By Small and Simple Things: The Nature of Change


Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

March 6, 2003
Norman Evans
Professor of English as an International Language

I would like to thank President Shumway for this opportunity to speak today. I am grateful for the growth and insight this assignment has given me. At the same time, I approach this task with great humility. I readily recognize the potential such devotionals can have in the lives of those who attend. I certainly have been edified by those who have preceded me in this assignment. Remarkable counsel has been given in our devotionals this year. President Shumway's discourse on gospel-centered leadership was one of best expressions of what leadership is and ought to be that I have ever heard. Elder Hollstrom gave powerful counsel on turning our hearts to Christ. "A committed heart exemplified by consistency", he noted, "is always expected of true disciples of Christ." Just last month, President Bednar built on that theme as he spoke to us about the Character of Christ. In mid-January, Sister Shumway reminded us of the importance of our families and family relationships in our Father in Heaven's plan. In the course of her remarks Sister Shumway ignited an idea that ultimately has lead to my remarks today. She noted how important it is for us to understand our divine origins. In this regard she said, "We are all God's project in the making." That comment reminded me of a small cross-stitch piece my wife made many years ago just after our first child was born. [Display slide # 1]. We had never raised children, but my wife was absolutely inspired when she selected this little piece to hang in our son's room. Our son was much too small to read or even understand the message. But I wasn't. The message so lovingly stitched was directed more at me than anyone else. As the years have passed the plea to be patient has proved to be invaluable to me as a parent. I have often been impatient with my children"”wanting them to do or be something they had not had time to become. Why didn't an 8 year old see the dangers that were so apparent to me? How could a teenager make such foolish judgments? Couldn't he see what I could see? I have often found myself saying such things. As I have been about the process of raising a family, I have needed frequent reminding that children are indeed works in progress and to be patient. [end slide 1] In fact aren't we all divine projects in process. We are all here in this mortal existence to become what our Eternal Father knows we are capable of becoming. The scriptures are of full of injunctions pointing us toward our eternal potential. It was King Benjamin in the Book or Mormon who said that we must put

". . . off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things." Alma and Amulek exhort us to use our time in mortality to prepare to meet God. We must change from our natural tendencies and turn to a higher level of performance. Perhaps no other injunction in all of scripture makes this point more emphatically than that of the Savior to those who would be His disciples, "Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am." What a significant challenge our Savior has issued to become even as He is. The enormity of the task can be overwhelming when you think about it. How do we change from who we are to what he wants us to become? King Benjamin's choice of words to "put off the natural man", almost belie the vastness of the task. Changing is hard work. There are those who believe it is impossible. It simply can't be done. Have you ever dreamed of some great thing you are going to do only to discover that it was too difficult to change patterns or habits? We are now three months into this new year. How many of us have given up on those resolutions made in January? Have you ceased trying to read the scriptures daily or exercise three times a week? Is the bad habit you resolved to overcome just too hard to drop? Keeping a journal just does not seem to fit into your schedule. What is it that you have found too difficult to change?

As a bishop here on campus some years ago, I remember on more than one occasion counseling with members of my ward who were convinced that they could not change. The pattern of unrighteousness they had worked themselves into simply was more than they could humanly overcome. The task was bigger than they were, or so they thought. I happen to take Nephi's position on the issue, "I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them". Change is not easy, especially when much is at stake, but it is possible. So how do we change from the natural to a Christ-like life? May I suggest four principles of change that I have observed over the years that may be of help as we strive to follow the Savior's admonition to become like Him. I have selected four ; they are not mutually exclusive nor all-inclusive. The categories are not important; the principles are.

First, as we work toward achieving our divine potential we must understand that change and progress are not synonymous. It is a fact that we all change by the mere passage of time. [slide 2 first half] Few would argue that the person we once were is not the person that we now are. I have certainly changed from the person I was when this photograph was taken of my brothers and me many years ago [slide 2 second half]. The external, physical changes are obvious. But what about the internal changes? We can change many things and still be essentially the same. Consider the old car we may have once owned. We can change the tires, spray on a fresh coat of new paint, reupholster the seats, but we are still driving the same car. [end slide 2] The changes I am speaking of today are what King Benjamin, Alma, and Samuel call a "change of heart". An internal change that is lasting and purposeful. Not just a change but a purposeful, directing of our efforts toward noble and good causes. Many people change behavior said President Benson, but that does not suggest a meaningful change has taken place.

In this regard, I draw our attention to the difference between two seemingly similar words: to "try" and to "strive". When we try something we make an attempt at it, we treat it as an experiment to see if it is possible. The very essence of the word suggests some doubt of ability. In contrast, to strive suggests that we struggle in opposition to something, we devote serious effort, in fact we endeavor to achieve something we believe in. Strive suggests that it is possible; at the same time it acknowledges the enormity of the task. We may fall, but we get up and keep at it. Small wonder "strive" is a word used by our bishop when he interviews us for significant purposes.

When we are honestly striving to be better people, we are taking a significant step not only toward changing but making meaningful progress. I turn to one final example found in the Book of Mormon. Consider carefully the words of Enos:

BEHOLD, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man ”for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" ”and blessed be the name of my God for it”

2 And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.

3 Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.

4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul;

Surely, Enos exemplifies the essence of what it means to strive. This was not a one-day change he describes here. This passage suggests to me that this had been going on his entire life. From the time he was taught by his father as a small boy up to the time he was able to experiment on his own the meaning of his father's teachings. He describes a striving for change meaningful progress.

The Second principle of change comes from some study I did while at the University of Southern California. Simply stated, the second principle is change seldom occurs at the center. To make this point clear I turn to the work of Larry Cuban, Professor of education at Stanford University. Cuban and many others have been intrigued by the fact that institutions of higher education, which are on the cutting edges of change and progress, are themselves remarkably resistant to change. Consider the following from Cuban's work on change without reform in higher education: [Slide 3 ]

Since the Mid-1500s in the Western world, there have been 66 institutions that have survived and can be easily recognized today. They are the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man and 62 universities. The stunning resiliency of universities over the centuries prompted the Carnegie Council for Policy Studies to conclude: "Universities in the past have been remarkable for their historic continuity, and we may expect this same characteristic in the future. They have experienced wars, revolutions, depressions, and industrial transformations, and have come out less changed than almost any other segment of their societies." (Cuban, p. 191). [end slide 3]

Cuban goes on to explain that this seeming lack of transformation in universities can be accounted for by the way in which they change. Universities are seldom changed by sweeping, fundamental initiatives; rather change comes in narrow incremental adjustments that eventually work their way into the center of the institution. The general education programs that are central to U.S. higher education is a case in point. GE began at the margins of higher education and worked its way into the system slowly but surely. Changes that begin in the margins, eventually work their way to the center.

Striking parallels can be drawn from this example in higher education to our own lives. If we stop and consider what it has taken to get us to where we are today. We would quickly acknowledge that who we are today is a composite of years of experiences, trials and errors. Who we are did not just happen.

What then do we make of the example of Alma the younger in the Book of Mormon who seems to have changed for the better over night. You may recall his was a miraculous conversion. His heart was seemingly changed by one angelic visit and several agonizing, soul-searching days. We must keep in mind several important points here. Fist, this example of Alma and the similar experiences of Paul in the New Testament are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to personal conversion. We must also keep in mind that Alma changed because Alma's heart was receptive. What made this so? Certainly the many prayers and much anguish of a loving and concerned father were influential. We also cannot ignore the fact that Alma as the son of Alma was sure to have been taught correct principles in his youth. These had to have had an impact on Alma the younger's receptiveness to the angel's admonition. Likewise we cannot overlook the fact that Alma at the time of his conversion was not the same Alma who so powerfully taught along side Amulek, who caused prison walls to crumble and enemies to quake in his presence. It took time for Alma to change. We read in Mosiah 28: 4 a fairly straight forward description of Alma and the sons of Mosiah, for they were as we read "the very vilest of sinners." Ten years later when Amulek is met by an angel himself and told to return to his home for he would receive as we read a "prophet, a holy man, a chosen man of God." It was that same Alma who was the very vilest of sinners ten years earlier. Alma did not change overnight.

President Hinckley compares this principle to a gate. If you think about the distance a gate travels at the hinges it is small and almost insignificant, but the further away you move from the hinges the more significant the changes. [Slide # 4] Says President Hinckley, "On such small hinges turn the gates of our lives. Little mistakes [or decisions] that seem unimportant in their beginnings determine the eternal courses we follow." [end slide 4]

The third principle of change is closely related to the second: change is a process not an event.

I have just returned from an educational conference in Philadelphia. While in that city so steeped in American history, I took the opportunity in the few spare minutes I had to reread parts of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. What a remarkable man he was. His accomplishments were many and significant in so many ways. What struck me most from my first and subsequent readings of that work were Franklin's own attempts to change his life for the better.

He talks about his disenchantment with the organized religions of his time. He notes how he saw some good and practicality in all the religions of his day. He even attended the local Presbyterian congregation in Philadelphia from time to time, once "for five Sundays successively." But alas he notes that he might have continued his Sunday worship with them had the minister been a good preacher and while the minister taught good things, they were not the good things he wanted. Franklin resolved therefore to resort to his own form of private prayer and self-improvement that he entitled Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. This he hoped would help him arrive at "moral perfection".

His system or process for change consisted of thirteen qualities or virtues as he called them. He hoped to perfect each in due course. They were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. His choice of qualities has some striking resemblances to qualities we might strive for. He defines what he means by each in a short sentence or two. Cleanliness for instance is defined in these words: "Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation." Order, the virtue he had the most difficulty mastering was defined as "Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time." Temperance meant to "Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."

Franklin was convinced the way to achieve perfection in these aspects of his life was to establish a process whereby he could systematically overcome each in order. To do this he set up what we might call a matrix [slide 5] or grid with the days of the week written across the top and the first letters of each of the 13 qualities listed down the side. To describe how the system worked I quote from Franklin's autobiography: "I determined to give a week's strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid even the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, marking every evening the faults of the day. Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line marked "T" clear of spots, I supposed the habit of that virtue so much strengthened, and its opposite weaken". His ambition was to go through a course in 13 weeks and 4 courses in a year. When the reality of how difficult it was to change hit him, he found himself going through one course not in 13 weeks but several years.

In the end he notes the following about this experiment with change: "On the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it;" [end slide 5]

President Kimball captured the essence of this principle of change in his now famous challenge to lengthen our strides. Many are familiar with his injunction to "Lengthen our stride." The sentence that precedes this now famous statement best makes the point here. Said President Kimball, "I am not calling for flashy, temporary differences in our performance levels, but a quiet resolve to do a better job. . ." (1982, p. 174.) It is that quiet resolve to do better that exemplifies my point here. It is not the flashy, quick fixes that change us. It is the process of small incremental changes over time that will make a difference in our lives.

President Hinckley in speaking of the Savior and our own quest for excellence noted that, "It is said of the Master that He "went about doing good". In that process, He became the epitome of perfection. This is in fact what we read in the Doctrine and Covenants said John of the Savior

12 And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace;

13 And he received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fullness;

And so it is with us, we are told in Isaiah,

10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:

While Franklin's process in his words "fell short", I suspect had he more time, the results would have been so much the better.

Time is at the center of my fourth and final principle of change. Stated simply, meaningful change takes time.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the South Pacific with some colleagues from BYU Hawaii. Our travels took us to the remarkable islands that many of you call home. Our final stop was on the north island of New Zealand. What a breathtakingly beautiful place that is. Not knowing if we would ever have a chance to return, we covered as much of the island as our time would allow. I remember the car rental agent being shocked by how many kilometers we had logged in the short while we were there. While the entire island is beautiful, nothing so captured my attention or left a more indelible impression than our visit to the kauri forests.[slide 6 first half ] These magnificent trees are stunning in both beauty and size. They grow straight, tall and huge. Some of the largest trees [slide 6 second half] are nearly 15 meters ”50 feet in diameter. But this growth takes time, significant time. Some of the giants now standing in [slide 7] New Zealand began as small seeds nearly 2,000 years ago.

And so it is with us. We often look to people whom we wish we could be like. We see them for what they are, for what they have achieved. But do we stop to consider the storms, and trials of life they have gone through to achieve their current stature ”the lifetime it has taken to get where they are? [end slide 7]

As much as I appreciate the power of technology and what it does for us, I think we must also keep in mind what it does to us. In this age of instant business transactions, calculations at the stroke of a key, and limitless information, we must not be misguided into believing that change will also come quickly. Such is not the case. Elder Holland noted, "take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow. Dream dreams and see visions. Work toward their realization. Wait patiently when you have no other choice. Lean on your sword and rest a while, but get up and fight again. Perhaps you will not see the full meaning of your effort in your own lifetime. But your children will, or your children's children will. . . " Of the Tabernacle Choir, President Hinckley notes, "I think it is the finest choir in the world. It is the choir of this Church, and it is a musical body of excellence. That status has not been achieved without tremendous work over a period of a century and a half."

I punctuate the point that change takes time with excerpts from remarks given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland as he describes the suffocatingly slow process the early saints endured to build the Salt Lake temple.

In July of 1847 President Brigham Young stood on the site where the temple now stands and declared, "Here we will build a temple to our God!" This was a task that seemed impossible from the start. The foundations had to be dug 20 feet wide and 16 feet deep by hand. This alone took nine thousand man days of labor. No sooner was the foundation finished than it had to be filled in and covered because of the approaching U.S. army that was intent on waging war with the Mormons. Once this threat passed, the foundation had to be re excavated and readied to receive stone walls. The stones used for the temple were not common, readily available building materials. They selected granite boulders found twenty miles from the building site. Each stone had to cut to precision by hand and then transported usually one at a time twenty long miles by wagon to the site. It took three years to complete just one row of 600 hundred stones. By 1871, two full decades into the project the walls of the temple were barely visible above ground. "When President Young died in 1877, the temple was scarcely twenty feet above ground. Yet the work continued. Ten years later President Young's successor John Taylor and the temple's original architect Truman O. Angel were dead as well. Not until April 6 1892, [slide 8] nearly forty years after it was begun, did President Woodruff set the capstone of the Salt Lake temple in place.

Great works do indeed take time. Can we expect any less of ourselves as we strive to build of our lives what our Father has always seen in us? Are we not told in the scriptures that "out of small and simple things are great things brought to pass" Let us be patient with the changes that we envision for ourselves. May we strive always toward good and noble purposes. In the words of President Hinckley, [slide 9]

We will not become perfect in a day or a month or a year. We will not accomplish it in a lifetime, but we can begin now, starting with our more obvious weaknesses and gradually converting them to strengths as we move forward with our lives.

All of us cannot be geniuses, but we can strive for excellence. This quest may be a long one. It may be fraught with much of repentance, and it will take much effort. Do not sell yourselves short. You are sons and daughters of God, children with a divine potential. "Look to God and live" (Alma 37:47). [end slide 9]

May we so set our vision, and change our lives accordingly I pray in the name of Jesus Christ amen.