The following message for the Easter weekend (and, simultaneously, for the weekend of the annual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was sent to all members of the Brigham Young University faculty on the evening of Friday, 2 April 2010. We reproduce it here with the kind permission of Professor Tanner.
Treasure in Earthen Vessels
A couple weeks ago I was invited to sustain a new bishop—a long-time neighbor and home teacher. Tomorrow we will be privileged to sustain the General Authorities of the Church. When I engage in this time-honored practice of sustaining Church officers, whether a bishop or the Brethren, I often recall a scripture from Second Corinthians: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (4:7).
“Treasures in earthen vessels.” This image acknowledges what the Lord’s servants have always acknowledged: namely, that they are mortals like the rest of us, with normal human flaws and limitations. As King Benjamin said to his people when he gathered them for the equivalent of an ancient general conference: “I have not commanded you to come up hither . . . that you should think that I am of myself more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind” (Mosiah 2: 10-11).
We do not worship or idolize our leaders. We sustain them, which means “hold up.” We are instructed to uphold them with our “confidence, faith, and prayer” (D&C 107:22), “in their weakness” (D&C 1:24). I sometimes think of Joshua holding up Moses’ arms during the battle as I raise my arm to the square.
At the same time, these earthen vessels are the oracles of God for us. The Lord proclaims his gospel by “the weak and the simple” (D&C 1:23). He entrusts this treasure to earthen vessels “that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.”
This principle of earthen vessels reminds me of a story from the life of Karl G. Maeser recounted many years ago at BYU by President Packer. As one who likes to hike, I have often recounted this story to my family when we have made our way across a mountain track, guided only by cairns.
On one occasion he [Karl G. Maeser] was leading a party of young missionaries across the Alps. As they slowly ascended the steep slope, he looked back and saw a row of sticks thrust into the glacial snow to mark the one safe path across the otherwise treacherous mountains.
Something about those sticks impressed him, and halting the company of missionaries he gestured toward them and said, “Brethren, there stands the priesthood. They are just common sticks like the rest of us—some of them may even seem to be a little crooked, but the position they hold makes them what they are. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost.” (“Follow the Brethren” Boyd K. Packer, BYU, March 23, 1965)
The Brethren are not the only earthen vessels through whom we receive the treasures of heaven. This Easter weekend we remember the treasure we have received from one who chose to “dwell in a tabernacle of clay,” that he might “suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:5,7). Many in Jesus’ own day dismissed him as a mere man. After all, they knew his brothers and sisters. They knew his carpenter father and his inconsequential hometown of Nazareth. He was easy to dismiss. For as Isaiah predicted, Jesus “hath no form nor comeliness . . . there is no beauty that we should desire him.” Hence he was “despised and rejected of men” (Is. 53:2-3).
Yet through this lowly, humble, earthen vessel, the world received an inestimable treasure. How blessed we are that the Savior condescended to take “upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:7-8). This weekend, I am grateful to sustain, and be sustained by, the many treasures God has given us in earthen vessels.
John S. Tanner has served as Academic Vice President of Brigham Young University since June 1, 2004. Prior to this, he served as Associate Academic Vice President in two previous BYU administrations, as well as chair of the English Department, the largest department on campus. In these assignments he has drafted foundational documents and policies for the university, such as “The Aims of a BYU Education” and the “Statement on Academic Freedom at BYU.” He has also led the university in a number of initiatives. These have resulted in significant improvements in teaching, learning, and scholarship at BYU while containing costs.
Professor Tanner received a BA in English from Brigham Young University in 1974 (magna cum laude and Highest Honors), and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1980. He was an assistant professor at The Florida State University before coming to BYU, where he holds the rank of Professor of English. He has also been a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in Brazil.
Professor Tanner’s first professional love is teaching. He is the recipient of several teaching awards, along with other academic honors. He has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in literature, composition, religion, and the history of civilization.
As a scholar, Dr. Tanner specializes in Early Modern English literature, with an emphasis on religious writers of the period, particularly John Milton. His book Anxiety in Eden (Oxford University Press) was named best work of the year by the Milton Society of America in 1992. Dr. Tanner has also published numerous scholarly articles on religion and literature. His literary scholarship ranges from theological reflections on the problem of evil in the Book of Job to philosophical analyses of freedom in the works of Kierkegaard and of C. S. Lewis. In addition, Dr. Tanner has published scholarly articles on LDS topics and has edited an academic journal in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Dr. Tanner is also the author of many personal essays on educational and devotional topics. In addition, he has published poetry, including hymn texts. One of his hymns appears in the LDS hymnal. More recently, he has been involved in several media productions, both radio and film.
John Tanner was raised in Southern California, one of a large and happy family of thirteen children. He served an LDS mission to Brazil and subsequently has served in many church callings. He is married to Susan Winder Tanner, the former Young Women General President for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are the parents of five children and grandparents of twelve.
Posted April 2010