With Thanksgiving Day approaching, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, addressed a Rotary Club luncheon in Salt Lake City Nov. 19 on the topics of gratitude and service and declared that in a time of uncertainty and cynicism, there is “still hope for virtue, moderation and divine moral principles.”
A Rotarian himself, having joined the international civic organization almost 40 years ago when he was in charge of the German Lufthansa Pilot School in Phoenix, Ariz., President Uchtdorf remarked, “The motto ‘Service above Self’ resonated with me back then and still does.”
Speaking to the Rotary Club 24 Foundation Luncheon at the Salt Lake Marriott Hotel on West Temple, President Uchtdorf said, “Back then, I learned to appreciate the purpose of Rotary International: to bring together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards and build goodwill and peace in the world, regardless of race, religion, gender or political preference.”
He noted that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partners with Rotary in many worthwhile efforts. “Over the years our charity organization has contributed over $5 million to Rotary in 31 different countries. Our major efforts have been in the field of immunizations, wheelchairs, clean water, medical equipment for hospitals and help for refugees.”
He recalled his own childhood experience as a refugee at age 4 from Czechoslovakia to East Germany and then, at age 11, escaping across the Cold War border to West Germany.
“Both times my family left behind all we owned and started again with nothing,” he said. “With heartfelt gratitude I remember the care packages and the generous help that came from the LDS Church during those years. I can still smell and taste the sweetness of wheat and peaches that came from Utah at a time of great need.”
He spoke of blessings that came from the U.S. government’s Marshal Plan in helping stabilize Europe and, especially, Germany.
There were other voices in the United States and elsewhere that advocated harsher treatment of Germany in the wake of World War II but, under U.S. leadership, more moderate and compassionate voices prevailed, President Uchtdorf said.
“Blessed compromises were found; reason, common sense and reconciliation eventually made friends out of foes. Competitors became partners.”
Stemming from that, President Uchtdorf at age 18 joined the new German Air Force and was sent to the United States for pilot training, graduating first in his class.
“How grateful I am for all those moderate and wise voices that influenced far-reaching decisions and made my path in life possible,” he said. “I have seen reconciliation in action.”
Speaking of the Thanksgiving holiday commemorating the Mayflower Compact and the Pilgrims’ day of thanksgiving 392 years ago, President Uchtdorf remarked, “What a wonderful legacy for building a people and a great nation under God. It is very similar and comparable to the faith in every footstep of the early Mormon pioneers, who built the LDS Church and this great state of Utah.”
Some today think Thanksgiving Day should not be connected to God, he said, but only to country and history. In contrast, he quoted from George Washington’s Oct. 3, 1789, Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that specifically references gratitude to God.
“With all the busyness and business going on during this time of year, it is easy to focus on the feasting and not so much on prayer and praise!” he commented.
He said gratitude is one of the most important human virtues and one of the most common human deficiencies. “Gratitude does not develop without effort.”
That can be learned, he said, from the Mormon handcart pioneers who hauled their belongings across hot plains and through the snows of high mountain passes, then “expressed their gratitude in peaceful worship in the Salt Lake Valley.”
“How can we pay our debt of gratitude for the heritage of faith and courage handed down to us by pioneers and pilgrims?” he asked.
In response, he quoted others to the effect that gratitude is akin to humility and that, like muscle, gratitude must be exercised to be strengthened.
President Uchtdorf said expressions of gratitude are urgently needed in a time of serious challenges and uncertainty worldwide.
“Is there still hope for integration and openness across different cultures, religions, societies and political interests?” he asked.
“My dear friends, my dear Rotarians, my answer is a clear and resounding yes! ... But I am also convinced that the axiomatic and eternal principle of moral agency demands that there be ‘an opposition in all things.’ It ensures that meaningful choices can be made — choices not only between good and evil (that would be too easy), but also from among multiple righteous alternatives.”
He said moral agency refers not only to the capacity to act for oneself but also that one is accountable for his own actions.
“I believe one reason for today’s decline in moral values is that the world has invented a new, constantly changing, undependable standard of moral conduct that often is referred to as ‘situational ethics.’ Some convince themselves that ends justify means, and that agendas or ideologies must be advanced regardless of collateral damage.”
That delusion contrasts with the Ten Commandments and other divine laws, he said. He quoted the Church’s 13th Article of Faith, regarding belief in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, doing good to all and seeking after what is virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy.
It is a basic declaration of theology but makes sense only when it is practiced, President Uchtdorf said.
But despite being imperfect, “if we would live by these principles, courtesy would overcome cursing; dignity would replace disgust; hate would diminish; and love and respect for one another would increase across geographic and ideological boundaries.”
Reconciliation, the blessing of which he has felt in his own life, “makes a difference, changes personal lives, changes nations, changes people,” he said. “Where there is gratitude, there is humility as opposed to pride; there is generosity as opposed to selfishness.”
The power of Christ’s teachings could bring to pass a miracle, President Uchtdorf said. “Too often, the teachings of our respective faiths are kept in abstract religious boxes, cautiously separated from personal conduct in public. Nevertheless, divine leadership principles are based on the commandment ‘love one another,’ and that is true for any world religion. By reemphasizing this commandment, the Savior has made feeding His sheep one of our ongoing responsibilities that cannot be dismissed without serious consequences.”
He told the Rotarians, “Many of you — and I would say all of you here — are bridge builders between nations, cultures and religions. The world needs builders, not destroyers.
“’Service above Self’ — a worthy motto for all of us.”