of the divinity of the risen Christ who will be the compass-center and watchstar for our lives, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.. . .