This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 369th week, and we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1999 General Conference.
The older I get, the less I feel that I know. But, as I grow more and more uncertain about a wide range of things–my assessment of people, my politics, even my tastes in movies and books, everything changes!–there are a few, isolated things that I grow more confident in, and that–in part because they are so few–seem more important with every passing year.
I think a lot of us feel that things are coming apart a little bit. You can look at polls to validate that. Some of this is overblown, and it helps to have historical context to put our present difficulties into their proper perspective. And yet, even in the proper context, these are not the best days for our Republic, and one of the symptoms is a growing crisis of legitimacy in our institutions: government, the press, academia, churches, it’s hard to know where to turn.
People don’t like ambiguity and confusion and uncertainty. People like the opposite. They like clarity. And I believe that is one of the reasons that we’re seeing so much radicalization today. It’s because the less confident people are that they can trust in public institutions, the more uncertain they feel, and the more uncertain they feel the more they reach out for explanations–narratives and figureheads–who promise to give them the clarity–the psychological peace–that they crave.
I understand the craving. I share it. I miss the days when I had greater trust in public institutions. But there is an opportunity, if you feel that same sense of misgiving and homelessness and confusion, to channel the need to its appropriate source.
Because I grew up in a fairly secular environment–very, very few of my classmates in high school were openly devout–I picked up the knack of being able to hear religious talk (including my own) with a secular ear. I know that to talk about seeking refuge from the uncertainty of the world in religion is exactly what, from a secular standpoint, would look like a kind of escapism. I get that. And, in a real sense, I embrace.
Because you know what? Maybe we overly comfortable denizens of the 21st century with all of our wondrous capacity for entertainment and distraction and medication maybe we have an underdeveloped sense of the fundamental dark side of the human condition. Maybe we’re a little too divorced from raw struggle and suffering. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but we certainly do a better job than (as far as I can imagine) any other generation in history ever has at hiding the suffering that is so rampant from public view and discussion. We spend so much time talking about political controversies and so little talking about ordinary, non-partisan problems and their potential solutions or–since many, many cannot be solved–mitigations.
The word “gospel” means “good news”. I think everyone with any religious background at all knows that. But what’s the good news? Well, in order to appreciate it, you first need to recognize–to accept and acknowledge–some bad news. And that’s why I think there’s a really opportunity, in the midst of our crisis of legitimacy and the accompanying growth of uncertainty and concern, to identify real and genuine fears and to look for real and genuine solutions. Not tribal ideologies or conspiracy theories with their thin, superficial narratives that provide only the veneer of understanding without any deeper meaning. No, I mean the Good News.
Thus, Elder Holland’s magnificent talk “An High Priest of Good Things to Come”:
Every one of us has times when we need to know things will get better…For emotional health and spiritual stamina, everyone needs to be able to look forward to some respite, to something pleasant and renewing and hopeful, whether that blessing be near at hand or still some distance ahead. It is enough just to know we can get there, that however measured or far away, there is the promise of “good things to come.”…this is precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers us, especially in times of need. There is help. There is happiness. There really is light at the end of the tunnel. It is the Light of the World, the Bright and Morning Star, the “light that is endless, that can never be darkened.”
It’s no coincidence that, in a talk designed to highlight the bright light of the good news, Elder Holland spends time acknowledging the shadows. Real problems. The kind that face all of us, regardless of our race or gender or politics or sexual orientation or national origin.
I think of those who want to be married and aren’t, those who desire to have children and cannot, those who have acquaintances but very few friends, those who are grieving over the death of a loved one or are themselves ill with disease. I think of those who suffer from sin—their own or someone else’s—who need to know there is a way back and that happiness can be restored. I think of the disconsolate and downtrodden who feel life has passed them by, or now wish that it would pass them by.
It seems to me that, without retreating from its positions, the Church is putting less emphasis on issues related to the culture wars. I don’t think this is a reflection of an error in the Church’s emphasis in the past. The times are changing, and the Church–especially we, the members–must learn and change with them. At a certain point, I think you don’t get that much benefit from litigating and relitigating moral arguments. You make your position known, you stand by it, but you spend most of your time focusing on the core concerns. And for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the core concern is always going to be Jesus Christ. We must preach Him first.
To all of these and so many more, I say: Cling to your faith. Hold on to your hope. “Pray always, and be believing.” Indeed, as Paul wrote of Abraham, he “against [all] hope believed in hope” and “staggered not … through unbelief.” He was “strong in faith” and was “fully persuaded that, what [God] had promised, he was able … to perform.”… Even if you cannot always see that silver lining on your clouds, God can, for He is the very source of the light you seek.
Back in 2014, I was horrified by a brutal murder in which an entire family of seven was killed except for one of the daughters. She was 15 at the time, and family friends credited her Latter-day Saint faith with helping her through the tragedy (CBS). Cassidy spoke at the funeral for her entire family, and she quoted Dumbledore:
I’m thankful for all of the people that have been praying for me… I know that my mom, dad, Bryan, Emily, Becca, and Zack are in a much better place, and I’ll be able to see them again one day… In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” (CNN)
The light is Jesus Christ, and he blazed the path through utter darkness so that we could follow behind him. As Elder Holland said:
Because Christ’s eyes were unfailingly fixed on the future, He could endure all that was required of Him, suffer as no man can suffer except it be “unto death,” as King Benjamin said, look upon the wreckage of individual lives and the promises of ancient Israel lying in ruins around Him and still say then and now, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” How could He do this? How could He believe it? Because He knows that for the faithful, things will be made right soon enough. He is a King; He speaks for the crown; He knows what can be promised. He knows that “the Lord … will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. … For the needy shall not alway[s] be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.” He knows that “the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” He knows that “the Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.”
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: