This BYU devotional address with Scott SwaFord was given on November 11, 2014.
Good morning, brothers and sisters, and welcome to our devotional. We’re pleased to have Scott SwaFord, the Director of Content for BYU Broadcasting, as our speaker. Today we extend a special welcome to his wife, Deborah, who is seated on the stand, as well as their family members and friends who are here. Brother SwaFord attended BYU as a trustee scholar and received his degree in film directing. He served as the director of Media for the IMA Mormon Campaign for the Church and joined BYU Broadcasting as the Director of Content in 2010. Brother SwaFord has been the executive producer on multiple television series for BYUtv such as Granite Flats, Studio C and American Ride. However, he may best be known for his work in IMAX films. He produced Roving Mars for Disney the IMAX hit Mysteries of Egypt for National Geographic Shackleton’s Antarctica Adventure for Nova and Amazon, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998. He’s also produced or directed a number of independent feature films for the Church, such as Legacy, Testaments and Luke Two. Brother SwaFord has worked on every continent and in 50 countries worldwide. He and his wife, Deborah Kuhn SwaFord, are the parents of four children.
And now we’ll have the opportunity of hearing from Brother Scott SwaFord.
Thank you, President. It’s always interesting to me on hearing an introduction like that, that’s followed by a short, bald guy standing at the pole. But it’s kind of anti climactic. But I think it’s educational because it’s important for us in the Church to realize that not all of us will age like President Ukdorf. Some of you, I’m sad to say, we’ll grow up and look like me. My father was a builder of big buildings, some well known so. When I returned from Japan and two years in Japan and wanted summer work, I ended up 40ft down at the bottom of an air conditioning shaft, stripping forms from freshly poured concrete. My captive coworker, Chuck, made the mistake of asking why I would waste two valuable years like that. I’m sure he had no idea what he was in for, and I unleashed my abundance of missionary zeal. At some point in our discussion, I heard a noise overhead and saw the familiar silhouette of my father leaning over the shaft. What he said was a surprise. Chuck, I don’t know what he’s saying down there, but I believe it’s true. Now get back to work.
It is for me, the most treasured testimony my father bore, but I want to hope we can surpass that level of communication today. I don’t want you going back to class thinking, I don’t know what he was saying down there, but I believe it’s true. I want instead to persuade you to rethink the way you communicate to others your feelings about your connections to heaven and the amazing blessing of what you know and what you feel why persuade? Because no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood. And I hold no position that grants me that kind of dominion over you anyway, but only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfaith. I want to persuade you to consider another perspective that will help you follow. The council of an apostle. Elder David Bennar stood here in August and asked us to sweep the earth with a flood of truth and righteousness in our online efforts. It was historic in many ways. I was so delighted. His first qualification for this effort was simple, and I quote we are disciples and our messages should be authentic.
A person or product that is not authentic is false, fake and fraudulent. Our messages should be truthful, honest and accurate. We should not exaggerate, embellish or pretend to be something or someone we are not. Following his counsel to be authentic will be more difficult for us as central culture Mormons because we have for decades desire to honor the Lord by always putting our best foot forward. Look down at your feet, if you will. The problem is, nearly every mortal has 2ft, and most require both of those feet to stand properly. Over the past ten years, I’ve regularly had the punishment and privilege of watching through a one way mirror as focus groups discuss Mormons. Not just any people, but those who were selected for these sessions by their beliefs and actions that they were likely to respond to the message of the Restoration. These are people who believe in Christ, who have their prayers answered, and who all believe their relationships will endure beyond death, even if their particular faith doesn’t teach that quite possibly they are those who are kept from a knowledge of the truth only because they know not where to find it.
And yet these amazing people of faith, when asked to characterize us, said in no particular order, polygamous, sexist, racist, exclusionary. Now, the first impulse in that situation was always to leap into the other room and correct the misperception we had all agreed not to. And the experience of the professionals was that it would have quickly disintegrated into no, we’re not. Yes, you are. No, we’re not, et cetera. So we calmed ourselves and went on. Now, there are points of history and evidence that can at least be argued for these erroneous perceptions, and there has been an exceptionally authentic response by late of the Church to issues of polygamy, race and gender. But the most troubling for me is not those perceptions. It is the widespread opinion that we exclude others from our faith, our communities, our sociality and our love. How can that be an accurate viewpoint? As we probe deeper into the experiences that generated this perception, we bumped into a very understandable cultural phenomenon. The first section of the Doctrine of Covenants identifies us as the only true and living church upon the face of a whole earth. I believe that statement and embrace it if we take it as a reminder that we are the grateful recipients of the blessings of access to all revealed priesthood keys and ongoing revelation from heaven to guide our actions.
And it is a humbling and aweinspiring statement of our faith. Often, though particularly in testimony meeting, it is used as a contrastive statement of pride, exclusion and misunderstanding, as if we are more righteous than others, as if we can monopolize the truth, and as if being chosen makes us more beloved. The first African American family moved into my neighborhood in 1965. My mother, as was her custom, baked fresh bread and went to visit the new family. I peered out the window for her return, anxiously awaiting her report. To her great credit, the fact that they were black didn’t make it into the conversation at all. With genuine pleasure, she exclaimed that they seemed like such nice people for being non members. In my suburban East Side Salt Lake neighborhood, our social circle was nearly all active, or what we called Jack Mormons as at the time. We had a handful of Catholics or Presbyterians kept pretty much within polite waving distance. We had daily interaction with those we had little daily interaction with those not of our faith, and my mother’s surprise at their goodness affected me. I spent my youth thinking heaven was for Mormons and all the other believers were destined for some other place.
I told my Greek and Baptist schoolmates as much. I was a little zoramite, climbing ramyumptom in my primary classes and praying. And again we thank thee, God, that we are chosen and holy people. As if to add, and the rest of your children are not. Imagine my awakening when my work over the last 30 years in 50 countries has acquainted me with thousands of our Heavenly Father’s beloved children who are amazing and faithful souls. In Egypt. I worked for months with Ahmed Sami, the producer of Death on the Nile. He was a devoted Muslim father and a truly ethical businessman in a country ripe with corruption at its cultural and political route. Without even knowing the Word, he voluntarily tied himself to the benefit of the poor. He spoke of many miracles and prayers answered. He often reminded me of Christ’s injunction to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. If I ever make it to the entry queue for the Celestial Kingdom, I expect him to be standing up there ahead, well in front of me with the seasoned ticket holders. While in Egypt we honored the promise of the Church had made not to ProsLight, but I have no worry for the state of his soul.
Why? Because apostles remind us often of the Lord’s statement in Second Nephi 27 that I can do my own work, and the last two sections of the Doctrine of Covenants reiterate that he has a plan for the redemption and exaltation of those who have died without the gospel and its ordinances. All of God’s children need to have an opportunity to hear the gospel, exercise their agency, and have access to the plan of salvation, or God would cease to be God. He lets us serve in our sacred responsibility as missionaries, both for our mortal trial and learning, and to gather his elect. To hear his voice and doubtless have particular service to render here and hereafter. So as we seek authenticity, it would serve us to remember that all men are children of our Heavenly Father and all fall short of the glory of God. Since the reality of our own weakness and continual striving to overcome our failings is obvious to all who observe us. Trust me, they find us most authentic when we acknowledge that trailing foot as well, and not just champion the best foot forward pertaining we have two right feet. I like this quote I love the man that swears a stream as long as my arm, yet deals justice to his neighbors and mercifully deals his substance to the poor than the smooth faced hypocrite.
I do not want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not. There was one good man, and his name was Jesus. Though it sounds like a focus group participant talking, it was actually Joseph Smith who said those words. He understood the value of acknowledging what I like to call the state of striving in any effort to persuade, lest we hold ourselves to a standard with our protestations or our posts tweets or pinnings that any observer could call pride and self rather than love for God and man. Please don’t assume that I’m calling for a disclosure of all of our personal failings anytime we desire to rejoice or a mandatory review of our sins. As a preface to our posts. We’ve all seen too much information online and cringed. I’m simply asking that we make sure the pictures we present of ourselves have 2ft walking toward God, reflecting his glory and not our own. This has ramifications for the way we communicate to all those who share our values but not our membership. I was taught in primary to interact with those not of our faith, with what we called the Golden Questions.
What do you know about the Mormon Church? Would you like to know more? If we applied that advice in today’s social climate, would it work? Imagine it on a personal, interactive basis. Let’s say I boarded a plane and sat next to a fellow traveler and declared, hi, I’m Scott SwaFord. What do you know about me? Would you like to know more? I’m pretty sure a call button would be pressed and I’d be relocated if not removed from the plane. The most authentic way to enter a gospel discussion is to seek to understand first. I’ve experimented with the following approach when seated on a plane good morning. I like those shoes. The dialogue is now underway on a positive note. Eventually it gets to is this flight outbound or returning home for you? Inevitably, they will ask where home is, and I’m lucky than admitting that I’m from Utah. It’s like setting a timer on a predictable response. Three, two, one. Are you Mormon? Now, I could launch into my memorized first discussion, but it’s in Japanese, so instead I use the reply yes. And you? I then pay genuine attention to a lot of information about this new friend, their thoughts on faith, their struggles, and their current frame of mind.
Now I’m ready for the spirit to direct the next move. Am I encouraging timidity or restraint in opening our mouths? No. Am I celebrating weakness? Yes. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble. And my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me. For if they humble themselves before me and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Clearly, weakness and the recognition of it, the humility that follows, and the application of faith in Christ is essential to our eternal progression. It’s also the key to authenticity. During the Ivo Mormon research, we learned that the most powerful myth dispelling force was the personal exposure to the lives of our members more powerful than any argument. Firsthand, knowledge was the secret weapon. When we would meet someone who held inaccurate beliefs, we’d say, do you know any Mormons? The answer is usually something like yes. One of our vendors is a Mormon. Well, does he have two wives? No. Does he behave in a discriminatory way toward women or people of different backgrounds? No. Has he invited you to participate socially in his life? Yes.
We’ve been out to dinner. So how do you explain this contradiction between your beliefs and your experience? Well, he must be an exception. We learned that they needed five or ten exceptions in their life before they would adjust their misperception of Latter day Saints. Thus, the profiles on Mormon.org thousands of virtual relatable, striving followers of Christ after those experiences provided me a valuable clue what makes us relevant to others? I came to BYUtv. We knew from our research that good writing, good drama, and powerful television draws at its most inspired level on the capability of flawed characters, whether real or imagined, to accomplish amazing things. That is our story. As humans, the Atonement takes the small and simple things that we are and makes them heirs to all that the Father hath. We began as a team to craft such shows, striving to see the good in the world amidst all of our human flaws. Now, if I judge our success by the letters I received from some well meaning Saints, we’ve ruined the channel. We tried to take their comments into consideration and then proceed carefully with our approved direction. The most popular show when I arrived was a quilting show called Fawns and Porter’s Love of Quilting.
The week I arrived, it pulled 8700 households. Now, following the council of our leaders and with an amazing creative and distribution team in place, some of our shows can see a million plus viewers in a week and 63 million digital views in a year. Many of those views are by those not of our faith, as we hear from thousands of them whose expectations were violated in the positive. It is our weakness and our need to overcome sin that binds us to the Savior. From Luke 18, two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other Republican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself god, I thank you that I am not, as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breath, saying, god be merciful unto me, a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other, for everyone that exalted himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Often, Bitter and Nashing voices focus on some personal weakness of church leaders, both general and local, in an attempt to justify refusal to follow their counsel. I find these protestations, whether historical or current, have the opposite effect on me. If these leaders can accomplish such virtuous, lovely things as human and therefore flawed characters, then there is hope for me, a sinner. I have myself witnessed. Members of the ruling councils of this church make decisions that in no way aligned with what I knew their personal opinions to be, because the spirit of the Lord had wrought upon them otherwise. What more joyous witness can there be than knowing heaven is in charge? Those not of our faith resonate with the message of the gospel best when it is presented by messengers who jump in with both feet and acknowledge their striving state. Authenticity also implies an attempt to speak in a situational language our audience can understand. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to role play with English speaking MTC missionaries. I chose to play a husband who just lost his wife. I decided to go easy on them, and after welcoming them to my home, I spoke of my grief.
At the loss of my imaginary spouse and my sincere need to understand her whereabouts. I felt I’d given them an obvious approach to take. Man, I thought to myself, I wish I’d seen such a golden investigator on my mission. Their fresh young faces looked up at me, opened their scriptures, and began to enthusiastically launch into what was their most comfortable vehicle the story of the restoration in the spring in 1820 in upstate New York. I stopped them. Now, elders listen to what I just asked and see if there is a more comforting approach. I repeated my deep yearning for knowledge about the state of the soul after death with even brighter smiles. They began again in the spring of 1820 in upstate New York, and this time I just let them talk. You see, to them, the story of the Restoration is so central, so relevant, that it was of course, the answer. We would all agree that the words of Alma about the Resurrection I wanted them to quote, or the messages about the ceiling power I was hoping for would not be ours without the prophet Joseph. But they were just a little too ready to use their new MTC squirt guns to squirt the gospel on me and feel they had done their job.
I wanted them to take responsibility for the absorption of that message as well. Their testimony of Joseph Smith would be critical to my understanding as an investigator, but it was out of place in messaging hierarchy. If they had caught my situational questions and affirmed that their message had the answer I was seeking about my dear departed, I would have been happy to wade through any lesson on the Restoration, even in questionable Finnish or Tagalog or Swahili. Likewise, as we strive for authenticity, we need to listen and construct a message hierarchy. The Savior could easily have taught love your enemies by a simple pronouncement and did so on occasion. He also used the much more engaging a man went from Jerusalem down to Jericho and was fallen on by thieves. Now that’s a terrific open, of course, belonging to the Good Samaritan parable. Both approaches eventually arrive at the same place love your enemies. But one follows a messaging strategy that I’ve seen work countless times from behind the one way mirrors of my career. I’m aware that by advocating a change in our approach to the world, I have perhaps created another should and sad reality is that you should can become the enemy of I would.
I saw an effective illustration of this principle once the presenter stood a life side cut out of a Latter day Saint in front of the room and began to place post it notes on it to represent every commandment, responsibility, expectation, program, activity, area of emphasis and worthy endeavor we are repeatedly asked to apply ourselves to. The image of the person was quickly obliterated and overwhelmed. I feel that way often. The only way for me to find a way forward is to remember that the Savior found a way to make it all simple, as he was so adept at doing. He took the mass of instructions, policies, commandments and traditions and made them only two. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. When I need a gut check in the decision making process, I don’t always have with me the laminated card they handed out at the last leadership meeting.
Instead, I weigh my options. Against those two commandments. It is clear that Jesus, for whom the answer to nearly all questions is love, surely loves us all. He loves the professor who came up with a perfectly good lesson plan 30 years ago, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. He loves the ineffective politician. He loves the guy who asks you out once and then never calls again. He loves the roommate who steals your milk. He loves people who know him by names we cannot pronounce and who chant to him, or dance for him, or who kneel five times a day on little rugs, or who touch a mazuza at their comings and goings. He loves the primitive Amazon natives who enact familiar rituals the origin of which they do not understand. But I did. He even loves pharisees and hypocrites, although, to be honest, he was sort of tough on them during his mortar ministry. That love is the answer to any procedural questions because it dictates through the Spirit how we approach this specific child of God, this specific audience. It is different for each encounter. And following that pure love of Christ under the direction of the Spirit is the ultimate communications trump card.
It is divinely authentic. And now I leave you with three guidelines for putting both feet forward. Feel free to laminate these for your wallet or just put them on your forehead with a sticky note. Number one if your virtues must be extolled, it is always better to have a third party do it really. Number two, if doing it yourself is unavoidable, start by expressing love and genuine admiration for your audience. What follows is then less likely to be offensive. Number three when in doubt, follow. Dear Nephi, nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord in showing me his great and marvellous works, my heart exclaimeth, O wretched man that I am, yea, my heart sorrowth because of my flesh, my soul grieve because of mine. Iniquities I’m encompassed about by the temptations and sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart grown up because of my sins. Nevertheless I know in whom I have trusted. Brothers and sisters, I am a wretched man. My thoughts careened recklessly in and out of the appropriate path. My family, my coworkers and my bosses will attest that I’m often irreverent and annoying.
When I served as bishop, a sister told me in an interview that I was not only glib which I had to look up, but that I also had perhaps the shortest attention span on the planet. Sometimes I think there is no hope. It is not God who makes me feel that way in the middle of the night. Weakness and humility leads to hopefulness, not helplessness. But when I call myself, I know there is indeed a bright hope. Because I know in whom I have trusted. I believe that if I just keep striving, just keep repenting and don’t stop trying to love as he loved, then someday, maybe after a millennium of practice I will be whole because of his atoning sacrifice for me today, here in this gathering, I feel his love for you. Though you are all also wretched in some way. I know his love will save us. And I know that about you because I know in whom you have trusted. I testify that you will go on with both feet forward, the best foot and the real foot to do mighty things in his name. In the name of Jesus Christ.
Amen. This BYU devotional address with Scott SwaFord was given on November 11, 2014.