One thing I have to say about this talk right off is that it represents a wonderful effort by our prophet to make his experience with the loss of his wife into something that can benefit others. I, for one, honor him for this. It can’t be easy to speak to the whole church, even the whole world, about a loss still so new.
His talk is in green, my thoughts are in black.
In my journal tonight, I shall write, “This has been one of the most inspiring sessions of any general conference I’ve attended. Everything has been of the greatest and most spiritual nature.”
Brothers and sisters, six months ago as we met together in our general conference, my sweet wife, Frances, lay in the hospital, having suffered a devastating fall just a few days earlier. In May, after weeks of valiantly struggling to overcome her injuries, she slipped into eternity. Her loss has been profound. She and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple on October 7, 1948. Tomorrow would have been our 65th wedding anniversary. She was the love of my life, my trusted confidant, and my closest friend. To say that I miss her does not begin to convey the depth of my feelings.
This conference marks 50 years since I was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by President David O. McKay. Through all these years I have felt nothing but the full and complete support of my sweet companion.
He’s without that support now. This must be very hard for him.
Countless are the sacrifices she made so that I could fulfill my calling. Never did I hear a word of complaint from her as I was often required to spend days and sometimes weeks away from her and from our children.
Her death means an extended separation now.
She was an angel, indeed.
I wish to express my thanks, as well as those of my family, for the tremendous outpouring of love which has come to us since Frances’s passing. Hundreds of cards and letters were sent from around the world expressing admiration for her and condolences to our family. We received dozens of beautiful floral arrangements. We are grateful for the numerous contributions which have been offered in her name to the General Missionary Fund of the Church. On behalf of those of us whom she left behind, I express deep gratitude for your kind and heartfelt expressions.
Of utmost comfort to me during this tender time of parting have been my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the knowledge I have that my dear Frances lives still.
“tender time of parting” may evoke a sense of “sentimental” and “cute” when we hear it, I suspect “tender” probably should be understood in the sense of a wound that is still throbbing.
Do we know how much comfort the gospel and testimony of life beyond death can be to us before we lose a loved one?
I know that our separation is temporary. We were sealed in the house of God by one having authority to bind on earth and in heaven. I know that we will be reunited one day and will never again be separated. This is the knowledge that sustains me.
Brothers and sisters, it may be safely assumed that no person has ever lived entirely free of suffering and sorrow, nor has there ever been a period in human history that did not have its full share of turmoil and misery.
President Monson can certainly testify that it is true that no one ever lived free of suffering and sorrow. His meditations on his experience are particularly valuable to us. We might ask ourselves, how does President Monson deal with the inevitable internal questioning that comes? Or is he immune to it?
When the pathway of life takes a cruel turn, there is the temptation to ask the question “Why me?” At times there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel, no sunrise to end the night’s darkness. We feel encompassed by the disappointment of shattered dreams and the despair of vanished hopes. We join in uttering the biblical plea, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”1 We feel abandoned, heartbroken, alone. We are inclined to view our own personal misfortunes through the distorted prism of pessimism. We become impatient for a solution to our problems, forgetting that frequently the heavenly virtue of patience is required.
I suspect that President Monson wasn’t just speaking abstractly about what happens to most people here. I think he shares some of what he went through.
(I particularly identify with “encompassed by the disappointment of shattered dreams and the despair of vanished hopes.” It takes time for new dreams and hopes to sprout, and the time before that happens feels terribly barren and directionless.)
Impatience for a solution is perfectly understandable. Disappointments, shattered dreams, heartbreak, misfortune, and problems confront us with sudden needs deep in our souls. It takes time for us to understand the nature of those needs beyond the instinctual “make the hurt stop” before we can begin to find solutions. It is those times that our coping skills are tested.
The difficulties which come to us present us with the real test of our ability to endure.
I’m reminded of Job here. I think most of us can deal with initial shocks fairly well. It is the living day by day with the consequences and results that begins to wear us down. That’s where our endurance and faith is stretched.
A fundamental question remains to be answered by each of us:
Shall I falter, or shall I finish?
I think this sentence is incredibly profound. That question “Shall I falter, or shall I finish?” is at the root of every struggle we have in affliction because we have to make a choice whether to continue faithful or not.
- “Why me?” asks whether we will falter when it appears we don’t deserve what happened to us.
- “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks whether we will falter when it appears that we can’t find anything to make the hurt go away.
- Feeling there is no light at the end of the tunnel asks whether we will falter when it appears that things won’t get better from here.
- Finding our dreams shattered and our hopes vanished and saying “What now?” asks whether we will falter when we don’t get something we really wanted.
Maybe what we can learn from this is to sidetrack all those painful questions in our afflictions and simply go to the root question, “Shall I falter, or shall I finish?” It may help us see our situation more clearly, from an eternal perspective.
Some do falter as they find themselves unable to rise above their challenges. To finish involves enduring to the very end of life itself.
What does it mean “to rise above one’s challenges”? What stories do you think of? Some people can persevere and overcome their obstacles by destroying them with sheer grit, like the man who works until he can finally walk again, in spite of his doctor’s opinion that he never would. Others accept their challenges and work around them, developing into genius the other gifts that have been left to them.
As we ponder the events that can befall all of us, we can say with Job of old, “Man is born unto trouble.”2 Job was a “perfect and upright” man who “feared God, and eschewed evil.”3 Pious in his conduct, prosperous in his fortune, Job was to face a test which could have destroyed anyone. Shorn of his possessions, scorned by his friends, afflicted by his suffering, shattered by the loss of his family, he was urged to “curse God, and die.”4 He resisted this temptation and declared from the depths of his noble soul:
“Behold, my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high.”5
“I know that my redeemer liveth.”6
President Monson turned to Job’s story for perspective. It is likely that President Monson decided Job suffered more than he and used that to remember what blessings he still enjoyed. If you read Job, you see that Job was very open about what he felt and thought during his afflictions. He didn’t curse God, but he freely cursed his own birthday.
The lines of Job that President Monson quotes are instructive. “Behold, my witness is in heaven, and my record is on high” is from Job 16:19 and in context says, “God sees me and knows all I do as I suffer, and my record is clean.”
The line “I know that my redeemer liveth” from Job 19:25 reminds us that Christ redeems us from sin and will also save our bodies from physical death and limitations, not to mention our loved ones. Affliction is a useful reminder of our need to be redeemed.
Job kept the faith. Will we do likewise as we face those challenges which will be ours?
Whenever we are inclined to feel burdened down with the blows of life, let us remember that others have passed the same way, have endured, and then have overcome.
The history of the Church in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times, is replete with the experiences of those who have struggled and yet who have remained steadfast and of good cheer. The reason? They have made the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of their lives. This is what will pull us through whatever comes our way. We will still experience difficult challenges, but we will be able to face them, to meet them head-on, and to emerge victorious.
Remembering that other people have experienced the same afflictions is very helpful. Reading their stories is validating and brings a new depth of understanding, both of their pain and their strength. It gives hope that we can make it through too. I love the verbs President Monson uses:
meet them head-on,
One thing I learned from the movie 17 Miracles is that when we reach our limits, God sends tender mercies to encourage us, to remind us He sees and cares, and He will help us just enough to renew our strength.
There’s another bit of counsel—make the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of your life. It pulls us through, usually as we cling to the covenants we have made and try to fulfill our side of the terms. It gives us healthy ways of coping and pushes us toward the change that will make us stronger.
From the bed of pain, from the pillow wet with tears, we are lifted heavenward by that divine assurance and precious promise: “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”7 Such comfort is priceless.
Do we see the evidences that God has not forsaken us in our trials? Perhaps we need to keep our eyes open every day for those blessings and tender mercies.
As I have traveled far and wide throughout the world fulfilling the responsibilities of my calling, I have come to know many things—not the least of which is that sadness and suffering are universal. I cannot begin to measure all of the heartache and sorrow I have witnessed as I have visited with those who are dealing with grief, experiencing illness, facing divorce, struggling with a wayward son or daughter, or suffering the consequences of sin.
I suppose with such a wide experience of that heartache and sorrow, President Monson also has a better sense of the scope of the Atonement that covered all of that.
The list could go on and on, for there are countless problems which can befall us.
I’m a bit of a worry-wart; I can tie myself in knots thinking about what could happen to me. But for some reason, when I read the above sentence, I find myself deciding to let go of my worries. Weird, huh? Maybe it makes me realize that it doesn’t do me good to worry. Maybe I need to be more realistic about my risk-assessment.
To single out one example is difficult, and yet whenever I think of challenges, my thoughts turn to Brother Brems, one of my boyhood Sunday School teachers.
Considering the challenges of others or helping them bear their burdens can give us a little vacation from our own. It’s a peculiar kind of vacation though; we mentally or physically bear someone else’s burdens and our load is temporarily made heavier as we carry our own problems too, but then when our service ends and we go back to just our own problems, we find they feel lighter.
He was a faithful member of the Church, a man with a heart of gold. He and his wife, Sadie, had eight children, many of whom were the same ages as those in our family.
After Frances and I were married and moved from the ward, we saw Brother and Sister Brems and members of their family at weddings and funerals, as well as at ward reunions.
In 1968, Brother Brems lost his wife, Sadie. Two of his eight children also passed away as the years went by.
One day nearly 13 years ago, Brother Brems’s oldest granddaughter telephoned me. She explained that her grandfather had reached his 105th birthday. She said, “He lives in a small care center but meets with his entire family each Sunday, where he delivers a gospel lesson.” She continued, “This past Sunday, Grandpa announced to us, ‘My dears, I am going to die this week. Will you please call Tommy Monson. He will know what to do.’”
I visited Brother Brems the very next evening. I had not seen him for a while. I could not speak to him, for he had lost his hearing. I could not write a message for him to read, because he had lost his sight. I was told that the family communicated with him by taking the finger of his right hand and then tracing on the palm of his left hand the name of the person visiting. Any message had to be conveyed in this same way. I followed the procedure by taking his finger and spelling T-O-M-M-Y M-O-N-S-O-N, the name by which he had always known me. Brother Brems became excited and, taking my hands, placed them on his head. I knew his desire was to receive a priesthood blessing. The driver who had taken me to the care center joined me as we placed our hands on the head of Brother Brems and provided the desired blessing. Afterward, tears streamed from his sightless eyes. He grasped our hands in gratitude. Although he had not heard the blessing we had given him, the Spirit was strong, and I believe he was inspired to know we had provided the blessing which he needed. This sweet man could no longer see. He could no longer hear. He was confined night and day to a small room in a care center. And yet the smile on his face and the words he spoke touched my heart. “Thank you,” he said. “My Heavenly Father has been so good to me.”
Within a week, just as Brother Brems had predicted, he passed away. Never did he dwell on what he was lacking; rather, he was always deeply grateful for his many blessings.
As we look at Brother Brems’ situation as described by President Monson, can we identify how Brother Brems rose above his trials and afflictions? Does he destroy his obstacles or work around them? In what ways does he demonstrate faith that the Lord will not forsake him? What exemplary individuals might he have thought of who had passed through the same trials?
His afflictions were certainly difficult. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, and he was confined to a room in a care center at age 105. He was old enough that his children would be getting pretty feeble themselves.
What would you do with your time if you were stuck in one place and you couldn’t see or hear? No watching TV, no internet, no playing with electronics, no reading, no listening to people… What would you do?
What did Brother Brems do? You get a clue from what his granddaughter says. “[He] meets with his entire family each Sunday, where he delivers a gospel lesson.” I just bet you that he spent the week thinking about the scriptures and the gospel, thinking about what lesson he wanted to teach. He couldn’t use any references or refresh his memory about scripture stories or access any teaching materials, so he had to go off of what he had stored up in his head in the past. Impressive, huh?
What else could he do? Sing, pray, remember the past..
If you notice, Brother Brems had a small way of working around his deafness and blindness to receive messages from people. If someone took his right hand and traced with his finger letters in the palm of his left hand, he could receive some small message, like the names of someone visiting him. (Just for fun, try this out and see how good you are at this. It’s a bit harder than it sounds.)
Brother Brems may have had deaf ears, but he wasn’t deaf to the Spirit. He knew by its impressions that he would die within the week. And even if he couldn’t hear the blessing President Monson gave him, he was inspired and touched by it. I suppose that to feel became one of Brother Brems’ strengths.
Suppose you were given a blessing but couldn’t hear it. What would you imagine about what was said?
Brother Brems’ declaration “My Heavenly Father has been so good to me” shows us he considered every good thing he felt done for him to be a manifestation of God’s love for him. No other faces were visible. It was all God.
“Never did he dwell on what he was lacking; rather, he was always deeply grateful for his many blessings.” This can sound like a cliché of patient suffering, to the point that we may get the impression that it is automatic. It’s not. It comes from making many silent choices to look on the bright side until it becomes a habit.
I wonder if Brother Brems ever thought about the people who had some of the same afflictions as he. Helen Keller is a good example… except she wasn’t confined.
How did other people help Brother Brems bear his afflictions? His family visited him and they were patient enough to use the communication method of writing in his hand. They listened to his lessons. President Monson visited him when asked for and gave him a blessing.
Our Heavenly Father, who gives us so much to delight in,
[a very important point to remember in suffering—that Heavenly Father gives us a lot to delight in]
also knows that we learn and grow and become stronger as we face and survive the trials through which we must pass. We know that there are times when we will experience heartbreaking sorrow, when we will grieve, and when we may be tested to our limits. However, such difficulties allow us to change for the better, to rebuild our lives in the way our Heavenly Father teaches us, and to become something different from what we were—better than we were, more understanding than we were, more empathetic than we were, with stronger testimonies than we had before.
I like that thought—when we are broken down by trials, it is also an opportunity to rebuild our lives the way Heavenly Father wants. Our experience gives us more empathy for others.
This should be our purpose—to persevere and endure, yes, but also to become more spiritually refined as we make our way through sunshine and sorrow. Were it not for challenges to overcome and problems to solve, we would remain much as we are, with little or no progress toward our goal of eternal life. The poet expressed much the same thought in these words:
Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees.
The further sky, the greater length.
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.8
I like this poem.
Only the Master knows the depths of our trials, our pain, and our suffering.
Christ’s suffering for us has made Him perfectly acquainted with us, as well as with the best way to help us.
He alone offers us eternal peace in times of adversity. He alone touches our tortured souls with His comforting words:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”9
Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, He is with us. He has promised that this will never change.
My brothers and sisters, may we have a commitment to our Heavenly Father that does not ebb and flow with the years or the crises of our lives. We should not need to experience difficulties for us to remember Him, and we should not be driven to humility before giving Him our faith and trust.
Trials can humble us when we need it, but it is better to be humble already so we know where to turn first. Being repentant and humble halves the spiritual work we need to do in affliction.
May we ever strive to be close to our Heavenly Father. To do so, we must pray to Him and listen to Him every day. We truly need Him every hour, whether they be hours of sunshine or of rain. May His promise ever be our watchword: “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”10
With all the strength of my soul, I testify that God lives and loves us, that His Only Begotten Son lived and died for us, and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is that penetrating light which shines through the darkness of our lives. May it ever be so, I pray in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.
What is President Monson’s counsel about how to see our afflictions?
· Afflictions are the real test of our ability to endure.
· Difficulties allow us to change for the better, rebuild our lives in the way Heavenly Father wants, become more understanding, become more empathetic, become stronger, root our testimonies deeper.
· Afflictions help us progress toward the goal of eternal life.
What is President Monson’s counsel of specific things to do when going through affliction?
· Don’t ask “Why me?”
· Be patient about solutions.
· Ask, “Shall I falter or shall I finish?”
· Consider (and read) the story of Job. (Implied)
· Remember others have passed the same way, endured, and overcame. Search out those stories.
· Draw inspiration from stories in the history of the church.
· Make the gospel of Jesus Christ the center of your life.
· Face the challenges; meet them head-on.
· Seek priesthood blessings (implied in the story of Brother Brems).
· Don’t dwell on what you lack, but be grateful for your blessings.
· Remember all the things you delight in that Heavenly Father gives.
· Change for the better.
· Rebuild your life the way Heavenly Father wants.
· Persevere and endure.
· Come to Christ when heavy-laden and ask for rest.
· Cultivate commitment that does not ebb or flow with the circumstances of life.
· Strive to be close to Heavenly Father by praying and listening to Him every day.
· Remember God won’t forsake us.
Ask class members to consider a time when they experienced a deep disappointment, terrible loss, heartbreak, or other affliction. Ask them to write down the questions they had about why it happened. How would asking “Shall I falter or shall I finish?” have helped in this situation?
Perhaps invite someone to share a personal experience with the class of a time they experienced a hard affliction. How did they pull out of it? How were they changed by it?
Ask the class what is President Monson’s counsel about how to see our afflictions?
Ask the class what President Monson’s counsel is of specific things to do when going through affliction. Ask someone in the class to share an experience when doing some of those things helped them persevere through that trial.