Shifting spiritual baselines


David Bybee DevotionalDevotional Talk Given at  
Brigham Young University-Hawaii 

August 24, 2010
David Bybee  


As I sit here today I am reminded of an invitation I received 15 years ago.  It was from a good friend of mine who was attending school here.  He asked me to come and visit him for two weeks while I was on break from my school.  I didn't feel like I had the time or the money and struggled with the decision.  As I thought about it I mentioned it to my Dad one morning.  He simply said, Go, it could change your whole life. I was surprised by his answer but when I heard those words I felt a deep impression that they were true.  So I came and as a result fell immediately in love with this place.  So much so that I didn't want to leave when my two weeks were up, but knew that I had to.  So I did, with a prayer in my heart that some day He would allow me the blessing of returning to stay and be a permanent part of this wonderful university and place.  I mean it when I say, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be here today. 

Last year I was asked to give a talk in my ward on some of my impressions following general conference.  So, in preparation for that I watched and listened, and as I did I was reminded of some previous council given from the brethren through my former stake president.  It was this: "if you want to understand the times we are living in now, study the book of Helaman. So I did it then and I've been doing it again over the past few weeks and I've been surprised by the parallels between their day and ours, in what's going on politically, socially and spiritually.  Here is how it opens,

The Book of Helaman

An account of the Nephites.  Their wars and contentions, and their dissentions.  And also the prophecies of many holy prophets, before the coming of Christ even down to the coming of Christ.  

Why would the brethren compare our day to the book that tells of the people who lived just before the coming of Christ, even down to the coming of Christ?  Well, we have been told we are living in the last days and the very name of our church testifies to that.  I am not here to speculate on the when and the how of the Saviors second coming but I do think we can come to better understand our lives in these latter days which are preparatory for the second coming by likening (1 Ne. 19:23-24) and studying the Nephites latter days that led up to The Lords first coming.  I encourage you also to prayerfully study that ancient book and see if you can find insight into contemporary problems.  

ll let you quantify and ponder the lessons you find in your reading, but I'd like to spend some time today talking about one of the parallels I noticed which is that those people found themselves living in some very difficult times.  One of the main lessons the Book of Helaman seems to be teaching us is how to live good, righteous, and joyful lives in a very wicked and dangerous world and how to increase our spiritual power as the adversary increases his power.  

As I watched conference I felt that the prophets and apostles were teaching us the exact same thing.  President Monson said this on Sunday Morning, Now, a word of caution to all both young and old, both male and female. We live at a time when the adversary is using every means possible to ensnare us in his web of deceit, trying desperately to take us down with him. There are many pathways along which he entices us to go, pathways that can lead to our destruction. Advances in many areas that can be used for good can also be used to speed us along those heinous pathways" (Ensign May 2009). 

President Eyring said in the Priesthood session, This is not a time of peace. We have seen it intensify. And the scriptures suggest that the war will become more violent and the spiritual casualties on the Lord's side will mount (Ensign May 2009).

Of course good and evil have always existed in the world and we have always been taught to choose the one and avoid the other but in the last few generations there seems to have been a very gradual yet dramatic shift, such that the definitions of good and evil have become blurred so that many are calling "evil good and good evil (2 Nephi 15:20).

In marine ecology we call this a shifting base line now, I suppose I should ask you to please forgive the reference to marine science but I was asked to speak here today on a topic that I was comfortable with, and that is founded on scripture.  Well, I love talking about marine science and one of the things my students will tell you is that I often try to convince them that there are many references and parallels to scientific truths found in the scriptures.  There is chemistry, biology, geology, physics, conservation, recycling just to name a few.  Granted, some of them may be a bit of a stretch, especially for the non-nerdy scientist but nonetheless, I submit that they are there.  Now, let me explain what I mean by the shifting baseline. 

Shifting baseline is a term used to describe the way significant changes to a system are measured against previous baselines (or reference points), which themselves may represent significant changes from the original state of the system.

It was originally developed in reference to fisheries management where fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct "baseline" population size (e.g. how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline. So, in many cases, radically depleted fisheries were evaluated by experts who used the state of the fishery at the start of their careers as the baseline, rather than the fishery in its untouched state.  In this way large declines in ecosystems or species over long periods of time were, and are, masked. There is a loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is natural.

The term has become widely used to describe the shift over time in the expectation of what a healthy ecosystem baseline looks like.  Others have broadened the definition as the failure to notice change in the world today (

So in today's world we have a dramatically shifted spiritual base line as people have redefined what is natural and good and true.  And what a healthy spiritual ecosystem looks like.  The difference with a spiritually shifting base line is that it doesn't take generations, it can happen, as the Book of Helaman teaches us, in the space of not many years (Hel. 4:26).

It's gotten to the point in today's world that if you try to identify the correct spiritual baseline you are often seen as narrow-minded, discriminating, uneducated, extreme or fundamentalist.  In the words of President Monson in the Sunday morning session, the moral footings of society continue to slip, while those who attempt to safeguard those footings are often ridiculed and, at times, picketed and persecuted (Ensign May 2009). 

As an example of one of the ways the baseline has shifted rapidly over the past few years I'll mention a conversation I had with my younger brother.  He called me a few months ago to tell me how his boss at a university on the west coast where he worked 6 days a week 12-14 hours a day had become upset with him because he refused to work Sundays and because she had to pay insurance for his 5 young children.  

When he tried to explain the spiritual grounds upon which his decisions were based she became even more angry and told him that his family was too big, and that his "family first attitude was selfish.  She said, We all have to make sacrifices in this lab.  This scientist unfortunately had become blind to the fact that the only worthwhile and lasting sacrifice being made in her lab was the one of this young couple being willing to have children and nurture them.

Elder Oaks (clarifying the baseline) said it this way in the Sunday afternoon session: Mothers suffer pain and loss of personal priorities and comforts to bear and rear each child. Fathers adjust their lives and priorities to support a family. The gap between those who are and those who are not willing to do this is widening in today's world.  We rejoice that so many Latter-day Saint couples are among that unselfish group who are willing to surrender their personal priorities and serve the Lord by bearing and rearing the children our Heavenly Father sends to their care. It stands in contrast to the fame, fortune, and other immediate gratification that are the worldly ways of so many in our day (Ensign May 2009). 

This is just one example of many that I could cite (as could you) of the gap that Elder Oaks refers to or the shifting baseline as I have chosen to call it today.  But instead of providing a long list of examples, I would like to ask the following question and then give a few possible answers.  The question is, simply, Brothers and Sisters, how do we live in this shifting, slipping world with out shifting and slipping ourselves?

One of the messages running through the entire book of Helaman is that as spiritual wickedness increases in society (and even the church) so does the spiritual strength of those who seek it (Hel. 3:34-35).  But that doesn't just happen.  We have to do some things.  And it is a few of those things that I would like to talk about during out time here today.  None of these things are new but hopefully, if we can see them with new eyes they will bring new power to us.

1- First, we have to know how to recognize and document the original or true spiritual baseline.  We have to see things as they really are (Jacob 4:13, D&C 93:24). 

How is that done?  Of course that documentation is found in the Holy Scriptures.  That is why Nephi went back for the brass plates (1 Nephi 4).  That is why much of the tension between the Nephites and the Lamanites throughout the Book of Mormon centered around the destruction of the records ( 2 Ne 27:16, Enos 1:14, Alma 14:8, Mormon 2:17) and that's why Moroni had to eventually hide them up (Mormon 6:6).  That's also why the Prophet Joseph had to protect them with all his efforts, because Satan has worked so hard to destroy and/or alter the scriptures throughout history. And now in our day when scriptures are very accessible, his efforts are not focused on physically destroying them but instead on getting us to wrest them (Alma 13:20), meaning, to read them and heed them less, or not at all.  We need to be in the scriptures regularly, and regularly has been defined by the prophets as daily (Ensign May 2009).

Why daily?  I was once asked by a nonmember work partner in a field camp in Alaska, who would see me reading in my sleeping bag every morning, Don't you get tired of reading that same thing every day over and over? The best answer I can think of to that question was given by President Eyring.  He said that great faith has a short shelf life (Ensign November 2005) meaning that you can't bottle it up after having developed some of it and then keep it on the shelf.  It has to be used and replenished regularly to be effective. I also remember him saying on another occasion that it is not enough to have a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel, we must have recent testimony and that is one of the great blessings of daily scripture study.

Replenished spiritual strength and recent testimony will keep the dangerous universal sin (President Benson, Ensign May 1986) of pride in check which the book of Helaman tells us grows upon [us] from day to day (Hel. 3:36).  It will also keep you focused on the true spiritual baseline and you will easily be able to recognize any deviations, no matter how cleverly packaged they may be. 

Helaman 3:29 says it like this:

Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked.  

Some of the adversary's major traps mentioned in conference were: excessive debt and addictions to food, drugs, pornography, and other patterns of thought and action that diminish one's sense of self-worth.  In my short time serving as Bishop I have already witnessed victims of all those traps.  They are real and they work.

2-The second way we can be spiritually strengthened in a spiritually weakening world and stay focused on the true baseline is through strict obedience to the commandments: 

Helaman 3: 20 says that despite all the contention and wickedness going on around him Helaman did fill the judgment seat with justice and equity; yea, he did observe to keep the statutes, and the judgments, and the commandments of God; and he did do that which was right in the sight of God continually not just when it was easy or convenient or when someone was watching, but continually.

1 Ne. 17: 3 says, And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did provide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness.

Brothers and sisters our lives have also been compared to a journey through the wilderness and He will provide means for us as he did for them if we will obey the commandments.

We as humans love to categorize things, including sometimes the commandments. And so it is that we sometimes divide the commandments into the big important ones and the small less important ones.  

Elder Pearson said in the Saturday afternoon session, if we want the power faith can bring it "requires an attitude of exact obedience, even in the small, simple things (Ensign May 2009).

Luke 16:10 says, He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

I learned this lesson about small things adding up to great things when I was in athletics.  In my earlier days I was a gymnast and a wrestler in high school, both of which are good sports for short (yet muscular) young men.  In fact my wife enjoys looking at pictures of me from those days with my muscular physique, but I don't like her to look at them because she inevitably asks, after looking at my current physique, what happened? So I've hidden most of them, now, on with the story.

I had a new gymnastics coach who had trained with the best in the world at that time.  I had already been in gymnastics for a few years and felt like I was pretty good for my age.  He came to me when we started and said, I have a method which will make you unbeatable if you follow it.  Someone may be able to tie you but they can never beat you. That sounded good to me, so I started going to practice with him.  I was surprised and disappointed however to find that the entire practice consisted of him making me do simple, small and boring moves over and over and over.  When I questioned him on it, he said that when I perfected those, we could move on.  That took a while and I didn't enjoy it but I continued going until I saw what was happening.  He had taken what I considered to be the big, complex and exciting moves such as flips and back handsprings and broken then down into a series of smaller moves that could be perfected with much repetition.  After that he showed me how to piece them together to create a perfect front flip, back flip etc, and my performance in gymnastics dramatically improved.

Thinking about what consistent obedience can do over time including, and perhaps especially in the small things, consider this verse.

O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea (1 Ne 20:18).

The imagery of a large magnificent river flowing continually to the sea assures us that consistent obedience will provide a continual supply of deep inner peace, even in times of trouble.  The second line compares righteousness or obedience to the waves of the sea.  If any group of people on the planet can appreciate the power of ocean waves it is surely those of us who live here, near the north shore of Oahu.  These impressive waves bring people from around the world to see them and ride them, but I don't think that's what the prophet Isaiah was referring to.  Instead I think he was referring to how weak things can break down strong things.

Look at this picture of Pounders Beach near our campus.  The basalt rock is very hard and strong.  Water is no match for this rock during individual storms but the waves persistent contact over time wears the hard rock away particle by particle.  This collection of tiny water molecules (the ocean), held together by one of nature's weakest bonds can break down seemingly impossible barriers and sculpt the entire landscape in fundamental ways as it consistently obeys natural law over time. So your obedience in the small and simple things over time can break down seemingly insurmountable barriers and sculpt the landscape of your life in fundamental ways just as it has shaped the entire island chain in which we now live.

3)-The last thing I'd like to mention today that will help keep that true spiritual baseline in clear view, is to build on the rock of Christ (as you heard last week from Pres. Hafoka).  This suggestion is based on a verse in Helaman 5:12, and the reason I find this verse so significant is that there are very few guarantees in this life yet; here we are given two in just one verse.  See if you can pick them out as I read.

Remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

Guarantee #1-The devil will, not might, but will send forth his mighty winds and his shafts in the whirlwind.  His hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you. No matter whom you are, whether you are good or bad.

Guarantee # 2-If your foundation is built upon the rock of Christ, which is His gospel (D&C 11:24), those storms and winds and shafts shall have no power over you.  And if you build on that foundation, you cannot fall.  

The Lord himself says the same thing in D&C 6: 34. 

Let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail."

I saw an example of this principle in nature when I was an undergraduate student working as a diver in Monterey Bay, California.  One of my duties was to go with my dive Buddy Chris in search of specific invertebrate animals for the lab classes of the professor we worked for.  Our favorite place to dive was a site called Deep Reef.  This was a massive granite reef about 80-90 feet below the surface.

We went there because we knew that is where millions of invertebrates decided to settle.  

I use the word decided because many marine invertebrate animals have a larval stage at the beginning of their life cycle that swims around in the water column for a time before settling, metamorphosing and then cementing themselves to the bottom where they will spend the rest of their life which could be short or long depending on where they choose to settle.  

There is a large body of literature that deals with how these larvae make their choice.  Some of what we know so far indicates that they use certain cues that originate from the surface of different structures indicating what elements or minerals are present, or what food availability exists, or even if other organisms of their own kind are nearby.  Some larvae will actually flutter close to the bottom, bouncing up and down as they probe and try to get a good reading before making their decision.  Many larvae make a good choice and yet for some reason, others make a poor choice and put their lives in danger.   

I found that those larvae that chose to settle on small pieces of granite rock broke off and now unassociated with the massive reef or even on the fringes and outcroppings of the reef itself were easy prey for me.  I would simply pick them up or knock them off the edge and put them in my bag and take them to their doom.  But those animals that chose to settle firmly centered on that massive granite reef structure, closely associated with others of their own kind were impossible for me to collect effectively.  

Many of you here today are in your larval stage and must soon make a choice as to where you will settle and metamorphose, which will affect the rest of your life.  What cues are you using to help you in your decision?  Will you settle in the center of the rock of Christ, firmly attached and supported by others who have made the same choice or will you choose some other option, on the fringes or completely unassociated?

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the true spiritual baseline. Knowing that makes all the difference in the world.  Knowing that means it really does matter what you say and what you do, today and tomorrow.  It means it really does matter if you keep your promises to follow the honor code here, and to follow the commandments for the rest of your life.  It matters what you listen to and what you watch, what you read and what you do with your time, even your spare time.  It means it matters what time you get up and what time you go to bed and how you arrange your daily schedule.   Knowing that means it really does matter how you treat people in your family, your ward, and your community, because all these things will affect how close you are to the Lord and how clearly you can see things as they really are (Jacob 4:13).  It means that if you choose to align your life with that knowledge He will grant you the righteous desires of your heart (D&C 11:14). 

I can testify that he has done that for me.  In my short life up to this point, when I have strived to the best of my ability to follow him and the true baseline he has revealed, he has truly given me the righteous desires of my heart, some of them very deep, personal things that only He knew I wanted and needed.   

As a young boy he taught me through loving parents, kind teachers, the scriptures and the simple whisperings of the Holy Spirit.  As a youth he protected me through the difficult and problematic high school years and helped me learn from both small and large mistakes.   As a missionary he filled me with testimony, faith, love and the ability to speak the language of the people so I could access their ears and the language of The Spirit so I could access their hearts.  

As an undergraduate student he helped me choose a major, and increased my intellectual powers to meet the demands of classes that seemed far beyond my natural abilities.   He brought me to this place just as he has brought you, not by accident or coincidence.  

As a graduate student He made a way for me, where there seemed to be no way.  He opened doors that seemed welded shut, to allow me to reach my educational and professional goals.  As a single adult He helped me through the long, complicated maze of post mission social life and guided me to a wonderful wife and has blessed us with 3 beautiful children.  As a husband, father and Bishop, He is teaching me skills and lessons that I didn't even know I needed.  He is blessing my family with opportunities that fill our lives with real joy and deep gratitude, even amidst the struggles, weaknesses, mistakes and challenges that are part of daily life on this planet.  These things have made all the difference in my life, and I love Him for it.  That love has increased my desire to follow Him.

These blessings aren't just for Brother Bybee, or those sitting behind me on the stand. They are available to every single member of this audience and indeed, the entire world. The scriptures teach us that thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases (not some cases, but all) among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him (Mosiah 29:20).  

This is my testimony.  He lives, He loves you.  He has done that for me and He will do that for you if you will stay focused on the true spiritual baseline by repeating the small and simple exercises of daily scripture study, obeying the commandments and building on the rock of Christ.  Piecing together those small moves will ensure that no matter what comes our way in this life, we will be unbeatable in the long run, or in Helaman's words we cannot fall. I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Photo by Nathan Lehano