Elder J. Devn Cornish
General Authority Seventy
Elder J. Devn Cornish was sustained as a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 2, 2011. At the time of his call, he had been serving as a member of the Sixth Quorum of the Seventy in the North America Southeast Area. He is currently serving as the Assistant Executive Director of the Church History Department.
Elder Cornish received a bachelor of arts in biology from Johns Hopkins University in 1975. In 1978, he received a doctor of medicine, also from Johns Hopkins University. He completed his pediatric residency at the Boston Children's Hospital at Harvard University in 1981. In 1985, he completed a neonatology fellowship program at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center. Subsequently, he was Professor and Chairman, and later a Vice Chairman in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.
Elder Cornish has served in numerous Church callings, including full-time missionary in the Guatemala-El Salvador Mission, elders quorum president, ward executive secretary, ward mission leader, ward Young Men president, bishop, high priests group leader, stake president, president of the Dominican Republic Santiago Mission (2003-2006), and Area Seventy.
John Devn Cornish was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 12, 1951. He married Elaine Simmons in August 1973. They are the parents of six children.
Beloved sisters and brothers, it is exhilarating for Sister Cornish and me to be with you, and we feel sincerely honored to be able to share your moment of achievement and triumph. We congratulate you most sincerely on your graduations.
Being back in Idaho reminds me of the apocryphal story of the Idaho bishop who was released after serving for 17 years. Following the vote of thanks, the stake president asked him to come up to the podium. Putting his arm around the bishop, the president asked, "So, Bishop, what do you plan to do now that you've been released?" The bishop paused for a minute and said, "I've got a rocking chair on my front porch. I plan to sit in it for the next 7 years." Surprised, the president asked, "Well, Bishop, what do you plan to do after 7 years?" The bishop replied, "If I've got the energy, I'm gonna start to rock!"
Happily, most of you are at the early stages of many of your service experiences. That being the case, I have pondered and prayed much to know what the Lord might have me say that might be of help to you. I have come to conclude that the most useful words I could give you are two. Let me explain.
In John 8:28, the Savior defines a key element in His relationship to His Heavenly Father. We read, "Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things."
So Jesus said or did whatever His Father taught Him; He did what His Father told Him to do. This exact obedience is a hallmark of their relationship. Heavenly Father could count on His Son obeying Him.
Obviously, in a much more minor way, I can claim to have been fully obedient to my mother in one of the things she used to tell me to do. In our family of six children, each of us had assigned tasks, or "chores," to do, one of which included washing and drying the dishes after dinner each evening. For some reason, it was one of the chores we children dreaded the most. I can report to you that as a child, there was not a single night when I did not obey my mother's direction to do the dishes before going to bed--simply because she wouldn't have allowed me to! So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I also have to confess that the amount of grief I caused my mother before I actually did the dishes some evenings is a source of real embarrassment to me now. I whined, I made excuses, I feigned illness, I watched one more television program, or played just one more game with my friends, etc., etc., etc. But I was technically obedient--in the end I did what she told me to do.
Latter-day Saint leaders, and especially mission presidents, are often heard to say that obedience is the first law of heaven--which is true. But it is not the last law of heaven; it is not the end goal! That person who is forever fixated on obedience and has to decide from event to event and from moment to moment whether or not he or she will obey will largely live a miserable, Mosaic sort of life!
Happily, there is more in the Savior's teaching in John 8. In verse 29 we read, "And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him." Here is the higher standard. Here we learn that Jesus did not only those things His Father told Him to do but also "those things that please[d]" His Father.
To understand the difference, let's go back to the example of doing the dishes after dinner. At some time in our growing-up years as children, my oldest sister made a game-changing discovery. She figured out that she could jump up from the dinner table, put away the food, wash and dry the dishes, clean off the countertops, sweep the floor, and be off to play with her friends in much less time than it took the rest of us to whine and complain about washing the dishes! But she had learned something even more important; she had learned to not only obey our mother by doing what she was told but to please her by also doing other things that she knew our mother would really like her to do.
The two words I would like to gift to you today, the ones that I believe will be of the utmost importance and help in your future life, are these: "Please God."
There are so many decisions we must make in life. Most of them don't have lasting or profound consequences, but some of them will change all of eternity for ourselves and others! Moreover, the hard and fast rules are notoriously imprecise at times that we seem to need them most. These two words can guide most any decision in life in inspired and precise ways.
Let me give you an example. Suppose some years from now, you have a teenage daughter who is planning to attend a high-school dance with a guy she really likes and wants to impress. As she bounces down the stairs past your chair, your attention is drawn to her dress, which makes you feel more than a bit uncomfortable. You stop your daughter and say, "Honey, I'm not sure that dress is as modest as your mother and I would like it to be." Your daughter instantly becomes defensive, and the conversation turns to pharisaical rules about inches up and inches down and about loose and tight. In such situations, strict obedience to some rule may not really solve the problem.
Suppose that instead your comment to this young daughter as she bounces down the stairs were, "Honey, you look as lovely as always, but I wonder whether you and your Heavenly Father have had a conversation about the modesty of your dress? Would you be willing to take just a few minutes and find out for sure if He is pleased with it? Like you, your mother and I are just trying to do those things that will please our Heavenly Father."
Thus, as parents you might bypass many of the contentions and conundrums of life by rising from the first law of heaven, obedience, to the ultimate law of heaven, consecration.
Can you see that in matters of modesty and morals every difficult decision becomes simple and clear if the standard we follow is just to please God? The same is true in questions of honesty and integrity, including matters ranging from business ethics to filing your tax return. This standard applies in our interpersonal relationships and communications, including things ranging from flirting to boasting. In fact, I believe that a person's decision to "do always those things that please" God will help direct him or her through virtually every pitfall and snare in life.
The reason I believe that is because God's standards are higher than man's standards, and, as Isaiah said, His "ways are higher than [our] ways" (Isaiah 55:9). At BYU-Idaho, you speak of producing graduates who will be "natural leaders." Imagine how this standard would elevate the performance and success of a leader in any field and lead to professional, personal, and spiritual excellence.
Like many of you, I came to a time in my life when I needed to make a decision about where to focus my efforts as I dated a number of remarkable young women. After studying the matter out in my mind, I approached the Lord in sincere prayer. It was not a question of there being a "one and only" person I could marry--I think it rarely is. Rather, the Lord kindly blessed me to know that He would be pleased if a certain young woman and I were to become eternal companions. I knew that that decision was pleasing to the Lord. When I discovered--to my absolute amazement and delight--that it was pleasing to her as well, that is exactly what we did. And we now have 6 children, 31 grandchildren, and a life of joy and meaning to show for our efforts over the past nearly 44 years!
When faced with decisions about a career, I suppose I confronted about the same multiplicity of options as most of you, but I came to know that my Heavenly Father would be pleased if I became a pediatrician. However, I was also given to know that our Father would prefer for me to pursue some personalized paths of excellence beyond the usual, if I would make the effort. I went to work, and the opportunities and blessings that opened up were magnificent!
You may take comfort from the fact that Heavenly Father will help you know what pleases Him. He wants you to please Him, because He really wants to give you all He has. He will let you know if you really ask and if you really listen. Admittedly, sometimes He makes us work for an answer so that when He teaches us His will, we will really follow through, but He wants to guide us. A second related truth is that Heavenly Father, through His Son, and through the Holy Ghost, will help you do the things that please Him. He will open doors, He will magnify your gifts and talents, He will strengthen you and bless you to become what He wants you to become.
Please don't misunderstand what this standard entails. To please God rarely, if ever, means doing things the easy way or doing things the way you want to just because it is comfortable. To please God generally means:
- Discovering and living up to your personal gifts and potential.
- Glimpsing a vision of what is possible for you and pursuing or even creating your own opportunities to accomplish that vision.
- Becoming who you were meant to be and who, in a more fundamental sense, you have always been.
- Realizing, in the process, that every worthwhile thing you will ever do will derive its meaning in large measure from the blessings it brings into the lives of God's other children.
In all of this, beware of competing with or comparing yourself to others! It never was, nor is it now, God's goal for you to be better than someone else or even to be like someone else. From 1897 to 1899, young David O. McKay was serving as a missionary in Scotland. He later recounted the following life-changing experience:
I remember as a missionary in Scotland fifty-seven years ago ... I confess I was homesick.... As we returned to the town [one day], I saw an unfinished building standing back from the sidewalk several yards. Over the front door was a stone arch, something unusual in a residence, and what was still more unusual, I could see from the sidewalk that there was an inscription chiseled in that arch. I said to my companion: "That's unusual! I am going to see what the inscription is." When I approached near enough, this message came to me, not only in stone, but as if it came from One in whose service we were engaged: "Whate'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part."
Continuing from President McKay,
That was a message to me that morning to act my part well as a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[i]
Please understand, we will best please God when we do well the part each of us was individually sent to this place on this earth at this time to fulfill. But whatever our part--whether plumber or principal or prophet--the Lord expects us to do it well.
There are no small people or small parts. There are parts played well and parts not played so well. As a physician, I can tell you what is the most important part of your body: whichever part is hurting or is not functioning at the moment! Truly, the body has need of every part, and the Father's plan needs the fully consecrated efforts of every person.
Now I would like to give you a promise and a warning before you take these two sentinel words, "Please God," as your guide. What our Father desires for each of us is a fulness of the growth, wisdom, blessings to ourselves and others, and joy that this life and the next have to offer. But those things don't come from taking the easy path!
In 1832 there was a young man living in Mendon, New York, who had been raised in considerable poverty. He was the ninth of 11 children, and his parents really did not have the means to feed them all. Accordingly, he was apprenticed out to a painter and carpenter after his mother died when he was 14 years old. In due time he earned his independence, fell in love with and married the girl of his dreams, and was making a pretty good living as a painter and glazier and furniture maker. His wife bore him two beautiful little daughters, but her health began to deteriorate from a malady known in those days as "consumption" and now called tuberculosis. As his wife's health gradually worsened, he cared lovingly for her and the children in her invalid years. When his wife did die, he was left to try to work full-time and raise the two little girls with some help from nearby friends. He probably had no more lofty ambitions in life at that time than to be an honest tradesman, a good father, and to learn and follow truth.
Now tell me, would anyone have reason to find fault with this good man if he continued to live an honest, hard-working, Christian life, seeking truth and raising his two daughters to be honorable and to love God? Perhaps not, but, in this case, the Lord had something more in mind for him. If we take "Please God" as our standard, our Heavenly Father could have been deeply troubled by such a course, because this good man was Brigham Young, and he had within him the potential to do much more, to be much more, and to bless many more people than he would have if he had continued to live the quiet life of a carpenter and painter in Mendon, New York!
You see, our task is to be all that God wants us to be and to do all that God wants us to do--that is, to act well our part. I believe that this is the key to realizing the vision that prophets and other leaders have declared for the graduates of BYU-Idaho.
Think how exciting the implications are for your future contributions to your families, the Church, and your professions! Those who please God will make a difference in whatever their spheres of influence turn out to be because they will have integrity, they will be excellent at what they do, and they will be sincerely caring or compassionate toward their associates. People with integrity, excellence, and compassion are inspired to set for themselves standards or expectations for their own performance that far exceed those established by their jobs or institutions, the Church, or even their families. This endows them with the tremendous freedom of action enjoyed by the self-employed because they are not limited by the expectations of the job or institution but, in a sense, work for themselves based on their personal standards and, in a greater sense, for the Lord and for what He envisions for the souls involved. This in turn frees them to innovate under inspiration based on a deep understanding of the core purposes of the institution and of the origins and workings of the fundamental problems and opportunities it faces. It also allows solutions to be framed in ways that empower, reward, and bless all the affected parties, not just a "leadership team" or a favored few, because God really wants all of His children to be blessed as often and as broadly as possible.
I rejoice in the visionary institution BYU-Idaho is. I celebrate the quality and goodness of its graduates, such as you. And I praise the impact you will have across the earth and throughout your lives as you help to bring the Father's will to pass globally by your commitment to please God personally. I testify of these principles and witness that Jesus Christ lives and directs this work, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[i] David O. McKay, Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, compiled by Clare Middlemiss (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955), 182-83.
Audio of Elder J. Devn Cornish's Spring 2017 BYU-Idaho commencement address