I have lately been reading the memoirs of John H. Groberg, who spent many years serving as a missionary and Church leader in Tonga and the other South Pacific islands. His books have been adapted to film, called Other Side of Heaven, and The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith. The stories he tells are remarkable and inspiring. They make me want to be a better person, to have stronger faith, and to love others more than I do.
Elder Groberg uses stories to teach gospel lessons and applications. For example, in the first book he tells about a hurricane that hit the small island where he was serving, and how there was a famine for several weeks after the storm. As his fasting became more and more extreme he spent his time pondering on the meaning of physical life and its connection to the spiritual world. (I shared more details about that story in a previous post.)
Later he tells of an urgent boat trip under gathering clouds to assist another missionary who was ill. When they arrived at the island the storm was raging, but they felt prompted that the sick missionary should be taken immediately to the hospital on the main island. They set out on the sea with winds blowing and waves billowing, and the storm only worsened as they crossed the rough seas. It was dark as they approached the main island, and they could hear the waves crashing on the coral reef nearby. Everyone on the boat strained through the storm to try to see the light on the shore that would guide them through the narrow passage in the reef, but they could not see the light. Elder Groberg wrote:
“At the height of this panic, when others were pleading to turn to the left or to the right, when the tumultuous elements all but forced us to abandon life and hope, I looked at the captain — and there I saw the face of calmness, the ageless face of wisdom and experience, as his eyes penetrated the darkness ahead. Quietly, his weather-roughened lips parted, and without moving his fixed gaze and just perceptibly shifting the wheel, he breathed those life-giving words, ‘Ko e Maama e’ (‘There is the light!’).
“I could not see the light, but the captain could see it, and I knew he could see it. Those eyes long experienced in ocean travel were not fooled by the madness of the storm, nor were they influenced by the pleadings of those of lesser experience to turn to the left or to the right. He calmly guided us forward. On one great swell, we were hurled through the opening and into calmer waters.
“The roaring of the reef was now behind us. Its plan of destruction had been foiled. We were in the protected harbor. We were home. Then, and only then, did we see through the darkness that one small light — exactly where the captain said it was. Had we waited until we ourselves could see the light, we would have been dashed to pieces, shredded on the reef of unbelief. But trusting in those experienced eyes, we lived.
“That night I learned this great lesson: there are those who, through years of experience and training and by virtue of special divine callings, can see further, better, and more clearly than we can. They can and will save us in those situations where serious injury or death — both spiritual and physical — would be upon us before we ourselves could see clearly.” (from The Other Side of Heaven, p.183-184)
For the past 6 years I have been trying to do the same thing that Elder Groberg does in his books, using my experiences as a medical doctor to springboard into a discussion about faith. Read or watch the General Conference addresses and you will notice that nearly all of them use analogies or parables to teach their message. While reading Groberg it occurred to me that this is an essential skill, not just for the writer or the teacher, but for everyone who hopes to understand and live the gospel. We need to see the true lessons in our experiences.
The scriptures teach that “all things denote there is a God.” We can learn about the Lord and his work by looking all around us. A sprouting seed, an olive tree, the rising of bread dough, the work of fishermen or shepherds, and many other things we can experience or observe, all have important lessons for us. When we look at the night sky, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”
One of my favorite lesson plans when I am teaching children or youth is to tell them a story and then ask them to decipher its application or message. We do this in Family Home Evening all of the time, and it often leads to a really open discussion, where many good ideas are shared. Almost every time we do this one of my kids will suggest an interpretation that I had not thought of, and so they end up teaching and edifying me. Here is my daughter’s testimonial: “That’s what makes it more memorable. Stories that are told with a meaning are easier to learn from.” We recently did this activity using David A. Bednar’s General Conference address about cheetahs and topis as our subject, and this is a good place to start if you would like to try this with your family.
Reading about Elder Groberg’s experiences in Tonga also reminded me that my great-grandfather James Theophilus Blake (1887-1957) served as a missionary in Samoa. He wrote a brief autobiography by hand that has been passed down in the family, and I am fortunate to have a copy of it. Like all faithful missionaries, his experience changed his life forever, and he had a great love for the people he served. He used to sing Samoan songs for his children, and my mother (his granddaughter) remembers playing with a box full of seashells he brought home from the islands.
Elder Blake was assigned to the island of Savai’i for the whole of his mission (1909-1912), serving as the district president and organizing 7 branches there. Savai’i is about 60 miles across, and about 120 miles in diameter, and he reports that he went around the island 14 times in the course of his work.
The following is a direct quote from his autobiography:
“And now I would like to tell of a most wonderful experience I had. It happened in about 1911 when we left from the east side of the Island of Savaii — three row boat loads of saints and elders including two little white girls — to go over to Upolu to conference. It was about 10 miles across the water to Upolu and when we got about halfway across a hard wind came up and we couldn’t go any further. They tried to row, and put up the sails and tried to sail, but they couldn’t make any headway, and soon the boats got separated and we didn’t know where we were. The wind was so hard the waves were going over the side of the boat and kept 2 men bailing water as fast as we could. And then in our boat we decided to have prayer and each one of us took turns praying, and soon the waves were stopped and the wind had gone down, and we realized the promise of the Savior, ‘The winds and the waves shall obey thy will. Peace be still. Peace be still.’ We didn’t fear so much for ourselves but the two little girls couldn’t swim, and we wondered what would happen to them if the boat should go under.
“Well one of the boats made it across; one landed shipwrecked on a little island about two thirds across; and the one I was in landed back on Savaii at sundown about 10 miles up shore from where we had started. The tide was high, and we had a hard time getting threw the passages in the coral reefs just off shore all around the island. Next morning we started again. Each one grabbed an oar and worked as hard as we could, and we finally beat the wind and got across safely.”
Great-Grandpa points out the central lesson of his experience, that “even the wind and the sea obey [Jesus].” Land-dwelling people often refer to this power in only a metaphorical way, but missionaries in the South Pacific islands describe its literal truth in their writings.
There are many other lessons in this particular boat crossing story. I can imagine Elder Blake on the beach watching the sun go down, talking with his companions about the lessons they learned from their struggles on that first day. Perhaps they spoke about the necessity of persistence, or about combining prayer with personal exertion. Maybe someone testified of the importance of gathering together with other believers, or of having concern for the weak and poor among them. Certainly the next day as they all rowed together they learned something about the power of unity. My daughter also pointed out that sometimes the closer you get to your destination the harder the way becomes, but you have to keep trying. Can you see them kneeling together in the sand to thank the Lord for the blessings and the lessons of that day?
Think about your life, the experiences you have had and the things you have observed in the world. What can you learn from these things? Can you see the illustration of true principles in them? What scripture stories or parables have similar lessons?
Keep your eyes open and you will discern the lessons in your own experiences. Make it a matter of prayer, and spend time pondering and writing down what you learn. I promise that the Lord will help you see what he wants you to see in the work that he is doing all around you every day.