Touching our Gifts with His Light
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
“Touch these [gifts]…that they may shine forth in darkness”
17th Century artists employed a technique called chiaroscuro where the extreme contrasts between light and darkness are highlighted to achieve dramatic and emotional effect and to create depth. Because Rembrandt first painted his canvass backgrounds black, the contrasting lighter colors shimmered and stood out more. Similarly, the light of the Restored Gospel is all the more brilliant when painted across the darker landscape of the world. There is a great need for a creative community of Latter-day Saints whose works reflect Gospel light and radiate with the Spirit. The Restoration is both a declaration of light as well as a refutation of darkness. Teachers of youth play a major role in preparing the hearts and minds of their students to rise up and become the latter-day lights whose works will shine in the darkness.
The everlasting covenant has been sent into the world as a standard, as a light for people to seek after, and as a messenger to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (see D&C 45:9). But before the “kingdom of heaven may come,” the kingdom of God must “go forth” across the earth (see D&C 65:2, 6). The Lord’s arm will continue to be made bare in the eyes of all nations, and He will continue to bring His restored Gospel “out of darkness and out of obscurity” (D&C 1:30). The same can also be true of our students — individual talents can be brought out of obscurity and out of darkness to enlighten the world. We live in the promised day when God said He would pour out His spirit “upon all flesh”, when many young men and young women would “dream dreams [and] see visions” (Joel 2:28-29). “Verily I say unto you all,” the Savior declared to those living in the latter days, “Arise and shine forth, that thy light may be a standard for the nations” (D&C 115:5).
Where are our great writers? Where are our stellar actors and actresses? Where are our great artists and advertisers? Where are the musicians who will master what might possibly be the most powerful tool of communication ever revealed? Where are our computer programmers whose creativity will instruct as well as inspire? Have all the great artisans already come and gone? No, they are sitting in our classes! We believe the greatest contributions have yet to be made! Elder Orson F. Whitney has noted: “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His brightest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by his help we will build up a literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.” 
If our students are going to produce creative works “whose top shall touch heaven,” they first need to be inspired. To those who teach, I would offer some suggestions about what we can do to help inspire the rising generation to greatness. Six suggestions are included here, with more to follow in this column next month.
First, teach them who they are and give them hope.
As I approached my first institute class, to instruct college students for the first time, I was worried and humbled. It was an introductory Book of Mormon course and I had a lesson prepared, but I sincerely wanted to touch their hearts. I had prayed for that ability, worked hard on the lesson, and was now heading to meet my students. In the hallway I passed two prominent faculty members. They were both giants in the classroom. I had observed them both. Their teaching styles were as polar as could be imagined, but they were both highly successful. As I walked near them, they glanced up and smiled. I said, “I’m headed to my first class. What should I teach?” I was hoping one of them would have a readiness suggestion, or a get-to-know-you idea, something to help me get the class started on the right foot. Without hesitation, the first blurted out, “Teach them who they are!” and the second chimed in, “And give them hope!”
The Spirit fell over the three of us. It happened so quickly and so unexpectedly, that we were all surprised. I thanked them both, and as I walked to class, I knew that what they had said was true. I realized that in addition to teaching the words of the scriptures and the living prophets in the classroom, students need to “know who they are” and “have hope” that they can do their Heavenly Father’s will.
That brief, unanticipated experience, has been a guidepost to me for every class since. When students come to know who they are, and when they have hope, they can achieve great things. President Gordon B. Hinckley has reminded the youth on several occasions, “You are a great generation….I think you are the best generation who have ever lived in this Church.” 
Edifying teaching inspires and builds. It strengthens and motivates. When truths are taught and the Spirit is felt, “he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:22).
To help students remember who they are, I like to read with them what the Savior declared to President Joseph F. Smith (see D&C 138:53-56). He was told that the students we teach are part of a generation of “choice spirits” who were “reserved” to come forth at this hour of earth’s history, who were taught by prophets before they were born and “prepared to come forth” so that they could “labor for the salvation of souls” in these latter days.
Second, teach students to re-educate themselves in the things of the Spirit.
When students are taught to remember who they are, eternally speaking, then they can re-member (or re-create) the proper circumstances in their mortal lives that will enable them to enjoy the Spirit as abundantly as before they were born. Of all the aptitudes we could develop in the premortal life, spirituality was the greatest. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written that, “Men are not born equal. They enter this life with the talents and capacities developed in preexistence….The talent of greatest worth was that of spirituality, for it enables us to hearken to the Holy Spirit and accept the gospel which prepares us for eternal life.” On another occasion he wrote that “above all talents greater than any other capacities, chief among all endowments stands the talent for spirituality. Those so endowed find it easy to believe the truth in this life.” 
Obviously, our students come to us with a great familiarity of the Spirit. In this second estate, we all need to regain our premortal ability to communicate in what the Prophet Joseph Smith called “the language of inspiration” , or as President John Taylor said, be “taught, instructed and directed by the spirit of revelation proceeding from the Almighty,” with which we were once very familiar.
By teaching students to recognize and follow the promptings of the Spirit, they will be guided to do what’s right (see Isaiah 30:21). There are many ways the Holy Ghost can communicate with us, but the most frequent way is through the whisperings of the still small voice which come to us as thoughts planted in our minds and feelings stirred in our hearts (see D&C 8:2-3). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that thoughts which occupy our minds, and feelings that press themselves upon us the strongest, are promptings from the Spirit (see D&C 128:1).
The more in tune our students are with the Spirit, the more “anchored” they will be, enabling them to produce “good works [that] glorify God” (see Ether 12:4).
Third, teach students to find ways to use their talents to bless others.
The talents our students have were not given solely to bless themselves or the Latter-day Saints. Our Heavenly Father has given them these gifts “that all may be profited thereby” (D&C 46:12). God loves all His children, and they need the blessings of the spiritual gifts that our students have been given.
If your students love to create, to write, to paint, to dance, to build, etc., they need to be encouraged to go out into the world and do it. President John Taylor declared, “We must not forget that we owe a duty to the world. The Lord has given us the light of eternity; and we are commanded not to conceal our light under a bushel….We want men [and women] full of the Holy Ghost and the power of God that they may, go forth…bearing precious seed and sowing the seeds of eternal life, and then returning with gladness, bringing their sheaves with them.” 
President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “Let us get our instruments tightly strung and our melodies sweetly sung. Let us not die with our music still in us. Let us rather use this precious mortal probation to move confidently and gloriously upward toward the eternal life which God our Father gives to those who keep His commandments.” 
Several times in recent years, the First Presidency has called on Latter-day Saints to become more involved in serving mankind, by rendering greater civic service and becoming more involved in good causes. We can encourage our students to step out more into the community and make positive contributions.
Fourth, remind students that people are attracted to light and good works
People naturally resonate with great themes such as passion, drama, prophecy, dynamic tension, redemption, and moving stories that ring true or touch the inner soul. The entire concept of the Restoration is intertwined around all of these great themes! When we make bold, but gracious, moves in our chosen fields with the themes of the Restoration in mind, and do it with the Spirit, people will respond. For example, a recent popular movie was touted in the press by numerous reviews as being better than the book. Why? Could it be because one LDS artist had the courage to suggest the immorality be written out of the script and his suggestion was taken?
People will choose goodness. They are motivated to do good things when moved by the power of uplifting drama, literature, and artistic works of quality. People want what is beautiful, true, and filled with life. People want story-driven drama and human connections, but with higher values than the current fare du jour!
Satan has convinced the world that there is no glamour in goodness. We live in the day Isaiah foresaw, when people would “call evil good, and good evil;… put darkness for light, and light for darkness; [and] put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). Babylon is a cultural wilderness and people are starving for culture and beauty. Latter-day artists who will contribute most will need to commit themselves to seek beauty in all they create. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” (Article of Faith 13.) And our students need to be encouraged to create all these things!
Elder James E. Talmage once shared an experience he had as a student at BYU that taught him an important lesson about letting the Gospel light shine for others to see. As a student, he owned a small oil-burning study lamp. Because he depended upon it so much, he took excellent care of it, cleaning and trimming it daily. Elder Talmage related:
One summer evening I sat musing studiously and withal restfully in the open air, outside the door of the room in which I lodged and studied. A stranger approached. I noticed that he carried a satchel. He was affable and entertaining. I brought another chair from within, and we chatted together till the twilight had deepened into darkness.
Then he said: “You are a student, and doubtless have much work to do o’nights. What kind of lamp do you use?” And without waiting for a reply, he continued: I have a superior kind of lamp I should like to show you, a lamp designed and constructed according to the latest achievements of science, far surpassing anything heretofore produced as a means of artificial lighting.”
I replied with confidence, and I confess not without some exultation: “My friend, I have a lamp, one that has been tested and proved . It has been to me a companion through many a long night. It is an Argand lamp, and one of the best. I have trimmed and cleaned it today; it is ready for the lighting. Step inside and I will show you my lamp, then you may tell me whether yours can possibly be better.”
We entered my study room, and with a feeling which I assume is akin to that of the athlete about to enter a contest with one whom he regards as a pitiably inferior opponent, I put the match to my well trimmed Argand.
My visitor was voluble in his praise. It was the best lamp of its kind he said. He averred that he had never seen a lamp in better trim. He turned the wick up and down and pronounced the adjustment perfect. He declared that never before had he realized how satisfactory a student lamp could be.
I liked the man; he seemed to me wise, and he assuredly was ingratiating….
“Now,” said he, “with your permission I’ll light my lamp.” He took from his satchel a lamp then known as the “Rochester.” It had a chimney which, compared with mine, was as a factory smoke-stack alongside a house flue. Its hollow wick was wide enough to admit my four fingers. Its light made bright the remotest corner of my room. In its brilliant blaze my own little Argand wick burned a weak, pale yellow. Until that moment of convincing demonstration I had never known the dim obscurity in which I had lived and labored, studied and struggled.
“I’ll buy your lamp, said I; “you need neither explain nor argue further.” I took my new acquisition to the laboratory that same night, and determined its capacity. It turned at over forty-eight candle power B fully four times the intensity of my student lamp.
Two days after purchasing, I met the lamp-peddler on the street, about noontime. To my inquiry he replied that business was good; the demand for his lamps was greater than the factory supply. “But,” said I, “you are not working today?” His rejoinder was a lesson: “Do you think that I would be so foolish as to go around trying to sell lamps in the daytime? Would you have bought one if I had lighted it for you when the sun was shining? I chose the time to show the superiority of my lamp over yours; and you were eager to own the better one I offered, were you not?”
Such is the story. Now consider the application of a part, a very small part, thereof.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.”
The man who would sell me a lamp did not disparage mine. He placed his greater light along side my feebler flame, and I hastened to obtain the better.
The [members] of the Church of Jesus Christ today are sent forth, not to assail nor ridicule the beliefs of man, but to set before the world a superior light, by which the smoky dimness of the flickering flames of man made [works] shall be apparent. The work of the Church is constructive, not destructive.” 
Fifth, teach students to allow the Lord to enliven their creative gifts.
The Lord, who is the same yesterday and forever, can do the same for us, just as He did for the Brother of Jared. Mankind is crossing the great deep in darkness, but the Lord is willing, even anxious, to cause our creative gifts to shine in darkness and to give light to every man, woman, and child. Help students understand that they can take their gifts and talents to the Lord and let Him touch them. He can take the works of our hands, and enhance them so that they will shine and “give light” to others. He can cause anything He touches to live, give light and life, and become a blessing! (See Ezekiel 47:1-9.) And isn’t that, ultimately, what Mormon artists want to have happen with their creative works? LDS artisans who desire their works to shine like a light, must allow the “Light and Life of the World” to touch them.
Nephi had a similar experience. He learned that the works of our hands, touched by the Spirit of God, far exceed anything we can achieve on our own:
And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers [creative works] of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers [creative works] of the ship [my profession].
Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers [creative works] after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship [my profession] after the manner of men; but I did build it [my profession] after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men.
And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.
And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship [profession], according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine…. (1 Nephi 18:1-4.)
The word substitutions help us see how we can approach God and receive His help in our professional pursuits, whether they be ship-building, play-writing, sculpting, composing, performing, painting, speaking, etc.
Sixth, teach students that perspiration precedes inspiration.
The Brother of Jared had to ponder deeply what to do. Similarly, today’s creative genuises have to think deeply to discover inspired ideas. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Because the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out….How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!” 
Great ideas sometimes come as sudden strokes of genius. But most often, those sudden flashes of inspiration are preceded by a lot of focused thought. God has promised He would inspire us with thoughts that occupy our minds and feelings that press themselves the strongest in our hearts (see D&C 8:2-3; 128:1). This is the spirit of revelation. This is how revelations are received.
“Meditation,” President David O. McKay said, “is the language of the soul…consisting in deep, continued reflection….Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.” 
William W. Phelps, a gifted poet and one of the most versatile hymn-writers of this dispensation, (thirty-one of the ninety hymns in the first LDS hymnal (1835) were penned by Phelps. Fifteen of the hymns in the current hymnal are by Phelps, more than any other poet), learned first-hand the rewards of pondering spiritual things. While in Kirtland, Ohio, Phelps was living in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s home. It was at this time that Joseph asked Brother Phelps to assist him in preparing an appropriate and reverential sacrament service for the soon to be completed temple. Joseph observed to his friend that the setting for a sacrament service “called for a religious beauty.” Brother Phelps spent a lot of time walking alone and pondering the observance of the Lord’s Supper in this first temple of the Church. After deep meditation, Brother Phelps penned the sacred lines to “O God, Th’ Eternal Father.” Three of his hymns were sung at the dedicatory services for the Kirtland Temple, and one of them — The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning — has been sung at the dedication of every temple since. Today, 15 of Brother Phelps’ hymns are in our present hymnal, and some of them are LDS favorites.
The Brother of Jared also had to work hard. It was no easy task to “molten out of rock sixteen small stones…[that] were white and clear, even as transparent as glass” (Ether 3:1). Concerning the work involved in the creative process, Elder Boyd K. Packer noted, “LDS artists must earn inspiration, just as other artists have. It does not come just because artists are members of the LDS Church, they still must work for it.” 
The rising generation can be taught how to imbue their creative works with the Spirit. It is possible, despite the challenges and setbacks the world offers. In the next column, I’ll offer a few more suggestions and share some of the most inspiring statements by Church leaders regarding the importance of the Spirit and the arts.
- 3 June 1888; cited in “Home Literature,” Richard Cracroft and Neal E. Lambert eds., A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1979], p. 132
- Church News, 14 Feb 1998.
- A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 34.
- The Millennial Messiah, pp. 234-235.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 56
- Journal of Discourses, 17:369
- (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 21:375.)
- From a program honoring President Kimball on his eightieth birthday. March 28, 1975; cited in Barbara B. Smith et al., A Woman’s Choices: The Relief Society Legacy Lectures [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984], 97.
- The Parables of Elder James E. Talmage, comp. Albert L. Zobell, Jr., Deseret Book Company, 1973, pp. 3-6.)
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137.
- In Conference Report, April 1967, p. 85.
- (“Art is Uplifting,” The Daily Universe, 2 Oct. 1998, p. 2.)
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.