Guest Post: The sneaky genius of Thomas Spencer Monson

J. Daniel Crawford is the blogger formerly known as John C., now known as HP, and likely known here as JDC. He is affiliated with the blog known as Faith Promoting Rumor. He is a graduate student somewhere back east, although he currently lives and occasionally works in Utah. He is the proud father of the two best children in the world and the humble husband of the reason that is so.

A little while ago, I promised to make a case for the sneaky genius of President Thomas S. Monson and to use his Apr 2006 First Presidency message as an example. Um, here are the results, such as they are:

President Monson reminds us, initially that the Savior is the manner of [person] like whom we ought to be. He then says the following:

In His earthly ministry, the Master outlined how we should live, how we should teach, how we should serve, and what we should do so that we could become our best selves.

One such lesson comes from the book of John in the Holy Bible:

“Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

“And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

“Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”

At first, second, and (possibly) third glance, this is a baffling anecdote. Certainly it is funny (for the New Testament, at least). But what does it teach us regarding “how we should live, how we should teach, how we should serve, and what we should do so that we could become our best selves”? Initially, nothing. However, God himself often fails to offer straightforward answers to questions (see, for instance, Alma 32 or Moses 6:53). What is the one thing that commands us in this exchange, that applies no matter what the context is in which we read it? “Come and see”. To approach the Savior and to observe what He has done (is doing) is the only real way to learn of Him and the only way to learn what we must do. Of course, we must then do it, as President Monson proceeds to point out.

We soon come to the following passage:

In the search for our best selves, several questions will guide our thinking: Am I what I want to be? Am I closer to the Savior today than I was yesterday? Will I be closer yet tomorrow? Do I have the courage to change for the better?

Once again, no practical advice is offered regarding how to begin answering these questions affirmatively, as there are no universal answers. Instead we are given these general individualisms in an attempt to make us do the intellectual and spiritual legwork required in application. As the tangential anecdote makes us strive to create meaning, so the unanswered questions causes us to review, relate, and (ideally) change our lives.

Next we have:

Choosing the Family Path

It is time to choose an oft-forgotten path, the path we might call “the family way,” so that our children and grandchildren might indeed grow to their full potential. There is an international tide running. It carries the unspoken message, “Return to your roots, to your families, to lessons learned, to lives lived, to examples shown, even family values.” Often it is just a matter of coming home–coming home to attics not recently examined, to diaries seldom read, to photo albums almost forgotten.

The Scottish poet James Barrie wrote, “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” 6 What memories do we have of Mother? Father? Grandparents? Family? Friends?

What exactly are we being asked to do in this section? It begins seemingly to discuss family history but soon veers into the areas of Sabbath breaking, prayer, and educating children (speaking of the ‘family way’). Where have the tangents taken us and why did we wind up there? It seems to me that once again we are called upon to work this out on our own. As best as I can tell, Pres. Monson is deeply concerned with our families in an eternal sense. It is thoughtless and inconsistent to focus all our efforts (worthy though they might be) on our relatives here on earth. It is our position to work to save both our posterity and our ancestry in this dispensation. God would have us work in both directions.

Moving on:

As a boy, I made a startling discovery in Sunday School one Mother’s Day which has remained with me all through the years. Melvin, a sightless brother in the ward, a talented vocalist, would stand and face the congregation as though he were seeing one and all. He would then sing “That Wonderful Mother of Mine.” The bright, glowing embers of memory penetrated human hearts. Men reached for their handkerchiefs; women’s eyes brimmed with tears.

We deacons would go among the congregation carrying a small geranium in a clay pot for presentation to each mother. Some of the mothers were young; some were middle-aged; some were barely hanging on to life in their old age. I became aware that the eyes of each mother were kind eyes. The words of each mother were, “Thank you.” I felt the spirit of the statement, “When someone gives another person a flower, the fragrance of the flower lingers on the hands of the giver.” I have not forgotten the lesson learned, nor shall I ever forget it.

Note, once again that we are not informed what the lesson is that was learned. Is it that we should honor our mothers? That mothers/parents should sacrifice? That geraniums are really nice? Certainly it could be any of those, but to me the lesson here is regarding the service of the young to the old(er). That Pres. Monson stills remembers and shares this event is greater evidence of its effect on him than on those he served. Once again, we receive a message of service going up and down our family tree.

Finally:

Giving Our Lives in Service

The years have come and the years have gone, but the need for a testimony of the gospel continues paramount. As we move toward the future, we must not neglect the lessons of the past. Our Heavenly Father gave His Son. The Son of God gave His life. We are asked by Them to give our lives, as it were, in Their divine service. Will you? Will I? Will we? There are lessons to be taught; there are kind deeds to be done; there are souls to be saved…

When we do, we will come to realize that we have been on His holy errand, that His divine purposes have been fulfilled, and that we have shared in that fulfillment.

May I illustrate this truth with a personal experience. Many years ago, while serving as a bishop, I felt impressed to call upon Augusta Schneider, a widow from the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe who spoke very little English, although she was fluent in French and German. For years after that first impression, I would visit with her at Christmastime. On one occasion, Augusta said, “Bishop, I have something of great value to me which I would like to present to you.” She then went to a special place in her modest apartment and retrieved the gift. It was a beautiful piece of felt, perhaps six by eight inches (15 by 20 cm) in size, to which she had pinned the medals her husband had been presented for his service as a member of the French forces in World War I. She said, “I would like you to have this personal treasure which is so close to my heart.” I protested politely and suggested there must be some member of her extended family to whom the gift should be given. “No,” she replied firmly, “the gift is yours, for you have the soul of a Frenchman.”

Shortly after presenting this special gift to me, Augusta departed mortality and went home to that God who gave her life. Occasionally I would wonder concerning her declaration that I had “the soul of a Frenchman.” I didn’t have the slightest idea what that meant. I still don’t.

Many years later, I had the privilege to accompany President Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994) to the dedication of the Frankfurt Germany Temple, which temple would serve German-, French-, and Dutch-speaking members. In packing for the trip, I felt impressed to take along the gift of medals, without any thought concerning what I would do with them. I’d had them a number of years.

For a French-speaking dedication session, the temple was filled. The singing and messages presented were beautiful. Gratitude for God’s blessings penetrated each heart. I saw from my conducting notes that the session included members from the Alsace-Lorraine area.

During my remarks, I observed that the organist had the name of Schneider. I therefore related the account of my association with Augusta Schneider, then stepped to the organ and presented the organist with the medals, along with the charge that since his name was Schneider, he had a responsibility to pursue the Schneider name in his genealogical activities. The Spirit of the Lord confirmed in our hearts that this was a special session. Brother Schneider had a difficult time preparing to play the closing number of the dedicatory service, so moved was he by the Spirit which we felt there in the temple.

I knew that the treasured gift–even the widow’™s mite, for it was all Augusta Schneider had–was placed in the hand of one who would ensure that many with the souls of Frenchmen would now receive the blessings the holy temples provide, both for the living and for those who have passed beyond mortality.

This story remains mysterious to me as I try to divine its purpose in our discourse. What is Pres. Monson seeking to convey? How we can be instruments in the Lord’s hands? How God prepares “tender mercies” for us? The importance of delegation? What do any of these have to do with the stated theme of “Giving our Lives in Service”? I’ll leave that for you to figure out. I am sure that as you do, hearts will be touched, words will be typed, and sagging hands will be lifted up.

Comments

  1. Ed Snow says:

    I have no idea how to answer your questions, but I like the idea of a “holy errand.” The term seems like a contradiction of sorts. I think the kingdom of God is established in the mundane everyday, in random encounters, odd events and our willingness to see them as ways of making God’s presence revealed to ourselves and others. That is a very “personal” revelation. Perhaps that’s along the lines of what he’s saying, or, at least that’s what I’m going to claim he’s saying.

  2. I think he just has his secretary randomly pull stories out of his files to write these messages. He uses them all so many times in so many different contexts to teach so many different lessons that there is no other reasonable explanation.

  3. Steve EM says:

    Good post. I just hope and pray for the continued health of GBH and TSM.

  4. My experience giving talks is that oftentimes, from a spiritual perspective, the best moments in talks I’ve given have not always been logically articulated, and that my most logical and intellectually profound talks have often been spiritually very flat. And I think there are indeed times when vagueness can be more powerful than explicit explication, letting each person take from the vague story/talk what he/she will, esp. when telling stories which can be meaningful to listeners/readers for very different ways. In this Spirit, I think finding answers to your questions isn’t that difficult, though it doesn’t follow a nice logical, intellectual flow or establish a definitive meaning everyone must take from it.

    I would say the overarching theme is indeed about being our best selves. The first scriptural anecdote is about Christ seeing the best attribute in Nathanael. The implied lesson is two-fold: we should see the best in others, and look to develop the best in ourselves.

    The family stories are an appeal to each reader/listener’s understanding of family values, and to cultivate such values instead of being caught up in other worldly pursuits. The stories are meant to trigger memories in order to motivate the readers/listeners to strive to give for more place for such ideals in their lives.

    And I think the last story is given an adequate introduction, providing an example of how turning our lives over to God and seeking to serve others can result in profound and unexpected spiritual experiences, like his experience in the story he relates.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember being quite puzzled by the last story when I heard it. I kind of had the impression that he basically had these medals that had been given to him that he didn’t really want and didn’t know what to do with, that he managed to get rid of them to some random person named Schneider (a common enough name; there’s a Schneider family in my ward), and then managed to give his successful disposal of the unwanted keepsakes a spiritual spin that he could use in this talk. He has the capacity to turn random, everyday events into spiritual lessons, though, as you point out, not fully articulated.

    I agree with Steve EM, God bless GBH and TSM.

  6. Actually, I think that every story is carefully chosen for a mood that it conveys and that these moods, more than actual content, are what Pres. Monson wants us to experience (as we will each derive what is important to us personally from it). As I think back over these stories, again, I am moved by the idea that God is micro-managing the events in our lives. That idea of divine involvement in our daily mundanities offers comfort to many. A story I didn’t mention is the one where the guy asks a general authority what to name his boat and the GA replies “The Sabbath Breaker”. God, it would seem, has an interest in every little thing (including us).

  7. Due to my random birthplace, and my parents’ random geographical choices, and my wife’s random choice of friends, I have had many interactions with President Monson. He is as genius in his relationships as he is (as shown) from the pulpit. I am too grateful for him and President Hinckley. Great examples.

    Though the inclination that we are (or should be) anxious at the prospect of others presiding over the whole church is overdone.

  8. My first impression hearing Monson’s Alsace story is that he was thinking about the hoped-for Paris Temple, and this is one of his random ways of exercising faith that the temple will indeed happen someday.

    I think Pres. Monson is one of the most subtle, powerful teachers today. I believe there’s wonderful complexity behind some of the simplicity. If you go back to some of his previous sermons, they’re loaded with unusual idiosyncratic stories.

  9. JDC (#6): I think I read too much sarcasm into the tone of your original post, hard sometimes to tell in bloggernacle. I like what you say about mood, I think that captures the purpose of the story better than any contrived, strictly logical interpretation like I attempted above.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    JDC, thanks for this. I’ve never found Pres. Monson’s rhetorical style to be particularly genius-y, but I found your analysis interesting. I am not entirely convinced by it, but at least I am a little more open to the idea of him being a “sneaky” kind of genius.

  11. At the risk of appearing to be non-supportive of my church leaders, I have to say that I have always found Elder Monson’s talks to be uniformly shallow and random. His stories evoke emotion, but not the spirit for me. Of course this is just a more direct way of saying what most of the posts here have said, particularly Mr. Crawford’s tongue-in-cheek pseudo-defense of this wandering discourse.

    However, I have also heard that he is a very good church adminstrator. I think he will make a nice enough prophet, but I will sure miss President Hinkley’s direct approach to public discourse. Perhaps Elder Monson will step up to the plate once he ascends to the presidency and address the issues of the day. I will pray for that; we need that kind of leadership in these last days. What we don’t need is more banal stories.

  12. I have to say that I am actually sincere in my enjoyment of this message. It has taken me a long time to warm up to Pres. Monson’s discourse, but now that I think I am getting a handle on it, I find it fascinating. I understand how I might come across as sarcastic, as I revel in idiosyncracies and have an unfortunate tendancy to dwell them in others and myself. All of my “back-handed compliments” are intended as sincere; I just love the flaws along with the good stuff.

    Believe it or not, I think that whomever winds up being the next church president will be the right one for the job, whether it be Monson, Packer, or Perry (or any of the others).

  13. I should restate:
    The flaws are part of the good stuff.

    Also, my intro forgot to mention that I blog at Various Stages of Mormondom. Please fire whoever was responsible for that oversight.

  14. I used to think in quite the same vein as Lom and Porter. When Pres. Monson began a story I would groan inwardly and think “oh no…not that story again!” However, although I’m sure I don’t know what he’s thinking, I wonder if his manner is at all similar to the redactors/authers of the Old Testament, who rarely gave editorial comment to their stories. We read the story of Samson or Moses, all the good, bad and ugly, and are not quite sure what to think/take from it. The OT stories are not followed by Mormon’s editorialized: “and thus we see…” The odd thing with Pres. Monson’s talks is, as JDC points out, the small amount of editorializing can puzzle us. With his discourses, I feel much more “moody” than “thoughty” if that make any sense, and for me, it’s a good thing. He’s just really “agaddah”!

  15. Since I was little, I have always found Monson’s voice to be conforting, practically therapeutic. I rarely got into the substance of his talks; just generally recognized it as a heart-warming story, but man, the voice just hypnotized me.

    I also am pretty convinced some telephone companies use his voice for their automated messages (like ‘this # is disconnected,’ ‘the person you are calling has traveled out of their service range,’ etc.). So, either he is cashing in on that therapeutic voice, or I am becoming delusional.

  16. So you are or are not saying that sneaky genius means old and meandering?

    I have never liked his speeches but I know some people do and are moved to do good, in which case I approve, but I normally can’t get into his diction, structure, spirit etc.

    I taught at the MTC (please don’t tell the Amri of yesteryear that I am a lil embarrassed by that) but I heard him speak at mission presidents’ seminars and the like and he was remarkable. I was surprised. And that word yesteryear is a shout out to TSM.

  17. Seth R. says:

    Oh come on!

    President Packer is actually a very nice man, and he’s said a lot of very nice things. Not just curmudgeony things.

    And for that matter, look at Pres. Benson before and after the mantle. Completely different public persona.

    So there’s hope Steve.

  18. Steve EM says:

    Did anyone say something here regarding BKP?

    BTW, I never had a beef w/ Pres. Benson. I was always very sympathetic to the later. He had a public/political career before being an apostle, was given a long leave of absence from his apostleship for Federal public service and had difficultly for a time again resuming his apostleship once that public service was over, all very understandable. As far as his involvement with the Birchers and his seeming to confuse evil communism with reasonable democratic socialism, I can accept all that given the times he lived in. Communism was a real threat against freedom and religion, the democratic socialist parties contained some communist and sometimes formed coalition governments with communists, and many felt the free world could be doing much more to contain communism. Reasonable people can argue regarding the potential effectiveness of some of the avenues Benson pursued and people he hurt, but his heart was in the right place.

  19. Amri,
    I would say that there what appears to be “old and meandering” simply ain’t so. But people can easily take it for that (as I often have). Hence, the “sneaky genius”.

  20. Robert C.
    I forgot to mention that I thought your analysis was great. You saw some very interesting things in there.

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