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Children of the Covenant

Sisters and brothers, Aloha mai kakou.

It has been fun watching our new cohort of spring students go through the new student experience and settle in here on campus. I am grateful to be teaching many of you in the Holokai Foundations course. Your enthusiasm is infectious. I'm also excited to have so many returning students completing credits during this spring semester. While historically spring semester enrollment has been smaller, we still have a great group of students from all over the world. My hope this morning is to help us all realize see how we fit into a story much larger than we may realize. Each student here is unique and precious. No one is like you. You have something to offer that no one else does. But we are more than a collection of individuals here. Our stories weave together to make something remarkable. That is the work that covenants do—they connect us to each other and, together, with God.

You belong here, and your Heavenly Father has a plan for your growth and success. You will be transformed as you invest in the intellectual, social, physical, and spiritual development opportunities on this campus. As you do so, you will embody the fulfillment of prophecies that have been happening here for more than 60 years. President David O. McKay was brought to tears while seeing the diverse group of students gathered at the elementary school in Laie back in 1921.

That was powerful but as he remembered that experience, he added, “but more impressive than that [flag raising ceremony] was our assembly in the old chapel that stood by. There we met as members of The Church of Jesus Christ—Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, all the races represented on this island. There we met as one, members of the Church, the restored Church of Christ. What an example in this little place of the purposes of our Father in Heaven to unite all peoples by the gospel of Jesus Christ.” [1]

The prompt for President McKay’s revelatory experience was the people, gathered together in God’s service. This place is beautiful, and we are excited that the Church has committed unprecedented investments to upgrade our buildings and infrastructure. No building, old or new, is more important than the example we are to set for the world of intercultural peace and unity through living the gospel of Jesus Christ. The prophecies associated with BYU–Hawaii live on in and are fulfilled by each of us.

And, we are quite the group. We continue to resemble that diverse group President McKay encountered more than a century ago.

For Spring 2023, we have 2,495 students enrolled representing 60 countries and territories from American Samoa to Zimbabwe. 67% of the students represent areas of the Church in Oceania and the Asian Rim - 15% from the Asia Area, 10% from the Asia North Area, 14% from the Philippines Area, 21% from the Pacific Area, and 7% from Hawaii. Students from the continental U.S. represent 44 of the 50 states.

From our own Church Educational System, we have 81 students who joined our BYU–Hawaii ohana after completing the Pathway Connect program at BYU–Pathway. We have 204 students who joined us from our Church Colleges throughout the Pacific. We also have 44 transfer students from BYU and BYU–Idaho.

Work-study programs to support students with financial needs are thriving. There are 1,318 students funded through the IWORK program and 120 students supported by our newly expanded domestic work-study program, called Hukilau. We also have 40 students fully funded by the Pacific Area Scholars program.

I could continue to describe you by additional identifiers. I could highlight the mathematicians, or the historians, the vocalists, or the political scientists.

But, as we begin a new semester, I want to remind you, in President Nelson’s words, who you are.

First and foremost, you are a child of God.
Second, as a member of the Church, you are a child of the covenant.
And third, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. [2]

Remember, the other identifiers in this world are often temporary, and if embraced require careful attention to ensure they don’t displace, replace, or take priority over these three enduring designations.

To recall President McKay’s experience, our differences in background and experience are not ends in themselves. Rather, they enrich the whole through the process of becoming “one” through our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our potential influence for good in the world isn’t just about our diversity, in other words. It’s about that diversity being put to work towards divine purposes. That was the miracle of the place in 1921 and it’s the miracle of this place in 2023.

So, you have one additional identifier that is completely compatible with the enduring designations President Nelson emphasized: your status as a student at BYU–Hawaii.

You have worked hard to be academically and spiritually qualified for this community. Your continued participation requires only that you strive with a pure heart to honor your covenants with God and your commitments to the university. The university community will do everything we can to support you as you strive to keep your covenants and progress in all aspects of your life.

Being a part of BYU–Hawaii involves making and keeping covenants. As I pondered this chance to speak to you, President Russel M. Nelson’s instruction that we are children of the covenant has been on my mind. I realized that I, and perhaps some of you, might not know exactly what that means. Today I want to share with you what it means to be a child of the covenant.

Several years ago, President Nelson spoke about people in the Book of Mormon who were identified as children of the covenant.

Of them, the Savior said, “The Father having raised me up unto you first, … sent me to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities; and this because ye are the children of the covenant.”

President Nelson taught that,

“The covenant God made with Abraham and later reaffirmed with Isaac and Jacob is of transcendent significance. It contained several promises, including:

  • Jesus the Christ would be born through Abraham’s lineage. 
  • Abraham’s posterity would be numerous, entitled to an eternal increase, and also entitled to bear the priesthood. 
  • Abraham would become a father of many nations. 
  • Certain lands would be inherited by his posterity. 
  • All nations of the earth would be blessed by his seed. 
  • And that covenant would be everlasting—even through “a thousand generations.” 

When we realize that we are children of the covenant, we know who we are and what God expects of us. His law is written in our hearts. He is our God, and we are His people. Committed children of the covenant remain steadfast, even in the midst of adversity. When that doctrine is deeply implanted in our hearts, even the sting of death is soothed and our spiritual stamina is strengthened.” [3]

When I read this, I was struck by this sentence, “When we realize that we are children of the covenant, we know who we are and what God expects of us.”

Do you know who you are? Do you know what God expects of you? A clear answer to both questions clarifies so much about our lives. We are blessed to be at a special university where we collectively understand that we are children of the covenant who seek to love God and follow his commandments. We know that there are great promises associated with our covenants.

President Nelson recently taught us that, “God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ…have offered you everything!” 

He continued, saying,  “Heavenly Father’s plan for His children allows us to live where and how He lives and ultimately to become more and more like Him. His plan literally makes the richest blessings of all eternity available to us, including the potential for us to become “joint-heirs with Christ.” [4]

We know that we are children of God. We know that we existed before this life and that we chose to participate in this mortal experience as part of God's plan for our progression. Separation from God is necessary for us to learn to exercise moral agency and experience that progression. In mortal life, our loving Father provides guidance to us through covenants. Being a child of the covenant means that we have accepted the teachings of God, that we are allowing him to parent us through His plan, through making and striving to keep covenants. We acknowledge that His plan is that of a loving parent. We seek to follow it because we know it is His way to care for our physical and spiritual needs, teach us to love and serve one another, and help us obtain the blessings of eternity.

As our loving parent, God understands that we are not perfect, and will fall short in our efforts to honor our covenants and live as He would have us live.

In April 2023 general conference, Elder Vern P. Stanfill warned us that, “It is often a temptation in our world and even within the culture of the Church to obsess about perfection. Social media, unrealistic expectations, and often our own self-criticism create feelings of inadequacy—that we are not good enough and never will be. Some even misunderstand the invitation of the Savior to ‘be ye therefore perfect.’ “

“Remember that perfectionism is not the same as being perfected in Christ. Perfectionism requires an impossible, self-inflicted standard that compares us to others. This causes guilt and anxiety and can make us want to withdraw and isolate ourselves.”

“Becoming perfected in Christ is another matter. It is the process—lovingly guided by the Holy Ghost—of becoming more like the Savior. The standards are set by a kind and all-knowing Heavenly Father and clearly defined in the covenants we are invited to embrace. It relieves us of the burdens of guilt and inadequacy, always emphasizing who we are in the sight of God. While this process lifts us and pushes us to become better, we are measured by our personal devotion to God that we manifest in our efforts to follow Him in faith. As we accept the Savior’s invitation to come unto Him, we soon realize that our best is good enough and that the grace of a loving Savior will make up the difference in ways we cannot imagine.” [5]

Please remember that striving to honor your covenants doesn’t entail perfection. When you struggle and make mistakes, please remember that Jesus Christ is merciful and forgiving. He asks you to come to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. His Atonement is there to give you strength and hope. He can heal all wounds and forgive all sins. Be patient with yourself.

The experience you are having here at BYU–Hawaii is an early chapter in your life story. At a recent BYU devotional, Elder Gerrit W. Gong taught that, “Our own best story comes when we choose covenant belonging — belonging by covenant with God and each other.” [6]

Regarding this choice, President Russell M. Nelson said, “My dear brothers and sisters, as you choose to let God prevail in your lives, you will experience for yourselves that our God is ‘a God of miracles.’ As a people, we are His covenant children, and we will be called by His name.” [7]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is vital to God’s plan. Elder D. Todd Christofferson teaches us that, “The Church is the custodian of the covenants of salvation and exaltation that God offers us through the ordinances of the holy priesthood. It is by keeping these covenants that we obtain the highest and deepest sense of belonging.”

In the same address, Elder Christofferson reminded us of President Nelson’s words, “Once you and I have made a covenant with God, our relationship with Him becomes much closer than before our covenant. Now we are bound together. Because of our covenant with God, He will never tire in His efforts to help us, and we will never exhaust His merciful patience with us. Each of us has a special place in God’s heart.” [8]

Covenant belonging is the deepest sense of belonging; it connects us not only with God, but with each other.

President Camille N. Johnson expanded on the relationship it creates between us saying, “Our covenantal blessing is to partner with Jesus Christ in providing relief, both temporal and spiritual, to all of God’s children. We are a conduit through which He provides relief.” [9]

I testify that this is true. No one on this campus can make a bigger difference in the lives of your fellow students than YOU can. Find someone who is hurting and help them heal. Find someone whose faith is wavering and strengthen them. Find someone who is lonely; be their friend and help them find the Savior. When your help isn’t sufficient, or you have cause for concern, encourage others to reach out to their families, ecclesiastical leaders, and dedicated university resources. Each of you serving and loving your neighbor is what makes BYU–Hawaii such a sacred place.

Interactions with our fellow brothers and sisters are not always easy. Relationships with others and situations at work and school don’t always unfold the way we want. In all circumstances, please remember the powerful teachings of President Nelson in April 2023 general conference.

“Anger never persuades. Hostility builds no one. Contention never leads to inspired solutions. Regrettably, we sometimes see contentious behavior even within our own ranks. We hear of those who belittle their spouses and children, of those who use angry outbursts to control others, and of those who punish family members with the 'silent treatment'. We hear of youth and children who bully and of employees who defame their colleagues [...] My dear brothers and sisters, this should not be. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to be examples of how to interact with others—especially when we have differences of opinion. One of the easiest ways to identify a  true follower  of Jesus Christ is how compassionately that person treats other people.” [10]

I testify to you that these words are true. In my years as the leader of this university and elsewhere I have seen those who attempt to persuade with anger, build empires with hostility, and seek solutions by contention. It never works, and as President Nelson said, it should not be. We have been called to a different kind of communication as disciples of Jesus Christ. We cannot simply replicate discord and contention here. We have been shown a different way, a better way. Remember what President McKay charged us to do; we are to be an example in this little place. And we so often are!

Just one month ago, our campus experienced tragedy and sorrow. In those most intense moments, I worked shoulder to shoulder with faculty, staff, and students who exemplified the compassion of being a true follower of Christ. They used every ounce of strength they had to sustain the people around them. And the people around them in turn supported and uplifted them when they needed help. I want to express my gratitude to each one of you.

As I think about us being an example, one of our recent graduates stands out in my mind. In that time of deep sorrow and tragedy, which she was feeling as deeply as many others, I saw her mustering up the strength to embrace and comfort those who were struggling with the trauma. I saw as she sat with them day and night to ensure that they had food and water and someone to care for them if they needed it. I saw her walk her friends to and from sessions with our counseling services. I watched her help them seek joy and laughter in these difficult moments.

Her Christlike compassion makes all the difference for the people around her. She is a fulfillment of President McKay’s prophecies and exemplifies the pattern and blessings of covenant belonging. She probably did not see herself as heroic, but to me, she was.

In closing, I ask you to remember the words of the Prophet Alma, shared in Alma, Chapter 7:11-12. He wrote about our Savior saying,

“11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” [11]

The Atonement of Jesus Christ brings his grace and mercy to cleanse us from sin. I testify to you that it is much more than that. I testify to you that His Atonement is infinite and eternal. We have His promise that in the eternities he will heal us of every infirmity; that it will change the darkest despair into bright hope; that it will bring perfect peace to our troubled souls.

President James E. Faust taught that, “In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. …

“This change comes about through a refining process which often seems cruel and hard. In this way the soul can become like soft clay in the hands of the Master in building lives of faith, usefulness, beauty, and strength.” [12]

I pray that each of us will seek covenant belonging, and in doing so that we will remember that ““… Jesus Christ is the guarantor of those covenants.” [13] I pray that we will increase our efforts to support each other and as we are refined by this mortal experience. I pray that we will shed the insignificant and unimportant aspects of our lives and spend our time and energy on loving and serving each other with the Christlike compassion that identifies a true follower of Jesus Christ. I am grateful for your examples, your continuing commitment to each other, and the chance to experience covenant belonging with you. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] David O. McKay, “Church College of Hawaii Groundbreaking Address and Prayer,” 12 February 1955, in Something Wonderful: Brigham Young University–Hawaii Foundational Speeches (Laie: Brigham Young University–Hawaii, 2012), 9.
[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Choice for Eternity,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, May 15, 2022
[3] Russell M. Nelson, “Covenants,” General Conference Address, April 2011
[4] Russell M. Nelson, “Choice for Eternity,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, May 15, 2022
[5] Vern P. Stanfill, “The Imperfect Harvest,” General Conference Address, April 2023
[6] Gerrit W. Gong, “Our Own Best Story,” BYU Devotional, April 11, 2023
[7] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference Address, October 2020
[8] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Belonging,” General Conference Address, October 2022
[9] Camille N. Johnson, “Jesus Christ is Relief,” General Conference Address, April 2023
[10] Russell M. Nelson, “Peacemakers Needed,” General Conference Address, April 2023
[11] Alma 7: 11-12
[12] James E. Faust, “The Refiner’s Fire,” General Conference Address, April 2979
[13] Russell M. Nelson, “The Everlasting Covenant,” General Conference Address, October 2022.