Thanks were given: The Sneaky Genius of Thomas Spencer Monson and Kung Fu Panda

My very first post at By Common Consent was a half-serious, half-satiric analysis of a talk by President Monson (newly appointed). In it I posited that there is a method to the madness of President Monson’s talks, that the seemingly random stories and aphorisms are carefully chosen for the mood that they convey, rather than for their content. I stand by that analysis; but I have also personally regressed from it. To be honest, I have had a hard time being inspired by President Monson, because he has often seemed out-of-touch to me.

Take the most recent Conference. President Eyring begins the Sunday Morning session with a call for faith in troubled times. Elder Packer calls for moral clarity and repentance in troubling times. Excellent talks follow regarding following the Spirit and working the Gospel into your daily walk. Elder Oaks tries to describe the differences between ecclesiastical and personal revelation. And, after a lot of doctrine and controversy to chew on, President Monson asks us to remember our pleases and thank yous. I, personally, deflated a bit when his topic became clear, thinking “what? This again?” This is because I am a spiritual midget, of course, but also because I didn’t know what to listen for.

Last Sunday, my ward’s sacrament meeting was devoted to gratitude (what with Thanksgiving coming up and all). Therefore, we had four talks on the same topic. Two of them wound up being based on President Monson’s Sunday morning talk. It got me thinking about it once again. The talk itself is full of the standard information that we frequently receive on gratitude. We should not take our loved ones for granted; we should be grateful for the blessings we receive. But, with President Monson, what is actually said is always secondary to the mood, the context. At a conclusion of a long session dedicated to the moral ambiguity and hard choices of the day, we are thrust by President Monson’s talk back to the simple contemplation of our duty to appreciate what we are given. Why?

I need to digress for a moment to talk about the Tao. I’m no expert and no Taoist, but, as I understand it, the Tao is the Way. To understand and to follow the Tao is to do what you are to do in the universe. It isn’t fate, really, but more of a cooperative act between yourself and the universe to accomplish what you are meant to accomplish. This can lead to normal behavior, but it often does not. Following the Tao can lead into danger and sorrow, but appreciating the Tao means appreciating even these. The best cinematic example of how I understand the Dao is Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda.

My argument today is that Master Oogway is based on President Monson. Aside from looking somewhat physically similar to the aged turtle, President Monson has long been asking us to follow the Tao. The clearest example of this is his April 2009 Sunday Morning sermon, incongruously entitled “Be of Good Cheer,” in which he tells us story after story of people whose children died terribly. Just the sort of thing to put a smile on your face, right? The disconnect between title and content forces one to connect the dots. I think that in asking us to embrace the absolute worst in life cheerfully, President Monson is commanding us to embrace all of it.

Joseph Smith said:

The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity – thou must commune with God.

Joseph Fielding Smith (editor), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 137

Moses 6:63 teaches that all things are “created and made to bear record” of God. Consider that. All things. The verse is very thorough. According to its logic, cancer is there to bear record of God. So are hurricanes, scorpions, paper-cuts, and downtown traffic. We think that God is the source of all good things and the devil is the source of the bad, but according to this God is the source of all. Embracing gratitude as a divine gift means understanding all things as good. Good because sin may make us reliant on God for redemption, which brings about repentance, which is God’s vehicle for changing us for the better. Good because disease may make us reliant on others, which brings about charity, which allows us the opportunities to do God’s work. Good because loss may make us turn to the Lord in our emptiness, which will give him the opportunity to fill us. President Monson asks us to contemplate gratitude at the end of a session devoted to our current troubles, not because he wants us to bury our heads in the sand, but because he is pleading with us to open our eyes.

Today, I am grateful for a prophet whose prophecies are hidden amongst the mundane and simple words of a very humble man. I have had a tendency to assume that President Monson has been recycling the same talks over and over again since he was a bishop, but I never really stopped to consider what that ministry meant. He helped widows through their long, lonely lives, holding their hands through their troubles until the day they died. He is as close to a Mother Theresa as the Church has ever produced, because he worked constantly with people at their very lowest, most dependent, most wretched. He is familiar with the dark humor of the dying soul; he has actually been there for people at their lowest ebb. Note that he says in his latest talk that Christ not only taught us how to live, but “He taught us how to die.” What he is asking of us is more than the internal repetition of a few aphorisms; he is asking us to be grateful for every thing in life. That is much, much harder.

Comments

  1. John,
    You are such a sneaky genius of a writer. Thanks for this post.

  2. Truly awesome. On this Thanksgiving, I wish to give thanks for John C.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff, John. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, John. Food for thought indeed.

  5. President Monson was my favorite as a young man. What would our community be like if we all visited widows and had compassion for the lonely in the way that he has.

    In the last conference, Pres. Monsoon mis-pronounced the name of a Greek thinker. I was briefly tempted to mock…then I was struck was the feeling that I should appreciate the love of a man who did not go fancy graduate schools but instead tended to the urban poor as a bishop.

  6. That did not make sense. Anyways, I love that he lives it. John has been a similar example to me.

  7. Great post.

    What he is asking of us is more than the internal repetition of a few aphorisms; he is asking us to be grateful for every thing in life.

    I have been trying to do this for most of the year. It is hard, particularly when life doesn’t go the way you want it to.

    Related to the post, here are my thoughts on why President Monson chose to speak on gratitude. In that thread, I liked what Rune said that when we feel gratitude, we tend to treat others with more kindness and charity. Perhaps that is also what President Monson was getting at.

  8. Now I understand that his Alice in Wonderland aphorisms are actually Buddhist koans. It would be the same even if he quoted from Humpty Dumpty and Little Miss Moppet.

  9. Mommie Dearest says:

    The sneaky genius of John C is that he posts his T-day contribution late, separate from the BCC perma-masses, thereby insuring a raft of comments specific to his post. Also, it’s brilliant.

    I’ve learned through experience not to underestimate President Monson’s folksy talks.

  10. living in zion says:

    You had me at Tao. Lovely, truly lovely post. Thanks for uncovering the ‘meat’ of Pres. Monson’s message. All I ever focused on was the simple sugar coating. I have seriously misjudged his offering.

  11. I was discussing conference talks with my father-in-law the other day, as he complained about the lack of robust evidence given by the GAs when they try to describe a problem they see as being prevalent in the world today. I made the observation that our prophets and apostles and other church leaders are not speaking to us as academicians. They are speaking to us as men and women of God who are using an anecdote as either a hook to get us interested in their message or as a simply illustration of how their words can be applied in a practical life setting.

    While I have poked fun of Pres. Monson’s 30-something collection of stories, but I, too, am thankful for our prophet’s call to daily live the Gospel.

  12. LovelyLauren says:

    I once complained that I would like some non-agricultural stories related to me during General Conference. Not very many of us live on farms anymore.

    I do enjoy President Monson’s talks though and wonder if we would be better off hearing more talks like his, and less talks like President Packer’s. I find a lot more doctrine of coming unto Christ when I think of gratitude than I think of the failing moral nature of the world.

  13. Here is our family’s restatement summaries of President Monson’s keynote messages, taking perhaps some literary license:

    1. April 2008. Well, I wondered, you wondered, and now here I am. I can’t help thinking about the path and people that led me here, and I’m glad I have good men beside me to help. So let’s get going. Oh, and be nice to people.

    2. October 2008. After the many years of the pace and drive of the great builder President Hinckley, (which we all felt and marveled at – wind in our hair!), we now need to slow down refocus on the important things which gave our pace and drive its purpose, which things are the people and the sublime events around us each day. Oh, and be nice to those people.

    2. April 2009. Cheer up – whatever is bothering you or how ever bad your current situation might be, I seriously doubt you’re digging frozen graves for your dead children with a spoon, or with your fingernails.

    3. October 2009. Stop focusing on yourself and go out and try to help someone else that also has a problem, or just do something nice for someone else.

    4. April 2010. Alright, now we come to the issue of death. The problem with the pain of death is that we can’t avoid it no matter how many good choices we make or how righteous we are. The only solution is to look to the Savior’s resurrection and take what comfort you can in realizing that your dead loved ones will live again.

    5. October 2010. You want to live on the higher path, be grateful for every thing you have and every thing that happens to you – good or bad. Oh, and be nice to people.

    Not to mention a very strongly worded talk with few if any aphorisms on not judging other people. But that was only intended for the women so I won’t summarize it here. ;

  14. Not to mention a very strongly worded talk with few if any aphorisms on not judging other people. But that was only intended for the women so I won’t summarize it here.

    I don’t think it was really only intended for women. Some of the talks I get the most benefit from are those delivered in the Priesthood session (which, of course, I track on BCC while it’s happening).

  15. Steph, no, I know. We all need to hear it. I was trying to tease, but I left off the close parenthesis on my winking eye. ;)

  16. Wonderful post, John. I’ve had simliar thoughts over the years, but I’ve never been able to articulate my thoughts nearly as well as you did here.

    Thank you. I will be sharing this with others.

  17. If Pres. Monson is “as close to a Mother Theresa as the the church has ever produced”, we should all just jump ship and go Catholic.

  18. #17: Go for it.

  19. C’mon, he’s a career administrator. I’m guessing the church HAS produced many folks who compare much more favorably to MT than TSM. They just don’t get the same press.

  20. I’ll add that while his talks haven’t ever done much for me, I recognize the value in having many voices and styles at the top. Some of the apostles I have enjoyed would probably not resonate with big fans of Pres. Monson. The original post is insightful as far as finding the value in what he chooses to preach when he has the mike.

    It’s just that the comparison to Mother Theresa is, um, silly.

  21. The reason we know about MT is because she got lots of press. I think John is making a point about hiis role in our culture. Nothing to get worked up about.

  22. jjackson,
    I’m actually quite fond of the comparison and if you can’t see the comparison then I think the fault falls on you, not President Monson.

  23. Actually, that was me. Not Kristine. Who is not me. Really. No idea how her name got there.

  24. Mommie Dearest says:

    It’s quite logical that if a career administrator were to emulate Mother Teresa, without resigning completely from his career as an administrator, he would do lots of the things that we’ve been told about President Monson. An added bonus of remaining in his career while successfully channeling MT would be the great example he could become to the rest of us on how to be charitable and kind to people even though one is constrained to work in a corporate position.

  25. Observer (f.k.a. Eric S.) says:

    This is one of my fav OPs this year, thank you. A verse that captures this perspective well is when they ask the Savior about the blind boy, “Who sinned, his parents or him?”. And the Savior’s answer is one of the most intriguing of all scripture I think: “neither, he was born blind so that the works of God are manifest.” In other words, ALL things and scenios testify of the Divine–including blind boys, the Holocaust, the tragic deaths of good people, etc. “But how?!!,” cries the aetheist! As you suggest, I think it lies in suffering with those who suffer and “being” part of their life experience as much as we realistically can. And you put it so well that being part of others’ challenges, trials, lonliness, and suffering has been Pres Monson’s ministry. Good stuff.

  26. JC, it took me a few days to get to this, but I’m so grateful I finally did. Stellar work, my friend.

  27. I was going to post a snarky comment about the title, but then–
    “Thanks” is a plural noun? Really?
    I didn’t believe it so I checked the dictionary, and it’s true…
    Wow.

  28. President Monson’s ministry as President of the Church might be summarized by three verses in Section 78:

    17 Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you;
    18 And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours.
    19 And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.

    I particularly like verse 19 in context of the OP. When we accept “all things with thankfulness” in our lives (the good days as well as the cancer and the hurricanes and the paper cuts) we will be made glorious. That’s quite a challenge and a promise.

  29. Thanks for this post. It really helped with a talk I gave in sacrament meeting this past Sunday. I was to speak on President Monson’s talk from April 2010 priesthood session, “Preparation Brings Blessings.” I too usually just enjoy the stories President Monson tells without really knowing what the point of the talk was. I had to dig deep, and I think it went well.

  30. This was brilliant John.

  31. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    This is one of my fav post of the year, thank you. I spend too much time thinking about the concept you address in the second to last paragraph. In the same vein as “all things bear record” is the flagship LDS scripture re the purpose of this life, to overcome the ‘natural man’, which says the Lord “inflicts” us once we “submit” our will to His. See mosiah.3.19. Inflict! Submit! Strong words. Inflict suggests intent to cause challenge and suffering to a degree. Do we consider and internalize that it is God that allows us to be inflicted by the state we are in, and that such inflictions actually testify of God? Are we secure in accepting (not resisting) that submitting to His will means life must necessarily be very hard sometimes instead of the rosey one that our will wants?

    Then there is what I think is one of the most intriguing (soul searching) responses in the entire canon, John 9: 1 – 4: “Jesus answered, Neither hath this [blind] man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Did Christ say here that a man was born and spent his entire life suffering in blindness so that his condition might manifest to others (readers, observers) the works of God? Are his blindness, another’s cancer, another’s prenatal birth, a nation’s abject poverty and disease, etc. instruments to draw others closer to God? And if so, how do those who suffer feel knowing that they are the instrument and example to the rest? Interestingly, the atheist would use the exact same man, and other tragedies larger and smaller in scale, to argue that he is proof positive that God does not exist. We’ve all heard it: “How can God exist if [pick some world tragedy against humanity] occurred?!” And I suspect many people, many Christians, subconsciously or consciously view disease, tragedy, and infliction as punishment for sinful behavior.

    These verses suggest that the answer to the atheist is that such events actually testify of the existence of a God. But not the concept of the straw-man “loving” God that the atheist uses to dismiss God’s existence. If one’s view of love and a loving God is simply to say it is someone or thing that would only protect and prevent all sadness, pain, suffering, tragedy, sorrow, etc. in mankind, then of course it’s easy to say there must not be a God. But the God of the Christian and LDS canon is of a character, ultimate purpose, and nature that the atheist does not know or understand beyond observing the pains and suffering of this blink-of-an-eye period of time we call life.

    As for President Monson, he definitely seems like his ministry, his whole life’s existence, has been to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those in need of comfort. Simple Christian practice.

    Thank you again for this post.

  32. This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever read on BCC. A few years ago, at a regional conference in Utah County a couple years before President Hinckley’s death, President Monson talked for an hour, telling stories, sharing titles of favorite books and plays, giving rhymes and aphorisms, and making everyone in the Marriott Center laugh uproariously. Most aspects of my testimony have developed over many years and many experiences, but it was on that particular day that I gained a testimony of Latter-day Saint prophets. I have looked forward to hearing him each General Conference ever since.

    Related to #31, at the recent Mormon Media Studies Symposium at BYU, Terryl Givens said something in the Q&A following his presentation that really stuck with me, which I found profoundly moving and true. He talked about the passage in Moses, when Enoch asks God why he weeps; he followed it by saying this (I’m paraphrasing): “The God of Mormonism is not a God of absolute power, but a God of absolute vulnerability.” That’s a statement that I think will always remain with me.

  33. Observer,
    I’ve pretty much given up on figuring out any aspect of God aside from his abiding love. What it all means, I’ve no clue; but I know he loves me and that is sufficient for the time being.

    Davey (and everyone else),
    You are all far, far too kind. Davey especially seems to have only been reading the site for a week or so (and selectively at that).

  34. Crawford, this was really, really good–as are virtually all of your posts. Just accept the praise and be…you know…thankful.

  35. This is great. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  36. As I understand it, to the extent that people manage to accomplish this, they have entered into the Lord’s rest. Thanks for explaining so clearly the mindset required for this, which the spirit helps us acquire and maintain.

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