Big and Small Things

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 250th week, and we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the April 1990 General Conference.

The fall of the Berlin Wall - November 1989 | The fall of th… | Flickr

The dissolution of the Soviet Union wasn’t completed until the end of 1991, but already by November 1989 (with the Fall of the Berlin Wall), it was impossible not to see something momentous was occurring. So the April 1990 General Conference was the first to address these historic events, and Elder Thomas S. Monson referred to them in the first talk of the first session, Conference is Here:

The world has experienced sweeping changes since last we met. A wall in Berlin has crumbled. Families now may join together on either side and experience the joy they have long been deprived. In Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic, the bells of freedom have sounded, heralding a new day for our time.

For whatever strange reason, my memories of this approximate time period are much stronger of Tiananmen Square (also 1989) and the First Gulf War (1990 – 1991). I have really vivid memories of watching those events, but none of the collapsing Soviet Union. 

For folks of my generation, a lot of our growing years have been full of disappointment and disillusionment. We came of age when the Soviet Union had fallen and democracy and peace were supposed to spread around the world. Never had history seemed brighter and more hopeful. We were coming out from under the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation, democracy was going to cover the whole Earth, and with the space shuttle and International Space Station humanity would unite to explore the stars. 

Instead, liberalizing schemes like shock therapy  failed and the former Soviet republics largely backslide into corrupt kleptocracies. Then came 9/11, the Second Gulf War , and next thing you know Americans are bogged down in Afghanistan just like the Soviets and Brits before us while a resurgent Russia fights a thinly-veiled proxy war in Ukraine and the People’s Republic of China–far from liberalizing–is deploying Orwellian social surveillance, savagely repressing democracy in Hong Kong, and slowly committing genocide in Xinjiang Province (while Disney offers thanks for help filming Mulan in the same province). Also, there was the Challenger disaster then the Columbia disaster and then the United State abandoned the entire manned space dream without a replacement program. 

(OK, the Challenger disaster was in 1986 before the rest of it happened, but it went from being an isolated tragedy to a trend with the loss of Columbia in 2003 and the end of the shuttle program in 2011.)

All of which is to say that I found (then) Elder Ballard’s comments in his talk, Small and Simple Things, incredibly prescient. Who would have known, in the midst of such euphoria, that the apparently bright future would have so many caveats and setbacks and reversals in store?

And so his reminder that “the purposes of the Lord in our personal lives generally are fulfilled through the small and simple things, and not the momentous and spectacular” seems especially poignant and important. 

There were two more talks that I really loved from this session, “Home First” and The Spirituality of Service. I used both of them for a lesson in home church, especially this quote from “Home First”:

Our Heavenly Father has organized us into families for the purpose of helping us successfully meet the trials and challenges of life. The home also exists to bless us with the joys and privileges of family associations. Our family is our safety place, our support network, our sanctuary, and our salvation.

The whole, home-centered changes of the late 2010s came as a big surprise for a lot of folks, but to me they were the fulfillment of what I’d been reading again and again in General Conference: the Church is for the family, not the other way around.

I like the two talks together, because while “Home First” talks about the goal–having a home filled with love–The Spirituality Service talks about how to get there. Among the 11 rules for service the two I liked the most were that you come to love those you serve, and also that you come to understand those you serve. These might actually be the same thing, for those of you who are fans of the philosophy of Ender’s Game, but in any case what my wife and I taught our kids is that for them to learn to get along better and appreciate each other more, they are going to need to start serving each other more. So that will be the new tradition in our family, which–incidentally–I got from the last talk in this session, Family Traditions.

All in all, I found this a remarkable session, with so much for me to learn and apply in my life.

It also made me excited for the upcoming October 2020 General Conference. We’ve got an awful lot of uncertainty and confusion going on in the world today. In some ways, it might be the polar opposite of the 1989 – 1990 time period. Then, everything seemed to be changing for the better, and many of us were ultimately left disappointed when things didn’t turn out the way we hoped.

This time, with so much to be afraid and concerned about, it may be that a lot of us will be surprised by the good that happens, despite everything else.

In either case, I’m eager to hear what the Lord’s prophets, seers, and revelators have to say to us.


Other pieces from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

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