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In The VillageSermons from Life
by Orson Scott Card
We all know that there are vivid sacrament meeting talks and dull ones, full ones and empty ones.
Sometimes people think that the difference has something to do with the manner of presentation. When a talk makes them feel inspired, they may compliment the speaker for his or her "enthusiasm."
As often as not, it's not the enthusiasm of the speaker, but rather the truth in the message that fills the listeners with a vigorous desire to act on what they heard, or provides that glow of sudden understanding when a truth long known is suddenly learned afresh.
I recently had a chance to look at a slim, useful book by Len Ellis, called Jump Right In! Speaking with Fun & Ease. I'm not sure that "ease" will ever be a part of public speaking for many people, but Ellis does offer many useful tips for those who would like to do a better, more effective job of speaking.
Perhaps most importantly, he helps timid speakers find the courage to speak at all. I recommend the book http://jumprightinnow.com.
When it comes to speaking in sacrament meeting, I've learned over my sixty-one years that it matters little to me whether someone's talk is read or spoken, whether the speaker makes eye contact or stares down at the paper.
If you have nothing to say, then it certainly helps to be very entertaining about saying nothing. You may be complimented on the talk because of your manner of delivery. Yet your audience will still be hungry at the end.
In my view, here is the single most important thing that determines whether people come out of that sacrament meeting feeling filled or depleted, inspired or weary:
True stories from the speaker's own life. Either you have them or you don't.
When you're assigned to give a sermon in sacrament meeting, it wasn't a General Authority who was called on to speak, nor was it an ancient prophet. It was you.
I remember buying the first book by an Apostle whom I much admired as a thinker and speaker. But to my disappointment, the book was empty.
No, no, there were words printed on every page. They were almost entirely quotations from scriptures and from other General Authorities. But I had already read the originals. There was nothing of the man himself.
He might have thought he was following the admonition and example of Nephi:
"And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Ne 19:23).
What is the lesson we really learn from the writings of Nephi? I know what he said -- but what did he do as he wrote his books?
Late in his writings, we get chapter after chapter of quotations from Isaiah. Tell the truth now -- your eyes glaze over and you're tempted to skip to where the quotations stop and Nephi starts talking again.
Yet early on, when Nephi tells us stories from his own life, his teaching is vivid, powerful, unforgettable. Obtaining the plates; the Tree of Life; the broken bow; building the ship; the storm at sea. The stories stick in our memory.
Without realizing it, Nephi demonstrated what is and is not effective in teaching. He is most powerful when he speaks from his own life.
Now, some people imagine that because they are not mighty prophets, because angels have not stopped the wicked from beating them, because their prayers have not stilled a storm at sea, they have nothing to offer.
So they read from a General Authority's talk, or quote scripture after scripture; they think that in this way, they can be sure to speak with authority.
But you speak with most "authority" when you are the author of your words.
To do that, however, you have to look at your life, not for the miracles in it, but for the plain lessons that can be learned.
Let me give you an example from one of the best sacrament meeting talks I've ever heard. The speaker was Mike Lewis, a geography professor who delights in taking his students out into the wilderness to see the lay of the land for themselves.
When he was bishop of our ward, he took some of our Young Men with him, including my older son, on a trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas. One day he led them on a hike to a landmark called the Mule Ears. They parked at a dry wash and followed a steep but well-marked trail to a low saddle in a ridge.
In his words:
Leaving the marked trail at the saddle we picked our way cross-country along the rocky ridge for above a mile to the Mule Ears. We made it there with no trouble and spent an hour or two scrambling on the boulders at the base of the dikes, wondering what it might be like to climb them with climbing gear, or what it was like to fly an airplane between them. About noon we ate the lunches we had packed and had a drink of water before heading back.
When we reached the saddle again, we stopped to rest. It was getting hot and I wondered if there might be a better way to the trailhead than following the trail we came in on. I fancy myself as being pretty good at reading a map and interpreting the lay of the land. (After all, I am an Eagle Scout and have three degrees in geography).
My USGS topographic map of the area suggested a much shorter way back that would help us avoid the heat. I could see that by following a compass heading to the southeast we would drop off through some rough badlands for just a short distance, but beyond that was a wide gently sloping pediment that led to the sandy arroyo where the car was parked.
I told the boys to wait at the saddle while I went to scout my short cut. I walked out to the upper edge of the badlands and stopped and looked out across the wide desert pediment.
What I saw was worse than a mist of darkness. Most people know that dangerous creatures live in the Chihuahuan desert: at least three kinds of rattlesnakes, several types of scorpions, and some very big spiders, for example.
But the truth is such things are relatively scarce in the day time and easy to avoid by wearing thick boots and long pants and not sticking your fingers or toes into dark places without a good look first.
The thing that is most likely to harm you in the desert is the vegetation. In Big Bend the vegetation all has Spanish names, but the friendly Texans have translated the names into English to forewarn Americans who refuse to learn Spanish.
From where I stood on top of the badlands, I could see a wide thicket of drab green brush at the bottom of the slope. It was a solid cover of "cat claw" acacia that we would most likely have to crawl through.
Beyond that was a maze of dense mats of a spikey succulent called lechuguilla, or "the dagger" in English.
At first it looked like we might be able to wind our way between the mats of daggers, but skulking in those narrow openings were squat round cacti with rigid spikes in a ring around their centers. At the center of the ring is a thicker, longer spike.
These are the "horse crippler" cacti, which can puncture not only horses' hooves, but thick boot leather.
If that wasn't enough, among the daggers and the horse cripplers were clusters of long stemmed nearly leafless shrubs, with ribs all around the woody stems that were lined with thorns long enough for birds to perch on. These are the "coach whips," or ocotillo in Spanish.
Finally, there was a small, uncommon, yet deadly plant that is among the most feared of all. Its leaves have razor-sharp edges and their tips form a long stinging barb. When broken, the leaves ooze a poisonous, sticky red liquid. The English name for this? "Mother-in-law's tongue."
Besides the hazards posed by the vegetation, our water supply was another issue to consider. Desert pediments are eroded into bedrock and are notoriously lacking in water sources. I pulled out my water bottle and found it about three-quarters empty.
For 360 degrees around I had an open view, and I looked for any signs of water in the dancing heat waves. Far off in the distance was a single tall green cottonwood tree. It was the only tall green tree anywhere in sight, and it was tucked up in a ravine coming down the bare mountain slope we had walked in on that morning.
I checked my map again and noticed something I hadn't seen before. It was a small blue circle with a short blue tail, the universal map symbol for a spring. What's more, the spring was on a short side trail that joined the trail we had hiked in on earlier.
In the cool of the morning, with plenty of water to carry, I wasn't thirsty and hadn't looked up that ravine or seen that tree. Now it was hot and my water was running low. I began to appreciate the wisdom of whoever laid out that trail, and why it followed a longer, circuitous route along the mountain slope.
I went back to the saddle where the boys were waiting on the trail, and said something like, "I'm not so smart after all, we need to stay on this trail and make for that big green tree."
We did that and found a small muddy seep of water. It didn't really produce enough water to filter for a drink, but it was enough to wet down a bandana. It's hard to describe how good a wet bandana feels on a sunburned face as you're lying down in a small patch of wiry green grass in the shade of a green tree, while surrounded by a great expanse of hot, dry desert.
Like the numberless concourses of people Lehi saw along the straight and narrow path we sometimes walk along the well-marked path when times are good without paying much attention to our surroundings, just going with the flow, maybe staring at our feet and not really noticing important landmarks, like springs and green trees in a desert.
At times we may think ourselves smarter or wiser than those were marked the path and are leading us to our goal. We think we see better ways across the deserts of the world. We may attempt to make the scriptures conform to our way of thinking, or rely on charismatic pundits to justify changing our direction of travel.
Family and church leaders plead with us to check our water supply and read the map again, to reach out for the iron rod and get back on the right trail. Why is that so important? Because eternal life depends on it.
His delivery was good -- he's an excellent teacher and he's at ease talking to large groups of people. But it wasn't the delivery that captivated us. It was the story.
It was a true story. It was of an adventure none of us would have. Yet he found meaning in it that applied to every one of us. He brought the scriptures into our lives.
In the rest of the talk, he quoted scriptures from the vision of the Tree of Life in the first book of Nephi. Because of the story he had just told, we heard those scriptures differently, with fresh ears.
He told other stories. One was from a stake youth "handcart trek." Another was from the life of Elder Bruce R. McConkie. These stories were also quite effective.
The personal story from Big Bend was not the whole talk. But it was the heart of it.
There are countless sermons in your life, if you reflect on your experiences and find the lessons there. As in Mike Lewis's story, you may not be the hero of the story; you may not come off looking terribly wise. (Though I think anyone who scouts out a shortcut first, and thinks long and hard before taking my son down that path, is a hero, and very wise indeed!)
You have those stories in your life. You have dozens of them. Hundreds of them.
So when you prepare your sacrament meeting talks, by all means consult the scriptures and read from many sources.
But also search your own memory. The Spirit will help you recognize the sermons in your life.
We come to sacrament meeting on that day to hear you speak, from your life, which will help us find the gospel lessons in our own.
NOTE: To read the full text of Michael E. Lewis's talk, download this .pdf.
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