A gentle man, acquainted with pain

swkMormon Lectionary Project: President Spencer W. Kimball, d. November 5, 1985

One of his several biographies bears the subtitle A Short Man, a Long Stride. In his physical prime he stood at five feet six inches. His voice, soft sandpaper. The result of a throat surgery. Having neither the appearance nor the bearing of your prototypical leader, Spencer W. Kimball served for twelve years as the twelfth Church president (1973-1985). It was an unexpected presidency, considering his advanced age and health problems compared with the relative vigor of predecessor Harold B. Lee. It was a presidency of unexpected developments. President Kimball oversaw some of the most significant changes in the modern Church—doubling the number both of operating temples and missionaries, inaugurating what would later become the General Women’s Session of General Conference (October 1978), and extending the priesthood to all worthy male members and temple blessings to black members of African descent (June 1978). The Lord has said “I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.”

President Kimball was one of the weak things through which God has manifested much wisdom. “Weak things” encompasses more than physical stature. His life is a testament to us that even some of the best of us fall short. Thanks to his son, Ed Kimball, we have a more complete and straightforward record of Spencer Kimball the man, husband, and father, than we do of most other twentieth-century church presidents. He encouraged journal-keeping church members to seek the narrow path between “paint[ing] one’s virtues in rich color and whitwash[ing] the vices” and unduly “accentuating the negative.”1

This advice seems more directly related to telling accurate history, but President Kimball also employed it in his many discussions on the problem of pain. True, he always sought for hidden blessings behind suffering. While he never accentuated pain, he also tried to be true to the reality of the depth of pain possible in this world and did not shy away from openly acknowledging it, which is sometimes the only sort of comfort we can offer. For instance, following a throat surgery which left his voice permanently changed, he wrote a unique book—a meditation, poetic prophecy—called One Silent Sleepless Night. Consider these stark depictions as President Kimball invites us into his very thoughts, and the distance between the prophet and the man diminishes:

Time passes. It seems a long time since I retired. My wife has set aside her book and turned out the light. As she did so she reached over and looked, and I was so still with my eyes closed that she supposed me to be asleep. I must not disturb her. She is tired tonight. I lie quiet, thinking. After a while her breath becomes heavier—she is asleep. Now I can turn over on my right side, and I’ll be asleep in no time.

No time? But there is always time. Why, in the past month I’ve counted it, I’ve bathed in it, I’ve wasted it. Time? There has been an overabundance of it, but it seems to have merged with the eternities. Since that night in Memorial Hospital it has lost it bounds and limitations.

I saw it last, in normal form, in the operating room in Memorial Hospital in New York City under the glaring lights, among the glass cases of sharp, shining instruments, in the midst of white-clad and muzzled nurses and doctors with their needles and knives and bottles and bandages. There and then I lost contact with time.

What happened to it I do not know, unless it lost its life in that room of anesthesia—unless perchance its body went down the drain with other priceless possessions and its spirit wafted on the wings of ether, departed for another world across the deserts where are found the “sands of time,” over limitless vastnesses till it reached that world of endlessness, hurled itself at the bastions of eternity, and embedded itself in the very foundations of immeasurableness.2

“Time marches on,” they say, but that night it ceased to march. Its feet had lost the rhythmic beat; it slowed its pace, stumbled, crawled a little on its leaden feet, and finally stopped.

These are the words of a gentle man, acquainted with pain. If he is better known for the “tougher” tone of his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, we might do well to remember President Kimball’s later wish that “he had adopted a gentler tone” in line with his personal approach when counseling individuals.3

To those who suffer from feelings of inadequacy or ongoing physical pain, Spencer W. Kimball serves as an inspiring example of fortitude and solidarity. To those with an expansive vision about God’s love for all, Spencer W. Kimball showed it is possible and sometimes quite necessary to open our minds to the sometimes-surprising will of God.

On this anniversary of President Kimball’s death, we ponder his call to courage and humility.

 


Mormon Lectionary ProjectSpencer W. Kimballmormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgba

The Collect

Dear God of forgiveness, wilt thou bless thy people with vision to see the good in the world. Give us the strength to acknowledge our own lack, the courage to repent, and, when these things are lacking, the endurance to persist in hope. May we resist the temptation to paint our virtues in rich color and whitewash our vices. Help us discern, in our weakness, the wisdom thou hast promised to deliver through weakness. Amen.      

Scriptures

Ether 12:27

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble;
and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me;
for if they humble themselves before me,
and have faith in me,
then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

 

Isaiah 53:2–3

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

 

D&C 1:18–28

And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—

The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—

But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; That faith also might increase in the earth; That mine everlasting covenant might be established; That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.

And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

 

Hymn

“Reverently and Meekly Now”

 

 

NOTES

1. In Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 185.

2. Spencer W. Kimball, One Silent Sleepless Night (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979), 8–9. This post’s illustration, by Sherry Thompson, is from this book.

3. Edward L. Kimball, Ibid., 79–80.

Comments

  1. This post is so beautiful, and it really has me thinking. There is something slightly forbidden about acknowledging pain. We talk a lot about service, but not a lot about the weakness and pain that leads to the need to be served. If mortal life is about dealing with the mortal coil, then we shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that trial. Not in a dismissive “God gave me peace” way, but in a “It is very hard waiting for God to give me peace, and my faith feels small. Hold my hand” kind of way. I wonder if there isn’t some fine line between stoicism and white washing that we are not very good at navigating. Bottom line, this is a beautiful piece. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Blair. President Kimball is such an inspiration to me – he is the quintessential example of a man who has triumphed despite pain and weakness.

  4. Karen, I like this: ///Not in a dismissive “God gave me peace” way, but in a “It is very hard waiting for God to give me peace, and my faith feels small. Hold my hand” kind of way.///

  5. The important role trust plays between leaders and those they would lead struck me again a few days ago when I read something President Kimball said that I disagree with. My disagreement in doesn’t change the care and attention I pay to the things President Kimball taught during his ministry. It doesn’t change my fondness and love for him.

    This is because I trust President Kimball. He was the prophet of my childhood and my mother had placed a picture of him on my dresser. I liked to look at the yellow satin frame and his gentle face and think about what it meant to have a prophet on the earth. I heard stories about President Kimball’s kindness—he helped mothers with children cut lines at airports and drove great distance to return incorrect change. He suffered bad health but carried on, reading his talks in a raspy voice until even that was impossible.

    I don’t need assurances that President Kimball loved and cared about everyone because it is evident from his ministry. He was the prophet whose careful study and prayer and work to gain the support of the other senior brethren resulted in the expansion of priesthood to every worthy male. The blessing of the temple became available to all people. He reached out to Native Americans in a spirit of love and reconciliation. He cautioned against being a warlike people that “become[s] antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God”, a position all the more remarkable because he taught it in the midst of the United State’s arms race with the Soviet Union.

    I know President Kimball made mistakes—some of great things he did he still did imperfectly. It isn’t particularly hard to find things President Kimball said that sound clunky now. Some of the programs he initiated didn’t work. These things bother me less than they might. Part of that is because I don’t expect everything said in 1979 to work in 2014, but also because when considered in the full context of President Kimball’s ministry, his compassion and care towards the least of us was a repetitive theme.

    Great post. Thanks for making me think again of one of the giants of the church.

  6. I loved this post and such great writing again. You’ll probably get bored of me saying that. I liked how you kept him intimate and approachable when he’s such a giant to so many of us. Thanks.

  7. Great work, Blair. This is a most welcome contribution to the MLP, which strives to find and honor saints both in and as the imperfect people that they were. I’m also grateful for the marvelous comments by Karen and Mat.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen that sobering meditation on time from him.

    Here is one of my favorite stories about him, which I love because it was such a small act:

    Stranded in an airport because of bad weather, a young mother and her two-year-old daughter had been waiting in long lines for hours trying to get a flight home. The child was tired and fussy, but the mother, who was pregnant and at risk of miscarriage, did not pick her up. A doctor had advised the mother to avoid lifting the two-year-old unless absolutely necessary. The woman overheard disapproving comments from people around her as she used her foot to slide her crying daughter along in the line. Nobody offered to help. But then, the woman later recalled, “someone came towards us and with a kindly smile said, ‘Is there something I could do to help you?’ With a grateful sigh I accepted his offer. He lifted my sobbing little daughter from the cold floor and lovingly held her to him while he patted her gently on the back. He asked if she could chew a piece of gum. When she was settled down, he carried her with him and said something kindly to the others in the line ahead of me, about how I needed their help. They seemed to agree and then he went up to the ticket counter [at the front of the line] and made arrangements with the clerk for me to be put on a flight leaving shortly. He walked with us to a bench, where we chatted a moment, until he was assured that I would be fine. He went on his way. About a week later I saw a picture of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball and recognized him as the stranger in the airport.”

  9. Blair: Forwarded from Ed Kimball (my father) —
    Thanks. This was well said. I agree, both by and about.

  10. Stephen Mack says:

    Having had the blessing to grow up as close as a grandson can to his grandfather I very much apprciate being able to remember with great affection these qualities of his life. He was a nearly perfect as any man I have ever known, he was a loving and affectionate grandfather and was as great a leader as I have ever known. Thank you for sharing this beautiful message and bringing my mind back to those incredibly happy and fullfilling days.

  11. Blair thanks for this today. Like Kevin, I had never heard the piece you quoted, it’s beautiful. I am in bed recovering from surgery. Nothing as extreme as his, but lots of bed rest and limited movement. There have been long dark days, full of grief or anxiety. And time seems to be lost. I found comfort in his descriptions. I really appreciated this.

  12. A Happy Hubby says:

    I have thought recently about how he and his counselors expressed an opinion on a certain subject to leaders that then was then retracted (wink wink). I felt that it has had long term ramifications to many in the church since that time. But the more I have thought about it I really can’t lay that at his feet. There have been several presidents since that have side skirted the issue, but not in any way counteract what SWK said. With some studying and remembering what a loving person he was, I feel nothing but love for him and I know he is an example to look up to.

  13. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    As a youth coming of age during the Kimball presidency, beyond the examples already stated above, his sound bites…ie, lengthen your stride, do it now, and the life worn out in service like a pair of shoes were particularly relatable to a motivated LDS young man.

  14. I was 18 months old when he died, so I had no 1st hand recollection of him. My parents absolutely loved him, they were going to give me the middle name of Spencer, but decided at the last minute to name me after my grandfather. They always used him as an example. I an short, about his height, and my mom always said great things come in small packages, like President Kimball, or if I complained about some injustice, or pain, there was always a President Kimball story. I had a testimony of President Kimball as a prophet before any other prophet of the Restoration. He has always seemed to me the epitome of the Lord using the weak and simple things to bring about His work. I’ve always looked up to him. Thanks for this.

  15. Beautiful, Blair.

    Thank you.

  16. Wow, I’m overwhelmed by the touching comments here. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and memories. Thanks Christian Kimball for bringing those kind words here. I feel honored to have paid this small tribute to President Kimball. My older brother’s namesake by the way!

  17. Miranda Wilcox says:

    Blair, thanks for helping us remember President Kimball’s legacy of love.

  18. Carrie: I’m so glad this came to you at such a time. I wish I’d known this excerpt when I was caring for a loved one who was stuck in bed.

    Thanks, Miranda, Ray, Brian, etc.

  19. “how he and his counselors expressed an opinion on a certain subject to leaders that then was then retracted” — or when he was incapacitated and someone issued a letter in his name, because they were certain of what he would say — and when he was back from that situation he retracted what they said.

    That stands for an excellent example of not trying to second guess people and step into their shoes. And the danger of self-righteous behavior that some engage in when they are more certain than they should be of what is right and what is not.