Big and Small Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other pieces from this week’s General Conference Odyssey:

Children of the Light, Please Come Home

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 249th week, and we’re covering the General Women’s session of the October 1989 General Conference

Several of my favorite songs have a common theme. They proclaim the worth of us all as children of God and heirs with Christ.

Lecrae, in Children of the Light, sings:

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.

Other posts from this week:

Closed Lips; Open Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as Elder Maxwell put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other entries from this week:

Back in the Last Wagon

Image from Bureau of Land Management.

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 246th week, and we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the October 1989 General Conference

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.

Chastity is for Everyone

The Triumphs of Love, Chastity, and Death by Franceso Pesellino (~1450 AD)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 246th week, and we’re covering the priesthood  session of the October 1989 General Conference

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.

– N. T. Wright in “Surprised by Scripture”

The Two Great Commandments as One

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 245th week, and we’re covering the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1989 General Conference

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.

Revelation: Two Talks with Two Themes

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 244th week, and we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the October 1989 General Conference. 

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.

Become Your Own Judges

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday afternoon session of the April 1989 General Conference

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.

I found another great quote in talk by Sister Joy Evans: “Lord, When Saw We Thee An Hungered“:

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.

Nuclear and Kindred Families

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the April 1989 General Conference

I remember being taught about the “nuclear family” sometime in middle school, although I don’t remember the context at all. As near as I can tell (some Googling, a little memory, and this Quora article), the etymology of the word is the same as the “nuclear” in “nuclear fusion” or “nuclear reactor”:

‘nuclear family’ = father+mother+children

The adjective nuclear in this phrase is actually one and the same as the one used in ‘nuclear fission’ or ‘nuclear reactor’. It is derived from the latin word nucleus, a [diminutive] form of the original word, nux.

Nux literally means ‘a nut’, but was also figuratively used to signify ‘the core of something’.

nux = nut, core

nucleus = a small nut, a small core

nuclear = pertaining to a small core

I know that there are sociologists and anthropologists and historians who could go into a lot more detail than I’m about to, but there’s a central point that I think it’s important for Latter-day Saints to make: and this is that there is a problem with the “nuclear family”. It’s not the preferred family unit for Latter-day Saints. It’s only a part of it.

In this session, Elder Richard. J. Clarke spoke about that directly, advocating for a slightly different family arrangement he called “kindred family”:

In earliest biblical culture, the family was more than a parent and child unit. It included all who were related by blood and marriage. This kindred family, as I prefer to call it, was strongly linked by natural affection and the patriarchal priesthood. The elderly were venerated for their experience and wisdom. There were strength and safety in numbers, and, through love and support, members established solidarity and continuity.

Clarke’s “kindred family” corresponds to what we generally refer to as the “extended family“. In one sense, the kindred/extended family isn’t an alternative or competitor to the nuclear family, but rather a partner / addition to it. (It’s right in the name: an extended family is an extension of the nuclear family).

But there is a sense in which the two models are in competition. The nuclear family rose to prominence in the United States in the 1950s, which was a period of huge social mobility and economic opportunity (at least, for white Americans). Starting at that point and continuing to today, Americans are in the habit of migrating around for work, and they don’t do it in extended family units anymore (as they might have when heading for the frontier) but in nuclear families. Mom and dad get married, move to a new city for a job, and the kids come with them. Grandma, grandpa, and cousins are left behind or scattered to their own cities.

In this sense, the nuclear family is a competing model to the extended / kindred family. And in this sense, it makes sense to criticize the nuclear family as a kind of dirty compromise with consumerist society. 

All societies compete for status, and all variants of this competition are sinful. (Elder Maxwell briefly touched on this in his own talk from this session.) In the West in general and the United States in particular, consumerism is the kind of status-seeking that we’re infected with. It revolves around not only amassing and acquiring physical goods (which, again, is a universal part of all human societies) but the particular ways in which we’ve ritualized consumption. This might all sound a little abstract, so just picture the hordes of people who might wait in line for days to get the newest iPhone and you might see what I’m getting at it. All societies want to collect more stuff, but consumerist societies have brands (as another example). 

Well, the nuclear family is a lot more mobile than extended families, and that serves the interests of corporations who want to be able to move their workforce fairly rapidly in response to changing legal and economic considerations. The “single-family home”, the suburbs, all of it is good in the sense in which having a mother and father stay with their children is vital and the nuclear family really is the core of the extended / kindred family. But it’s bad in the sense that it separates nuclear families from each other so that cousins don’t grow up knowing and playing with each other and adult children are not more able to benefit from the guidance of their elders and in turn support infirm parents in the last years of their lives. That’s sort of the darkest side of all of this: since sons and daughters move far away from their parents, they have to outsource their care to specialized facilities.

So some critiques of the nuclear family are compatible with and even inspired by the Gospel. The nuclear family should not be allowed to become an enemy to kindred families. To tribes and clans. 

But of course most criticisms of the nuclear family come from a different direction. Instead of embracing the blood bonds typified by parents and children and then extended to cousins and grandchildren and grandparents, they look for alternatives that invalidate kindred bonds entirely. It’s a staple of modern entertainment that family isn’t the blood relations you’re born with, but rather the eclectic bunch of people you really like and choose for yourself. And of course all extreme political ideologies view the family as a threat, since loyalty to kindred is a competitor for loyalty to the state. 

Criticisms of the nuclear family that denigrate or replace parent-child bonds are destructive and wrong. Criticisms of the nuclear family that laud and augment parent-child bonds are constructive and, in at least some cases, correct.

As in so many things, it’s really a question of balance. There are nuclear families, extended families, nations and ethnicities (extended extended families) and, ultimately, one entire human family. In the Gospel, all of these levels of family work together, from the nuclear family to the human family. We should beware of alternatives that work to exaggerate particular levels of this hierarchy in ways that turn God’s children against each other. The consumerist advocacy of nuclear families against extended families is a subtle example of perverting the concept of family. The racist advocacy of extended extended families (ethnicities) against a universal human family is an obvious example. 

I wrote this piece because I know Latter-day Saints have a reflexive defensiveness whenever anyone critiques the nuclear family, and I wanted to put that defensiveness (which is usually well-founded, since the most common attacks undermine rather than build up kin relationships) in context.  

Although I’m not an expert, talks like this help guide me through some of the complexities of modern life. There are an awful lot of voices saying an awful lot of things, and it’s easy to become distracted or dismayed. We are at risk of letting go of true principles because we are tricked by an imitation good, and we’re also at risk of holding on too tightly to principles that aren’t quite right because we’re afraid of any change from what is familiar.

The only way through the tangled mess is to focus on the fundamentals–scripture study and prayer, in particular–and also to pay very, very close attention to the teachings of our leaders. Heavenly Father could lead us all individually, but His plan involves groups like families and churches because the journey back to Him is not one that we can complete alone. We have to do it together. As communities. As families. That’s one reason we have leaders, and–as long as we have them–we sure better pay attention to them.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week we’re covering the priesthood session of the April 1989 General Conference

When I read Elder Scott’s talk, Trust in the Lord, and got the part where he said, “I repeat: Don’t face the world alone. Trust in the Lord,” I knew what the title of this post was going to be. For those not in the know (and I had to Google to confirm I remembered the details right), the “It’s dangerous to go alone!” meme is from the 1986 NES video game The Legend of Zelda. Good advice for young heroes setting off to rescue princesses. Even better advice for all of us, and that’s never felt more universally relevant than in 2020. I mean, things are crazy, right? Crazy.

It’s important to have a clear-eyed view of the dangers that we face, but it’s also important not to let ourselves ever be overwhelmed or cowed by the darkness. Things are crazy, but we’re not alone. That’s the message of one of my favorite songs, Image of the Invisible by Thrice.

The chorus is impossible for me not to shout/sing along with:

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

Not only is it important to keep fear at bay when we think about the confusing difficulties that surround us, but it’s also important to realize that the difficulty of this world is by design. That’s a major theme–perhaps the major theme–of the series of posts I’ve been writing for Public Square (starting with this one). And it’s exactly what Elder Scott reminded us in his talk:

In many ways, the world is like a jungle, with dangers that can harm or mutilate your body, enslave or destroy your mind, or decimate your morality. It was intended that life be a challenge, not so that you would fail, but that you might succeed through overcoming.

Two other quotes from Elder Scott’s talk really stood out to me. The first is a dose of tough love.

Has one of you ever had the feeling you are walking alone down a dark tunnel that gets ever more depressing? No one seems to care? Life gets more and more complicated, and discouraging? You may have been following a path many others have trod. It often begins with self-pity, then self-indulgence, and, if not checked, leads to gross selfishness.

Unless overcome by serving others, selfishness leads to serious sin, with its depressing feelings and binding chains. It is the crowbar Satan uses to open a heart to temptation in order to destroy agency. He would bind mind and body through crippling habits and separate us from our Father in Heaven and His Son by cultivating selfishness.

If you have had such feelings of depression, turn around—literally turn your life around. The other end of the tunnel is filled with light. No matter where you have been or what you have done, that light is always available to you. Satan will try to convince you that you have gone too far to be saved. That is a lie. You will need some help to get started. The scriptures are a good place to begin. A father, mother, brother, sister, bishop, or friend will help. As you move nearer the light through repentance, you will feel better about yourself and more confident in your future. You will rediscover how wonderful life really is.

The second is a practical reminder to focus on doing the little things consistently right so that–when unplanned crises strike–you will be ready.

Getting through the hazards of life requires understanding, skill, experience, and self-assurance like that required to sink a difficult basket under pressure. In the game of life, that is called righteous character. Such character is not developed in moments of great challenge or temptation. That is when it is used. Character is woven quietly from the threads of hundreds of correct decisions (like practice sessions). When strengthened by obedience and worthy acts, correct decisions form a fabric of character that brings victory in time of great need.

Righteous character provides the foundation of spiritual strength that enables you to make difficult, extremely important decisions correctly when they seem overpowering.

I got a lot out of this talk, and so I’m going to leave it here. 

After all, I’ve got to get to work redoubling my efforts to apply this council in my life.