Sunday musings 08-31-08

Continuing on last week’s theme of giving rebuke, I offer up an experience from the life of Elder Gene R. Cook, currently an Emeritus member of the Seventy.  This anecdote was shared in a BYU devotional talk by Michael Thompson (now an Assistant Dean of the Marriott School of Management at BYU) on July 9, 2002, entitled “Who Will Bear Reproof?” I remember attending that devotional — sitting near the front of the auditorium, actually — and the things he said there continue to influence me today.  I highly recommend this talk.

At a stake conference I was amazed at the number of worthy young men who had not been on a mission, even though they were of age. There were so many at the conference that I had them stand up. Seventy-six of them stood. I was overwhelmed. And I wondered in my heart, where are our leaders?

After the conference I called a special meeting of the stake presidency and bishops. When we were finished I left them with a challenge: “Brethren, I’d like to ask you to interview every one of those young men, all seventy-six of them. Talk to them in the Spirit of the Lord and invite them to respond to his call. Please get back to me in a couple of months and give me a report on each one.”

About six weeks later, the stake president came to me with a report. He said, “Elder Cook, we’ve completed every one of the interviews.”

“That’s great,” I responded. “How many are going on missions?”

He paused. He was pleased that all the young people had been interviewed, but he didn’t want to tell me how the interviews had turned out. Finally he said, “Well, there are three or four. And there are five or six others who will probably go next year.”

I prayed. What should I say? Then I felt that the Lord wanted me to speak boldly, and I said, “President, I can come to only one of two conclusions.”

“What’s that?” he asked. I said, “It may be that this is the most unworthy, unresponsive group of young people I’ve ever met.”

He shook his head. “No, that’s not right, Elder Cook. These are great young people.”

“I know they are. I visited with a number of them at the conference.”

We talked about the youth for a few moments, and then he said, “What’s the other conclusion?”

I said, “I guess this one has to be true then, if the other one was false.”

“And what is that?” [the president asked.]

I would never have answered him if the Lord hadn’t directed me to, but I could tell it was important that I be very forthright. I said, “I guess I’ve found the most ineffective group of priesthood leaders I’ve ever met.” And I didn’t crack a smile.

The stake president took it hard, and I knew he would. But the bottom line was that he needed it. He was not acting as humbly as he should have. He had gone out and operated like a man, and that’s why he got the results he did.

As we concluded the interview, I put my arms around him and I loved him. We knelt and prayed together. Then I bore my witness to him: “President, you go out now and act in the authority of God, and he will respond. You go into the homes of those young men and kneel down and pray with them. You ask each one to explain to the Lord in your presence why he can’t go on a mission. Then if the Lord says he doesn’t have to go, it’s okay with me. But if the Lord says he has to, then tell the boy to be honorable enough and get on with it.” We agreed we’d meet in another six weeks and he would give me another report.

After the meeting I called his regional representative and said, “I just had this difficult meeting with President So-and-so. I’m sure he’s feeling pretty low. Will you go to him and strengthen and bless him?”

Six weeks later this stake president came back with his report. Here’s what he said:

“Brother Cook, I went out of your office terribly offended. I was humiliated and angry. I stewed for a whole week. During that whole time, I was absolutely miserable.

“Finally I mentioned it to my wife. She heard me out, and then said, ‘My dear, I don’t want to offend you either, but a servant of the Lord talked to you and I feel a burning in me that tells me he spoke for the Lord. He’s only asking you to go and talk to them again. Quit fighting it. Do it.’

“I knew she was right. For the first time I humbled myself and desired to do it the Lord’s way. We knelt and prayed together, and a great power came over me. I felt I could do anything, even move a mountain, and I said, ‘I will go and do it without further excuse.'”

So he went out and, with the help of his bishops, began to interview these young men again. After six weeks he had interviewed twenty-seven men. Twenty-five of them had agreed to go on missions and were filling out their papers. Prayer had softened his heart and enabled him to go forth, and prayer softened the hearts of the young men, that they would respond. [Gene R. Cook, Receiving Answers to Our Prayers, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 113–15.]

I am impressed with Bro. Thompson’s analysis of this anecdote, because he describes exactly what my initial reaction would have been.

I am bold enough to say that this experience shared by Elder Cook is the most unnerving account of correction and challenge issued by a contemporary Church leader that I have ever heard of. It is unnerving because it is the kind of counsel that could be given to many of us—you and me—in our own callings. I have read it time and again, almost haunted by the question “How would I have responded in this situation?” We may smile as we read about the blistering reproofs of a Brigham Young. We don’t have to respond to those reproofs because they were not directed toward us.

But reproofs and corrections are still meted out by inspired leaders. They are given out of inspiration, not ego or impatience. And when they come, we are bound to respond in meekness and submissiveness.

[. . .]

How do you think you would have handled this if you had been in the shoes of that stake president? The natural man might have said any number of things, such as “Well, I’d like to point out that my counselors and I feel we are doing the very best we can. We don’t make other people’s decisions for them. We have invited these young men to serve. They have their agency, and I think we have to honor their choices to go or not go on missions.” Or another natural reaction might be to hide one’s sense of hurt and offense and say something like “Well, maybe you have found an ineffective stake president” and then retreat to sulk in silence and resentment.

[. . .]

I have no idea who that stake president is or where he is. But you will believe me when I say that I revere him. I am awed and touched by his humility and his courage, just as I am awed by the courage of Elder Cook, who spoke the inspired truth—the sharp, diamond-edged truth that in one pivotal moment called a man to do the work of a ministering angel. Notice how Elder Cook described the stake president’s initial effort: “He had gone out and operated like a man, and that’s why he got the results he did.” Most of us would have left a man to operate like a man, or a woman like a woman. Elder Cook pursued a more courageous path.

I have had the opportunity to receive reproof a handful of times in my life, and I have not always borne it well.  But I am working to get better at it, to not interpret the words spoken as a personal attack upon my character, but rather to see them as an opportunity to learn humility and develop my weaknesses into strengths.

2 Responses to “Sunday musings 08-31-08”

  1. Right in the “X” ring!! Bulls-eye! This is what I am so passionate about, the right and responsibility of our leaders to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. I am frustrated by the unwillingness of some to do just what Elder Cook did in this article, and that is require a servant of the Lord to perform as such. Too frequently, we try to do our jobs without the Lord and we get just what this Stake President got. We forget that our callings are to bless and enrich via the Priesthood, and try to carry them out without that Priesthood. Imagine if Moses had gone to free Israel without it, he most likely would have failed and been imprisoned and killed. By using the Priesthood, he eventually succeeded. We are so concerned about offending that we are paralyzed.

  2. I love the fact that, right after giving the reproof, Elder Cook called in someone else to help buoy up the Stake President. He didn’t just leave him alone. I think that’s an important part of proper reproof–that it is not accompanied by a smug, “I gave him what he deserved” reaction in the reprover, but by a loving and compassionate concern–truly wanting the best for the reproved.

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