Special Experiences

Elder Rasband’s talk in the recent General Conference is, for the most part, a distillation of Elder Bednar’s “Tender Mercies” talk from a few years ago and Elder Eyring’s similar talk from last October. At its heart is a call for us as members to examine our own lives for evidences of God.

I do not want to be seen as mocking the Lord’s anointed, but it strikes me that Elder Rasband gets an awful lot of traction in this talk out of one of the vaguest stock phrases in the patriarchal blessing playbook, as it were. He says:

My patriarchal blessing indicates that I would be given special experiences that would strengthen my own testimony.

In particular, Elder Rasband focuses on the word experiences, using it in the title of the talk and several times throughout. “Experience” in itself doesn’t really mean much, which allows Elder Rasband to use it to describe a wide range of situations, emotions, inspirations, and confirmations. I am reminded in this of Elder Holland’s recent parable of the dress pattern, that the generic exhortations of the Brethren will necessarily be adjusted to the individual lives of the Saints.

Elder Rasband isn’t universalizing experience entirely however. He wants us to examine our lives for those events that teach us about God:

As experiences accumulate in our lives, they add strength and support to each other. Just as the building blocks of our homes support the rest of the structure, so too do our personal life experiences become building blocks for our testimonies and add to our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…
Brothers and sisters, think of the special experiences you have been blessed with in your life that have given you conviction and joy in your heart. Remember when you first knew that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet of the Restoration? Remember when you accepted Moroni’s challenge and knew that the Book of Mormon was indeed another testament of Jesus Christ? Remember when you received an answer to fervent prayer and realized that your Heavenly Father knows and loves you personally? As you contemplate such special experiences, don’t they give you a sense of gratitude and resolve to go forward with renewed faith and determination?

These are do not express the limits of what Elder Rasband asks us to search out, but rather these are offered as a starting point. He proceeds to tell the story of his visit with some Peruvian saints. It is a beautiful evocative story of faith in what are unusual circumstances. It also offers some insight into Elder Rasband’s feelings about being a General Authority of the Church. After extolling the faith and self-sufficiency of the Saints he met on Lake Titicaca, he states:

Before we were to leave, one of the mothers asked if we would kneel with them and have a family prayer. I remember well kneeling on the spongy reeds with these faithful Saints. As we knelt, she asked if I would say the prayer and, using the Melchizedek Priesthood, dedicate their new island and home.

I was deeply humbled that, there on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, these faithful Latter-day Saint families would ask me to pray for the little island of Apu Inti and ask the Lord to bless the homes and families of the Lujanos and Jallahuis.

The kicker is that Elder Rasband knows that these families are perfectly able to bless the house themselves. They are sufficient, they have the Priesthood, they are worthy. However, they chose out of the goodness of their hearts and out of a demonstration of faith to allow him this opportunity. What they have done is not an act of entrenched colonialism, although it might be tempting to read it that way. How Elder Rasband experiences it is as an act of love, allowing and trusting him to be an intimate participant in their lives.

Elder Rasband’s talk, an example of General Conference generality, asks us to move away from the universal and to dive into the specifics of our own lives for such examples. As such, I find it inspirational.

Comments

  1. Randall says:

    I’m struggling to understand your over-riding thesis. As I read your discussion, it seems that you really didn’t approve of Brother Rasband’s talk (especially the colonialism), but were trying to convince yourself that you did.

    I heartily agree that spiritual experiences are almost uniquely idiosyncratic. I think we can predict which kinds of events, music, words will generally inspire them, but they are always passed through a filter of our own beliefs.

    For example, the song “Praise to the Man” is a powerful homage to Joseph Smith that can be quite inspirational, but it always goes south for me in the 4th verse.

    Similarly, I’ll often look around in church when a talk is being given that I feel has strong patriarchal currents. I can tell that the Spirit is affecting others by the beautiful family experiences that are being shared, but I’m getting caught up with all sorts of other analyses and the spirit gets jammed in my feminist filter.

    The most difficult experience for me is when an experience slips through my cognitive defenses and provokes and spiritual reaction with something for which I’m opposed. I find myself fighting against it (i.e. “There’s no way I’m going to have a spiritual confirmation of this tired 3 Nephites story, come on body, shut it off”).

  2. Last Wednesday my students and I were on the floating islands of the Urus and last summer two of the students with me, John Garrard and his wife Jena Nagamine were on Apu Inti interviewing the people there about their conversion to the Church.

    The floating islands, made of reed roots and compacted layers of reeds have an impact with their fragility and human ingenuity. The people who live on these Islands are remnants of what was a very large population in the Andes at the time of the conquest, the Water People or Uru-Chipaya-Puquina. They used to speak a language that may be related to the lowland Arawak family. But only a few grandparents among the Urus still know Uru. Almost everyone else has switched to Spanish.

    While some Urus live on Islands remote from the constant flood of tourists on Lake Titicaca, most live from tourism now, rather than simply from fishing and hunting. Apu Inti is one of the tourist islands. It is a new island. With population growth new Islands must be formed or people must leave to find work in the mainland cities.

    John C. I too am moved by Elder Rasband’s visit to Apu Inti. The Church is strong and growing in the city of Puno in whose bay Apu Inti is found.

    A question though, are love and entrenched colonialism mutually exclusive?

  3. Correction: The Urus have switched to Aymara and increasingly speak Spanish.

  4. Randall,
    a central thesis? Since when are such things necessary in blogposts? I suppose I am engaged in a type of apologetic for myself and decided to publish it. Also I would discourage you from shutting out spiritual experiences. You can learn a lot from the weird ones. I was once prompted strongly that the Reverend Moon was doing the work of God. I chalked it up to either God’s mysterious ways or a misfire of my synapses. Either way, the possibility it was intended is intriguing.

    David,
    Of course they are not. I was just interested that Elder Rasband’s reaction, which could have been one wherein he benignly acknowledged his right to preside, was one of humble shock, which would be something more akin to what I would do. I suppose that he could have insisted on one of the Familial elders dedicating the house, but that too can be its own form of colonialism.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    John, why’s he using ‘experiences’ so much?

  6. John, I was unsure of whether or not you were expressing dislike or approval of Elder Rasband’s talk at first, but I do have a question. You quote these items of “special experiences” as spiritual starting points:

    Brothers and sisters, think of the special experiences you have been blessed with in your life that have given you conviction and joy in your heart. Remember when you first knew that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet of the Restoration? Remember when you accepted Moroni’s challenge and knew that the Book of Mormon was indeed another testament of Jesus Christ? Remember when you received an answer to fervent prayer and realized that your Heavenly Father knows and loves you personally?

    How do we help someone who is struggling even to get to these “starting points”? Many of the young people I have worked with in the church are struggling to even get to the starting gate, by these definitions. They seem like pretty tall first steps.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    Kevinf,

    Yes. And, additionaly, they are not experiences that have been universally shared, as the talk seems to indicate. I didn’t get my testimony of the BoM in the proscribed way – probably because I didn’t have a sincere heart or real intent till rather later on, by which time many experiences had lead me to accept the BoM. Similarly, I have no memory of when I “first knew” Joseph Smith was a prophet. Rather, several experiences whittled away at whatever resistance (probably never that strong) I had to the idea.

    “They seem like pretty tall first steps.”

    As they should be, yes? We don’t learn how to access spiritual gifts easily. I think we’ve done a disservice when we suggest – say, to investigators – that _all_ they must do is read a few passages from the BoM, pray and get a good feeling. Obviously, some people are right on that envelope where they are ready for spiritual experiences of the kind. For others, maybe we’ve done them a disservice when we present as a simple thing what may be, for them, a rather more drawn out process.

    That said, I think Elder Rasband’s talk is great. I certainly have many “special”* experiences, and I often remember them to myself to help me get … through.

    ~

  8. Steve,
    I think that he uses experiences because it is a noun that has been endowed with Mormon-specific meaning. I remember reading in the commitment-pattern-era Missionary Handbook that I was supposed to get a cadre of “personal experiences” from which I was to explain gospel principles to investigators. It is in that sense that Elder Rasband is using them. So I think we are beginning to see a new Mormon usage here, similar to our usage of ordinance, immersion, and preside.

    Kevinf,
    This is not a talk to those new to the faith. It is to those who have already had those experiences and may need to draw on them in tough times, I guess. So, I think that Elder Rasband might just counsel those struggling in early faith to keep on trying and trust in God. Wow, that’s a little trite, isn’t it!

    Thomas P.,
    I agree, but again, this is clearly a talk that is directed at the longtime member, not the newbie or investigator.

  9. This is not a complicated talk to understand no matter who or where a person is spiritually. People have “building blocks” and “experiences” no matter what their religion. It is the nature of man. I know we all tend to be ethnocentric in our thinking, but the basic premise is the same for all…we all have challenges that will either kill us or make us stronger. No matter who we are or where we live, we all have challenges. It is how we react that makes us who we are

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