Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ezra Taft Benson Experience

THIS SIDE OF THE TRACTS (Sunstone Magazine, Vol. 93, December 1993)


By Frank Bruno

FRANK BRUNO is a graduate fellow in the department of educational leadership at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana, with Cheryl and their six daughters, who have taught him how to be more sensitive and less sexist in a patriarchal society.

ONE SUNNY AFTERNOON in 1985 while a graduate student at Brigham Young University, I was walking between the Harold B. Lee Library and the Administration Building. I heard someone running up behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and to my surprise, I saw a short man in a blue suit. He stopped me and said, "Hi, I'm Reed Benson. We've heard good things about your work. I was talking to my good old dad, and he wants you to go to work for us." This was the start of an unusual involvement with the Benson family.

The next week I found myself assisting Reed, a religion instructor at BYU, in the research and writing of his father's biography and teachings book. A few weeks later I answered the telephone in Reed's office. A distant voice said, "Is Reed there?"

I replied, "No, may I take a message?"

The man responded, "Who are you?"

I answered, "I'm Frank Bruno."

He questioned, "What do you do?"

I said, "I'm working on the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson."

"Who is that?" he asked.

"He is the prophet of God."

He chuckled, "That's me."

I soon discovered that President Benson had a warm and rich sense of humor. He and his son Reed were close, and he would call our office daily, mainly to see how Reed's family was doing. Since Reed was often gone to teach class, I had many conversations with the prophet.

For several years I had listened to Elder Benson speak at general conference. He was a strong and fiery speaker, and I assumed that he must have a similar personality in his private life. I soon discovered, however, that he was a warm and caring man.

One day in October 1985 President Benson invited me to Salt Lake City to his office in the Church Administration Building. He interviewed me for about thirty minutes concerning my religious beliefs. After I told him I was majoring in history, he decided that I was "one of the good historians in the Church." He said that the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson "should lead men to Christ and establish the importance of the Book of Mormon." If the book did not lead people to Christ, he did not want it to be published.

He was concerned that I would work many hours beyond what I was being paid, and he asked me to "consider my work as a Church service." I assured him that I would be glad to complete the book no matter what sacrifice I had to make. Then as I stood up to leave he said he wanted to give me something special. He presented me with autographed copies of all his personal writings. I was deeply touched by his thoughtful gifts and his genuine concern for me.

President Benson delivered more than 14,000 pages of material in his more than fifty years of service as an apostle and prophet. Reed Benson, Dennis Wardle, and I worked fifty to sixty hours per week for the next two years compiling material that we knew would follow President Benson's mandate to "lead men to Christ." Each day we began work in BYU's Joseph F. Smith Building or the Benson Institute library with a prayer to seek the Lord's guidance in extracting the words that would change people's lives as President Benson so wanted. Little by little we whittled it down to about 600 pages of the best representation of his stated mission.

WHILE working one afternoon, I answered the phone and was told by Mark Benson, Reed's brother, that it was critical that I find Reed and give him a message. I went to where Reed was teaching his Book of Mormon class and conveyed the message. Reed invited Dennis and me to accompany him to an eye clinic in Provo. Since he was slowly going blind, President Benson had met with Harold Oaks, a leading eye surgeon, concerning his cataracts. They both discovered that their schedules only allowed for President Benson to have the surgery done that very day. Dennis and I waited in the outer office with the Church security man. After several minutes Reed came back out and said that he and Mark had been requested to give a blessing to the prophet. Their dad wanted us to join them. All of us, including Oaks, stood in a circle as Mark anointed and Reed pronounced a spiritually moving blessing that President Benson would recover his sight and return to his duties quickly. As I stood and heard Reed's prayer, I silently pled with the Lord that if he would give the prophet renewed vision, I would gladly sacrifice some of my own. It was a marvelous privilege to be invited as an elder to assist in administering to the Lord's anointed servant.

In January 1987 President Benson invited Reed, Dennis, and me with our wives to attend the Jordan River Temple with him and Sister Benson. It was an unbelievable privilege to converse with President Benson in the temple. We met him in a private dining room where we had a delicious meal with fresh strawberry pie and cashews, some of his favorites. His mind, contrary to many older persons, was lucid and quick. He brought up the subject of AIDS. He was concerned that members of the Church were being affected by it. He felt it was "a debilitating scourge placed on the earth to chastise those breaking the commandments, and it was a shame that innocent people had to be hurt by it."

He told us that he read many magazines and journals and was concerned by the current trends in society. He mentioned that he intended to speak to the mothers in Zion concerning a tendency among some members of placing materialism and selfishness above having more children and that the Saints needed to be different in an age where mothers were leaving the home in epidemic proportion. My wife, Cheryl, and I listened carefully to what he said and resolved that we would follow the living prophet.

After the birth of our second child, Gianina, the doctors suggested that we not have another one for some time. Cheryl had developed toxemia, and medical opinion indicated that the gestation of each of our children would become shorter and shorter until Cheryl would not be able to have any more. She and I decided after meeting with President Benson that we needed to have faith in the Lord and maybe there was another spirit waiting for us. Within a few weeks Cheryl became pregnant.

THAT spring my many hours of work on the project were rewarded with the most moving spiritual experience in my life. As a result of reading the prophet's words twelve hours a day for almost two years, my mind became receptive to the influence of the Spirit. One night as I retired to bed, I had a most sublime and sacred experience. I came to know that Jesus Christ lives and speaks with humankind in a real and tangible way. I learned that it doesn't matter what calling or position we hold, but what matters is that we follow the words of life given through our Savior and his mouthpiece on earth.

In June 1987 we neared completion of the book. President Benson was concerned that it meet his criteria of leading people to Christ and decided that the only way to know this was to edit the book himself. On the day of the mission president's seminar, President Benson returned to Salt Lake City and began listening to us read him each and every word in the book. He is the only prophet in this dispensation to decide on every word in his own collection of teachings.

On that first day, Dennis Wardle and I went to the Eagle Gate apartment building and were graciously received into his suite by his granddaughter, Flora Parker, and a security officer. Shortly after we were shown into his den, President Benson entered with Sister Benson. He helped her get comfortable on the couch and then he sat down in a well-worn yellow recliner. She was a little cold, so Brother Benson got up and tenderly placed a crocheted afghan over his wife.

The prophet instructed me to sit at his desk and Dennis in a chair near him. He called on me to begin with a word of prayer. I prayed that we would be able to "lead men to Christ through his work and that the Lord would sustain and strengthen him in his last days." As soon as I finished, President and Sister Benson smiled at me. Sister Benson said, "That is a good sweet prayer." President Benson then critiqued my prayer, also. He was touched when I thanked the Lord for his example and his words of guidance. It was a humbling experience during the eight times I prayed to receive President and Sister Benson's reactions.

Then President Benson formally introduced us to Sister Benson whom he referred to as Flora. She always called or referred to him as "T." She was an entertaining hostess, and she told us of her love for her family. She related a story about her father being the jeweler to the Czar of Russia. She concluded by reciting her favorite poem by Edgar A. Guest, "It Takes a Heap of Living to Make a House a Home."

Then President Benson asked us to start reading aloud the 600-page manuscript. Dennis and I read, alternating each page. President Benson discussed each quote and decided whether to retain it, cut it, or edit it. At times he was moved to tears by the overpowering eloquence of the words the Lord had given him by the Spirit. We could feel the Spirit strongly in the room as we spent ten to twelve hours per day for fifteen days reading the words of a servant of the Lord. It was a spiritual feast to sit at the feet of a prophet and hear his comments about important spiritual doctrine and issues that were the culmination of his life.

Each morning we would arrive at 5:30 A.M. as the Bensons were concluding their reading of the Book of Mormon. We would work around his appointments until 7:00 P.M. when they would go to bed. Every Saturday morning I would get a kick out of finding President Benson dressed in his scouting uniform ready to start the day.

Each day the Bensons would invite us back to read. I learned what a loving, devoted family man President Benson was. One time Sister Benson went down the hall for several minutes. President Benson seemed to be listening with one ear to us and one ear to Sister Benson. Pretty soon President Benson said, "Yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo." Sister Benson responded by singing "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet." President Benson told us that he loved Sister Benson so much that he always worried about her and he felt when he was home, he should take care of her. I discovered that President and Sister Benson had a close and special bond.

They would often discuss gospel principles and ways they could better live the gospel in their own lives. One time we read his remarks about having a garden. The two of them stopped us and started wondering aloud how they could have a garden in an eight-story high-rise. They looked out the window at the decorative flower pots and decided they could grow tomatoes in them.

Since Dennis and I spent a great deal of time with President Benson, we would be there at the lunch and dinner hours. Reed cautioned us to be careful about accepting invitations to eat since President Benson would probably invite us to "break bread." He said that his dad took so seriously his stewardship over the small living allowance he received from the Church that if he and Sister Benson consumed too much food before the end of the month, they would go without eating or eat reduced portions rather than spend more money. Inevitably, President Benson would offer us juice and nuts which we would munch on, then at lunch and dinner time he would invite us to join them. We always excused ourselves as having some errands to run.

THE Bensons lived what they preached. I didn't think there was a sweeter, more guileless man than Spencer W. Kimball until I met Ezra Taft Benson. Both men were genteel and refined. I came to appreciate that prophets of God have to be special people who can live Christ-like lives and be different. Being somewhat contentious, I watched everything the prophet did or said to try to see if I could catch him being "human." I never once read or heard him say anything that was critical or uncomplimentary about any other person. He even had a good opportunity when it was decided that one of his talks should include a disclaimer that the ideas were his own opinions. If his brethren decided something was for the good of the cause, he would support it honestly and sincerely. After fifteen days I knew without a doubt Ezra Taft Benson was a prophet of God.

President Benson taught me a great deal about leadership. He would often ask my opinion about Church programs such as the youth program or scouting. Then he would listen intently and make comments. Even though I was an elder and held no significant position in the Church, he would hear me out. If he didn't agree, he just didn't say anything. I learned that great leaders care what the general member thinks and have enough confidence in their position that they are not threatened to hear more than one view.

President and Sister Benson had a great love for children. Each week they would invite a family into their home to share family home evening with them. One day President Benson asked me about my children. I took their picture out of my wallet to show him and Sister Benson. He was so excited to see them that he took the picture and put it on his desk so that he could look at them as he worked. When I visited him he would always ask how my daughters, Genevieve and Gianina, were doing, and he would genuinely express care about them.

IN the summer of 1987 I felt that my contributions to the book were about finished, so I began looking for a new position. I was able to find a job as a fifth grade school teacher in Chattanooga, Tennessee. President and Sister Benson wanted to meet with me before I started my new job. I drove with Reed up to their apartment on 4 August (which was the prophet's and my own birthdays). President Benson told me he had something important to say and I should write it in my journal. He told me that I would be a great leader in the Church and that my students "would also become great leaders and teachers." As we left, Reed told me that his dad felt I would be a bishop, stake president, and mission president one day.

In December 1987, the month before Cheryl was due to have our baby, I learned that my mother had a mild form of cancer. I felt impressed that I should move back out West to be near her. In addition, the Teachings book had been delayed in publication. I came back to Utah without a job or anywhere to live. Some friends offered to let us stay with them for a couple of months. President Benson was quite concerned about our well-being, since Cheryl was only three weeks away from delivering our third child; he worried about our little girls eating properly.

One night the doorbell rang and there was Reed Benson standing in the snow. He had about 50 pounds of Idaho #1 prime spuds. He said that his dad received them as a gift from a farmer and that he wanted to share them with us. Those were the best potatoes we ever ate. During the next few weeks, he sent several care packages to us, which included oranges, nuts, and vegetables.

Finally, in the middle of January 1988 Cheryl went into labor. She had a difficult birth. A team of five people worked frantically on Cheryl and the baby. As we prayed previous to the birth, we felt a strong inclination that under no circumstances should the umbilical cord be cut, even in an emergency. I even gave the head medical person a special blessing. Fortunately the Spirit was guiding us. One person suctioned the baby; another took the little body and butterflyed her up and down. A third person assisting had the presence of mind to hand me a bottle of consecrated oil. I quickly anointed the baby and began to bless her. I commanded her in the name of Jesus Christ "to come into the world and breathe." I lifted my hands after five minutes, and a baby girl miraculously entered this life. I was told later by one of the team, who had delivered hundreds of babies, that they had thought our baby wasn't going to make it, but they had felt calm through the whole experience.

We were so relieved that a new baby had arrived safely that I gave little thought to her name. The next day Cheryl wondered what we should name her. I told her that since she had named the last one, it was my turn to name this one. She was very patient with me for several hours. I even found a Brigham Young University student phone directory and began writing down girls' names. I suggested Camilla and Flora and a bunch of other names, but Cheryl didn't respond to any of them.

Soon the phone rang, and Reed asked me to come up the next day and do some revisions on the Teachings book. He said his dad was anxious to complete the manuscript and wanted to add a few talks he had given since August. I asked Cheryl if that would be all right. She agreed, but said that I needed to come up with a name for the baby.

The next day I drove to Salt Lake. As I entered the study, President Benson was in his recliner, and Sister Benson was on the couch wrapped in her afghan. Reed and Dennis went out for a minute. I told the Bensons about the birth of our new baby girl.

President Benson asked, "What are you going to name her?" I answered, "I don't know. My wife is upset with me because I can't figure out a name." He smiled, putting his hands on the top of his head to think, and said with a twinkle in his eyes, "I can help you." I quickly responded, "You can?" He looked at Sister Benson with love in his eyes and pronounced, "Her name is Flora."

I hadn't understood him, so I explained that I had suggested Camilla or Flora, but Cheryl hadn't seemed too thrilled with those names. He looked at Sister Benson and asked, "Flora, what does your name mean?" She thoughtfully responded, "It has a special meaning." He turned to me and prophesied, "If you name her Flora, she will one day have special power and will be highly favored and do great things."

When I got home, I told Cheryl, "President Benson said the baby's name is Flora." She responded, "If the prophet says her name is Flora, then her name is Flora." I blessed Flora Aimee shortly after that, and she has been a great joy in our home. Her loving nature reminds me often of Sister Benson. I have no doubt that Flora Aimee will turn out just like Flora Benson. If she is only a little bit like her namesake, she will indeed be highly favored of God and humankind.

The experiences that my wife, my family, and I had with President Benson and his family contain important evidence that modern-day prophets have characteristics similar to former prophets. Prophets of God are concerned with every member of the Church, and they see people from a spiritual perspective. Cheryl and I are both converts to the Church. Her father is a Protestant minister, and my father is a shift boss in a gambling casino in Las Vegas. We have no family members prominent in the Church, yet the Prophet and his wife treated us as spiritual equals with whom they could discuss matters of eternal consequence.

The prophet's concern for us was manifested through his actions of setting a good example, encouraging me to follow the Savior, discussing spiritual matters, sending us food, prophesying to me, and naming our daughter. Prophets of God demonstrate through their actions that they are true servants of the Master. To our family, Ezra Taft Benson and Flora Amussen Benson will always be known as true disciples of the Savior and role models that we will always remember and try to emulate. Is Ezra Taft Benson a prophet of God? Yes.

1 comment:

S.Faux said...

What a pleasure to read this article. I was going to suggest that you send it to the Ensign, but then I noticed at the top that you had published in Sunstone. I am envious of your ETB experiences.