BOUNTIFUL, Utah — For 17-year-old Monica Schiess, the most memorable moment from a special seminary devotional on Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, occurred before any words were spoken.
She and roughly 2,600 other youth reverently stood as several general Church leaders — including two Apostles, the Relief Society general president and other general authorities — entered the domed auditorium of the Bountiful Regional Center.
“I could feel the Spirit very strongly knowing that I was not alone in loving and respecting the Savior and His gospel,” the high school student told the Church News.
Referring to himself and the three other general Church leaders who spoke during the morning devotional, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asked seminary students to “let us bless you with our experience.”
Elder Holland, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson and Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of Church education, all offered words of love and counsel during the devotional, which was streamed to an additional 3,600 seminary students throughout Davis County, Utah.
“The principal advantage we have over you this morning, if we have any at all, is that we’ve been your age and you’ve never been ours,” Elder Holland quipped.
Veteran Church leaders and young high school-age seminary students are all walking the same road, he said. “We’re sons and daughters of God like you are sons and daughters of God. And, like you, we often take two steps forward and one step back. We’re learning while you’re learning. As children of our Heavenly Father, we’re all on the same road, but we’re a little farther down the road than you are.”
Because of that, the leaders can call back when the curve is sharp or the path is dangerous or there’s a better place to run. “But we’re all in this together,” Elder Holland said.
‘It might have been’
To begin his remarks, Elder Holland shared a line from a famous poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:
“For all sad words of tongue and pen,
the saddest are these, ‘It might have been!’ ”
Elder Holland then related how an old high school opponent in athletics had recently showed up in his office at Church headquarters. The two had competed against each other in Little League, then through junior high and high school. Elder Holland hadn’t known much about his life other than he was a good athlete and lost track of him until he showed up at Elder Holland’s office.
“We talked and talked,” Elder Holland related, and he learned about the man’s life. Although the man had been baptized, he had never been active in the Church. His family life at home had been painful, certainly not ideal.
Once, when the man was a 16-year-old junior in high school, angry and tired of the pain he saw in the eyes of his mother and little brothers and sisters, he put on his best pair of jeans and his cleanest polo shirt and tentatively walked through the doors of the church.
Another fellow a few years older than him said: “Well, what’s the matter with you? Did you lose a game last night?”
The man felt so devastated by this exchange when it had taken so much courage to walk through the doors in the first place, that he left and never went back. “He left and his life became even more unhappy for him in the years that followed.”
By the time Elder Holland became reacquainted with him, the man had become a faithful Latter-day Saint, but he wrote Elder Holland a letter where he lamented his past. The letter said: “If it were possible, I would gladly forfeit all my sports experience and all those accolades just to have once been a member of a deacons quorum. I would give up every ribbon and trophy I own to have just once passed the sacrament or to have had the privilege to bless it. What would it have been like to tell my grandchildren I had served a mission? Jeff, you chose the better part. All I can say of my own path is ‘Oh, what if?’ Of my path, all I can say is ‘Oh, what might have been?’”
For those who need a witness of the value of good friends, of having a seminary experience, of having a strong family and seeking activity in the Church, Elder Holland said they could look at him. “I’m visual aid No. 1 today.”
Elder Holland said he could have been that man.
“And yet I get to be with you today with all these memories and all these blessings and all these promises. Others less fortunate may have missed those opportunities, those blessings and privileges. Don’t miss them,” Elder Holland told students. “Stay close to the Church. Have good friends and be a good friend. We say that having walked where you now walk.
“I ask you to make your own way in the world with the idea that you don’t ever have to stand before anybody, anytime, anywhere and weep and say, ‘Oh what might have been.’ ... Please don’t lament over what might have been. Be faithful and true, and know that we love you and that we’re in this together.”
The gift of sight
A year ago, Elder Christofferson underwent cataract surgery where the lens of his eye, which had become hard and clouded, was replaced with an artificial one that was clear. “It kind of brightens up the world after you’ve gotten used to not seeing things very clearly,” Elder Christofferson recalled.
This experience and a few others have caused the Apostle to ponder recently on the gift of sight. For those who have it, it is easy to take for granted. “Like breathing, we don’t even think about it.”
But in speaking to seminary students during Wednesday’s devotional, Elder Christofferson invited them to think how they use this special gift.
He quoted Psalm 25:15, “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord.”
“If that’s the focus of your life, of your vision, how you use your eyes and your sight, then you’ll have the guidance, the light, the help, the blessing that you need,” Elder Christofferson said.
This gift can be used for good or ill. “What will you do with this marvelous gift of sight?” Elder Christofferson asked. “I hope that you’ll spend plenty of time occupying this wonderful gift in learning and understanding and searching the scriptures. I hope you’ll exercise the discipline to turn away your sight, your vision, your eyes, from that which demeans, that which detracts from the Spirit, that which darkens instead of enlightens.”
Elder Christofferson spoke of Elder Holland’s experience getting the BYU Jerusalem Center built on the Mount of Olives and the trial and turmoil and miracles that preceded it.
Part of the agreement in allowing BYU to build the center was that students would not proselyte. One government authority, who was part of those negotiations, when shown the facility, replied, “I know your students are not going to proselyte, but what are you going to do about the light in their eyes?”
“That’s the gospel. That’s the Spirit. That’s what enlightens your eyes and your understanding,” Elder Christofferson said.
The Apostle pleaded with students to use their “beautiful eyes” and “wonderful gift of sight” to see and study those things that will ennoble them and bring added light and to avoid anything that detracts or darkens their spirit. “God bless you with understanding and with sight beyond even your normal and natural and physical abilities.”
Devotion to the Savior
As President Johnson drove into Bountiful, the words of a song from the musical “Oklahoma” popped into her mind: “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day. I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way.”
“You have started your day out right,” President Johnson told students. “You’re in the right place and you’ve started your day in devotion to the Savior Jesus Christ.”
Although every day might not start with a devotional from an Apostle of the Lord, students can create space every day for their own personal devotion, she said.
President Johnson urged her young listeners to pray to Heavenly Father, asking for His help and writing down any promptings, and to read from the Book of Mormon.
Reading the Book of Mormon “does make for a beautiful day and helps us be prepared for whatever is coming our way,” she said.
President Johnson related how her son Connor recently ran the Deseret News Marathon. He was well prepared but around mile 21 on the day of the race, a traffic officer failed to guide him in making a turn. A short time later, he realized he was not only off course but he had also missed an aid station to replenish him with water and other nourishment.
Fortunately, Connor was able to call a nearby brother-in-law who was able to check the course map, guide him back to the route and bring him some water.
“Friends, what is the quick correction we can make if we get off course?” President Johnson asked. “Of course, it is the joyful opportunity to repent.”
Connor was able to call someone he could trust completely. “It’s like us calling on Heavenly Father in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ,” she said. “They want what is best for us. They know the route, and They will come to our aid. They want to help us cross the finish line and return home to Them.”
President Johnson encouraged students to “make every morning a beautiful morning by beginning with private acts of devotion to our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Drink of the Savior’s living water and if you get off the path even ever so slightly, don’t delay in repenting. Get back on course.”
‘Don’t take it for granted’
Elder Gilbert recently visited his son in Boston, Massachusetts, and met two young Nigerian immigrants, Ikenna and Chinaza, who were also early morning seminary students.
Ikenna and Chinaza told Elder Gilbert they had a “huge” seminary class of 12 people. When Elder Gilbert related that he would soon be speaking to a group of more than 2,500 seminary students, they were astounded, Elder Gilbert said.
He then asked the brothers, “What would you have me say to them?”
In his remarks to seminary students on Wednesday, Elder Gilbert shared three messages from Ikenna and Chinaza.
First, “don’t take seminary for granted.”
Having seminary so accessible can make it easy to take for granted, Elder Gilbert remarked.
He then shared how each of the boys gets up before 5 a.m. three times a week to ride an hour on the bus to make their 6 a.m. seminary class. Then they attend again on Saturday to make up for a day they miss during the week.
“I hope you realize what an amazing experience it is to attend seminary,” Elder Gilbert said.
Second, “take time to deepen your testimony. Don’t just show up.”
Whether they get up early or have released time during the day, seminary students should take a minute to reflect on what they are learning, Elder Gilbert said. “Really ask yourself: ‘How is this true? Can this really affect my life? Can I put this into practice?’”
Third, to find out if the Church is true, do something for someone else.
Elder Gilbert said someone he loves told him, “If you want to know the Church is true, do something for someone else, and you’ll realize God’s in their life, and that He’s in your life too.”
He then encouraged students to look for someone who feels excluded or is having a bad day. “I hope you’ll look hard for a way to involve yourself in serving someone else in the class this year.”
In conclusion, Elder Gilbert testified “that we can grow closer to Jesus Christ and serve others through our experience in seminary.”
Seminary principal Brent W. Brown said he was impressed with how many youth came to the early morning devotional in the middle of a busy week of school. “They needed sleep but chose to come to see their leaders speak, many coming to a building simply to see a broadcast. What a faithful group of young people,” Brown said.
After listening to the devotional, 15-year-old Boyd Robinson said he felt the need to be more inclusive. “I generally hear stories like the one told by Elder Holland and think, ‘I’m not that mean kid.’ But I realized today that ... I need to make a real effort to welcome everybody into the joy of Christ,” Boyd said.
Seventeen-year-old Mia Willey said she was reminded not to take seminary, or any other spiritual experience, for granted. “We need to be grateful and appreciate the light of the Savior that we are able to experience and show through ourselves.”
She said she also realized the need to trust those who have walked on the path longer than her. “We need to ... let them guide us in the right direction.”