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S. Michael Wilcox devotional: Bread or stones: understanding the God we pray to

Friday, 3 April 2009

Lisa Fehoko | University Relations | 3 April 2009

The scriptures are our Father in Heaven's letters, and there are times in our lives when we need to open the letters, communicate with Him, and understand what He is like and His concern for us, taught S. Michael Wilcox, CES Institute of Religion Instructor at the University of Utah and author, in his BYU-Hawaii devotional address, titled "Bread or Stones: Understanding the God We Pray to," on March 31. Wilcox's devotional speech was the first of three BYU-Hawaii Joseph Smith Lecture Series presentations he delivered throughout the week.

When his daughter was a student at BYU, she had the opportunity to teach English in Russia, the former Soviet Union. Because communication with her would have been difficult at best, he wrote her a series of letters based on situations she might encounter and gave it to her at the airport prior to her departure.

This experience prompted him to think of how our relationship with God is in some ways the same—a father counseling his child through letters, so he based his speech on four important 'letters' that he has received from Heavenly Father through the scriptures: The Fourth Watch, Tight like a Dish, Bread or Stones, and Holding Places of the Heart.

In the first letter, The Fourth Watch, Wilcox taught from the book of Mark, stating that God is a fourth-watch God. He taught that the name fourth-watch was culled from the division of the Hebrew nights into four watches; the significance of the fourth watch is found in the yawning hours before dawn, when God is ever aware of our hardships, our trials.

After a day of ministering, the Savior sent his apostles away and went off to pray. When He later approached his apostles at about "the fourth watch of the night, ... walking upon the sea" He saw that they had toiled in rowing against the wind (Mark 6:46-48).

Sometimes we find ourselves in the same predicament when we toil against the wind, when forces flail against us, or when an elusive blessing we desire or trial we want over doesn't seem to make headway against the storms of life. "When the trials aren't over and the blessings don't come, don't assume that He is not there, or He is not listening, or He doesn't care, or you're not worthy. Always assume you have not yet reached the fourth watch," noted Wilcox.

To assume otherwise meant that the second letter, Tight like a Dish, was needed.

‘Tight like a dish' was an expression that described the Jaredite barges. As an English major Wilcox found the redundancy of the phrase ‘Tight like a dish' (in Ether 2:17) taxing, and he even went as far as telling to the Lord, "I could fix this verse for you if you would like me to."

Beyond the stylistic divergences he had with the Lord over verse phrasal, Wilcox noted that the airtight vessel raised two main problems for the long sea voyage: one problem, of no air, was easily solved by the Lord with His suggestion of air stoppers on the top and bottom of the vessel; but the other problem, of no light, required the Brother of Jared's own resolution.

Wilcox had his own ideas about resolving the issue of Spartan-travel: "If I were the brother of Jared, I would have said, 'Lord, we don't need these 'Tight like a dish' ships at all. Since waves are the problem, and waves are caused by wind, and wind comes out of your mouth—blow softly. Breeze us to the Promised Land. We'll sit on deck, we'll fish, we'll get tanned, we'll play shuffleboard'."

His admitted first-watch tendencies coupled with an aversion to mountain waves helped him to realize that the Lord would rather prepare us for the storms, rather than still the storms: "If you are past your fourth watch and He has not come, don't assume that He is not there, that He doesn't care, He doesn't listen, or that you are not worthy. Assume your ship is tight like a dish."

But in case the Lord's answers were not readily accepted, the third letter, Bread or Stones, taught the hard lesson of coming to terms with a gift from God.

In the book of Luke the Savior taught that if we asked, we would receive. Wilcox expounded on this scripture, noting that all good things come from God, but a misplaced desire that veered from what was needed would turn the given bread into stone. God—Wilcox noted—only gave bread, never stones; only fish, never serpents; only eggs, never scorpions.

To illustrate, he told of the desire he had always had to serve a mission in Denmark. Since his family was of Danish decent, the majority of them served in Denmark—but since he grew up in an area that taught French in high school, he inherently knew that he was destined to serve in France. In fervent prayers, he asked God to send him anywhere but France, even to French Polynesia—just as long as it was not to France.

He was at work when his mission called arrived, and he dreaded the return home. He stalled, lingered at work, and then drove home slowly with high hopes for red lights. In a final act of defiance against what he knew was the inevitable mission call to France, he pulled off to the side of the road near his home and gave a desperate prayer: "Father in Heaven, I know my mission call is at home, and I know it says France. Thou art all powerful; thou art merciful and loving. Please—thou canst do all things—please change it in the envelope."

When he finally opened his call, it said France. "Of course it said France. Actually, I think it originally said Denmark," stated Wilcox.

Post-mission, he found that he had French ancestors and that he had served in some of the cities that they had lived in. He loved his mission and learned that God did not give useless or harmful things—only what was needed.

But when a great need went unanswered despite continuous pleas throughout his life, the Lord taught him the importance of a timed answer through the fourth and final letter—Holding Places of the Heart.

Wilcox's father had left his family when he was one year old. Interaction with his father was minimal—a trip once a year to Lagoon in Utah. For over thirty years, he prayed and asked God for peace and comfort about what his father had done—and never received an answer.

One day, while preparing for a talk on parenting, he felt impressed to speak about his father. He was seated on the living room couch, across from his two boys that stood near him; they were six and two years of age at the time. The Lord jogged his memory and he recalled life experiences he had with his sons. Then the Lord pressed him: "Mike, life has carved a holding place in your heart, and I will give you the answer. Now that you are a father, now that you know a father's joys and love, would you be the son who lost his father? Or the father who lost his son?"

He finally understood that God always had an answer, but God could only answer his question when he "had shared enough life with those boys to comprehend" what was given.

To these experiences he summed, "May you search God's letters when you need them; may your fourth watches come quickly; may your ship be tight like a dish; may God, as He does, always give you bread, and may you recognize that it always is bread, [and] may life carve the holding places in your heart."

—Photo by Monique Saenz

Click here to see a copy of S. Michael Wilcox's talk