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:
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:
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.
One of my favorite themes in the Gospel (and life in general) is the celebration of the ordinary. A lot of the times the phrase I use is “finding the sacred in the mundane”, which is something that weaves a vibrant strain through Latter-day Saint thought. So I couldn’t help but notice that several of the talks from this session touched on this particular favorite of mine.
In An Ensign to the Nations, (then) Elder Hinckley cited President Lee quoting someone unknown that we should “Survey large fields and cultivate small ones.” President Hinckley explained:
My interpretation of that statement is that we ought to recognize something of the breadth and depth and height—grand and wonderful, large and all-encompassing—of the program of the Lord, and then work with diligence to meet our responsibility for our assigned portion of that program.
Each of us has a small field to cultivate. While so doing, we must never lose sight of the greater picture, the large composite of the divine destiny of this work. It was given us by God our Eternal Father, and each of us has a part to play in the weaving of its magnificent tapestry. Our individual contribution may be small, but it is not unimportant.
I have spent too many years of my life fretting about the scale of my contribution and who would notice it and congratulate me for it. The scriptures warn us not to lay up treasure on Earth, and I think most of the time we recognize this as a warning against materialism. (Things that thieves can steal or moths can destroy are physical things, after all.) That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. Status and recognition aren’t material, but they’re still worldly. They’re treasures of the Earth. And we need to give them up, too.
For as long as we refuse to let go we’ve basically got an IV dripping poison straight into our veins. Status-seeking is toxic. The only way to get more is to take it away from someone else. You’ll never have enough. What you do have, you’ll be afraid of losing. What you don’t have will fuel fires of jealousy and festering resentment.
It’s not enough to just renounce the things of the world and say you don’t care about them anymore. Practically speaking, I don’t think it’s possible to abandon one desire or care or concern without replacing it with something else. We can’t just stop caring about worldly status. We need something to replace it with.
For me, anyway, that’s what it means to cultivate a small field (my own, little mission here on Earth) while also keeping my eye on the large ones. The largest field is the Plan of Salvation, the whole big operation that started before the Sun started shining and will continue long after our star burns out. The small and mundane things I have to do from day to day–change diapers, show up for my day job, get the kids to do their chores–can all be seen as little tiny parts of the one, true big and sacred thing.
President Hinckley also stated that part of the whole big/little, sacred/mundane dichotomy is that the big project is communal.
If each of us does not do well that which is his or hers to do, then there is a flaw in the entire pattern. The whole tapestry is injured. But if each of us does well his or her part, then there is strength and beauty.
I liked another one of his quotes so much, that I shared it on Facebook when I first read it, and here it is:
While grubbing the sagebrush of these western valleys to lay the foundations for a commonwealth, while doing all of the many mundane things they were required to do to stay alive and grow, our forebears ever kept before them the grandeur of the great cause in which they were engaged. It is a work which we must do with the same vision they held. It is a work which will go on after we have left this scene. God help us to do our very best as servants, called under His divine will, to carry forward and build the kingdom with imperfect hands, united together to execute a perfect pattern.
This project of renouncing worldly status to play our part in the big plan reminds me of a lyric from one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs, “Wish You Were Here.”
So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell Blue skies from pain? Can you tell a green field From a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell? Did they get you to trade Your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange A walk-on part in the war For a leading role in a cage?
When we cultivate a small field, we’re taking on “a walk-on part”. But if we see the larger field that it’s a part of, then we realize that our walk-on part is in the real war. Contrasted, of course, with the passing worldly acclaim that is really nothing but a lead role in a cage.
Elder Oaks talk from the same session, Modern Pioneers, had a really similar vibe to President Hinckley’s, and it’s where I got the title for this post:
In every great cause there are leaders and followers. In the wagon trains, the leaders were “out in front where the air was clear and clean and where they had unbroken vision of the blue vault of heaven.” (J. Reuben Clark: Selected Papers, p. 69.) But, as President Clark observed, “Back in the last wagon, not always could they see the brethren way out in front and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of the dust of the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, sometimes almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the Restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.” (Ibid.)
Elder Oaks again:
There are hidden heroines and heroes among the Latter-day Saints—“those of the last wagon” whose fidelity to duty and devotion to righteousness go unnoticed by anyone except the One whose notice really matters.
I know that as long as I’m preoccupied with which wagon I’m in–closer to the front or closer to the back–my ego has not been fully subjugated. I think that’s one way of looking at the teaching that you have to lose your life to save it. Most of us most of the time feel like our ego is who we are. And letting that go–renouncing the go–feels like a kind of dying.
I know I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m living up to that commandment.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that frequently Americans can agree that an inequality exists, but then take opposite directions in how to resolve that inequality. One of the common ones is the notion that, when it comes to chastity, the popular perception is that women must all be chaste but that we make allowances for men to “sow their wild oats.”
This is unfair. Obviously. If advocates of traditional morality are saying that we should tolerate men sleeping around until they are ready to settle down, but say that woman can’t behave in the same way, then it’s a clear double standard. And, according to Hollywood, that’s exactly what traditionalists say: men can do what they want, but women have to be caste.
Is that really what traditional morality holds, though?
Absolutely not, and Elder Backman’s talk on chastity makes it clear that the Lord has never tolerated anything like that double standard. The talk on chastity was given in the priesthood session of General Conference, so obviously it’s geared towards men. In case that’s not clear enough, however, the title of the talk is: Chastity: The Source of True Manhood.
We need to sort of just take a moment to realize how diametrically opposed this is to the Hollywood stereotype of religious conservatives. Not only are we saying that everyone–male and female–has to follow the law of chastity, we’re saying that chastity (as opposed to the stereotypical alpha male with lots of sexual “conquests”) isn’t just incidental to being a good person, it’s specifically a part of being a real man.
So when the world’s idea of equality is for everyone to break the law of chastity equally, the Church’s position was and always has been for everyone to keep the law of chastity equally.
None of that really surprised me, as I was always taught and always believed that chastity was a law for everyone. But even I was surprised by the strength of some of the statements in this talk, such as “Sexual purity is… the foundation of all righteousness” and “chastity is the ultimate and perfect standard underlying all spiritual progression.”
I’ve heard lots of more progressive Latter-day Saints–especially some from Western Europe–sort of lament the “sex-obsessed” view (in their mind) of Americans. And yet I can’t help but contrast that with the pretty clear emphasis it gets in scripture.
And it really shouldn’t be surprising that commandments around sex are so integral to the Gospel, because regulating and controlling sex is so important for communities. When sex is practiced by committed, married, faithful couples the result is peace and stability for the children who come from the union and also peace and harmony between adults. So many issues of jealousy, regret, and anger just never arise in a community that is chaste.
I’m also reminded of N. T. Wright’s observation (I think this was from his recent biography of Paul, but I can’t find the citation at the moment) that there were basically two things that separated the early Christians from the pagans around them. The first was their care for the poor and sick and the second was their adherence to a strict code of sexual ethics. This was virtually unknown in the pagan world.
The emphatic moral teachings on this matter aren’t an unfortunate byproduct of American puritanism, they are an essential aspect of the Gospel that we have in common with the early Christians and every other dispensation of God-followers who have taken seriously the job of building Zion.
According to the modern narrative, the sexual revolution brought equality to the sexes. Maybe it did, in a fashion. But even if it did, it did so at the cost of essentially repudiating two thousand years of Christian moral teaching in a reversion to paganism that will benefit absolutely no one.
One of the things we learned in science is that nature abhors a vacuum… Something similar is true of philosophies and worldviews. They abhor a vacuum. You can push God or the gods upstairs out of sight like an elderly embarrassing relative, but history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place. These other gods are not strangers. The ancient world knew them well. Just to name the three most obvious there are Mars the God of War, Mammon the God of money, and Aphrodite the goddess of erotic love. One of the fascinating things about modern western ideas have been the work of the masters of suspicion Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud claiming to reveal the motives that lie hidden beneath the outwardly smooth and comprehensible service of the modern world. It is all about power declared Nietzsche. Everything comes down to money, said Marx. It’s all about sex, said Freud. In each case these were seen as forces or drives that were there whether we liked it or not. We might imagine we are free to choose, but in fact we are the blind servants of these impulses. Take them in reverse order. It’s hard to imagine now way things were in the 1950s when I was a child. There was more or less no pornography. The great majority of married couples stayed married… No doubt a great deal of what was seen as illicit sexual activity went on below the radar, but a broadly Judeo-Christian moral stance was assumed in society which meant, importantly for the story I’m telling, that most people felt at least some pressure to resist impulses that left to themselves would move in a very different direction. But when Freud became popular, filtering down into mainstream culture from novels and plays, people began to speak of the erotic impulse often called the the life force just as they might before have spoken of the divine command. One should not resist. It would be hypocritical and wrong. I don’t think people now speak reverently about the life force in the way they did. It’s just assumed. The late Christopher Hitchens, another high priest of contemporary atheism, said that one should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television or to have sex. The goddess Aphrodite, even if unnamed, is served by millions.
A couple of the talks from this session had a very clear, unified theme: Love. In fact, that was the title of Elder W. Eugene Hansen’s talk, just: Love. He started off by citing Elder Tamage, who explained that the first two great commandments–to love God and to love your neighbor– “are so closely related as to be virtually one: … ‘Thou shalt love.’ He who abideth one of the two will abide both; for without love for our fellows, it is impossible to please God.”
Elder Hansen specified that, by love, he meant not some kind of abstract fuzzy feeling towards groups of people or even all people as an undifferentiated mass, but “our individual relationships with one another.”
He went on to recommend ordinary, everyday kindness as the expression of that love:
[B]e considerate. Be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, always careful not to demean or belittle by either word or act. Be encouraging, uplifting, careful not to break down a person’s confidence. It was my experience even in the legal profession—combative as it can sometimes be—that there was still much room to show consideration and respect.
There was also one story in the talk that I really enjoyed, which was about a widow who had a lot of needy small children to take care of. In the story, someone asked her which one of her numerous kids she loved best. Kind of a stupid question, in a way, but it nicely sets up a beautiful answer:
I loved most the one who was sick until she was better. I loved most the one who was away until he returned. I loved most the one who was failing until he succeeded. I loved most the one who was sad until she was happy.
Elder Holland talked about love, too. Specifically, about the love of Jesus Christ for His disciples on the brink of his final sacrifice: “He Loved Them unto the End.” The talk contains a quote that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more than once over the years:
Life has its share of some fear and some failure. Sometimes things fall short, don’t quite measure up. Sometimes in both personal and public life, we are seemingly left without strength to go on. Sometimes people fail us, or economies and circumstance fail us, and life with its hardship and heartache can leave us feeling very alone.
But when such difficult moments come to us, I testify that there is one thing which will never, ever fail us. One thing alone will stand the test of all time, of all tribulation, all trouble, and all transgression. One thing only never faileth—and that is the pure love of Christ.
Elder Holland’s talk provides a perfect segue from the concept of love to that of hardship, which lets me sneak in a few more quotes from a third talk. In Overcoming Adversity, Elder Carlos Amado said:
[T]here are tragedies that are so difficult we cannot understand them. We do not have an answer in this life for every adversity. When trials come, it is time to turn our souls to God, who is the author of life and the only source of comfort.
Those who suffer great adversity and sorrow and go on to serve their fellowmen develop a great capacity to understand others. Like the prophets, they have acquired a higher understanding of the mind and will of Christ.
For some, the true trial of our faith is to remain faithful, without murmuring against the Lord, when we lose earthly position, family members, or even when we are required to give our very lives.
Although the word “love” doesn’t appear in any of these three quotes, the concept is there in all of them. In the first, it is God’s love for us that makes turning our souls to him in times of trial meaningful and comforting. In the second, sacrifice and pain expand our ability to empathize with and love our neighbor. And in the third, the last and greatest trial is also the highest form of love: to lay down our lives for someone else.
I’ll close out with a long quote from one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. The song is “For Miles” from the band Thrice. (The title, I’m pretty sure, refers to the “miles” that you would walk with someone when they compel you to go one and you willingly go the second.) Here they are:
I know one day, all our scars will disappear, like the stars at dawn And all of our pain, will fade away when morning comes And on that day when we look backwards We will see, that everything is changed And all of our trials, will be as milestones on the way
And as long as we live, every scar is a bridge to someone’s broken heart And there’s no greater love, than that one [who’ll] shed his blood for his friends
On that day all of the scales will swing to set all the wrongs to right All our tears, and all of our fears will take to flight But until then all of our scars will still remain, but we’ve learned that if we’ll Open the wounds and share them then soon they start to heal
The song is here, but fair warning: this is post-punk hardcore screamo. I love it, but it might not be your scene. In that case, just enjoy the printed lyrics.
I enjoyed Elder Faust’s and Elder Packer’s talks, and especially the two of them together. In Continuous Revelation, Elder Faust pointed out that “over the centuries revelation from prophets has come incrementally” and that “much of it is not spectacular.” He also cited President John Taylor, who said:
Adam’s revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah’s revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I read these kinds of comments as gentle concessions, almost. Joseph Smith produced revelations like water coming from a firehose, and it’s hard for me not to feel a little disappointed that revelations have seemed to come so sparsely from the prophets who have succeeded him. I need these little reminders that Joseph Smith is a special case, and not the baseline. (I also feel as though the pace of revelation has quickened under President Nelson, although that might just be because I’m paying more attention in recent years.)
Elder Faust had a couple more interesting things to say. On the stern side, he said:
I do not believe members of this church can be in full harmony with the Savior without sustaining his living prophet on the earth, the President of the Church. If we do not sustain the living prophet, whoever he may be, we die spiritually. Ironically, some have died spiritually by exclusively following prophets who have long been dead. Others equivocate in their support of living prophets, trying to lift themselves up by putting down the living prophets, however subtly.
It’s interesting to me that in the same talk he also cited Brigham Young’s famous fear about the Saints relying too much on prophets:
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.
This is such an interesting tension to me! Tensions like this have long been the most compelling parts of the Restored Gospel, and have shaped much of how I view my faith. We come to Earth to grow. Growth is always accompanied by stress, strain, and discomfort. These two injunctions aren’t actually contradictory–we can sustain the prophets and think for ourselves at the same time–but they definitely pull in different directions. They subject us to stress, strain, and a little mental and spiritual discomfort. Not everything that is uncomfortable is related to beneficial growth. Sometimes we just stub our toe and it hurts for no profound reason.
But when I see commandments that deliberately pull us into tension, I think: yes, that’s the point. That’s where the growth comes from.
Elder Packer’s talk, Revelation in a Changing World, was a good companion to Elder Faust’s. He picked up a similar theme of downplaying the drama surrounding revelation, saying specifically that:
The patterns of revelation are not dramatic. The voice of inspiration is a still voice, a small voice. There need be no trance, no sanctimonious declaration. It is quieter and simpler than that.
He also said something so surprising to me that I shared it immediately on Facebook (I do that with a lot of interesting quotes). It was:
Things of the Spirit need not—indeed, should not—require our uninterrupted time and attention. Ordinary work-a-day things occupy most of our attention. And that is as it should be. We are mortal beings living in this physical world.
Spiritual things are like leavening. By measure they may be very small, but by influence they affect all that we do.
This is an important point for those of us seeking to live lives of sincere discipleship and consecration… but also trying to navigate our day jobs so that our family can eat. It resonates with another of my favorite religious themes: that the sacred and the mundane can coexist.
I still remember a tense argument I had when I was studying a traditional martial art in high school. Most of the students were much older, and I got into an argument with one of them in a long car ride back from a teaching session in D.C. because I made the statement that all experiences could be spiritual if we had the right mindset, and he thought that was stupid. More than two decades later, I think I had that one right.
Of course it’s important to go to sacred spaces and seek special, separate sacred experiences, but if we’re living our lives right, we’re also going to find spiritual experiences in unexpected, ordinary moments of day-to-day living. Especially in our homes and with our families. Sacred experiences don’t have to take place in special times and places. They can–and do, for those who are keeping an eye out–happen in the most ordinary circumstances imaginable: giving you kids a bath, sitting down to a meal with family, drifting off to sleep in the knowledge that those you love most are all quietly slumbering under the same roof. These are the most profound experiences a human can have.
I found most of the talks really interesting and relevant this session, beginning with Elder Nelson’s talk, The Canker of Contention. Much of it was familiar territory, especially in the importance of standing for truth without being contentious, but a couple of points surprised me. It’s important to pay attention to the details of the talks, because sometimes you think you know what they’re going to say, but they say something slightly different. The difference between hearing you expect–or even: hearing what you want to hear–and hearing what is actually being said is found in careful reading.
So, for example, Elder Nelson said that “the family has been under attack ever since Satan first taunted Adam and Eve,” and as someone steeped in the culture wars of the 21st century when I hear “family under attack” I think of the progressive cultural elements that devalue traditional families. While that certainly applies, Elder Nelson’s next sentence shows that it’s not what he was talking about. He went on: “So today, each must guard against the hazard of contention in the family.” (emphasis added)
He wasn’t talking about outside attacks on the family, but the danger of contention between spouses and between siblings and between parents and children within the family. I nearly missed that.
I also found the quote from Thomas B. Marsh that “If there are any among this people who should ever apostatize and do as I have done, prepare your backs for a good whipping, if you are such as the Lord loves.” Although it’s really just a restatement of familiar verses like Hebrews 12:6 (“whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth”) and Revelations 3:19 (“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten”), hearing it phrased this way definitely got me to see the sentiment anew. And I’ve got to say, I’ve gone through this experience a few times in the past couple of months–albeit on a smaller scale than Brother Marsh–and I echo his sentiments. The Lord has shown me things that I’ve been doing wrong for a long, long time and made me realize how much I need to repent. I felt chastened. I felt ashamed. I felt sorry. But I also felt noticed and respected and loved.
This brings me to the talk that really grabbed my attention the most, which was Elder Bushe’s University for Eternal Life. I’m still mulling over the talk, but here’s the part of the talk that grabbed my attention the most:
It seems that we can only effectively go through the process of continuous repentance if we literally learn to become our own judges. We ourselves and the Lord are the only ones who really know us. We do not even know ourselves unless we have learned to walk the lonely and most challenging road toward self-honesty, as constantly prompted by the Spirit.
This is the sacrifice we have to learn to offer. Nobody will ever be able to understand or even to accept principles of truth unless he or she, to some degree, has developed a painful awareness of the dimensions of self-honesty. Without the capability to recognize truth, we will not be really free: we will be slaves to habits or prejudices heavily covered with excuses. But learning to become aware of the depth of the dimensions of truth will make us free. We cannot remove a stumbling block unless we see it first. We cannot grow unless we know what is holding us back.
There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and I’m not going to try to that job at the moment. I’m just sharing a passage that I know I’ll be thinking and pondering as I try to work my way through it.
Certainly, in our own little sphere it is not the most active people to whom we owe the most. Among the common people whom we know, it is not necessarily those who are busiest, not those who, meteor-like, are ever on the rush after some visible charge and work. It is the lives, like the stars, which simply pour down on us the calm light of their bright and faithful being, up to which we look and out of which we gather the deepest calm and courage. It seems to me that there is reassurance here for many of us who seem to have no chance for active usefulness. We can do nothing for our fellow-men. But still it is good to know that we can be something for them; to know (and this we may know surely) that no man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, pure, and good, without the world being better for it, without somebody being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.
I loved this quote so much I looked up the original author (not mentioned by name in Sister Evans’ talk). It’s from Phillips Brooks who (via Wikipedia) was “an American Episcopal clergyman and author, long the Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, and particularly remembered as lyricist of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.”
So that brings us to the end of the April 1989 General Conference. I definitely learned a lot from the talks in this Conference, and I’m looking forward to starting in on the October 1989 General Conference for next week.