[Editor’s Note: I think I’ve spoken on family history four times in the past year or two. Also, I had to teach a 5th Sunday lesson in another ward about family history today–the same today where I had to speak in Sacrament meeting. So when that happens, I go rogue and quote musicals with parental advisories on them. Also, also, this is the written version of my talk and the real version was probably much better…right? Right, right].
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
I want to keep everyone awake so I thought I’d start off with a little history lesson. I’d invite you to look in your wallets for this one, but no one carries cash on them anymore.
On the $10 bill is a man who was never president of the U.S. His name…Alexander Hamilton. Until recently, you may have known just that much. But due to a smash-hit musical on Broadway right now, “Hamilton” has become a household name. As a founding father, chief author of 51 of the Federalist Papers, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and an interesting historical figure, his life and work have come to light through this musical, which I only semi-endorse as it does have a parental advisory and Hamilton did have some shady parts of his life (but there is an edited version now!). Hamilton died young; he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. At the end of the wildly popular rap/musical, the chorus sings, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”
The lyrics begin with the chorus singing:
“…When you’re gone, who remembers your name?
Who keeps your flame?
Who tells your story?”
Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, then sings to Hamilton of what she does to preserve his legacy. She searched out and recorded her husband’s life, work, and legacy. She defended his name until her death. She told his story, a story that now demands the highest-priced tickets on Broadway.
“I put myself back in the narrative
I stop wasting time on tears
I live another fifty years
It’s not enough
I interview every soldier who fought by your side
I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings
You really do write like you’re running out of
And I’m still not through
I ask myself, “What would you do if you had more”
The Lord, in his kindness
He gives me what you always wanted
He gives me more—
And when my time is up, have I done enough?
Will they tell my story?
Will they tell your story?
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
So today I ask you, “What is your story?” and “Who tells your story?”
As a journalism undergrad, my blood flows with stories. I thrive on learning and hearing from others’ experiences.
A global spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”
In a landmark article in the New York Times in 2013, titled “The Stories that Bind Us”, researchers revealed that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
Incredible. Stories, and especially family stories, have the power to bind us together and make us stronger.
Continuing from the article: “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
So I’d like to share stories of the continuation of my people in me.
Maria Louisa Penn Newman is one of my friends. She is my great-great-great grandmother and was born in England in 1829. She later married a member of the Church and then joined the Church herself. She and her husband Henry James decided to come to Zion with their three children. As they prepared to leave, Henry wanted Maria to purchase a bolt of silk to make herself something new when she got to Zion, but Maria felt prompted to instead buy Welch flannel. On the ship over to America, she sewed thick coverings with the flannel that could cover feet and hands if drawn up with a string, a decision that would ultimately save the lives of her family members.
Why? The year was 1856. After arriving by ship in Boston, they took the rail to Iowa, and Maria and Henry joined the Hunt Wagon company, which followed behind the Martin Handcart company, to protect them. At the beginning of the journey, Maria and Henry’s oxen stampeded, upsetting the wagon, and destroying many of their supplies. Most of us know the fate of the Martin Handcart company, which was also that of the wagon company following close behind. Caught in early winter storms, they suffered starvation, frostbite, and death. But the Welch flannel Maria had made clothing out of kept her family warm.
However, the family had started low on supplies due to their oxen upset, and on the journey, all of their cattle died, so Henry was offered half a wagon box to build a handcart. Maria was expecting her fourth child at the time and gave birth in the wagon box. Her baby, Hannah, was born on November 13, and died the same day.
Her daughter recorded Maria’s story and recounted, “The birth and death of her little daughter and the digging of a crude grave in the frozen ground were very hard on her in her weakened condition. As the train moved off in the distance, mother glanced back and saw the wolves digging at the tiny grave.
“Another heart rending scene occurred one night after they had crossed the Platte River, when eighteen died during the night from cold and exposure. Before reaching Devil’s Gate, they were put on rations of one fourth of a pound of flour per head per day…at this extreme hardship, our brave mother who had not been well since she lost her little one, became disheartened and said she was ready to lie down and die. Fortunately, a relief party arrived on the scene shortly after this.”
The exquisite part of this story, to me, is realizing the age of my grandmother. She was 27 at the time. Before she had even reached my age, she had married, joined a new religion, had 4 children, immigrated to a new country, and endured extreme physical hardship, including the burying of a child. In my mind, Maria is not a stodgy, stiff pioneer lady. She is a young woman, new in her faith, bright in her love, and beautiful in her motherhood, seeking to do God’s will and willing to sacrifice all in the process. In her life, she had 13 children. Her daughter later said of her, “Mother was … set apart to go among the sick, to comfort the distressed and … In this capacity she was blessed with great power…Mother was a woman of singular purity of mind and was deeply religious.”
Who lives? Who dies? Who tells HER story?
Her story lives on in me. Her faith and perseverance have strengthened my own faith on many occasions.
Another one of my good friends is my dad. In August of 1974, my dad left on his mission to Ireland. A few short weeks after my dad arrived in the field, he received word his father had passed away suddenly while in recovery from a heart surgery. Swollen with grief and heartache, my dad was able to return home for a short time before returning to the field. He continued to serve faithfully as a missionary. Compounded with the grief of losing his father and the hard realities of mission life in Ireland, he was heart-broken and somewhat defeated, having lost his only brother a few years earlier in the Vietnam War and now his father was gone.
At one point, my dad contracted the flu and became very ill. He was so sick and weak, the mission president had him come to the mission home to be cared for. For several days, his fever raged. It was perhaps one of those moments in time where it seemed the heavens had abandoned him.
One morning, as my father laid in bed, the sister missionaries were in the mission home meeting with the president. One of the sisters sat down to the piano and began to play. She started to play “Baptism” from the Children’s Songbook (Song No. 100). From the room, my dad could hear her playing. As the simple yet beautiful melody echoed throughout the mission home, my dad was filled with peace and comfort. He knew in that moment that all would be well, that he would get better, and that his grief would be swallowed up in Christ.
As a child, my dad constantly reminded me of this story and of the life-saving music that sister missionary provided. That sister and her companion took care of him in his time of need and helped him feel God’s love. Knowing this story, I had a deep longing to be a sister missionary like that. I wanted to be a sister who would influence someone’s life in such a manner and help others feel God’s love.
Ten years ago, when I reached the age to make the decision, I knew what I wanted to do. I turned in my papers and received my call to Curitiba, Brazil. With an anxious heart, I entered the MTC in Brazil and began my missionary training. The excitement of a new country, a new language, and a new opportunity made the experience feel so adventurous. But the weight of the calling often swelled my heart with fear and concern.
One morning during our study in the MTC, an elder from my district turned on an instrumental CD by Paul Cardall, called “Primary Worship.” As we listened, a very familiar melody began to play. The song was “Baptism” from the Children’s Songbook. My heart was filled with peace and love. I was reminded of my dad’s story and that dear sister missionary who not only saved my dad’s life, but influenced me to serve a mission and serve others.
I have never met those sisters from my dad’s mission, but I thank them for the message of faith in Christ, even in the hard times, that continues to resonate in my life: “Now we know that we must also, witness faith in Jesus’ word…to enter with [our] Father in the kingdom up on high.”
Who lives? Who dies? Who tells OUR story?
I want to invite you to consider your story and your legacy. What are you doing to connect with those who have gone before you? What are you doing to make their stories part of your story? What are you doing to let them help you with the lives they lived?
And, conversely, what is your story? What is the story that you want told about you?
If today were your last day on earth, what would be the story that remained? What would you change if you could?
May I suggest a few thoughts on this matter.
The world is filled with confusion, noise, and ill-will. The gospel is filled with goodness and light. If your light is dim right now, let your story be one of turning back to the light. Find what holds you back and let it go. If your story is one of passive conversion or questioning of Church leaders, let your story change and show greater faith. If your story is one filled with pornography use, seek help from the bishop. Let your story be one of triumphing over a temptation many face and coming out clean. Let your experience of healing through the Savior and His Atonement be the story you tell your children one day, instead of continuing to live in dark places.
If your story, like mine is right now, is filled with a need to forgive someone else, then let the Lord work in you to soften a place for forgiveness. What better story for our children to know than that we learned to seek God’s help in our weakness? If your story is one of wasted time and efforts on less-than-uplifting media or untempered time playing video or cell phone games, rewrite your story. This is your time. Choose to change your story. And choose to tell your family story. The ups and the downs. Generations to come will call you blessed if you do.
Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? You do. And the beautiful thing about it is you CAN change it. And the even more beautiful thing about it is it is the story of thousands who have gone before and thousands yet to come. “You are the result of the love of thousands.”
And why does this all matter? Because of ONE great story. The greatest story ever told. The birth of a babe in a manger. The life of a teacher and exemplar. The ministry of a miracle-maker. The sacrifice of a Savior and the Resurrection of our Redeemer. Our families are literally bound together through Christ because of this everlasting gospel.
His life and mission ensured that our stories are not just stories, but rather our lifeblood, our roots, our branches, our hearts that are turned, and our hearts that are changed.
As President Wilford Woodruff said: “There is hardly any principle the Lord has revealed that I have rejoiced more in than in the redemption of our dead; that we will have our fathers, our mothers, our wives and our children with us in the family organization, in the morning of the first resurrection and in the Celestial Kingdom. These are grand principles. They are worth every sacrifice.”18
In one of my favorite scripture passages, Doctrine and Covenants 128, the Lord reveals through Joseph Smith the doctrine of baptism for the dead.
18 “It is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place…
19 Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy…
22 Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.”
I bear testimony that your story, and your ancestors’ stories, and your future family’s stories can and will be a voice of gladness through this great gospel. Let us go on in so great a cause. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.