Saturday, April 2, 2011

Living Prophets Among Us

President Thomas S. Monson

Today, as the 181st General Conference convenes, I renew my gratitude for living prophets who live among us. They are gentle giants of love, service, testimony and example. None symbolizes the teachings, life and ministry of Jesus Christ and His example better than President Thomas S. Monson.
President Spencer W. Kimball
The paradox is their power derives from their humility. However, many in the world misunderstand or question their greatness as misplaced idol worship. I always remember President Spencer W. Kimball and other General Authorities long since dead at Conference time. I believe he, like so many, never knew how great he really was. The great ones never do.
If you want to understand what sets them apart, look to their words as they describe themselves. I was remembering an address in the 1978 General Conference this morning when I heard President Eyring mention what a pure example President Monson is of one like the Savior who “went about doing good.”
The value of a living prophet is that often they will help us remember the foundation upon which the living prophets are building today:
Various excuses have been used over the centuries to dismiss these divine messengers. There have been denials because the prophet came from an obscure place. "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). Jesus was also met with the question, "Is not this the carpenter's son?" (Matthew 13:55). By one means or another, the swiftest method of rejection of the holy prophets is to find a pretext, however false or absurd, to dismiss the man so that his message could also be dismissed. . .  Perhaps they judged Paul by the timbre of his voice or by his style of speech, not the truths uttered by him.
We wonder how often hearers first rejected the prophets because they despised them, and finally despised the prophets even more because they had rejected them. . . 
The trouble with rejection because of personal familiarity with the prophets is that the prophets are always somebody's son or somebody's neighbor. They are chosen from among the people, not transported from another planet, dramatic as that would be!
. . . the prophets have always been free from the evil of their times, free to be divine auditors who will still call fraud, fraud; embezzlement, embezzlement; and adultery, adultery. (Ensign, May 1978, 76-77).
President Kimball went on in that same address to note the prophets’ motives are often misunderstood. He then added his personal testimony: "Those prophets I have known are the most loving of men. It is because of their love and integrity that they cannot modify the Lord's message merely to make people feel comfortable. They are too kind to be so cruel. I am so grateful," he added, "that prophets do not crave popularity."
True prophets teach all of the gospel, but choose to emphasize the most relevant at the moment. This morning President Eyring spoke of welfare principles. He did not dwell upon the history of the Church’s welfare plan, interesting as it may be to some, but rather chose to emphasize the application of those tried and true principles in today’s extremities. Our Father in Heaven’s children are suffering in Japan, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. We can all do something, President Eyring reminded us, to lift those burdens.
The assault by the world and the worldly on family values is what President Kimball was focused on in 1978 when he was the living prophet, warning long years in advance of the eroding realities prevalent today. His prophetic vision in that April 1978 conference is in evidence when he said, "The home is the seedbed of saints" (Ensign, May 1978, 5). His declaration could easily be classed as scripture on a par with Paul when he warned the saints in Corinth: ". . . my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry." (1 Corinthians 10:14).
President Kimball seemed almost obsessed with idolatry (see "The False Gods We Worship," Ensign, June 1976), during that era of Church history. Rather than seeming prophetic at the time, as he was looking ahead, he seemed mired in some dusty comparison with the past. Only now as we look back upon the fixations of the world and the saints who were idolizing and idealizing the wrong things do we see it more clearly. Is the big home as an object of false worship now seen for what it was then with the U.S. now mired in tens of millions of mortgage foreclosures nationwide? Could the LGBT agenda be classified as anything but idolatry? His prophetic vision can only be fully appreciated now as we look back. And so will it be with today's utterances many years hence.
The living prophets are the first to emphasize having the Saints follow living oracles. I have always cherished this story, when President Wilford Woodruff recalled a meeting in which the Prophet Joseph Smith turned to Brigham Young and said, "Brother Brigham, I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the written oracles and the written word of God."
In response, Brigham "took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: 'There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,' said he, 'when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writings in the books.'"
When he had finished, the Joseph said to the congregation: "Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth." (CR, October 1897, 22-23).
In my mind it is impossible (there’s that absolute word again) to separate the need for living prophets from the living word of God through the scriptures. The words of scriptures become living in the mouths of living prophets.
President Joseph Fielding Smith
President Joseph Fielding Smith, one who loved and cherished the written word, affirmed, "The First Presidency are the living oracles of God and the supreme adjudicators and interpreters of the law of the Church." (Improvement Era, 1966, 978).
Today's First Presidency

When the revelation about the priesthood was announced to the Church and to the world in the spring of 1978, it was signed by all three members of the First Presidency.
Long before he was president of the Church, President Kimball observed in a General Conference filled with speeches by his Brethren, "Did you listen, or do you also build sepulchres for the dead prophets and tombs for those who have passed away long ago and disregard the living ones?"
He went on to say, "I bear testimony also, in all solemnity, that this is the true and living Church and that it is officered by men who are called of God, and it is accepted of the Lord, and that the gospel which it promulgates, by these thousands of missionaries abroad and the other thousands here at home, is the gospel of Jesus Christ which will cure all ills and solve all problems and will exalt all mankind as well as save him." (CR, October 1949, 123-24).
In August 1960, President Kimball wrote again about our tendency to dismiss living prophets among us while embracing the words of the dead ones. Said he: "Even in the Church many are prone to garnish the sepulchres of yesterday's prophets and mentally stone the living ones."
President Kimball then taught us not to parse meanings and precise word usage as an excuse for disabling our discipleship. He observed that President Wilford W. Woodruff had noted the Prophet Joseph Smith often said " 'Thus saith the Lord' almost every day of his life in laying the foundation of this work. But those who followed him have not deemed it always necessary to say 'Thus saith the Lord'; yet they have led the people by the power of the Holy Ghost. . . . He is giving us revelation, and will give us revelation until this scene is wound up."
President Wilford W. Woodruff
President Kimball gave examples of President Woodruff’s references to revelations and the way he characterized them:
"I have had some revelations of late and very important ones to me . . ."
"Since I received that revelation . . . "
"The Lord showed me by vision and revelation . . ."
"He has told me exactly what to do . . ."
" . . . the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do . . . "
"I went before the Lord and wrote what the Lord told me to write . . ."  (Instructor, August 1960, 257).
The point is, revelation through the living prophets governs the operations of the Church as an institution and guides and instructs the Church members.
President Harold B. Lee
This morning I remembered a story I heard President Harold B. Lee tell about an experience he had with a young serviceman in Korea. The man had borne an impressive testimony about chastity, but President Lee felt impressed to warn him: "Now, my boy, you have made a profound impression upon all of us. You have said that you would rather die than lose your virtue. But remember, the devil has heard you, as we heard you, and if I don't miss my guess, he is going to make you prove that you would give your life before you would lose your virtue. You had better be on guard." (Ensign, July 1972, 102-3).
President Lee's prophetic individual warning to the serviceman in Korea was relevant and on point, as years later they met again at the Los Angeles Temple where the man served as a temple worker. The prompting from a living prophet came at the crucial crossroads in his life. When we give heed to the prophetic counsel at General Conference the direction can be just as specific and pointed for each of us as if given individually to us.
As I have noted before, following the Brethren was a predominant theme in President Lee’s guidance of the Church throughout his life. In the same talk cited above, President Lee observed that someone once said, "That person is not truly converted until he sees the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church, and until it goes down into his heart like fire." President Lee believed this admonition was "absolutely true," adding that "until the members of this church have that conviction that they are being led in the right way, and they have a conviction that these men of God are men who are inspired and have been properly appointed by the hand of God, they are not truly converted."
The key word in all of this is living. In the living Church, members must have living testimonies of the living prophets as well as of the living scriptures and the living God.
President Lee once gave a speech to seminary and institute faculty members on "The Place of the Living Prophet." It became an instant classic in the Mormon lexicon. He observed, much as President Kimball, how proximity and familiarity with the Brethren who are called sometimes get in the way of our willingness to follow their counsel and guidance because “I knew him when. . .”
President Lee was acutely aware of his need to be responsive to the changing circumstances: ". . .had you ever thought that what was contrary to the order of heaven in 1840 might not be contrary to the order of heaven in 1960?" (Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty, Brigham Young University, July 8, 1968).
Often, members of the Church fail to transfer their allegiance and trust to the successor “trustees in trust” when a beloved leader dies. President Lee quoted John Taylor as saying, "The principle of present revelation, then, is the very foundation of our religion." And of the books of scripture President Taylor said,
Those books are good for example, precedent, and investigation, and for developing certain laws and principles. But they do not, they cannot, touch every case required to be adjudicated and set in order. We require a living tree — a living fountain — living intelligence, proceeding from the living priesthood in heaven, through the living priesthood on earth. . . .[did you catch “living” in all that?]
Adam's revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah's revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves, and so had Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, and Joseph. And so must we, or we shall make a shipwreck. (John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, 34).
President Lee once called ours a time of "sophistication . . . when there are many clever people who are not willing to listen to the humble prophets" because this takes faith and humility. ("Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity," Instructor, June 1965, 217).
I fear that in our age of casualness about nearly everything, we may view the words of the prophets as a buffet table from which we may select only the tender morsels we want most, the ones most suited to our individual palettes. I had to learn we must partake of all the vegetables too, including the spiritual spinach, broccoli and parsnips.
In today’s modern entitlement-drenched economy we would do well to heed this bit of advice from Elder Marvin J. Ashton: "We never give anybody a lift when we give them a free ride."
President Boyd K. Packer
Wisely, in times of economic and temporal hardship, President Boyd K. Packer has suggested we must sometimes just "pick up our handcart and head west." It’s never a good idea to look longingly on the past for very long pining away for what might have been or justifying our present circumstances in the "bad breaks." Lean into the headwind of the future and keep moving forward. 
So on this Conference weekend, let’s rejoice in the here and now, when living prophets stand among us as giant redwoods in the forest of our souls.
Their words are always timely and timeless.

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