In the May 1986 Aaronic Priesthood commemoration fireside, we issued a call to have you join the marching army of God. This thought inspired me to write the following verse. It ties into the theme I would like to explore.
My life has been blessed by the association I have had through the Aaronic Priesthood, the MIA, Scouting, athletics, and cultural activities of the Church. I prize more than life the associations of wonderful priesthood and Scouting leaders, friends I made as a young man, friendships that are more dear and precious all these years later. Let me mention four examples.
Example one: Years ago Dene Kesler was the deacons quorum president in the Edgehill Ward in Salt Lake City. Dene was a very special young man. One morning during priesthood meeting he came in to our elders quorum. He presented a sum of money that his quorum had raised for the building fund. I served as a Scoutmaster in the Edgehill Ward for a short period of time. I came to know of the heart of my wonderful young friend. We often went golfing together at 4:30 in the morning. More than once before it was light, I have driven a golf ball out into the darkness, unable to see it after it left the tee. It seems that Dene always found his ball, and I seldom found mine.
We had an unusual friendship over the years. We floated several major rivers together. We have sat by campfires and told stories, had midnight swims, and shared almost every kind of outdoor experience together.
When Dene was called to go on a mission, I spoke at his farewell. Dene was an outstanding missionary. Sometime during his mission he wrote me a letter and shared a poem with me. He said some kind words and then included this verse. And, after all these years, I would like to quote it back to Dene Kesler, my great young friend.
(“Touching Shoulders,” in The Best Loved Poems of the American People, comp. Hazel Felleman, Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1936, p. 126.)
Thanks, Dene, for sharing this great verse. I have quoted it to my wife, my missionaries, counselors in priesthood callings, general boards, and to prophets of the living God. I am glad, Dene Kesler, that I touched shoulders with you.
Example two: In 1956 I was transferred to Boise, Idaho. Along with myriads of choice friends, I met the Dennis Flake family. The oldest son, Dennis, was in my priests quorum during the time I served as adviser. Patriarch Flake and his wife both served missions, as has every son. They are a wonderful family of chaplains, religion teachers, and Church Education supervisors. What a contribution this family has made to the Church. Dennis and Lawrence, the two older boys, have served as mission presidents. The other sons are equally worthy.
I remember pitching silage with Dennis all day long. I thought that I would die, but I could not stop as long as Dennis continued. Dennis’s farming background gave him a strength of character, a purity of heart, and a love of good and honorable men. At an Aaronic Priesthood campout, after we had a program around the fire, I remember when my priests and I went swimming about 11 o’clock in the South Fork of the Salmon River, which drained into the Middle Fork. After the swim we dressed, and I will never forget walking back to camp, arm-in-arm, singing “Redeemer of Israel”—all four verses. We had many wonderful experiences during the time I lived in Boise. After I moved back to Salt Lake, Dennis was called on a mission. I was invited to speak at his farewell. He went to Australia and served under Elder Bruce R. McConkie. We wrote to each other occasionally, and contained in one of the letters from Dennis was this poem.
(Douglas Malloch, “Good Timber,” in Sourcebook of Poetry, comp. Al Bryant, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1968, p. 456.)
This poem has been a great influence in my life. Now Dennis is in a stake presidency and his brother Lawrence is a Regional Representative. Their father is a Patriarch in Boise. And these beloved brethren qualify. Patriarch Flake, Dennis, Lawrence, I rehearse back to you these lines:
What a wonderful influence you have been in my life. Thank God for the influence of good people, and these are the best.
Example three: Years ago I lived in a large ward with a great number of youth. I served as the Scoutmaster at a time when there were 53 Scouts in the troop. There was a young man in the ward who was a little older. He was not a Scout nor had he been. His name was Neil Schmitt. We worked in a produce department which had eight full-time and six part-time employees. We were able to help Neil become active in the Church. When he became active he was truly converted. Before I got to know him, I remember seeing him once downtown on a Saturday, about midnight, selling newspapers. I was impressed with his ambition. We used to discuss scriptures at work. We hiked to the peak of Mt. Olympus together.
Years ago there was a millpond in the Salt Lake area that was a young man’s dream of the ideal swimming hole. It was a large pond down in a gully. On the rear side it had a six-foot bank straight down to the water. It was kept filled from a large underground spring. A large tree on the bank leaned out over the pond. The pond was deep, and someone had nailed a board for a platform about six feet up the tree. This was about 12 feet above the water. There was another diving place at about 18 feet. Then about 10 feet above that was a large branch on which a long rope had been tied so you could swing out over the pond. You could also dive in from that height. You could take the rope, run down the bank, and swing in a giant circle out over the pond. Then you could drop into the pond or swing on around and crash into the tree. It was a great place.
I remember my first experience at the millpond. I challenged Neil that I would be first in the water. We walked down to the pond and changed into our suits. Then Neil hesitated, and I dove in. The next time we went I gave the same challenge. He ran down and changed. He was a sprinter, and I was quite a few steps behind him so he had a head start. Just as Neil was pulling on his swimsuit, I dove into the water partially undressed and beat him. The third time Neil was determined that he would be first in the water. We had challenged each other. This time I knew that Neil meant business. He sprinted ahead of me down to the millpond. I believe he had his suit on under his clothes. I’ve forgotten. But, by the time I arrived at the pond, Neil was almost ready to dive in. I kicked off my shoes and dove in fully clothed. I beat him. When you are older and not so fast you need to think of shortcuts. All through the years we have had that kind of fun together. Our friendship over the years came from more than a responsibility to activate. I really love him. Over the years Neil has been more than a friend.
Example four: I have a friend named Jay Hassell who was in my Sunday School class years ago. We have kept in touch over the years. Along with the rest of the class, we hiked to the peak of Mt. Timpanogos. We went swimming down at Rockport. I attended football and basketball games he played in. I was with him when he did some amazing things in track. He was a competitor to the core. He was a high school student body president. He served a great mission in France, returned home, went to medical school, and now is an orthopedic surgeon.
A few years ago I was invited as a member of the Young Men General Presidency to attend a regional youth conference in the eastern United States. When I got off the plane, Jay and his wife were there to meet me. We were both filled with emotion. I wept. He wept. His father had passed away some time before, and I gave this sweet young friend a fatherly hug. We spent two days together. Now the years have passed, and Jay has been a great blessing in the life of my son Lawrence. Although we do not spend much time together, I love him dearly and am grateful for his interest and love. Jay has served as a bishop and is now serving in a mission presidency. Jay Hassell, I want you to know you have been a great influence in my life.
Now these young men have always been faithful. I know that they have had faith in Christ all their lives. Good and faithful young men need leaders who care. We want all you wonderful young men who are active in the Church to know that we love you—that we are terribly proud of you. Thank you for your activity. Thanks for being consistent. Thanks for your participation and for holding fast to the iron rod. The active and faithful also need good friends with strong faithful testimonies. We need the Church and we need the activities and programs which hold us close to good leaders and strong peers and which strengthen our testimonies through critical years.
God bless all of you young men for your righteousness. We are grateful you have believing hearts, like my four young associates over the years. It means a great deal to us that you are not rebellious, that you have tended to your duty. We love you and we are humbled by your goodness. Now we know you are being tempted and that it is not easy to maintain your purity, but you are doing the right thing. It is easier to walk through the tempestuous years of a thousand voices if you are active and associating with good people like Dene, Dennis, Neil, and Jay and hundreds more. It is good to spend fun times at the millpond, floating rivers, hiking to mountain peaks, participating in seminary, ward dances, parties, and all the other wonderfully fun things we do as members of the Church.
The service projects we do together bring joyous memories. No other service activity compares to helping someone remain active in the Church, or activating or converting someone presently not involved. I know the Lord is pleased when we care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the ugly, the lonely, the beautiful, the wealthy, the dull, the bright—all of God’s children.
Now to all of you who are within the sound of my voice—the Denes, Dennises, Neils, and Jays, and a hundred thousand more—go out after those who are not attending. You have a sacred responsibility to reach out and bring to others the glorious blessings, the fun, and the excitement of this wonderful church. Hardly a good mother or father goes to bed at night but they have a deep prayer in their hearts and on their knees for a wayward son or daughter. They grieve deeply. They need us. We can help. Let us go out after them. We can be the “others” in their lives.
There is a poem that shares the tender feelings of a loving mother:
(“Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” in A Treasury of the Familiar, ed. Ralph L. Woods, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1978, p. 465.)
In February 1986 Vice President George Bush shared this inspiring story at the national meetings of the Boy Scouts of America:
“Way back in 401 B.C., a young Persian prince named Cyrus hired an army of 10,000 Greek soldiers to help him take the Persian throne away from his brother. Cyrus and his Greek companions marched 1500 miles overland from the western edge of Turkey, through the deserts of Syria, and onto the plains of Iraq. They met the Persian king and the army near what is now Baghdad. The Greeks won the battle, but they lost the war when Cyrus was killed in the day’s action, and that left the Greeks and their army in a terrible fix. They no longer had any cause to proceed further; they couldn’t retreat eastward, for no food remained on the land, and to the north, mountains, which we know today as the wilds of Kurdistan, and the highlands of Georgia and Armenia were all inhabited by savage mountain tribes. And to make things worse, the Greek commanding general and his entire staff of officers had gone to a conference with the Persians under safe conduct, and they had been assassinated. And that seemed to leave absolutely no alternative to the Greeks but to surrender and throw themselves on the mercy of the Persians. Some of you will remember this. One of the Greeks, a private in the ranks named Xenephon, had a different idea, and he voiced it to his Greek comrades: ‘Notice that our enemies lacked the courage to fight us until they seized our general. They think that we are defeated because our officers are dead, but we’ll show them that they turned us all into generals. Instead of one general, they’ll have 10,000 generals against them.’ The Greeks’ spirits rallied and they resolved to fight their way through the mountains. Xenephon turned out to be a brilliant strategist and his army of 10,000 generals did reach safety, 2500 miles and four months later. Perhaps the most celebrated march of that time, celebrated escape, if you will, in western history” (comments at the 75th Anniversary Dinner of the Boy Scouts of America, 7 Feb. 1985, Washington, D.C.).
Let us turn 10,000 young men of the Aaronic Priesthood into shepherds, then 100,000, and eventually 800,000 young men and more into shepherds. We must not fail. There is too much at stake. God bless you, our young shepherds. As you search for the flock you will secure yourself a high place in the Lord’s book of the elect.