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The unexpected moment that taught Elder Gong the eternal importance of learning

PROVO, Utah — During a recent flight from Salt Lake City to New York City, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had a last-minute seat assignment change.

“In this case, perhaps not without purpose,” he recalled during a campus devotional at Brigham Young University on Oct. 16.

When he asked his new seat companion whether she was traveling to New York or the plane’s final destination of Milan, Italy, their conversation began to take off.

The woman had spent her life as a bilingual, bicultural Italian-English translator, and the two began to talk about Italian art and culture.

“As she queried me about Michelangelo, I remembered a BYU humanities class with Professor Todd Britsch,” Elder Gong said. “I was able to say that in Michelangelo’s statue the Pieta, the same piece of Carrara marble feels alive and lifeless at the same time.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles waves to someone in the crowd prior to speaking at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles waves to someone in the crowd prior to speaking at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The woman sitting next to him agreed, and they began to talk about the Sistine Chapel — then Dante, and Shakespeare.

“Then something unexpected happened," he said. "Seemingly out of the blue, this good woman quietly asked, ‘You want to know how my son died, don’t you?’”

Although the two had been discussing Italian art and literature, she felt Elder Gong had been listening with his heart.

“She felt she could say, ‘My son committed suicide. I am going to Italy to make arrangements.’ She added, ‘I feel you are a man of God. God put you here today because I have no one I can talk to about these things.'”

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For the rest of the flight, Elder Gong and the woman spoke tenderly about the plan of happiness established by God, and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ that allows families to be together forever.

“I testified of ordinances and covenants found in the Holy House of the Lord, and invited her to visit the Manhattan New York Temple or, someday, the Rome Italy Temple.”

It was through the knowledge he gained as an undergraduate student at BYU that had opened the door to a conversation dealing with the language of the heart with a stranger on a plane.

“Daily, I am grateful for things I learned and experienced at BYU, sometimes years ago,” Elder Gong said. “I could not have imagined then, until I needed them now, how valuable and significant formative BYU lessons and experiences can be.”

Crowd members watch and listen as Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.
Crowd members watch and listen as Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Apostle asked students to participate in a thought experiment, where they would think of the time as 2040 — 22 years in the future. He then shared four lessons students began learning in 2018 in their time at school.

“For me, looking backward from the future is a remembrance of things to come,” he said. “It is an invitation to prepare now for a future that will be here tomorrow,” he said.

Lesson no. 1: Learning how to learn by the Spirit

“As BYU students in 2018, we are already in the age of acceleration,” he said.

Computing speed, power and storage capacity increase as mobile devices, broadband connectivity and cloud computing connect everything, the Church leader taught. Technological changes have changed basic economic production and shaped information and innovation.

“As anyone looking for a job knows, today’s world puts a premium on ability and agility to learn and apply new things in new ways,” he said.

Yet, in the midst of fast-paced technological and global changes, learning how to learn by the Spirit comes through doing small and simple things.

“We begin by going to class, by choosing friends and environments that encouraged our best learning and by learning facts, skills and attitudes,” he said.

Lesson no. 2: Making the best choices

As students in 2018, ‘adulting’ was already challenging — but it was only a beginning to the challenges and joys we are juggling in 2040,” he said.

Limited time, energy and opportunity require wise decisions among good, better and best choices.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, speak with Anna Evans and Sophie Richards prior to a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, speak with Anna Evans and Sophie Richards prior to a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“With planning, increasing capacity and consecrated effort, we are discovering something miraculous: this world is not simply one of finite sticks and stones but, in His times and seasons, this world is also one of limitless loaves and fishes,” he said. “In a loaves and fishes world, faith, compassion and blessings are unlimited. So is God’s grace and capacity to embrace, magnify and heal, just as our patriarchal blessings promise. When we sacrifice and consecrate our relatively meager offering of a few loaves and fishes, the Lord can take what we give and greatly magnify it to bless others.”

Lesson no. 3: Maintaining a global perspective

Recognizing that there are currently students from 50 states and more than 100 countries, with 62 languages taught on campus and 126 languages spoken by the student body, Elder Gong spoke of how the saying the “world as our campus” is true.

“In 2040, we travel for work, information and adventure to every country and continent,” he said. “Some immersive interactions with the world are in person, some in virtual or augmented reality. In any case, we are grateful BYU encouraged us in 2018 to see the world as our campus, where we can contribute and serve.”

Lesson no. 4: Finding the right answers

“In 2018 at BYU we know the half-life of information is getting shorter and shorter, and that facts, information, knowledge, wisdom and revelation represent a kind of hierarchy of value,” Elder Gong said.

Because of this, there are ebbs and flows and intellectual fads and fashions.

“With the advantage of 2040 hindsight, we are grateful our BYU education gave us perspective and understanding to know we can address some questions and issues now, while other issues or questions may require resolution over time with additional understanding, experience or information,” he said. “In this context, we place highest value on divine inspiration, revelation, and truth.”

The impact

Through following those four lessons of the future now, individuals are able to become students of “faith, intellect and character, who have the skills and the desire to continue learning and to serve others throughout (their) lives.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles talks with Gary Crye and other students after speaking at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles talks with Gary Crye and other students after speaking at a BYU campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“May your BYU education truly be ‘spiritually strengthening, … intellectually enlarging, … character building, (and lead) ... to lifelong learning and service,' as you prepare for 2040 and beyond.”

For many students, Elder Gong’s message was personal.

“I feel like Heavenly Father wants me to take care of myself and learn, not just for now, but for later in my life,” said Tito Galvez, a senior from Guatemala.

Galvez’s wife, Maren Monson, from Illinois, added, “I feel more inspired to go to class. We learn so we can serve others; it isn’t just for us. Learning helps us connect to people in times of need, like the woman he talked about on the plane. Yes, we are learning for our own life and to be successful, but we are really learning to help people.”

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