I enjoyed the slight tinge of irony in reading the talks from the general women’s session on Father’s Day. This irony was compounded a little bit when I realized that the talk begining with “I have prepared my message especially for you ten- and eleven-year-old girls.” was the one that I found the most personally relevant. That would be Sister Michaelene P. Grassli’s talk, I Will Follow God’s Plan for Me.
One idea that I liked was this one:
as I have studied the word righteousness, I have found nothing that indicates that being righteous is being perfect. Goodness, virtue, morality are all dictionary synonyms, but not perfect. All of us will make mistakes in our lives, but although perfection is our ultimate destination, righteousness, or goodness, is the chariot to carry us there.
There’s a ton to unpack there. For starters, the healthy repudiation of perfectionism. Perfection, at least the way we tend to think about in America, is often about the lack of fault. If something is perfect, than it is unblemished. This is a kind of disturbingly negative definition. Perfection, in this sense, isn’t really that great of a thing to worry about.
There’s an alternate conception of perfection, though, which has to do with wholeness. It’s not about the bad things you avoid, but about the good things you enact.
You can take this too far and buy into an idea that if you do good things they excuse bad things. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But, in general, I think placing a little less emphasis on avoidance of bad things and a little more emphasis on attraction to good things is warranted. It’s like that quotes about ships being safe in the harbor: a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.
Similarly, we didn’t come to earth to avoid making mistakes. That’s part of what we should do, but in the pursuit of accomplishing good things. And that’s what Sister Grassli is encouraging us to do: embrace goodness, virtue, morality and let perfection come in its own due time.
Another quote that really struck me is this one:
Every good thing you do in your life is following God’s plan. Every time you are kind to another person, each time you have courage to do something difficult, each time you do a thoughtful act without being asked, each time you say your prayers, each time you read the scriptures, each time you go to church, each time you help a friend—you are following God’s plan for you.
This goes to the idea that we’re here for action. We’re here to do things.
And it also takes away from toxic perfectionism. Sometimes we can get paralyzed by wanting to do the best thing or find God’s one true purpose for us.
We all have missions to accomplish in this life, and there are probably some things that we can do that nobody else could do. Our actions matter. There are real consequences, for ourselves and other people. If we don’t do the thing, the thing (in most cases) will not get done. And that’s bad.
But it’s at least as bad–and probably much, much worse–to pass up on one good opportunity after another because you’re trying to find the perfect one. If there’s a mission for you, then I really don’t think God is going to let you miss it if you’re out there striving to do good in small ways. Work hard, listen out for promptings, do your best, and God’s plan will unfold through your life.
Don’t wait to see it and then act it out.
Live your best life and then, in retrospect, I believe you’ll see how the plan unfolded through little acts that added up to something bigger than you realized at the time.
So maybe it was Father’s Day and this was the women’s session, and maybe Sister Grassli had tweens in mind when she wrote the talk, but I went ahead and likened them unto me.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:
In the 1985 Priesthood Session of General Conference, Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk called “Spencer W. Kimball: A True Disciple of Christ.”
We Latter-Day Saints are often criticized for hero worship; we revere leaders of the past and we even sing hymns and primary songs about prophets in the present. In recent years, we have rightfully engaged in introspection regarding these tendencies and their unhealthy extremes. As more mature historiography has brought to light a litany of personal failings and shortcomings among church leaders and other prophetic figures of the past, many have found the gap between their previous cherished perceptions and their new uncomfortable awareness to be an insurmountable challenge to faith.
We’ve all seen the importance of home-centered Church during Covid, and I think we all recognize how prophetic those shifts were. I’m not sure if we recognize how long-term the trend in that direction has been, however.
I remember trying to convince folks that the Church is for the family, no the other way around in the years before the home-centered program was announced, and I had a hard time persuading them that I wasn’t just making it up. I had a strong intuition that it was what I was being taught by the General Conference talks, but I didn’t have great examples ready to hand.
Too bad I hadn’t read this session, because the message is very clear!
This change in budgeting will have the effect of returning much of the responsibility for teaching and counseling and activity to the family where it belongs. While there will still be many activities, they will be scaled down in cost of both time and money. There will be fewer intrusions into family schedules and in the family purses.
In some respects, many of our youth activities in recent years have supplanted the home and family.
This is a new and wonderful program… be grateful and prayerfully go to work to make it function. I promise you that you will be happy if you do so. Family life will be strengthened and faith will increase.
There was one other thing that really stuck out to me from President Hinckley’s quote:
This is a new and wonderful program. As with any new program, there will be a few items that will need to be corrected as we go along. There are still unanswered questions, particularly concerning recreation properties. Time and experience will provide the answers.
One of the weird tensions I often feel about our faith is the tug-of-war between miraculous and commonsensical. I’m not sure of a better way to describe what I’m talking about, even though I feel that description probably comes up short.
What I mean is that there are those who have a rock-solid belief in, say, miraculous healing power. But there seems to be a kind of simplistic “the miracle will be obvious and straightforward and perfect” corollary that goes with it.
On the other hand, folks who are more reasonable and realistic in their expectations tend to have, along with that, a general skepticism that they will ever see real miracles, the kind that are completely and totally inexplicable through any other possible rationale. For them, miracles tend to be of the “crazy coincidence” variety more than the “arise, take they bed and walk” variety.
Call it the supernatural and the natural. The two are in an uneasy tension within LDS theology and tradition. We believe that, in a sense, there are no miracles because everything God does is through the application of principles we just might not know yet. This renders all miracles a kind of footnote to Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
On the other hand, we emphatically believe that there are miracles in the more routine sense of gifts of tongues, revelation, and so forth.
I’m pretty sure that for the spiritually wise this tension fades. Maybe it goes away entirely. President Hinckley had the supernatural position that the changes were from revelation, but he also had the natural position that even divinely revealed polices would talk time to have their kinks ironed out.
There’s an important lesson in there, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is. Other than, if you have a temptation to go all-in-supernatural or all-in-natural: don’t. Though we might not see it yet, there’s a reconciliation.
Two talks really stood out to me from this session. FIrst, there was (then) Elder Oaks’ talk, World Peace. It’s interesting to me, having heard him speak on similar themes in the most recent General Conference, to see how consistent he’s been across three decades. In particular, I’m struck by how he consistently addresses questions of political discord by focusing on individual righteousness: “What can one person do to promote world peace? The answer is simple: keep God’s commandments and serve his children.”
The second talk was even more impactful, and it was Elder Richard G. Scott’s Finding the Way Back. The talk is about what it sounds like it is about: repentance from serious sin. As Elder Scott pointed out, the precise nature of the sin doesn’t really matter:
I need not define your specific problem to help you overcome it. It doesn’t matter what it is. If it violates the commandments of the Lord, it comes from Satan, and the Lord can overcome all of Satan’s influence through your application of righteous principles.
Over the course of the talk, I was really impressed by how practical a lot of the counsel was. There was ample testimony of God’s love, yes, and of the power of His grace, but also a lifetime’s worth of applied wisdom in helping the wayward find their ways home. For example, Elder Scott talked about two transition periods during the repentance process:
The first is the most difficult. You are caging the tiger that has controlled your life. It will shake the bars, growl, threaten, and cause you some disturbance. But I promise you that this period will pass. How long it takes will depend upon the severity of your transgression, the strength of your determination, and the help you seek from the Lord. But remember, as you stand firm, it will pass.
The second period is not as intense. It is like being on “battle alert” so that you can fend off any enemy attack. That, too, will pass, and you will feel more peace and will have increased control of your life. You will become free.
These really resonated with me, but I don’t think I’ve seen them taught anywhere else. I think this talk ought to be considered essential reading for everyone. How important it must be to know the way back before we are lost?
Finally, the very first thing that he said is the one that sticks at the forefront of my mind: “The purpose of this message is to help many of you find the life you want, not the one you are living.”
What a positive message about sin and repentance. Who doesn’t want that? Who doesn’t need that? We are all sinners, and even if this talk is especially for those of us who are in a particularly dire spot, the principles of repentance are for everyone.
Other posts from this weeks General Conference Odyssey:
I’m catching up with some GCO posts that I’ve missed, so even though I will post and backdate this entry to October 13, I’m writing it a month after the fact. Which means I’m writing it in the middle of uncertain controversies following the US election.
One of the odd things is that, depending on which particular social networking connection I click on, I can see at least two little echo chambers where there is no uncertainty. In one, Trump unquestionably won the 2020 election, but for Democratic interference, and this is evidence that the last recourse of violent, open conflict is upon us. I can’t tell if these folks are seriously serious, but they seem to think they ar.
In the other, the idea that there was any widespread, systematic voter interference that could even conceivably have any meaningful impact on the election is a laughable farce concocted by a racist, fascist president in an attempted autocoup.
Switching back and forth between these two extremes is physically easy. It only takes a couple of mouse clicks. Trying to reconcile the incredibly divergent worldviews is much harder. But I can’t help trying, because I know people I think are generally good and smart and well-meaning in both of these worlds.
The strain of it all makes me want to disengage entirely. I get nostalgic for my country as it was when I was younger, and concerned for how much worse things might get if this trend continues.
Withdrawing somewhat is probably healthy. We are not of this world. But we are supposed to be in this world, so withdrawing completely is dereliction. For me, the purpose of mentally pulling back for a short time is to let go of more and more worldly attachments and assumptions, and find a deeper foundation that can keep me stable when everything around me is built on sand.
As I think of the blessings God has given us and the many beauties of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am aware that along the way we are asked to make certain contributions in return, contributions of time or of money or of other resources. These are all valued and all necessary, but they do not constitute our full offering to God. Ultimately, what our Father in Heaven will require of us is more than a contribution; it is a total commitment, a complete devotion, all that we are and all that we can be.
In one sense, this is a little extreme. In another, it’s the only rational response to a dividing world.
I’ve been spending a lot of time playing video games over the last week. More than usual. When life seems complicated and uncertain and I’m not sure what to do, playing video games is an easy way to pass the time between finishing work and going to sleep so I don’t have to think about it.
There isn’t anything wrong with this, in and of itself. But there’s nothing really right with it either. That kind of withdrawal is a cop out.
I know what good reading all these General Conference talks does for me, but I’m not so sure what writing these blog posts does. Writing is the thing I turn to first when trying to influence the world for the good. I wrote my first blog posts in 2006, so I’ve been blogging–of and on–for fourteen years now. I’m not sure it’s really had any meaningful impact.
Then again, how much meaningful impact can one person have, ultimately? Everyone gets their vote. Everyone gets to use their influence for good or ill. Nobody really stands out except for celebrities, and I’m not so sure they have that much influence either.
But since writing is what I have to work with, I want to keep doing it.
Ordinarily, if I put off goals or responsibilities to write, I feel guilty. I haven’t felt very guilty about playing video games this past week. I’ve been wondering why that is, and I think I understand the message. God is giving me space to do the right thing on my own.
The word that keeps playing through my mind is “consecration”. I’ve had a little bit more time than usual, even after getting in the minimum stuff like work and scriptures study. In a sense, that extra time is mine. I’ve done the minimum. What am I going to do with the surplus?
I want to consecrate it. I want to use my talents–whatever they are, however small the impact may be–to try and help.
The reason this isn’t just a withdrawal, like becoming a kind of silent hermit, is because everything is connected. As President Hunter said:
Please understand that I do not speak only of a commitment to the Church and its activities, although that always needs to be strengthened. No, I speak more specifically of a commitment that is shown in our individual behavior, in our personal integrity, in our loyalty to home and family and community, as well as to the Church. Of course, all of these loyalties are interrelated and closely linked because it is the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus Christ that shapes our behavior and forms our character in all areas of our life—personally, within the home, in our professions and community life, as well as in our devotion to the Church that bears his name.
“Loyalty to home and family and community, as well as to the Church.” I’m worried about my ward. I’m worried about my town. I’m worried about my country. I’m worried about my family. These worries are not separate and independent. They are part of the same concern.
The ability to stand by one’s principles, to live with integrity and faith according to one’s belief—that is what matters, that is the difference between a contribution and a commitment. That devotion to true principle—in our individual lives, in our homes and families, and in all places where we meet and influence other people—that devotion is what God is ultimately requesting of us.
This week I feel that call. And I want to respond. Not with a contribution, but with a commitment.
There’s no melodramatic crescendo to this post. No big life change. I just decided not to play video games this evening. (I play some this afternoon, to be honest.) Instead, I wrote this post. I’m going to try and writer a few more before it’s time to read scriptures with my kids and get ready to go to bed.
Tomorrow morning, I will try to do some more. I don’t expect any great consequence. That’s not really the point. We all have our talents. We all have our callings. Mine is to write, I think. And so that’s what I’ll do. At the very least, no matter what else, I will know that I’ve set aside my time and talents and efforts to try and do my best to reflect back a little of God’s glory in these dark times, no matter the size of my mirror.
If I do that, I cannot fail.
A successful life, the good life, the righteous Christian life requires something more than a contribution, though every contribution is valuable. Ultimately it requires commitment—whole souled, deeply held, eternally cherished commitment to the principles we know to be true in the commandments God has given. We need such loyalty to the Church, but that must immediately be interpreted as a loyalty in our personal habits and behavior, integrity in the wider community and marketplace, and—for the future’s sake—devotion and character in our marriages and homes and families.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:
This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 253rd week, and we’re taking a break from historical General Conferences to cover all sessions of the October 2020 General Conference.
Two nights ago, I prayed for things that Heavenly Father was already going to give me anyway. I prayed for Him to never leave me alone. To never stop calling me to come back home. To never lose patience with me. To never stop being ready to forgive me. To never give up on me.
I did not pray for these things because I was afraid they might not come true. I knew, even as I spoke the words, that I was only praying for Heavenly Father to do exactly what He had always done, and what He had always promised to do. I asked anyway.
Nephi quoted his younger brother, Jacob, who taught that without the intervention of a Savior, “our spirits must become like unto [the devil], and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself.” (2 Nephi 9:9)
I know this is true.
I don’t say this with melodrama. I am not a great soul, and I don’t think I have much capacity for great evil or great good. I have ordinary temptations and I make ordinary mistakes. I am mediocre.
I just know that, left to my own devices, the trend is inexorably downwards. I set goals for myself, I repent and do better, but then I get tired or bored or distracted and lose interest in doing what’s right. I settle, and then I start to sink. When that happens, I don’t immediately repent. Instead, I often rationalize and make excuses. I avoid living up to the standards and goals I have set for myself. I grow unhappy and depressed and confused, and then I cast about for some way to improve my mood other than changing my behavior.
I haven’t fallen far. I haven’t done any great wrong. But I have sunk, already, a little. Looking back is hard when looking back also means looking up. I try to find some other way. Often as not, I play video games for a few hours to shut it all out.
There’s nothing grand or epic in these little descents. These are periods of hours or days or, at most, weeks of infantile rebellion. I am not seeking to hurt anyone. I’m not motivated by any terrible desire. Mostly, it is just pathetic. And I know that if I were in charge, watching myself make the same mistakes again for no great reason in the face of no significant obstacle or challenge, I would turn my back in disgust.
But God never has.
That was the realization I had Friday night, when I’d managed to pull myself out of one of these shallow, unremarkable descents. These spiritual regressions to the worldly mean.
Less than a week after General Conference talks had filled me with conviction and fire and righteous ambition, and here I was already veering towards my old ways. And despite this, as soon as I made up my mind to press on again, to repent, to ask for forgiveness, I felt God’s Spirit descend upon me. Not grudgingly. Not accusingly. Gently, lovingly. Invitingly.
“OK,” my Father said. “I’m glad you’re back now. Let’s continue.”
No one has ever seen me at my lowest and most fickle so often and so perfectly as God. And yet He looks past these boring, repetitious, mediocre mistakes with perfect, infinite, loving grace and acceptance. Not of the mistakes, but of who I am, despite them. I cannot fathom the extent of a love that never grows exasperated or disdainful no matter how many times I repeat the same, stupid patterns of self-destructive rebellion. I cannot fathom a love that never gives up on me, no matter how many times I give up on myself, even temporarily. I cannot fathom it, and yet I have felt it. I know it’s real, and I am awed and humbled by God’s condescension to come back down to my level, time and time again, to help me rise when I have fallen.
I knew that Elder Whiting’s talk, Becoming like Him, was going to have a long-lasting impact on me even before it was over.
The Savior’s admonition to be “even as I am” is daunting. We rationalize this as hyperbole and choose the path of least resistance. What if it’s not figurative even in our mortal condition? What if it is to some degree attainable in this mortal life. What if it’s precisely what is meant? Then what? What level of effort are we willing to give to invite His presence into our lives so that we can change our very nature?
Elder Whiting cited Elder Maxwell:
As we ponder having been commanded by Jesus to become like Him, we see that our present circumstance is one in which we are not necessarily wicked, but, rather, is one in which we are so half-hearted and so lacking in enthusiasm for His cause—which is our cause, too! We extol but seldom emulate Him.
Also Charles M. Sheldon:
Our Christianity loves its ease and comfort too well to take up anything so rough and heavy as a cross.
I’ve never felt before a talk so directly addressing me, and I knew I would have to redouble my efforts to become a true disciple.
And yet, as I said, my resolved lasted less than a week before I faltered for the first time.
I am not a very bad or a very good person, but I do think that I am a very self-centered person. This is not always a bad quality. I have a high degree of self-awareness that can be of some good use, now and again. But it is predominantly a bad quality. I do not know how to give of myself unstintingly. I hold back. I look out for myself. I have plans of my own.
Elder Whiting challenged us to acknowledge the gap between ourselves and our Savior. “If we are honest with ourselves, the Light of Christ within us whispers that there is distance between where we are in comparison with the desired character of the Savior.” Then, he urged, pick a particular trait and make it our goal.
[I]t is vital that we also ask our loving Heavenly Father what we are in need of and where we should focus our efforts. He has a perfect view of us and will lovingly show us our weakness. Perhaps you will learn that you need greater patience, humility, charity, love, hope, diligence, or obedience, to name a few.
I knew, without much reflection, that I needed greater selflessness. My children, my wife, my family, my ward, my friends and neighbors: all of them would benefit from more selfless service. Not because I am so special, but because God has given each of His children talents and perspectives and privileges that they can use to bless the lives of others. The Plan of Salvation is not just for individuals, but for families and communities. God’s gifts are distributed sparingly so that no one person has all of them. So that every person has something to offer. But we have to actually offer what we’ve been given, or it does no good.
On the night in question, I was tired. It was after 10PM. I wanted to go to sleep, but my oldest two children were still awake. My wife was at work, dealing with the insanity of teaching in a time of Covid.
I wrestled with my unaccountable (in the moment) feeling of resentful grumpiness, the dark confusion in my mind and the aimless, mild ache in my heart. I just wanted the day to end. Maybe the next day would be better.
And then I remembered Elder Whiting’s talk, and my own commitment to redouble my efforts to put forward just that little bit of extra effort every day to serve my family.
Very well. We could read a few verses from the Book of Mormon and have a family prayer. That much, at least, I could do.
No sooner had I made the resolution, then the darkness began to lift. As weary as ever, I summoned my kids and trudged upstairs to start to reading. After finishing, but before prayer, my daughter asked me if we were going to practice hiragana and katakana (the Japanese alphabets, more or less). I had made the resolution to learn Japanese alongside my children as they were doing homeschool this year, and I often ran through flashcard exercise with them before bed.
It’s only a few more minutes, I thought to myself. What could it hurt?
I agreed to get the cards after the prayer.
By this point, my dark mood was entirely gone. I felt peaceful and calm inside. But I was also still exhausted. I managed to make it through a few rounds of hiragana (which I have finished memorizing) but trying to expand my command of katakana was going nowhere. I left the two of them practicing while I went to brush my teeth. When I came back, my daughter was sweetly helping my son with his practice. I just stood there for a few moments, unnoticed, and savored the exquisite joy of any parent seeing their children getting along and helping each other.
After I told them to go to bed, I finally realized what the dark feelings had been: the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit. Not just what, but why. God hadn’t been punishing me. He’d been teaching me. I remembered the scripture, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth,” and I knew that I’d been chastened and also loved.
“In coming days,” President Nelson told us in 2018, before so much of our present craziness, “it will not be possible to survive without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.”
I’ve never been that great at recognizing the presence or absence of the Spirit. That night, with the distinct contrast in the space of just a few minutes between petty rebellion and minor, sincere repentance, God helped remediate some of that ignorance.
So when I knelt to pray to Him, it seemed only right to beg for blessings that I knew I desperately needed, even though I’d never lacked them before. It was more than gratitude for His patience so far. It was a prayer in trusting faith that He would extend that same patience into the future for as long as it took to bring me safely home.
There was nothing at all pro forma or artificial about my prayer, because I felt keenly and deeply the desperate need I have for His forbearance, His patience, His forgiveness, and His intervention in my life. For the Atonement of His Son, most of all. I’m crossing a bridge over a chasm, and that bridge is made of the love of God as embodied in the sacrifice of His Son. Without the bridge, I will fall forever. And I have a long way to go before the crossing is complete.
I pray so often for things I’m not really sure God will give me because I don’t know the plan. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if we’re humble enough to include the caveat “thy will be done”. We all have ordinary struggles and, from time to time, extraordinary ones as well, and in those moments we should cry to our Heavenly Parents like the lost, little children that we are.
But it felt wonderful, that night and a few nights since, to pray for something I was absolutely sure God had granted and would continue to grant me. To express my appreciation and my ongoing reliance on Him. To know that, for one sweet moment, my will had found unity in His.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:
There were a lot of talks (seven) during this session, and I didn’t pick up on much of a unifying theme or any one particular talk that really stood out. So, for this week, here are some snippets from a few of the talks that stood out to me.
My young friends, you don’t have to reject your friends who are on the wrong path; you don’t even have to give them up necessarily. You can be their caring friend, ready to help them when they are ready to be helped. You can talk to them and lift them and bear your testimony to them. Lead them by example.
But don’t ever be led into displeasing your Father in Heaven by your friends who might ask that as a condition of being your friend, you must choose between their way and the Lord’s way.
Loyalty to leadership is a cardinal requirement of all who serve in the army of the Lord. A house divided against itself cannot stand. (See Mark 3:25.) Unity is basic and essential. Declared the Lord, “If ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27.) Failure to sustain those in authority is incompatible with service in the temple.
Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:
First, I have to share one of my favorite poems because Elder Ringger’s talk “Choose You This Day” made me think of it. Actually, the first time I heard of this poem was from another General Conference talk, but I can’t remember which one it was. Anyway, the quote from Elder Ringger’s talk that prompted the memory was “it is one thing to know the way, and another to take it.”
And the poem, “A Prayer”, by John Drinkwater is:
Lord, not for light in darkness do we pray, Not that the veil be lifted from our eyes, Nor that the slow ascensions of our day Be otherwise.
Not for a clearer vision of the things Whereof the fashioning shall make us great, Not for remission of the peril and stings Of time and fate.
Not for a fuller knowledge of the end Whereto we travel, bruised yet unafraid, Nor that the little healing that we lend Shall be repaid.
Not these, O Lord. We would not break the bars Thy wisdom sets about us; we shall climb Unfettered to the secrets of the stars In Thy good time.
We do not crave the high perception swift When to refrain were well, and when fulfill, Nor yet the understanding strong to sift The good from ill.
Not these, O Lord. For these Thou hast revealed, We know the golden season when to reap The heavy-fruited treasure of the field, The hour to sleep.
Not these. We know the hemlock from the rose, The pure from stained, the noble from the base, The tranquil holy light of truth that glows On Pity’s face.
We know the paths wherein our feet should press, Across our hearts are written Thy decrees, Yet now, O Lord, be merciful to bless With more than these.
Grant us the will to fashion as we feel, Grant us the strength to labour as we know, Grant us the purpose, ribbed and edged with steel, To strike the blow.
Knowledge we ask not–knowledge Thou hast lent, But, Lord, the will–there lies our bitter need, Give us to build above the deep intent The deed, the deed.
There were some other good talks this session, but it’s hard to think or write about them when we had another masterpiece from Elder Maxwell, “Endure It Well.” This talk covers one of my favorite themes: the difficulty of life. (No, really, I write about it a lot.)
“God has repeatedly said He would structure mortality to be a proving and testing experience,” Elder Maxwell begins, “[and] he has certainly kept his promise.”
Elder Maxwell goes on to discuss how life’s challenges–large and small–are little reflections of our Savior’s sufferings. The line that stood out to me the most–the one that inspired the title of this post–was this:
When, for the moment, we ourselves are not being stretched on a particular cross, we ought to be at the foot of someone else’s—full of empathy and proffering spiritual refreshment.
It’s hard to pick and choose snippets from this talk to share. It’s one that you really ought to read all the way through. There are just so many observations that gave me a lot to mull over. Here are just two more:
[H]ow could there be refining fires without enduring some heat? Or greater patience without enduring some instructive waiting? Or more empathy without bearing one another’s burdens—not only that others’ burdens may be lightened, but that we may be enlightened through greater empathy? How can there be later magnification without enduring some present deprivation?
The enlarging of the soul requires not only some remodeling, but some excavating. Hypocrisy, guile, and other imbedded traits do not go gladly or easily, but if we “endure it well”, we will not grow testy while being tested.
I know I’m not saying anything y’all don’t already know, but Elder Maxwell was a treasure.
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.
(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:
We are children of the light Royal rulers of the day Saints, no prisoners of the night Trust and love will lead the way We are free
Dustin Kensure, as lead singer and songwriter for post-hardcore punk band Thrice, has a harder edge but similar sentiment in Image of the Invisible:
We’re more than carbon and chemicals We are the image of the invisible Free will is ours and we can’t let go We are the image of the invisible We can’t allow this, the quiet cull We are the image of the invisible
So we sing out this, our canticle We are the image of the invisible We all were lost now we are found No one can stop us or slow us down We are all named and we are all known We know that we’ll never walk alone
Josh Garrels, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t literally believe in Heavenly Mother, still sings about her as the personification of innocence alongside Heavenly Father in At the Table:
Wondering where I might begin I hear a voice upon the wind She’s singing faint but singing true “Son, there ain’t nothing you can do But listen close and follow me I’ll take you where you’re meant to be Just don’t lose faith.”
So I put my hand upon the plow Wipe the sweat up from my brow Plant the good seed along the way As I look forward to the day When at last I’ll see My father run to me singing, “Oh, my child.”
Come on home Home to me And I will hold you in my arms And joyful be
There will always, always be A place for you At my table Return to me
But my favorite of these songs is from Dustin Kensure, this time his acoustic solo album “Please, Come Home,” where he also dramatizes the story of the prodigal son.
And now you’ve hit bottom, all those open doors have shut And you’re hungry stomach’s tied in knots But I know what you’re thinking, that you troubled me enough Nothing could ever separate you from my love I still stand here waiting, with my eyes fixed on the road And I fight back tears and I wonder if you’re ever coming home
Don’t you know son that I love you And I don’t care where you’ve been Yes and I’ll be right here waiting, ’til you come around the bend And I’ll run to you and hold you close, won’t let go again So please come home, please come home
I wish I knew a way to tell everyone, to convince everyone, that these songs are about something true and real. That we are children of God. Of a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who want us to come home.
That’s what Sister Elaine L. Jack said with her talk, Identity of a Young Woman. First, she said something that I’ve really been thinking about a lot: “Even though I’m a grandmother, I need assurance that I am somebody. We all need to be reminded that we are daughters of a Heavenly Father.” I’m older than I used to be. Approaching middle age. In some ways I’m starting to feel that age, but the need to have guidance and an example and someone who says I am somebody: that hasn’t gone away. I suppose it never will.
Speaking of our divine identity, she said:
Have you ever been told you are just like your mother, or you have your father’s smile, or all of your family have the same color of eyes? The physical characteristics that we inherit from our parents are obvious. The spiritual characteristics we inherit from our heavenly parents have to be developed. You have been born with all the godlike gifts that Christ has. They are within you, but you have to choose to cultivate and develop them. Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen without our best efforts.
And when it comes to that most important message of all, perhaps, she reminds us: “God will never stop being our Father, but sometimes we turn away from being his children by not obeying his commandments or by showing disrespect for him.”
He doesn’t leave us. But, like the prodigal son and daughter, sometimes we leave him.
Happiness is found in finding our way back home again.
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.