Why I Love the Brethren

Here’s Alice’s talk which I promised to post today.

“WHY I LOVE THE BRETHREN,” ALICE A. WARNER – BYU WOMEN’S CONFERENCE – 1995   (Susette Fletcher Green, Dawn Hall Anderson, and Dlora Hall Dalton, eds., Hearts Knit Together: Talks from the 1995 Women’s Conference, p.21)  Alice A. Warner graduated from Brigham Young University and is president and CEO of an international management consulting firm. Alice served a mission in Taiwan and enjoys her calling as choir director. (There’s a LOT more that could be added, especially since this was over 20 years ago).

Like you, I have had occasion to think about the way Christ governs his Church and the Saints who belong to it. I am not in a position to correct or to preach. I intend simply to offer my testimony, to tell you why I love the Brethren as I do.

THE LORD’S ORDER

History proves over and over the dangers of succumbing to those who desire power over others. The quest for control has brought about the world’s greatest evils in nations, in schools, in homes. These devastating evils have given rise to many prevailing social ideas such as these: Life is what you make it, so take control of your life; you’re in charge. To be happy, be yourself. Honor your own feelings, whatever they may be. You will lose your identity, your true self, if you defer to the authority or direction of others. So assert yourself, defend yourself, stand for yourself.

This is not a new philosophy. Korihor, the great anti-Christ of the Book of Mormon, advocated this position very convincingly  (Alma 30:12-28).  He warned believers not “to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances” (v. 23). He said the priests would try to “usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance” (v. 23). So, he admonished, don’t be taken in by the idea of an atonement-a grand design in which we prosper through obedience, humility, and submission. Instead, Korihor taught, everyone will fare in this life according to his or her own genius and strength; in effect, assert yourself, defend yourself, stand for yourself.

Korihor’s doctrine makes perfect sense in a world without a loving Heavenly Father, a redeeming Savior, or a divine order ordained and authorized by them for the purpose of saving us. But in a world with a Father, a Savior, and their holy Church, bending our will to a higher order will indeed save us, not endanger us.

The Lord’s order is different in nature from any earthly system of governance or authority. This order is reflected in Christ’s relationship to his Father. “For I came down from heaven,” he said, “not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me”  (John 6:38).  In this and other scriptures like it, Christ made clear that he has a will of his own, but his choice-for him a life choice-was to turn his will over to the Father. In other words, then and now his position of authority derives not from the pursuit of power but from the spirit of submissiveness.

This divine order extends to special witnesses, revelators, and seers. Like the Savior’s position with the Father, their position is one of submission and discipleship. They, too, are called upon to say, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt”  (Matt. 26:39).  They have no authority or power independent of their personal willingness to submit, heart and soul, to those who direct and guide them. For this reason, their authority differs fundamentally from all other forms of authority in any institution or society on earth of which I know. Their authority is not born of a quest to dominate; it is a by-product of their quest to obey.

PERFECTION IS NOT A PREREQUISITE

It is easy to minimize the connection between submitting ourselves to Christ and obeying the Brethren. “Christ,” we may say, “was perfect, but the Brethren are just human.”

Many of us are now parents or someday will be. This is a very serious responsibility. The physical and spiritual lives of pure little children are or will be entrusted to us as parents. Perhaps perfection should be a prerequisite for such a lofty undertaking. Suppose that is what our children expected of us. The moment they believed we had made a mistake, they would feel no obligation to honor or sustain us anymore. Furthermore, they would feel compelled to advertise our shortcomings, convincing the other children that they need not obey either. It would be impossible to have a family under such circumstances.1

I was fifteen when I discovered my mother was not perfect. (I gave my dad a slightly longer grace period.) As I get older, I see more clearly their weaknesses and their defects-in part because I share so many of them. Did their humanness make them unworthy parents? Of course not. In fact, that they did what they did for me, in all of their humanness, affirms in my mind that Heavenly Father called them to oversee my upbringing. He upheld them, he taught them, and he compensated for their frailties. PERFECTION IS NOT A PREREQUISITE TO PARENTHOOD.

We may feel inclined to make the Brethren’s perfection a condition of our loyalty, to lay hold upon perceived shortcomings as an excuse for disobedience. On occasion, we may even be tempted to share a morsel of gossip or levy a criticism or spread a rumor that would diminish one of them. Whether the tidbit is true or not (and how would we know anyway?) is irrelevant. For if our hearts are right, we may discover that we are trying to justify our own sins. It’s as though casting doubt on their worthiness relieves us of our obligation to obey. But it doesn’t. Their defects, real or perceived, do not weaken the covenants we have made to follow them.

The Savior himself instituted the plan that authorizes certain human beings to represent him. He who is perfect must have noticed that they aren’t. And still he called them. Far from making the Lord’s plan questionable, this fact-that he anoints human beings to lead us-is a testament of his power to sanctify and to enlarge. That the Brethren do what they do for us, in their humanness, affirms in my mind that the Lord stands by them. He upholds them, he teaches them, and he compensates for their frailties. Perfection is not a prerequisite to ordination.

THE BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP

I have managed a consulting company for the past several years [Arbinger Institute]. Recently, in a reflective moment, I was struck by the virtue and nobility of my extraordinary colleagues. How absurd that I was trying to lead them! Overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, I considered resigning. Only two days later, I happened upon the following: “We who have been called to lead the church are ordinary men and women with ordinary capacities. . . . Some are disposed to find fault with us; surely that is easy for them to do. But they do not examine us more searchingly than we examine ourselves. . . . We are sorry for our inadequacies, sorry we are not better than we are.”2  I don’t want to trivialize the holy position of the Brethren by comparing it with my own, but it is the closest I can come to identifying, even in a small way, with what they must feel.

How would I feel if the next time I accepted a call, my bishop said, “Now, there are nine million good-hearted people depending upon you, Alice. Your every word and action will be thoroughly scrutinized. They will look to you for guidance about the conduct of their lives. If you make a mistake, it may adversely affect their devotion and faith. And, by the way, I hope you haven’t made any mistakes up to this point in your life-no gold-digging, no careless word, no giving of the slightest offense-or you may be roundly criticized. Your effectiveness in this role will depend upon your humble receptivity to inspiration and revelation. Thus, every choice you make must enhance your worthiness in every way. You will spend the rest of your life working full time under this burden, going where you are asked, when you are asked, doing exactly what you are asked.” What kind of person would the Lord entrust with such a challenge? What kind of person could meet it?

AND NO MAN TAKETH THIS HONOUR . . .

In answer, I would like to share a few stories about the lives of the Brethren. These are sacred stories, and I tell them with reverence.

A few years ago, I worked in a large, high-profile, international company on the East Coast. My boss, the founder and CEO of the company, was brilliant, eccentric, argumentative – and typically impervious to what is spiritually discerned. Twice he had occasion to meet with Elder Henry B. Eyring. After the first meeting, he reported that he had never met such a humble person and that he felt honored to be in Elder Eyring’s presence. He said, “It never occurred to me, Alice, that humility could be impressive.” After the second meeting, he told me in a quiet moment that Henry Eyring’s goodness made him want to be good. Yet, despite a long track record of affecting people in this way, when Elder Eyring was called to the apostleship, he seemed taken by surprise. He told us in his conference address, weeping, that during the hours between his private call and his public sustaining, he had “learned some things about [humility].”3  “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God” (Hebrews 5:4). “And before honour is humility” (Proverbs 15:33).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell performed the marriage of my brother and his wife. He knows neither of them well, yet when he heard years later about their struggle with infertility, he offered to travel to their home to give a priesthood blessing. When asked how he could find time in his heavy schedule to visit distant acquaintances in need, he explained that he was called to minister and was merely fulfilling that call. “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27).

Elder Marcus Helvécio Martins, the Church’s first black General Authority, was living with his wife in Brazil when plans for the São Paulo temple were announced. Because of his lineage, Elder Martins was not permitted to hold the priesthood at that time. His devoted service to the Church during those years is miraculous to me. But there is more. He and his wife sold their jewelry to contribute to the building of a temple they could not enter. “And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith” (Alma 13:4).

Not many years ago, President Howard W. Hunter lost the use of his legs. The loss, he was told, was permanent. But he felt he could not carry on effectively if he couldn’t walk. So, against advice, he began an intensive rehabilitation program that a family member described to me as physically excruciating. This he did so that he could serve us better and longer. This he did in behalf of our salvation. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls”  (Heb. 13:17).

Can I resist such love for me? Can I criticize such devotion? Must I worry about defending myself in the face of such goodness?

OBEDIENCE IS NEVER BLIND

I have noticed that despite clear scriptural warnings about its consequences, Korihor’s beguiling doctrine has a way of sneaking up on us. We get nervous about being in charge of our lives. We worry that followership will strip us of our identity, that submission may rob us of our intellect. Such self- concern draws us away from the warmth of the Lord’s light.

About four months before the end of my mission in Taiwan, I was working in an area where we had many baptisms, many who had committed to baptism, and a promising pool of investigators. I expected to finish my mission in this spot. We had planned a wonderful Christmas Nativity program with the ward members and our many investigators, complete with costumes and readings and music. On the afternoon of December 24, my mission president called. An elder who had developed feelings for a sister missionary had requested a transfer. But, my president explained, Elder William R. Bradford, our area president in Hong Kong, felt that the elder should not leave his important leadership position. So, rather than transfer the elder, he requested that I and another sister switch places. I was to board a train that very evening, unaccompanied, to the most unproductive part of the mission, where I would finish out my service. I was shocked and discouraged. My roommates and companion were downright angry. Our mission president was provincial, they said. And what about Elder Bradford – what was he doing interfering like that? These men marginalize women! Just because we don’t have priesthood callings-does that make us completely interchangeable? What about the ward Christmas program? I was responsible for the music and piano accompaniment. What about my investigators? I couldn’t say good-bye or explain. I would just disappear, and some other sister would step in-as if no one would notice or care! With a heavy and confused heart, I packed my clothes, books, and a copy of our little Nativity script and boarded the train. I didn’t want to feel bitter, but this turn of events was just too much to swallow with a smile on my face.

My new companion and two elders greeted me at the station when I arrived that evening. The first thing they asked was if I knew anything about music. The next day was Christmas, and the branch members wanted to stage a Christmas program like ones they had heard of in the established city wards. But neither they nor the other missionaries had any idea how to do it.

We went immediately to the small branch meeting rooms. All twenty branch members and some investigators were gathered, looking in library books to see what people in Israel wear. But discouragement was setting in, for the Israeli attire didn’t resemble anything they might pick up at the local Chinese clothing market! Drawing on my years as the orchestrator of the Warner family Christmas pageant, I helped the members and investigators round up robes and towels, shepherd canes, and cardboard crowns. Copying the little script I had tucked in my suitcase didn’t take long. We practiced our songs-even learned parts-and on Christmas shared the most worshipful evening of praise and remembrance I have ever experienced. Thus began the best months of my mission and some of the happiest of my life.

It doesn’t always turn out this way; I don’t always so readily see purpose in what I am asked to do. In fact, I have received-and followed-instructions about my life from Church leaders that still don’t make perfect sense to me. But even when I don’t fully understand why the instruction has come or what its consequences might be, I believe that humble obedience is still the right course.

I’ve heard people say, “Well, that’s just blind obedience.” Blind obedience. Those words imply following with no thought, no consideration, no inspiration, no insight. For me, to dismiss obedience as blind is to misunderstand what obedience  is.  Every moment a choice is presented to us: “How will I use my agency in this moment?” When I choose to obey or to submit, I have not blindly abdicated my freedom to choose. Rather, I have used it to choose the Lord.

In my experience, obedience to Church leaders requires more insight, wisdom, and thought than resistance. I obey because I see that there is a Christ who lived to redeem me. I obey because I see that my redemption, from moment to moment, depends upon giving myself to him and to his servants. I obey because I see that there is an atonement and that I stand in need of its purifying power. I obey because I see that this purifying power flows through his divine priesthood order, of which obedience makes me a part. I obey because of what I see, not because of what I am blind to.

TO WALK IN HIS LIGHT

It is easy to confuse worldly rhetoric with eternal truths. We may fear that if we obey in meekness and humility, our heads will be kept down, as Korihor said, and the flame of our identity will be snuffed out (see  Alma 30:23).  So we go about trying to create our own light-in the name of individual rights, or intellectualism, or self-assertiveness, or some other cause independent of the great cause of Christ. But the very act of trying to kindle our own light separates us from the Lord’s, convincing us further that there is not enough for us in his divine order.

Here’s how  Isaiah  said it: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow”  (Isa. 50:11).

Walking in the light of the Lord’s divine order requires that we abandon the security of our own meager flame. President Harold B. Lee taught that to find the Lord’s light, we must walk to the edge of ours and even a few steps into the darkness. We cannot at the same time stand in the flicker of our own willful sparks and bask in the warmth of his magnificent light.

The times in my life when I feel most whole, most liberated, most free, most me, are the times when my whole being is filled with the desire to stand not for myself but for and with the Brethren. I give up only my self-concern, my resistance, and my pride-and they aren’t me. Gentleness, peace, and a willing heart take their place.

When I stand squarely in the light of the Lord’s direction, it’s as though all of my faculties, enhanced by the Spirit, come alive with insight and vision and clarity. There is no longer a distinction between the intellectual and the spiritual. That is the closest I have come to experiencing what Paul calls having “the mind of Christ”  (1 Cor. 2:16).  That is the closest I have come to feeling my body full of the light, pure and penetrating, that comes when my eye is single to him (see  Matt. 6:22).

As Mordecai explained to  Esther  when what she was asked to do seemed too difficult for her, if we refuse to obey, the Lord will find other ways of carrying out his purpose. Our soul, not his work, will suffer. Who knows but what we were come “for such a time as this”  (Esth. 4:14)-a  time of great divisiveness and very tempting ideas, a time when obedience and submissiveness are derided as weak and unthinking, and a time when our salvation will depend upon our willingness to follow anyway. May we not be deceived. May we see and think as clearly as Christ when he yielded his will to his leader. May bending our will to our leaders, those chosen of the Lord and upheld by him, be our quest, and may our hearts be drawn out to them in submission, loyalty, and love.

NOTES

  1. I am indebted to my friend and colleague Duane Boyce for suggesting this analogy in his article “The Brethren and the Lord: A Letter to My Children,” This People, Fall 1995, 34-46. Both his article and his friendship significantly influenced this essay.
  2. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 16.
  3. Henry B. Eyring, “Always Remember Him,” Ensign, May 1995, 25.

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