Like a Watered Garden

An Evening with Elder L. Whitney Clayton

Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults • September 13, 2015 • New York, New York


 

Dear brothers and sisters, I feel honored to be with you this evening. I join Kathy in expressing to you our love. Our mutual prayer has been that what we say to you this evening will encourage your faith in God and in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray again now that heaven will inspire me and you during the next few minutes.

You have just heard from Kathy, who is the love and the light of my life. I am grateful for the joy and meaning she has brought to me, not to mention the gift of the 7 children she has given us. They in turn have brought us 19 grandchildren, soon to be 21. Kathy is the heart of our home and family. When we married, I did not know that life could be so sweet. Her goodness and virtues mean everything to me. I am so glad that you have been able to listen to her.

We welcome those of you who are here tonight in New York City, but we recognize that most of you are in other locations, time zones, and nations. We warmly welcome all who are listening or watching—no matter where you are across the world. What a miraculous thing it is to gather like this.

You come from many nations and cultures. The variety of circumstances that characterizes your lives is extraordinary. Some of you live with every blessing of education and material abundance. Others face a daily struggle to find food. Some of you are the descendants of the pioneers who crossed the plains of the United States. Others are pioneers in your own nations. Some of you have served missions. Others were just baptized by missionaries or may have yet to be baptized. Some come from families where everyone is an active Church member. Others of you are the only members in your families and perhaps even in your communities. Some of you come from strong homes with parents who have provided excellent examples. Others of you come from homes where that is not true.

I am convinced that what we share as the children of God is much more important than the differences our situations in life impose upon us. The Savior said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”1 He didn’t limit the blessing of an abundant life by time or location. It is available to all of us, regardless of how varied our circumstances are. It is His purpose to help us achieve an abundant life no matter where or when we live. I have felt to talk about how we can achieve an abundant life and to entitle my remarks “Like a Watered Garden.”

I will begin by speaking about an event that occurred the day of the Crucifixion of the Savior that I feel has tremendous instructive power. I will then use two illustrations about how to achieve an abundant life.

One of the most troubling scenes in all scripture is recorded in the book of John. It occurred after the Savior had suffered incomprehensible agony for our sins and mortal weaknesses in the Garden of Gethsemane. We are taught that His suffering was “exquisite,” that it was “hard to bear”—“how hard to bear [we] know not”2 and how exhausting we cannot comprehend. This scene also followed His betrayal, arrest, and the night of indignities and physical abuse He suffered at the hands of the leaders of the Jews. It was after He was brutally scourged by Roman soldiers acting under the direction of Pontius Pilate; it was after the crown of thorns was pressed down onto His head.

Pilate had concluded that Jesus had done nothing that merited crucifixion. He ordered that Jesus be scourged, a form of extreme but normally not fatal physical punishment. Perhaps Pilate hoped that by thus torturing and humiliating the Savior he would persuade the leaders of the Jews that Jesus had already been taught a terribly painful lesson and been made a public example and that crucifixion was not necessary. Perhaps he hoped to awaken some sense of mercy in them. Thus, following the scourging, Pilate ordered that Jesus be brought into public view. I imagine he hoped that Jesus’s obvious physical suffering would be enough to satisfy them.

It wasn’t.

John recorded:

“Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.

“And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,

“And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.

“Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.

“Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!

“When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.”3

As critically important as the rest of the story is, and it matters enormously, I stop with Pilate’s words “Behold the man.”

Behold the man. Pilate’s plea was profoundly ironic. Although Jesus’s physical appearance at that moment was marred, there never had been until then, and has not been since, any man or woman who more richly deserved to be “beheld.” His life was perfect. He was without peer. No one had ever lived as He did. No one ever would. He possessed every virtue in its consummate form. He had every power of self-control. His emotions and feelings were perfect, as were His thoughts. His understanding was unlimited. He alone was truly worthy of being beheld, from every perspective, of being examined, measured, and worshipped. No view into his mind, heart, and feelings would or could possibly disappoint. Although His appearance did not reflect it then, Jesus was the embodiment of the abundant life.

So it was not His appearance at that moment of suffering that we should remember first and foremost. There was “no apparent beauty, that man should him desire.”4 It was what He was on the inside of that afflicted physical tabernacle that meant absolutely everything for all of us. What He was made possible what He did. It was the magnificence of what He was that invites our attention. What we should see as we “behold the Man” was His crescendoing triumph over the forces of evil, even though it did not then appear to be a victory at all. It was His perfect calm in the center of the most violent storm any human would ever suffer. Every diabolical device the enemy ever invented had been or soon would be unleashed against Him. He overcame and conquered them all. He stood before Pilate in perfect peace and composure.

Consider further: His dominion over the physical elements of the world and the conditions of mankind was demonstrated beyond doubt. He could command evil spirits. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. He restored the dead to life and returned deceased children to their parents. He knew the thoughts and feelings of everyone. He forgave sins and cleansed lepers. He had carried the burden of the sins, pains, illnesses, and failings of all humanity the night before this scene occurred. Ironically, He had even suffered for the sins of those who at that very moment were mistreating Him.

“Behold the man” indeed. He was the Son of the living God. He was the exemplar of life, the One sent to show the way and to be the Way. He was the truth and the life for all of us. With those three words, “behold the man,” Pilate unknowingly and unintentionally expressed the simple formula for achieving the highest purposes of life. When he asked the Jews to behold Him, Pilate pointed them and us toward the One, the only one, who can make our lives abundant and our “salvation perfect.”5 Thus the commandment “Look to God and live.”6

What we should remember when we behold Him is that because of Him, and all He did and all He was and is, we too can triumph. We can overcome. We can live abundantly in the midst of trials. If we choose to “behold” Him and accept and apply His saving gospel, He will save us. He will rescue us from the effects of our own fallen natures and foibles and save us from sin, from spiritual mediocrity, and from ultimate, eternal failure. He will purge, refine, beautify, and eventually even perfect us. He will give us joy and peace. He is the key to abundant life.

I will share with you two extended examples about what we can do to “behold Him,” to turn to the Savior to achieve the abundant life.

The Sermon of the Seedlings

First, the sermon of the seedlings:

Kathy and I live on a hill on the east side of Salt Lake City, in a home that was built by her parents. A species of tree grows there that is native to the foothills around Salt Lake City—we call it scrub oak. Unlike the large and mighty oak trees known in many parts of the world, scrub oak trees never get tall or big, but they are hardy and beautiful. Our neighborhood is filled with them.

A few years ago we placed a large flowerpot on the walkway that leads to the front door to our home, under the branches of a scrub oak tree. We planted colorful flowers in the pot and enjoyed their beauty during the summer months. When the season changed and fall began, the scrub oak tree began to drop its seeds, or acorns, and a few fell in the flowerpot.

One fall day as I was caring for the flowers, I noticed that a few little seedlings had sprouted from the acorns that had fallen into the pot. Even though it was late in the flower season, we didn’t want anything but flowers in the pot, so I started to pull the seedlings out of the potting soil. When I pulled, the tender seedlings quickly came up out of the loose soil. To my surprise, the seedlings already had roots that were much longer than the seedlings themselves were. The roots were three or four times longer than the visible part of the seedlings above the surface. Nature had designed the scrub oak seeds to expend almost all of their energy putting down roots.

It seems obvious why this is so: While the spring and fall are comfortable in Salt Lake City, the summers are hot, with little rainfall, and the winters are cold, with lots of wind and snow. The deep roots help the seedlings thrive by getting down through the surface soils quickly. This allows more exposed root to draw moisture and nutrients from the soils. The deep roots also firmly anchor the trees to hold them erect and steadfast in the wind, beginning when they are very young. The roots help those sturdy trees weather both winter storms and the heat of summer days. Deep roots make survival easier for the scrub oak. As the seedlings eventually grow to their full height, their roots continue to nourish, protect, and sustain them.

We can take a lesson from scrub oak. We should enjoy the beautiful spring and fall but always remember that harsher weather will soon arrive. Hot summer days inevitably follow the spring, and chilly winter days trail the fall. That is the pattern of nature. It is also the pattern of our lives. While we enjoy seasons of ease, comfort, and happiness, we should be prepared for the trials of life that lie ahead.

No matter where our home may be, we all have some experiences that are like hot summers and like cold winters. We have easy times and hard ones, successes and failures, times of health and sickness, periods of happiness and moments of grief and sorrow. Life isn’t static. It isn’t smooth. We all have moments that disappoint and others that delight.

Life is similar for us all in other regards as well. We are all surrounded by the culture and traditions of our native communities and countries. Some of those influences are good and some aren’t. Some will lift us and others will diminish and degrade us. Our homes may be blessed by the light of the gospel or be blighted by failure to keep the commandments of God. The examples of friends may be terrific or terrible. None of us knows exactly where life will take us. We can’t fully predict our future health or wealth. We can’t foretell the influence of war or weather. There are cycles and seasons to life. Variable circumstances beyond our control press challenges on all of us.

Unlike trees, we can choose and deliberately develop the spiritual root structure of our lives. We decide where to set our roots down and how deeply to sink them into the soil. Daily decisions make tiny, almost imperceptible differences in the roots of our faith, the effect of which becomes foundational. Because we don’t know when or how our own challenges will come, or how long our personal seasons of winter or summer will last, we should set down our roots as deeply as we can into the only true source of nourishment for our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. He wants our lives to be abundant. He invites us to come unto Him. He said, “Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.”7

We build strength of soul to weather the storms of our lives by learning of Him. We learn by study and by prayer. We learn by watching righteous examples. We learn as we serve others in order to serve Him.8 We learn as we seek to emulate Him in any way we can.

Listening means heeding and hearkening, not just hearing. We listen to Him in private scripture study. We listen in sacrament meeting and in the temple. We hear Him in the “still small voice.”9 We listen to Him in the voice of living prophets and apostles. Careful listening reminds us that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”10 We strengthen our roots with incremental, one-step-at-a-time growth. As we listen, we follow the path He walked. He is the beginning and the end of the path that leads to the abundant life. He is the entire path and the light that illuminates it.11 He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”12

There is no secret, there is no surprise about what we can and should do to develop our roots: we keep the commandments of God. While we can quickly rattle off a list of things we should do, we all find it is easier to enumerate them than to do them. Our ability to do His will grows as we do His will. It becomes easier because we grow in conviction and faith. When we faithfully persist in applying the fundamentals of the gospel in our lives, the Lord blesses us with increased inner strength.

Worthy, thoughtful worship makes an important contribution to the depth of our spiritual roots. Reverently attending sacrament meeting and partaking of the sacrament with real intent make the Sabbath day more than just another Sunday. We cannot truly sink our roots deep unless we “always remember him.”13 When we prepare ourselves before our meetings, then the Sabbath becomes a richer experience for us. As we contemplate our need for forgiveness and the blessing of always having the Spirit to be with us, we begin to see the chapel as a sanctuary and the sacrament as a time of sanctification.

For that reason there are some things we should always take with us when we go to Church. Foremost among these are a broken heart and a contrite spirit. We should go eager to seek and feel the blessings of the Atonement. Similarly, we should always leave some things at home. Thoughts of sports, work, entertainment, and shopping ought to be left locked in a closet inside our homes to be opened on any day other than the Sabbath day. Genuine worship promotes real conversion. It helps send the roots of our faith down deep, where we find a spiritual reservoir, which “shall be in [us] a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”14

Paul wrote:

“As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:

“Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught.”15

Roots are also benefited by opposition. The wind needs to blow and the weather has to be difficult on occasion if we want to develop real strength. There needs to be an effort to hold on, to resist the wind and the weather, if we are going to be strong. When a heavy wind blows, it easily topples the tree that hasn’t locked itself into the ground. Similarly, there must be some dry spells or roots won’t go down deep to find water. Conversely, too much water will weaken a tree, allowing roots to stay close to the surface without achieving sufficient depth.

If we don’t experience some personal storms and some drought, our roots never have the chance to become strong. They don’t mature if everything is easy. Ironically, smooth sailing is its own test, and a difficult one. The absence of problems can soften us if we are not careful. We may not “watch [ourselves], and [our] thoughts, and [our] words, and [our] deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith”16 without a trial that bends our knees and works on our hearts.

On the other hand, we don’t need to run around looking for trials and troubles. Life has a way of bringing distress to all of us, even when we are doing our best. Unless we make terrible choices, which always results in tragedy, we usually don’t choose when or how the problems of life will knock on our doors. But we surely do decide each day how we will prepare for them. Thus the reminder from Joshua: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.”17

Here’s another reminder:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”18

We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer a failure of faith if we walk on the margins of the strait and narrow path. What we do and don’t do really matters because actions have consequences, and so does inaction. When we become inattentive to the small, daily, repetitive but essential actions of belief, we weaken our roots. Over time we slowly draw away from God. Thus, the way we speak to each other, the books and articles we read, the television shows and movies we watch, the things we don’t read and would never watch, the jokes we tell or choose not to listen to, let alone repeat, all reflect where we are on the strait and narrow path—in the center or on the edges. We can’t claim to be nourishing our roots if the things we do and don’t do aren’t calculated to make us better Saints. Safety is found only in the center of the strait and narrow path.

There is no better pattern of life anywhere, no surer way to find peace and the pathway forward, than by following the Lord Jesus Christ. His is the only name given under heaven with the power to make our lives more heavenly. There is no one else whom we can “behold” that has the saving, renewing, transformative power the Savior does.

We have been warned about what happens if we turn to anyone or anything else to find ultimate meaning and purpose. Jude’s words capture the inevitable emptiness of life that eventually envelops those who choose anything or anyone other than the Savior: “Clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots.”19

Our souls should be so deeply rooted in Christ that we will be able to endure any challenge, triumph over any affliction, withstand any attack on our faith, and become like oak trees—firm, immovable, and steadfast, regardless of the heat of the day or the strength of the storm. That kind of rootedness transcends time and outlasts every enemy, even the most subtle, invisible, and insidious ones.

We learn a lesson from Helaman about how the promise of rock-like strength depends on our building our lives on the Redeemer: “And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”20

The Beauty of Butchart Gardens

Now that we have looked at roots, let’s turn to flowers as we think about the second example: the beauty of Butchart Gardens.

In 1904, Robert Butchart and his wife, Jennie, moved to the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. Robert Butchart was in the cement business and needed limestone to make his product. He opened an open-pit limestone quarry near what is now the city of Victoria. From the limestone, he produced lime, a key ingredient of cement. Near the quarry, the Butcharts built a home and tennis court and planted roses and sweet peas.

Over time the limestone deposits in portions of the quarry were exhausted. Soon the quarry was no longer in use. What remained was a large, unsightly hole in the ground, filled with broken, jagged pieces of rock. Seeing what was happening, Jennie Butchart decided to turn that rocky hole in the ground into a garden. She had tons of topsoil brought to the quarry by horse cart and deposited in the bottom of the quarry. She began to plant flowers, bushes, and trees in that area, and over time created one of the most famous gardens in the world, the famous “Sunken Garden.” But she didn’t stop there.

Jennie continued to expand and add variety to the garden. The Butcharts traveled extensively around the world, collecting varieties of exotic bushes, trees, and flowers for the expanding gardens during their trips. Between 1906 and 1929, the Butcharts created a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden, a Mediterranean Garden, and a beautiful Rose Garden, in addition to the Sunken Garden. Their gardens cover more than 50 acres and are now a national historic site of Canada.

They are the delightful product of years of patient and thoughtful work. Likewise, they are a testimony to what can be done when someone has the vision to see how beauty can be created from an eyesore. The garden’s website, from which this information comes, reports that nearly one million people visit the gardens every year.21

There is a little bit of a limestone quarry inside all of us. We come from the premortal world “trailing clouds of glory” to be sure.22 We come with spiritual strengths and capacities developed there. But we also come dragging along some weaknesses. We weren’t perfect there, and we don’t arrive perfect here—innocent, yes, but perfect, no.

Let’s think about our personal limestone quarry a little. We are born into a fallen world and inherit a fallen nature, “for the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam.”23 Our inner self, the spirit man or woman that is who we are, has some weaknesses and some failings. We have undesirable personal traits that we have not fully subdued and defects we have not overcome. We have made some mistakes along the pathway of our lives, and we continue to do so daily. There may have been moments of serious sin, the kind that paralyzes spiritual growth. There likely have been moments in which we have been unkind, impatient, or lazy. We may have had our priorities out of place or have had opportunities we did not seize. We all have our own very personal inadequacies and insufficiencies.

Other kinds of limestone quarry, which can present great challenge, may also exist inside us. Some here tonight have suffered unspeakable abuse, which can leave gaping emotional wounds that heal slowly and memories that haunt. Others may have a problem with drug or alcohol abuse or may view pornography. Some suffer from depression, illness, or other maladies.

The abundant life offered by the Savior provides a remedy for all the limestone quarries of our souls. No matter how rough the rock and unattractive the defects in our souls may be, no matter how unappealing our interiors are, we can be healed and beautified. The perfect beauty of the Savior’s soul is our exemplar.

How wonderful that the Son of Man, whose soul was a garden of virtues, suffered in a garden so that we may likewise plant the seeds of virtues in our souls. Whatever the suffering to which we have been subjected or however deep we have allowed ourselves to descend, we can develop beauty of soul. It’s “beauty for ashes.”24 It’s flowers exploding in a limestone quarry. It’s gradual acquisition of the attributes of Christ in a soul pockmarked by the problems and perils of life. It is done because of His love for us and through His grace. It is accomplished through the power of His Atonement and upon the conditions of earnest, continual repentance.

Astonishingly, we can be healed, we can become something of beauty and value. We are promised that we can become our own personal interior version of Butchart Gardens. Doing so is an essential element of the plan of salvation—preparation to return to the presence of God.

If all of this sounds rather miraculous, that’s because it is miraculous. Alma, the son of Alma, had been “a very wicked and an idolatrous man.”25 His father was the prophet and the presiding high priest over the Church. But Alma and his friends, the sons of King Mosiah, went about “seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord.”26 While they were traveling, intent on this purpose, an angel appeared to them. The experience changed them all forever.

Alma underwent a miraculous conversion and taught that “all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;

“And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.”27

When we are baptized, we symbolically bury the old man or woman of sin with our immersion and then come up out of the water in a newness of life as new creatures. King Benjamin taught that “because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.”28

People can and often do receive a testimony quickly. Moreover, there are many instances where individuals and groups have heard the gospel and undergone “a mighty change” in their hearts in a brief amount of time, so that they “have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”29 This mighty change is being spiritually “begotten.”

Usually, however, gaining a testimony and undergoing a mighty change are steps in a lifelong process of growth and refinement. The improvement in our very being, in the substance of our souls, happens gradually.30 Jennie Butchart worked on her garden for 25 years in order to produce lush beauty where there had earlier been chaos and ugliness. It takes a lifetime and beyond to fully refine the man or woman inside us.

The Savior gradually fills the holes in our souls and heals the wounds that we have inflicted upon ourselves or that others have caused. The Lord gives to us “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more.”31 He adds to our souls virtue upon virtue and gives us grace for grace32 as we strive to be clean and to acquire Christlike attributes.

It’s important not to become complacent with whatever inner improvements we have already accomplished, nor should we become “weary in well-doing.”33 Instead, we press forward constantly.

Peter encouraged us to continue from one virtue to another in successive steps, almost as if we are layering them one on top of another. He wrote:

“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

“And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

“And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

“For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”34

In time, the process of growth and refinement accelerates: “For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own.”35

That’s why the image of Jennie Butchart laboring for 25 years to create her gardens is so instructive. You can see her and those who worked with her planting a shrub here, a sprig of ivy there, and a tree across the way. It’s easy to imagine her planning and organizing, ensuring that each new flower and each new bush was in the right place. The process of growth in the attributes of Christ is the spiritual equivalent of adding trees, shrubs, and flowers one at a time to a garden and then nurturing them to maturity. The immediate effect of planting any particular virtue in our soul may not be startling, but if we continue to plant and nurture in faith, then gradually, over time, the garden of our soul grows in beauty. Our lives begin to be abundant in every righteous sense.

I would ask you now to ponder this question: What are you going to plant today to beautify the garden of your soul? Please feel free to share your answer on social media with the #LDSdevo. I’d love to hear from you.

Isaiah captured in just a few words the essence of what it means to be rooted in the Lord Jesus Christ and to bring to fruitage in our souls something of the attributes of the Savior. He wrote: “And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.”36

The Savior, Jesus Christ, is the exemplar of every virtue. He was the one perfect man ever to live. He atoned for our sins. Through His Atonement we can become women and men of Christ. We can be cleansed, changed, healed, and refined. Our souls can become things of beauty.

May we “behold the Man” more completely. May we emulate Him more worshipfully. May we follow Him more eagerly. May we sink our roots deeper in the soil of salvation until we rest on Him, “the rock of our Redeemer.”37 May we increasingly enjoy the blessing of the abundant life He offers and become like a watered garden. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.