Years ago, a colleague took a foreign ambassador to visit President Gordon B. Hinckley. During their meeting, President Hinckley suggested that the ambassador could accomplish big things and have a distinguished career.
The ambassador laughed. He was, he pointed out, already in his mid-50s. His life and career were plainly winding down. I was told that President Hinckley responded, “Fifty doesn’t count for much around here. Do you know how old I am?”
The reply from The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exemplified the sunny optimism that characterized his own remarkably long and active life. But it also illustrates a central gift of the atonement and gospel of Jesus Christ, which are very much about rebirth, new beginnings and limitless possibilities.
This is the season when many make hopeful resolutions for a new year. Such resolutions are laudable and, though we often fail at them, they can help us to make worthy changes.
A life lived according to “the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) offers many opportunities for such resolutions and changes, and the support of a community (one that includes among its membership the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — not bad! — and the sustaining power of the Spirit) for making them effective. Baptism is itself a symbol and avenue of entrance into a new life, and the covenants made at baptism can be renewed each week in the sacrament. Likewise, in the temple, we can remind ourselves of obligations we’ve undertaken and the corresponding promises we’ve received — and recommit ourselves to them — as often as we choose.
Furthermore, if we’ve made serious errors, the church’s entire system of counseling and repentance stands ready to help. Very few moments so thrill a bishop — certainly this was my experience — as when he can tell repentant individuals who may have lived under a load of guilt for many years that they are forgiven, clean and ready to move forward, in full fellowship with God and his church, into the future.
And what a future! There is no vision of human destiny more grand — no vision of human potential could conceivably be more breathtaking — than that offered by the restored gospel. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ ... ” (Romans 8:16-17). “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
Even the best and most faithful of us face an incomprehensibly long journey before that vision is fully realized. But we have time, and today is the day to commence it. “A journey of a thousand miles,” said the sixth-century BC Chinese sage Lao-tzu, “begins with a single step.”
Nelson Mandela went into prison as a convicted Marxist saboteur and conspirator. Incarcerated under often horrible conditions for more than 27 years, he was finally released at the age of 72. Obviously, his life was essentially over. Irretrievably, irredeemably, gone. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. He could have been bitter, angry, cynical. But he chose another path. In his old age, he became one of the most beloved and significant statesmen of the 20th century, enabling South Africa to make the peaceful transition to a multiracial society that has so painfully eluded other nations on the continent.
Redemptive change is offered to all of us: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
All the prophets testify of genuine hope and change: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.