A Righteous Life Has Great Influence
I’d like to share with you a few thoughts today. Back in the “olden days,” when I was growing up, the Church was invited to participate in the 1964 World’s Fair that was held in New York City. The Church created an exhibit and a new film that was to be shown in that exhibit, called “Man’s Search for Happiness.” Toward the end of the film, there is a scene where throngs of people are pressing forward as though they are working toward a common goal. Now to give those of your generation a mental image of that scene, imagine being in Disneyland, waiting in a line with a lot of other people trying to get onto “Splash Mountain” or “California Screamin’” or “Tower of Terror.” If you have ever been to Disneyland, you know what I am talking about, especially if it was between Christmas and New Year’s. So that’s the image in your mind.
When I first saw “Man’s Search for Happiness,” the scene impacted me greatly. Seeing what appeared to be masses of people, I was struck by the number and diversity of God’s children. I often wondered then and have done so many times since, how can God know all of the people on this earth, and can He really hear and answer our prayers? I do not know the specific answer to the question, “How?” But I do know that He does, because I know that He knows me personally and I know that He knows you. He loves you and wants the very best for each of you. He wants to bless you and to help you. In fact, this is a very interesting fact about geography and physiology—that when you are on your knees, no matter where you are on this earth, you are always the same distance from your Father in Heaven. You are the very focus of His work and His glory, and He always has your best interests in mind.
Because we are all children of a loving Heavenly Father, we are connected in a very special way, and that is why we refer to each other as “brother” and “sister.” As brothers and sisters, we should be mindful to love one another and to serve one another. In order to accomplish that effectively, each one of us was born with a set of physical, spiritual, and emotional attributes and gifts. “To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” (D&C 46:11) And all these gifts come from God for the benefit of the children of men. Part of our mission in mortality is to learn what our individual gifts are, to seek the best gifts, and then to use those gifts to bless others.
One of the unique gifts that I have been given—and I’m not sure why this particular gift was given to me—but from time to time, I’ve noticed that my tear ducts have a tendency to overflow. If that happens today, I apologize in advance. But a wise man once said, “The tears wash the windows to our soul,” and since having a clean soul is one of my personal objectives, I suppose that shedding a tear or two is okay.
Now to introduce my topic today, I’d like to begin by touching on certain elements of chaos theory. Chaos theory is a specialized field of mathematics with application in other fields such as physics, biology, economics, or philosophy. Although there is not a universally accepted definition of chaos theory, it generally can be summarized as follows: It involves a dynamical system where three conditions exist. Number one, there must be a degree of sensitivity to initial conditions. Two, there must be a topological mixing, and three, the periodic orbits must be dense. Now if you are wondering what all of that means, I can’t be of much help to you, because I am not a theoretical mathematician. So maybe the best way to look at it is in less-complicated terms, and that is that the most frequent explanation of chaos theory is referred to as “The Butterfly Effect.” Simply put, that means that a small change or event in one place can ultimately trigger something having a much larger impact sometime, somewhere else.
Here are a couple of examples, the first, from whence the pseudonym is derived: If a butterfly flaps its wings, does that result in a disturbance in the atmosphere that results in a hurricane somewhere? Now the second: A person, going through their normal routine getting ready for work—or school, in your case—one day, forgets their keys or their purse or their books or their backpack or something in the room, and has to go back inside to get it. Would that timing difference result in being on a different bus or train in order to get to your location, where you sit next to a new person, and that person introduces themselves, which results in—and you can fill in the blank. It might be a new best friend, it might be a new job, and in some cases it might even be a new spouse.
One of those small and simple things that impact each of us acutely is the association with individuals that we encounter throughout our lives. We all have daily interactions with dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and some of those people may have a profound and lasting influence on our lives. When a child is born, however, it is hard to know exactly what influence that individual may eventually wield in the world, upon us or on others. With a lifetime of hindsight, it is easier to look back and see what the impact has been.
Eighty-seven years ago, there were three babies born within three weeks of each other. Two of them grew up and had a profound influence in the lives of each one of us. They were Elder Russell M. Nelson and President Boyd K. Packer, born September 9th and 10th, respectively. The third was someone that I suppose you will never have heard of. He inspired those who knew him, but his circle of influence was relatively small by comparison. However, he left a lasting impact on my life. That child was my father, born November 1st, 1924. Since today would have been his 87th birthday—he died nine years ago this month—I’d like to share some lessons that I learned from my father and why they have impacted me so much, and hopefully his practical insights will have an influence and benefit for you as well.
For context, let me give you a brief biographical sketch of his life, and I hope we’re ready to go. I’ll need to start with his parents and their family circumstances in order to put some of the pieces in perspective. First of all, my grandfather, Peter Christensen, who was 31 years of age at the time, married Kristina Jeppson, who was 25, in the Manti Temple on November 26, 1902. A little over 10 years later, Kristina and her fifth child both died from complications related to childbirth. Kristina’s younger sister, Olena, was asked to move from Salt Lake to Sevier County to help her brother-in-law take care of the four surviving children. Out of a sense of duty, she left her job as a seamstress at ZCMI and the social environment of Salt Lake, where she was involved with the Utah Genealogical Society, religion and gospel study classes--what would have been today’s equivalent of the Young Single Adults--and her circle of friends.
A few months later, Olena and Peter traveled back to Salt Lake where they were married in the Salt Lake Temple on November 26, 1913. The details related to their marriage are sparse, but it appears to have been more out of duty to bring stability into the children’s lives. However, together they had seven more children. Now my father was born in this small, two-room log home in Elsinora, Utah. This picture (shown on screen) was taken in about 1935, so my father would have been about 11 years old, so this is the home that he grew up in. He was the youngest son and 10th of 11 surviving children in the family—five boys and six girls. My father is the one with the circle around his face. My grandfather died in an accident when my dad was 6 years old, so he grew up without the influence of a father in his home. So this picture was taken about a year or so before my grandfather passed away.
My grandmother, Olena, being widowed at a relatively young age, was left with very few resources and several young children to raise. Because of her situation, she wanted more for her children, particularly the girls. She didn’t want them to be trapped by their circumstances, as she felt she was in hers. She worked hard as a seamstress, took in laundry, and did just about anything else to save money to make sure that all of her girls were able to receive a college education. Apparently, she figured that the boys would learn to provide for themselves by working on the farm and must have believed that they didn’t need formal education beyond high school, because she did not encourage the boys to seek education as she did with her girls.
In the summer of 1945, my grandmother took her six girls on a camping trip, what we would call today a “Girls’ Night Out.” During the night, my grandmother died of a heart attack. My father was 20 years old at the time, and he spent his adult life without the association of either of his parents.
Now I will quickly review some of my father’s circumstances as he grew up so that you will understand his view on life. Growing up as one of the youngest children in a large, poor family, my father tended to be rather shy and never desired to be in the limelight. He just wanted to quietly fit in, kind of hiding in the shadows. The cutoff date for starting elementary school at that time was October 31st, so my father would have been the oldest in his class had he registered at the appropriate time. But all of his friends were a few months older than he was, and because he wanted to just fit in, he wanted to be with his friends, and so was allowed to register for school early. As a result, he ended up not only being the youngest but also the smallest person in his class, which coincided with his position in the family, so it kind of contributed to his shyness. But he was very bright and placed great value on education. He always ranked academically in the top three or four in his class all the way through high school.
He graduated from high school in the spring of 1942, shortly after the United States had entered World War II. He did not pass the necessary military physical, so he could not enlist in the Army. The responsibility, then, fell to him to remain at home and run the farm while some of his older brothers and most of his friends served in the armed forces. At the end of the war, at age 22, he was called to serve a mission in the Northwestern States Mission, which included Washington, Oregon, parts of northern Idaho, and western Canada. Upon his return from his mission, his stake president, who also served as the president of the local bank, encouraged him to date a young woman who was also working at the bank. So six months later, my parents were married in the Manti Temple.
Due to his natural leadership abilities and his love of people, he spent much of his life serving in priesthood responsibilities. He was called as a counselor in the bishopric shortly after he and my mother were married. From that time until he passed away, most of his time in church service was spent either in a bishopric—and this is when he was a brand new bishop, with his bishopric—on a high council, in a stake presidency, or as a stake patriarch. He also loved being a temple ordinance worker and a sealer.
Now because of his circumstances, he developed a common sense, pioneer pragmatic approach to life. So as a tribute to him, I will share some of his life view with observations and quotes that were either from him or attributed to him, or frequently quoted by him. I could cover a variety of categories, but today I’d like to just touch on three of them: 1) education, 2) money management, and 3) personal character.
Because my father had performed well academically, following graduation from high school and without much support from home, he was able to attend Utah State University for a short time. I don’t know all of the classes that he took, but he spoke frequently and fondly of his institute class. I remember that it was a courtship and marriage class. I suppose one of the reasons for taking that class at the time was because he said that for a single young man, it was a great time to be in the university. Because of so many people involved in the war, when he was there, for every young man that was enrolled in school, there were at least six female students enrolled. He said that years later, when counseling with young people about the importance and purpose of marriage, he would relate the advice of his institute instructor, who said, “One reason for marriage is to provide an environment where you can go at the end of a hard day, where you will have a best friend and you can escape from the cares and challenges of the world, just relax, be silly, and have fun together.”
I can report from personal experience that the counsel is sound, but it requires continuing effort if your personality is such that you don’t know how to relax, be silly, or have fun.
After his first year, because of limited finances because of the wartime economy, and pressing needs at home, he returned home to help manage the farm and subsequently to serve a mission. Since my parents were married shortly after my father returned from his mission and they started their family right away, being able to go back to school seemed like an unattainable goal. However, my mother could see such potential in her new husband and knew that greater opportunities were available outside of their little community. So she encouraged him to consider pursuing prospects at more distant horizons. So after a season, they decided to venture out and fulfill their aspirations in the big city, so they moved with their little family to Salt Lake in the early 1950s.
At first, my father had a couple of menial jobs but finally was hired as a salesman in a chemical company, and he enjoyed the challenges of business. However, he recognized his educational limitations compared to others in the company. So with support and encouragement from my mother to improve his education, he enrolled in some evening classes at LDS Business College. He enjoyed his business and accounting classes, but due to increasing time demands from work, church callings, and a growing family, he never completed his education. He wanted to be an accountant but ended up being involved in sales throughout his entire career. Now if he had been a student at LDS Business College today, he would be able to earn a degree in business with an emphasis in professional sales, and I’m sure that would have been an added benefit to him.
Throughout his working life, he recognized that his potential to be considered for certain jobs and advancement within the companies he worked for were limited because of his lack of formal education. Failure to complete his education at LDS Business College or elsewhere was a situation that I believe he always regretted. As a result, he developed a fundamental philosophy about life and education and expressed it this way: “Be led by your dreams, not pushed by your problems.” Through hard work, common sense, personal integrity, and general intelligence—which were hallmarks of his personality—he was able to have a reasonably successful career. Everyone that did business with him knew that they could trust what he said and what he did, because he always had their best interests in mind. As a result, he also made this observation about work, which also applies to many aspects of our lives. He said, “A job is a lot like playing tennis. A player who doesn’t serve well seldom wins.”
In his last assignment, the company wanted to have someone with a PhD in agriculture. However, my father’s experience and knowledge of the field made him more qualified and valuable to the company for that job than any others being considered for that position who did have PhDs. Because of his sense of inadequacy relative to his own education, however, as we were growing up he encouraged us to work hard and do well in school so that we could get a proper education. He knew that getting an education would open doors to opportunities that he never had.
Notwithstanding his shortened financial training, he did learn a lot about money management. Through his life, in teaching us, his children, in business settings, and advising members in his ecclesiastical callings, some of his most memorable quotes related to money. Like all those of his generation, growing up during the years that we refer to as the Great Depression impacted everyone’s view of money and of managing temporal assets. Some of you may recall President Hinckley, who by the way was one of the most fiscally conservative people I have ever met, made references in some of his talks to lessons he had learned growing up in the “bottom of the Depression.” President Packer also frequently quoted the phrase common to that era. He said, “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Recognizing that my father was of that same generation, growing up in a very modest single-parent home without much money, it was natural that he developed a practical perspective about being frugal. However, some of his first personal experiences in developing fiscal responsibility came as a result of his mission call. When his bishop interviewed him about serving a mission, he suggested that there were people in the ward or the stake who could help and be willing to help financially. My father, without parents to support him, and being somewhat independent and with a bit of a stubborn streak—that I am told is not uncommon among those of us who are Danes—told the bishop that he would work hard and pay for his own mission. He would stay as long as his money lasted, and then he would come home.
After serving faithfully for two years, he returned home with two dollars and 37 cents. He learned early in his life that the Lord’s laws of finance are different than man’s. The Lord can make money extend further than either logic or careful personal budgeting, especially for those who are faithful in keeping His commandments.
Now that leads to another commandment and principle that I know that all of you are aware of, and that is, pay your tithing first, and always pay your tithing. If you pay your tithing first, the Lord can help you make the remaining nine-tenths go a lot further than you can make ten-tenths go. I cannot explain how that works as an accountant. I cannot describe how that works. I just know that it does. For the Lord stated, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, [and] neither are your ways my ways….For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways.” (Isaiah 55:9-10)
However, I need to insert here a corollary to that principle. My wife has expressed the idea that paying tithing does not compensate for stupidity. You cannot expect to pay your tithing and then have the Lord bail you out because you are a poor money manager. You will still need to use wisdom in managing finances, for all financial things must be done “in wisdom and [in] order.” (Mosiah 4:27)
When applying wisdom and order to finances, my father often said, “The key to financial success is simple. Spend less than what you earn.” He never earned an enormous salary at any time during his career, but with careful planning and asset management, he provided well for the needs of his family. Now, one critical aspect of managing money is rigorously differentiating between needs and wants.
Following the period of the Great Depression until now, we have lived in an era that is largely consumer-driven. Billions of dollars are spent every year to encourage each one of us to buy the latest and greatest of whatever product is being proffered. During the post-World War II era and through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, it was largely based on the philosophy of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. Starting in the 1980s and continuing into this decade, consumerism has centered on self-indulgence and entitlement. The catch phrase has become, “Go ahead; you deserve it.” In order to facilitate buying more and more stuff, access to easy credit has been unbridled.
My father’s rebuttal to the consumer-driven world was two-fold. He said, “You can run into debt, but you have to crawl out.” And secondly, “Don’t spend money that you don’t have for things that you don’t need to impress people who don’t care.” He was also fond of the line that has been attributed to different sources that states, “I love interest; but I’d rather collect it than pay it.” There are very few things that justify going into debt. Some sacrifice now will likely pay great dividends later on, whether it’s a financial benefit or just the peace of mind that comes from not having the burdens of debt sitting on your shoulder 24-7 until you are finally able to crawl out.
Almost all financial arrangements require some form of negotiation or agreement. My father taught us that it was important to be fair and equitable in all of our dealings with others. In negotiating with others, whether it’s in business, education, or personal relationships, he encouraged us to look at things from all perspectives. He reminded us that for everyone who gets something for nothing, there is always someone who gets nothing for something.
Being fair and honest were core principles that influenced his behavior and everyone he dealt with. That influence was reflected in the teachings transmitted to his children. My brother became a very successful businessman and made a lot of money in his career. When he was called to be a mission president, he counseled his missionaries about the value of money and the value of people. He taught, “Use your money, and love the people; never love your money and use the people.” That teaching is consistent with what Jacob taught in the Book of Mormon.
Over a lifetime of experience, my father would have agreed with Brigham Young, who stated, “A fool can earn money, but it takes a wise man to save and dispose of it to his own advantage.”
In light of time, let me just jump to the most important part of a person’s life, and that is his or her character. Of the many great characteristics of my father, perhaps paramount were his love of people, his sense of duty, and his service and sacrifice for others without any consideration of himself. There are many examples with his children, his grandchildren, his neighbors and friends, and in his roles as bishop, stake president, patriarch, and temple sealer. I’ll just mention a few specific examples.
One: While serving as a bishop, my father made a note of the birthday of everyone in the ward and would call each person on his or her birthday. He wrestled some in determining where the appropriate cutoff date should be—in other words, what would be the appropriate age where it would really make a difference and be memorable for the individual. One day as he was looking at the list, the only birthday on that day was a Primary child who was turning about seven or eight. He debated whether or not he should make the call, but he finally picked up the phone, dialed…and he said that phone rang only once, and a young voice came on the phone and without hesitation said, “Hello, Bishop. I knew it would be you.” He said he never missed a single member of the ward after that experience.
My father had the unique ability to make nearly everyone feel like they were his friend. It didn’t matter whether the person was the president of a company or the janitor—he treated everyone with courtesy and respect. He could look past the outward characteristics of any person and treat them as though they were important to him. And they were. At his funeral, many people came up and said, in effect, “I know there are a lot of people here, but I was his best friend.” They each truly believed in, and he treated each person that way.
He also loved my mother and wanted to make sure that she was happy. I remember a little plaque on the wall in the kitchen of our home when I was growing up that said, “I am the master of this house. Whatever my wife wants shall be done.” He taught us to speak kindly to her and about her. He taught us to respect women of all ages by the way we treated them, and he tried to set an example of loving and treating a wife with tenderness. For reference on this topic, by the way, I’d suggest that you go back and read Sister Elaine S. Dalton’s October 2011 conference address.
Another important aspect of character that he taught us was the importance of being honest in keeping confidences. He frequently said, “You don’t have to tell everything you know to everyone you know, except those who have a right to know what you know. And then, let everything you say be true.” He looked for opportunities to compliment others and always was a true friend. He was loyal, steadfast, and immovable in defending what was right. In his work, he traveled a great deal, and because he always had a time-demanding church calling, he had to juggle his travel schedule with his ecclesiastical duties. It was not uncommon for him to leave home really early on a Monday morning after a long and busy Sabbath, drive about 200-300 miles to be where he needed to be, and then return on Tuesday night to be involved with his church meetings, then turn around early in the morning on Wednesday to drive back to the same place because that’s where he needed to be.
He always took the approach that if you had a responsibility to take care of, you were to do whatever it took to be there. As a temple sealer, my father similarly went out of his way to make sure that he was there to fulfill his assigned shifts and was readily available to help others. He loved being in the temple, I’m sure because of the Spirit that he felt there. But I also believe that he felt closer to his parents as well.
He stated that in life there are two absolutes: “We are going to live, and we are going to die. So we’d better do both of them well.” My father died nine years ago on Thanksgiving Day in my home. Not long before he passed away, I was visiting with him, and he made this very insightful observation: “One of the challenges in growing older is that by the time in life when you think you have all the answers, people stop asking you the questions.” I wish I had more time with my dad, because I still have several questions I’d like to ask him.
In the words of John Taylor, reflecting on the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith, I would restate in respect to my father: “He lived great, and he died great.” (D&C 135:3) The few of us up here—well, I guess there’s a few out there as well—but those of us in my generation will recall the words of a 1970s song by Harry Chapman called “Cat’s in the Cradle,” sung by Cat Stevens. It reflects the relationship of a father and son. Putting a positive spin on the chorus of that song, I would say, “You know, I want to be like you, Dad.”
My father was a great influence in my life. But it’s important for you to realize that each of you, as a child of God, has been blessed with great capacity and tremendous potential in influencing others’ lives. There are so many things that you can accomplish. You have been endowed with a unique set of gifts. There is no one in the world just like you. Hopefully, as you press forward in your own search for happiness, and go out to make your mark in the world, you can apply some of these simple axioms of life and impact those in your sphere of influence, as my father did in his, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.