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And Thus We See the Great Call of Diligent Men and Women to Labor in the Vineyards of the Lord

In my short life, I have never had the necessary standing to actually say this with authority, so may I, here today? My brothers and sisters, Aloha.

I always enjoy speaking after my wife has spoken because it answers so many questions people have. Now you know how a guy like me ends up in places like this.

I grew up in Northern California with a brother who is just a year older than me. We got along the way brothers do except for one major disturbing difference between us: he is a genius. He really is. He grew up to become a Ph.D. physicist. He has helped build scientific devices that are today doing experiments on the planet Mars, but even as a child, he was brilliant and curious.

One day, when we were about 12 and 13, he came home from a used bookstore very excited about a dusty old book he had found. I wasn’t all that excited about dusty old books until he explained, “This is a ‘Formulary.”

I had no reaction.

“I was flipping through the index, and there is a formula in here for rocket fuel.”


“Steve, I’ve got all this stuff. We can make a rocket.”

So, he had me. We went off and measured and stirred the ingredients together, but the final step was to use a mortar and pestle to grind the chemicals into a perfectly fine powder so the blended chemicals would react with each other when we lit it on fire. We didn’t have a mortar or a pestle. We were 12, and it’s not like we were going to ask our parents for help—building explosives.

Incidentally, there were warnings in the book about how volatile, and how toxic, and how these combinations of chemicals needed ventilation… all written for lesser mortals. We had this.

So, he took the powder to the back porch and pounded it with a brick and with a hammer but could never get the right consistency for it to actually burn. We would try to light some of it, and it would just smolder and sputter, so I gave up and walked away.

But Mark was a genius. It occurred to him that all of those ingredients were water-soluble. If he dissolved them together, the chemical molecules would become perfectly inter-mixed. He got a glass mason jar and filled it halfway full with water, stirred in the powder, and put it on a shelf in our room, reasoning that in a few days the water would evaporate away, and he would be left with a perfectly blended pellet of rocket fuel.

A few nights later, I was slumped on a couch in our family room watching Star Trek on television. My parents were not home. I was pretty absorbed in the program. The lights were off. The Klingons were threatening somehow, and Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were engaging the dilithium crystals or whatever. I was vaguely aware that Mark had stepped into the room and fallen into a chair near the door and was watching, too.  The Enterprise was taking enemy fire, losing its shields. I was concerned.

Suddenly, a tremendous sound erupted from the kitchen for which I could find no explanation in the natural world. It was a deep menacing, rumble. My muddled teenage mind wondered for a moment, “Really? Klingons?—but in our kitchen?” I jumped up and ran toward the noise, crashing into Mark as we tried to squeeze through the doorway together. As I rushed into the kitchen, I was astonished at what was going on.

The sound was deafening. I could see nothing but dense smoke. I followed the sound, and there was a brilliant red column of flame over the stove, blasting upward out of a steel soup can. It was like a welding torch that had already burned a hole through the stove’s steel cooking-exhaust hood and was working on the ceiling.

I gasped, “What is that?” 

Mark knocked me out of the way, grabbing the edge of the glowing can with a pair of pliers, and then he ran and flung it through the front door onto the lawn where it blasted and smoked and spun and sputtered like Chinese New Year.

I was slack jawed. “What was that?”  

“That,” he said, “was… rocket fuel.” 

“Rocket fuel?!!! Are you nuts? You put rocket fuel on a hot stove?”

Now, remember, my brother’s a genius, right?  In the most condescending way, he said, “Don’t be ridiculous. It was perfectly safe. The water in the jar wasn’t evaporating, so, I decided to boil some of it off.”

“On a stove?” 

“Yes. It should have been safe. The boiling of the water won’t let it get hotter than 212 degrees–you should know this. Everything was under control, but it boiled dry… and got too hot. Now, dad’s going to kill us.”

He was a genius.

Stuff like rocket fuel is pretty exciting. It is powerful—it can push us into space—but it requires judgment because it also has the power to destroy our homes, our lives, and everything that matters to us.

Perhaps a child can be forgiven for thinking for a moment that he can control the powers of chemistry, but I don’t have my brother to blame when I have been tempted to think I am such a genius that I might substitute my judgment for that of Heavenly Father or of his prophets—which, incidentally, I think my brother has seldom or never done.

The Lord has given us the secret to happy lives. He’s given us the scriptures, which are a formulary of best-practices for safe, happy lives.

Then He has warned us that “Wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10).

As simple as He has made it, we sometimes lose faith in Him and instead trust our own inner-genius that a little sin will bring us more happiness than will His plan.

We sometimes believe that we can release our grip on the iron rod just for a few miles, perhaps walking a few forbidden but enticing paths and then return with nothing more than a few stickers in our socks. We say to ourselves things like, “I know that unclean pictures on the internet may be a problem to some people, but not to me. I am strong enough to enjoy a little bit of the dark side without blowing out the light. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, or immorality in any of its varieties in small doses may be a problem to lesser creatures, but I am stronger than that. I’ll be fine. I can safely place on the flames this explosive rocket fuel that has burned to the ground untold millions of people, but I’ll be fine.”

Well, my brothers and sisters, I have stood with many geniuses in the smoke and horror rising from such decisions.

When I was your age, I spent three years in the active military, and in all that time, I never lost a single friend or comrade to battle, but I lost several who either lost–or ruined–their lives doing things they knew better than to do

Maybe the problem of pride is the reason the scriptures warn that even the very elect would be deceived. “For in those days there shall also arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (JST Matthew 1:22).

So, let me be plain. Explosives have a place in this world, but they have no place in the kitchen, and likewise, we, here, are men and women of God. Given who we are and given what we know and what we are called upon to do, there are places in this world  we simply cannot go and things  we simply cannot do.

So, what then is it that we  are we called upon to do?

A little over 2000 years ago, one of Heavenly Father’s prophets named Alma was writing in what would become the Book of Mormon about the difficult world he lived in. After describing the horrors of 15 years of continual soul-scarring conflict and warfare, he steps back and draws this conclusion about wars and about you and me. He said:

“And thus we see how great the inequality of man is because of sin and transgression. … And thus we see the great call of diligen[t] men [and women] to labor in the vineyards of the Lord; … we see the great reason of sorrow, and also of rejoicing—sorrow because of death and destruction among men, and joy because of the light of Christ unto life.” (Alma 28:13-14).

It’s pretty straightforward. With the clarity of a seer, Alma exposes the timeless narrative underlying the great struggle between good and evil as finally coming down to this: the powers of evil and sin ultimately being overwhelmed by diligent men and women animated by the light of Christ.

The scriptures explain how this miracle of light over darkness is accomplished, how “good” will come to prevail, and how “evil” will be vanquished. How do “diligent men and women” vanquish evil?

They stand. They stand in Holy Places—and by standing, they make those places they stand Holy, too. They stand, and having endured all, stand (Ephesians 6:13). If they are men, they magnify their Priesthood. If they are women, they stand faithful to the priesthood covenants and blessings they have received.  

One of the trials of living in this fallen world came to our family when our nine-year old son Tanner came home sick one day with what turned out to be a very difficult childhood cancer, which he fought for three long years.

Tanner was a great kid. He was full of life, like he had always known his would be short, so he had to squeeze everything into it. But we didn’t know that. All we saw was him, always full speed ahead, impatient, fun, funny—1000 miles per hour. We used to say of him that he would probably grow up to either become the prophet or a bank robber. We didn’t know which.

One of the Sunday mornings right before he passed away, he was experiencing a lot of pain. He had tumors in his bones and in his head, and he was taking a lot of pain medicine and still hurt. That morning, his mom came into his room to see if he had been able to sleep. She was amazed to find him fumbling to get his Sunday clothes on. “Tanner, I don’t think you should you be going to church. Why don’t you stay home and rest today?”

He hung his head for a moment, thinking about it. “I think I should go.”

His mom answered, “Nobody is going to expect you to come to church when you need pain medicine just to sit up in bed… when you feel this bad.“

“Yes, but I think it matters when I go. I see how people look at me when I pass the sacrament. I think it helps them.”

So, he dressed, went to church, and for the last time of his earthly life, he passed the sacrament. I saw he was right: people were looking at him. Everyone seemed to be looking at him. I saw that it mattered to them. They saw a little boy in a body, spent of all energy, making heroic exertions to present them with those symbols of the Atonement, carrying the tray from the priest’s table, then steadying himself with one hand on the end of the pew, his little bald head glistening with perspiration at the effort and his sacrifice quietly pointing to the Atonement, to Gethsemene, to Galgotha, places where exhaustion and pain and love and commitment had also inspired sacrifice. And, I noticed he had been right: it helped people. It helped me. It helps us still. Members of our ward still sometimes refer to the time Tanner passed the sacrament.

A few years later, I found myself in the Holy Land with my son Ryan and my son-in-law Jeremy and his father John. There was a war on at the time, so there were very few people out and about, but this was our only chance, so there we were.

On the Sabbath, we went to church at the BYU Jerusalem Center. Then we called a taxi and started back into the city when the Palestinian driver asked us if we had been able to visit Lazarus’ tomb. I told him we dared not go there because it was located in a Palestinian neighborhood where we might not be safe as Westerners.

He said, “You would be safe there with me. Let me take you.” 

“No,” I said. “I promised these boys’ mothers I would not take them anywhere that might be unsafe.” 

“I live in that neighborhood. I drive this car in and out many times each day. You would be among my people. You would be safe.” 

“Thanks,” I said, “but you don’t know these boys’ mothers. We better not.”

We drove in silence for a minute.

“You really should let me take you. That is the place where our Lord raised St. Lazarus from the dead.”

I glanced over at this Palestinian in his Palestinian clothes with his Palestinian accent. “ Our Lord?” I said. “Do you believe in Christ?”

“Of course.”

I was fascinated. “How did you become a Christian?”

“My family is Christian.” 

“Really. How long have they been Christian, and where did they learn of Christ?”

“How long? Always. We began to follow Him when He was here. We saw what He did and heard what He taught. We have always lived in Bethany. We have always followed Him.”

Well, we had him turn the car around. We wound through back neighborhoods, eventually arriving in little village of Bethany. The driver waited by his car.

There was no one but the caretaker there at the tomb who told us to just leave the key to the gate on a nail when we left. Then we found ourselves standing in a cave carved deep into a stone wall thought to be the very place Lazarus had been buried. We went down about a dozen spiraling steps to a landing from where we could see light filtering down to us from the street-level three or four meters above, and below, we could see a stone ledge where a body would have been laid.

I realized I was still carrying my Bible that I had taken to church, so I began to read the account from John 11.

Jesus had learned that his friend Lazarus had died, and then He deliberately waited three days before returning to Bethany, so there could be no doubt he was really dead.

Lazarus’ family, Mary and Martha, met him on the road above us. They were devastated that their brother had died.

“Jesus … cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.” (John 11:38)

From inside the cave, we looked up and imagined how dark this place would be with a stone covering the opening, and we imagined hearing the Lord’s muffled voice from the street above.

“Jesus said, Take away the stone.” (John 11:39)

We imagined the sounds we would have heard as shoulders slid stone against stone and over crunching gravel.

“And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. … And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.” (John 11:41, 43)

We imagined being there as that command echoed down the stone passageway to him. I supposed that we would have detected an immediate movement as Lazarus came to himself, tried to move, and found himself confined by the cloth funerary wrappings and then throwing his feet over the edge of the stone bed and maybe gathering himself for a moment before standing and making his way upward step by step. He would have had to brush by us as he ascended those stairs, going up into the light.

I softly read on.

“And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: … Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.” (John 11:44-45)

We thought about our taxi driver who was waiting in the small square above us perhaps about where his family may have stood 2000 years ago, and we wondered at their faces as they watched Lazarus walk away.

I closed the scriptures, and our spirits were full because of the influence of the Spirit we were feeling.

We began to move back toward the stairs. I lingered behind for a moment because my mind was on another boy, our 12-year old Tanner, who, like Lazarus, had died. Like Mary and Martha, I suppose, we were devastated. But in that place, made Holy to me by the Spirit that I was feeling there, I thought of the anguish of Martha and Mary a few minutes before and then of the unimaginable joy they felt when they saw their brother “come forth.”

In that silent place that represented restored-life, I almost involuntarily felt to speak aloud our son’s name.

“ Tanner.”

I did not have to travel to Israel to gain a testimony of the resurrection any more than I had to travel to the Sacred Grove in New York to come to know the Restoration. The feelings I felt there are the same feelings you have felt from time to time listening to people speaking in church and reading scriptures. These are feelings that inspire us to live better lives, and they are feelings that deserve our respect. The Holy Ghost inspiring our souls is as great a miracle as the parting of the Red Sea or the raising of the dead. These are instances of the veil parting for a moment as Heavenly Father tells us He loves us and cares about how we live our lives.

I expect my experience in that ancient tomb was nothing less than a tender mercy to one about to be called to be an “especial witness” of the Savior. My testimony was renewed that the Savior loves us—loves me—loves my wife, Kalleen — loves my children Christine and Ryan and Kelsey… and Tanner. I love Him too and testify of His goodness.

I am not a genius, but I have come to a knowledge that I can trust the Savior to save my family. Because I trust Him with that, I am striving with all my might to trust in His commandments. His commandments present the safest, smoothest, most joyful path through this fallen world.

 leave you with my particular especial witness that Jesus is the Christ, that because of Him, our mistakes need not define or limit us.

I leave these things with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.