Best Efforts and Highest Priority

In February 1999 the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a letter which was to be read in all congregations around the world. At the time I was living in a small town in England about 100 miles north of London, and was approaching the halfway point of my mission. I remember when the bishop of my ward read this letter, and I have thought about it many times since then. Elder Russel M. Nelson quoted it in his recent Conference talk. Here is a part of the letter:

“We call upon parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church. The home is the basis of a righteous life, and no other instrumentality can take its place or fulfill its essential functions in carrying forward this God-given responsibility.

“We counsel parents and children to give highest priority to family prayer, family home evening, gospel study and instruction, and wholesome family activities. However worthy and appropriate other demands or activities may be, they must not be permitted to displace the divinely-appointed duties that only parents and families can adequately perform.”

I remember hearing this letter and thinking about the youth of that ward where I was serving as a missionary. The most valiant and faithful youth seemed to come from the families where I knew they were having family prayers and gospel lessons. I knew this because I had been in their homes and had felt the Lord’s spirit there. I also remembered my own experience of studying the scriptures with my family, and how this had kept me close to the Church when I had struggled as a youth.

This letter was issued about 3 ½ years after the The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which also discusses the responsibility of parents to teach children. I remember at the time feeling that both documents were intuitively true, obviously true, and even painfully true when I thought about people I knew who had not lived up to their family obligations and had suffered the consequences of it.

Within a few short years I became a husband and a father myself, and I have tried to remember and follow the counsel in the Family Proclamation and the 1999 letter. Like many aspects of the gospel, I have found that placing my “highest priority” and exerting my “best efforts” on family responsibilities may sound simple, but it is not easy.

The state department of family services will not give you reminder calls to have Family Home Evening. That’s not a service they provide. Your local school district will not provide your children with gospel instruction. They don’t really want to, and that would probably be considered illegal anyway under current interpretations of law. Your child’s favorite television celebrity will not help them to say their bed time prayers tonight. The bishop or the Relief Society president of your ward do not have the time or resources to visit your home every evening to make sure that you have family prayers. Even delegating this task to home or visiting teachers will not work. All of these things must be done by families, led consistently by parents, or they will simply not be done. Internal and external demands will attempt to derail our efforts every week. The obligations of my professional training and career have probably been the most disruptive of these demands for me.

In the October 2014 General Conference Elder Carlos A. Godoy told an interesting and memorable story. Many years ago he was living with his young family in Brazil, and everything seemed to be going well in his family, career, and Church service. But he came to realize that he needed to make some significant changes to his career in order for the Lord to fulfill promises which were made in his patriarchal blessing. He counseled with his wife, and together they agreed to make the changes necessary. This decision was not easy, and it required them to leave their comfortable home and circumstances. The first time I heard this talk I did not anticipate how closely my own experience was about to parallel Elder Godoy’s.

Around the time he gave this talk I had an unusual confluence of professional demands which restricted my participation in family time for many weeks. At the end of this disruption my wife asked me, “Is this going to get any better?” I had to admit that I didn’t see things changing very much for the next 5-10 years at least, and they might actually get worse before they get better. “Alright then,” she said. “You have 18 months to make a change.”

The next day I dutifully searched through the job postings online, and my interest was captured by a job in a small town in the middle of the desert out west. This surprised me because the job description was very different from my current position as a subspecialist in a large academic department. Taking a job in this little town would require me to essentially walk away from all of my academic work, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to do that. I was also nervous about what my teachers, friends, and mentors in my department would say.

I used what I call the “deathbed analysis” in reasoning through my decision. The analysis goes like this: When I am someday lying on my deathbed reviewing my life decisions, am I likely to say something like, “I wish I had spent more time at the office,” or “I wish I had published more research papers?” Or am I more likely to say something like, “I wish I had spent more time with my children when they were young,” or “I wish I had listened to my wife when she said that she wanted to spend more time with me?” With this long view perspective, it was easy to see what choice was best.

On the day I had determined to inform my boss about my decision to leave my current job I woke up a little after 3:00 in the morning and could no longer sleep. By 4:00 I had gotten out of bed and left the house to go running. It was a beautiful clear morning in December, and while I ran I saw at least half a dozen shooting stars in the sky. My thoughts raced through my concerns and apprehensions, and I began to pray out loud. I told Heavenly Father about my worries, and talked through my plans and my reasons for them. He listened carefully. The thought came to me that I signed up to be a husband and a father long before I had enlisted to be a medical doctor. And despite all of his power and glory as the Great Creator of the universe, the ultimate Physicist and Physician, the title God seems to prefer best is “Father.” I decided that if my Heavenly Father wanted me to give more attention to my calling as an earthly father, then I was willing. Then the words of a favorite hymn came to my mind:

“There’s surely somewhere a lowly place
In earth’s harvest fields so wide
Where I may labor through life’s short day
For Jesus, the Crucified.
So trusting my all to thy tender care,
And knowing thou lovest me,
I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere:
I’ll be what you want me to be.”

After informing my boss of my decision, and after several inquiries and interviews at other jobs I decided to accept the offer in that remote desert town, partly because it held the best promise of allowing me to have much more time with my family than I currently have. I am confident that the Lord has guided us and prepared the way for us in this venture, and we have witnessed his hand of providence many times over the past few months as we have prepared for our move.

Like Elder Godoy, we are leaving a good job and a good home in order to pursue a path that will lead to greater blessings and the fulfillment of God’s promises to us. We have lived in our current city for 11 years, which is the longest I have ever lived in one place. We have had many good experiences here, including the births of most of our children, and we are very sad to leave many good friends behind. I was expecting to stay here for another 30 years or more, but obviously the Lord had other plans for us.

I have shared a very personal experience here, but I have tried to point out how my wife and I were guided in our decisions by general principles, including those taught in the Family Proclamation and in the 1999 First Presidency letter. We also leaned upon the power of gospel study, prayer, and personal revelation, which are indispensable tools in applying general gospel principles to your own unique circumstances.

I testify that God is our Father in Heaven, and that he has a plan for each of us. I promise that if you are attentive to his word and willing to follow it, he will guide you to make the right decisions and to avoid the wrong ones. He will lead you to that “lowly place in earth’s harvest fields so wide, where [you] may labor through life’s short day for Jesus, the Crucified.”

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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