The Message:

A Prophet’s Priorities

by Elder F. Burton Howard

of the First Quorum of the Seventy

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    Missionary work and helping youth were high on President Kimball’s priority list. He showed it, not only with words, but with actions.

    I have always believed that it is possible to discover what is most important to a man by merely observing what he does. For example, if someone says that he believes families are important, but never comes to family night or comes with a critical or negative attitude, then it is safe to say that, notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, families are not very important to him.

    Similarly, young people sometimes talk about getting better grades in school. Most of them agree that this is one of the most important things they have to do. But until they develop discipline and better study habits, their parents and friends can safely conclude, with few exceptions, that scholarship is not truly a priority with them.

    With these thoughts in mind, an incident I was privileged to witness a few years ago takes on additional significance. I had a meeting scheduled with President Spencer W. Kimball. He had asked me to review some files and bring him some recommendations about them. As I descended from my office in the Church Administration Building down to the first floor where his office was, I became aware that the foyer of the building was filled with young people.

    It was summertime. A traveling musical group had arrived at Church headquarters unannounced. They had been touring some of the national parks and had given concerts in several states. Impulsively, they had decided to come to Church headquarters to perform for the prophet.

    President Kimball’s secretary, Arthur Haycock, was talking to them. He kindly explained that the prophet was extremely busy and was not feeling very well. Others had previously arranged appointments. He was very sorry, but the President would not be able to see them.

    There was great disappointment. Brother Haycock sensed this, and in an attempt to make everyone feel better he suggested that perhaps they would like to come into the inner waiting room and sing. He assured them that this would be appreciated by others in the building. He said that in all probability the strains of their music would filter throughout the building, and President Kimball would be able to hear them even though he would not attend their impromptu concert.

    This seemed to be an acceptable alternative, and the young visitors enthusiastically formed ranks and began to sing. Two or three songs were sung. As a closing number, in honor of the prophet they had not seen, the group softly and reverently commenced “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” As they did so, from my seat in the waiting room, I noticed a shadow appear in a nearby doorway. It did not move during all three verses of the song. When the choir concluded, a slight figure stepped into view. It was President Kimball. He moved quickly to congratulate the conductor and thanked him for coming. He expressed admiration at the sweetness of the song; and then, caught up in the spirit of the moment, he began to shake hands with the members of the choir.

    I watched with love and admiration. In that familiar, low, husky voice he would step up to a young person and say, “Thank you for coming,” “My, you are lovely,” “My, you are handsome.” To the young men he would ask, “I hope you are planning to serve a mission when you turn 19?” To the young women he would say, “I hope you are planning to marry in the temple when the time comes?” One by one, he extended this greeting to each of the singers.

    He eventually came to a tall, rugged-looking baritone on the back row. The young man knew what the President was going to say before he arrived, and as the prophet took his hand he said, “President, I want you to know that I sent my papers in before we left California. I can’t wait to get home to find out where I am going on my mission.” President Kimball paused. He had left people in his office while he came out to listen to the choir. But obviously the young man’s statement had intrigued him. He stopped, stepped back, looked up into the handsome youthful face and said, “Would you like to know now?”

    “I sure would,” was the reply, “but they told me I would have to wait until I returned home.” President Kimball smiled and said, “I think we might be able to tell you now.” He turned to Brother Haycock and asked him to telephone the Missionary Department and find out where the young man was to be called. Then the President finished shaking hands.

    After a few moments, Brother Haycock returned. He had a folded piece of paper in his hand. He jokingly said that the Missionary Department had been reluctant to give him the information. He had to explain that the prophet wanted it. Then he gave the folded slip to President Kimball.

    President Kimball stepped in front of the choir, which was still standing in almost assembled formation. It was as if he were the choir director. He opened the paper, looked at the boy, looked back at the paper, and then looked again at the young man. Then, including the entire group in the scope of his mischievous question he asked, “Are you sure you want to know?” By this time the young man was so anxious that he could scarcely contain himself. “Oh, yes!” he said. With the eyes of everyone upon him, President Kimball looked again to the paper, chuckled, and announced, “Taiwan.”

    Pandemonium spread through the choir. They began to congratulate their friend on his mission call. President Kimball wished him well and waved good-bye. He went back to those who were waiting for him. The young visitors left the Church Administration Building thrilled, but somewhat unaware, I think, that they had participated in an extraordinary experience.

    For they had received a personal witness of what was most important to the prophet. More important than agendas, more important than the business of the day, the most significant and consequential matter to President Kimball on that summer morning was to encourage young people to go on missions and marry in the temple. I was reminded of the old refrain:

    He was a man who truly saw

    The weightier matters of the law,

    Who wisely stressed not incidentals

    But clarified the fundamentals.

    The prophet’s priorities were revealed that morning by that to which he gave his time and attention. Missions and marriage have eternal consequences. The prophet knew and emphasized that in a timeless and unforgettable lesson to all of us. These were the things that mattered most to him. They are the important things.

    Illustrated by Robert Barrett