Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts on Elder Packer’s talk “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”

Elder Packer’s talk “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them” opened with four small sketches of experiences he had with children or children he had observed.  The first one was of a sick and starving Japanese boy who begged at a train station, whom Elder Packer tried to help but was not fast enough.  The second was a ragged, starving Peruvian boy who snuck into a sacrament meeting hoping for some of the sacrament bread.  Though a woman scared him away, he came back and Elder Packer invited him to sit on his lap for the rest of the meeting.  After the meeting was over, the boy ran away.  The third story was of a coatless boy among a group of boys that Elder Packer observed on the streets of Salt Lake City on a cold night in December.  The fourth story was of a Japanese girl gathering sycamore leaves in a bouquet in the middle of all the rubble and nuclear destruction there in WWII. 

I believe there are multiple ways to derive meaning from these stories.

First, on the most basic and important level, they are meant to elicit our sympathy for the plight of these children.  Although we (and Elder Packer) are not in a position to directly help them, we are in a position to help and nurture the children we have charge of.  The world is growing less sympathetic to children and their needs, and it is slowly becoming more exploitative.  Elder Packer’s talk can fortify us and keep us from being swept along in this; we are encouraged to nurture our sympathies keep them fine-tuned toward cries of distress.   One of the character traits of Christ was that He was often moved with compassion by those he met in trouble and took action because of it.  Compassion is a quality He wants us to cultivate as well, in spite of the dangers of being manipulated, in spite of the possibility of being conned or taken advantage of.

On a second level, I think these stories demonstrate Elder Packer’s powers of observation.  He could have closed his eyes and ignored the Japanese beggar boy on the train platform.  He could have shrugged as the Peruvian boy was frowned away by the woman at the Cusco sacrament meeting.  But he didn’t.  He observed, he allowed himself to feel, and he acted as he felt.  In the other two stories, though he personally didn’t interact with those children, he noticed what they were doing and he thought about them and tried to understand them.  He noticed the coatless boy hopping to keep warm among his fellows on that cold Salt Lake night, and thought about what home conditions must be like for him to be out and about in such a state.  He noticed the Japanese girl making her bouquet of leaves and thought about how focused she must be on that whimsical task, even while there was much to be distressed about.   Elder Packer sets a good example of how to observe children as a means of understanding them better.  I suppose that observing and understanding children will help us figure out how to help them.

On a third level, the title of Elder Packer’s talk “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them” challenged me to look at the above stories to try to see if I could discern the simple things those children did that could lead me and help me become “as a child…fit for the kingdom of God.”   See what you can find too.

Years ago on a cold night in a train station in Japan, I heard a tap on the window of my sleeper car. There stood a freezing boy wearing a ragged shirt with a dirty rag tied about a swollen jaw. His head was covered with scabies. He held a rusty tin can and a spoon, the symbol of an orphan beggar. As I struggled to open the door to give him money, the train pulled out.
I will never forget that starving little boy left standing in the cold, holding up an empty tin can. Nor can I forget how helpless I felt as the train slowly pulled away and left him standing on the platform.

What did this little boy do that could lead me?  The other stories were a little easier to figure out, but this one stumped me for a long time.  I happened to pick up Elder Packer’s book Teach Ye Diligently and randomly stumbled upon a longer version of this story which gave me some clues.

The railway station, what there was left of it, had been cold and forbidding.  Starving children were sleeping in corners, the fortunate ones with a newspaper or a few old rags to fend off the cold.  I slept restlessly on that train.  The berths were too short anyway.
            In the bleak, chilly hours of the dawn the train stopped somewhere along the way.  I heard a tapping on the window and raised the blind to see where we were.  There, reaching from the platform, tapping on the window with a tin can, stood a little boy.  He was an orphan and a beggar.  He might have been six or seven years old.  His little body was thin with starvation.  He had on a ragged shirt that looked like a kimono, nothing else.  His head was shingled with scabs and scales.  His left jaw was grotesquely swollen—an abscessed tooth perhaps.  Around it he had tied a filthy rag with a knot on top of his head, a pathetic gesture of treatment.
            When the boy saw that I was awake, he waved his can.  He was begging.  In pity I thought, “How can I help him?”  Then I knew.  I had money, Japanese money.  I quickly groped for my clothing and found some yen notes in my pocket.  When I tried to open the window it would not open.  I slipped on my trousers and hurried to the end of the car.  As I pushed at the resistant door, where he stood expectantly waiting, the train pulled away from the station.  Through the dirty windows I could see him holding the rusty can and with the rag around his swollen jaw.
            There I stood, an officer from a conquering army, heading home to all the material blessings, the warmth of family association, opportunity.  There I stood half-dressed, clutching a handful of Japanese yen which he had seen but which I could not get to him.
            I was impressed—perhaps scarred—by the experience.  Sometimes I wish I could forget that sight.  Perhaps I need, greatly need, to remember.  I wanted to help him but couldn’t.  The only comfort I draw is that I did want to help him (Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently, p295-296).

In comparison to the other starving children who were sleeping in corners of the railway station, the little sick boy was asking for help.  Because he asked, he was about to receive.  (We’ll just ignore the fact that the train left too quickly.)  Are we afraid to ask the Lord for help?  Are we afraid to beg Him for what we really need?  Our sins make us just as sick spiritually as that little boy was physically; are we afraid to go to the Physician and ask for healing?

Next comes the story of the boy in Cusco, Peru.

Some years later in Cusco, a city high in the Andes of Peru, Elder A. Theodore Tuttle and I held a sacrament meeting in a long, narrow room that opened onto the street. It was night, and while Elder Tuttle spoke, a little boy, perhaps six years old, appeared in the doorway. He wore only a ragged shirt that went about to his knees.
On our left was a small table with a plate of bread for the sacrament. This starving street orphan saw the bread and inched slowly along the wall toward it. He was almost to the table when a woman on the aisle saw him. With a stern toss of her head, she banished him out into the night. I groaned within myself.
Later the little boy returned. He slid along the wall, glancing from the bread to me. When he was near the point where the woman would see him again, I held out my arms, and he came running to me. I held him on my lap.
Then, as something symbolic, I set him on Elder Tuttle’s chair. After the closing prayer the hungry little boy darted out into the night.
When I returned home, I told President Spencer W. Kimball about my experience. He was deeply moved and told me, “You were holding a nation on your lap.” He said to me more than once, “That experience has far greater meaning than you have yet come to know.”
As I have visited Latin American countries nearly 100 times, I have looked for that little boy in the faces of the people. Now I do know what President Kimball meant.

I had some ideas about what this little boy did that could lead me, but I wasn’t quite sure.  I had some idea that it might be his determination to come and not be completely frightened away by an unwelcoming person.  Elder Packer’s Teach Ye Diligently also had a fuller version of this story, one told by Spencer W Kimball in conference.

May I conclude with this experience of my friend and brother, Boyd K. Packer, as he returned from Peru.  It was in a branch sacrament meeting.  The chapel was filled, the opening exercises finished, and the sacrament in preparation.  A little Lamanite ragamuffin entered from the street.  His two shirts would scarcely make one, so ragged they were and torn and worn.  It was unlikely that those shirts had ever been off that little body since they were donned.  Calloused and chapped were the little feet which brought him in the open door, up the aisle, and to the sacrament table.  There was dark and dirty testimony of deprivation, want, unsatisfied hungers—spiritual as well as physical. 
Almost unobserved he shyly came to the sacrament table and, with a seemingly spiritual hunger, leaned against the table and lovingly rubbed his unwashed face against the cool, smooth, white linen.
A woman on the front seat, seemingly outraged by the intrusion, caught his eye and with motion and frown sent the little ragamuffin scampering down the aisle out into his world, the street.
A little later, seemingly compelled by some inner urge, he overcame his timidity and came stealthily, cautiously down the aisle again, fearful, ready to escape if necessary, but impelled as though directed by inaudible voices with “a familiar spirit” and as though memories long faded were reviving, as though some intangible force were crowding him on to seek something for which he yearned but could not identify.
From his seat on the stand, Elder Packer caught his eye, beckoned to him, and stretched out big, welcoming arms.  A moment’s hesitation and the little ragamuffin was nestled comfortably on his lap, in his arms, the tousled head against a great warm heart—a heart sympathetic to waifs, and especially to little Lamanite ones.  It seemed the little one had found a safe harbor from a stormy sea, so contented he was.  The cruel, bewildering frustrating world was outside.  Peace, security, acceptance enveloped him.
Later Elder Packer sat in my office and, in tender terms and with a subdued voice, rehearsed this incident to me.  As he sat forward on his chair, his eyes glistening, a noticeable emotion in his voice, he said, “As this little one relaxed in my arms, it seemed it was not a single little Lamanite I held.  It was a nation, indeed a multitude of nations of deprived, hungering souls, wanting something deep and warm they could not explain—a humble people yearning to revive memories all but faded—of ancestors standing wide-eyed, openmouthed, expectant and excited, looking up and seeing a holy, glorified Being descend from celestial areas, and hearing a voice say: ‘Behold I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are…and in me hath the Father gloried his name….I am the light and the life of the world.  I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.’ (3 Nephi 9:15, 18)” (Spencer W. Kimball, general conference address Oct 1965, as quoted by Teach Ye Diligently, p327-328)

In Elder Packer’s talk, he spoke of doing symbolic with the little boy.  “Then, as something symbolic, I set him on Elder Tuttle’s chair.”  Just as Elder Packer put the little boy in the chair belonging to one of the church leaders, Jesus Christ told His disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who receive Him as a child.  The little boy was an example of coming on his own to church, following his hunger, hoping to receive, and refusing to be totally driven away by others who didn’t welcome him or who wished to get rid of him.  Do we follow our spiritual hunger like that little boy?  Are we determined to come even if somehow we feel unwelcome?

On to the next story..

I met another shivering boy on the streets of Salt Lake City. It was late on another cold winter night. We were leaving a Christmas dinner at a hotel. Down the street came six or eight noisy boys. All of them should have been at home out of the cold.
One boy had no coat. He bounced about very rapidly to stave off the chill. He disappeared down a side street, no doubt to a small, shabby apartment and a bed that did not have enough covers to keep him warm.
At night, when I pull the covers over me, I offer a prayer for those who have no warm bed to go to.

I noticed that in this sketch the boy with no coat bounced about a lot to keep from getting cold in the winter night.  This reminded me of times when I’ve felt I was in a chilly spiritual environment and I’ve had to push myself to greater spiritual activity to stay warm in the faith.  Satan would love to chill us into inactivity with doubts, fears, worries, and despair.  Being actively engaged in service to others (in our families, in our callings, and to any others we meet) helps us stay warm in the faith.  The little boy is an example of making his own warmth, even when those who were supposed to provide it didn’t. 

Next story...

I was stationed in Osaka, Japan, when World War II closed. The city was rubble, and the streets were littered with blocks, debris, and bomb craters. Although most of the trees had been blasted away, some few of them still stood with shattered limbs and trunks and had the courage to send forth a few twigs with leaves.
A tiny girl dressed in a ragged, colored kimono was busily gathering yellow sycamore leaves into a bouquet. The little child seemed unaware of the devastation that surrounded her as she scrambled over the rubble to add new leaves to her collection. She had found the one beauty left in her world. Perhaps I should say she was the beautiful part of her world. Somehow, to think of her increases my faith. Embodied in the child was hope.

Of course, the little girl’s focus on the beauty of life is a great example.  Sometimes it is easy for us to get so concerned about the troubles around us that we can’t find the beauty at all.  But this brings me to a question—if we only focus on the beauty of the world, wouldn’t that cause us to be reluctant to engage with the problems and injustices and evils to end them?  Or am I missing something?

I suppose that just as the little girl gathered the beauty she could find, we can seek out everything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy, and seek after these things among the moral decay of our society. 

What do you think?


Avtar Ram Kaur said...

Thank you for the breakdown of these stories. They almost come across as parables, don't they?

Michaela Stephens said...

Yes, that's kind of how I started to see them after reading through the talk several times.