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Collected Writings

The Bird in Hand
Feeding the Fire
Legend of the Snake
Sullivan Ballou
The Bridge
The Bicycle
Pushing Against the Rock
The Mediator
The Star Thrower

The Bird in Hand

Many moons ago, when the mountains were not so high, nor the rivers so deep, there lived a mighty tribe of Indians. This peaceful tribe had many villages and prospered as the chieftain of the tribe was righteous and wise.

For many moons the tribe lived in a state of bliss and peace under the chieftain's rule. But the chief began to grow old. He saw that soon he would return to his mother earth and lie down in the dust. In his wisdom, he sought for one to take his place as chief when he would be no more. So out he sent to all his villages, saying that he who could ask the chief a question which he could not answer, only he would be wise enough to be the next chief.

Many braves came before the old chieftain, asking many questions. Where does the Sun go when it sleeps at night? Who hid fire in wood? Where do the spirits of men go when they die? Many questions were asked to the chief. All were answered by the chief.

One day, a young warrior went off by himself to think in the forest of a question to ask the chief which he could not answer. He thought for many days and many nights. Finally, he knew what he would do. He would catch a young bird in his hands and would bring it to the chieftain's village.

He knew the question he was going to ask the chief. He would bring the bird in his hands to the chief and ask, "O mighty Chief, is the bird in my hands alive or dead?" And if the chief would answer that the bird was dead, he could open his hands and let the bird fly free. The chief would be wrong, and he would be the next chief. If the chief would say the bird was alive, he could crush it, and drop it dead at his feet. Again the chief would be wrong, and he would be the next chief.

So the young warrior caught a bird and went to the chieftain's village and went before the chief with the bird in his hands, saying, "O mighty Chief, is the bird in my hands alive or dead?" The chief did not answer the young brave, only sat pondering the question in silence, for in his wisdom he knew that if he said the bird was dead, the brave could open his hands and let the bird fly free. If he said the bird was alive, the brave could crush the bird and drop it dead at his feet.

Finally, after remaining silent for the space of an hour, the old chief answered the young brave, "My son, it is in your hands."

And so it is with all things in life. Whether you choose to do good or evil, whether you choose to fight or flee, whether you choose to stand or fall, whether you choose to give up or endure; in all things, it is in your hands.

Feeding the Fire

Once there lived a peaceful village of Indians, Lenni Lenape their name was. In a state of peace so blissful, they watched the seasons pass before them. Winter melted into Spring. Spring blossomed into Summer. Summer ripened into Autumn. Autumn died on Winter's bosom. Thus the seasons never ending, flowed one into the next.

Every year before the cold, cold Winter came they would gather food and supplies into their wigwams so that they might subside through Winter's cold wind and deep snow. One year, the young brave who the head of the household in one wigwam did not gather enough wood to sustain his fire through the Winter. In a nearby wigwam, an old warrior also had failed to gather all the wood needed to keep his fire alight.

As the young brave watched his fire dwindle, he thought to himself; I will go out into Winter's cold wind to gather more wood that I and my family might not die but live till the Spring. But I am not willing to risk my life in Winter’s deep snow to feed my fire until my fire first gives me heat.

The aged warrior who was head over the second wigwam also thought to himself as he watched his fire die; my fire is dying. I must go out into Winter's cold wind to gather more wood that I and my family might live till the Spring. And I know that the fire will not give me heat, until first I feed the fire.

So off onto Winter's cold trail went the old warrior to gather wood for his fire while the young brave remained in his wigwam. The next Spring, when Winter's cold wind and deep snow no longer could keep back Life from springing forth, those in the first wigwam were found froze to death, but those in the second wigwam lived through that and many more winters.

Just as the fire, so it is with all things. We must feed our fire before we can expect to receive heat from it.

Legend of the Snake

Long ago, it was the custom of young Indian braves to go out on their own into the wilderness to find themselves upon their coming of age. One such youth hiked into a beautiful valley, and walked alone along a river until he came to the base of a mountain. There he fasted and on the third day went to test himself against the mountain.

Leaving the warm valley, the young brave climbed up the steep face of the mountains cliffs until he reached the top. Once he reached the summit, he could see forever, and his spirit soared like the eagle.

Suddenly he looked down and saw a snake at his feet. The snake spoke, "Please, I am about to die. It is too cold for me up here, and I have nothing to eat. Tuck me in your shirt to keep me warm and carry me down the mountain."

"Oh no," cried the youth, "I know your kind. You are a rattlesnake! If I pick you up, you will bite me, and I will die."

"No," said the snake, "if you do this for me, I will treat you differently. I will not bite you. You will be special." The youth again refused, but this was a very cunning snake with beautiful markings. Finally when the snake asked again, the youth tucked the snake in his shirt to keep it warm and carried it carefully down the mountain to the warm valley below.

There the youth set the snake gently in the grass by the river, when the snake suddenly coiled and struck, biting him on the leg. "But you promised!” cried the youth as he fell to the ground in pain.

"You knew what I was when you picked me up!" replied the snake as it slithered away.

God wants us to make right choices, but he will not force into making them. He allows us to choose between good and evil. But he will always warn us of the danger of choosing evil. Remember, "You knew what I was when you picked me up!"

Major Sullivan Ballou wrote the following letter to his wife Sarah during the American Civil War.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure -- and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing -- perfectly willing -- to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows -- when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children -- is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me--perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar--that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.


Major Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first battle of Bull Run seven days after writing this letter to his wife Sarah.


One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonged to him, and the other to the Lord.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it."Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me."

The Lord replied, "My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."

Author Unknown

The Bridge

There was once a bridge which spanned a large river. During most of the day the bridge sat with its length running up and down the river paralleled with the banks, allowing ships to pass through freely on both sides of the bridge. But at certain times each day, a train would come along and the bridge would be turned sideways across the river, allowing a train to cross it.

A switchman sat in a small shack on one side of the river where he operated the controls to turn the bridge and lock it into place as the train crossed. One evening as the switchman was waiting for the last train of the day to come, he looked off into the distance through the dimming twilight and caught sight of the train lights.

He stepped to the control and waited until the train was within a prescribed distance when he was to turn the bridge. He turned the bridge into position, but, to his horror, he found the locking control did not work. If the bridge was not securely in position it would wobble back and forth at the ends when the train came onto it, causing the train to jump the track and go crashing into the river. This would be a passenger train with many people aboard.

He left the bridge turned across the river, and hurried across the bridge to the other side of the river where there was a lever switch he could hold to operate the lock manually. He would have to hold the lever back firmly as the train crossed. He could hear the rumble of the train now, and he took hold of the lever and leaned backward to apply his weight to it, locking the bridge.

He kept applying the pressure to keep the mechanism locked. Many lives depended on this man's strength. Then, coming across the bridge from the direction of his control shack, he heard a sound that made his blood run cold. "Daddy, where are you?" His four-year-old son was crossing the bridge to look for him. His first impulse was to cry out to the child, "Run! Run!" But the train was too close; the tiny legs would never make it across the bridge in time. The man almost left his lever to run and snatch up his son and carry him to safety. But he realized that he could not get back to the lever. Either the people on the train or his little son must die. He took a moment to make his decision.

The train sped safely and swiftly on its way, and no one aboard was even aware of the tiny broken body thrown mercilessly into the river by the on rushing train. Nor were they aware of the pitiful figure of the sobbing man, still clinging tightly to the locking lever long after the train had passed. They did not see him walking home more slowly than he had ever walked: to tell his wife how their son had brutally died. Now if you comprehend the emotions which went this man's heart, you can begin to understand the feelings of our Father in Heaven when He sacrificed His Son to bridge the gap between us and eternal life. Can there be any wonder that He caused the earth to tremble and the skies to darken when His Son died? How does He feel when we speed along through life without giving a thought to what was done for us through His Son Jesus Christ?

Author Unknown

The Bicycle

I was sitting in a chair reading. My daughter, Sarah, who was seven years old at the time, came in and said, “Dad, can I have a bike? I’m the only kid on the block who doesn’t have one.”

Well, I didn’t have the money then for a bike, so I stalled her. I said, “Sure, Sarah.”

She said, “How? When?”

I said, “You save all your pennies, and soon you’ll have enough for a bike.” And she went away.

A couple ofs weeks later I was sitting in the same chair when I heard a “clink, clink” in Sarah’s bedroom. I asked, “Sarah, what are you doing?”

She came to me with a little jar, a slit cut in the lid, and a bunch of pennies in the bottom. She said, “You promised me that if I saved all my pennies, pretty soon I’d have enough for a bike. And, Daddy, I’ve saved every single one of them.”

My heart melted. My daughter was doing everything in her power to follow my instructions. I hadn’t actually lied to her. If she saved all of her pennies, she would eventually have enough for a bike, but by then she would want a car. I said, “Let’s go look at bikes.”

We went to every store in town. Finally we found it—the perfect bicycle. She was thrilled. Then she saw the price tag, and her face fell. She started to cry. “Oh, Dad, I’ll never have enough for a bicycle!”

So I said, “Sarah, how much do you have?”

She answered, “Sixty-one cents.”

“I’ll tell you what. You give me everything you’ve got and a hug and a kiss, and the bike is yours.” Then I drove home very slowly because she insisted on riding the bike home.

As I drove beside her, I thought of the atonement of Christ. We all desperately want the celestial kingdom. We want to be with our Father in Heaven. But no matter how hard we try, we come up short. At some point all of us must realize, “I can’t do this by myself. I need help.” Then it is that the Savior says, in effect, All right, you’re not perfect. But what can you do? Give me all you have, and I’ll do the rest.

He still requires our best effort. We must keep trying. But the good news is that having done all we can, it is enough. We may not be personally perfect yet, but because of our covenant with the Savior, we can rely on his perfection, and his perfection will get us through.

(Stephen E. Robinson, “Believing Christ,” Ensign, April 1992, 5)

Pushing Against the Rock

There was a man who was asleep one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light and the Savior appeared. The Lord told him he had a work for him to do, and showed him a large rock, explaining that he was to push against that rock with all his might. This the man did, and for many days he toiled from sunup to sundown; his shoulder set squarely against the cold massive surface of the rock pushing with all his might. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and wore out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain.

Seeing that the man was showing signs of discouragement, Satan decided to enter the picture, placing thoughts in the man's mind, such as "Why kill yourself over this, you're never going to move it," or "Boy, you've been at it a long time and you haven't even scratched the surface," etc., giving the man the impression that the task was impossible and that he was an unworthy servant because he wasn't moving the massive stone.

These thoughts discouraged and disheartened the man and he started to ease up in his efforts. "Why kill myself?" he thought. "I'll just put in my time, putting forth just the minimum of effort and that will be good enough." And that he did, or at least planned on doing until one day he decided to take his troubles to the Lord. "Lord," he said, "I have labored hard and long in your service, putting forth all my strength to do that which you have asked me. Yet, after all this time, I have not even budged that rock half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?"

To this the Lord responded compassionately, "My friend... when long ago I asked you to serve me and you accepted, I told you to push against the rock with all your strength, and that you have done. But never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. At least not by yourself. Your task was to push. And now you come to me, your strength spent, thinking that you have failed and ready to quit. But is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled; your back sinewed and brown. Your hands are callused from constant pressure and your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much and your ability now far surpasses that which you used to have. Yet still, you haven't succeeded in moving the rock; and you come to me now with a heavy heart and your strength spent. I, my friend, will move the rock. Your calling was to be obedient and to push, and to exercise your faith and trust in my wisdom... and this you have done."

Author Unknown

The Mediator

Let me tell you a story--a parable.

There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt.

He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.

So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn't worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.

The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come.

But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.

Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.

"I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so," he confessed.

"Then," said the creditor, "we will exercise the contract, take your possessions and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced."

"Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?" the debtor begged. "Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?"

The creditor replied, "Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?"

"I believed in justice when I signed the contract," the debtor said. "It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well."

"It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty," the creditor replied. "That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice."

There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

"If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy," the debtor pleaded.

"If I do, there will be no justice," was the reply.

Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also?

There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended--but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.

The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

"I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison."

As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, "You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just."

And so the creditor agreed.

The mediator turned then to the debtor. "If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?"

"Oh yes, yes," cried the debtor. "You saved me from prison and show mercy to me."

"Then," said the benefactor, "you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison."

And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken.

The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was satisfied. (in Conference Report, Apr. 1977, pp. 7980; or Ensign, May 1977, pp. 5455).

Each of us has a spiritual account of sorts. One day payment when fall due, and when that day comes, we will look around in agony for someone, anyone who can help us. And, by divine decree, one cannot unless they are willing and able [sinless].

Unless we have a friend, unless we have a mediator, unless we have a savior, the full weight of justice, untempered, unsympathetic must fall upon us.

There is a savior, a redeemer who stands willing and able for all those who come unto Him, "For He offereth Himself a sacrifice for sin." And unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve gave the preceding illustration to show how Christ's atonement makes it possible to be saved from sin if we do our part by repenting of our sins and keeping God's commandments so that we can have our sins washed away, be at peace, and return to live with our Heavenly Father.

The Star Thrower

The following story was inspired by the writing of Loren Eiseley. Eiseley combined the best of two cultures. He was a scientist and a poet. And from those two perspectives he wrote insightfully and beautifully about the world and our role in it.

Once upon a time, there was a wise man, much like Eiseley himself, who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn't dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he called out, "Good morning! What are you doing?" The young man paused, looked up and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I guess I should have asked, Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"

"The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don't throw them in they'll die."

"But young man, don't you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can't possibly make a difference!"

The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. "It made a difference for that one!"

His response surprised the man. He was upset. He didn't know how to reply. So instead, he turned away and walked back to the cottage to begin his writings.

All day long as he wrote, the image of the young man haunted him. He tried to ignore it, but the vision persisted. Finally, late in the afternoon he realized that he the scientist, he the poet, had missed out on the essential nature of the young man's actions. Because he realized that what the young man was doing was choosing not to be an observer in the universe and make a difference. He was embarrased.

That night he went to bed troubled. When the morning came he awoke knowing that he had to do something. So he got up, put on his clothes, went to the beach and found the young man. And with him he spent the rest of the morning throwing starfish into the ocean. You see, what that young man's actions represent is something that is special in each and everyone of us. We have all been gifted with the ability to make a difference. And if we can, like that young man, become aware of that gift, we gain through the strength of our vision the power to shape the future.

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