Angels and Astonishment
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Angels and Astonishment

S&I Annual Training Broadcast for 2019 • June 12, 2019 • Church Office Building Main Floor Auditorium

In Brother Peterson’s opening prayer, he used the word “family,” and I was touched then and I am touched now. I am thrilled to be with you in an annual event that is, for me, a family gathering. I have been inspired by every word Brother Webb, Sister Cordon, and Elder Clark have said. And I pray that I can be consistent with what those three have said.

As I greet you here in my reference to Brother Peterson, this idea of family is literally and truly how I feel about you, and I would like you to believe that. I know it certainly comes from the officers of the board, but in a very special way, from me.

Pat and I signed our first CES contract 54 years ago this very summer, and we have been affiliated with you one way or another virtually every year of our lives since—some way, some how. When she and I made the decision that we would try to make our life, way, and living through seminaries and institutes, we did not know what a strong, permanent bond that would be for us. Insecure as we were, if it had not been for the friendships and the truly brotherly/sisterly love that fellow teachers, supervisors, administrators, and others gave us in our first years, I really think we might not have had the confidence to continue. Those ties from our earliest moments in the program are still some of the sweetest friendships that we have now more than half a century later. And, of course, that says nothing of the hundreds—and I guess really it probably should be thousands—of students we have taught and loved along the way. I pray that we will never lose that feeling of family in the Church Educational System. It is one of the reasons we wanted to serve here.

And with that love as my opener to you, one of the things I want to convey today is how much all of the General Authorities and General Officers of the Church love you and count on you. As represented by the large number of General Auxiliary Officers here today (we do this together), we spend a very significant amount of our General Authority/General Officer time—I do not know how much, but I would guess that it would run to the level of 30 or 35 percent—is spent, one way or another, talking about the Church’s young people. We talk about those age groups, generally speaking, that you are working with, that you are employed to teach, plus those that are getting ready to come to you. We discuss the world they are in, the challenges they face, those special realities that seem to come to our young people at an ever younger age. Now, not all of those realities are evil, but some of them are. These young people need all the help they can get, and fortunately they can get it. God is at the helm of this ship, and it will come safely into port. He has made every necessary preparation for that.

First Vision

For example, I never thought it was happenstance that we initiate our students into the seminary program at just the age Joseph Smith was when he received the First Vision. I assume our Father in Heaven felt that by age 14 Joseph had reached a level of maturity sufficient to start him on the path of his prophetic mission. Might we also assume, then, that this is generally about the age other young people can have the beginnings of a mature testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, watching that testimony develop (we hope) in future years into the powerful guiding force it is to be for the rest of eternity?

Youth

Surely that is why the Lord inspired our program to be structured as it is—touching the heart of a boy or a girl as they start that wonderful move into maturity, intensifying our contact with them, giving them substantial midweek experiences rather than depending solely upon one Sabbath school experience. As the Church moves toward a more home-centered, Church-supported curriculum, we can be proud that CES with its weekday and home-study focus has always been pointed that way. This current adjustment moves seminaries and institutes closer to the mainstream curriculum effort of the Church than ever in its history.

And while I am on that subject, let me note a nice compliment the presiding brethren have paid in asking us to have the seminary curriculum run in tandem with the Church’s four-year rotating scriptural curriculum calendar. It is one thing for us to receive such a compliment, but it is particularly rewarding to have the chairman of our board pay it. Let me remind you who the chairman of our board is. This is what President Nelson said in announcing this development:

“Beginning in 2020, the course of study for seminary will shift to an annual calendar and classes will study the same book of scripture used for the Come, Follow Me curriculum. This adjustment will enhance the home-centered, Church-supported approach to gospel study through a unified study at home, in Sunday School, and in seminary.

“As you ponder this change, I invite you to consider the following: your ability to have more impact on the world than any previous generation is completely dependent upon the level of your devotion to Jesus Christ. Each of you is responsible to help teach the gospel in your home to those with whom you live. Seminary and institute will help you remodel your home to become a sanctuary of faith—a place where the gospel of Jesus Christ is taught, learned, lived, and loved.”1

I am not sure about you, but I have been banging around a long time in this program, and it has been years since I think we have had a president of the Church speak so specifically and so encouragingly on that very matter and address it to us personally. I am grateful for that, President Nelson. Now, let it be said that through this current period of adjustments large and small, the Brethren have talked more about, thought more about, and dealt more directly with seminary and institute personnel and policy than any time I can remember in my years of service here. What a thrilling time to be in the Church Educational System family.

Now, let me get to the object of all this, the reason for our meeting today and the reason for our teaching daily and weekly—the student, the center of our concern and affection.

Personal Progress

As the world becomes increasingly secular, we must learn how to be ever more helpful and exemplary for our young men and women who have to defend their faith while living in a culture that often denies it or, worse yet, demeans it. The gap between our faithful young people and the sometimes-antagonistic world around them is, at least as an overall generalization, widening with every passing day. That is, of course, “a given” in the prophecies of the latter days, but that does not make it any more pleasant to address nor any more fun to face. In this little summary of the world, our students are endearingly referred to as Generation Z because of certain characteristics. These characteristics highlight some of our challenges in teaching:2

Young man watching General Conference
  • They are always wired to something. “They’ve never known a world without the internet, or cell phones [or ear buds]. … Google has always existed [for them].”3 They may never have seen a rotary dial telephone or made a call from something called a booth. But that is okay because this group prefers to text anyway.

  • Through this ubiquitous electronic network, they have been exposed to flagrant, destructive pornography at very, very early ages.

  • They tend to “[support] gay marriage and transgender rights … [as] part of everyday life. It would be rare for a Z to not have a [close] friend from the LGBT community.”4 Because of this sociability, the thin line between friendship and condoning behavior begins to blur and is difficult to draw.

  • “They’re post-Christian. Almost a quarter,” (these are not our students, but they are in fact the world that we are looking at) “Almost a quarter (23 percent) of America’s adults—and a third of millennials—are ‘nones,’ claiming no religious identity at all. Many Zs are growing up in homes where there’s no religion whatsoever, [giving them] no experience [and no context for] religion [in their own lives].”5

  • A recent study into Australian teens’ attitudes toward religion made headlines for its findings that 52 percent of them do not identify with any religion and only 37 percent believe in God.6

  • Pastor and author James Emery White has written extensively on their spiritual circumstance. He said, “First, they are lost. They are not simply living in and being shaped by a post-Christian cultural context. They do not even have a memory of the gospel [or a gospel context]. The degree of spiritual illiteracy is simply stunning. … [Second], they are leaderless. Little if any direction is coming from their families, and even less from their attempts to access guidance from the internet.”7

  • According to an article published in USA Today, Generation Z is the loneliest subgroup we have known in society.8 The article cited a 2010 BYU study that concluded, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”9

  • Around 53 percent of 13-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies. This number grows to 78 percent by the time girls reach 17. Over 50 percent of teen girls and 30 percent of teen boys use unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.10

  • Lastly, they have short attention spans. Some report the average attention span for Zs is about eight seconds.11 I would have lost them in the first three bullets we have shown here.

Seminary and institute teachers are not going to solve all of these problems overnight, but the Brethren do look to you to be well-versed, well-prepared, spiritually in tune, and significantly able to address questions on these issues when they arise and to deal with them if you have to in real time. With your midweek contact, you are more accessible to students than almost all of the other teachers in the Church are able to be, so be wise in how you do it, but be certain that the Brethren do want and expect you to help—formally and informally, in class and out—in teaching the policies, practices, and doctrines of the Church.

Stay open—stay open to the Spirit, especially. Leave some wiggle room in your lesson plan. If you need to shorten a lesson a little in order to bear your testimony and stimulate a discussion on a contemporary issue, please do so when the Spirit prompts and dictates that it is appropriate.

Of course, you must do this without stepping over your bounds into a quasi-priesthood or auxiliary leader role that is not yours to play. Walking that tightrope has been a challenge in our system from its beginning, and it always will be. It takes good judgment and the guidance of the Spirit to walk it, but it is a challenge worth accepting and the Brethren applaud you in your effort. All are needed, and the message at every level has to be clear and consistent.

“For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? … Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.”12

Obviously, with such incredible forces at work in our time, it is going to require gospel instruction so powerful that absolutely nothing can shake the faith or divert the path of our young people when they walk out of your class and reenter the world. That kind of teaching is easier said than done, but every one of us can be better. We can be more powerful teachers than we sometimes are. In approaching such a daunting task, please remember this one thing from my time with you today—remember that a student is not a container to be filled; a student is a fire to be ignited.

Jar
Match

As teachers of the gospel, we are to be spiritual arsonists. Our lessons are to be incendiary devices. We are to be pyromaniacs, minus the “maniac” part—just “pyros.” Now, let me explain before you report me either to the Brethren or the police, okay?

I have always been impressed that in almost every significant teaching situation in the Book of Mormon, the phrase used to describe that moment is that the individual taught with “power and authority.”13 That is my greatest desire in my own teaching, and I hope it is in yours.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not talking about raising the decibels of your voice or about being theatrical in a presentation; I am especially not talking about false emotion. I am talking about something that is essentially, simply a matter of spirit, a spirit that will manifest in many different ways as different as you are. You have to be yourselves. You cannot be a Bruce McConkie or Boyd Packer or Russell Nelson, though we would do well to ask ourselves why those teachers affect us the way they do. Learn all you can from the great teachers (past and present), but of course, in the end, you have to teach naturally; you have to teach your way. However, whatever approach that may be, the result should be powerful, authoritative teaching.

Let me use a couple of examples recorded in the Book of Mormon. Helaman 5 marks the story of Nephi and Lehi, named for their earlier grandfathers, who had been given the charge to teach the Lamanites in the land of Zarahemla. In addition to teaching that challenging group, Nephi and Lehi also took on “the dissenters,” those apostate Nephites who had gone over and joined the Lamanites in their cause against the prophets of God. I do not know about you, but those two groups represent the kind of audience I would not particularly enjoy meeting first thing Monday morning. At this point, the Lamanites were hostile, angry, filled with determination to get retribution from those Nephites over an argument, the origin of which they had long since forgotten. And then, as if that were not enough, you get the ex-Mormons for Jesus (that is their use of the word Mormon, not mine), the local apostates who were once in the priests quorum, who in a case or two may have served faithful missions only now to have gone off the rails. They once taught for us and now they teach against us, against the kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, to those two very challenging groups the scriptures say of Nephi and Lehi, “They did preach with great power, insomuch that they did confound many of those dissenters who had gone over from the Nephites. … And it came to pass that [they] did preach unto the Lamanites [also] with such great power and authority, for they had power and authority given unto them that they might speak, and they also had what they should speak given unto them.”14 Now, pause with me for a moment. Pause to reflect on what a wonderful thing it would be if every teacher in the Church Educational System—or in the Church—could know those two things: how to speak and what to say when you do. That would be the true gift of tongues even if it were your native language. And as I understand it, that is explicitly the gift these two were given as they taught. They had great “power and authority given unto them that they might speak, and … what they should speak. … Therefore they did speak unto the great astonishment of the Lamanites.”15

Does that word astonishment bring any kind of echo to you from an earlier account in the Book of Mormon? Consider Mosiah 27 where Alma and the sons of Mosiah “were going about rebelling against God.” There in verse 11, “The angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood.”16

Conversion of Alma, The

Forgive me as I draw you into another little editorial comment almost immediately. Do you think that was really a full-blown earthquake? Do you think if you had a Richter scale planted every 40 feet that it would have been a five or a six or an eight or a nine, causing tsunamis in the great deep and the entire terrain of the earth changing on land? Well, maybe. It certainly could have been, but in this particular case with the context given, I tend to think not. I think this was one of those personal earthquakes that the Lord sends individuals, tailor made. I think the earth shook for Alma and the sons of Mosiah, but who knows if it shook for anyone else.

Surely, surely you have that experience teaching a class. Something you said struck a student so powerfully that he or she turned ashen, shed tears, or both, moved to the depths of their soul, and yet the student on the right and the student on the left does not seem to be particularly affected by it all. That happens in the mission field all the time. You know that; you have done that! A companionship is teaching a family in an apartment complex somewhere. They have an earthshaking, heart-changing lesson with a couple that lifts Apartment 106 clear off its footings, but the people next door in 105, they are blissfully watching American Idol, and the folks in 107 are trying to find the score of the Green Bay Packers/San Francisco 49er game. I do not know that a Richter-scale earthquake can be promised, geologically speaking, but I think the Lord and the scriptures always promise you personal earthquakes that change a student down to the very core of their being that the earth would tremble before their feet. But, forgive me—I digress!

Continuing with verse 12 of Mosiah 27:

“So great was [the] astonishment [of Alma and the sons of Mosiah], that they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which [the angel] spake unto them. …

“ … And now Alma and those that were with him fell again to the earth, for great was their astonishment; for with their own eyes they had beheld an angel of the Lord; and his voice was as thunder, which shook the earth. …

“ … And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands.”17

What I think about, pray for, and hope can come to the Church Educational System is truly astonishing teaching. We need to astonish those students and do it with the “power and authority of God”18 that is given to a teacher—professional or volunteer—who teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ boldly and honestly. Would you happen to know the root word for astonish? I have no idea what it is in reformed Egyptian or Hebrew, but in English it is taken from the root word “tonare”—meaning thunder.19

Does that help you understand why after his conversion, Alma would say, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!

“Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.”20

Well, my dear CES friends, it is pretty obvious why Alma wants angelic influence, a voice of thunder that sounds like the trump of God and shakes the earth. It is simple—what worked on him can work on others! Students flat on their backs repenting for three days, a purification so great they could not and would not ever stray from its impact, lives totally and completely devoted to building the kingdom of God forever after. Now, that is powerful teaching. We will realize, as Alma did, that we are not angels, and we will not have that impact every time we face a group of students. But the great thing about our CES callings and professions is that we have the opportunity to try to do it. We have repeated classroom settings in which we can try.

Nephi Confounds the Wicked Judges

Now, back to Helaman 5. Remember that Nephi and Lehi were not angels either; they were just good, mortal teachers with a mission and a message who taught with “great power and authority.” These two saw 8,000 Lamanites “baptized unto repentance” and come into the Church of God.21 You remember the story. With fire coming down from heaven and the flame of the Spirit burning within, this entire gathering of “students,” if you will, had their souls ignited by the truth. In my experience, 8,000 would have been a pretty good weekly zone report from any companionship in any mission field anywhere in the world.

Would you, please, indulge me for one more moment to speak of one more teacher who not only had his soul set on fire but paid the ultimate price for his service with his body being set on fire?

From my youth upward, Abinadi has been one of my most admired prophets in our entire standard works of scripture. Abinadi comes on the scene as a virtual unknown, claiming no prophetic heritage nor revealing any famous family line. With things degenerating in Zeniff’s headstrong colony, Abinadi is called to cry repentance unto Zeniff’s son and pathetic successor, King Noah. You know the account.

Noah immediately puts out a death warrant, and Abinadi is forced to flee. After two years in hiding, Abinadi again steps forward to teach and testify. I pause here to smile at the prophet’s apparent childlike innocence in all of this. He has been in total seclusion for 24 months, now wears a disguise to give him further anonymity, and yet upon his return the first phrase out of his mouth is, “The Lord commanded me, saying—Abinadi, go and prophesy.”22 At this point I have to wonder about the effectiveness of the disguise, but we certainly do not wonder about his faith and determination.

Prophesying boldly against the abominations of King Noah and his court, Abinadi is arrested and eventually brought before the very tribunal that he has been condemning. Interrogated ruthlessly by this council, the mighty prophet “answered them boldly, and withstood all their questions, … and did confound them in all their words.”23 Then shifting from defense to offense, he begins some five and a half chapters of doctrine that rank among the most powerful given in the entire Book of Mormon. Scarcely had he begun, when Noah, guilt-ridden and detestable, calls for him to be slain.

Abinadi Appearing Before King Noah

All of that is to set the stage for a scene that is forever etched in my soul, not quite the way Arnold Friberg portrays it in his marvelous painting,24 but it is close enough. In any case, as a prisoner Abinadi certainly would have been in restraints, some kind of shackling current to the day. His age, we do not know. Friberg has him as an older man, but the text does not say that. I do not know how old he was. Strong physically? I do not know, but he has just come from two years of seclusion and there probably was not much food. Think of Elijah being fed by ravens. 25 Have you ever seen a raven’s claw? I do not think those little winged fellows held many supersized orders of anything. We do not know, but perhaps Abinadi was hungry, tired, and at least a little weak physically given his circumstances.

“Away with this fellow, and slay him,” King Noah shouts, “for what have we to do with him. …

“ … And they stood forth and attempted to lay their hands on him; but he withstood them, and said unto them:

“Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver. …

“ … For the Spirit of the Lord was upon him; and his face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did while in the mount of Sinai, while speaking with the Lord.

“And he spake with power and authority from God.”26

“Power and authority.” There it is again. When I began to write this talk and wanted to use Abinadi, I did not remember, or maybe I did not know, that his account ended with that same phrase, that he taught with power and authority. Friends, it is one thing to read some ink on a page, but it is another thing to see in our mind’s eye and hear in our hearts as with the voice of thunder, “Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me.”27 I can scarcely ever read those words without weeping. It still rings in my heart with such majesty, such courage, and monumental strength. There is no indication that he shouted. There is no indication that he moved a single muscle. Under armed guard and in restraints, he could not have moved much of anything. But apparently what he said and how he said it worked. I say “apparently” because there is no indication whatsoever that any of those guards made a single, solitary effort to remove him, nor did King Noah or any of his priests say another word for four more spellbinding chapters.

We cannot reflect on all the marvelous examples of that kind of teaching in the scriptures, but they are everywhere. I invite each of you to look for them, to reflect on them, and to ask ourselves for a portion of that gift consistent with our callings.

This kind of teaching is a demanding thing to do, and it is very elusive. If I knew how to teach that way, I would certainly be more successful at doing it. But this I do know: unless you feel passionately about something, you cannot possibly, worlds without end, ever make your students feel passionately about it. May I repeat that? Unless you feel passionately about something, you cannot possibly hope to make your students feel passionately about it. Of course, the ultimate source of that passion is what was said of Abinadi: “For the Spirit of the Lord was upon him; and his face shone with exceeding luster.”28

If the Spirit is the key to astonishing teaching—and it is—there is great risk in speaking from old notes or using one of your fellow teacher’s examples, or droning on with a rendition of one of the talks from general conference. Those are all good in their place and spectacular when they were given originally, so certainly use anything you can at anytime to bring life and variety to your teaching. But what will matter most will be how you feel when you say the words. Nothing is going to be a substitute for that. “O that I were an angel … that I might … speak … with a voice to shake the earth!”29 Remember, a student is not a container to be filled. A student is a fire to be ignited. And if we do that really well, we might be worthy one day to meet those who were burned at the stake precisely for just such an ability to put flint to steel and get flame. Please, go out there, you angels of glory all over this globe—mindful of the audience to whom we are speaking—please go and astonish your students. I testify of the divinity of this work. I testify of the divinity of your calling. My beloved brothers and sisters, this is the work of Almighty God. I have not given my life to a fairy tale. I have not given my life, nor have you, to what Peter said we would be accused of doing, that is pursuing a falsehood, pursuing a yarn, pursuing a cunningly cultivated untruth. This is the truth. It is not a cunningly devised fable. I have given my life, you are giving yours, the best people I know have given and are giving theirs. This is the truth of the Almighty God, and may He bless you forever in your teaching of it. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.