Quorum of the Seventy
November 4, 1998
The story is told of a great sculptor and a little boy as they stood before a massive block of granite. With fascination, the boy watched as the sculptor began to apply mallet and chisel to the granite. Day after day he chipped and chiseled. Day after day the boy watched as, gradually, the magnificent figure of a man emerged under the skilled hand of the sculptor. Finally, the work was finished. Where once there had been only a granite block, now there stood a beautiful statue. The admiring lad walked carefully around the statue, surveying it from every angle. Finally, in reverential tones, he exclaimed to the sculptor, "Gee, mister, how did you know he was in there?!"
Although probably apocryphal, this little story has a close parallel to life, especially for students standing upon its threshold. Each of you has emerged relatively recently from the cocoon of childhood and adolescence. Each of you stands at life's first great crossroads. Each of you has embarked upon an educational career.
In an important sense, each of you is as the sculptor. While your tools may not be a mallet or a chisel, you are no less craftsmen. Your tools -- the instruments of your art work-- are your daily decisions and your determination to accomplish. Your working material is not granite, but rather the precious substance of eternity -- the immortal soul. What's more, there is more to your ultimate craftsmanship than the inanimate work of art. What you are doing has eternal consequences of incalculable significance. What you are doing is of utmost importance to you and your posterity because, you see, you are the work in progress!
In the story I just related, the boy asked the sculptor how he knew the statue of the man was "in there." The question is provocative. It infers the obvious, namely that the sculptor had a pre-set idea -- a mental picture -- of the end result of his work. When he looked at the unformed and unfinished granite block, the sculptor saw more than a "big rock." Rather, he saw in his mind's eye the magnificent figure of a man. Through the days and weeks of difficult chipping and chiseling, he never lost that vision.
What is your vision? Here you are, young men and women poised on the threshold of life. You have completed the mandatory education required by the law. Up to now, you've gone to school because the law required it. Now, you are on your own time. You're enrolled here voluntarily. Why? What is it that you are sculpting? Is your vision merely occupational -- a job? When you look in the mirror do you see just a future accountant or legal secretary or interior designer?
Or is your vision grander than that? When you look in the mirror or when you close your eyes do you see in your mind's eye the person you are crafting as a figure of nobility and dignity? Do you see someone with a divine royal heritage and with important contributions to make to the welfare of mankind and the upbuilding of the kingdom of God? Do you ever look down the road 10 years, 30 years or 50 years and see yourself? If so, whom and what do you see?
These are questions of profound importance. They are timely questions. They are questions of great urgency for you because, like the sculptor standing before the unblemished block of granite, you have one great gift that will never again appear quite as fresh and unsullied as it now presents itself. I speak of the great blessing opportunity.
Opportunity: Your life is yours for the molding. Blessed with the vigor of youth and few obligations, this is the season of your great opportunity. But opportunity is an elusive commodity. It is, quite literally, "here today and gone tomorrow." Carpe diem is a Latin phrase. It means, "seize the day." You have Today within your grasp. But unless you "seize" it, ere long it will slip through your fingers like quicksilver and be gone. Oh, certainly, the sun will come up each morning throughout your life; and each day will present an opportunity of sorts for good works and happiness. But no other Today will ever again be quite like the one that is now in your grasp. Carpe Diem.
May I share with you a personal experience that has taught me the importance of the opportunity of Today and its profound effect on Tomorrow. In 1965 I was a young infantry officer in the United States Army assigned as a platoon leader in a rifle company of an infantry battalion stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. In October of that year we received a new battalion commander. His name was Lt. Col. Thomas U. Greer, or "Tug" Greer as he was known to his peers. Col. Tug Greer had graduated from West Point in the class of 1951. That class left many of its members dead on the rugged slopes of Korea during that conflict. Tug Greer's perspective on life was colored significantly by that grim fact.
Shortly after assuming command of our battalion, he scheduled training maneuvers in the rugged Kahuku Mountains of northern Oahu. For several days we trudged up and down the steep volcanic slopes of the Kahukus practicing various offensive and defensive infantry tactics. Finally, it was Saturday morning - the last day of the scheduled training. I remember watching the sun come up on that beautiful Hawaiian weekend day. From my perch atop one of those mountain peaks I could look down across the beautiful verdant fields and white sandy beaches to the ocean sparkling like a sapphire in the morning sunlight. Like the rest of the troops, I was eager to return to our base and turn in the equipment so that I could "hit the beach." After all, what was the point of being assigned in Hawaii if you couldn't go to the beach?
Col. Greer came around to our company's location and gave an order to our company commander, Capt. Jim Andrus. We were to establish defensive positions as the last exercise in the training. Now that meant, among other things, digging foxholes. You know what a foxhole is. Basically, it is a hole in the ground large enough for a soldier to seek shelter from enemy fire. But this was volcanic rock and had almost no topsoil. We were equipped only with those small collapsible shovels (know as Army "entrenching tools") to dig with. So, Capt. Andrus ordered that we just would "simulate" foxholes, meaning that we would scrape away a little topsoil at each place where we would have placed a foxhole.
Presently, Col. Greer came around to inspect our positions. Gesturing toward these shallow indentations in the ground, he demanded to know what they were supposed to be. Capt. Andrus hesitantly replied that these were "simulated foxholes." "Simulated foxholes!" spluttered Col. Greer (with a few other words not in the Latter-day Saint vocabulary thrown in for emphasis), "I ordered this company to prepare defensive positions. That means foxholes!" he exclaimed. "This company is going to stay out here and dig until it learns how to make foxholes that look just like those in the training manual," Col. Greer commanded.
My heart sank, as did that of every man in our rifle company. All visions of an afternoon at the beach evaporated. And so, while the rest of the battalion packed up and returned to base and on to the enjoyment of the weekend, Charley Company stayed out on the mountainside, digging. We dug and we dug and we dug. Col. Greer's name was mentioned numerous times that afternoon, but not in a very complimentary way. However, by nightfall we had foxholes that did look like they came right out of the training manual. After that, no outfit in the entire United States Army could dig finer foxholes than C Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry.
What we didn't know on that fateful Saturday was that this was to be our last training exercise before our battalion received orders for Vietnam. You see, upon assuming command Col. Greer had been advised of those top secret orders - orders which he could not share with us. With his vivid remembrance of fallen classmates on the rugged hillsides of Korea, he wanted to do all he could to protect us from the same fate. Hence, he knew that this training exercise would be out last opportunity to prepare for the perils of combat.
It was just three months later that our battalion arrived in Vietnam and was assigned an operating area. That first night, the order went out: establish defensive positions. Our battalion dug in with regulation foxholes because that's the way it had been trained by its commander. A neighboring battalion, however, arriving late in the afternoon only scooped out shallow depressions in the ground - much like our "simulated" training foxholes. That night an enemy mortar barrage rained down on the green troops. Our men were safe and secure in their foxholes. The other battalion was far less fortunate. The next morning, Tug Greer's name was again on everyone's lips - this time with reverence and appreciation. I still regard Lt. Col. Thomas U. Greer as one of the great men I have known. He taught me the importance of an opportunity seized. Carpe Diem.
I believe this is the stuff of which parables are made. What is the significance of the Parable of the Foxholes? From its several applications, I have selected one that seems to have particular significance for young men and women in your circumstance. It is simply this: the importance of recognizing the opportunity presented by Today - not just an opportunity to prepare for future peril, but an opportunity to prepare for future success and happiness. At this singular moment in your lives, the greatest importance of Today is as the springboard for Tomorrow. Today presents an opportunity that likely will not come again. Each of you stands before your own block of granite with mallet and chisel. The vision of yourself that you adopt Today, the crafting and polishing that you commence Today, will determine who and what you will become Tomorrow.
Although you are students, I hope you can see the instruments of craftsmanship at hand as more than just class offerings out of the course catalog. I hope you are developing yourselves as Latter-day Saints as well, and as men and women of strength and character. The qualities that will make your Tomorrow are far more important that those occupational qualifications you will eventually list on your resume. It is the worshipful reverence of the Savior as worthy temple recommend holders, the habits of right living and the joy you find in service to others that will most determine who you will become. These are the qualities that will most determine your success and your happiness. What you learn in academic course work will only be an overlay on who and what you really are. To be sure, success also requires mastery of professional and occupational requirements, but these are decidedly secondary to the qualities of faith, character and habits of personal righteousness that you develop Today.
Yet, seeing Today as a tremendous opportunity to prepare for Tomorrow is not exactly an idea that has large cheering sections among many of the world's young adults in contemporary society.
It is hard for me to comprehend that it has been almost 35 years now since my college class graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. It has been a long time since I was a Young Adult - using that term as a proper noun (although I still like to think of myself as a "young adult" - used as a descriptive term). Recently, I have had occasion to reminisce about my feelings, my attitudes, my life as it was in my early twenties. I remember a sense of seeming immortality, as though life would go on forever. I remember a boundless energy, a zest for life, a time of great expectations as well as great anxieties. I remember those young adult years (borrowing from Charles Dickens) as truly "the best of times" and "the worst of times." Observing you and your generation, I can tell that such feelings continue to be alive and well!
But there are differences as well between your generation and mine. You see, I came of age in the sixties - one of the most turbulent decades in American history. Ours was the Vietnam Era and all that momentous period represented both at home and abroad. As a young man of 25 - the age of some of you here this morning - I went to war as a combat leader of 30 or 40 other young adults. So many of my comrades in arms would never live to see 30, or even 25, much less 50. I can close my eyes and see their faces swimming before me - Sam Solomon, Bill Hoos, Hashiro Imae, Danny Fernandez and others. All so young - gone now. All so reminiscent of the popular ballad, "Where have all the flowers gone."
I see arms and faces bronzed deeply by the tropical sun. I see lines and creases etched into young brows by the unrelenting fatigue, anxiety and ugliness of war. Most of all, I see their eyes - eyes filled with an indescribable weariness and hollowness brought about by too many days and too many nights in the rice paddies and the jungles.
War brought a soberness to my generation. Like it or not, maturity was forced upon us. Our experiences in the ever present face of death and pain and privation laid to rest forever our childhood. Those who returned "back to the world," as we termed anywhere that wasn't Vietnam, were no longer adolescents. War provided a bright line between youth and adulthood.
For this generation it has been so much different. "Young beyond their years" one national magazine has termed this generation's circumstance. In a special issue of Newsweek some years ago, an insightful author had these observations about today's young adult era:
"Something happened on the way to the 21st century; American youth, in a sharp reversal of historical trends, are taking longer to grow up. As the 20th century winds down, more young Americans are enrolled in college, but fewer are graduating - and they are taking longer to get their degrees. They take longer to establish careers, too, and longer yet to marry. Many, unable or unwilling to pay for housing, return to the nest - or are slow to leave it. They postpone choices and spurn long-term commitments. Life's on hold; adulthood can wait...To be sure, most young Americans still expect to marry and have children. But unlike their parents, the prospect fills them with dread. They have grown accustomed to keeping their options open. There are so many choices to make - in relationships, careers and consumer goods - that they hate to limit their freedom. They sense that marriage requires compromise, negotiation and discipline - habits the youth culture does not enjoy."
While the writer of this article was attempting to describe the general young adult culture of America, sadly I must tell you, my young friends, that in my opinion his description is also descriptive of some of our Latter-day Saint Young Adults. For some in their twenties, the term "Senior Adolescents" would be more descriptive than the term "Young Adults." I do not mean to apply this appellation to all, or even very many; certainly there are many who represent the very best, the very finest of all of Father's sons and daughters who have ever lived. This generation of Latter-day Saints, I believe, will play a pre-eminent role in helping to prepare the earth for the return of the Master to reign in peace and in glory. I intend my comments less as a criticism than as an observation-and as a predicate for action.
Neither you nor I had anything to do with the tenor of the times into which we stepped as we crossed the legal threshold from youth to adulthood. Just as my generation may have had the harshness of a distant and unpopular war thrust upon us by the turbulence of our times, so some in this generation may have languished a little too long in the idyllic sandpile of childhood because of the relative affluence and tranquility of these times. My generation did not seek the trials of war; you have not requested the trials of ease. Each circumstance has brought its challenges. If the challenge for my generation was to shed the cloak of spiritual disaffection, the challenge for your generation is to don the mantle of responsibility. To each of us, however, whatever condition our times may have dealt us, the Lord beckons. To each is extended the unique gift of young adulthood: Opportunity-a time and a season to make of one's life an magnificent work of art.
But how does one do that? Most particularly, how do you of this generation do that?
As in all things, the life of the Savior is instructive. You recall that when He was only twelve years, Mary and Joseph took Him with them to Jerusalem. They became separated, and for three anxious days the worried couple sought their divine Son. They found Him in the temple teaching among the doctors of Jewish theology. In gentle reprimand His mother, Mary, said: "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father [referring to Joseph] and I have sought thee sorrowing?" (Luke 2:48). In answer and equally gentle reminder of His divine station, Jesus responded: "How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" (Id., v. 49). There was a soberness about Jesus, even as a child, born of His recognition of His great mission. He was anxious to "be about his Father's business," and that anxiousness colored every aspect of His life.
Is there not a teaching there for you and me? We, too, each of us, have a sacred mission-our "errand from the Lord," to borrow Jacob's marvelous phrase. Is it not time to be about our Father's business? You and I did not create the world into which we have come. But we certainly can create the kind of person we each will be to walk in it. This is not an entirely easy process. Joseph Smith lamented his difficulty. Said he, describing his youthful experience after obtaining his errand from the Lord:
"During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty three...I was left to all kinds of temptations; and mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me to be guilty of any great or malignant sins. A deposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc. not consistent with the character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been..." (JS-History 1:27).
Does that have a familiar ring to you, my young friends? "Guilty of levity?" "Associating with jovial company?" Doubtless all of us present have been guilty of these-perhaps for some even recently! These are not, in Joseph's words, "great or malignant sins." But they are unworthy of those who are called of God as we have been. Paul's great expression rings down the centuries: "When I was a child... I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things." (1Cor. 13:11)
My dear brethren and sisters, the time has come to "put away childish things." This means developing a genuine sense of purpose about life. It means seeing Today as the wondrous opportunity it is. Today is the day to make the most of your education here. Today is the day to prepare for missionary service and for temple marriage. Today is the day for magnifying Church callings and responsibilities. Today is the day for thrusting aside the all-consuming Cult of Self to render Christian service to others. Today is the day for right decisions and resolute determination-your mallet and chisel-to prepare for Tomorrow. This is the very essence of being about your Father's business.
I cannot reflect on the priceless value of Today's opportunity without thinking about the Hoa family. The year 1975 was grim in Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam had collapsed in the face of the relentless onslaught of the North Vietnamese. The army had surrendered. The government had capitulated. Those who had been strongly identified with the government of South Vietnam or with the Americans feared for their lives and well-being. Many fled the country. Those who could not force their way onto departing military aircraft took passage on overcrowded ships and boats of every description. Some of these rusting hulks sprang leaks and sank in the South China Sea, not far into the voyage. Others were accosted by pirates, who molested and murdered many of these pathetic refugees and stole what few possessions they had brought with them. Tran Do Hoa, his wife Nga, their two daughters and Nga's teenage brother were among those who survived these perils and eventually reached the United States under an amnesty program.
Our ward in Southern California had offered to sponsor one such family. We found and rented a small home and furnished it in "early Deseret Industries" decor. Finally, the day came that we were to meet "our" family. With my young son as company, I drove to Camp Pendleton, the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps base in northern San Diego County, to pick them up. Following directions, we turned off the main highway onto a narrow byway that soon became a dirt road. We drove down this road for a considerable distance until we came to a large encampment of tents in an isolated part of the base. This was where these refugees were housed. The sight was heartrending: hundreds of Vietnamese attired in worn and ill-fitting clothing, many malnourished and still showing the bone-deep exhaustion of the ordeal. Clouds of dust hung in the late-summer air from the foot and vehicular traffic in and about the camp.
It was then, after checking in at the administrative tent, that I got my first glimpse of Hoa. He was a distinguished looking man in his early forties, thin to the point of emaciation, with graying hair and a gently, polite smile. Nga, his wife, was a tiny woman with the natural beauty and graciousness of the Vietnamese. Two little girls, Betty and "Tee," each clutching a doll, shyly clung to their parents. Thuan, Nga's teenage brother, stood awkwardly nearby. And what I remember the most: all of their belongings were in a small, travel-worn suitcase and a cheap, plastic shopping bag. In Vietnam, Hoa had been a government civil servant; Nga had worked as a secretary. They had enjoyed a modest, but comfortable, standard of living. Now they had nothing. In fleeing Vietnam, they had forsaken everything they owned and held dear. Grateful to have escaped with their lives, they were totally and completely destitute in a strange land far from home. Hoa spoke halting English; Nga and the children spoke almost no English. As we drove out of that dusty encampment and onto Interstate 5, the great coastal superhighway, I remember thinking how overwhelmed and alone they must feel.
Looking back now, however, with the perspective of the years, I realize that Hoa and Nga had something not immediately apparent to the eye. They had a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity that this land afforded them. They had virtually nothing of this world's goods when they arrived in this country. But they brought with them a fierce determination to seize the opportunity provided. Through some interviews we helped to arrange, Hoa found work in a small electronics company. Nga immediately began attending English classes and eventually found a clerical job. Betty and Thuan enrolled in school and devoted themselves to their studies with single-minded resolve. Little Tee, a pre-schooler when the family arrived, grew up as an American child but fueled with the same work ethic that animated the other members of her family.
In time, our family moved away. We lost contact with Hoa and Nga and their children for a period of years. And so it was, with considerable delight, that we discovered on a return visit to that community that Hoa and Nga had purchased a lovely home. Two late-model automobiles were parked in their garage. Hoa and Nga each held responsible, remunerative jobs. Thuan had completed college as an electoral engineer. Betty had a scholarship to attend UCLA. And Tee was a vivacious teenager. No long afterward, Hoa passed away prematurely.
More years passed. I was serving in the Area Presidency of the North America West Area and was assigned to a stake conference near Riverside, California. As I walked into the chapel on Sunday morning, there on the first row was Thuan. Although not a Church member and living more than 50 miles from this stake center, he had heard of my coming to the conference quite by chance from a workmate who was a member of the stake. He had come to once again express his gratitude-and that of his family-for the blessing of an opportunity. It was a wonderful and tearful reunion for me-one I shall always remember.
As I look at you and me; bathed as we are in relative affluence, and all too often nonchalant about the opportunity cascading about us, I see in my mind's eye a dusty encampment shimmering in the summer heat and a little family far from home, strangers in a strange land, with a worn suitcase and a plastic shopping bag. The vision restores my perspective.
My dear young friends, carpe diem! Seize this day! Grasp the marvelous opportunity that is at hand! Your Today is garnished not only with the opportunity for a first-rate academic education but with the truth of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. Your Tomorrow is bright indeed-if you make the most of Today.
What is truly distinctive about Mormonism is the promise of Tomorrow. The holy temple is the great symbol of that promise. Its eternal ordinances, the truth it represents-these provide the luster to Tomorrow, both in time and in eternity. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, has purchased Tomorrow for us. The temple seals this wondrous blessing upon us in all its fulness. Indeed it can be said-truly, we have everything. We need only to grasp it-Today.
The great sculptor saw not a block of granite but a magnificent man before his eyes as he surveyed his task. He knew he was "in there." Each of you holds in his hand, as it were, a lump of clay-your own life-ready for molding and shaping into a man or woman of magnificence. He or she is also "in there." On this bright, sparkling morning of life my prayer for each you is that you will not squander this Today at the "beach," so to speak. The functional equivalent of "digging foxholes" on such a day may not be very glamorous at times, but the eventual reward is incalculable. Beside it, even the sun pales. Carpe diem!