A Pattern for Miracles

Like many of you, I attended the stake conference when Elder Bednar visited us a few months ago. It was an experience I’d really been looking forward to, and my family and I worked hard to make sure we were ready for it. I arrived before 7am to get a good seat. I had attended many meetings when Apostles spoke, but for some reason, this one felt different. Before, the meetings had been in Utah. To have an Apostle visit Maine in person . . . it made me feel like he must have a message tailor made for us. For me.

The meeting did not disappoint.

But, as you’ll remember, Elder Bednar spoke last. I spent the first half of the meeting not paying as much attention as I probably should have. I remembered some good talks, but I was really curious to hear what the Apostle would say. The rest of it felt like a big warm up.

Imagine my chagrin when for the first third of Elder Bednar’s talk, he discussed how important President Peterson’s talk had been. How we should give special heed to our Stake President. How he’s able to receive revelation specifically for us on a continuous basis.

I tried to remember what in the world President Peterson had spoken about, less than an hour after he’d given the speech. Something about . . . miracles? It was already gone. Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to have a spiritual do-over of sorts. This month’s speaking assignment is on President Peterson’s talk that day, and I was given his notes so that I could prepare my remarks. Yes, I realize this is now a copy of a copy, and the quality undoubtedly goes down with each duplication, but if you’re like me and you overshot the mark a few months ago (or if you couldn’t make the meeting at all), perhaps you’ll still be able to get something out of my talk today.

To put all doubts to rest, President Peterson did, indeed, discuss miracles. Specifically, he referred to Matthew 15:32-38, where Jesus feeds the four thousand.

32 Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.

33 And his disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?

34 And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes.

35 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.

36 And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.

37 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full.

38 And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children.

President Peterson saw a pattern in this account, a two step recipe of sorts for being able to receive miracles in our daily lives. First, learn what the Lord would have us do. Second, give everything we have to the effort. When we have done those two things, we will see miracles happen as the Lord makes up the difference between what we are capable of and what He needs done.

I have some experience with using patterns, some of it with varying success. I remember in eighth grade home ec, I was asked to follow a pattern to make a sweatshirt. While I successfully avoided sewing through my fingers, and I don’t think I broke the machine, I also remember the sweatshirt not quite fitting right. Let’s just say I had a very short career as a tailor.

In mathematics, they call them formulas, not patterns, but the end result is similar. I remember learning the quadratic formula back in the day. At the time, it seemed like black magic. You stuck a series of numbers into this convoluted equation, and the right answer appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t question the formula. I just knew it worked. My son is at the point now in his schooling that he’s learning the same formula. I’ve helped teach it to him. Now, I was able to see the method behind the madness. See how the formula was arrived at–how it’s nothing more than a shortcut to take you straight to the answer instead of repeating the same steps over and over again.

Often when we know more about how the world works or the situation behind any set of events, the miraculous can lose its shine, and it just becomes another everyday occurrence. I remember when I first arrived in Germany on my mission, and my mission president told me where I was going to serve. Schwarzenberg. I was convinced at the time that the assignment came straight from God. It didn’t get more direct revelation than that. But at the end of my mission, I was one of assistants, and I was part of the process as we tried to ascertain the will of the Lord for where He wanted each missionary to serve. There were no angelic choirs. No heavenly messengers. Instead, there was a lot of the same thing I’d done day in and day out of my mission: prayer and thinking.

But is the miracle any less important if we know where it comes from? Sometimes that’s when it’s most important to maintain faith in the message.

As I thought more about this topic, I wondered if we might learn some additional insights by studying other miracles in the scriptures. With Noah, we learn that sometimes the things the Lord asks us to do will make almost no sense at all. Genesis 6:13-14: “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make thee an ark of gopher wood.”

Gopher wood, brothers and sisters. Can you imagine what his neighbors thought? “Gee, Noah. That’s . . . a lot of gopher wood. Did you clear this with zoning before you started this renovation project? What? Not a renovation? A boat. Of course it is.”

That’s an extreme example, of course. I doubt any of us will be required to build an ark anytime soon. And yet sometimes we can have promptings that seem nonsensical. When I was growing up, my parents were divorced. Each summer, I’d go off to live with my father in Utah for a month. The summer before my eighth grade year in school, my mom and step father went for a drive after they dropped my siblings and me off at the airport. It just felt like what they should do. It turned into a very long drive. An hour and a half, wandering away from Newark and into Pennsylvania. They saw an open house advertisement on a property. They felt they should look at it. They made a ridiculous offer on the house, because they loved it. The offer was accepted. When I came back from Utah, it was to a different house, a different school, and a different state. Was that a prompting from the Spirit? Considering how much impact that single drive made on me and my family, and how my step father ended up serving in the stake presidency of that stake for over fifteen years, I have to believe it was.

We’re always going to be able to come up with plenty of reasons why we don’t need to do the things God has asked us to do. It’s almost always more difficult and far less fun. And it will not always make sense. But if we demand a reason or understanding before we undertake a project or assignment, I think we might be holding ourselves in too high esteem. I feel like sometimes it’s easy to think we’re not that far off from what God needs. We do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and God gives us the extra nudge needed to finish up.

Mosiah 2:20-21: 20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—

21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

We’re not close, brothers and sisters. We’re way off. But I don’t bring that up to make you feel bad or overwhelmed. To me, that’s one of the most comforting things I can hear. I’ve done a fair number of home renovation projects, and I’ve come to see the difference between me helping someone else get it done, and someone else helping me get it done. When I’m helping someone else, that someone else is almost always much more knowledgeable about the project than I am. They tell me what to cut, how long to cut it, and where to nail it, and what nails to use, and all I have to do is sit back and follow orders.

On the other hand, when someone else is helping me, I’m often required to be the knowledge resource. How should it look? What materials should it be made out of? What tools should we use? It didn’t take long for me to discover how out of depth I am when it comes to home construction. And it never took long for a contractor to tell when I’d done a project mainly on my own compared to when I’d simply been helping someone who knew what they were doing.

With God’s work, it’s the best of both worlds. He’s there to advise us. To tell us specifics when we need the information, and to outright step in and make miracles happen when that’s what needs doing. But it’s always important to remember, that to God, often the work is secondary to something much more vital. “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Part of each endeavor He undertakes with us is to help us become better people. Part of it is to actually get stuff done. In this way, I think about my approach to my kids as a parent. There are times when I ask them to do a job and then sit back and watch them struggle. I don’t need the job done immediately, and it’s more important to me that they learn the process of how to tackle big tasks. Other times, I’ll have them help me out so that we can get it done together. I don’t need or want them to question which purpose each job is for. Ideally, I’d just like them to do the things I ask and trust me that it will all work out. That works about as well for me with my kids as I imagine it works for God with me. Baby steps.

In World War II, Melanesian islanders witnessed the Japanese and Allied forces come to their small area of the South Pacific, bringing with them technological wonders they had never dreamed of. They saw airplanes, medicine, canned food, weapons, and more. But when the war ended, the planes went away, and so did all the wonders they had brought. The islanders wanted those blessings to return, so they did the one thing that made sense to them. They rebuilt the runways. They drilled with wooden replicas of guns. In other words, they did the things they had witnessed the soldiers doing, assuming that was how the soldiers had caused these miraculous goods to appear. The phenomenon occurs often enough in history to have earned its own name. Cargo cult.

Sometimes, I fear we put ourselves in danger of becoming a spiritual cargo cult of sorts. We focus on the end results and end up misunderstanding how those results are obtained. Knowing that there is a pattern is important, but we can’t simply tuck our heads down and stick to repeating the pattern over and over again if we don’t understand the reason the pattern works.

President Peterson went over that in his talk as well. After outlining the Lord’s pattern, he went over how we can hope to execute that pattern in our daily lives. Remember, the first step was learn what the Lord wants us to do. For that, President Peterson gave five simple suggestions:

  1. Pray and request that the Lord teach you his will;

  2. Read the scriptures;

  3. Listen to the words of prophets and apostles;

  4. Fast;

  5. Listen to the words of those who have been called to preside over us.

That’s it. Nothing outlandish or complicated. Nothing you need to puzzle over to understand. God doesn’t want to make things overly difficult. He’s given us the basic tools. We just need to apply them. Of course, as I’m sure many of you can attest to, the application of those tools can be challenging. For me, I’m challenged to stay on task and focused. I’m challenged to remember to put His will before mine. His understanding before my own. I’m challenged to simply have faith and believe, even when I don’t understand. Not because our faith should be blind, but because we must remember our viewpoints are limited.

As we follow those five principles, we can move onto the second step of the Lord’s pattern. Commit and give everything you have to doing the Lord’s will. President Peterson said we must act in faith, committing ourselves to the action regardless of the cost, the time, or the sacrifice involved. And we can’t give up if we suffer a small setback or two.

Several years ago, my family and I attended a water park. In the middle of the park was a splash tower where people could go to cool off and get doused by water. At the top of the tower was a gigantic bucket, fed with water from a spout. The bucket was balanced so that it was mostly upright, but once enough water went into that bucket, the balance shifted and the bucket turned over, splashing a thousand gallons of water over the waiting crowd below. My kids were terrified of the bucket. They had a blast running through the fountains and in and out of waterfalls, but as soon as that bucket was even in the same zip code of tipping, we had to evacuate the area and watch from a safe distance.

I think the Lord’s pattern often works like that bucket. We follow the pattern. We do what we’ve been asked to do. We keep the commandments. Pray for guidance. Keep working. And all the time, those efforts work to fill the bucket. When the time comes that the bucket finally tips and the blessings pour out, we might be tempted to think they all came because of whatever the last bit was that went into the bucket. As if that made more of a difference than all of the stuff that had gone into the bucket before. In reality, it’s a cumulative effort. It would be a mistake, then, to focus on any single principle simply due to its proximity to the acquired blessing. A mistake a cargo cult proportions.

The results of the Lord’s pattern don’t always make sense to us either. Daniel followed the commandments and ended up in a lion’s den. The Anti-Nephi-Lehis had over a thousand of their group slaughtered as a direct result of their commitment to forsake violence and follow God’s will. There is not always a recognizable correlation between following the commandments and receiving blessings, no matter how we might like to focus on those times when that correlation is blatantly obvious.

In my personal life, the time that comes most to mind is when I was trying to figure out what in the world I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was in grad school at BYU, finishing my masters degree in American literature. For years, the plan had been to go on to get a doctorate in English and become a professor, ideally at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. If I had to pick a state, it would have been Maine.

I prayed many times during that process. Prayed about whether I was picking the right career. Prayed about the schools I applied to. Prayed about the application process itself. And I felt very good about it. I felt like I was on the right track, and it would all work out. My advisors all said the same thing: I had done what I needed to do, and all that was left to do was sit back and wait for that bucket to finally tip and the next phase of my life to begin.

One by one, however, the letters came back from those schools. Each one a rejection. Even my safety net schools–the ones my professors had thought I was a lock to get into–turned me down.

I had followed the pattern. Done all the work. And the pattern had let me down.

Honestly, it was one of the darker points in my life. Suddenly I had no idea what in the world I was supposed to do. Not just because I was at a loss for my career, but because for the first significant time, I felt like all that prayer hadn’t done me any good. Why in the world would God have prompted me to keep going with all those applications if He knew I wasn’t going to get into any of the schools? Did I even understand what the promptings of the Spirit were? Was I just really confused?

Looking back at it now, I can see the hand of the Lord in what happened. How those applications set up me to take another look at library science as a career. How I had just enough time to apply to Florida State, which was doing a discount on distance learning degrees at that time. (A discount opportunity that closed for applicants after my year.) I applied to one single library science program. I did it in a rush, from a public computer in Slovakia, because that was all I had time to do.

And I got in.

From that experience, more steps followed. And now, I’m working as a librarian at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. In Maine. I am happier as a librarian than I would have been as a professor. I know that now, but I could not have known that then. I had to go through that painful process myself, in order to arrive where I ultimately wanted to be. The pattern worked. I just wasn’t able to see it working.

I know that happens again and again. Repeated experience with that pattern has strengthened my testimony in it to the point that now, when things seem to break down, I am far less likely to panic. Something about having to give control over to the Lord–realizing we’ve done everything we can do–seems to help this process. It forces us to do our best and to be humble.

In the Old Testament we read of Moses and the Children of Israel. Think for a moment how long and arduous the process was that led to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Moses had to try again and again with Pharaoh, showing any number of smaller miracles along the way. And with each step, things only got worse for the people in bondage, ultimately culminating in Moses and the refugees huddling by the side of the Red Sea. Note that God had not told them ahead of time, “Don’t worry. I’m going to part that Sea for you, and it’s all going to be okay.” That inspiration did not come until Moses was already there. Until the army of Pharaoh was on its way, and slaughter seemed inevitable.

In the times when I most want to give in to panic, I remember Psalms 46:10. “Be still, and know that I am God.” In Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith wrote that “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” I believe we go through those difficult times as a way to help us generate the faith we need to be able to ultimately endure until the end. The challenge is part of the process.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, I pray we will remember the many miracles God has done for us. The biggest miracle I know of–the one I simply can’t fully comprehend–is the miracle of the Atonement. That the mistakes I’ve made and continue to make every day can be washed away and forgiven. That someone would care that much about me to pay that price, even knowing how stubborn and ungrateful I would prove to be.

Electricity is a miracle to me. I don’t really understand how it works. I don’t get how it’s stored and how it’s transmitted. I know the science behind it, sure. I’ve read articles on Wikipedia. But when I flick a switch and the lights just come on . . . that’s magic. And yet because it’s almost always been the case, I don’t question it. I rarely even express gratitude for it. It’s just always been there.

The Atonement is the same way. I’ve been taught about it from the time I could crawl. I’ve never had a time when I didn’t know it was an option. And so it can be tempting to take it for granted in much the same way. Likewise, the Lord’s pattern that President Peterson outlined has been a constant in my life. As dependable as the Quadratic Theorem. It’s important we take the time to recognize them for what they are. To understand some of why they work and the principles by which they operate.

They say repetition is the mother of all learning. In that case, I believe I can safely say now that I’m not going to forget what President Peterson talked about during that special stake conference. I’ve heard the message, read the message, prepared the message, and now delivered the message. I testify that it is true, and do so in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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