Saturday, August 10, 2013

Thoughts on Elaine S. Dalton’s talk “We Are Daughters of Our Heavenly Father”


Elaine points out that knowing we are daughters of God is an affirmation of our identity and also who we belong to.  She notes:

“In every country and on every continent, I have met confident, articulate young women, filled with light, refined by hard work and trial, possessing pure and simple faith. They are virtuous. They are covenant keepers who “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.” They know who they are and that they have a significant role to play in building the kingdom of God.” (emphasis added)

In a world that seems to mostly equate significance with height reached in a hierarchy or visibility and fame, women in our church may be looked down upon.  Even inside the church we may succumb to this temptation in subtle ways.  Fortunately we have the Savior’s words that give us the right standard by which to judge greatness and significance.

10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 23:10-11)

Service is greatness.

“As daughters of God we are each unique and different in our circumstances and experiences. And yet our part matters—because we matter. Our daily contributions of nurturing, teaching, and caring for others may seem mundane, diminished, difficult, and demeaning at times…”

…but we can understand that in our Heavenly Father’s eyes those services make us great. 

Part of the theme of Elaine Dalton’s talk is “whatever thou art, act well thy part.”  I think it is helpful to examine the stories she tells from this perspective to see how each person acts his/her part well and what part service plays.

“When I was in college, I was a member of the BYU International Folk Dancers. One summer our group had the unique privilege to tour the missions in Europe. It was a difficult summer for me because a few months earlier my father had unexpectedly passed away. While we were in Scotland, I felt especially alone and became discouraged. We danced at a chapel that night, and then after our performance we went next door to the mission home. As I proceeded up the walk, I saw a stone placed in a well-kept garden by the gate. On it I read the words, “What-e’er thou art, act well thy part.” At that moment those words went deeply into my heart, and I felt the powers of heaven reach out and give me a message. I knew I was known by a loving Heavenly Father. I felt I was not alone. I stood in that garden with tears in my eyes. “What-e’er thou art, act well thy part.” That simple statement renewed my vision that Heavenly Father knew me and had a plan for my life, and the spirit I felt helped me understand that my part mattered.

Later I learned that this saying had once motivated the prophet David O. McKay while he was serving as a young missionary in Scotland. He had seen it on a stone on a building at a discouraging time in his life and on his mission, and the words lifted him. Years later as the building was being torn down, he made arrangements to obtain the stone and had it placed in the garden at the mission home.”

First we see Elaine’s view of things.  As a member of the BYU International Folk Dance team, she acted well her part by persevering through loneliness and discouragement and grief.  She did this by searching for encouragement wherever she could find it, and we see that she was able to find it in an unexpected place, in a message on a stone in the mission home’s garden.  How is service involved in what she was doing?  As a part of the BYU International Folk Dance team, she was involved in communicating through dance to people of the world the appreciation that she had for other cultures to help them appreciate other cultures as well. 

Second, we might consider David O. McKay’s part.  He valiantly fulfilled his service as a missionary, finding encouragement through the words on the stone when it was set in a building.  In later years, he considered how those words might help other discouraged missionaries, so he took the trouble to salvage the stone and place it in the garden of that mission home so that more people could see it and be inspired

Next, we can come back to Elaine Dalton again and consider another way she acted well her part -- as General Young Women’s President-- to share this story and message with us so that we need not go to that mission home garden to be inspired by the message on the stone.  She puts her experience to work for the members by sharing it with us, and this is another kind of service.  (Much of the preparation work for her talk is invisible—the praying, the fasting, the studying, the remembering, the brainstorming, the writing, the editing, the practicing..)

Let’s look at the next story:

“Recently my magnificent 92-year-old mother passed away. She left this mortal existence as she had lived—quietly. Her life was not what she had planned. Her husband, my father, passed away when he was 45, leaving her with three children—me and my two brothers. She lived 47 years as a widow. She supported our family by teaching school during the day and teaching piano lessons at night. She cared for her aging father, my grandfather, who lived next door. She made sure that each of us received a college education. In fact, she insisted on it so that we could be “contributors.” And she never complained. She kept her covenants, and because she did, she called down the powers of heaven to bless our home and to send miracles. She relied on the power of prayer, priesthood, and covenant promises. She was faithful in her service to the Lord. Her steadfast devotion steadied us, her children. She often repeated the scripture: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.”4 That was her motto, and she knew it was true. She understood what it meant to be a covenant keeper. She was never recognized by the world. She didn’t want that. She understood who she was and whose she was—a daughter of God. Indeed, it can be said of our mother that she acted well her part.”

Elaine Daltons’ mother certainly acted well her part, doubled as it was by the loss of her husband.  We can see that her life was chock full of service in a way that was no doubt difficult, but that she relied on Heavenly Father throughout it.

“Several years ago, as this Conference Center was being built and nearing completion, I entered this sacred building on the balcony level in a hard hat and safety glasses, ready to vacuum the carpet that my husband was helping to install. Where the rostrum now stands was a front-end loader moving dirt, and the dust in this building was thick. When it settled, it did so on the new carpet. My part was to vacuum. And so I vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed. After three days my little vacuum burned up!
The afternoon before the first general conference in this beautiful building, my husband called me. He was about to install the last piece of carpet—under this historic pulpit.
He asked, “What scripture should I write on the back of this carpet?”
And I said, “Mosiah 18:9: ‘Stand as [a witness] of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.’”
….Years ago when I was vacuuming this carpet—trying to act well my small part—I didn’t realize that I would one day stand with my feet on the carpet under this pulpit.
Today as a daughter of God, I stand as a witness that He lives.”

I remember when I heard this story for the first time, I thought, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t know that someone would write scriptures on the back of the carpet!”  The way she spoke of it gives the impression that writing scriptures on the back of the carpet in the conference center must have been a common thing, with them trying to find the most fitting verse for each location.    (An interesting article in the Juvenile Instructor called “On Sacred Space, Carpets, and Embodied Belief”  made me realize that this was her way of investing the carpet with sacred meaning, making the space holy in her own special way.)  I particularly love how her husband called her up and counseled with her, rather than just writing whatever he felt like; that showed great respect.

When you look at what Elaine Dalton did in this story, you can see how she acted well her part.  When it was time to put in the new carpet, she vacuumed the dust away so that it wouldn’t get embedded too deep in the carpet.  She could easily have gotten discouraged in three days of vacuuming.  I know I don’t look forward to vacuuming my house, which only takes 15 minutes total, so three days straight of just vacuuming is really A LOT.  She acted her part so well that she actually outlasted her vacuum.  Human versus machine, human wins!  (I’ll bet she knows where all the best electrical outlets are found in the conference center. ;-) )

And too, consider that if she was vacuuming all the time that front-end loader was moving dirt and throwing dust in the air, it was probably throwing dust back on the carpets that she had just vacuumed, which meant that she may have had to vacuum the conference center multiple times.  This kind of service is perfectly analogous to the service of motherhood—doing many of the same tasks over because as soon as they are done they have to be done again.

We don’t know if she was the only one vacuuming or if she had help.  It also isn’t clear from the story whether this was a task given to her or whether she saw the need and took the task upon herself.  And perhaps it is best that we don’t know because our parts can be either way.  We may act our part alone or in groups.  We may be assigned our part, or we may take the initiative and volunteer.  I might also add that we may act a part that belongs to a long tradition or we may create a part that lasts briefly.

Another aspect of this story that we should consider is that our part can change over time and we don’t know when or how that might happen.  Elaine Dalton’s part during those three days was vacuuming the conference center carpet, but some years later that part changed to standing at the pulpit to give her witness of Christ and serve in the Young Women’s general presidency.  Our part may be hidden, or it may be public.  It may be domestic or worldwide.  It may be material or spiritual.  “What-e’er thou art, act well thy part!”

Suggestions for teaching
Read the following quote from Elaine Dalton’s talk:
“In the decadent society of Mormon’s time, he lamented that the women were robbed of that which was most dear and precious above all—their virtue and chastity. Again I renew the call for a return to virtue. Virtue is the strength and power of daughters of God. What would the world be like if virtue—a pattern of thought and behavior based on high moral standards, including chastity—were reinstated in our society as a most highly prized value? If immorality, pornography, and abuse decreased, would there be fewer broken marriages, broken lives, and broken hearts? Would media ennoble and enable rather than objectify and degrade God’s precious daughters? If all humanity really understood the importance of the statement “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father,” how would women be regarded and treated?”
  • What part does our fallen world assign to women? In what ways does this constitute robbery?

Read the next quote:
“By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."
  • What part does the Family Proclamation assign to woman?  In what ways can this ennoble and enable?  
  • Are there worldly traditions attached to mothering that might prevent or limit its being an ennobling or enabling role?
For women 
Invite your class to write down what parts or roles they play currently, at home, at church, at school, etc.  Then ask them to write down the service they render in each of these parts, no matter how small. 
Challenge them to think of someone they know whose part may often go unnoticed.  Find some way to show appreciation to them. 
Secondary challenge—Make an effort in the next week to express appreciation for the small things people around you do as they act well their part.  Let them know that they are acting well their part.

For men
Invite your class to write down the parts and roles that their wife and daughters play currently.  If unmarried, invite them to consider their mother and other women in their life. 
Ask your class to write down the services these women render as they act well their part.  Be as specific as you can.
Ask your class to consider what their life would be like if these women were not acting well their part.
Challenge your class to go home and express appreciation to their wives and daughters for how they act well their part.  Ask them to share the list they made with them to prove how well they’ve noticed.
Challenge your class to express that appreciation throughout the week as wife and daughter act well their part in small ways.


Papa D said...

I really appreciated this talk when I first heard it, and I was saddened (but not shocked) at the treatment it got in so many places. The mischaracterizations were unfortunate.

Michaela Stephens said...

Care to share what you appreciated about the talk?

I agree; the way some members have attacked it is regrettable. I appreciated Elaine Dalton's courage to speak out.