Closed Lips; Open Eyes

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 248th week, and we’re covering the Sunday afternoon session of the October 1989 General Conference.

One of the most interesting parts of this whole General Conference Odyssey is reading definitive talks that I’ve heard referenced throughout my life but never heard myself until now. Or, to be honest, I might have. I was 8 years old during the General Conference and my family probably watched it, but I have no memory of it and wouldn’t have recognized the significance of a talk like Elder Maxwell’s “Murmur Not” anyway.

The late 80s / early 90s were a tumultuous time in the Church. I think I was vaguely aware of it at the time, but I can’t know if those are real memories or confabulations. I don’t remember when I first heard about the September Six sort of like I don’t remember watching Empire Strikes Back for the first time. Were you stunned to know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father? I can’t remember ever not knowing. 

Things got pretty turbulent in the last few years as well, with things like the excommunication of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. This time I had a front-row seat for a lot of the theatrics. I even wrote a much-read piece on John Dehlin that Meridian picked up. My sense–although I’m no expert on this–is that the recent and ongoing strain between progressive Latter-day Saints and the Church is less acute but more widespread. On the one hand, few members were surprised or troubled when Kelly and Dehlin faced disciplinary action. On the other hand, the kinds of issues that Kelly and Dehlin championed–progressive social ideology–do have an appeal for a fairly broad spectrum of Latter-day Saints, at least the WEIRD ones.

So that’s the context I had in mind–both historical and contemporary–when I read Elder Maxwell’s talk. 

It’s pretty stern stuff, and it rings true with my experiences. One of the biggest themes I’ve come across for many disaffected Latter-day Saints is a sense of failed expectations. “I did everything right,” they say, “and I didn’t get the blessings I was promised.”

Or, as Elder Maxwell put it:

A basic cause of murmuring is that too many of us seem to expect that life will flow ever smoothly, featuring an unbroken chain of green lights with empty parking places just in front of our destinations!

I feel somewhat sympathetic to this concern. There are an awful lot of scriptures and General Conference talks that promise blessings for obedience. But there are also an approximately equal number that caution us against reading this in a nakedly transactional way. Somehow, a lot of us missed the memo.

Elder Maxwell then listed four traits of those who murmur, including:

  • First, the murmurer often lacks the courage to express openly his concerns…
  • Second, murmurers make good conversational cloak holders. Though picking up no stones themselves, they provoke others to do so.
  • Third, while a murmurer insists on venting his own feelings, he regards any response thereto as hostile…
  • Fourth, murmurers have short memories… Strange, isn’t it, brothers and sisters, how those with the shortest memories have the longest lists of demands! However, with no remembrance of past blessings, there is no perspective about what is really going on.

I definitely recognized myself in some of these, especially the first and last. So these characteristics are helpful in understanding some of the hostility the Church attracts from members on the inside, but if you’re not applying these warnings to your own behavior then you run a real risk of prideful complacence. Murmuring isn’t just something for “dissidents.” All of us, even faithful members like Lehi, face the temptation.

There was an addendum to the third item that really struck me as well. Elder Maxwell said that “murmurers seldom take into account the bearing capacity of their audiences.” I’ve definitely seen this before, whether it’s adults unleashing impatient cynicism in front of kids or teenagers without the context to process the cynicism or jaded missionaries venting to new converts with tender missionaries. Those of us with more experience in the Gospel and with the Church definitely have a duty to be careful of those who are still starting out on their own journeys.

I can’t really include everything in the talk that I found interesting. There’s just too much. But a couple of Elder Maxwell’s short statements really left me with something to process. Here are a few of them:

  • Satan…does not know the mind of God.
  • Letting off steam always produces more heat than light
  • Even mild murmuring can be more pointed than we may care to admit.
  • You and I may think God is merely marking time, when He is actually marking openings for us.

I’d really encourage anyone who has a little bit of time to read this entire talk out, and maybe even print it out to keep. I have a hunch that, in difficult times to come, the advice it has for us might be even more vital than when the talk was first given.

And especially this last piece, which I’ll use to wrap up my post for this week:

Nonmurmurers are permitted to see so much more…My brothers and sisters, if our lips are closed to murmuring, then our eyes can be opened.

Other entries from this week:

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