Jenga and the Meaning of Life

This comic from Existential Comics gave me a good laugh this morning:

As renoun philosopher Al Davis said, the meaning life is to just win, baby.

It also reminded me of how much I like Camus. I believe he’s the most authentic philosopher of his time period. And he asks a fundamental question: Why do I even bother going on living? What in my set of beliefs makes life, with all its suffering and uncertainty, few of days and full of trouble, worth living?

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I wouldn’t turn to Job’s friends for advice
Quick caveat, please don’t go out and kill yourself, but it’s a question we must face squarely and answer. And I believe whatever we answer will naturally orient us towards, as Jordan Peterson would put it, the highest possible good we can conceive. It’s kinda fun to see what your first, unscripted answer is. I said to myself, “Because the Lord has commanded I live on this earth and do good with the time I have here.”

Well how do I do good? I would answer that I become the kind of person who knows the right thing to do in any given situation. How I do become that kind of person? I’m not entirely sure, but since excellence is a habit, I’ll take some lines from virtue ethics and Jordan Peterson. I can start by telling the whole truth (which I don’t always do), being diligent in my tasks at home and at work (I’m often a ‘close enough’ kind of person), taking care of my body (which I just injured..oops), etc. And now here we are on the adventure of life, because I answered the rather macabre question of why I don’t wake up and just kill myself. Victory!

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When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I got about halfway through When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a good book. I didn’t finish the book primarily because his thesis is not acceptable to me and therefore not helpful in understanding suffering from an Abrahamic perspective. Rabbi Kushner argues that, given the existence of suffering in the world, the best answer is to give up God’s omnipotence. That’s impossible, because if God isn’t omnipotent, then He isn’t what we call God. He’s some lesser deity in competition with various other forces in the world, essentially giving us dualism or polytheism.

However, what caught my attention is that Rabbi Kushner is willing to give up God’s omnipotence because it puts God clearly on our side. He wants to help us. He just doesn’t always have the power. And this notion really clarified for me the importance of Jesus in making monotheism intelligible in a world of suffering. Jesus is God With Us, Immanuel. He is the one who emptied himself, taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men. He is the one pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He is the one who was put to death for our trespasses. Who is more illustrative of God being on our side, with us in our suffering, than Jesus?

Granted, Jesus’ suffering does not answer the logical problem of evil, but I have thought for many years now that the problem of evil isn’t first and foremost a logical problem. It is a values problem. We don’t just feel the world doesn’t make sense when we suffer. We feel it is unjust. God on his high mountain does nothing while we suffer and die. No amount of good can make this bad right. And if this sense of injustice is our problem, the figure of Jesus is incalculably valuable. If our Lord was humbled, pierced, crushed, scourged, and killed, then why is it unfair that the same should happen to us? We have a Lord who can relate to our sufferings in every way.

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

The Agency of God

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Mormonism has been called an atheological religion, notably by philosopher James E. Faulconer in Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faulconer begins:

It is a matter of curiosity to many and an annoyance to some that it is sometimes difficult to get definitive answers from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to what seem like straightforward questions – questions of the form “Why do you believe or do x?” Latter-day Saints subscribe to a few basic doctrines, most of which they share with other Christians (such as that Jesus is divine) and some of which differentiate them, such as the teaching that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. They also accept general moral teachings, the kinds of things believed by both the religious and the non-religious. Apart from those, seldom can one say without preface or explanation what Latter-day Saints believe.

The explanation for this, according to Faulconer is that Mormonism is atheological, meaning “they are without an official or even semi-official philosophy that explains and gives rational support to their beliefs and teachings.”

Faulconer is right, and for the most part I see this as a feature rather than a bug. A lot of the strife in other Christian denominations has come precisely from the high stakes involved in authoritatively laying out doctrinal claims. This is why there are all those creeds out there, many of which not only played a role in religious wars and persecution, but frequently have no practical relevance today. In other words: a lot of people died for basically no good reason. By refusing to have any kind of an authoritative theology, Mormonism avoids that (metaphorical or literal) bloodbath and instead keeps the focus on the basics (for one) and on actions (for another).

One consequence—for good or ill—is that a lot of the tough questions that other denominations have scads of theological work on are basically wide-open fields. Such as: what is the nature of all that smiting and cursing that God foretells for the wicked through prophets? Does got really get angry—in a sense that we would understand—lose his temper and let natural disasters and wars and famines and plagues loose on the targets of his wrath? Or are those depictions in some sense metaphorical or hinting at some other, underlying reality that was either misunderstood by prophets at the time or intentionally misconstrued as a means to provoking better behavior?

For a Mormon: you’re kind of on your own.

Like most religious folks, we also tend to want to have it both ways. In the last General Conference (October 2017), Elder Rasband gave one of those “there are no coincidences” talks where every little (good) thing that happens is a sign of God’s micromanaging of our day-to-day lives. In the April 1977 General Conference, Elder Romney took up the flipside of this coin, arguing that God doesn’t intentionally smite anyone:

[L]et it not be supposed, now, that the Lord takes pleasure in these calamities. He does not. He graphically foretells the inevitable consequences of men’s sins for the purpose of inducing them to repent and thereby avoid the calamities.

So, if it’s a good thing that happens, we credit it to God’s personal intervention in our lives, no matter how small. But if it’s a bad thing that happens, we absolve God of any responsibility (i.e. we claim the “calamities” are “inevitable consequences” rather than divinely-willed punishment or retribution), not matter how big.

This is a tough conundrum, and I don’t have an answer. I believe God is all-loving, and I find this very hard to reconcile with a God who micromanages a world so full of suffering and injustice. It’s easier for me to imagine a God who is—perhaps because of the strictures of free will—more often than not constrained from direct intervention. On the other hand, it’s clear that what I’m doing is creating a theodicy to conform to my intuition of justice. It’s entirely possible that there are other solutions to the problem that reconcile God’s love and mortality’s seemingly senseless misery and beauty.

If you’re from an older, orthodox religion (like Catholics or Calvinists), then you’ve got literally dozens of tomes you can fall back on. There’s some comfort in that. On the other hand, you’re also bound down to one particular authoritative interpretation or the other. And that feels like a bad idea. Not only because I’m skeptical that anybody has really gotten it right, but also because in the end I think it detracts from what really matters.

I think it’s a lot less important—although clearly not irrelevant—how we interpret the problem of evil and other theological quagmires and much more important—positively vital—how we respond to those dilemmas with our actions. I’ll take an orthoprax religion without the answers over an orthodox religion with flawed answers any day of the week.

I  might even take an orthopraxy religion without the answers over a hypothetical orthodox religion with the right answers, to be honest.

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

And If You Starve To Death…

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The welfare session of the April 1976 General Conference was easy to love because it was full of my favorite themes: work and love as the alchemy that transform the routine into the holy. Here is one particular paragraph out of all the talks that stood out to me in particular, however. It was from Elder Featherstone’s talk, Food Storage:

I should like to address a few remarks to those who ask, “Do I share with my neighbors who have not followed the counsel? And what about the nonmembers who do not have a year’s supply? Do we have to share with them?” No, we don’t have to share—we get to share! Let us not be concerned about silly thoughts of whether we would share or not. Of course we would share! What would Jesus do? I could not possibly eat food and see my neighbors starving. And if you starve to death after sharing, “greater love hath no man than this …” (John 15:13.)

There is an entire sermon of meaning in the portion that I emphasized: “And if you starve to death after sharing…”

You might do the right thing and then die because of it. You would not be the first. We know this might be the outcome because it has been the outcome—for many people at many times and in many places—throughout history. There are no guarantees for you in this lifetime. Heaven’s promises are not confined to Earth’s horizons; they are greater and more distant.

Reward of Saint Sebastian by Eliseu Visconti, circa 1898. (Public Domain)

I have always admired aspects of existentialism because the image of a solitary man wringing meaning out of an uncaring, meaningless void by sheer force of will is tragically heroic. I love my faith because it weds that tragic heroism with the promise of a redemptive ending.

It truly is an exquisite setup that we’ve got here. Because we don’t really know—and, by and large, we simply have to admit that we don’t—about a life after this we are in a position where there is nothing fake, nothing artificial, nothing safe about sacrifice.

Yes, we hope and believe that no tears will fall unmarked, that all wrongs will be righted, and that a great reconciliation will one day heal every wound. That is our dream, but as long as we live in a world where God chooses to remain hidden this remains a dream and not a fact. And it is this absence of God, this lack of assurance that makes sacrifice possible. And sacrifice is the keystone of all virtues.

A saint is a person who embodies the existential ideal of doing good for its own sake and not for the hope of any possible reward. But existentialism is an unresolved chord. A saint hopes to hear the final note, the one that brings resolution to what the discord he has already experienced. Sometimes, in moments of greatest stillness, a saint may feel the fabric of the world vibrating I feel that final note they cannot yet hear, resonating just beyond the threshold of perception. A saint is an existentialist who hopes.

The nature of our mortal existence is such that—even when we understand intellectually why suffering and injustice are necessary—the knowledge can bring us no peace. If injustice, tragedy, or senseless suffering had answers that brought peace, they would be pointless. It is the lack of peace that holds the promise of purpose.

You could accuse me of intellectualizing suffering, of romanticizing tragedy, of trifling with what I cannot comprehend, and if you do I will have no ready response. We all swim in an ocean whose currents are deep and cold and perilous. If I were caught in one I would be powerless against it. I would be pulled into the cold darkness or I would be rescued, but I would not survive on my own. It is luck, so far, that has kept me from the riptide. I know this.

And yet I know one thing more.

Being overcome and being wrong are two different things.

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

Times & Seasons: Trials and Their Purpose

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I gave a talk this past Sunday in sacrament meeting on the theme “trials and their purpose.” I received a lot of good feedback and posted it at Times & Seasons. My main focus is that God does not “give” us trials in any literal sense. To do so would would, in most cases, violate natural law, human agency, or morality. Here are a couple excerpts:

In the opening of the Genesis account, the world is described as “without form, and void” (Gen. 1:2). The Book of Abraham states that it is “empty and desolate”; a place in which “darkness reigned” (Abr. 4:2). And yet, out of the darkness and chaos, God was able to fashion something he could declare as “good” (Gen. 1:25). God did not create the chaos, but he did forge something beautiful from it. Similarly, I seriously doubt that God is the one wreaking havoc in your lives, but he can plow through it with you until you emerge a (hopefully) more compassionate, loving, and empathic person on the other side. Consider the case of Joseph sold into Egypt. Following the death of Jacob, he told his now fearful brothers that while they “thought evil against [him]…God meant it unto good” (Gen. 50:20). It’s safe to say that God did not cause Laban to cheat Jacob, leading to the unhealthy competition between Leah and Rachel and the rift between their sons. God did not cause Joseph’s brothers to throw him into a pit or sell him into slavery. What God did do was redeem the evil situation for good. This is likely what Paul meant when he wrote that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28). Or what Lehi meant when he told Jacob that God would “consecrate thy afflictions for thy gain” (2 Ne. 2:2). Or even what the Lord meant when he told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail that his suffering would “give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Indeed, trials can give us experience and can work toward our good; what some have referred to as “soul-making.” Psychologists have described the positive outcomes of highly challenging life crises as “posttraumatic growth.” However, this is miles away from the claim that God willed Joseph Smith’s imprisonment. Indeed, God attributes it to Joseph’s captors being “servants of sin” and “children of disobedience” (D&C 121:17). But he does comfort Joseph with the promise that “thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (D&C 121:7-8).

…It should be recognized that Christ came to conquer death and hell (2 Ne. 9), which should indicate that they have no place in His kingdom, no eternal purpose. He came “to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12), not dole them out. He came to bring good news to the poor, not tell them that poverty is a great learning tool. He came to preach deliverance to the captives, not explain how prison and slavery would teach them valuable lessons. He was sent to heal the brokenhearted, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18); not to lecture them about how God works in mysterious ways. When the woman with an issue of blood touched his cloak, Jesus didn’t say, “That’s cute, but your 12-year hemorrhage is an excellent learning opportunity.” Instead, she was healed (Mark 5:25-34). When friends of the paralytic lowered him from the roof, Jesus didn’t say, “You know, I’m sure God is just trying to teach you something with this whole paralysis thing.” No, he forgave and healed him (Mark 2:1-12). If we want to know how we should think about trials and suffering, we should look to the Savior. He confronted evil and drove it out. He nurtured those suffering and relieved them of their afflictions. This is what His kingdom looks like. And if we are trying to build God’s kingdom here on earth, we should be engaged in the same kind of work. We are meant to build Zion in the midst of Babylon. We are meant to, as Joseph Smith put it, “turn the devils out of [hell’s] doors and make a heaven of it.” This doesn’t happen by resigning ourselves to evil and suffering, but by opposing it. But not only is Christ our example, he is our hope. He offers hope for a time when all these things will cease. And He offers hope in the present as one who loves and weeps with you in your trials.

Read the whole thing here.

The Doors of the Sea: Interview with David Bentley Hart

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for the doors of the seaIn preparation for an upcoming talk in church on “trials and their purpose,” I purchased Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. Written after the massive South Asian tsunami in 2004, Hart addresses the most common objection to God’s existence: the problem of evil. Instead of intellectualizing, justifying, and rationalizing the evil and suffering we see and experience in the world, Hart condemns it. He reminds readers that Christ was sent to conquer death and all those things associated with it. In short, death, evil, and suffering play no role in God’s ultimate purposes because these are the very things Christ’s atonement and resurrection are meant to be victorious over. Hart movingly concludes his book with the following:

[F]ortunately, I think — we Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day — to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children — and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, and the forces — whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance — that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

…As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (pgs. 101, 103-104).

You can see a brief interview with Hart below discussing the problem of evil below.

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!

The Lord Delights

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul by Pietro De Cortana (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Some General Conference talks hit me with such unexpected force that I can never be sure if there is something particularly forceful in the talk, something especially resonant in the hour, or some coincidence of circumstance that makes it stand out so clearly from the other (also good) talks of the session. I can’t explain it, but it’s what happened when I read Elder Marion D. Hanks’ talk, Trust in the Lord. I hope I can share a couple of reasons why I loved it so much.

The Lord delights to bless us with his love.

The idea that there is a God who not only does bless us with love, but who delights to do so is arresting. It reminds me of a quote from Jonathan Haidt that has always stuck with me:

Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence towards everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. (The Happiness Hypothesis, page 131)

Specificity is vital, and it goes both ways. God is not merely some generic, omnibenevolent abstraction. God is a title that refers to persons, like Jesus Christ and His Father, and they recognize and love each of us individually. This simple idea, that “The Lord delights to bless us with his love,” can pass by unnoticed like just another ornate phrase, but you should stop and really consider what it means. There is a person out there who sees you, who loves, and who is positively delighted to be able to bless your life.

But Elder Hanks’ talk is not all sunshine, and that is what made me love it all the more:

The power that remade Paul, that poured in love and washed out hostility and hate, did not save him from the great travails, from Nero’s dungeon or a martyr’s death. Christ lived in him, he said, he had found the peace of God that passed all comprehension. Nothing, not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, nor any other creature, could separate him from the love of Christ… Christ died on a cross, and won his victory; his disciples and followers also have been subject to the brute forces and foibles of this world, yet through enduring faith they have shared and will share in that victory.

The Problem of Evil is confounding, and yet I find that religion is never deeper, or more beautiful, or more vital than when it confronts this problem head-on. The idea of a loving God seems so absurd in contrast with a world full of tragedy, war, disease, and disaster. And yet, doesn’t the idea of a God being executed and hung on a cross seem just as absurd? The world mocked Christ and misunderstood His supreme victory as an ignominious defeat, confusing the end of His life with the beginning of our hope. This is a mistake we’ve made before.

Elder Hanks is not speaking theoretically, nor in the abstract:

I am not really thinking in the abstract, but I’m thinking of many noble souls who have met difficulties with courage, like my mother and many others who had little to rely upon—who had little but ingenuity and will and courage and faith. I’m thinking too of a more recent scene—a beautiful young face whiter than the hospital sheet upon which she lay, her sorrowing parents nearby grieving, as a relentless disease consumed her life. Comfort came to them in the quiet knowledge of the nearness of a Savior who himself had not been spared the most keen and intense suffering, who himself had drunk of the bitter cup.

It is awful what some of us are asked to go through. And—in terms of principles like fairness or justice—it is just as awful that so many of us are inexplicably not required to pay the same high price. I don’t think I could ever love or even respect any leader—including a God—who asked their followers to go through what they were not willing to do. But Jesus is not the kind of leader. Jesus did not shy from the shadows; he walked through the deepest shade.

This talk is more than a meditation on suffering and joy and darkness and light. It is a stirring and humble call to action:

We know that the Lord needs instruments of his love. He needs a Simon Peter to teach Cornelius, an Ananias to bless Paul, a humble bishop to counsel his people, a home teacher to go into the homes of the Saints, a father and mother to be parents to their children.

This is one of those talks that makes the General Conference Odyssey worth it for me. No matter how hectic and stressed my life becomes, my soul needs testimonies like these.

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

The Paths We Walk


This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

One of the most memorable of the talks I’ve read so far was Lost Battalions, which I read near the start of the General Conference Odyssey. The talk was by (then) Elder Thomas Monson. He has been serving as an apostle since 1963, when he was just 36 years old. That’s longer than I’ve been alive by almost two full decades. And yet because (to be perfectly honest) I haven’t paid such close attention to GC talks in the past, I’m only now beginning to get a real feel for his voice. And there’s more to it than just “tells stories.”

His talk for this week was called The Paths Jesus Walked, and it was filled with a lot of the same pathos as his earlier talk about the Lost Battalion. He described how Jesus walked the paths of disappointment, temptation, and pain. Not exactly cheery stuff, but definitely uplifting and encouraging when we feel our own paths are not all sunshine and roses:

Yes, each of us will walk the path of disappointment, perhaps due to an opportunity lost, a power misused, or a loved one not taught. The path of temptation, too, will be the path of each. . . Likewise shall we walk the path of pain. We cannot go to heaven in a feather bed. The Savior of the world entered after great pain and suffering. We, as servants, can expect no more than the Master. Before Easter there must be a cross.

I think I have heard somewhere—and I wish I could remember it—that because the Savior suffered, he made suffering sacred. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes we or others make choices that inflict needless pain. And so not all the pain that we experience in life is necessary. But all of it can be made meaningful.

President Monson also laid out the paths we can walk, as disciples, to find that meaning. We can walk the paths of obedience, of service, and of prayer. Obedience and service make sense; they cover a lot of ground. Walking the path of prayer seems more interesting, but I like that it is included. “It is by walking the path of prayer that we commune with the Father.”

I was struck by two more things from the talk. First:

Jesus changed men. He changed their habits, their opinions, their ambitions. He changed their tempers, their dispositions, their natures. He changed men’s hearts.

And so we have to ask the question: in what ways is our discipleship changing us? Are our habits, opinions, or ambitions changing? Our tempers, disposition, and natures? Can you look inside at your own life and point to the specific ways in which your heart has been changed? If not: why not? After all, “The passage of time has not altered the capacity of the Redeemer to change men’s lives. As he said to the dead Lazarus, so he says to you and me: ‘… come forth.’”

Second, speaking of Paul (then Saul) in the time just before his conversion, he said of the Old Testament that “For some reason, these writings did not reach Paul’s need.” This struck me as an unusually penetrating and frank insight to make. We almost always hear that the scriptures are powerful. And they are, nothing here contradicts that. But they are not always—by themselves—sufficient. It’s a reminder of the limitations of men and of the limitations of any one aspect of the Gospel. It implies that discipleship has to be full spectrum or there is no guarantee that it works. We have to strive to be well-rounded saints, or we won’t be saints at all.

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

“A Little Bit of Heaven on Earth”

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Last year, I made a joke at work about beginning an official book club for the linehaul department at our terminal. About a week later, one of my co-workers was texting all of us a list of books to choose from. We ended up choosing journalist and linguist Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race, which covered the very Mormon subject of genealogy. The book demonstrates the power of family history–both in regards to genetics and culture–in shaping our personal lives. Research continues to find that the experiences of individuals can be passed along genetically, including major trauma. Findings like this give new meaning to the common LDS/biblical phrase “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). The idea of creating “a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children” is an at-one-ment of generations. It is intergenerational healing and forgiveness:

For we without [our dead] cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times (D&C 128:18).

Through the sealing keys and covenants, we are integrated into a cosmological family, stretching from pre-mortality to the Adamic origins of the human race to worlds without end. Being “made perfect” through this integration is to become whole: to have an eternal sense of belonging and identity. Salvation and divinity is found in family.

I was reminded of this during Loren C. Dunn’s talk, in which he states that the “special ties between parents and children…tend to make the family organization a little bit of heaven on earth.” He goes on:

I am impressed by the fact that the plan of redemption and salvation for all mankind was worked out between a father and his son, even God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. I believe that one of the significant parts of the Joseph Smith story was when the angel Moroni told young Joseph to go to his father and relate to him everything that had happened. Even in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord was careful to recognize the relationship of this young boy to his father, and he made sure that nothing would damage it. Yes, the association of a father with his children can and should be a very special one.

Author and historian Dan Vogel has used Joseph Smith’s family dynamics as an interpretive lens to Smith’s prophetic career. Whether resolving conflict within his own family or mending the fractured nature of human history, Joseph Smith’s project was all about family. Dunn’s reminder that the architects behind the Plan of Salvation were family members is a subtle, but profound insight into what Joseph Smith called “the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism“: friendship. Or, perhaps more appropriate, kinship. “Love,” taught Joseph Smith, “is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”

If you can’t tell, I wasn’t all that impressed with this session. However, I thought Franklin D. Richards provided some food for thought when he said, “The story of most men and women who attain a degree of greatness and achievement is generally the story of a person overcoming handicaps. It appears that there are lessons that can only be learned through the overcoming of obstacles.” What hit me the hardest, though, was his point about sacred truths that emerge from suffering: “One of the great truths that came from the so-called prison temple, Liberty Jail, had to do with priesthood and Church government.”

I had to really dig for some good stuff this session. I’m hoping the next one is better.

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.