Weeks before his 95th birthday on Sept. 9, 2019, President Russell M. Nelson sat down for an interview outside a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Brasília, Brazil.
He listened intently as his wife, Sister Wendy W. Nelson, spoke about his medical career and about the scientific formulas that govern the universe, the human body and gravity.
And then President Nelson confessed to knowing exactly what his wife was going to say next.
“You are going to talk about Scrabble,” he quipped.
We all laughed, even though we knew President and Sister Nelson were not really joking.
Sister Nelson explained that President Nelson has “worked out a formula” as the couple plays Scrabble that can almost always ensure a winning hand.
“I want to know what the laws are,” he said. “If I can know the laws, then I can get the blessings.”
Divine law “is incontrovertible,” President Nelson explained. “Everyone receives a blessing from God because they were obedient to the law that pertained to that area. Our job is to teach people about these eternal laws. They’re called commandments, but they are just as true as the law of lift, the law of gravity, the law that governs the heartbeat.”
It is hard for me to think of President Nelson’s historic five-year ministry as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without thinking of that moment.
It was simple and endearing. But mostly it was empowering.
A pioneering heart surgeon and a worldwide religious leader, President Nelson had shared the secret for understanding the universe — and the physical and spiritual laws that govern it.
If you want to fly an airplane, learn and follow the laws that govern gravity.
If you want to operate on the human heart, learn and follow the laws that govern the human body.
If you want to be happy, learn and keep the commandments.
“It becomes a rather simple formula,” President Nelson said.
So often, the topic of leadership in today’s academic, political and cultural climate feels incomplete without mentioning power — how we get it and how we use it.
Yet, President Nelson’s leadership is much like his 95th-birthday interview — nothing to do with power, and everything to do with empowerment.
During his first general conference as the Prophet, President Nelson did not unveil an agenda, but instead urged Latter-day Saints to increase their spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation. “In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting and constant influence of the Holy Ghost,” he said.
As leaders announced a new “home-centered, Church-supported” curriculum during the October 2018 general conference, President Nelson invited individuals and families to remodel their homes into sanctuaries of faith. The curriculum, he promised, “has the potential to unleash the power of families.”
And as the world faced global instability and uncertainty in November 2020, President Nelson prescribed a “fast-acting and long-lasting” spiritual remedy in a video message, asking all of us to #givethanks.
Each invitation followed a simple pattern. A prophet stated truth and then invited us to learn and follow the laws that govern that truth. President Nelson, who understands God’s love and laws, promised a blessing would accompany each lived truth.
Those invitations — and the dozens and dozens of others that have become part of his historic ministry — directed the power that could come to a leader of almost 17 million upward to the Savior Jesus Christ and outward to His covenant followers.
He summarized it best on a quiet day in Brasília, Brazil, as he reflected on his life and ministry, the love and laws and God, and, of course, Scrabble.
“When the focus of our lives is on Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening — or not happening — in our lives,” said President Nelson.
— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.