True Orthodoxy

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference.

I am returning to the General Conference Odyssey like a prodigal son. It’s been a long time–almost certainly a year, although I’m afraid to look–since my last post. I hope that I’l l be able to make up for the lost time by going back and filling in all those entries that I missed, but that’s going to be the work of years, most likely. For now, I’m going to do my best to just keep up.

Perhaps because I’ve been out of the game for so long, but I found this Saturday afternoon session of the October 1988 General Conference a little overwhelming. In a good way. I remember feeling that a lot back when I was first starting the GCO. 

I’ve been a member my whole life. My parents are both converts, but they joined the Church before they met and definitely before I came along. So I’ve grown up with General Conference and, to be totally frank, for most of my life it’s chief role as a soporific. No matter how much I wanted to pay attention as a teenager, I inevitably fell asleep before the halfway point of any given session. 

The first time General Conference really captivated my attention was on my mission. I devoured the October 2000 sessions when I was in the MTC, and I found the General Conference editions of the Ensign to be even more captivating when I was in the field. 

But for a long time after I came home, General Conferences faded from my view again. I would be lucky to catch any of a Saturday session at all, and I still tended to fall asleep during Sunday sessions. 

For the last few years, however, I’ve rediscovered the importance and relevance of General Conference. It is really about what you bring to it. Most importantly: questions.

In the last talk of this session, “Answer Me”, Elder Maxwell said that “Not only in the years ahead, but even now, mortal self-sufficiency will be confounded. Profound fear will eventually pervade this perplexed planet.”

Living through the time of Covid-19, that definitely appears to be the case. There are a lot of reasons why Americans have such a hard time getting along and everything seems political and partisan (I’ve written about them elsewhere, if you’re curious), but one of the reasons is very simple: fear. Scared people are unreliable, hair-triggered, and angry.

In a time of uncertainty, faith ceases to become theoretical. This is the beginning of the time and the place when you find out if your beliefs are convictions or just half-hearted habits. And if they are real convictions–if you really believe or even just want to know that the Church is led by prophets of God–then you’re going to have some burning questions when you come to General Conference talks. And those burning questions are the spark that will set General Conference on fire for you.

In this session, Elder Packer explained that death is an indispensable part of the Plan of Salvation: “Alma did not say that setting mortal death aside would merely delay or disturb the plan of happiness; he said it would destroy it.”

Elaborating:

The words death and happiness are not close companions in mortality, but in the eternal sense they are essential to one another. Death is a mechanism of rescue. Our first parents left Eden lest they partake of the tree of life and live forever in their sins. The mortal death they brought upon themselves, and upon us, is our journey home.

Elder L. Lionel Kendrick talked about “Christlike Communications,” reminding us that “our communications are at the core of our relationships with others” and that “souls can be strengthened or shattered by the message and the manner in which we communicate.” I would really like to hear how Elder Kendrick would update his message of 1988 for a social media world of 2020, but some of the basic principles are clear enough in the talk without any update required. The first topic he addressed was accountability:

We will be held accountable for all that we say. The Savior has warned “that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36.) This means that no communication shall be without consequence. This includes the slight slips of the tongue, the caustic communications that canker the soul, and the vain, vulgar, and profane words which desecrate the name of Deity.

That’s an intimidating standard to apply to every post and Tweet, but it’s the one we have to live up to. These are the principles for us all to aspire to:

Christlike communications are expressed in tones of love rather than loudness. They are intended to be helpful rather than hurtful. They tend to bind us together rather than to drive us apart. They tend to build rather than to belittle.

Christlike communications are expressions of affection and not anger, truth and not fabrication, compassion and not contention, respect and not ridicule, counsel and not criticism, correction and not condemnation. They are spoken with clarity and not with confusion. They may be tender or they may be tough, but they must always be tempered.

In the end, Elder Kendrick reminds us that it comes down to one vital thing: “The real challenge that we face in our communications with others is to condition our hearts to have Christlike feelings for all of Heavenly Father’s children.”

This talk was pretty epic–enough to make me satisfied with the whole session–but there is more still to come. 

A lot of the details in Elder Carmack’s talk “The Soil and Roots of Testimony” really stood out to me. Although this talk was from my childhood, it speaks directly to some of the controversies swirling around the Church today, especially around the topic of doubt. Elder Carmack makes it clear that certainty is not required for a testimony, pointing out that “in bearing testimony, some use the term know, some believe. Some say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.””

Then he said something else that really got my attention:

I shudder when I hear anyone declare, “I will never deny my testimony of the gospel.” I seem to hear another standing by and answering quietly, “Well, we shall see.”

He also frankly admitted his own “box of unanswered questions.”

Yes, I have a whole box of unanswered questions, none of them threatening to my testimony. New questions enter that box regularly. Others come out of the box, yielding to both study and experience. My hope is that I will endure the summer heat and retain that testimony, anchored in Christ, until the end of my mortal probation.

He also tackled the relationship between intellectual study and faithful witness, stating flatly that “I don’t believe it was ever intended that the gospel be proven true by physical or documentary evidence acceptable to all.”

The kernel of our faith has to be a personal, spiritual witness. But that doesn’t mean that intellectual study isn’t important. Just that it can’t be primary or exclusive.

By study and reason one can find the truth. But a testimony based on reason and knowledge alone, without a spiritual witness, can be in danger when a premise of its tight logic gets weak or crumbles. Thanks be to the Lord that my testimony is founded on faith and continues to grow through experience. I have seen, I have felt, and I know what I know.

I do not mean, however, to suggest that we should not continue to learn and deepen our knowledge about life and about the gospel. A solid, mature, and growing knowledge of the gospel is desirable and should be a constant goal.

Really, this talk is worth reading in its entirety, and I hope some of y’all have the time to do so.

Believe it or not, these are just the talks in the session before Elders Ballard and Maxwell lend their voices. Elder Ballard talked about The Hand of Fellowship, emphatically stressing the need for Latter-day Saints to be loving towards all, not just our own. 

Every member of the Church should foster the attributes of warmth, sincerity, and love for the newcomers, as the missionaries are taught to do.

Brothers and sisters, we members must help with the conversion process by making our wards and branches friendly places, with no exclusivity, where all people feel welcome and comfortable…

In addition to welcoming and accepting recent converts and less-active members, we need to reach out and extend our friendship to others regardless of whether they are interested in the gospel or not. We must not be too selective in identifying those we feel are worthy or appreciative of our attention. The spirit of true Christian fellowship must include everyone. Our understanding of the gospel should help us see clearly that all people are our brothers and sisters, children of our Heavenly Father…

We should extend our love far beyond family, close friends, and fellow members of the Church. Our hearts should be open to everyone.

And then, as if all this wasn’t clear enough, he really drove the point home: “Considering the early history of the Church in these latter days, unkindness or indifference toward others should be abhorrent to members of the Church.”

Finally, Elder Maxwell talked about the difficulty of following Jesus. It “will try our faith and our patience–sometimes sorely,” and expressing that in addition to the answers we get from the Gospel, “Jesus also asked some searching questions which tell us even more about the stretching journey of discipleship.”

I am always happy to see the difficulty of discipleship called out. Anyone who comes to my Gospel Doctrine classes knows how much I like to emphasize that. I think it’s so important for us all to understand that life doesn’t get easier with the Gospel. But it gets better. I was also really struck by Elder Maxwell’s definition of ‘true orthodoxy,” which is another hot-button issue for our day:

True orthodoxy consists of keeping the doctrines, ordinances, covenants, and programs of the Church and Christian service in proper balance. In this daily balancing process, we are not excused from exercising good judgment—after all that manuals and handbooks can do.

This is a kind of “soft” message: balance and moderation. But in the same talk, he had some “hard” things to say as well:

Why are a few members, who somewhat resemble the ancient Athenians, so eager to hear some new doubt or criticism? (See Acts 17:21.) Just as some weak members slip across a state line to gamble, a few go out of their way to have their doubts titillated. Instead of nourishing their faith, they are gambling “offshore” with their fragile faith. To the question “Will ye also go away?” these few would reply, “Oh, no, we merely want a weekend pass in order to go to a casino for critics or a clubhouse for cloakholders.” Such easily diverted members are not disciples but fair-weather followers.

Instead, true disciples are rightly described as steadfast and immovable, pressing forward with “a perfect brightness of hope.” (2 Ne. 31:20; see also D&C 49:23.)

To me, this contrasting blend of opposites–soft moderation with harder conviction–is at the heart of the Restored Gospel. This is what I’m here for: learning that goes deeper and deeper instead of on and on. 

Someone who is just starting their Gospel journey and someone who is near the end of a lifetime of service and faith will find that they’re asking and dealing with the very same questions. They’re in the same place, in a sense. But at the end of the journey you’ve added layer upon layer of hard-earned wisdom and experience, finding new depths and beauty again and again in the same simple message. 

I hope that I’ll have a faith like Elder Kendrick’s, so that–decades from now, as my journey nears its end–I’ll be able to look back on the lessons learned and the changes to my heart across all the days and nights of my mortal probation.


Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

1 thought on “True Orthodoxy”

  1. I loved this overview because it helped me see some connections between the talks I hadn’t noticed before. And I agree about questions and urgency. It seems like the more I’m struggling with life at the moment, the more questions I have and the more urgency I feel to grasp onto whatever help the prophets can give me!

    And that part from Elder Carmack’s talk (the devil standing by saying “Well, we shall see”) scares me to death! Since I was little, I have always had the sense that it’s dangerous to say “I will never deny my testimony”–and I wonder if it was this talk that first gave me that idea? Anyway, I still HOPE I won’t. But I’ll never dare be too sure!

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