It’s been a few days since the end of conference, giving me enough time to piece together a few of my thoughts. I haven’t had time to completely read through all the talks yet, so I may do a few follow-up posts with some more in-depth thoughts on specific talks or themes. But wow! What a conference, right? President Nelson is keeping everyone on their toes, it seems. But it feels good too. This isn’t change for change’s sake; these are inspired directions for our day that I believe will all help us become better disciples of Christ. The changes are in themselves administrative in nature; God didn’t reveal to Adam from the beginning that church was to be three hours long. These changes are for our time; I think they are to help us shake off some of Zoramit-ish tendencies to rely too heavily on Church structure and administration for our salvation. In this respect, I really liked Elder Bednar’s summary of the strands of changes over the past 50 years or so all leading to a “higher and holier” way.
This year, I made the terrible mistake of actively following Twitter while listening to the talks. If you want to get the full spiritual experience of conference, I would now recommend against it. It is largely filled with a spirit of criticism and prone to catastrophizing. I can’t count all the complaints I read about representation of women in conference and the number of condemnations of Dallin H. Oaks. I am all for thoughtful discussion and voicing concerns and opposing viewpoints to the brethren. I know Elder Oaks said that in the Church, there is no “loyal opposition”, but I don’t think he meant that we shouldn’t turn off our thoughts and quietly accept everything the brethren say. I think open discussion is absolutely vital to any institution, even a Church. When President Eyring spoke up here in Seattle when he visited with President Nelson this past month, he stressed the responsibility of members to prayerfully consider the words of the prophets and actively seek confirming revelation; when we actively discuss and weigh the thoughts of the brethren, I feel it shows that we are taking them seriously. For example, here is a thoughtful piece by Jana Riess at the Salt Lake Tribune on the role of single members in the Church in response to Elder Oaks’ talk in the women’s session. This is a great example of thoughtfully interacting with the words of our leaders in a simultaneously respectful and productive way.
The Covenant Path
There are a few new hype words going around it seems like. Last year or the year before it was “hastening the work.” This year, the center is on “the covenant path” and “a higher and holier way.” “The covenant path” originates from a talk given by President Nelson shortly after he was sustained as President of the Church, as mentioned by President Oaks:
Our loving Heavenly Father wants His children to have the joy that is the purpose of our creation. That joyful destiny is eternal life, which we can obtain by pressing forward along what our prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, often calls “the covenant path.” Here is what he said in his first message as President of the Church: “Keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”
A blogger over a BCC put a thoughtful analysis in showing that the phrase “covenant path” didn’t actually originate with President Nelson, but has been developed by several sisters in Church leadership over the years. I found “the covenant path” mentioned a total of 25 times in all 5 sessions of conference. For example, Elder Rasband used it in his closing testimony:
Take heart, brothers and sisters. Yes, we live in perilous times, but as we stay on the covenant path, we need not fear. I bless you that as you do so, you will not be troubled by the times in which we live or the troubles that come your way.
Elder Gong referenced it several times throughout his talk:
Faith includes a desire and choice to believe. Faith also comes from obeying God’s commandments, given to bless us, as we follow His covenant path.
And Sister Craig and Sister Franco both mentioned it in the women’s session:
A few years ago, youth in the Church learned that “when you ‘embark in the service of God’ [Doctrine and Covenants 4:2], you’re joining the greatest journey ever. You’re helping God hasten His work, and it’s a great, joyful, and marvelous experience.” It’s a journey available to all—of any age—and is also a journey that takes us along what our beloved prophet has spoken of as “the covenant path.”
The unique covenantal theology of the Church of Jesus Christ really sets us apart, and I find it absolutely beautiful. Terryl Givens has a great section in his recent book Feeding the Flock explaining contrasting the different conceptions of covenants between the Church of Jesus Christ and other Christian churches. This section explains how the (pardon me, I need an adjective here) Mormon conception of apostasy centers around the loss of understanding of covenants:
In the Mormon conception, the apostasy does not represent some minor corruptions of sacramental words or ritual forms. It is not about supposedly wicked priests whom God punished by removing their priesthood. (Mormons are not Donatists; unworthy administrators do not invalidate the ordinance.)90 It is about a fundamental misapprehension of the background and purpose and extent of the covenant (premortal origins, mortal incarnation, and eventual theosis and sealing into eternal families) and the mode by which it is executed (temple covenants that effect the constituting of those chains of belonging, completing our journey from intelligence to deity). The apostasy did not consist of overly pessimistic accounts of human depravity and a universal fall but of losing sight of the Fall itself as a necessary and pre-meditated immersion of humankind into the crucible of experience, suffering, and schooling in the practice of love. Apostasy was not about baptizing at the wrong age or in the wrong medium. It was about not knowing that baptism makes us—all of us eventually—literally of Christ’s family and his co-heirs. It was not about simple difference in standards of sexual practice or marriage’s purpose per se. It is about failing to see marriage as a key mode of eternal association, associations that are at the very heart of what heaven is. In sum, Smith’s “Restoration” is not about correcting particular doctrines or practices as much as it is about restoring their cosmic context. Consequently, Mormon emphasis on proper priestly administrators is not about authority for authority’s sake. It is about officiators who understand the origins of that authority and the purposes for which priestly authority is to be exercised, and who can perform those sacred sacraments under God’s immediate direction, according to his original intentions and designs.
This fits in well with the conception of a covenant path. We don’t make covenants just because, but rather, because as we continue on the covenant path, we increase in ability and understanding as we become more like Christ. Covenants are central to that progression.
A Higher and Holier Way
Another oft-repeated phrase this conference was “a higher and holier way,” which I believe actually started last conference when ministering was introduced as a “higher and holier way” of caring for our brothers and sisters. Elder Cook mentioned it in this context and linked it to the home-centered and church-supported approach to church instruction:
Ministering in a higher and holier way is being joyfully adopted.
Elder Gong mentioned it a total of 5 times throughout his talk:
We rejoice in the invitation to devote our whole souls to seeking higher and holier ways to love God and those around us and to strengthen our faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in our hearts and in our homes and at church.
And Sister Craig and Sister Jones both mentioned it in the women’s session:
Sometimes we may initially serve from a sense of duty or obligation, but even that service can lead us to draw on something higher within us, leading us to serve in “a more excellent way”7—as in President Nelson’s invitation to “a newer, holier approach to caring for and ministering to others.”
My general reaction is positive; I link it in my mind to two scriptures: “a more excellent way” in the Pauline letters and the injunction in Isaiah that “my ways are not your ways and my thoughts not your thoughts.” But taken by itself, the comparison word holier also brings to mind the condescending attitude of holier than thou. As long as we continue to improve our personal ministries instead of trying to compare who is doing ministering “right”, I think we will be OK. This is an invitation to hallow ourselves and rededicate ourselves, like the people of King Benjamin.
I don’t have previous conferences to compare to, but I was a little surprised at how often “The Adversary” was invoked throughout the conference. I noticed the pattern while listening to the conference, but a word count shows “adversary” mentioned 8 times, “Satan” 8 times, and “devil” 3 times (although “devil” occurs all in scripture references). Let’s look at a few examples. In his opening talk in the first session, Elder Oaks at first makes a general statement about the necessity of opposition in God’s plan:
To be meaningful, mortal choices had to be made between contesting forces of good and evil. There had to be opposition and, therefore, an adversary, who was cast out because of rebellion and was allowed to tempt God’s children to act contrary to God’s plan.
The role of an adversary was apparently necessary to fulfill this plan. This is familiar doctrine to members of the Church and isn’t new. But then he connects that to the doctrine of the family:
We are beloved children of a Heavenly Father, who has taught us that maleness and femaleness, marriage between a man and a woman, and the bearing and nurturing of children are all essential to His great plan of happiness. Our positions on these fundamentals frequently provoke opposition to the Church. We consider that inevitable. Opposition is part of the plan, and Satan’s most strenuous opposition is directed at whatever is most important to God’s plan. He seeks to destroy God’s work. His prime methods are to discredit the Savior and His divine authority, to erase the effects of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to discourage repentance, to counterfeit revelation, and to contradict individual accountability. He also seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing—especially by parents who will raise children in truth.
This portion of the talk received a lot of criticism. I won’t go into it here, but I did feel like it came off a little strong– particularly with no direct mention of LGBT brothers and sisters within the Church who wrestle with these challenges. Elder Oaks is the one who taught the importance of both love and law, but it seemed this talk contained mostly law. Other talks balanced this out, and taken as a whole, I felt like conference was a message of love and inclusion. But I still feel like something is missing in our discourse surrounding LGBT issues in the Church, and I look forward to a day when LGBT members feel more at home here. I don’t know how that will happen or what it will look like, but I do believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”
While blaming Satan for changing attitudes in society is a regular thing in the Church, it came up in I feel like a larger portion of talks than usual. Elder Carpenter taught that Satan tempts us to put off our repentance:
The adversary often uses fear to prevent us from acting immediately upon our faith in Jesus Christ. When loved ones are confronted with the truth about sinful behavior, while they may feel deeply wounded, they often want to help the sincerely repentant sinner to change and to reconcile with God. Indeed, spiritual healing accelerates when the sinner confesses and is surrounded by those who love them and help them to forsake their sins. Please remember that Jesus Christ is mighty in how He also heals the innocent victims of sin who turn to Him.
Elder Nelson taught that the increasing strength of Satan’s assault calls for more temple attendance:
My dear brothers and sisters, the assaults of the adversary are increasing exponentially, in intensity and in variety.3 Our need to be in the temple on a regular basis has never been greater.
Sister Craig taught that Satan gives us feelings of discouragement:
We should welcome feelings of divine discontent that call us to a higher way, while recognizing and avoiding Satan’s counterfeit—paralyzing discouragement. This is a precious space into which Satan is all too eager to jump. We can choose to walk the higher path that leads us to seek for God and His peace and grace, or we can listen to Satan, who bombards us with messages that we will never be enough: rich enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, anything enough. Our discontent can become divine—or destructive.
Elder Eyring taught that Satan is responsible for the increasing commotion in the world:
All of us live in a world where Satan’s war against truth and against our personal happiness is becoming more intense. The world and your life can seem to you to be in increasing commotion. My reassurance is this: the loving God who allowed these tests for you also designed a sure way to pass through them.
And President Nelson dramatically taught that using the word “Mormon” rather that “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” is a “victory for Satan”:
What’s in a name or, in this case, a nickname? When it comes to nicknames of the Church, such as the “LDS Church,” the “Mormon Church,” or the “Church of the Latter-day Saints,” the most important thing in those names is the absence of the Savior’s name. To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan. When we discard the Savior’s name, we are subtly disregarding all that Jesus Christ did for us—even His Atonement.
The reality of the adversary is a doctrine central to the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ. I also appreciate the caricature of “shoulder devils” portrayed in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and I know that Satan is real. But I do feel rather cautious about attributing modern events and the motivations of other people to Satan. Like Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, I’m a bit of an optimist, and tend to feel that things are getting better, not worse in the modern era. Technology presents new challenges, but evil has been present throughout history to horrendous extents. Slavery was a great evil. Nazi Germany was one of the greatest evils ever performed. And isn’t Sodom and Gomorrah, a city of ancient date, a symbol of evil?
Elder Soares used the two rivers that flow together to form the Amazon River as a symbol of the many individuals and cultures that flow together in the Church:
In a similar way that the Solimões and Negro Rivers flow together to make the great Amazon River, the children of God come together in the restored Church of Jesus Christ from different social backgrounds, traditions, and cultures, forming this wonderful community of Saints in Christ. Eventually, as we encourage, support, and love each other, we combine to form a mighty force for good in the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, flowing as one in this river of goodness, we will be able to provide the “fresh water” of the gospel to a thirsty world.
This struck me with great force while I was listening to it. If we are like these rivers flowing together, we as individuals are the “stuff” that the Church is made of. Perhaps that sounds obvious. But sometimes we feel that we are the things the Church is “acting on.” Yes: just like in the river analogy, we change as we “mix” with others. But we also form an integral part of the whole. We can make the Church better with what we bring to the table.
I loved Elder Gong’s talk because, you could say it made creativity a Christlike attribute:
There is joy in imagining, learning, doing worthwhile new things. This is especially true as we deepen faith and trust in Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. We cannot love ourselves enough to save ourselves. But Heavenly Father loves us more and knows us better than we love or know ourselves. We can trust the Lord and lean not unto our own understanding.
I feel like creativity is sometimes undervalued in the Church. Elder Bednar took the checklist mentality to task, but I feel that part of that is ingrained in the Church at the moment. To be a disciple requires a little creativity: to respond in the moment to the promptings of the Spirit requires you to get outside your comfort zone. Revelation is new ideas that weren’t there before, and being open to new ideas is necessary to being teachable.
Elder Uchtdorf’s talk immediately got me with not one, but two, references to German (Weltschmerz and German shepherd)! What I liked about Elder Uchtdorf’s talk was his building from the negative, pessimistic, hopeless view expressed by Solomon in Ecclesiastes (when I first read this in the Bible, I was like, “Is this really scripture? This guy is absolutely hopeless!”) to the joyful life of the disciple of Christ. Elder Uchtdorf’s talks always manage to wrestle with a difficult topic, such as crises of faith, while being absolutely filled with hope centered in Christ. I appreciate that complexity and depth.
The talks by Elder Soares’s and Elder Uchtdorf addressed two groups in the Church on, you could say, opposite sides of a spectrum: those coming into the Church and those who feel like they are on their way out of the Church. First, Elder Soares:
My dear friends, in such moments, those of us who are at different points in the long journey of discipleship must extend a warm hand of fellowship to our new friends, accept them where they are, and help, love, and include them in our lives. All of these new friends are precious sons and daughters of God. We cannot afford to lose even one of them because, like the Amazon River that depends on tributaries feeding it, we need them just as much as they need us, to become a mighty force for good in the world.
Looking at the text, Elder Uchtdorf wasn’t limiting his remarks to disaffected members of the Church. But I felt this passage in particular felt like it was addressed to those who had had a bad experience with the Church or its members, and with good reason as well:
You will find that this Church is filled with some of the finest people this world has to offer. They are welcoming, loving, kind, and sincere. They are hardworking, willing to sacrifice, and even heroic at times.
And they are also painfully imperfect.
They make mistakes.
From time to time they say things they shouldn’t. They do things they wish they hadn’t.
But they do have this in common—they want to improve and draw closer to the Lord, our Savior, even Jesus Christ.
They are trying to get it right.
They believe. They love. They do.
They want to become less selfish, more compassionate, more refined, more like Jesus.
This felt so good to hear coming to Elder Uchtdorf. I feel a sense of relief when we are able to admit our faults. I don’t have to keep pretending imperfections don’t exist or trying to explain away faults in our history. Thank you, Elder Uchtdorf, for helping us be a little more vulnerable as a people.
The two talks that absolutely shone on the Sunday sessions were Sister Cordon and Elder Gay. Sister Cordon began her talk with an anecdote that initially got a laugh, but she pulled an absolutely profound lesson from it, all within the first minute of her talk:
A year ago, a Primary child I met in Chile brought a smile to my face. “Hello,” he said, “I am David. Will you talk about me in general conference?” In quiet moments, I have pondered David’s unexpected greeting. We all want to be recognized. We want to matter, to be remembered, and to feel loved. Sisters and brothers, each of you matter. Even if you are not spoken of in general conference, the Savior knows you and loves you. If you wonder if that is true, you need only contemplate that He has “graven [you] upon the palms of [His] hands.”
I know I wasn’t the only one who immediately felt that she was addressing me. It has a lot of emotions tied up in there: at first, I felt silly for identifying with this little attention-seeking boy; is just wanting to be mentioned in general conference really a noble motive? Is wanting a conference talk addressed about my needs and concerns slightly selfish? But then, Sister Cordon followed it with validation: we matter. Our needs matter. God’s grace can take place in each one of our lives, no matter what we struggle with.
Elder Gay told two stories that pulled you into them, because they illustrate both the deep need to be loved and the depth of the love that others give and that we should aim to give ourselves. Both were poignant for different reasons. The first was a personal experience with his sister:
A few years ago my older sister passed away. She had a challenging life. She struggled with the gospel and was never really active. Her husband abandoned their marriage and left her with four young children to raise. On the evening of her passing, in a room with her children present, I gave her a blessing to peacefully return home. At that moment I realized I had too often defined my sister’s life in terms of her trials and inactivity. As I placed my hands on her head that evening, I received a severe rebuke from the Spirit. I was made acutely aware of her goodness and allowed to see her as God saw her—not as someone who struggled with the gospel and life but as someone who had to deal with difficult issues I did not have. I saw her as a magnificent mother who, despite great obstacles, had raised four beautiful, amazing children. I saw her as the friend to our mother who took time to watch over and be a companion to her after our father passed away.
I loved this story for so many reasons. Elder Gay had to let go of a convenient heuristic that many members use: if you aren’t a member or you aren’t active, there’s something wrong with you. It gives you permission to judge or to harbor a condescending attitude. I felt like this talk gave members permission to let that fall away. Love you children who leave the church. Love you transgender, gay, and lesbian friends. Not just out of a Christlike obligation to do so, but from a recognition that they are worth loving, and have so much to contribute.
The second story brought me to a sense of awe at to what depths others are willing to go to take care of someone in need. It’s a story from the life of Elder Talmage:
As a young professor, before he became an Apostle, in the height of the deadly diphtheria epidemic of 1892, Elder Talmage discovered a family of strangers, not members of the Church, who lived near him and who were stricken by the disease. No one wanted to put themselves at risk by going inside the infected home. Elder Talmage, however, immediately proceeded to the home. He found four children: a two-and-a-half-year-old dead on the bed, a five-year-old and ten-year-old in great pain, and a weakened thirteen-year-old. The parents were suffering with grief and fatigue.
Elder Talmage dressed the dead and the living, swept the rooms, carried out the soiled clothing, and burned filthy rags covered with the disease. He worked all day and then returned the next morning. The ten-year-old died during the night. He lifted and held the five-year-old. She coughed bloody mucus all over his face and clothes. He wrote, “I could not put her from me,” and he held her until she died in his arms. He helped bury all three children and arranged for food and clean clothing for the grieving family. Upon returning home, Brother Talmage disposed of his clothes, bathed in a zinc solution, quarantined himself from his family, and suffered through a mild attack of the disease.
Elder Talmage went beyond the I’ll-bring-a-plate-of-cookies-by level of care. He was willing to risk his life. Would I do that? It brought me to serious self-reflection, because I know I’m not there yet. And it gave it a sense of urgency. There are people that need me. I need to find ways to reach out to the many in need all around me. I can’t let them go without finding someone willing to love them.
Pardon the wandering nature of my thoughts here. They were just my initial impressions while listening to the talks, nothing more. I haven’t been able to work out anything beyond them yet. I have enjoyed reading a few other thoughts from others, including
I will also be having a guest post here in the next week from my friend David K. David is one of my best friends and a very thoughtful person, and I look forward to reading him post-conference ruminations.