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Higher Things

What a delight it has been to spend the last day and a half here on campus! We spent some time with the president and his wife yesterday, and what a remarkable family they are. They look like they belong on magazine covers, but I am impressed that he presented that magnificent talk just now while still having saltwater in his ears from surfing this morning. I'm wondering when the last time there was a president on campus who surfed. I think not anytime soon, and I'm not critical of that.

My sister-in-law and my wife felt compelled to tell the Kauwes yesterday that I was banned to the beach at some point in time. My family and I were in Australia on a business trip, and we took a couple of days to sign up for a surf class. I went out and was doing my very best, and this award-winning surfer finally ordered us all together to talk to us about situational awareness. He told us that when you are in the water, you have to be aware of your surroundings and your circumstances because of the safety of others, and in light of that, Steve, you need to sit on the beach because you're a problem. She told them that story, and then I gave a small talk last night, and it was dark, there was this riser right here, and I stumbled over the top of it. President Kauwe mentioned that, yes, there is that situational awareness problem again.

It's such an honor to be here with you, representing the board of trustees of the church educational system. BYUH is part of a far-flung system representing one of the many ways the restoration church has demonstrated a long-term commitment to improving a lot of humanity. The Lord lives all of His children, and the investments in humanity made across this enterprise are one of the Savior's gifts to the world. The promise of which came out of the Sacred Grove with the young prophet. Like you, members of this faculty and staff of this great university are part of that promise, and as you spend your professional lives in this sacred endeavor empowering youth, members, and non-members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alike, you're sending them out to go forth and move the planet something closer to that coming Zion.

You're taking a significant part in a prodigious and very colorful heritage. The early origins of the church's higher education system were propelled by a wonderful and brilliant German scholar named Carl G. Mazer, who is considered by most to be the founder of Brigham Young University, and therefore, the founder of this system. Dr. Mazur was a venerated, brilliant, and demanding teacher, but he also had a sense of humor.

Dr. Buddy Richards at BYU in Provo retells Dr. Mazur being late for class one day. Some boys in the class saw a donkey outside. I am picturing that we don't see that many donkeys on campus anymore. But they saw a donkey outside, and they thought it would be funny to see what would happen if they brought it inside, so they brought the donkey into the classroom to see how the professor would respond when he came in. Well, when he did come in, he sized up the situation immediately and said, "That's right. Yeah, that's right. When I'm not with you, you should appoint the smartest among you to be in charge."

Now finding myself tied to this lecture, and today as it were in front of this class, I'll leave it to you to consider why I might think of that story today. Having a little time studying in the academy, I've always been impressed with the brilliance of mind and the tenacity of spirit required to achieve what this faculty has achieved in obtaining your degrees and your accreditations and stature in your professions. I could hardly respect you more, especially when I find you here in this place of higher learning with its particular commitments to higher things.

Our founding scholar, Dr. Mazur, was a profoundly cultured and educated man who saw no conflict in intermingling education with religion. He "insisted that the fundamental characteristic of the work of the church schools was that the spirit of God permeates all of the work done" (377). Dr. Mazur was intensely interested in pedagogy. He demonstrated that more learning takes place when students are taught how to learn and reason themselves rather than being force-fed by the traditional sage on the stage kind of effect. Foremost in his pedagogical toolbox were his ideas for bringing spirituality into all of his teachings. He said that a method of teaching based upon and penetrated by the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if not expressed in words, is superior to any other, no matter what artistic and mechanical advantages they may claim to possess.

Think about how Dr. Mazer may have infused the spirit of God into even his most secular of lessons, and you find yourself thinking about the master teacher and how we teach the most profound truths still through the instrumentality of his ordinances. Ordinances explain our true identities as the covenant members of Heavenly Father's family, which include the purposes and possibilities of our lives. These are truths that no student should ever leave here without. Everyone at BYUH can help students to learn and to internalize the imperative to expose students a balanced understanding of the world as it really will vary from school to school and is altogether missing in many schools, but if this university is to continue in the tradition of its founders then teaching that we are noble sons and daughters of heavenly parents who have a work for us to do is that one indispensable truth that our students must not leave here without those other learnings that are your various disciplines of science and commerce are also fully appreciated here as they add momentum to the world's knowledge resource and your students' ability to provide for each other.

Faculty of learning usually come here committed to the expansive notion that secular truths are necessary but not sufficient here. Last week I spent a few days in remote Wyoming with a group of local priesthood leaders counseling about how to better help our youth to better discover their true identities as sons and daughters of God. In this challenging age, we considered various new tools or media that might help. Still, one of our conclusions was that before inventing something new, we should help them better understand the presentations of truth that are already before them.

If Dr. Mazur was a master at creating learning environments, the master teacher is certainly better still. An obvious example is the sacramental ordinance wherein the Lord nearly weekly presents us with an object lesson of stunning importance that is so laden with insight that simply contemplating its meaning puts us in a frame of mind that helps us to hear Him and make progress towards becoming ourselves better people. A priesthood ordinance like the sacrament is typically simple in construct but profoundly complex in significance. At one level, it is instructional. It teaches and reminds of that event that assured life beyond death and made salvation and exaltation possible. The sacrament is a right defined as a religious or other solemn ceremony or act, and it is an ordinance meaning something ordained or decreed by deity. The passion play reenacted with inscrutable efficiency while exuding to us access to the powers of the atonement. It is a blessing and a phenomena worthy of examination from the vantages of every corner of the academy. The sacrament ordinance connects us to the covenant. It engages the most powerful redemptive influence in our universe. It speaks to promises made before this world was. It recalls and invites the most penetrating expression of love ever contemplated by God or man into our lives. It reenacts the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Savior of the world. Notwithstanding or maybe because of its majesty, it is today administered by 16-year-olds and entrusted to the distribution by 11-year-old children. It's my personal witness that the atonement is rooted; in fact, inexorable, irrefutable, irreversible, and incandescent. In fact, the atonement is not an abstraction, and it's certainly not a myth. It took place in a real-world event that happened at a fixed point in time and space 2,000 short years ago.

Consider with me that I counted just before the lights went out, and about 50 people are sitting right here in this little center section in front of me. As I looked at you, I thought; your average age might be 40 years. Sorry if I am overshooting that, but I might be undershooting that, as well. So, with these 50 people and their 40 years of lifespan, if the things that we are talking about right now within this group's cumulative lifespan, if the 50 people here in this section live their lives end to end rather than simultaneously as they are if now... If we lived our lives consecutively rather concurrently, the lives of these people that you see here in this section would overlap the life of the Savior. That life transpired in a real place, a place where I think all of the factual things studied in universities pertained even then chemistry, physics, accounting, and geology.

On the morning of the atonement, yeast rose, water flowed, gravitation pulled on weary knees as burdens were carried up the stairs to the upper room. Bread, which is a chemical reaction captured in momentary stasis, and water transported by ceramic or by cured animal hide, wine pressed and bottled, and cloth woven in a cottage industrial supply chain... all real-world products of hands and labor, and organized elements were carried up real stairs through a real doorway to a real room where real men gathered with the most real teacher who ever lived. He washed and dried earthy feet as sounds of voices at first resistant and then resolved passed through real windows. That night, there was also a matter of accounting and of the perpetration of a felony that was permitted to be set in motion. The Savior gathered his friends around and taught, prayed, perhaps sang with them, broke bread, and blessed wine. He explained and entered into covenants that would never be entirely broken.

When I was in my early twenties, at the age of many of your students here on this campus, I was serving in the United States Army after having served a mission. My army friend, Rich, was baptized, and we decided that we should take leave and visit Israel together. We were living in Europe. It wasn't that far in that long of a trip on a map, at least. So, we took leave from our jobs and caught military flights. They took us to Torohone in Spain, where we weren't able to get a link into Israel. Hence, we went to Aviano, Italy, then to Incirlik, Turkey, and then finally back to Athens, Greece, before we could finally get a flight that took us into Tel Aviv.

We got a ride into Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon, and we walked into the city and threw the old city to the wailing wall complex as the sun began to set over the Mount of Olives. We saw the rays of sunshine illuminating the golden dome rising above the temple mount and swayed with the rhythms of the Yeshiva students who were there dancing through the gathered crowds, celebrating the arrival of the sabbath as the sun dipped below the near horizon. We absorbed the warmth and the revelry thoughtfully and became quietly solemn in contemplation. I suppose contemplating the sameness and the diversities of a religious experience among these our close cousins. We got our bearings as we wandered around and determined to walk off the square to the east to the lip of the Kidron valley where we could make out in the late twilight the outline of the crest of the Mount of Olives rising up out of the narrow valley below. We decided to see if we could walk there to the Mount of Olives, imagining the beauty of standing in or near the garden of Gethsemane on the cusp of the day made holy by the God of the sabbath who once walked there too.

It was April. It was, in fact, Passover weekend. We picked our way down the dirt trail into the Stony Valley. It was a moonless night, and soon it became too dark for us to make out the trail. As we went deeper into the valley, the sounds from the fading celebrations fell away, and in the stark silence around us, we heard the quiet thrumming of insects. Well above us, to the right of us and the left, you could hear muted utensils and metal pots clinking and smell cooking fires as meals were being prepared, a dog bark in the distance. A responding dog bark nearer by the random balling of goats carried softly through the dark, moist, warm air. It was so dark that we were surprised when somebody brushed by us heading up the trail and on behind. We stopped deciding with uncharacteristic situational awareness that we could not know if perils were about us. We decided we should turn back, but first, we stood for a few minutes just off of the trail and listened and watched the three or four dim points of fire or lantern light flickering across the dark mount of olives looming before us. We thought about other feet, holy feet that had once passed this way somewhere within a few hundred yards of where he, with complete awareness of the certain perils that awaited Him, had continued undaunted on that ancient night. Not so ancient, not so long ago, but on that night in that upper room after the majestic first sacrament service was performed.

The next thing that the eyewitnesses reported him doing was to walk there with them to Gethsemane. He stepped off that lip of the already ancient road and picked his way down into the Kidron valley, then beyond and up the hill on the other side to the garden of Gethsemane. There as He prayed, He thought of me, you, and all of us. Somehow through mechanisms that we are not given to understand, He was able to look through the tunnel of time and experience in some way all of our lives, each of our individual lives, each of our disappointments, our transgressions, trials, and unkindness. The acts of intent and neglect, and even stupidity, our personal pains, and humiliations. Our pains inflicted upon others; He experienced our sicknesses, weaknesses, and betrayals, betrayals both experienced and perpetrated. Then, as the consequences of all of that chaos in demand of justice began to rain down on us, the Savior somehow, in some sense, pulled me close to Him, extending His protection, and then stepped in front of me to absorb the horrible consequences for me.

I suppose that it might best be described as a scene of spiritual violence as he stood between me and that hail of pain. As that subsided, He moved me aside and did the same thing for my wife, Colleen, and children Chrissy, Ryan, Kelsey, and Tanner. He did it for each of my grandchildren and your wife, husband, children, grandchildren, and all of us. Having endured all that for all of us, He went from there to face more political and pathologically social struggles. He then went to the cross where He died for us and to the tomb where He overcame death. The sacramental ordinance intends to teach, verify, personalize, renew, consecrate, purify, redeem, and even exalt us. The Savior placed these learnings into our experiential, visual, and oral reach into our physical grasp for sensory validation; I suppose so that when we participate in that ordinance, it is meaningful for us sitting in places of worship wherever and whenever we may be, meaningfully collapsing the stream of time within our minds permitting us to relive with Him what He actually did there for us.

Six days ago, I found myself in an emergency room with a long past retirement-aged professor from BYU in Provo, my friend. As monitors beeped and flashed, she waited for tests to be run to see if she may be dying, and as she laid there on the little gurney, she told me that she hoped to teach her class again in January. She's 90 years old. She said that she starts each semester telling her students that learning is a sacred experience. She tells them that they must come both prepared and clean to get full value out of their education. She tells them that when she asks them to trust her to come prepared to class as their teacher, she means in part that she will have taken the sacrament on Sunday before and sought forgiveness so that she can come worthily before them. She hopes that her students can come there prepared in the same way.

Now, maybe that's the kind of pedagogy that Dr. Mazur would have appreciated, but a special kind that can't happen everywhere in every institution. She told me that she was once in her classroom teaching her discipline when she felt an impression to tell them who you are, and then broke the cadence of her lecture and quietly complied, saying, "I am a disciple of Jesus Christ." She said that a feeling of peace fell across the room, and no one moved. The bell rang, and they remained lost in the spirit of what had happened. Eventually, they filed out of her classroom turned sanctuary for those few minutes, puzzling over what had just happened. She concluded that if they don't know who they are and whose they are, they will fall for anything validates them.

I suppose the spirit could speak such impressions to you as a teacher anywhere in any classroom in the world, but there are not many classrooms where you could give voice to them. I am grateful for each of you that you teach here, where you may teach of such supernal things to such eternal effect.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.