Ann Lewis Homecoming Talk
19 September 2021
We have recently returned from serving a 2 year mission in Bamako, Mali and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. We lived in a world very very different from our home here. Many of you know that I’ve lived in Africa many years and I love it like a second home. Most of all, I love our African friends and the lessons I’ve learned from them. How often I wish there were a way to bring my two worlds together! It will be impossible to explain much about our last 2 years in the next 12 minutes, but I would like to share with you some things I thought about every single day I was there–things that have to do with the Judgement Day and how we might be considered by a loving Father in Heaven.
Today I want to talk about 4 things:
Opportunity, Privilege, Degree of Difficulty, Execution
When we were Mission Leaders in Yakima, we taught our young missionaries to focus on what they did well and use their gifts and talents to help others come to Christ.
Many of our gifts and talents are a result of our Education, Environment and our Experiences, or in other words, our Opportunities.
Imagine living in a place without books, electricity, or wifi. Imagine having no car and being unemployed. Imagine having to grow all the food you’ll eat while living in a desert that’s horribly hot and terribly dry most of the year. Imagine never having enough food to feed your children day after day. Imagine trying to stay clean while living in a home built of mud. Imagine pulling water from a well for every need. Imagine living in desperation and fear, wondering how you will survive every day of your life with very limited health care, no insurance, no retirement benefits and no savings. Because of this environment and the opportunities available to you, your life expectancy would be 57 years.
Imagine how your life would be different if you had a different set of opportunities.
Historian David McCullough wrote about John and Abigail Adams:
After the war was over, Abigail went to Europe to be with her husband when he became our first minister to the Court of St. James’s. And John Quincy [their son] came home from Europe to prepare for Harvard. He had not been home in Massachusetts very long when Abigail received a letter from her sister saying that John Quincy was a very impressive young man—and that of course everybody was quite astonished that he could speak French—but, alas, he seemed overly enamored with himself and with his own opinions and this was not going over very well in town. So Abigail sat down and wrote a letter to her son, John Quincy. Here’s what she said:
“If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. That you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied to you. That your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
McCullough continues, “How unpardonable it would be for us—with so much that we have been given, the advantages we have, all the continuing opportunities we have to enhance and increase our love of learning—to turn out blockheads. Or to raise blockheads.”
– McCullough, David. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For . Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Opportunity is a Gift. Let’s be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given.
I saw a quote posted that said: Privilege isn’t the presence of perks and benefits. It’s the absence of obstacles and barriers. That’s a lot harder to notice. If you have a hard time recognizing your privileges, focus on what you don’t have to go through. Let that fuel your empathy and action.
Focus on what you don’t have to go through to be happy and to feel peace in your life.
We live in a world of Abundance and Ease. We have the gift of being Comfortable and Clean. We have the gift of making choices about our lives and what we want to do with our lives. We have the blessing of not feeling hunger every day. We have access to health care and medications and professional help. We are surrounded by friends who have the means to step in and help if we need aid. We have So Much. Think about what you don’t have to go through and understand your privilege.
Elder Gerald N. Lund shared a wonderful principle about privilege in his book; The Second Coming of the Lord, p 375:
“Equity” conveys the idea of things being equal and fair. And this mortal life is anything but that. When we look at the differences people experience in such things as the qualities of their lives, financial status, opportunities to progress, peace, intelligence, health, disease, birth defects, safety, education, the societies into which they were born, freedom, oppression, and a hundred other things, it is clear that this life is not fair. Some of these differences are caused by our own foolish choices, but many are not caused by us nor can be fixed through our own efforts. Therefore, at the Judgement, many people can rightly say that life did not offer them a level playing field.
We know that [Jesus] Christ paid the price for our iniquities, but we often overlook that He also suffered for our inequities. Who makes all of that right if there is to be true justice in the world? The answer is found in the Savior, because in addition to our sins, “he will take upon him the pains, and the sicknesses of his people… and he will take upon him their infirmities.”
Degree of Difficulty
Many of you probably watched parts of the Olympics this summer. There are several sports that consider the Degree of Difficulty in scoring, for example diving or gymnastics. A swan dive does not have the same degree of difficulty as a back flip with a double twist. The harder something is, the more credit you get for trying to execute it.
I thought about the degree of difficulty pretty much every day while living in Africa. We had a comfortable apartment with running water most of the time and a generator that kicked on every time our power went out. We had a refrigerator. We had the means to buy all the food we needed. We slept in a comfortable bed with clean sheets. We had a bookshelf and laptops full of things to study. We had plenty of changes of clothing. We even had 2 recliners to sit in.
It was easy for us to pay for a taxi to take us to church every week or to any place we needed to go during the week. We were able to do the things we needed and wanted to do. It wasn’t always convenient, or comfortable, but it was doable. Our degree of difficulty was very different than that of our Malian friends.
Here at home, the degree of difficulty is more drastically different. Here, I can easily walk or I can drive to church before my seatbelt beeper even goes off. When attending church, my degree of difficulty here is ZERO.
Most people in the world have varying degrees of difficulty just to attend church. Imagine the process of something as simple as attending church each week when getting there is almost an insurmountable challenge.
It’s easy to keep a commandment that is easy to keep.
When I read in the scriptures about the first being last and the last being first, I always think about the degree of difficulty. I think we are often the first in line because being the first in line has been easy. Someday, I will be thrilled to watch others get to take their place at the front of the line. We’ve had our turn.
I’ve talked now about Opportunity, Privilege and Degree of Difficulty. The last part of this equation is Execution. How do we Do what we do, given our circumstances? How do we execute or perform? The scriptures are quick to remind us to do all things with a cheerful heart. We read that those who whine and murmur don’t receive high marks.
Attitude is part of execution. Do we find joy in our journey? Do we “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power” (D&C 123:17) or “submit cheerfully and with patience to the will of the Lord” (Mosiah 24:15)? Do we “serve the Lord with gladness” (PS 100:2)?
I love Lehi’s wife, Sariah. She lived in a world not unlike many of my Malian friends. She had to provide for her family while living in a tent in a desert. They had to search for water. It was hot and dirty. She had teenagers. She was tired. She missed having a comfortable home and clean sheets. She didn’t know what the future would hold.
In 1 Nephi 5, we catch a glimpse of her degree of difficulty when Lehi sends her sons back to Jerusalem to get the brass plates. She mourns. She supposed her sons were dead. She complained against Lehi. She said, “we perish in the wilderness.” Her “manner of language” reveals the difficulties she felt.
We all have hard times. Unfortunately for Sariah, one of her hard times was exposed and recorded in scriptures that millions would read someday. But that is not the whole of her story. Lehi comforted Sariah. He stood by her and gave her strength until the boys returned with the plates. Then her joy was full and she knew of a surety that God was protecting them. Then her “manner of language” changed. She rejoiced exceedingly, they offered sacrifices and they gave thanks to God. And Sariah carried on.
God’s hand in our lives is not always obvious in the moment, especially if we’re hot and tired and thirsty. But learning to recognize God’s hand and giving thanks for it brings joy and peace, even in hard times. Executing well, means finding that joy, even while doing hard things.
I am grateful for all I have learned from my African brothers and sisters.
I love, honor and respect them. They are my heroes. They carry burdens I will never fully understand and they do it with grace and great strength.
Let us recognize our Opportunities and Privileges and be oh, so grateful for them.
And let us recognize that every single person experiences a different Degree of Difficulty.
Let us be kind and tolerant and aware of what others are dealing with from day to day.
Let us withhold judgement, but be quick to help.
And let us remember that the one thing we really do have control over is how we Execute or live our lives.
In D&C 56:18-20, Jesus says,
“Blessed are the poor who are pure in heart, whose hearts are broken, and whose spirits are contrite, for they shall see the kingdom of God coming in power and great glory unto their deliverance; for the fatness of the earth shall be theirs.
For behold, the Lord shall come, and his recompense shall be with him, and he shall reward every man, and the poor shall rejoice;
And their generations shall inherit the earth from generation to generation, forever and ever.
I am grateful for His infinite and all-encompassing love. I am grateful He has an intimate understanding not only of our iniquities but also of the inequities in our world. I am grateful He will judge us with love, all things considered.
John’s HOMECOMING TALK • Opening the Eyes of Our Understanding
Côte d’Ivoire Abidjan East Mission
19 Sep 2021
1) Just an illustration of what Ann said about degree of difficulty. One early morning, as I was riding in a taxi to the bank to deposit the donations that had been made to the branch the day before, I asked the taxi driver why hardly any of the sea of motorcyclists were wearing helmets. I expressed how dangerous that was and that in the U.S. it was illegal not to wear a helmet. I expected him to respond by agreeing that it was dangerous. Instead, he looked over at me and said: “When you are hungry all the time, your brain goes a little crazy and you are not always able to make the best
2) One of the great things about serving a full-time mission is that we are removed from our familiar setting and placed into a new, unfamiliar environment. It’s kind of a fresh start—a rebirth of sorts. We bring a few physical possessions with us, but they don’t define us in this new place. It’s WHO WE ARE INSIDE that matters and allows us to help and influence others. For me, it was a miraculous period of time where it was easier for me to “hearken unto God, and open my ears that I may hear, and my heart, that I may understand, and my mind, that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to my view,” in the words of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:9).
3) When I think of God’s “mysteries,” I think of God’s “perspective” or His “view.” How He sees me and my life, my purpose and my potential. Perhaps the greatest challenge we have in this mortal sphere is to look beyond what’s immediately in front of us to see the realities of eternity. God’s view. The people who listened to King Benjamin began to catch a glimpse of “God’s view” as King Benjamin taught them about the mission and grace of Jesus Christ, his atoning sacrifice, the love of God, keeping His commandments, repentance, and serving others. Their hearts were “changed,” and the “manifestations of God’s spirit” showed them “great views of that which is to come” (Mosiah 5:3). Like them, don’t we want to do all we can to overcome our mortal short-sightedness and allow the
Spirit to open our view to God’s view?
4) I love the words of Joseph Smith as he and Oliver Cowdery prayed in the Kirtland Temple: “The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened” (D&C 110:1). That is the vision we should all be seeking, every day. That is the eternal, eye-opening perspective that
informs our desires, opinions, and choices. It comes by obedience to God’s laws and instruction from God’s Spirit.
5) Missionary service in general and missionary service in Africa specifically have been important accelerators to my efforts to have “the eyes of my understanding opened.” Let me share just a few examples.
a) Negotiating life in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire was a daily tutorial in patience. Everything moves slowly and it’s easy to become frustrated. It’s difficult to get accurate information. What you think will take one trip takes three. With no addresses, it’s hard to find people and places. Long-term planning is not the norm. Even conversations take some getting used to. We westerners
crave efficiency and want to get right to the point. But the Africans want to first ask about you, your spouse, and your family. Cars just stop and block the road, but no one really gets upset about it. They just find a way around the car. An orderly line doesn’t form at the bank, but everyone knows who got there first. Sometimes I failed miserably. But sometimes I made
progress. As I look back over the two years, I find myself now in a much more peaceful, much more patient place spiritually. Gradually, I became better at staying calm, finding the positives, and seeing God’s view. I found new meaning in the numerous scriptural injunctions to “wait upon the Lord” and to develop “faith and patience.”
b) As the pandemic raged, there were countless issues that Ann and I confronted that could only be solved through divine intervention. I think especially of the early days of COVID testing and the cumbersome processes put in place in Cote d’Ivoire to allow people to travel beyond the border.
We prayed like we’d never prayed before—sincerely, specifically, and full of faith. Then we worked as hard as we could to do our part. And miracles happened over and over again. A COVID test result that was shouted in the white tent in the parking lot of the health institute at the last possible minute allowed us to rush the certificate to the airport just in time for Elder
Kacher’s departure. A prayerful early-morning arrival at that same institute, hoping to retrieve a test result that hadn’t arrived, only to encounter the institute director who magically found the result on her computer . . . and she was also the only one authorized to sign the certificate. Another dash to the airport. And then there were the three Haitian missionaries who had served many months longer than their 18 or 24 months and couldn’t get home because of COVID flight restrictions. But a way miraculously opened up as we petitioned the Lord. Those things should
not have happened, according to my mortal view. They were demonstrations to me of God’s view and His power. After each experience, our faith grew more certain that the next miracle would occur. Honestly, we came to expect them.
c) A family of eight joined the Church during our last two months in Bamako. Mother, Father, and six children, two of whom were old enough to be baptized. The four younger children were all blessed. That’s a rarity. The dad told us how things had changed in their family once he committed to keeping the Sabbath Day holy. Rather than going out all day with friends, playing sports, and resting, he went to Church and spent more time with his family. He was happier and the family was happier. Sunday became a day with special meaning rather than a day to kick back. Seeing the beauty and blessings of simply obeying the commandments of God—doing what He has asked us to do—strengthened my commitment to follow Him and opened my vision of what He makes possible in our lives.
d) With improvements in technology and our Utah understanding of how General Conference functions, we were able to offer most of the conference sessions to the Bamako Branch members this past April. This was new to most of them. It was inspiring to us to watch them take it all in. The music, the prayers, the talks . . . they loved hearing from Elder Mutombo, the new general authority Seventy from the Congo. They were especially reverent and focused as Pres. Nelson spoke and we emphasized that he is the living prophet of God. For most of them, it was the first time they had seen him and heard his voice. As they began to form their first impressions of Pres Nelson and his prophetic role, the Holy Ghost confirmed to my heart and
mind that Pres Nelson is, indeed, the Lord’s mouthpiece on the earth today. And if we will humbly follow his counsel, we will be blessed and we will see more clearly what was veiled to us before.
e) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we gained perspective by simplifying our lives. We don’t need much to be happy. Almost all the people we associated with had very little. It was a struggle for them to afford food and shelter and transportation. Ann and I led a much simpler life in Africa and were so happy. We weren’t cumbered by “stuff” and we spent more time helping others. It was a heavenly combination. We were focusing every day on the divine things that matter most. Elder Uchtdorf gave a beautiful talk about this and shared a quote from Leonardo da Vinci that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” (Leonardo da Vinci, in John
Cook, comp., The Book of Positive Quotations, 2nd ed. (1993), 262) Elder Uchtdorf goes on to say: “Let us simplify our lives a little. Let us make the changes necessary to refocus our lives on the sublime beauty of the simple, humble path of Christian discipleship—the path that leads always toward a life of meaning, gladness, and peace” (Oct 2010 “Of Things That Matter Most”). And I would add, a life with divine perspective.
6) I am grateful for the mission experiences that have helped to heal my mortal short-sightedness. Missions can do that in accelerated fashion. It’s like cataract surgery. But we can gain the “great view of things to come” that was given to the people of King Benjamin in our day-to-day lives as well. We don’t need to go to Africa. We just need to keep the commandments, listen to the Spirit, and open our eyes a little wider.
7) Elder Craig Zwick of the Seventy gave a wonderful conference talk in Oct 2017, encouraging us to “look beyond what you see” (from The Lion King). He described what a great blessing it is when the Spirit of the Lord widens our view and cited the scriptural account in 2 Kings where Elisha’s town was
surrounded by the Syrian army and Elisha’s manservant was frightened and asked what they would do. [READ 2 Kings 6:16-17].
8) I assure you, brothers and sisters, that we are surrounded by the goodness and the greatness of God who stands ready to deliver us. As we choose to follow the Savior by keeping His commandments and following His Spirit, little by little “The veil will be taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding will be opened.” It is our choice to live with our mortal short-sightedness and flounder, or to embrace the “great views of that which is to come” and gain eternal life.