I’ve never met President Thomas S. Monson, but it feels like he’s been a close friend almost all of my life.
And I’m sure many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel the same way.
Even when, as a young boy, I had a hard time sitting through general conference, President Monson always captured my attention with his entertaining stories. He seemed like an avuncular figure, someone with whom I wouldn’t mind going on a scout campout.
On a Sunday night, the day before before I was to send in my mission papers, I remember clicking through the channels (we only had about seven back then) and I stumbled upon a replay of a President Monson talk at a BYU devotional. I don’t remember what he said, but I felt inspired. It helped reassure me that my decision to serve a mission was the right one.
Then, when I was in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, President Monson spoke during general conference. His talk, titled “Missionary Memories” seemed like it was written just for me, since I was just days away from leaving for Chile. The timing couldn’t have been better for a scared missionary who was eager to serve but harbored doubt about how effective he would be.
Aside from sharing some inspiring stories about missionary work, President Monson said:
“I add my personal witness: Our missionaries are not salesmen with wares to peddle; rather, they are servants of the Most High God, with testimonies to bear, truths to teach, and souls to save. Each missionary who goes forth in response to a sacred call becomes a servant of the Lord whose work this truly is. Do not fear, young men, for He will be with you. He never fails. He has promised: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88) “And ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel, two by two, in my name, lifting up your voices as with the sound of a trump, declaring my word like unto angels of God” (D&C 42:6).
Those words resonated within me throughout my mission and lifted me during discouraging times.
Years later, as a young father with five boys, I was attending a wedding reception at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The First Presidency showed up for a private reception before the public reception began.
My family and I were waiting outside a ballroom and I remember President Monson, who was the First Counselor in the First Presidency at the time, heading toward the elevator. Before leaving, he stopped and noticed my family, which included our towheaded sons.
“It looks like we have a bunch of future Scandinavian missionaries,” President Monson said kindly while smiling broadly and waving.
Those words meant a lot to me, since I was hoping and praying that my boys would someday serve missions.
One of those boys has served a mission, one is currently serving and another will leave soon. While none of them were called to Scandinavia, President Monson’s signature is affixed to each of their mission calls.
I distinctly remember watching general conference in October 2012, when President Monson, in his opening comments, announced that the age change of missionaries from 19 to 18 for young men and 21 to 19 for young women. As soon as he made the announcement, I looked at my 16-year-old son. When our eyes locked, I knew right away that he was already planning to leave for his mission right after high school at age 18. In that moment, his life plans were fast-forwarded.
During the last general conference, in April, it was clear that President Monson had been struggling with his health. The two talks he gave were short but powerful. What he said wasn’t anything new, but simply a reminder of what’s most important. In the priesthood session, he spoke of following the Savior by being full of love and showing kindness to others. Then, Sunday morning, he implored members of the Church to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon every day.
It was wise counsel from a Prophet of God. With a limited amount of time to address church membership, he shared two brief messages that he deemed of greatest value.
I’ll never forget the way President Monson has led by example throughout his life, selflessly serving others and running errands for the Lord.
No, I’ve never met President Thomas S. Monson, but when he no longer with us, it will feel like losing a close friend. And many members of the Church will feel the same way.