This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
The Saturday afternoon session of the April 1972 General Conference had eight speakers. Yes, eight. And so it ended the way your local ward’s sacrament meeting might occasionally end, with the last couple of speakers tossing their prepared remarks when they got to the stand, bearing a quick testimony instead, and sitting down. For some reason, I found that adorable, especially the humility with which these leaders accepted the lack of time. Elder Howard W. Hunter simply said, “Observing the clock, I fold the notes that I have prepared and place them in my inside pocket,” and then he told a beautiful little anecdote about an adult bird teaching a baby bird how to catch a worm, taking less than 300 words in total.
This unassuming humility echoed the first talk of the session, President Hinckley’s What Will the Church Do for You, a Man? In the talk, he lists several benefits of active membership in the Church, specifically for the men:
- It will bring you into the greatest fraternity in the world.
- Active membership in the Church will motivate a man to clean up his life, if that is necessary.
- Activity in the Church will afford you growth through responsibility.
- Membership in the Church and active participation therein will give a new dimension to your life, a spiritual dimension that will become as a rock of faith, with an endowment of authority to speak in the name of God.
- It will assist you in the governance of your home.
- The Church makes it possible for you, a man, to bind to you for eternity those you love most..
It’s an interesting list in a couple of ways. First, several of the things that the Church will ostensibly “do for you” are actually things you have to do for others: “growth through responsibility,” “governance of your home,” and the rest are also things that generally fall under the heading of work, like cleaning up your life. What the Church provides, in short, is work.1
Something else? The General Authorities espouse the way things ought to be more than the way things are. The role of a prophet, first and foremost, is to reveal the gap between what we are and what we should be. This, as you can imagine, is a thankless job. But recognizing and even embracing the capacity to stare this gap in the face is recognized by some as an absolutely vital prerequisite to improvement.
The most prominent of these is Ira Glass (host of NPR’s This American Life), and one version of his account can be read here. The central quote, from Glass, is this:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
Glass is talking about art, but I believe it applies just as much to life in general. The only difference is that, in the context of an organized religion, you don’t just rely on your own personal taste as the guideline. Instead, you have authoritative sources—scripture and leaders—who work in conjunction with your conscience to highlight the gap between who you are and who you’d like to be.
This is hard. Very, very hard.
But, especially for Mormons, it is essential. We believe that the ultimate objective of our time here on Earth is to become more like God. That’s what discipleship means. It’s a lofty ambition, and it entails that, as an integral purpose of our life, we should seek out and collide with our own weaknesses like fault-seeking missiles. The higher the tolerance for recognizing our mistakes, the more we are able to work to ameliorate them.
Now, there is an absolutely vital role that Christ’s grace has to play in this, but that’s not my emphasis for today. Today, I just wanted to point out that as members of any organized religion and especially as Mormons, we face a compounded gap problem because we answer not only to our conscience (which is sort of like a sense of taste, but for the moral instead of the aesthetic sphere), but also to external guides.
Why did this come to mind for me in relation to this particular talk? From the first item on President Hinckley’s list. I’m an introvert with an ambiguous (at best) relationship to the idea of formal organizations and a personal history that, for uninteresting reasons, meant that I had essentially no Mormon friends for most of my life. It’s not just that I don’t feel that the Elder’s Quorum is “the greatest fraternity in the world.” It’s also that “the greatest fraternity in the world” doesn’t sound appealing to me in the first place. I had absolutely zero interest in joining one in college; why should I want to join one now?
I enjoy sacrament meeting. I enjoy Sunday school. I go to Elder’s Quorum because I’m told to go.2 I don’t really get it. And left, to my own devices, I never would.
People like to share conversion experiences all the time, and not just religious ones. The pattern is the same, “I thought I wouldn’t like it, but some external reason compelled me to try it, and now I love it!” Could be about being a Christian. Could also be about discovering your favorite TV show. The point is, people generally wait until after they have had their “ah-ha!” moment to share these stories.
Well, I’m sharing mine pre-emptively. Today, I don’t get it. One day, I believe I will. That’s true of this “greatest fraternity in the world,” but it’s true of a lot of other things as well. I’m confident, based on prior experience, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes more sense and has more to offer than I recognize at any point in time. That is, essentially, why I’m still here. Trying to serve. Hoping to grow.
- We Grow As We Serve by Nathaniel Givens
- What Manhood Is by G
- Your Heart’s Desire by Daniel Ortner
- Grace Merged with Works: Mormonism in Theory and Practice by Ralph Hancock
- What Has The Church Ever Done For Us? by Walker Wright
- Despised and Rejected by SilverRain
- He Kept The Door Open For Me by Jan Tolman