Snapshots from a Priesthood Session

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

From Elder Paramore’s talk, I liked this story:

I am grateful for my wife. I would like to tell you a little story. I have been to three or four thousand meetings, I guess, in the last twenty-five years; and every one of those times she has sustained me—except for one. When I was off to a Sunday School meeting one night, she asked, “Will you be home early?” I said, “Yes, I’ll be home at 10:30.” Eleven o’clock and 11:30 came, and I wasn’t home. When I finally came home, I walked up to the door to walk in as usual, and it was locked. I rang the doorbell—and no answer. So I knocked on the door, and finally she came. She said, “I’m not going to let you in.”

I said, “Oh, come on.”

And she said, “No, it’s one time too many.”

In those days we had a Nash Rambler with a front seat that made out into a bed (but it was in the middle of winter). So I took my overcoat and went out into the car and rolled back the seat, and went to bed.

After a little while I could hear the front door open, and my wife came out to the car and asked me to come in. I told her I didn’t think I would. It was so cold I finally did.

Good intentions, obedience, and righteousness are not a pass on the ordinary difficulties of relationships. Good to keep in mind. We always expect religion to make life easier. It doesn’t. It makes life better. I don’t think I’ll ever really, truly learn that distinction. I just have to keep reminding myself.

From Elder Tanner’s talk:

Some people ask the reason for an organized church. They feel they can work out their salvation alone, and that there is no need to attend church meetings or fill other requirements as long as they are honest and honorable and do good to their fellowmen. But the Lord has given us instructions that we should belong to a church; and this, his church, has the same organization that Jesus Christ himself established while he was on the earth. We have many explicit declarations from the Lord that make this clear, and also that we need to encourage and help one another.

You might have expected an explanation of why we need to have an organized church. I did. But there really isn’t one. There is just an explanation that we need to have an organized church because Jesus said so. God reveals the what more often and sooner than the why. Another good thing to keep in mind, when it comes to keeping our expectations in tune.

And finally from President Kimball’s concluding talk:

Let me mention one more thing. While we are in the mortal body we cannot “fashion kingdoms [or] organize matter, for [that is] beyond our capacity and calling, beyond this world. In the resurrection, men who have been faithful and diligent in all things in the flesh, [who] have kept their first and second estate, and [are] worthy to be crowned Gods, even the sons of God, will be ordained to organize matter. How much matter do you suppose there is between here and some of the fixed stars which we can see? Enough to frame many, very many millions of such earths as this, yet it is now so diffused, clear and pure, that we look through it and behold the stars. Yet the matter is there. Can you form any conception of this? Can you form any idea of the minuteness of matter?” (JD, 15:137).

So, was Brigham Young presciently predicting the existence of dark matter? Or is that just an attempt to retcon his words?  Hard to say, or rather: I’d better not try to say without much more context and historical awareness than I actually possess. I’ll just quote President Kimball’s next words:

Can you realize even slightly how relatively little we know?

That sentiment is almost always a wise one. And—more than a habitual regard for intellectual humility—I like the practical implications of a religion that has a lot to look forward to. Much as Mormons do believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “one, true church”, we also very much believe it’s a work in progress with more to come.

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Silence During the Sacrament

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

We have lost the art of fine distinctions, of exceptions, and of subtlety. We live in a world of brutally simplistic extremes. And the funny thing is, a lot of us think that these are the days of nuance and sophistication. So, here’s what a reactionary, ultra-conservative Mormonism had to say about family structure in the 1970s:

Families usually consist of a father, mother, and children, but this is not always the case. Sometimes there is not a mother or a father, and sometimes no children. Often there is one person living alone. In years gone by, our family was larger, but now it consists of only two.

There is no reasonable doubt that Elder Hunter had in mind a single archetype of the family: mom, dad, kids. There is also not reasonable doubt that he well understood that gap between the Platonic ideal of the Family and the mortal reality of families.

Back then, we could walk and chew gum at the same time, apparently. I miss those days. For an example, here is a paragraph-sized sermon from the same talk:

There was quiet meditation, the silence broken only by the voice of a tiny babe whose mother quickly held him close. Anything that breaks the silence during this sacred ordinance seems out of place; but surely the sound of a little one would not displease the Lord. He, too, had been cradled by a loving mother at the beginning of a mortal life that commenced in Bethlehem and ended on the cross of Calvary.

The capacity to understand a general principle—that we should be quiet during the Sacrament—and also fully appreciate a valid exception to it—a baby’s cries—without detracting either from the generality of the principle or the validity of the exception is a capacity that is very much felt through its absence.

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Integrity of our Leaders

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

As I read the General Conference talks, there are a couple of pet issues I keep in the back of my mind that I’m interested in learning more about. One of those, and this might be a little bit of an odd one, is the question of how Mormons should vote. I have a hunch that we worry more than we should about politics and ideology and not nearly enough about the character of our leaders.

I get that it’s not easy to get an accurate feel for a person’s moral character from afar. It’s not like we know public figures the way we know the people of our daily lives.  But then again, we don’t always know the people in our daily lives as well as we think we do either.

So, while an accurate assessment of a politician’s moral character might be impossible on a case-by-case basis, I do think that we ought to have pretty high standards for the behavior of our elected officials, and be extremely unforgiving when they fail to live up to those standards. Forgiveness is great for the people in your lives, but turning a blind eye to corruption in our leaders does nothing but foster a corrupt environment that brings out the worst in the people who have the most power.

At least, that’s the hunch. And I feel like it’s something I’ve picked up from Mormon leaders. Is it? Well, yeah. My list of quotes to support this notion keeps growing as I read these talks, and Elder Tanner provided yet another one in his talk from the Saturday morning session of this General Conference:

We need to be governed by men and women who are undivided in honorable purpose, whose votes and decisions are not for sale to the highest bidder. We need as our elected and appointed officials those whose characters are unsullied, whose lives are morally clean and open, who are not devious, selfish, or weak. We need men and women of courage and honest convictions, who will stand always ready to be counted for their integrity and not compromise for expediency, lust for power, or greed; and we need a people who will appreciate and support representatives of this caliber.

Being cynical about the moral caliber of our leaders is trite and counterproductive. Accurately gauging moral caliber from afar might be hard, but expressing intolerance at the voting box for outright corruption isn’t nearly as difficult. We can do that. And we should do that.

The reality is that a lot of the questions people fight about the most are extremely difficult policy questions where the answer is unclear and about which good people can disagree. I think we have a lot of room for mistakes and errors and experiments in most of our policies.

But I don’t think we have anywhere near as much room for error when it comes to the quality of our leaders.

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Some Thoughts on Culture and Doctrine

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

One of the most distinctive elements of Mormonism is food storage. It’s not going to be at the very tip-top of anyone’s list of “What do you think about when you think about Mormons?” but it’s still up there. If we were playing Family Feud, it wouldn’t be the #1 survey response, but it would be on the board.
This is kind of funny when you contrast it with what the Church actually teaches about welfare. Here’s a quote from Elder Brown’s talk:

May I remind you of the six elements of personal and family preparedness, all of which should be taught.

They are: first, literacy and education; second, career development; third, financial and resource management; fourth, home production and storage; fifth, physical health; and sixth, social-emotional strength.

It’s so interesting to me that the stuff everyone thinks about first–food storage and practical self-reliance–is actually fourth on this list, and only one item out of six.
This is one of the reasons it’s so important to pay attention to General Conference every spring and fall, and why it’s beneficial to go back and read through these old ones: because what we think the message is and what the message really turns out to be are not always the same. The messages, priorities, and narratives we absorb from our social network have all been through many, many rounds of telephone.

If we want to get the information from the source, we need to listen to what the General Authorities tell us themselves, and we need to come to that with a willingness to revisit our preconceptions, assumptions, and paradigms to actually really hear that they’re trying to tell us.

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The Best Spear Carrier Ever

Atlas V Ignition (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I liked Elder Simpson’s talk on The Lord’s Support System. He starts with an analogy about how a multil-billion-dollar space mission can be held up by something as trivial as a flaw in a thirty-cent part.

Just as space probes depend upon tens of thousands of other lesser components in their so-called support system, so does the Lord depend upon tens of thousands in His support system, that His ultimate objective of blessing the lives of people and qualifying them for eternal life might be accomplished on schedule.

He also uses an analogy of life being like a school drama where there are only a few starring roles to go around. For the rest of us? We’re the spear carriers. But then comes this interesting paragraph:

There could be many surprises in the hereafter as we look up ahead and exclaim in our amazement, “But he was only a home teacher.” You know and I know that if he was the kind of home teacher that the handbook talks about and if he lived worthily, that man could likely stand eligible to inherit all that the Father has. And there is no greater blessing than that.

I remember one day in high school when I happened to be standing at a friend’s open locker and noticed she had taped up a black-and-white photo of several male models. (I think it was a cologne ad or a jeans ad or something.) I stared absently at the models for a minute or two, wondering if I’d ever be as good-looking as they were. In theory, I figured I could have muscles as toned as them if I really worked at it. But when it came to their faces? Not really anything I could do in that department. I’m not a bad-looking guy (if I do say so myself), but I’m not a model either and it occurred to me for the first time then that that was never going to change. They say you can be anything you want when you grow up, but it’s not true.

I’ve had a few experiences like that since then, for example in playing competitive sports with people who are simply not in my league, where no matter how hard I try I not only couldn’t win; I couldn’t even make it a challenge. I’ve met people who are so smart, that it takes everything I’ve got just to recognize their intelligence. Here’s the reality: I’m never going to be that good looking, that strong, or that smart. I’m just not.

I suppose that could be depressing, but I’m not really depressed by it at all. For a variety of reasons. But here’s the one that’s relevant: I’ve come to honestly believe that the only kind of excellence that matters is excellence relative to your talents and opportunities. I’ve come to believe it doesn’t matter at all—not even a tiny bit—what you end up with. It only matters what you did with what you started with.

I do have a collection of real talents: things I’m good at, opportunities I inherited from my parents, and so on. My goal in this life is make the most out of them that I can and to do so in the service of God and my fellow humans. If—God willing—I succeed then I will have achieved the only measure of success that really matters.

So, in a way, I kind of reject the analogy of the spear carriers and the thirty-cent transistors inside of rockets or satellites. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good analogy. It’s just not quite far enough. What I’m saying is that in God’s view a thirty-cent transistor isn’t valuable because the billion-dollar space telescope can’t work without it (or whatever). That’s an instrumental theory of value, albeit implicitly. What I’m saying is that if the thirty-cent transistor is the best thirty-cent transistor that it can be, then it’s worth exactly the same as the billion-dollar space telescope without caveat or qualification. Not because it enables the space telescope, but because all that matters is being excellent relative to our opportunities and privileges. Nothing else counts.

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The Shadow of Godhood

Detail of the lectern in Durham Cathedral, dating from the late 19th century, and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It depicts ‘a pelican in her piety’ – in other words, piercing her breast to feed her young with her own blood.
© Michael Sadgrove

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

This story comes from Elder Russell Ballard, Jr’s talk, The Making of a Missionary:

Shortly after we arrived in Toronto we were preparing the children to enroll in their schools. My five-year-old son was to start kindergarten, but on the first day he was afraid to go. My wife and I were concerned, and I was impressed to invite my son to come into my office and sit in what the missionaries call the “hot seat,” and we would have an interview.

He climbed up into the big black chair, and I asked, “Son, how can I help you?”

I shall never forget as long as I live the look of real concern on his face. With his little chin quivering, he said, “Daddy, I am afraid.”

I understood, for I knew he had left behind several friends of his same age, and so far he had found no one his age near the mission home. I said, “Craig, you have a friend that will always be with you. Let’s kneel down together and ask Him to help you.” We did, and Craig assigned me to say the prayer.

The Lord helped Craig find his courage in this experience. Every morning thereafter we held our interview, and every morning I was assigned to pray.

Then one morning, about two weeks later, there came no knock at my office door—no special father-and-son prayer. He had found his confidence and made some friends, and I was the one that missed that very special experience each morning with my little boy. I hope that this choice learning experience while on this mission will remain with Craig and become a source of strength to him when he is called to serve the Lord on a mission of his own.

There is another story that I would also like to share. It is the story of how the pelican became a symbol of the Christian faith.

The belief probably came about because of the pelican’s red-tipped beak and very white feathers, and because long-beaked birds such as the pelican are often to be found standing with their beaks resting on their breasts.

Because of the red-tipped beak, people believed that pelicans pierced their own chests and fed their own blood to their young. A gruesome belief? Perhaps, but not as gruesome as Christ’s teaching that “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.”

The story about pelicans feeding their blood to their offspring is mistaken, but the lesson is not. What Elder Ballard could have said ta the end of his story is this: the highest and deepest act of parenthood is to break our hearts and feed the pieces to our children. When we are doing our best, we are giving our lives—one tiny piece at a time—so that they can live, and we do not count the cost. Our greatest sacrifice is our joy.

We cannot understand what is to be God. But, as parents who strive to protect and nurture our children until they don’t need us anymore, we see the shadow cast by Godhood.

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Consistent Warnings

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In his talk, Ready to Work Long Hours, Elder Tanner cited an address to BYU by Dr. John A Howard contrasting the challenges faced by the pioneers with the challenges facing todays Saints:

The work that faces your generation is no less arduous. The deserts you must bring to blossom are no less arid, but your mission may demand even more of you, for unlike the early pioneers of this state you are confronted by a wilderness which is subtle and fluid and elusive. Indeed the wilderness which you must conquer is disguised as a civilization so that there is the double necessity to unmask the deceit, to distinguish between what is authentic and what is counterfeit, and to labor to support the one and oppose the other.

Later on in the talk, Elder Tanner explained the three worst components of the danger Dr. Howard referred to:

First, failure to keep the Sabbath day holy; second, breaking the Word of Wisdom: third, unchastity. There are many others.

I don’t hear as much about Word of Wisdom violations from the pulpit today as was common during General Conferences of the 1970s, but there is no doubt that it remains one of the greatest crises facing our nation. From a Vox article that came out today:

The scale of America’s opioid epidemic is shocking.

It is the deadliest drug overdose crisis in US history. In 2016 alone, drug overdoses likely killed more Americans in one year than the entire Vietnam War. In 2015, drug overdoses topped annual deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and even HIV/AIDS during that epidemic’s peak in 1995. In total, more than 140 people are estimated to die from drug overdoses every day in the US. About two-thirds of these drug overdose deaths are linked to opioids.

As for the other two—the Sabbath and chastity—that is precisely what the Church has been emphasizing as of late.

We cannot say we haven’t been adequately warned.

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An Ordinary Man

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Elder Faust’s testimony resonated strongly with me:

As I come to a new calling, I recognize that I am a very ordinary man. Yet I gratefully acknowledge one special gift. I have a certain knowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is our Divine Savior. I know that He lives. From my earliest recollection I have had a sure perception of this. As long as I have lived, I have had a simple faith that has never doubted. I have not always understood, yet still I have known through a knowledge that is so sacred to me that I cannot give utterance to it.

I have a similar testimony. My certain knowledge is not about Jesus Christ. It’s more general and abstract. Ever since I was a little kid I can remember a conviction I’ve had that this world is not my original home. I have always felt, at a level deeper than any argument or theory, that there is more out there than what we see around us.

It is not even a belief that life will continue on after the grave, but simply an understanding that it didn’t start with birth. I came from somewhere else.

It also gives me comfort to hear an apostle say “I am a very ordinary man.” It’s vitally important, I believe, not to place our leaders on tall, narrow pedestals and entrust them with our testimonies. If we do that, then when they fall, our testimonies fall with them.

This is a Church for ordinary men and women.

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Why Prophets?

Stormy Sea at Night by Ivan Aivazovsky (1849)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Mormon doctrine emphasizes a combination of radical individual freedom and responsibility on the one hand with an emphasis on obedience to a hierarchy of Church leadership on the other. It’s an unstable tension that is prone to error in two different directions. One extreme can be summed up by the (heretical) idea that “When the prophet speaks, the thinking is done.” The other extreme questions why bother having prophets at all if they’re fallible and we have to come to our own conclusions about their teachings anyway.

But we don’t have to pick between the extremes, and Elder Groberg’s talk is a great explanation of why that’s so.

There are those who, through years of experience and training, and by virtue of special divine callings, can see farther and better and more clearly—and can and will save us in those situations where serious injury or death—both spiritual and physical—would be upon us before we ourselves could see.

This is the summary to a story from his life when an experienced sea captain was able to navigate through a narrow gap in a reef in the middle of a nighttime storm by seeing a light that no one else on the boat could see. It’s a great metaphor because it doesn’t presuppose infallibility or imply abdication of responsibility. Prophets see more, but they don’t see everything, and we’re still responsible for heeding their counsel, or not.

It makes sense to listen to prophets because, as Elder Groberg states, “We are in the midst of a major storm over moral values that will get worse before we arrive home.” But listening doesn’t mean letting prophets—or anyone else—lead our lives on our behalf. We are each, as Sartre said, condemned to be free. We can try and pretend to outsource the weighty decisions in our lives, but it won’t work. Like the drummer said, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Listening to prophets is optional.

Being ultimately responsible for our own decisions isn’t.

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It’s Supposed to Be Hard

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Here are three quotes from three different talks that follow up on the themes from my last post.

Life was made for struggle; and exaltation, success, and victory were never meant to be cheap or to come easily.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

No one is perfect, but everyone should be striving for perfection.

Elder William H. Bennet

The Lord expects more of the disciple than ordinary response to need, to opportunity, to commandment. He expects more humility, more hearkening, more repenting, more mercy and forgiving and faith, more service and sacrifice.

Elder Marion D. Hanks in More Joy and Rejoicing.

These are some pretty stern quotes: high standards, striving for impossible perfection, and an intentionally difficult world. Then Elder Hanks goes on:

All the law is comprehended in this, that we love God and each other.

French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881 – April 10, 1955)

He also cites Pierre de Chardin:

The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and on that day for the second time in the history of the world man will have discovered fire.

Without the strict discipline of duty and striving and opposition, we cannot have love. All we can have is a kind of watered-down sentimentalism or maybe cruel indifference masquerading as tolerance. And yet—without finding an ultimate aim in love—duty and striving and opposition are simply so much arbitrary pain or a thin veneer over a nihilistic, Nietzschean struggle for power.

True discipleship is found in the tension between these poles.

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