We've known President Thomas S. Monson for a long, long time. Since he was a kid.
At least from my perspective of 56 years, he was but a lad when, at age 36, he joined the Quorum of the Twelve.
And not one person in the church could possibly have been surprised when he became president of the church.
Since we all know how succession to the presidency of the church works, when a man is called to be an apostle at age 36, you have to suspect that, barring divine intervention or ill health, he will be president of the church someday.
Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, and Howard W. Hunter were all the youngest members of the quorum when they were ordained.
From 1961 to 1963, President Gordon B. Hinckley was the youngest member of the Twelve. President Monson then became the youngest member until the ordination of Elder Dallin H. Oaks more than 20 years later.
Of course, being youngest did not mean much for Stephen L Richards, who was youngest in the Quorum from 1917 to 1941, yet did not live to succeed to the presidency. These callings are, after all, entirely in the hands of God, and he makes no promises about apostles abiding by the actuarial tables.
(For all kinds of fascinating statistical information about LDS general authorities, check out Louis Epstein's compilation of general authority seniority, ages, youngest and oldest, etc., on my Nauvoo.com Web site: www.nauvoo.com/Table_of_General_Authorities.pdf)
I'm revealing my roots in the Church Office Building here, of course. Back in the late 1970s, when I worked at the Ensign and my wife worked for Curriculum Development, we were part of a culture that was keenly aware at all times of general-authority statistics. I suppose that fascination with statistics never really goes away.
And with Elder David A. Bednar's ordination in 2004 at age 52, for the first time there's an apostle who is actually younger than me. This causes something of an existential wrenching for my whole life, I saw apostles as older men. Now, one of them really is just a kid. -->
Still, there is nothing inevitable about the succession. I remember seeing President Monson speak at a conference in North Carolina a dozen or more years ago. He seemed then to be in terrible health.
Not long after, though, President Monson's health seemed to be drastically improved; he seemed much more vigorous.
We worried about President Monson's health because, like so many other Saints, we loved him and wanted him with us for many years to come.
Why do we love President Monson? Most of us know him only from his talks in general conference but that's enough.
Oh, I've heard people joke sometimes about President Monson's endless supply of stories about widows. But those stories were earned. As bishop of a ward that contained a large number of widows, he made the commitment to visit them all and see to their needs.
And when he was released as their bishop, he made the further commitment to continue to visit them, not because of a church calling but as their friend. When he first started visiting them he was in his early 20s and he never lost touch with any of them.
Think about that. In the days when home teaching was still
just a twinkle in the Priesthood Committee's collective eye, young Bishop Monson was visiting dozens of elderly sisters, and then, regardless of his callings, he continued to do it until they had all passed away.
Yet the point of his stories is never how faithful or spiritual Thomas S. Monson is. He takes it for granted that he is doing his job as a servant of God. The point of his stories is always the love of God for his children, and the way that people give or respond to that love.
He is not the hero of his stories, he's just another character. Christ is the protagonist, and ultimately we are the subject of the tale.
We have learned to expect that a talk by President Monson will include many stories about real people. I've heard some of my intellectual friends complain that it's all fluff but that is only because they don't understand that the stories are the deep and important doctrines
That's why Christ taught using stories.
Doctrinal statements can be transformed or explained away until they mean the opposite of the original intention. (Think of how people actually say, even in church, that to "love your neighbor as yourself" means to love yourself first! The opposite of Christ's meaning!)
But stories hold onto their meaning through translations and interpretations. Unless you actually change the story itself, the Good Samaritan, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Prodigal Son these stories mean what they have always meant, and teach what they have always taught.
President Monson understands that stories are not just about entertainment (though they certainly make his talks more delightfully entertaining); they are also the clearest, most memorable and most lasting way of teaching.Like President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Monson's whole life has been devoted to the service of others. Like President Hinckley, President Monson brings his own style and personality and character to the office he inherits. He is the man whom the Lord, knowing his deepest soul, has trusted with the administration of the Kingdom of God on Earth and we, during all these years, have learned to love and trust him too.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret Morning News. A longer version of this column is available in the Mormon Times section of deseretnews.com. Leave feedback for Card online at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.