Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ezra Taft Benson and Me: Lessons Learned from a Prophet

In 1985 I went to work for Ezra Taft Benson working out of his son Reed Benson's office in the Joseph Smith Building at BYU. You can read an indepth account of this in my Sustone article: He Is A Prophet of God. Reed was seldomly in the office we shared since he taught class, had eight children, and was involved in the John Birch Society and other civic activities. I usually saw him about two or three hours in the afternoon some of the time he would take a nap and other times he would visit with other professors or students. Because I was there about ten hours a day I usually took the majority of his calls for him and would leave messages. As I worked each day it wasn't unusual for the phone to ring and on the other end was his father Ezra Taft Benson. He made the calls personally. I spoke to him about once every two weeks or so, as a result, I came to know the man and his son very well.

The first lesson I learned involved the love of a father and a son. I can honestly say that their love for one another was a deep abiding love. There was no father so devoted nor son so dedicated than these two men's love for one another. Ezra Taft Benson consulted with his son Reed and his son Mark every day. It was not unusual for him to call Reed multiple times during the day to see how he was doing or to discuss projects he wanted done. The sons were constantly doing research or would listen as their father described ideas he had on various subjects and give their feedback. He would give them assignments on finding out information about different subjects and even people. He was constantly teaching them or exploring different facets of ideas with them. I was amazed at his confidence in his son's opinions. I could see why they loved the man Reed called his "dear old dad" so dearly. Elder Benson really respected his son and his opinions. He showed me how to be a good father and that we need to train our son and allow him to share his ideas and opinions with us. I was touched by the relationship he had with his son Reed. I can honestly say they would do anything for one another. In all my life I never witnessed such devotion to a parent. He was genuinely upset when his son wasn't there and would insist I let his son know he needed to talk with him.

The second lesson I learned was that he had a sense of humor and he didn't take himself seriously all the time. One day when I was working the phone rang. I heard a feeble voice in the distance ask "Is Reed there?" I said, "no can I take a message. " He said, "who are you." I told him my name. He asked, "what do you do there?" I said, "I am working on the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson." He chuckled and said, "who is he?" I said, "he is a prophet of God." He said, "why that's me!" It wasn't unusual for him to be self-deprecating when he called. He had a dry sense of humor and would laugh and sometimes banter with me when he called. He was really a fun loving guy and enjoyed life.

Another lesson I learned from him was that he solicited the opinions of every one when he was considering things. One day I was in his den in his apartment in the Eagle Gate Apartment building on a Saturday morning when we were reading the manuscript of his teachings book to him. President Benson was dressed in his scout uniform with accompanying regalia including his silver antelope on his bandana while sitting in his recliner. He asked me for my opinion about the youth programming and scouting. When I said things he thought were important he asked questions when he didn't agree with something I had to say he was very quiet or silent. I learned from him that we should seek input from everyone including me. At the time I was an elder and had never held any significant calling but he treated my opinions with the same value as my colleague Dennis Wardle who had held significant callings in the church. Prophets of God care what the membership think about important matters in the church.

When I first met Elder Benson he told me that unless the work I did led men to Christ he wasn't interested in it. His primary concern in everything he did was to led men to Christ. He didn't want anything published or associated with his name that didn't led men to Christ. He wasn't interested in worldly acclaim but rather his mission was to help men and women know Christ.

Even his flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon was based on his belief that the Book of Mormon was "Another Testament" of Jesus Christ and would help us come to know Christ better.

I learned from him kindness and generosity. One time he learned that I was struggling financially so he sent me a case of oranges and a case of prime number one spuds that an Idaho farmer had sent him. His son showed up at my door with the food one day saying his father had heard I was living in the basement of a mission president's home and that he was so concerned for my two daughters who were two and three that he insisted that I have the food. They were the best potatoes I ever ate in my life. Three families living in the home shared them for about a month. We feasted on those potatoes since we all were on hard times.

I learned of his love for his wife. When my third daughter was born in January 1988 I told my wife that I would handle the naming of our daughter since she had picked out the names of our first two daughters. I had suggested names like Camilla and Flora but my wife said she didn't like them. When I went to visit President Benson I told him my wife was upset with me because I couldn't think of a name. He put his hands on his head and said, " I can help you with that." He turned to me and said, "Her name is Flora." I explained my wife wasn't thrilled with that as a name. He turned to Sister Benson and said "Flora tell him what your name means." She told me about her father and how her name meant something special. President Benson promised "If you name her Flora she will have special powers one day and be highly favored of men." I could see the love in his eyes whenever he looked at his wife or spoke to her. He worshipped the ground she walked on and would not leave her in their last couple of years because he was afraid something could happen while he was gone.

I learned he puts his money where his mouth is. One day we were reading him and his wife the manuscript and he had said in one of his talks that we should all be prepared by having emergency food and growing our own gardens to be self-sufficient. He turned to his wife and said "You know Flora there isn't any reason we can't grow a few tomatoes in the flower boxes outside our windows. I am going to have tomatoes planted instead of flowers on a couple of them." He said I can't ask the Saints to do something I am not willing to do myself.

I learned that he was prophetic. He and I shared a birthday on August 4th. On our birthday I was up visiting him around breakfast time. He had his son come out and tell me to write down what he had told him and to record it in my journal. He said the Lord made known to him that one day I would be a bishop and a stake president and that I was to write it down in my journal that he had prophesied it. It was interesting because I had a rocky marriage with my wife who was sometimes volatile. We have since smooth out our marriage but at the time it was like a roller coaster. People can argue blessings are predicated on obedience but I had a worse marriage then then the years that followed. I have always loved my wife and I have always been faithful in the church. I have now been married twenty-five years with eight children all faithful members of the Church and am still active despite never holding any significant callings.

I learned that he trusted in the priesthood and believed in developing men unlike others. When he went in to be checked for his cataract operation. I received a phone call from his brother Mark to find Reed and bring him to Dr. Merrill Oaks office immediately. His father was undergoing surgery that very morning since it was the only time the surgeon could perform it for months. Dennis Wardle and I went to where Reed was teaching and brought him over to the clinic. We waited with the Church security man in the waiting room. When Reed told his father we were there he requested that Dennis and I assist Reed and Mark in the blessing of the Prophet of God. When the blessing was pronounced I prayed silently that if the Lord wanted part of my eyesight I would give it to the Prophet so he could see better to administer the affairs of the kingdom. I learned the Lord would take you at your word as my eyesight diminished physically. I loved him that much and can say that Ezra Taft Benson was the sweetest kindest man I ever met.

I learned hard work from him and that you have to love your work. He arose at 4:30am every day and read the Book of Mormon by 5am with his wife. We read every day for fifteen days the Book of Mormon followed by prayer. He would work well in to the evening. Because he expected and gave his best effort I gave him my best effort. I worked twelve hours a day for two years to compile the teachings book. I never doubted what I was doing nor that the Lord hand was in it. When others would have quit Ezra Taft Benson worked vigorously in building the kingdom. Watching him inspired me to give everything I had. I have never had the energy or the motivation to plough through such a task knowing the Holy Ghost was guiding me every step of the way. I was able to take the words of a living prophet and make them understandable. Most of the quotes I included can stand alone their context is understandable and easily accessible. I can honestly say that the Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson is the most quoted teachings book in the the church to date. It was hard work and perserverance that made it possible. The people who worked on it from the secretaries to the compilers gave hours of unpaid work as a labor of love because we loved Ezra Taft Benson. Everything ETB did he did because he loved the Lord. The man wore himself out in the service of the Lord. When lesser men laid down and died he struggled on and fought a good fight in defending and building the kingdom of God.

One thing that President Benson felt strongly about was the role of the living prophet. He called it today's news today. He told Dennis Wardle and me that we needed to follow the living prophet and unless the dead prophet supported the living one's message that we should go by whatever the living ones policies and doctrinal emphasis were on. I have always tried to follow that admonition. Luckily I have greatly admired the following prophets.

I learned from him wise uses of church resources. He stuck to a monthly living allowance. If his overate or used food in giving it to guests, he was known to go without. I was cautioned when I visited him for fifteen days to be very careful when he offered me refreshments or lunch. He felt a responsibility to minimize his expenses so as not to place a burden on the church. I learned to have respect for church resources from him. Unfortunately I have not done as well as him in this area.

I learned from him to respect the brethren. One time he wrote a talk called"The Constitution: Our Heavenly Banner" which was published by Deseret Book. He was forced to include a statement that this was his own opinion and not the opinion of the Church. He never said a disparaging word about his fellow members of the Twelve. I got a chuckle when he gave that talk as President of the church and it was published as a conference talk later. At that point it became endorsed by the Lord. I never once heard him make a negative comment about any general authority in the two years I knew him. He like to think highly of people. He really thought highly of me and my ability which I felt at times he overrated. He adhered to what my parents called the "if you don't have anything good to say about someone then don't say anything at all." He even didn't say bad things about communists who he thought were satanic followers he just thought they were misguided and he prayed for them.

He was a spiritual man who believed in discussing spiritual matters with people. One day he called up and wanted to talk with Reed. I had been working for some time for him and spent twelve hours a day reading his talks and statements over and over again. One night I had a most unusual dream I was taken to the Salt Lake Temple and entered a room marked the Quorum of the Twelve. In the room the Savior was standing. He indicated I was to take the eleventh seat. All the seats were empty and no one was in the room but the two of us. Before I could sit down the scene transformed and the two of us were walking by a court room. On the stand was Satan. He was being tried by an all LDS panel including prosecuter, judge, and jury. The Savior turned to me and said "You know he will get off. Even the Saints will believe his lies." I shared that dream with President Benson describing the vivid color and conversations. I asked him if he had ever had an experience like that. He told me he had a strong experience in the Mexico City Temple that he should flood the earth with the Book of Mormon. He didn't back down and say you shouldn't discuss this with me. He testified he knew the Savior but he said not everyone has as dramatic of an account of seeing him as in my dream or of others seeing him in dreams. But there were many ways to gain a sure knowledge of him.

I learned many lessons from Ezra Taft Benson. The sum of the man was that he was a Prophet of God. Never once did he not meet my expectations which is amazing because I am a very critical person. I think I will be lucky if I am ever half the man he was. He truly was a man of God. No one can ever convince me that he wasn't because no matter how human he might have been he gave me hope that I will one day be in his company again. I loved him and words cannot express my gratitude in his trust in me. He believed in my ability and my talent to lift others. I will always be grateful I knew the man. He was a man for all seasons and a man for all times.


Dan Knudsen said...

I sang in the Tabernacle Choir from 1976-1996, covering President Benson’s years as the Prophet. When we sang at October Priesthood Conference sessions, we were allowed to bring our sons. Christopher turned 12 in September of 1986, and I took him to Priesthood Conference in October. Since I knew where, and about when, President Benson came in under the choir loft, we stood along the pathway President Benson would follow (I didn’t tell him why). He noticed Christopher from about 30 feet away and made a bee-line for him, grabbing him by the hand, and excitedly saying, “There’s a future missionary!” Can you imagine a bigger thrill for a new deacon than to be the target of the Prophet of the Lord for a handshake and a personal, prophetic message from him?

Dr. B said...

That is a great story. Thanks for sharing.

And the City Lights Blur.. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
And the City Lights Blur.. said...

What special thing did Flora's name mean? I thought it was just flowers or the Roman Goddess of flowers. Or the flower life. Is that all she said?

Flora said...

I am also interested in what she said about the meaning of the name "Flora" since I am named after Sister Benson, too. What else was said?