|Print | Back||January 31, 2008|
In The VillageA vote of thanks for a powerful individual
by Orson Scott Card
Since our prophets, seers, and revelators are released from their office only by death, we don't get to raise our hands to thank them.
So as Gordon B. Hinckley has finally been released from his lifelong calling as the consummate servant in the kingdom of God, here is my vote of thanks for a job well done.
There are two ways we commonly view our living prophets, and only one of them is right.
In Mormon folklore -- and in the eyes of the outside world -- we Mormons consider the prophets as speaking nothing but the word of God. Every decision, every act, every gesture is to be remembered, pored over, studied, and obeyed, because the prophet does nothing but what the Lord requires of him.
This attitude, if it were true, would make the prophet into something of a puppet, wouldn't it? It wouldn't matter who was President of the Church, because each would act exactly like any other apostle called to serve in that position.
But human beings are not interchangeable, no matter how lofty or humble their calling.
The Lord does not dictate every action of the prophets. They must think things through, try things out, find out what is possible, and wrestle with problems.
Remember when Moses' father-in-law came to him and upbraided him for wearying himself and the people by trying to do all the work of judgment himself? (Exod. 18:13-26). The prophet took Jethro's advice and, in effect, created a church organization.
Moses was just as much a prophet before he made the change as after. His character was such that he could learn. God spoke to Moses frequently, led him visibly -- and yet he did not make Moses his puppet.
There was room for Moses to choose, to invent, to think. To learn and change and grow in his calling.
Joseph Smith made this explicit when he gave us the word of the Lord to Oliver Cowdery: "You have not understood; you supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.... You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right" (D&C 9:7-8).
It matters who leads us and serves us as prophet. It matters that it was Gordon B. Hinckley who led the Church, during his years as President and previously, when his service was in quiet support of the calling of other prophets whose bodies were so enfeebled that they could not do all that was required of them.
Meeting the People
During the first years of his presidency, sometimes he traveled so much that it seemed he was determined to speak personally to every member of the Church before he died. After so many years of seeing presidents of the Church only on television, suddenly the prophet was everywhere!
Television simply wasn't enough for him. Though it was Gordon B. Hinckley, long before he was an Apostle, who pioneered the use of all the media to reach out to the Saints -- and to the world -- he also understood the limitations of the media as well as their strengths.
Because the Lord had blessed him with robust health and clear speech, unlike his predecessors as President, he might have felt that he had a duty to let the Saints hear the prophet's voice and see his face in person.
But it was also part of his character. Though he was a private man, he was not a shy one. And how could he lead Saints whom he didn't know?
It can be deeply confining, to function only within the bounds of the Church's hierarchy and administration. If the President hears only the voices of the same few people, then he has subjected himself to their judgment of what is important enough for him to know.
Even if the Church officials and staff surrounding him have the best will in the world, President Hinckley would no more let them stand between him and the Saints than he would have let them stand between him and the Lord.
We needed to hear him; he needed to hear us. It's part of who he was.
We loved to watch him in General Conference because he was not bound by a script. He spoke with dignity, but also with humor; even in his last General Conference, he was himself in the way Joseph Smith was himself, refusing to let other people's ideas of how a prophet should act control the generous impulses of his own mind and heart.
Then there was the time when President Hinckley was quoted in Time Magazine as saying, of the doctrine that God the Father was once a man, "I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it ... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it" (Time, 4 Aug. 1997).
There were quite a few Saints who got in a dither, thinking that President Hinckley was denying our doctrine. But every word he said was strictly accurate. Our Church manuals do not offer lessons on this subject. We know nothing on the subject beyond Lorenzo Snow's famous couplet ("As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become").
In fact, President Hinckley was setting an example for us all: We Latter-day Saints have it as an article of faith that God "will yet reveal many great and important things" (9th Art. Of Faith).
It is often wiser to admit, with candor like President Hinckley's, when we don't know enough to talk intelligently on a subject. Some Mormons like to claim "We have all the answers," but that was never President Hinckley's attitude.
Rather he taught that we have all that we need to know in order to live this life as God wants us to live it, and achieve the happiest future that he has in store for us. When God wants us to know more, he'll tell us, but there's no use trying to extend our doctrinal understanding through wild speculation or flights of fancy.
I remember watching President Hinckley on the Larry King Show on Christmas Eve, 1999, when he shared the screen with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Robert Schuller.
Schuller repeatedly goaded and jabbed at President Hinckley and the LDS claim that because we have a living prophet, we have a unique claim to the truth. But President Hinckley simply ignored his jabs and gave his message -- our message -- in a kind and civil way.
I remember some people saying, "Why didn't President Hinckley answer him?"
Because President Hinckley, after long, long experience with the media, knew that whoever gets angry or mean on camera instantly loses the audience's sympathy. By remaining cheerfully on message and never descending to Schuller's level, he left a far better impression with the audience than Schuller did.
Governing the Church
We have never had a President who so thoroughly understood how the Church is -- and must be -- governed. Long before he was a General Authority, Gordon B. Hinckley labored for years as the single busiest employee of the Church, doing, quite literally, any and every job that the Brethren asked him to do.
In short, he has seen it all, and he has done it all, and he knows the limitations of what can be accomplished by Church leaders -- even the prophet himself.
A friend of mine once worked with President Hinckley on an idea that both of them believed would be good for the Church. But after consulting with others, President Hinckley came back to my friend and said, in effect, "I could probably make it happen right now, but there's little support for it, and after I'm gone the project would probably die. We aren't going to waste the Church's resources on something that will almost certainly fail in the long run."
The outside world likes to think of Mormons as robots behaving as the Church programs us to. But President Hinckley, like Joseph Smith, understood that this simply does not work with Mormons, however some leaders might wish the Saints were quicker to obey. Stubbornness and stiffneckedness are not lacking in the Restored Church.
But it was not President Hinckley's disposition to seek to control the Saints' lives. His leadership exemplified what Joseph Smith once said about leading the Church: "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."
D&C 121 is even more explicit in saying that the Saints can only be governed by persuasion, without a shred of coercion. I have watched with deep appreciation how well President Hinckley has governed the Church by these principles.
Time and again, when people press for definitive answers, his reply -- or the official Church reply, under his direction -- has been, in effect, "Read the scriptures. Pray. Consult your own judgment and conscience. The Church is not going to relieve you of your responsibility to think; the Church is not going to replace the role of the Spirit of God in your life."
Questions about the exact meaning of "ten percent of your increase" or hair's-breadth distinctions in the Word of Wisdom have been answered this way, and we have watched the Church Handbook shrink in size as general principles have often replaced detailed rules.
I remember back in the late seventies when, perhaps in reaction against feminist attacks on the Church, there came an instruction from the Church that sacrament meeting prayers were only to be given by priesthood holders. Almost at once this was replaced by an instruction that one of the prayers could be said by a woman, but at least one had to be given by a priesthood holder, and it even specified which one (though for the life of me I can't remember now whether it was the opening or closing prayer).
Even this instruction did not last long, and few people remember that these rules ever existed. But it was exemplary of the natural tendency to proliferate rules in response to momentary issues.
After Gordon B. Hinckley joined the First Presidency, and particularly during the years when he was the primary active member of that quorum, such minute regulations no longer appeared. Why?
I think it was because, like Moses, President Hinckley did not see himself as the only person who could make good decisions, guided by the Spirit of God. "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Num. 11:29).
He Trusted Us
This is the hallmark of President Hinckley's presidency, and his years of service beforehand. While he had high standards, and expected others to offer the Church their very best, he never acted or spoke as if the ordinary members of the Church were children, incapable of making right choices without somebody telling them what to do. (That was somebody else's plan in the council in heaven.)
He spoke to us as if our faith, our role in the kingdom, were as important to this great enterprise as his own. He expected us to act upon that faith and fulfil that role with the same rigor and vigor that he brought to any job he undertook -- in which he was often, inevitably, disappointed.
But he never stopped treating us as if we were capable of learning how to govern ourselves.
Which is, when you think about it, what children on the verge of adulthood need: Not just instructions, but the opportunity to act on our own and, yes, even fail, so we can learn and grow.
The responsibility is yours, he said to us over and over again. You can do this.
And, sometimes to our surprise, we have often discovered that we can.
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