Yellow Canaries with Gray on Their Wings
August 1987

“Yellow Canaries with Gray on Their Wings,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 2

First Presidency Message

Yellow Canaries with Gray on Their Wings

Some thirty-seven years ago, I was called as a young man to serve as the bishop of a large ward in Salt Lake City. The magnitude of the calling was overwhelming and the responsibility frightening. My inadequacy humbled me. But my Heavenly Father did not leave me to wander in darkness and in silence, uninstructed or uninspired. In his own way, he revealed the lessons he would have me learn.

One evening, at a late hour, my telephone rang. I heard a voice say, “Bishop Monson, this is the hospital calling. Kathleen McKee, a member of your congregation, has just passed away. Our records reveal that she had no next of kin, but your name is listed as the one to be notified in the event of her death. Could you come to the hospital right away?”

Upon arriving there, I was presented with a sealed envelope which contained a key to the modest apartment in which Kathleen McKee had lived. A childless widow seventy-three years of age, she had enjoyed few of life’s luxuries and possessed scarcely sufficient of its necessities. In the twilight of her life, she had become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Being a quiet and reserved person, she revealed little about her life.

That same night I entered her tidy basement apartment, turned the light switch, and in a moment discovered a letter written ever so meticulously in Kathleen McKee’s own hand. It rested face up on a small table and read:

“Bishop Monson,

“I think I shall not return from the hospital. In the dresser drawer is a small insurance policy which will cover funeral expenses. The furniture may be given to my neighbors.

“In the kitchen are my three precious canaries. Two of them are beautiful, yellow-gold in color and are perfectly marked. On their cages I have noted the names of friends to whom they are to be given. In the third cage is ‘Billie.’ He is my favorite. Billie looks a bit scrubby, and his yellow hue is marred by gray on his wings. Will you and your family make a home for him? He isn’t the prettiest, but his song is the best.”

In the days that followed, I learned much more about Kathleen McKee. She had befriended many neighbors in need. She had given cheer and comfort almost daily to a cripple who lived down the street. Indeed, she had brightened each life she touched. Kathleen McKee was much like “Billie,” her prized yellow canary with gray on its wings. She was not blessed with beauty, gifted with poise, nor honored by posterity. Yet her song helped others to more willingly bear their burdens and more ably shoulder their tasks. She lived the message of the verse:

Go visit the lonely, the dreary;

Go comfort the weeping, the weary.

Oh, scatter kind deeds on your way

And make the world brighter today.

The world is filled with yellow canaries with gray on their wings. The pity is that so precious few of them have learned to sing. Perhaps the clear notes of proper example have not sounded in their ears or found lodgment in their hearts.

Some are young people who don’t know who they are, what they can be, or even what they want to be. They are afraid, but they don’t know of what. They are angry, but they don’t know at whom. They are rejected, and they don’t know why. All they want is to be somebody.

Others are stooped with age, burdened with care, or filled with doubt—living lives far below the level of their capacities.

All of us are prone to excuse our own mediocre performance. We blame our misfortunes, our disfigurements, or our so-called handicaps. Victims of our own rationalization, we say silently to ourselves, “I’m just too weak,” or “I’m not cut out for better things.” Others soar beyond our meager accomplishments. Envy and discouragement then take their toll.

Can we not appreciate that our very business in life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves? To break our own records, to outstrip our yesterdays by our todays, to bear our trials more beautifully than we ever dreamed we could, to give as we have never given, to do our work with more force and a finer finish than ever—this is the true idea: to get ahead of ourselves.

To live greatly, we must develop the capacity to face trouble with courage, disappointment with cheerfulness, and triumph with humility. You ask, “How might we achieve these goals?” I answer, “By getting a true perspective of who we really are!” We are sons and daughters of a living God in whose image we have been created. Think of that truth: “Created in the image of God.” We cannot sincerely hold this conviction without experiencing a profound new sense of strength and power, even the strength to live the commandments of God and the power to resist the temptations of Satan.

True, we live in a world where moral character ofttimes is relegated to a position secondary to facial beauty or personal charm. We read and hear of local, national, and international beauty contests. Throngs pay tribute to Miss America, Miss World, and Miss Universe. Athletic prowess, too, has its following. The games and contests, the Olympics, the tournaments of international scope bring forth the adoring applause of the enthralled crowd. Such are the ways of mankind.

But what are the inspired words of God? The counsel of Samuel the prophet echoes in our ears: “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7.)

Sham and hypocrisy found no place with the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their vanity and shallow lives, their pretense and feigned righteousness. He said they were “like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.” (Matt. 23:27.)

They, like the beautiful yellow canaries, were outwardly handsome, but a true song came not from their hearts.

To their counterparts on this continent, God’s prophet declared:

“For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. …

“Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? …

“Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Morm. 8:37–39.)

The Master could be found mingling with the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the afflicted. He brought hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and freedom to the captive. He taught of the better life to come—even eternal life. This knowledge ever directs the members of the Church, for we all have received the divine injunction: “Follow thou me.” It guided Peter. It motivated Paul. It can determine our personal destiny. Can we make the decision to follow in righteousness and truth the Redeemer of the world? With his help, a rebellious boy can become an obedient man, a wayward girl can cast aside the old self and begin anew. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ can change lives.

When the Savior sought a man of faith, he did not select him from the self-righteous throng who were found regularly in the synagogue. Rather, he called him from among the fishermen of Capernaum.

While teaching on the seashore, he saw two boats near the lakeshore. He entered one and asked its owner to put it out a little from the land so he might not be pressed upon by the crowd. After teaching, he said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets.”

Simon answered: “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.

“And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes. …

“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Then came the reply: “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” (Luke 5:4–10.)

Simon the fisherman had received his call. Unschooled, untrained, impetuous Simon did not find the way of the Lord a highway of ease nor a path free from pain. He was to hear the Lord say, “O thou of little faith” (Matt. 14:31) and “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me” (Matt. 16:23). Yet, when the Master asked him, “Whom say ye that I am?” Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:15–16.)

Simon, man of doubt, had become Peter, Apostle of faith. A yellow canary with gray on his wings qualified for the Master’s full confidence and abiding love.

When the Savior needed another missionary of zeal and power, He found him not among His advocates, but amidst His adversaries. Saul of Tarsus made havoc of the Church and breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. But this was before the experience of Damascus Way. Of Saul, the Lord declared:

“He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:

“For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15–16.)

Saul the persecutor became Paul the proselyter. Like the yellow canary with gray on his wings, Paul, too, had his blemishes. He himself said:

“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me. …

“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7–9.)

In his epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul taught: “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Cor. 1:27.)

Both Paul and Peter were to expend their strength and forfeit their lives in the cause of truth. The Redeemer chose imperfect men to teach the way to perfection. He did so then. He does so now—even yellow canaries with gray on their wings.

He calls you and me to serve him here below and sets us to the tasks he would have us fulfill. Our commitment is to be total. We need no conflict of conscience. And in our struggle, should we stumble, let us plead: “Lead us, oh lead us, great Molder of men; out of the darkness to strive once again.” (From the “Fight Song,” Yonkers High School.)

Our appointed task may appear to some to be insignificant, unnecessary, unnoticed. We may even be tempted to question:

“Father, where shall I work today?”

And my love flowed warm and free.

Then He pointed out a tiny spot

And said, “Tend that for me.”

I answered quickly, “Oh no, not that!

Why, no one would ever see,

No matter how well my work was done.

Not that little place for me.”

And the word He spoke, it was not stern;

He answered me tenderly:

“Ah, little one, search that heart of thine;

Art thou working for them or for me?

Nazareth was a little place,

And so was Galilee.”

(Meade McGuire)

May we follow that Man of Galilee, praise his name, and so order our lives that they will reflect our love of him and of all mankind.

Ideas for Home Teachers

Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:

  1. The story of Kathleen McKee and her canaries is the story of learning to see beauty and value in ourselves and in all mankind.

  2. Our true worth and abilities are best discovered when we follow the Master—applying his teachings, serving others as he did.

  3. Peter and Paul are examples of two brethren who discovered that total commitment to the Lord brings peace, a feeling of self-worth, fulfillment, and the blessings of the Lord.

Discussion Helps

  1. Relate your personal feelings about discovering either the value of oneself or the value of others through following the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?

  3. Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop?

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

Painting by James J. Tissot