This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session from the April 1975 Conference.An Appeal to Prospective Elders." It doesn't sound like it would have anything to say to ME, does it? But it was one of the most beautiful talks I've ever read—perhaps my favorite in this whole Odyssey so far. Elder Boyd K. Packer begins by telling the story of when he was in the Air Force, stationed in Japan just after World War II. In the course of working with the people there, and doing missionary work, he learned several words and phrases of Japanese. But when his time there ended and he returned home, he soon forgot everything, having no occasion to use the language then—or ever again, he thought.
Twenty-six years later, Elder Packer received a church assignment to go back to Tokyo. And as he heard Japanese spoken around him, he found himself unexpectedly remembering a few phrases. When speaking with some Japanese children, he even suddenly recalled an entire song in Japanese! He says:
I had known that song for 26 years, but I didn’t know that I knew it. I had never sung the song to my own children. I had never told them the story of it. It had been smothered under 26 years of attention to other things.
I have thought that a most important experience and realized finally that nothing good is ever lost. Once I got back among the people who spoke the language, all that I possessed came back and it came back very quickly. And I found it easier then to add a few more words to my vocabulary.
I, of course, do not suggest that this experience was the result of an alert mind or of a sharp memory. It was just a demonstration of a principle of life that applies to all of us. It applies to you, my brethren of the prospective elders, and to others in like situations.
If you will return to the environment where spiritual truths are spoken, there will flood back into your minds the things that you thought were lost. Things smothered under many years of disuse and inactivity will emerge. Your ability to understand them will be quickened.
Elder Packer emphasizes the word "quickened," which is a common one in the scriptures, for its description of how these good things can come to life inside one who has once lost them, and do so quickly:
If you will make your pilgrimage back among the Saints, soon you will be understanding once again the language of inspiration. And more quickly than you know, it will seem that you have never been away. Oh, how important it is for you to realize that if you will return, it can be made as though you have never been away.
This is one of the great miracles of this work. The Lord has a way of compensating and blessing. He is not confined to the tedious processes of communication and He is not limited to Japanese or English."As though you had never been away"! I love that heartfelt promise! Elder Packer, as his talk's title suggests, is speaking here to men, "prospective elders," who have left the church and have doubts about their ability to return. But I thought his words conveyed hope for many other situations, in multiple layers in the talk.
Elder Packer emphasized in his story that he had done nothing, really, to maintain his Japanese. And thus he had not really done much to "deserve" any of it coming back. I have sometimes stopped short of asking for similar miracles in my own life, thinking, "I haven't done enough work to deserve this. I'm like the man with one talent: I neglected to do what I could have done, so now I can't expect to have any blessing for it." Ah, but Elder Packer promises that "nothing good is ever lost." There IS hope for me when I neglect things or do them badly. There is hope that the small efforts I do manage to give will come back, magnified, each time I even make an attempt to return to them!
There is hope for me when I feel discouraged about the amount of time it takes to really learn and study…anything. So many things I want to understand, and don't. So much time I know I ought to spend in pondering and improving, but (through laziness or busy-ness or tiredness) don't. I want to grow closer to God. I try. I still stagnate. But nothing good is ever lost:
There is a sacred process by which pure intelligence may be conveyed into our minds and we can come to know instantly things that otherwise would take a long period of time to acquire. He can speak inspiration into our minds, especially when we are humble and seeking.
There is hope in the looking back on past mistakes, when I wish I could go back and re-live certain events, undoing those wrongs. And the discouragement when I think of all the mistakes yet to be made. But even the most sorrowful of time was not wasted time, for nothing good is ever lost:
Those years of the past, that we often think to be wasted, are often rich in many lessons, some of them very hard-earned lessons, which have meaning when the light of inspiration shines upon them.
I do not say that it is easy. I am not talking about appearing to change. I am talking about changing. I do not say it is easy. I say it is possible and quickly possible.
There is hope even in the midst of my certainty that I am surely teaching my children things I don't mean to teach them, by bad example. I know I miss chances to do good. I know I ignore or misinterpret promptings. I know I am blind to some of my faults. But there is hope for my family, for my children when they falter and go astray, and for ME, when I fear I have forgotten, or messed up beyond repair, some of the things I once promised God I would do. I know, before this life, I intended to come here and be a faithful, valiant follower of the Savior. And I have a great fear of disappointing Him with my actual performance. But nothing good is ever lost:
Just as those few words of Japanese could be recalled after 26 years, so the principles of righteousness that you learned as a child will be with you.
And some you have learned in His presence will return as moments of whispered inspiration, when you will find, then feel, that you are learning familiar things.
This awkward newness of making such a change in your lives will soon fade, and soon you will feel complete and adequate in His church and in His kingdom. Then you will know how much you are needed here and how powerful your voice of experience can be in redeeming others.I think of loss a great deal. (Too much, arguably.) I think of it as it occurs, and even preemptively, before it occurs. I think I have deep reservoirs of what Elder Maxwell called "our mortal homesickness." It seems to be the underlying theme of much of my writing and maybe even of this whole blog. So for Elder Packer to emphasize this point again and again gives balm to all sorts of places in my uncertain and fearful soul. Our good desires mean something. Those too-short moments of sweetness with our babies mean something. The happy days mean something. The times we resolve to do better, and then gradually fizzle out, mean something. Sorrow means something. Clumsy efforts at childhood and parenthood mean something. Even our failures mean something. And when we return to that place of goodness from which we all came, we will understand. For nothing good is ever lost.
Other posts in this series: