Women Asked to Fast from Social Media by The Restored Church of Jesus Christ

Because internet outrage has an attention span of approximately 3.14159 seconds, and there were some submission and response delays, this story is no longer being discussed. However, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will probably forever be accused of being anti-woman, we’re still going to publish it here at DR.

This was originally written about 2 weeks ago, in the full swing of the Latter-day Saint Woman Social Media Blackout, when George Takei finally shocked his fans with information about this LDS scheme to control women. When it got to this point, I couldn’t help but respond.

I hope whether you participated or not, and whether you liked the idea or not, that you can get something out of this…

On October 6 of this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a historic meeting of the women of the Church. Twice a year, in April and October, regular Church services are suspended and 8 hours (yes 8!) of services are broadcast across the world from Salt Lake City in what is known as general conference. The 8 hours are done in 2 hour increments over Saturday and Sunday.

Prior to this October’s general conference, an extra Saturday evening session was held for the men of the Church (the general priesthood session), while women met a week before on Saturday evening (the general women’s session). However, this was the first meeting for women held during general conference weekend, as the men’s session and women’s session will alternate during the April and October sessions. Not the most exciting change (depending on your prospective), but a change nonetheless.

The women’s session is for all females ages 8 and up, and the men’s is for all males ages 8 and up. During this fall’s women’s session, President Nelson, the president and prophet of the Church, made four invitations for the women of the Church: 1. a 10-day social media fast, 2. read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, 3. attend or learn about the temple, and 4. participate in Relief Society (the last was directed to adult women as it is the women’s organization of the Church for those 18 and older).

Before we get all frothy at the mouth about De Oppression of De Womenz by De Menz (TM), let’s take a moment to think through the largest complaints about the social media invitation and also think of ways to make this request work for a variety of women in a variety of circumstances. Most of the following is directed to members of the Church, but many outside the Church may find it informative. Full disclosure: I am a female member of this Church, and I have not yet participated in the social media fast.

Addressing the Major Complaints

Complaint 1: Right before elections.

I had seen this complaint many times, and eventually I decided to look at the numbers. The invitation was made October 6, and elections are November 6. That’s 31 days. Even if you started the fast on October 7, you still have 3 weeks to get informed on the election, if you’re not already. Plus, there are plenty of news sites that provide better election commentary and information than social media. Please don’t get all of your election information from social media (can mouth-frothers become a thing? because I think that’s what social media produces). Read a variety of reputable national and local news sites, and watch the news on TV, if you still have it. QED, you are informed ladies.

Complaint 2: Women use social media to work.

Keep going to work, y’all. I don’t think there’s any reason to stop working to continue this fast. Just like we don’t stop taking medicine when we fast from food, and some professions have to work on Sundays, we don’t need to kill our livelihood for this request. President Nelson himself said “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.” It may also be a great time to set up a business page/account if all of your work is through your personal page/account.

Complaint 3: Only the Women.

I’ve seen this combined more sinisterly with Complaint #1. Keep all the women uninformed before the election! However, the meeting included all females ages 8 and up and was worldwide, for a Church that has more members outside the United States than inside. So the idea that this was supposed to keep women in the USA specifically uninformed before the election is quite silly and really ignoring the reality of the Church.

Could this request have been made to everyone during the general attendance meetings? Of course. Why wasn’t it? I don’t know, I think that’s for every member of the Church to determine for themselves, and hopefully in a way that attempts to be generous to our leaders.

The fact of the matter is, men get requests from the Church’s leadership and sometimes women don’t get those same requests, or don’t get them as often. I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. Are the optics iffy when a male-led (if you only think of priesthood leaders) Church asks women to do something, but not the men? Yes. Does it mean it’s automatically sinister? No. And, let’s be honest, maybe some of us are placing social media on too high of a pedestal when thinking about this invitation.

Ideas to Make the Fast Work for You

When thinking about these complaints, I thought of several ways that women could follow the fast in a way that works for them. We have commandments where the leaders of the Church have said it’s up to you to prayerfully determine how to follow this commandment. And those are commandments, not requests (or invitations, even less of a requirement). So, determine how this can work for you, I’m sure there are lots of other ways than those below. I’ll again refer to President Nelson’s specific words, “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.”

Idea 1: Ask your family to join you, yes even the men and boys. Honestly, if my kids were old enough to be on social media (some of their friends are but it’s a while off for mine), this is definitely the direction I would go. Plus, in the same session, President Eyring made it very clear that women are supposed to be the guiding force of spiritual education in the home. USE YOUR POWER LADIES.

Idea 2: Do the fast on Sundays, or another day of the week. Fast every Sunday. Fast every fast Sunday. If you’re already doing this, add an extra day somewhere. Yes, it may provide more of a shock to the system to do it all at once, but maybe family contact or working is not something you can just give up for 10 days straight.

Idea 3: Fast from personal social media, but not business social media. Plenty of women make money by advertising or running their business on social media. See Complaint #2 if you need more convincing.

Idea 4: Do it with a friend and keep each other entertained via text message. I think a social media fast can help us connect with our families more, but it can also help us connect with our friends. Send each other pictures, send each other funny thoughts. If you’re already doing this, start including other people you’d like to have more contact with. If social media is one of the few places you get to communicate with other adults (I’m looking at you new/young moms), don’t lose contact! You need it!

Idea 5: Fast from the worst parts of social media. I’ve already spent a lot of time “unfollowing” many a person and blocking many a group on Facebook so my news feed isn’t full of stuff that stresses me out. But, when thinking about the fast, I’ve realized there is probably a lot more cleaning house I can do. Take the time to filter your feed (and continue to do so as with Facebook more new stuff will start to appear). Or fast from particular social media sites that seem to make you feel the worst after visiting them.

I hope everyone is feeling a little more calm and a little more empowered about this request. You’re awesome ladies, keep doing your thing, and always do what’s best for you and your family. I’ll give you an example of how I am responding to one of the invitations. I had already planned to finish the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. I’m in Alma. I am NOT starting over. And, in fact, I’ve been reading scriptures in a different way recently: for the most part, I listen to the scriptures on the Church’s Library app. I’ve found a lot more enjoyment with this approach, so I’ll continue to “read” the scriptures this way when I can.

PS: I had this thought when reading some media portrayals of the social media fast. If the only sites you are reading about this request are still calling the Church “the Mormon Church,” then it should already viewed as suspect. Either this is not a real journalist, or it is a journalist who is purposefully ignoring the Church’s new style guide (even in just the headline – the editor should follow the style guide). It doesn’t mean everything they have to say is inaccurate or from a particular agenda, but their objectiveness may be in question.

PPS: Since originally writing this, I have finished Alma! #hollah

Are Mormon Women Depressed?

Mormon women deal with depression at higher levels because of the absurd demands placed on them by their faith and culture, right? Maybe not. Jana Riess over at Flunking Sainthood writes,

Overall, about a fifth of currently-identified Mormons say they have taken or are currently taking medication for depression—21%. The numbers are definitely higher for Mormon women than for men. 27% of women say yes, almost twice the number of Mormon men who do (14.5%). 

…[But] the rate of Mormon women suffering from depression may actually be lower than the national average for women. The data on this is inconsistent, though; Timothy Heaton’s research has indeed found that “LDS women are significantly higher in depression than non-LDS women.” So there is no consensus here.

Second, there’s a known “gender gap” between men and women in the United States where mental health is concerned—and not just in Mormonism.

According to a publication of the Harvard Medical School, women “are about twice as likely as men to develop major depression,” based on a combination of genetic, hormonal, and emotional factors (and also the fact that even if men do develop depression, they are idiots about it they are less likely than women to seek the help they need). The World Health Organization has also found that depression is twice as common in women.

Bottom line, then: Mormon women appear to struggle more than Mormon men do with depression, or at least are getting treated for it nearly twice as often. This is not, however, an unusual or Mormon-specific gender dynamic.

But what are the factors that correlate with Mormon women who seek treatment?

  • Age doesn’t matter much: younger women are a little more likely to get treatment than older women.
  • Employment matters a little bit: unemployed women not looking for work–like stay-at-home moms–were a bit more likely to get treatment than full-timers and part-timers.
  • Politics matters: Democrats are more likely to take medication than Republicans.
  • Church activity matters: “very active” members are less likely to take medication than members who are “not active at all.”
  • Beliefs matter: A quarter of women who believe “all or most Mormon teachings” compared to 1/3 of women “who doubt or find some Mormon teachings hard to believe.”
  • Family size matters: “Women who have no children at all are a little more likely to take medication for depression than women who have one, two, or three children. In families of four or more children, women are also a bit more likely take medication. Overall, the women who were least likely to take medication for depression were those with one, two, or three children.”
  • Divorce matters: “Women who were divorced were almost twice as likely as married women to have taken medication for depression (41% vs. 23%). Never-married women fall in the middle at 34%.”

As Riess concludes, “The reality is nuanced and complex.”

A Pragmatic Zion

Ephraim Moses Lilien, Zion, 1903. (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I forgot that—after the Sunday afternoon session—the October 1975 General Conference had one more session to go: the welfare session. And this, my friends, is the most quintessentially Mormon thing ever.

Back in the day, my father said in a PBS interview:

One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance. Joseph insistently refused to recognize the distinctness of those categories that were typical in traditional Christianity, the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual.

That stubborn refusal to see any distinction between spiritual and the physical, the practical and the ideal, the holy and the mundane, is one of the most distinctive attributes of Mormon faith, and also one of my favorite. We’re relentlessly effective at finding the sacred in basically everything. We’re as universalistic in our aspirations to find holiness everywhere as we are in our plans to save all mankind.

And so it is that we’ve got an entire session of General Conference dedicated to such mundane concerns as how to pick a career, the importance of budgeting, and the necessity of having enough food storage on hand. And yet at the same time, there’s the stubborn insistence that working out the nuts and bolts of practical self-sufficiency is a stepping stone towards reaching Zion.

I love it in part because it’s just deliciously paradoxical, and paradoxes are fun. But that’s at best an adolescent appreciation. There’s nothing deep or lasting in that regard.

What matters to me more is this: the only kind of Zion that could ever be realized—in practice—is one that is fundamentally pragmatic in conception. If anyone could ever build the kin of society we believe a Zion society to be—one with no distinction between rich and poor, and where the people are united in heart and mind—it would be practical people, willing to take every mundane step necessary in pursuit of their heavenly aspiration.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Profoundly Worth It

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The talks from the Friday session of the April 1975 General Conference were not messing around. Some of these talks were the most direct, hardest-hitting that I have ever read.

In Faithful Laborers, Elder Dunn described the incredible costs borne by the early missionaries to Samoa, documenting fatality after fatality and concluding:

A price has been paid for the establishment of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the land of Samoa. It is interesting to note that much of that price was paid by little children. I suspect that there are many obscure cemeteries in many of the nations of the world similar to that little plot in Samoa. They are a mute witness to the trials and suffering that went into the beginnings of missionary work in this dispensation.

Up to this point, I was not sure where he was going with what seemed like a fairly typical talk about the sacrifices of those who went before, and how we ought to be encouraged by them, and so forth. But that was not his point at all. Elder Dunn had something much more direct in mind. He described a World War II general who, touring the front, kept asking, “Can you see them?” Finally the soldiers asked him what he was talking about, and the general explained that he was talking about the ghosts of the fallen. “They’re your buddies; they are the ones who gave their lives today, yesterday, and the day before. They’re out there alright, watching you, wondering what you are going to do; wondering if they have died in vain.”

And then Elder Dunn turned this quote—and his earlier stories of men, women, and children who died in Samoa—onto us, his audience:

I wonder, young man, how successful you would be in convincing a young father who had buried three of his babies in an obscure graveyard halfway around the world because of the gospel of Jesus Christ that a mission is too much of a sacrifice because you want to buy that car or that stereo, or you don’t want to interrupt your schooling, or for some other reason.

As members of the Church, I wonder how convincing we would be in telling someone that we are just too busy and maybe just a little embarrassed to share the gospel with our neighbor, especially if that someone were a young father who had buried his bride while on his mission and sent his little girl home to be taken care of by relatives while he finished his service to the Lord.

There is no possible reply to these questions other than to work harder, which is precisely Elder Dunn’s point.

And next we move to Elder Faust’s equally hard-hitting The Sanctity of Life. Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion throughout the nation, was decided in January 1973, and by 1975 the number of abortions was already well on its way to 1,000,000 per year, where it stayed until 2013. It’s always perplexing to me, given the Church’s clear statements on abortion, that you can still find so many Mormons who insist that legal elective abortions—that is, abortion as a method of birth control—are compatible with the Church’s teachings. This is awfully hard to reconcile with the strong language employed in this talk (and several others), where Elder Faust stated that “making it legal to destroy newly conceived life will never make it right. It is consummately wrong.” I was impressed to find that his argument referred to “insurmountable evidence” that unborn children are distinct from their mothers, concluding that

One of the most evil myths of our day is that a woman who has joined hands with God in creation can destroy that creation because she claims the right to control her own body. Since the life within her is not her own, how can she justify its termination and deflect that life from an earth which it may never inherit?

And for those pro-choice Mormons resting their hopes on the separation of private morality from public legality, he states flatly that “These and all others are entitled to a defense in their unborn, natural state of existence.”

Of course it’s possible to argue that the “defense” he speaks of is purely about voluntary persuasion, but that dog won’t hunt. For starters, find me the pro-choice Mormon who is out in front of abortion facilities trying to use persuasion to erect such a voluntary defense. The reality is, the leaders have done all but spell out in black and white: “elective abortions should not be legal,” and if they took that last step and did spell it out, so what? Pro-choice Mormons would ignore that, too.

And now we come the last talk of the session, Elder L. Tom Perry’s moving tribute to his wife, titled simply, A Tribute. I don’t like tributes, generally speaking. I don’t like it when folks bear their testimony of their spouses or friends over the pulpit instead of testifying of Christ. I confess I don’t even like the frequent statements of brotherly love between the apostles. Call me a grumpy old man if you must, but the best I can muster for these tributes is begrudging tolerance.

Elder Perry’s talk was in a different category. Not just because it was particularly moving, although it was, but because his tribute was an exemplar of gospel teaching. I have had to give a blessing telling someone that it was OK for them to go. It took me two tries, however, because I was too afraid to say the words the first time. I cannot imagine having to say them in a blessing for my own wife, as Elder Faust did.

And yet, this is how he concludes:

“And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.” (D&C 42:45–46.)

I understand this scripture now as never before. Even though there is great loneliness without her, her passing was sweet because of the way she had lived.

In tribute to her today, I recommend to you her way of life. I watched service consume pain. I witnessed faith destroy discouragement. I have seen courage magnify her beyond her natural abilities. I have observed love change the course of lives.

This was the hardest week for me yet to keep up with the General Conference Odyssey I helped to launch. I’ve never finished the talk, written my own piece, and published the post all so late in the day. I have only an hour to spare.

But—hard as it was for me to accomplish the goal this week—it was profoundly worth it.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

God of the Depressed: Stephen Webb, 1961-2016

stephen_webb_photo_0I was saddened to hear of Catholic theologian Stephen Webb’s passing this last week. Webb had in recent years engaged in fruitful dialogue with Mormonism, defending the Christ-centricity of Mormonism and producing one of the best books on Mormon metaphysics I’ve ever read: Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints. Mormon scholars are mourning the loss of this great friend and thinker. In honor of his memory, I’d like to share from the last piece he wrote for First Things titled “God of the Depressed.” Webb states, “Theology is a form—arguably the original form—of therapy, and if the church is to compete with the pharmacy, it has to have some good news of its own concerning depression.” He describes the reason for this need:

Seminaries and graduate programs teach the God of the Oppressed, and rightly so. Poverty, war, and racism are so much more public in their debilitating consequences. But we should not forget the depressed, especially in this time of Lent. Jesus himself must have experienced depression while being famished for forty days and nights in the wilderness, praying while his disciples slept, and descending into hell. He also spent many years hidden from public view, his mission kept secret, his life so obscure that the Gospels tell us nothing about them. He had a long time of waiting, and he knew what awaited him. It is this time of hiddenness, I think, that most captures the depressant’s emotional state. The depressed wait for the long nights to end and the anguish to subside. The depressed, like Jesus during his so-called lost years, are hidden from sight, waiting for their lives to begin.

Condolences to Webb’s family. May we honor his memory by seeking out those “waiting for their lives to begin.”

Flawed Perfection

Stormy Sea

The other day I was eating lunch with a friend and we started talking about the idea of perfection and how we understand it and approach it within our culture. He believed it to be impossible to be perfect, but that it is possible to be perfect in regards to small and simple things.

I conceded his point, agreeing that yes, there are some things that can either be definitively done or left undone. For example, I could attend all three long hours of church (which would be quite a feat) every Sunday of every week and accomplish perfect attendance.  I have now been perfect at a small task.

So I agree that there are some things that can simply be checked off – achieved or omitted. But I believe that perfection is far more intricate and goes beyond the mere scope of completing a task with wonderful consistency.  I believe perfection cannot be found except as a product of an accumulation of many things – virtues and connections with those around us. And ultimately, perfection isn’t about avoiding sin, but rather, I think, that holiness and perfection deal more with that which we include in our lives opposed to that which we exclude from them. Avoiding sin can be done by any lump on a log. It bespeaks safety, inaction, timidity, even cowardice in the face of life’s challenges. The gospel invites us to expand, not contract, our realm of experience and knowledge. The atonement hasn’t been given to only be used in cases of dire emergency like a “get me out of jail card”, rather the atonement has been given to consistently and constantly give us life and draw us closer to Christ AND our fellow man. It is to be used every day to alleviate the suffering from sin and to help us gain knowledge and, even more importantly, compassion and love. From the parable given by the Savior in Luke chapter 7, we learn that he who is forgiven much feels an even deeper love for the Savior than he who has been forgiven less. It is critical, I think, to recognize that the woman is forgiven because “she loved much”.

However, it is important to juxtapose this parable with that of the man who was forgiven a great debt by his king in Matthew 18. In this story we do not see an outpouring of love following forgiveness, but rather anger as the forgiven man refuses to excuse the meager debts of those around him. Sin by itself is never beneficial – but sin accompanied by the repentance and the healing grace of the atonement leads to more compassion and, what one friend taught me, “mercy of the fallen”.

Recently I learned a saying with which I wholeheartedly agree: the path to happiness is not found in the path of avoiding unhappiness. I believe that just as trials and sadness are necessary precursors for joy, so is sin a precursor for perfection. Sin teaches us by experience the beauty of purity, cleanliness, and being whole. Through sin we learn how beautiful our Savior’s atonement truly is – that we, despite however wretched we may be (we are all sinners), can truly be made whole after having experienced such pain of heart and soul. In that space of forgiveness, we in turn learn to forgive and to love. In essence, we cheat ourselves if we simply try to avoid sin, but we perfect ourselves when we seek to incorporate godliness and learn better how to respond to the inevitable sin in our lives.

And that’s the point – whatever it is we endeavor or seek to do, we will be found wanting in some regard. No matter how much we do or how well we perform, we can’t earn heaven. Heaven is a place reserved for those of a particular divine nature and the tasks we have been given serve as possible catalysts or stepping stones to help shape us into such a person which I feel is shown in the Lord’s statement in D&C 29, “I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” I believe those who will be best prepared in the heavens to come are not necessarily those who lived a life more devoid of sin than the other, but rather those who have learned best how to repent.

There’s a strange perverted obsession with the notion of perfection and it eats away at many of us as well as a syndrome of “sin-aversion” (but that’s a topic for another time). If not careful, such a desire to be “perfect” can lead to a sense of entitlement which one might infer from the hymn “Come, Come ye Saint” when it says, “Why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?” In “The Great Divorce”, C.S. Lewis talks of the wonderful mercy that we are not given that which we rightfully deserve – we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of our God and have earned hell for ourselves. Yet, despite our wickedness before Him who is most pure, we are offered mercy and forgiveness upon the condition of change and repentance – sin cannot stand in the presence of God, but repentant sinners can.

It is my wish that we would seek less to become perfect and focus more on improving ourselves – our relationships with our families, friends, and communities. Just as it says in D&C 128:18, “we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect”. I don’t believe this is speaking solely in reference to our deceased, but to the relationships of the whole human family. That isn’t to say we should simply give up on the goal of perfection – but that perfection itself shouldn’t be the goal, rather, better emulating the life of Christ and His endless charity in all facets of our lives.

Now I wish to speak plainly and clearly so as not to be misunderstood. Perfection does not include sin – in the words of C.S. Lewis there can be no compromise for hell in heaven. But I think too much of our mental capacity is spent on avoiding and distancing ourselves from certain elements of this world which causes us, inextricably, to also distance ourselves from our loved ones who might be struggling, or cause others to distance themselves from us when we are struggling.

Hong Zicheng said within the Ts’ai Ken T’an, “Soil that is dirty grows the countless things. Water that is pure has no fish”. CS Lewis writes, “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to him and bad when it turns from him”. Perfection isn’t found in the absence of sin, but the seeds of perfection are found in the presence of compassion and mercy which have stemmed from sin and steered us further on to love and forgive those who will one day compose our heavenly family.

The Word is Mightier than the Sword

Week010 - Mind the Gap - Smaller

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

One scripture has been on my mind more than any other over the last several years. That scripture is Alma 31:5. This takes place just after the story of Korihor (who met his end in Alma 30) and successive Lamanite invasions led by Amalekites (in Alma 25 and 27-28). No sooner have the Nephites survived that war, then then apostate Zoramites threaten to lead the Lamanites into starting a new one. So it is a time period of great uncertainty and danger for the Nephite people, with divisive threats inside their lands and betrayal and invasion lurking on the borders. This would have been a dark, dangerous, and confusing time.

This is how Alma reacts to the impending crisis:

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

The idea that the “preaching of the word” could have such an impact was one of those things I just had to take on faith when I read the Book of Mormon as a young man. To me, it seemed that the arc of history was largely dominated by soldiers and spies, by politicians and inventors. That even seemed to be the message of the Book of Mormon at first, with Captain Moroni’s brilliant strategies and defensive innovations.

The longer I’ve read, however, and the more I’ve lived I realize how superficial that perspective is. All of the things that we usually pay attention to—the wording of laws, the exact structure of government, specific inventions, or individual leaders—none of them matter compared to the sum total of a million individual, every-day decisions by ordinary people. We just don’t like to pay attention to that because it’s almost impossible to measure, quantify, or incorporate into formal models and theories. But in the long run, I believe that’s what really matters. And so the biggest influence on the course of nations and cultures is not found in momentous events, but in the accumulation of the lives of the individuals who make up those nations and societies. And those lives are themselves most heavily influenced by what people believe in. What they want. What they hope for. What they work for. And that is where the “preaching of the word” has such a profound impact.

It’s something to keep in mind as we head into another contentious election season. I am not saying that it doesn’t matter who is president, but I am saying that the character of the voters in the years leading up to an election have a much, much greater impact on the nation than the outcome of any particular vote.

This was all brought to mind in reading Elder Mark E. Peterson’s talk, Honesty, a Principle of Salvation. He begins by making a claim I have never heard before:

Honesty is a principle of salvation in the kingdom of God. Without it there can be no salvation. Just as no man or woman can be saved without baptism, so no one can be saved without honesty.

He then goes on to list all the ways in which dishonesty, that relatively minor offense (at least, that’s how we often think of it relative to murder or rape or even theft) leads to huge cumulative impacts: drug addiction, fornication, fraud, infidelity, theft, all come down to dishonest. Even the generation gap—a frequent topic in these talks—comes from “the light of the child—and too often also the parent.” An individual lie may indeed be a small thing, but in the end, “to resort to dishonest practices is to apostatize from the Christian way of life.”

The most important line in the talk, for me, is one that doesn’t at first seem connected to honesty. Elder Peterson says that “if we are interested in the gospel in the least degree, we should live it wholeheartedly.” Of course there is a connection. What we say we care about should mesh with what we actually care about. What we say and believe with what we do. And this, too, is a kind of honesty, although it often goes by the expression “integrity” as well.

And that is a message that resonates deeply with me. I’ve started two personal blogs in my life, one in 2006 and then this one as a reboot in 2012. In both cases, one of my first blog posts was a recap of that very idea: pursuing integrity—honesty—between what we think we care about and what we actually care about, between what we want to be and what we actually are. Here’s the 2012 version, if you’re curious: Mind the Gaps.

These are small things. An individual lie in a person’s entire life, an individual honest person in a whole society, but the big things—the life, the society—aren’t made of anything else.

Here are the rest of the blog posts for the General Conference Odyssey this week.


In the Expanse of Silence


Not long ago, I found myself asking the same questions over and over, “Do other people think that too?”

For a long time, I believed that all those encompassed under the cloak of Mormonism believed the same thing. I felt the Church was unanimous in what it believed – that the leaders of the church were there to tell us all what was right to believe and that all who believed merely agreed with that which was said. It was a world of right and wrong. It was a world of doctrine and non-doctrine. It was a world of things that should be said and believed, and things that shouldn’t.

It was a simple life: go to church, read my scriptures, pray to receive the answers I knew I should receive, listen to the leaders of the church so that I might better discipline my own beliefs to be in line with that which was true. Questions were welcome in theory, but if the answers weren’t readily available, questioning seemed to require too much work and was simply left for future days to come.

“Does everyone live like this?” I asked myself. “Do people still live like this? Are people happy living such a way?” I no longer felt I could live in such a manner. Questions creeped up and wouldn’t subside. I found myself not having answers to the questions I had, but I no longer wanted to wait for future days to come. I heard the same answers, but they no longer satisfied me. Was I going astray? Was I losing my testimony, my belief? I’d ask God for the answers but I didn’t seem to hear Him speak. Did I really expect to hear answers? I doubted God would speak to me to give me an answer to my confused and uncertain questions. I wrestled with my questions and the lack of answers.

In the expanse of silence my questions became more refined and more thoughtful. God has an amazing talent of knowing when to speak and when not to speak. I’ve come to believe that much of revelation comes in the process of questioning opposed to that of receiving an answer.

This isn’t to say that the answer isn’t important, but rather that the answer brings no fruit if the soil wasn’t first properly prepared. In wrestling with our questions we are forced to really formulate and solidify what we believe or think we believe. Asking questions helps us to realize that which we do not know and leaves us in a vulnerable state from which we can learn and grow – to experience a metamorphosis of faith.

It can be frightening. What changes will we experience? Where will we be left in the end? Perhaps it’d be best to remain inside our cocoon – though we see the fractured lines running across the membranes of our tenuous faith. Uncertain of what awaits on the outside or our capabilities of coping with it; maybe we can remain within our cocoon a little longer.
I believe to ask a question is to act on faith and hope. The sole purpose of asking a question is to find a reassuring response even if we might have given up that an answer will come or that a voice will be heard.

True and genuine questions release the contents of our hearts. The soul yearns to connect with something or someone so that it can once more feel tethered to something. Questions are the soul’s attempt to reconcile that which we don’t understand with that which we hope to believe, and it isn’t until we really begin to question that we can find out what it is we truly believe or hope to believe. It’s also in the question where we can find the cords which connect us all and see the hearts of those around us.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

This week I’m going to start out with pop culture and Dietrich von Hildebrand before bringing it home to Elder Eldred G. Smith’s talk from the Friday morning session of the October 1971 General Conference: Decisions.

The crux of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity is that Western philosophy has been wrong to ignore the heart (“the affective sphere” or, in simple terms, our emotional nature) in favor of its obsession with rationality and will. His argument is complex and covers a lot of ground, but here is perhaps the one quote that has stayed with me the most since finishing the book:

If a man were impelled by a Kantian duty ideal to help suffering people by efficient actions of all kinds, but did so with a cool and indifferent heart and without feeling the slightest compassion, he certainly would miss an important moral and human element. It may even be that the gift bestowed on a suffering person by a true and sincere compassion and by the warmth of love cannot be replaced by any benefit we can bestow on him by our actions if these are done without love.

Serving is not enough. Your heart has to be in it.

I believe this is true, but in a way it also confounds our beliefs about obedience. The trick is that we can force our actions to conform to standards, but we cannot directly force our heart to feel a particular way. Anyone can give 10% of their income to tithing, if you just exercise the will power to do it. But how do you make yourself love your neighbor? How do you make yourself love God?

Of course there are good, practical tips for fostering and protecting feelings of love (often discussed in self-help books for marriage or family relationships), but we can’t avoid the fact that our control over our heart is indirect. And, at first, there’s an odd contradiction here between Nephi’s “I will go and do” attitude toward obedience (which is very much centered on action) and the actual greatest commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor involve action, of course, but they are also focused on emotion. So, how do we “go and do” something that relies on our heart feeling a particular way?

We can’t. Not alone, anyway.

This has been a really profound realization for me, and I had it on my mind already as I read Elder Smith’s talk where he said, for example, “the Lord will not permit Satan to try us beyond our ability to resist or withstand his efforts, if we will accept his help.” That’s a really important qualification, and for me it’s new.

In a sense, of course, the information has always been there. Nephi’s famous “go and do” speech includes the statement that he knows God will provide a way for us to accomplish the commandments we’re asked to perform, but somehow I’ve always had the idea that this means there is a way—a road or a path—but that we’ve got to walk it on our own. That’s not actually what Nephi said. That’s just how I’ve always heard it.

But going it alone is never a part of the hero’s journey. I’m reminded of the classic 1986 Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda. The hero, Link, gets his first weapon from an elderly man who tells him, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

Dangerous to Go Alone - Original

Another example would be Harry Potter’s confrontation with Serpent of Slytherin in the Chamber of Secrets. Prior to the battle, Dumbledore told Harry, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” During the battle, the Sorting Hat appears and gives Harry the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, with which he is able to defeat the basilisk.

You might think it’s a little silly for me to quote children’s books or 1980s video games alongside Catholic theologians all to make a point from a General Conference talk. And I’ll admit, part of it is in fun. But I also strongly believe that there are so many sources of light for us in this world, if we only know where to look for them. In a way, that’s one of the things that reading the General Conference talks helps me to do: calibrate my relation to the Spirit so that I can find sources of inspiration all around me.

And I need that constant reminder. Because, returning to Elder Smith’s talk, “The Lord has made no promise to those who try to go it alone. As soon as you think you can lick the devil alone, on your own, without the Lord’s help, you have lost the battle before you start.”

That exact quote has come back to my mind again and again: “The Lord has made no promise to those who try to go it alone.” I had another chance to feel the bite of that mistake on Sunday. I am a Gospel Doctrine teacher, and I love this calling. There is no calling I would rather have ever, and I try very, very hard to do a good job of bringing the Spirit into my lessons and teach what the Lords would have me teachr.

But I don’t always succeed.

There are basically two variables in how a lesson goes, at least from my perspective. The first is how much I prepare. The second is how I feel as I go into the lesson.

On Saturday, I spent four or five hours working on my lesson, which is longer than the 1-2 hours that I usually spend. I was really pleased with my research and my outline. I felt confident that I had it covered. And when I went in and taught my lesson… it didn’t go very well. Not as well as I’d hoped, anyway. I frequently felt lost as I was teaching, struggling to remember where I’d placed a quote in my notes or unsure about which way to take the lesson when there was not enough time to do everything.

The problem was I thought I could go it alone. I thought I had this one. And so I didn’t rely on the Lord as much as I ought to have.

The sad thing is how many times I’ve had to relearn this lesson. I’ve been teaching for 3-4 years now, and the pattern is always the same. I have to work hard to prepare the lesson and I have to rely on the Lord. In practice, this means I have to be a little bit scared going into it. Hopefully I’ll grow out of that and be able to rely on the Lord with confidence instead of out of nervousness, but the point is: I need to realize that I need help. And then it’s there. As Elder Smith said, “When you desire to do what the Lord wants you to do because he wants you to, then ask him for help; then keeping these laws and commandments becomes easy.”

Here are some quotes from the other talks that I also liked:

The Purpose of Life: To Be Proved by Elder Franklin D. Richards

“Although it is not customary for one to seek out the difficult or unpleasant experiences, it is true that the trials and tribulations of life that stand in the way of man’s growth and development become stepping-stones by which he climbs to greater heights, providing, of course, that he does not permit them to discourage him.”

“A temple, first of all, is a place of prayer; and prayer is communion with God. It is the ‘infinite in man seeking the infinite in God.’ Where they find each other, there is holy sanctuary—a temple.”

“I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” by President John Fielding Smith

“The supreme act of worship is to keep the commandments, to follow in the footsteps of the Son of God, to do ever those things that please him.”

The Only True and Living Church by President Boyd K. Packer

“Some members of the Church who should know better pick out a hobby [piano] key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They can dull their own spiritual sensitivities. They lose track that there is a fullness of the gospel and become as individuals, like many churches have become. They may reject the fullness in preference to a favorite note. This becomes exaggerated and distorted, leading them away into apostasy.”

A Time of Testing by Henry D. Taylor

“We will all have our Gethsemane.”

“This Is My Beloved Son” by Loren C. Dunn

“Although the amount of time we spend is important, probably the more important thing is the ability to build our children into our lives.”

Satan’s Thrust—Youth by President Ezra Taft Benon

“The critical and complaining adult will be less effective than the interested and understanding… We must love our young people, whether they are in righteousness or in error.”

Here are some of the other talks from this weeks’ iteration of the General Conference Odyssey. Not all the links were ready when this post was finished, however, so check out the constantly updated index for a complete list. You can also follow along by joining the Facebook Group.

Saving the Lost Battalions

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey series.

Until last week, I had never heard of Dietrich von Hildebrand. Then my father told me that it was important for me to read one of this books, The Heart, and lent me the copy that had been traveling back and forth between his study and my mother’s.

Von Hildebrand was a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian who live in Germany until his outspoken criticism of Adolf Hitler meant he had to flee to Austria. He fled to France next, after Hitler annexed Austria, and then from France to the US (by way of Brazil) after the Germans invaded France as well. Pope Benedict respected him so much that he said “When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”

In The Heart, Hildebrand argues that the heart (by which he means the metaphorical heart, the “affective sphere” or, more simply, our emotions) has been “under a cloud throughout the entire course of the history of philosophy.” Going back to the ancient Greeks, the emphasis has always been on rationality, with reason regarded as a weakness or a defect. Hildebrand argues that—while of course emotions are susceptible to error—that the heart is an equally important aspect of our human experience.

In particular, Hildebrand separates different kinds of feelings. On one end of the scale, you’ve got raw biological facts: things like hunger or exhaustion which we call “feelings.” On the other end of the scale, you’ve got the reaction we feel to exquisite music, or to stories of great moral courage and sacrifice, which we also call “feelings.” Using the same word to describe such disparate events, is, according to Hildebrand’s argument, a major reason that we don’t take the heart as seriously as we should.

For Hildebrand, the heart is capable of great nobility when it unites intellect and emotion in a response to truth and beauty. So much so, that loving the good is superior to merely knowing or recognizing the good. As he writes:

The transcendence proper to the value-response reaches even further than in knowledge. The fact that our heart conforms to the value, that the important in itself is able to move us, brings about a union with the object which goes even further than in knowledge. For in love the totality of the person is drawn more thoroughly into the union established with the object then in knowledge. We must not forget, moreover, that the type of the union proper to knowledge is necessarily incorporated in love.

This echoes something that Anglican bishop and scholar N. T. Wright wrote in Surprised by Scripture:

Just because it takes agape to believe the Resurrection, that doesn’t mean all that happened was that Peter and the others felt their hearts strangely warmed. Precisely because it is the love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.

So, according to both Von Hildebrand and Wright, love surpasses knowledge, for one. And, as a corollary, affective (i.e. emotional) responses can be full of nobility. Quoting Hildebrand one more time:

To be moved by some sublime beauty in nature or in art or by some moral virtue, such as humility or charity, is to allow ourselves to be penetrated by the inner light of these values and to open ourselves to their message from above. It is a surrender which implies a reverence, humility, and tenderness.

Why am I sharing all of this with you? Simple: this is what I had in mind as I found myself crying while I read the last talk from the Tuesday Morning session of the April 1971 General Conference. That talk in question is Lost Battalions. The title is fairly familiar, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I have read about the Lost Battalion in question. The talk, as far as I can tell, was completely unknown to me before I read it last week as part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Now, I’ll have a hard time quoting you my favorite passages because after a while I gave up highlighting the talk on LDS.org. It just looked like a wall of yellow. For that, y’all will just have to go read it yourselves. Instead of specifics, I want to talk about the overall arc of the piece.

I wondered, at the outset of the piece, about the juxtaposition of the story of the Lost Battalion with the Christ’s message of love. Juxtaposing a story of military heroism with Christ’s message of love in the Gospel of John was, to put it mildly, arresting. If your model of Christlike love is fighting in combat, then you’re going to be raising some fairly difficult questions.

But it was I who was missing the point, because instead of treating the story of the Lost Battalion as the pinnacle of the story—the example to which we strive—instead the talk turned immediately from the literal Lost Battalion of World War I to the lost battalions all around us. First: the “lost battalions” of “the handicapped, even the lame, the speechless, and the sightless.” Next came more “lost battalions”: the elderly, the sick, and broken and estranged families.

In these cases there was a stark challenge, and it was one perfectly tailored to a nation steeped in a tradition of deference of military heroism: if you admire the heroism of World War I stories, then be a hero by donating your time to help the people who need you in your own neighborhood. Go read to the blind. Go give food to the hungry. Quench your anger and reach out in love to your family. The conventional narrative of militaristic self-sacrifice was slowly being co-opted into a message of practical, mundane, every-day service.

These passages were beautiful, both the prose and the stories, but it didn’t stop there. The biggest “lost battalion” is all of us. All of us who “struggle in the jungles of sin” or “wander in the wilderness of ignorance.”

In reality, each one of us is numbered in what could well have been the lost battalion of mankind, even a battalion doomed to everlasting death.

But our battalion isn’t lost. It’s already been saved. The talk cites the angel’s words to the women at Christ’s empty tomb, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” and then concludes:

With this pronouncement, the “lost battalion” of mankind—those who have lived and died, those who now live and one day will die, and those yet to be born and yet to die—this battalion of humanity lost had just been rescued.

I’d had misgivings at the outset about using a war story as the model for Christ-like love, but by the end I realized I had it all backwards. The real war—and the real war story—is the Gospel. The true struggle is the spiritual one, and the one true hero is Jesus Christ.

I haven’t mentioned the author yet. That’s because I read the talk without checking the author first. And so at the end I scrolled back to the top. It makes sense now—given the preponderance of stories and the overall style—but I was surprised when I read the name of Thomas S. Monson. My favorite talk of the odyssey thus far was given by the man who is currently the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now, here are a couple of snippets from other talks that I particularly liked.

“The Spirit Beareth Record” (Elder Boyd K. Packer)

There are those who hear testimonies borne in the Church, by those in high station and by members in the wards and branches, all using the same words—“I know that God lives; I know that Jesus is the Christ,” and come to question, “Why cannot it be said in plainer words? Why aren’t they more explicit and more descriptive? Cannot the apostles say more?”

How like the sacred experience in the temple becomes our personal testimony. It is sacred, and when we are wont to put it into words, we say it in the same way—all using the same words. The apostles declare it in the same phrases with the little Primary or Sunday School youngster. “I know that God lives and I know that Jesus is the Christ….

To one who is honestly seeking, the testimony borne in these simple phrases is enough, for it is the spirit that beareth record, not the words.

I had this very much in mind today as I listened to the testimonies in my ward. Men and women, old and young, stood and bore their testimonies, saying at the conclusion of each: “I know that Jesus is the Christ”

And I was struck by Elder Packer’s observation, that both the General Authorities of the Church and the kids in primary express their testimonies in the same way. It’s kind of beautiful, if you think about it, and I definitely kept Elder Packer’s warning in mind: “We would do well not to disregard the testimonies of the prophets or of the children.”

Practicing What We Preach – Elder Marion D. Hanks

I was struck by a story Elder Hanks told about his sister’s family holding family home evening in the hospital, around his gravely ill sister’s bed:

Her husband and family were surrounding her bed, holding their family home evening, led by their fourth missionary son just returned from foreign fields. I joined them, and then went home rejoicing and thanking God for that kind of example, and met my own family who were waiting, and prayed that we might do a better job of practicing what we preach.

I was struck by a General Authority telling a story of a family that, implicitly, was doing things better than his own family. Of a General Authority telling us, over the pulpit, that he looked up to his sister’s family, and wanted to do better a job with his own. It was refreshingly humble, vulnerable, and real.

Marriage Is Intended to Be Forever – Elder James A. Cullimore

I highlighted an awful lot of this talk, but in general two things stood out.

First, I was surprised at how clearly the same points that the Church has brought up in the recent debates over same-sex marriage were clearly articulated back in 1971 when same-sex marriage was the last thing on anyone’s mind. There have been many who believe that the Church’s position is either inertia at best (well, this is how things have always been done) or outright bigotry at worst. But, reading this talk, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Church’s emphasis on the role of the family as it was expounded in the recent political debates is exactly the same as what Elder Cullimore was talking about when the biggest perceived threat to marriage was divorce. For example:

Marriage is a sacred relationship entered into primarily for the rearing of a family, in fulfillment of the commandments of the Lord.


President McKay said, in reference to the seriousness with which we enter the marriage contract: “… to look upon marriage as a mere contract that may be entered into at pleasure in response to a romantic whim, or for selfish purposes, and severed at the first difficulty or misunderstanding that may arise, is an evil meriting severe condemnation, especially in cases wherein children are made to suffer because of such separation.”

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind with these quotes. That’s not my point. My point is simply that the Church’s stance on this issue—whatever you think about it—is pretty clearly based on genuine, sincere, and serious religious commitment rather than ignorance or hate.

The second thing that struck me was the way Mormons insist on having their cake and eating it too when it comes to romantic and pragmatic views of marriage. And I mean this in the best way possible.

The most amazing thing is that, in general, I think we manage it. We have both the romance and the pragmatism. Maybe it’s even because of the pragmatism that we have the romance. A firm foundation provides the basis for trust and vulnerability that allows romance to flourish. And it’s possible that it’s because of the romance that we have the pragmatism. Mormons are willing to make sacrifices and concessions to preserve what we value so highly: marital romance.

One thought along those lines:

I suppose there is no surer need in marriage than constant compromise. It is through compromise that we grow closer to each other. As we acknowledge our own faults and recognize the virtues in the other and make the adjustments, we strengthen our marriage.

I’ll just add my own perception to this: there’s very little that is more toxic to a marriage than an emphasis on fairness, equality, or justice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those things don’t matter. But in a relationship where abuse is not a concern, then emphasizing justice is basically the absolute worst way to handle conflict in your marriage. Justice is about what you deserve. It means that disagreements are seen as conflicts. And justice automatically mitigates against compromise and flexibility. If it would be “fair” for your spouse to do something, then if you give in and your spouse doesn’t do that thing, it’s unfair. You are a victim, your spouse is an aggressor, and there is now a rift between you. The result is either bitterness or recrimination. The best way forward—and again, I’m talking about marital problems in a relationship without abuse—is to abandon fairness as a concept. Instead, trust your spouse. Focus on making them happy and forgetting anything that bothers you. More than anything else: trust your spouse. You married them for a reason. Your love your spouse. Your spouse loves you. Chances are, anything you could complain to your spouse about, he or she already knows and is already working on. Give him or her a chance to do that without pressure or a sense of obligation. (And definitely without a sense of guilt! Leave justice out of it.) And then concentrate on doing the same yourself: you already know what you need to work on. So work on it.

Two people who are both trying to improve for eachother and both trying to give the other slack are two people who are going to be happy and in love and at peace a long, long time before either one of them is anything that looks like perfect. But two people who are constantly evaluating the other’s actions and behavior against an “objective” standard are going to find that even if they were on the very threshold of perfection there would still be conflict, strife, and hostility.

These are the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week.