I Thank Thee, O God

For some reason, Frontier Airlines seems only to have a red-eye flight to bring me from SLC to Philly. Thus it was that, last night at three AM, I found myself in an aisle seat alternately munching on a slimy oatmeal cookie and sipping a slightly warm ginger ale.

Later in the flight, though, matters turned more serious. I had to stifle my sobs as I finished my spring break book: Lenghten Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (hereafter: LYS). I am too young to remember the prophet short in stature, but his son Edward has painted a vivid portrait and, by the time Spencer began his descent into seemingly interminable ill-health, I felt as though a friend was slipping away. Luckily, I think most of my fellow passengers has fallen asleep long before I began crying–but my tears didn’t cease for about an hour.

Partly, I suppose, I attribute my love for President Kimball to the second official declaration. For some reason I cannot pin down, the African pioneers fascinate me. I have long treasured the moment the Earth stood still as “Reverend” Billy Johnson (in Ghana) tuned his radio to the BBC frequency to hear, late one night and after ten years of proselyting for the Mormon Church even though we wouldn’t send missionaries or many official materials, that President Kimball had received revelation to extend Priesthood and Temple benefits to men of all races and hues. I wept when I read about the revelation in LYS and so I ought not be surprised I wept upon reading of President Kimball’s death.

It’s not just the revelation, though.

Somewhere in the course of this marvelous book, I gained a testimony that this dimnuitive man was a Prophet–either despite or because of his foibles and feelings of depression and inadequacy. Spencer, as depicted here and in his earlier biography (also by Edward Kimball), was positively and sincerely baffled by his call to the Apostleship, not to mention his ascent to the Presidency. Convcinced of his shortcomings and particularly of his lack of pedigree, Spencer seemed to compensate by wearing out his life in the love and service of others. The deterioration of his body and mind at the end of his life is hardly surprising considering his insistence, throughout thirty plus years of service as an Apostle and President, that he answer most letters, counsel most prodigals, and shake nearly every hand.

On that last note, I could not help but be struck by the following anecdote:

“Just before the last session of the conference [in La Paz, Bolivia], as the General Authorities waited in a room behind the stage, President Kimball told them, ‘Before we leave tonight I would like to shake hands with and express my appreication and love to all the Lamanite people here at the conference.’ Thinking of the number in attendance, President Romney urged, ‘President I don’t think that very wise. When we announce this we will have a real problem with security. We will have a problem with discipline. People will be stumbling over each other in order to shake your hand. You are already tired and have been on the road all this time You need your rest [President Kimball was somewhat ill from the extreme altitude].’

“President Kimball sat silently for a few moments, then, without responding to President Romney’s objections, simply repeated that he wanted to touch the people. His advisers repeated their advice, Again he was silent. They looked to Dr. Ernest Wilkinson for help. ‘Doctor, how do you feel about this? Do you think he is up to it?’ The doctor said it was unwise, considering all the recent travel, the altitude, his fatigue at the end of a long day, and the security problem. Again President Kimball sat silent a moment, then repeated his wish. The others, realizing finally that he had made up his mind, yielded.

“As President Kimball concluded the conference, he announced, ‘I want to shake the hand of every person here.’ An audible gasp came from the crowd. After the prayer, pandemonium ensued. Many of the crowd could not believe he would shake everyone’s hand, and they wanted to reach him before he quit. But once they realized he was serious, they stayed in an orderly line. They came–humble people, the well and the crippled. Some smiled, some wept, many gave him an abrazo [(embrace)]. Some got in line a second time. President Kimball freely poured out his time and energy to greet each one, despite the altitude, his fatigue, and his old heart.

“The other five general authorities lined up with him while Dr. Wilkinson, Earl Jones, and Arthur Haycock stood by anxiously. At one point, Dr. Wilkinson quietly approached and asked whether he could stop soon. Barely gancing at thim, President Kimball said, ‘If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t ask me that question.’ The only help he would accept was from Elder McConkie, who stationed himself just beyond the President. As soon as a member had shaken President Kimball’s hand, Elder McConkie would reach out, take the person’s hands, and pull him or her along with his own greeting, lest the person stop to talk to President Kimball and make his promise to greet everyone impossible.”

Last night, bathed in the harsh false light of the airplane reading lamp, I read this passage and cried like a child because I could not help but remember 3 Nephi 11:13-15:

“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto them saying: Arise and come forth unto me…And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one….”

Spencer, of course, would be terribly uncomfortable with any comparision apposing him with the Savior. It’s just that the analogy is so simple, so beautiful, and so compelling I can’t help it–it seems that, at the end of a life dedicated to service, love, and the Savior, President Kimball had come to reflect the Lord’s love and countenance in a literal, physical, and unmistakeable way.

Published in: on August 3, 2006 at 11:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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