My talk given on June 23 of this year. This is slightly edited and is somewhere in the middle of what I meant to say and what I actually said.
There is a story, likely more fable than fact, that after a successful performance a famous concert pianist was passing through the lobby of the hall where his fans waited hoping to speak to him. A woman in the crowd reached him and gushed to the master musician – “I would give anything to play as beautifully as you do!” He turned to her and said, “Madam, I have given everything.”
A stern response perhaps. But who better than the one who had spent many thousands of hours in practice to point out that no gift comes from simply wishing for it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts lately. The creative and the physical; the secular and the sacred. We are commanded to nurture and to multiply our talents. We are commanded to seek after gifts of the spirit. How is it done? What does it mean to seek after these things? And why would God command us to seek after them?
As I have pondered this task and my experiences trying to live the commandments to multiply talents and seek after gifts I have come to believe that one of the many reasons we are asked to do this is that if we seek after gifts in the right way we are practicing a template for living the kind of life that invites the transformative power of the Spirit every day.
So how can we do this?
First: become as a little child.
I have three sisters and one brother. As I think often happens in families, we each acquired particular roles. We had the athletic sister, the academic sister, the artistic sister and the musical sister. (my brother got to simply be himself since he was the only boy) There wasn’t any conscious application of these labels. I don’t want you to think it was anything my parents said. But as I tried to define myself I usually tried only to excel within my own box. My interests in the other areas felt like incursions. I don’t think this was a unique experience.
A friend of mine who loves to play baseball was told as a child he wasn’t fast. As an adult he wishes he hadn’t taken that to mean he shouldn’t even try to become at least a little faster. He might not ever have become the fastest on his team but he could have improved at least a little and thus enjoyed the game he loves even more.
We often find ourselves defined in certain ways, whether by others or by ourselves, and then come to accept those limitations as inevitable. So when I say become as a little child what I mean first is a little child younger and perhaps a bit more naive than the child who might have allowed herself or himself to remain in a labeled box. You probably know a child like this one – one who honestly believes it is possible to grow up and become an astronaut/ballerina/movie star/president of the United States. Become as that little child.
It is no good to say as children of the Creator that we are not creative. It is no good to say as children of an all-knowing God that we cannot become wise, or that we cannot be scholars. It is no good to say that we are not naturally empathetic or charitable or kind when we worship a God who is the embodiment of love.
It is no good to place limitations on ourselves when we are the children of Eternity. While we know we have boundaries imposed by our life in a fallen world I would say that the first great truth of those limitations is that we cannot know exactly where they are.
Incidentally, this is the principle I’m thinking of when I invite you to join the choir and you tell me you aren’t musical. So just as a warning, I will keep inviting if that’s the reason you give me for not coming.
Become as a little child. Nurture curiosity about the world, learn to admit what you don’t know. Be willing to try at something where you are not the best. Be humble enough to be a beginner. In public, even! These are hard things in a place like this where ambition and accomplishment are the expected. Where we have learned to figure out what our strengths are and build our lives around them. Good lives. But learning to stick with and love something we aren’t naturally good at can change us in powerful ways. Doing so can help us to overcome the natural man.
Second: Seek the best gifts
Paul says that we must covet earnestly the best gifts. I think it’s interesting that the word we get to use here is covet, one with such negative meaning in the Old Testament. We must spend time determining through the Spirit what gifts we will seek and let the desires for those gifts grow in us. A covetous desire.
Paul insists not all gifts are created equal. While in first Corinthians chapter 12 we can read his teachings that all gifts have value in the kingdom in the next chapter he names the greatest gift. The one that without which, all others are meaningless. This, of course, is charity. If the first and second commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors we must cultivate charity in order to obey. Charity is both the commandment and the gift. Do you covet the gift of charity?
Charity is also a protection from our seeking inappropriate or self-aggrandizing gifts. If we seek first charity, we will have the prism through which we may judge whether the other gifts we seek are uplifting to others and bring glory to God rather than simply to ourselves.
Third: Find a teacher
The most important teacher is the Holy Ghost, who brings all things to remembrance. To remind myself of the central role of the Holy Ghost I sometimes silently reassign the title of all other teachers to that of Teacher’s Aides. This should not lessen their importance. We must be proactive in seeking the guidance of the spirit as well as his many earthly Teacher’s Aides.
I have been surprised a number of times at people who think that to learn something new as an adult they do not require a teacher. For example, when I began taking drawing classes a few years ago, someone told me that if I truly wanted to be an artist I wouldn’t follow any teacher at all. It is hard not to get cheesy and metaphorical about what an art teacher teaches; I will just say the teacher he was speaking of had helped me learn to better see the difference between light and dark. Hardly someone I would want to turn my back on.
I have a collection of earthly Teachers Aides I rely on in various areas of my life, some formal, some informal. One of them frequently asks me to do things I do not think I can accomplish. When I tell him he has more faith in me than I do in myself, he replies that it is his job to know what I can do. Another teacher has taught me that it is not a mistake to have to start over, that the true mistake is not starting over when you should have. A third has taught me that a small harvest is better than none. When life limitations mean I cannot be an expert in something I can still take great satisfaction in accomplishing just a little bit.
Teachers help us to override our instincts when we think we know what we’re doing but are wrong. One of my favorite New Testament stories records that Peter and his partners had labored all night at fishing and had yet caught nothing. When the Lord asked him to let down his nets again he had every reason to believe that nothing would come of it. But he obeyed the Master teacher and the nets broke with the multitude of fish he caught. Think of that the next time someone tosses around the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. What does our Teacher ask of us? It won’t always make immediate sense.
Fourth: Turn to God in time of Weakness
A few years ago I was in the room when my friend Katie was set apart for a new calling. The counselor who set her apart happened also to be her husband, Jayme. He gave her one of the most personal, direct and powerful blessings I had ever heard. At the time, I thought the fact that they were married was what facilitated the personal nature of that blessing. But a few weeks later I received a new calling and happened also to be set apart by Jayme. It was one of the most personal, direct, and powerful blessings I have ever received.
I mentioned this to Katie and she shared with me it had not always been that way. There was a time when Jayme did not trust himself to give blessings at all. A few years prior, when Katie was experiencing severe complications with pregnancy Jayme had blessed her and their baby with good health. Instead, the complications worsened. The baby died. And Katie herself came very near to death.
I know others who have seen promised blessings similarly denied who have lost their faith in that moment. Jayme did not. While he did not trust himself to give blessings for a while, he spent time in prayer and study, trying to analyze whether he had crowded out the will of the Lord with his own. He sought the Lord earnestly and was able to preserve and strengthen his gift, one that now blesses his family, his ward, and has blessed me personally on a number of occasions.
Fifth: Expect to Work. Hard.
Many of you know that last year I had some health problems. In the season since then, I have become very fond of certain scriptures, meditating often on phrases such as run and not be weary or make weak things become strong. I am particularly fond of the fat bones Isaiah promised. What I have never found in the Scriptures is anything to make me think that the work of recovery was meant to be anything less than the effort of blood sweat and tears that it has been. Quite the opposite. Genesis tells us that we will eat our bread by the sweat of our face. And the chastisement Oliver Cowdery receives in section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants is direct:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
For me the gift of physical health has demanded that I work very hard. And likewise every other gift requires laying work on the altar.
Sixth: Rely on Grace
In the old Missionary guide there was a quote from Spencer W Kimball that ‘God magnifies the efforts of the diligent.’ Work is good. Work is essential. God expects it. But no matter how hard we work, we still rely on God’s grace for our gifts. We need his magnification. I’m sure many of you share the experience of learning this while studying a language as a missionary. I remember listening to a newly baptized member bear her testimony. She cracked a joke and as I laughed I suddenly realized that I should not have understood what she said. She was not speaking the language I had studied in the MTC but another one I had only been able to study superficially. I could not have told you which of her words meant what. But God had magnified my efforts and I understood.
Likewise, we in the choir work very hard on the music we bring you. But we rely on grace to magnify our efforts so that the Spirit we try to sing by will be felt in your heart.
This is grace – when we receive what we have not earned. This is why we call them gifts, though we strive for them. As King Benjamin said – we are all beggars.
Finally, do not envy the gifts of others
For many years I would read the parable of the talents and feel sorry for the man who had received only one. Surely he could have been forgiven for assuming that what he had been given was not important compared to what others had received. Then I read that biblical scholars believe each of those talents to have represented vast monetary wealth. Analogous to a million dollars in today’s money. So while the man with one talent had less than the man with five, he still had great abundance. We are all entrusted with great riches of talent. Being so richly blessed, it is an especial pettiness to envy the abundance of others. We have gifts to magnify, gifts to seek of our own. Spending time in envy of others is ingratitude for what we have been given and puts distance between ourselves and God.
God has commanded that we magnify our talents and seek after gifts. I testify that when we obey this commandment and seek after gifts in the right way we can further invite the Spirit into our lives. This process can bring us great joy. And most importantly, we will grow closer to The Lord. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.