“Labels,” Ensign, Nov. 1983, 19
The National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London, England, is one of the truly great museums of art in all the world. The gallery proudly proclaims its Rembrandt Room and Constable Corner and urges all to take the tour of Turner’s masterpieces. Visitors come from every corner of the earth. They depart uplifted and inspired.
During a recent visit to the National Gallery, I was surprised to see displayed in a most prominent location magnificent portraits and landscapes which featured the name of no artist. Then I noticed a large placard which provided this explanation:
“This exhibition is drawn from the large number of paintings that hang in a public but somewhat neglected area of the Gallery: the lower floor. The exhibition is intended to encourage visitors to look at the paintings without being too worried about who painted them. In several instances, we do not precisely know.
“The information on labels on paintings can often affect, half-unconsciously, our estimate of them; and here labeling has been deliberately subordinate in the hope that visitors will read only after they have looked and made their own assessment of each work.”
Like the labels on paintings are the outward appearances of some men—often misleading. The Master declared to one group: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. …
“Ye … outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matt. 23:27–28.)
Then there are those who may outwardly appear impoverished, without talent, and doomed to mediocrity. A classic label appeared beneath a picture of the boy Abraham Lincoln as he stood in front of his humble birthplace—a simple log cabin. The words read: “Ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed.” Unanticipated, unspoken, and unprinted was the real label of the boy: “Destined for immortal glory.”
As the poet expressed:
Nobody knows what a boy is worth,
We’ll have to wait and see.
But every man in a noble place,
A boy once used to be.
At another time, and in a distant place, the boy Samuel must have appeared like any lad his age as he ministered unto the Lord before Eli. As Samuel lay down to sleep and heard the voice of the Lord calling him, Samuel mistakenly thought it was aged Eli calling and responded, “Here am I.” (1 Sam. 3:4.) However, after Eli had listened to the boy’s account and told him it was of the Lord, Samuel followed Eli’s counsel and subsequently responded to the Lord’s call with the memorable reply, “Speak; for thy servant heareth.” (1 Sam. 3:10.) The record then reveals that “Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him. …
“And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.” (1 Sam. 3:19–20.)
The years rolled by, as they relentlessly do, and prophecy came to fulfillment when a lowly manger cradled a newborn child. No label could describe this event. With the birth of the babe in Bethlehem, there emerged a great endowment, a power stronger than weapons, a wealth more lasting than the coins of Caesar. This child, born in such primitive circumstances, was to be the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15), the promised Messiah—even Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As a boy, Jesus was found in the temple, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
“And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” And when Joseph and His mother saw Him, “they were amazed.” (See Luke 2:46–48.) To the learned doctors in the temple, the boy’s outward label may have conveyed brightness of intellect but certainly not “Son of God and future Redeemer of all mankind.”
The Messianic words of the prophet Isaiah convey a special meaning: “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa. 53:2.) Such was the foretold description of our Lord.
Matthew records the apparent necessity of that wicked multitude of sinners who would seek after the life of the Lord to conspire with the betrayer Judas, that he might point out to them who of the apostolic group was the Jesus whom they sought. These chilling verses from sacred writ torment the reader: “Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.
“And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him.
“And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.” (Matt. 26:48–50.)
The label of a traitor’s kiss had identified the Master. Judas now wore his own label of inescapable shame and revulsion.
Sometimes cities and nations bear special labels of identity. Such was a cold and very old city in eastern Canada. The missionaries called it “Stony Kingston.” There had been but one convert to the Church in six years, even though missionaries had been continuously assigned there during the entire interval. No one baptized in Kingston. Just ask any missionary who labored there. Time in Kingston was marked on the calendar like days in prison. A missionary transfer to another place—any place—would be uppermost in thoughts, even in dreams.
While I was praying about and pondering this sad dilemma, for my responsibility then as a mission president required that I pray and ponder about such things, my wife called to my attention an excerpt from the book, A Child’s Story of the Prophet Brigham Young, by Deta Petersen Neeley (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1959, p. 36). She read aloud that Brigham Young entered Kingston, Ontario, on a cold and snow-filled day. He labored there about thirty days and baptized forty-five souls. Here was the answer. If the missionary Brigham Young could accomplish this harvest, so could the missionaries of today.
Without providing an explanation, I withdrew the missionaries from Kingston, that the cycle of defeat might be broken. Then the carefully circulated word: “Soon a new city will be opened for missionary work, even the city where Brigham Young proselyted and baptized forty-five persons in thirty days.” The missionaries speculated as to the location. Their weekly letters pleaded for the assignment to this Shangri-la. More time passed. Then four carefully selected missionaries—two of them new, two of them experienced—were chosen for this high adventure. The members of the small branch pledged their support. The missionaries pledged their lives. The Lord honored both.
In the space of three months, Kingston became the most productive city of the Canadian Mission. The grey limestone buildings still stood, the city had not altered its appearance, the population remained constant. The change was one of attitude. The label of doubt yielded to the label of faith.
The branch president of the Kingston Branch of the Church wore his own identifying label. Gustav Wacker was from the old country. He spoke English with a thick accent. He never owned or drove a car. He plied the trade of a barber. The highlight of his day would be when he had the privilege of cutting the hair of a missionary. Never would there be a charge. Indeed, he would reach deep into his pockets and give the missionaries all of his tips for the day. If it were raining, as it often does in Kingston, President Wacker would call a taxi and send the missionaries to their apartment by taxi, while he himself, at day’s end, would lock the small shop and walk home—in the driving rain.
I first met Gustav Wacker when I noticed that his tithing paid was far in excess of that expected from his potential income. My efforts to explain that the Lord required no more than ten percent as tithing fell on attentive but unconvinced ears. He simply responded that he loved to pay all he could to the Lord. It amounted to about half his income. His dear wife felt exactly as he did. Their unique manner of tithing payment continued throughout their earning lives.
Gustav and Margarete Wacker established a home that was a heaven. They were not blessed with children but mothered and fathered their many Church visitors. A sophisticated and learned leader from Ottawa told me, “I like to visit President Wacker. I come away refreshed in spirit and determined to ever live close to the Lord.”
Did our Heavenly Father honor such abiding faith? The branch prospered. The membership outgrew the rented Slovakian Hall and moved into a modern and lovely chapel of their own. President and Sister Wacker had their prayers answered by serving a proselyting mission to their native Germany and later a temple mission to the beautiful temple in Washington, D.C. Then, just three months ago, his mission in mortality concluded, Gustav Wacker passed away peacefully while being held in the loving arms of his eternal companion. Only one label appears fitting for such an obedient and faithful servant: “Who honors God, God honors.” (See 1 Sam. 2:30.)
A label frequently seen and grudgingly borne is one which reads: “Handicapped.”
Years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball shared with President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and me an experience he had in the appointment of a patriarch for the Shreveport Louisiana Stake of the Church. President Kimball described how he interviewed, how he searched, and how he prayed, that he might learn the Lord’s will concerning the selection. For some reason, none of the suggested candidates was the man for this assignment at this particular time.
The day wore on. The evening meetings began. Suddenly President Kimball turned to the stake president and asked him to identify a particular man seated perhaps two-thirds of the way back from the front of the chapel. The stake president replied that the individual was James Womack, whereupon President Kimball said, “He is the man the Lord has selected to be your stake patriarch. Please have him meet with me in the high council room following the meeting.”
Stake president Charles Cagle was startled, for James Womack did not wear the label of a typical man. He had sustained terrible injuries while in combat during World War II. He lost both hands and one arm, as well as most of his eyesight and part of his hearing. Nobody had wanted to let him in law school when he returned, yet he finished third in his class at Louisiana State University. James Womack simply refused to wear the label “Handicapped.”
That evening as President Kimball met with Brother Womack and informed him that the Lord had designated him to be the patriarch, there was a protracted silence in the room. Then Brother Womack said, “Brother Kimball, it is my understanding that a patriarch is to place his hands on the head of the person he blesses. As you can see, I have no hands to place on the head of anyone.”
Brother Kimball, in his kind and patient manner, invited Brother Womack to make his way to the back of the chair on which Brother Kimball was seated. He then said, “Now, Brother Womack, lean forward and see if the stumps of your arms will reach the top of my head.” To Brother Womack’s joy, they touched Brother Kimball, and the exclamation came forth, “I can reach you! I can reach you!”
“Of course you can reach me,” responded Brother Kimball. “And if you can reach me, you can reach any whom you bless. I will be the shortest person you will ever have seated before you.”
President Kimball reported to us that when the name of James Womack was presented to the stake conference, “the hands of the members shot heavenward in an enthusiastic vote of approval.”
The word of the Lord to the prophet Samuel at the time David was designated to be a future king of Israel provided a fitting label for the occasion. It certainly was the thought of each faithful member: “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7.)
Like a golden thread woven through the tapestry of life is the message on the label of a humble heart. It was true of the boy Samuel, it was the experience of Jesus, it was the testimony of Gustav Wacker, it marked the calling of James Womack. May it ever be the label which identifies each of us: “Lord, here am I.” In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.