Thank you to my dear husband, Derek for that introduction. What can I say? I really liked kindergarten. Little did I know a Ph.D. program would be a little different from kindergarten. It ended up being more fun. For those going into elementary education, you have the potential to make a huge impact on people’s lives—with a chance to foster in others a lifelong love of learning.
When I was a young woman, I was riding with Desiree Cruz, Sister of Hawaiian musician John Cruz, to one of her jazz singing gigs and she told me that her husband was like the tallest, strongest koa tree in the forest to her—so steady and reliable. She advised me to marry someone like that, and I did. Derek is my koa tree, whom I love very much and am so grateful for.
While I was a college student at BYU in Provo, I remember attending a fireside by, I believe it was Elder Bednar, who instructed us to pay attention to what the Spirit was telling us during his talk and to take notes on that, not just on the talk. I invite you right now to take out a piece of paper, a google doc, or a note on your phone and at the top of the page, write a major, or smaller, life question you may have right now. You can even write a couple of questions you have. Then, with a prayer in your heart, listen to the promptings of the Spirit both during this meeting and later tonight, praying and pondering about it over the next couple of days. I have witnessed people experience miraculous answers to their questions for the Lord in this way before. Answers do not always come in a way we might expect, but they do come, sometimes through the inspiration of other people in your life.
I’m grateful to be here with you today. I’m grateful to get to be working at this university. I love my students. You are good people. I love the colleagues I get to work with. Thank you to those who have shown kindness and have been welcoming.
Thank you for being here today. We are blessed to live in such a beautiful, special land. You could be anywhere doing anything right now (the beach is literally right over there, across the street), and for some reason, you chose to listen to this devotional. I wondered why I would give a devotional and didn’t think I had anything to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times by a thousand people in a thousand ways better than I could say it.
However, out of love, respect, and support for our administration—President Kauwe, Vice President Walker, and Assistant Academic Vice President Beus, I agreed. May the Spirit speak to you individually to make our brief time together worth your while. In her book A Quiet Heart, Patricia Holland writes, among other things, about “meekness, a more excellent way” and the need for gentleness, balance, and rest. She says, quoting an unnamed other, “All we really have to give each other are our stories.” So, I will give you mine.
My grandfather, Stanley Masaru Okura, was from Waimea on Hawai‘i Island. He was a Paniolo who as he would say in his thick Pidgin, the only language he spoke, worked for “a Dallah day Pahkah Ranch” (one dollar a day at Parker Ranch). The oldest of 12 children, he had an 8th-grade education and sold vegetables to help support his mother and siblings. In the early 1900s, one of my great grandfathers got on a boat in Japan to come to Hawaii for what was supposed to be a brief trip. On the boat, he gambled away all the money he had, so when he arrived in Hawai‘i, he did not have anything left to return to Japan. He was too ashamed to contact his relatives, so he stayed in Hawai‘i and worked, and that is why I am here today. My grandmother, Mary Kishiye Terazono, was born and raised in Kailua Kona.
She danced the hula professionally and sold encyclopedias door to door. My grandmother met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was married with young children. She invited them in to feed them dinner, just to be kind. They began teaching her the Gospel and gave her a Book of Mormon. At the time, she was an active leader in a Buddhist congregation in her community. After she and her father read the Book of Mormon, they both joined the Church. She said when she heard about the doctrine of the premortal life, it rang true and was something she had always felt. I was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai‘i, the sixth of Sanford and Nancy Okura’s eight children. We grew up simply, playing around in the sugar cane fields and the rivers, running around barefoot in old soccer shorts and t-shirts. They taught me a love for God, a love for people, and a love of learning.
BYU–Hawaii has been special to our family. Growing up, we would come here for Youth Conference. I remember attending education week as a teenager and staying at the dorms, the very Hale some of you are living in. My younger sister, Sarah Fui, graduated from BYU–Hawaii. She and her husband got sealed in the temple and have four beautiful, energetic children. She went on to get a Master's in social work and now works as a licensed therapist online from home. So, to those of you who are still in school- there is a light at the end of the tunnel! You will graduate someday. She recently finished writing a book called A Radiant Existence: Finding Confidence to Let Your Light Shine. She told me it’s about overcoming doubts, fears, and insecurities that hold us back from sharing our gifts to uplift and serve others. She has told me before how her time at BYU–Hawaii was one of the happiest times of her life.
When I was invited to give this devotional, one of my first thoughts that came to mind was when the angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” and Nephi replied, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.” -1 Nephi 11: 16, 17. My mother has always said that love is the key; love is always the answer- loving God and loving people.
"A new commandment I give until you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (John 13: 34).
As I have loved you, or the way the Savior loves us, is the way we are to love one another.
Sometimes when we hear this phrase, it might be easy to think we have the left side of this equation figured out, and the only thing left for us to do is to actually love one another. While learning to love one another in a Christlike way is one of the biggest lessons in life, perhaps both sides of the equation are lifelong processes. Do we really understand what the Savior meant by “As I have loved you?” How does the Savior really love us? Do we fully comprehend how He loves us? If we do not fully understand how He loves us, then how can we know how we are supposed to love our fellow beings, the way we are to love humanity?
To begin to understand, we can look to His own words. I invite you to close your eyes for a moment as I say some phrases from the Savior.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man laid down His life for His friends. Judge not, that ye be not judged. He who is without sin cast the first stone. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
His love is something we can continue to discover and about which we can deepen our understanding throughout our mortal lives, and have that increased understanding continue to inform how we love those around us.
One summer, I lived in Hawi, Kohala. When I visited the ward there, some of the aunties, the kupuna, said, “What’s your name? I love you. Come my house, I cook dinner for you.” Just like that- "What's your name? I love you. Come my house, I cook dinner for you." It was one of the most purely loving places I have ever been. Loving people can teach us about the nature of God.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves” (Teachings, 343).
What is the nature of God? The Book of Mormon teaches us that:
“…wickedness never was happiness”
“…They have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness” (Alma 41:10-11).
From these verses, we learn that wickedness equals misery, and the nature of God equals the nature of happiness.
All of the commandments God gives us are not arbitrary requirements of a cruel being who just wants to see how hard he can make a life for us. God is trying to teach us the nature of happiness, which is the nature of God. My mother used to say, “People say living the Gospel is hard. But it’s not the Gospel that’s hard. Life is hard. Living the Gospel can make life easier.” It’s true—living the Gospel can be a challenge. But life can be hard. And life can be beautiful. Life can be viewed as a test. And life can be viewed as a gift and a miracle.
I remember talking with a friend when I was in New Zealand learning from the kōhanga reo, the Māori immersion preschools. When this friend found out Derek and I didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, or gamble, what amazed her most was the financial savings that kind of lifestyle would have. The blessings from the commandments are multifaceted. In addition to temporal, there are spiritual blessings. Satan has been referred to as the “father of lies,” and wickedness is misery. God is referred to as the God of Truth and is the nature of happiness. So if you ever get a thought that makes you miserable, where do you think it is coming from? If you ever get a thought that makes you miserable, you can trust that either the thought itself or your interpretation of what it means, is not grounded in Truth.
Let me say that again. If you ever get a thought that makes you miserable, you can trust that either the thought itself or your interpretation of what that means is not grounded in truth. Returning to understanding the nature of God and understanding our own nature, Marion G. Romney stated that “…man is a child of God—a God in embryo…That man is a child of God is the most important knowledge available to mortals” (Marion G. Romney, "Man—A Child of God," General Conference, Sunday morning session, April 8, 1973).
We are gods in embryo. In a sense, we can see Godliness as a species, with God as the adult form and mortal humans as the embryonic form. In all this talk of commandments, let us be kind to ourselves and each other, and patient with ourselves and with each other. Not one of us is perfect. Sometimes we want, maybe even expect each other to behave as gods already, but we’re not-not yet. We’re all still mortals. There is perfection in imperfection.
A healthy developing embryo is perfect at whatever stage it is at. Do you get angry at an embryo for not being able to ride a bike, cook a meal, hold a job, or have a conversation? Of course not! Because it’s an embryo! Of course, it’s not going to do those things, activities an older child or an adult would be capable of. If we’re living each day, learning, growing, improving, becoming more aware, developing Christlike attributes, we’re okay. We’re exactly where we are supposed to be at this stage in our spiritual embryonic development.
Sometimes when we make mistakes, it can feel as if we have “ruined” our lives. But God knew we would make mistakes. That is why He provided us with a Savior, with the Atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He can lift our burdens. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” -Isaiah 1:18 What if our mistakes don’t get in the way of life? What if they are in fact part of the essential fabric of life?
In Japan, there is a practice called Kintsugi, where the pieces of a broken dish are put back together and repaired with gold in the cracks. The result is a dish with a beautiful, unique gold pattern that can be considered more valuable than even before it was broken. The past shattering is not something to hide but becomes art. The Savior can make kintsugi out of us.
Likewise, not only our own imperfections and weaknesses but circumstances and events beyond our control can sometimes feel like they are getting in the way of life when these experiences are actually part of the purpose of life. In 2011, while at a dream internship in Washington D.C., I had a spinal injury. My disc ruptured for no known reason, smashing the root of the largest nerve in my body. I was unable to walk, sit, or stand for more than a few seconds. Turning over in bed was excruciating. Even lying down, the pressure of typing on a keyboard could send shocks of unbearable pain throughout my whole body. The YSA ward there did not yet know me well as I had just moved there two weeks before for the internship. However, these accomplished young professionals, many of whom worked on Capitol Hill, started bringing me meals. They brought me movies to watch, books to read. They did my laundry.
They visited me and talked with me. They brought me the sacrament every week. They drove me to doctor’s appointments and even literally, physically carried me when my nerve pain was too severe to walk. I will be forever grateful to the people who so generously showered me with kindness. That summer—and for quite a while afterward—I was dependent on others for help, for even the simplest tasks. It was humiliating at first. Asking for help did not come easily to me, but I had no choice.
I literally needed help to survive day by day. The spinal surgery I had at Johns Hopkins two weeks before the start of my Ph.D. program failed and mangled my sciatic nerve. A year into the program, the pain was so severe I had to move home because I was unable to walk or move much again. My Ph.D. professors allowed me to Skype into classes (before Zoom was a thing). I studied my textbooks hanging upside-down on an inversion table because it was the one position I could be in with some relief from pain. My Ph.D. program was a blessing, giving me something to focus on, a goal to work towards, a purpose in life when I couldn't do much of anything else.
A few doctors told me that they did not know if I would ever walk again. I prayed so hard. After a couple of years of this, one day, my oldest sister called to tell me about a spinal clinic in California she had heard about from her florist, whose friend’s son’s partner was the doctor there. My parents and I looked into the clinic. When major life decisions would arise, I would go to the temple Celestial room to ponder and pray, to receive inspiration on how best to proceed. I was still able to attend the temple as President and Sister Mossman (Uncle Boyd and Aunty Maile) let me lie down on the back pew during endowment sessions since I was unable to sit the whole time.
I decided to go to California to try this spinal clinic, as I had tried everything we could think of, and nothing else had worked. When looking online for housing near the spinal clinic, I kept getting the feeling to go with a specific apartment company. It was the one closest to the clinic. I kept trying to call the office, and no one answered the phone during normal business hours. Then on Christmas Eve, I suddenly had the feeling, “Call right now.” I thought, “If no one answered the phone on other days, why would they answer on Christmas Eve?” thinking the office would probably be closed. But I followed the feeling anyway and called right then, and someone answered the phone for the first time! They gave me information about affordable studios on the very street the spinal clinic was on. The woman on the other end of the line asked me to email her my application and information. I had told her my first name and that I would be moving from Hawaii.
When I asked for her email address, she said Ginger F, as in Fry at the company’s name.com. I said, “I know a Ginger Fry. Is this Ginger Fry?” She responded, “Is this Eve-Eve?” It turned out it was one of my friends from Hilo High School who was one of a group I had driven from seminary to school every morning. We had lost touch after high school, and I had not seen or heard from her in years. I had no idea she was even living in California. It turned out she was in charge of all of the buildings this company owned near the spinal clinic. She was not usually the person to answer the phones, but she did that moment. This was one of the many miracles that let me know God had not forgotten me.
Praying in the celestial room of the temple works. What could have been one of the hardest times of life ended up being one of the happiest, most fun times of life because of the good people I met. I now have friends from that time I still keep in touch with. One is a go-to-friend who has often been inspired in her words, knowing just what to say both to help me feel better and also to help me be a better person. Another is currently helping me with a project that has been a lifelong dream to accomplish. I would not have known any of these wonderful people had my back not gone out and had I not had to go to that clinic. Sometimes when it seems like things aren’t working out, they are actually working out in the best way possible. Sometimes God is putting the puzzle pieces in place.
That first summer bedridden in D.C. was perhaps the time of the most accelerated spiritual growth I have ever experienced. I could do nothing else, not work, go out, nothing. I just had to lie there all day, every day. That figurative prison became a temple, a sacred space of invisible, internal learning and growth. One of the things I learned that summer was when I was pondering about trials.
In my mind, I envisioned a stone dropping into a pond. The stone disappeared under the surface of the water, but the ripples from the stone kept rippling and expanding outwards. The impression came that God is ever merciful, and although it might not feel like it at times, He gives us the minimum suffering for the maximum blessings possible. Our trials are like pebbles dropped into a pond. The trial, like the pebble, disappears under the surface of the water after it has passed. Even a lifelong trial is but a moment comparatively in eternity. But if we endure it well, or even not that well but the best we can, the blessings that come from the trial will continue to ripple on and increase outwards through eternity, long after the suffering of the trial has ended. In my hardest times, I also got to see the very best parts of humanity. There is so much good in people, and sometimes it takes the worst pain and suffering to reveal the deep goodness in others that was always silently hidden there just below the surface.
I have had a very good and blessed life. I come from a beautiful, loving family (think "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"- but from Hilo). I have a wonderful husband. I have gotten to meet and know the most beautiful souls and am blessed with good friends.
And we, like everyone, have known our share of both joys and sorrows. In sharing these, I recognize that our suffering is not unique. Many have gone through similar experiences, and everyone goes through hard times.
When I started teaching at BYU–Hawaii full-time in 2019, I had just found out that the baby I was five months pregnant with had a rare disorder that meant he would likely not be born alive, and if he was born at all, he had a 90% chance of passing away within the first year. While pregnant, I rocked in a rocking chair, sang songs to him, read to him, told him I loved him, in case I didn’t get that chance when he was born, if he was born.
I prayed and pleaded. I don’t know why but I kept saying I just wanted to meet him alive. I talked to my baby and told him we would love to meet him, but if he didn’t want to come, we understood. There were rare cases of one or two people in the world with this disorder living into childhood or even adulthood, with severe physical and mental disabilities, sometimes never being able to move, talk, see, or hear. Others were able to interact somewhat. I wanted my son to live, but I didn’t know if it would be selfish of me to want him to live if he would suffer more in this world. I didn’t know what to pray for. I ended up praying and asking God if our baby could have a life of joy; that he would live, whatever that life of joy looked like. That seemed like the safest conclusion to pray for.
I feel like that prayer was answered. He ended up being born alive and living for 6 hours. He was beautiful. He was able to see and hear. He could turn his head. These were all miracles. He looked so alert. We named him Dominic, one possible meaning being “belonging to God,” because he did not belong to us. Derek had gotten permission from our bishop to give Dominic a name and a blessing in the hospital. We didn’t know how much time he would have, so in whatever time he had in this life, I wanted him to experience as much beauty as possible.
I had prepared a playlist of the most beautiful pieces of music I could think of that we played for him to hear. I got to hold him and rub his back. My scented candle warmer I had prepared for him had broken, so a nurse ran and got a lavender-scented pod for him to experience the sense of smell. A couple of hours later, our son died in my arms, with both of us touching him. There was a sacredness and a peace that passed understanding in that room that night. The next days and months were the hardest of my life, but between the sorrow were moments of peace.
I am so grateful I got to meet him alive for even those few moments. I was not prepared for the immense love that flooded my soul the moment I first saw him. I am so grateful for all that I learned from him. He taught me so much about God’s love. If I, in all my human weakness and imperfection, could feel that immense love for my child, how much more does a perfect God love us? Now I also have so much more respect and appreciation for Mary, who had to see her son suffer and die.
God has been kind, and while I’ll probably always cry for my baby, He has also blessed me to feel the joy of life again. At the funeral, my husband said, “Dominic’s life was filled with love, beauty, and meaning. Whether we live 6 hours or a hundred years, what more can any of us ask for?”
Body of Christ
My heart aches for those of you who have not been able to be with your families due to closed borders from the pandemic. We as a group in this room and those watching online, while blessed, have also collectively experienced a lot of chaos and suffering in the past couple of years. When you are cut off from those who know and love you, it can be easy to forget who you are.
"For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ…. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head ahead to the feet, I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12: 12-22).
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.
Sometimes the most feeble parts are the most necessary.
If my little baby who lived only six hours mattered, you matter. If my little baby who didn’t say a word his whole life could have a powerful influence on others, how much influence can you have? You matter. You are wanted, needed, loved, and seen. Whoever you are. Wherever you’re from. Whatever your strengths or challenges are. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to fit a mold.
It doesn’t matter what your weaknesses are. Turn to the Lord, do your best, love Him and let Him pour His love and blessings out on you. Perhaps some of the very situations you were born into that you may have wondered about or felt were setbacks holding you back might be some of the very things that will make you a powerful instrument in His hands. You be yourself, and if you have desires, God can work together with you to co-create a beautiful life and to do much good for his children in unique ways that can bring joy and fulfillment to you and the people whose lives you touch, to be the best version of yourself.
In preparing this talk, the words of a primary song came to mind:
“Every star is different, and so is every child. Some are bright and happy, and some are meek and mild. Everyone is needed for just what he [or she] can do. You’re the only person who ever can be you” (John C. Cameron, "Every Star Is Different," Children's Songbook)
Some people are tough; some people are more sensitive, both traits can be beneficial. We don’t all have to be the same. In fact, it’s healthiest to not all be exactly the same. Differences do not have to be threatening. In biology, differentiation is the process of cells maturing and becoming different from each other through expressing some genes and repressing others. More complex organisms have more differentiation. A mass of undifferentiated cells, cells that are identical and keep replicating, becomes cancer that is more malignant than differentiated cancer. A healthy body, like the body of Christ, is composed of cells that are differentiated from each other, each serving the unique function they were meant to fill. We are also not meant to live in isolation.
During the pandemic, I think many of us learned just how much we need to be connected to others, and how unhealthy it can be to have too much isolation. We need each other, and that’s not a weakness. It’s part of how we were made. If you have any weaknesses, addiction, even a habit of negative thoughts, the more you fill your life with good things—friends, socializing, exercise, sleep, good food, sports, music, art, hobbies, learning, working towards goals, enough rest and relaxation, the more those other things can fall away and loosen their grip on you, freeing you up for the full, healthy, joyful life you were meant for.
“As I have loved you, love one another.” So how does God love us? He loves us enough to allow us to experience life. He loves us enough to respect our agency, granting us the freedom to make our own choices. He lovingly guides, but never forces. He intervenes when we ask Him to. He sometimes doesn’t take away the painful trials we might beg and ask him to take away. He could have healed my back in that first moment it was injured and I prayed for healing, but he didn’t.
He could have healed my son, but he didn’t. He has his purposes that we don’t always understand. Instead, he answered other smaller prayers, revealing his active hand in life through little miracles that let us know that he had not forgotten us. He lets us grow and gives us the eternal blessings he knows we want more in the long run, but that sometimes requires periods of trials and suffering. He loves us in ways we do not fully comprehend yet.
Thank you for allowing me to share these moments with you. May the heavens inspire your minds and hearts to come to the answers and inspiration you seek for your life. May you feel the love of God. May you be blessed with every good desire of your heart. I do not know the meaning of all things, but I do believe in miracles, and I believe in a God and a Savior, Jesus Christ, who love all of humanity, who teach goodness, kindness, and compassion.
I love all of you. I say these things in the holy name of Jesus Christ, amen.