General Conference Redux

It’s been, to be perfectly candid, quite some time since I really, really enjoyed a General Conference. Of course I always get something out of it. I usually pay pretty close attention, and it is almost always an informative, and on some level thought-provoking, if predictable and somewhat boring experience. I don’t know why this time was different — it likely had as much to do with my own level of engagement and focus as with anything about the conference itself — but it was.

I usually see a smattering of talks, where people say the same things (lots and lots of quoting from previous conference talks) in the same ways (that uniquely Mormon delivery style we’ve all come to know and, ahem, appreciate) over and over again, with this or that gospel ideal conveyed via mundane anecdote or metaphor, or diluted into the most abstract of abstracted principles. Occasionally someone says something standard in a new and interesting way, sometimes with unusual clarity or even power, but those moments, in my personal experience, tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. This time, I saw key and highly relevant themes running persistently through the addresses, witnessed the power of words and speech in more than scattered moments. I walked away, for the first time in a long time, with a sense of a coherent and unified message — and this, without even having had the opportunity yet to spend time reading the talks and thinking at greater length about their implications.

First, many of the speakers, especially those from the ranks of upper leadership, went out of their way to express awareness of the difficulties we all face at this particular moment — not just “life is difficult” or “satan is working hard” or “temptations abound” kind of generalizations, but specific, concrete problems of today: Fear, despair, disillusionment, spiritual and moral decay, financial crisis, poverty, environmental degradation, war, social and political division. The historical crisis of Fall, 2008, was very much the backdrop against which our leaders framed their words and in terms of which they councilled us. Here’s what I heard them saying:

Don’t take yourselves so seriously. Of course we all face problems, have real fears and undeniable concerns. But we also need some perspective. We’re not entitled, Elder Perry reminded us, to a lifestyle of unbridled lavish and unending comfort. He invoked Thoreau’s experience at Walden, lessons about needs and wants and the difference between them, and reminded us that we have always been councilled to live modestly, completely within our means. We need to take our problems less seriously (Elder Wirthlin), learn to laugh at them when possible. We need to take our intellects less seriously (Monsieur Causse), as well as our anger and sense of victimization (Elder Hales) — Christian courage = loving enemies and meekness. It is more important to act like Christians than to be identified as such by our critics/enemies. “The high ground is where the light is.” Elder Bednar even suggested that we take our righteous desires perhaps just a bit less seriously, encouraging us to pray with more gratitude and less supplication. President Uchtdorf tied the themes together during his Saturday morning address by juxtaposing faith, hope, and charity with fear, dispair, and hate. We are, he admonished, commanded to have hope, as a catalyst for charity, and to resist the “temptation to lose hope.”

Other things, however, we were admonished to take very seriously. The sacredness of the sacrament (Elder Oaks); the Book of Mormon as an instrument for true conversion (Elder Aidukaitis); the ministry of (mortal and immortal) angels (Elder Holland); the importance of prayer (Elder Bednar); the real power of God through Christ (Elder Corbridge); and the possibilities of Zion and our duty to build it up (Elder Christofferson).

Elder Christofferson’s talk on establishing Zion seemed to tie the larger separate themes of the conference together nicely. He grounded his discussion in a framework of temple covenants. “We are to become not only good,” he admonished, “but holy men and women.” That means giving up “the summer cottage in Babylon.” At times his rhetoric verged on Nibleyesque. He declared soberly: “Throughout history the Lord has measured societies and individuals by how well they have cared for the poor,” and quoted D&C 104:17-18 in support of the claim. “In your temporal things you should be equal.” This is not an abstracted Zion of the well-intentioned. “As we pursue the cause of Zion, each of us should prayerfully consider whether we are doing what we should and all that we should, in the Lord’s eyes, with respect to the poor and the needy.” In the wake of the (still ongoing) financial crisis he warned of dire consequences for “societies that worship possessions and pleasures,” and of “the lust to acquire more and more of the world’s goods,” as opposed to being “content with what is sufficient for our needs.” At this turning point in history, when a bitter reality has checked our obsession with our economic growth and finding ever more artful and sophisticated ways of fueling it and profiting off of it, we are told to consider “the building up of Zion as our greatest object.”

President Uchtdorf echoed some of this in his priesthood meeting address, where he retold the Rich Man and Lazarus story, emphasizing that those who neglect the poor will end up in hell. “The Lord is pleased with a noble servant and not with a self-serving noble.” President Eyring called for unity and collective generosity (echoing last month’s First Presidency message), enabled by God’s power and true revelation, in the face of increasing global strife and balkanization, reminding us that the truths we share as Latter-day Saints and as children of God are more important than anything that can divide us. And President Monson reminded the men Saturday night that the priesthood is the power not to rule or dominate, but to bless and serve.

President Monson asked some of the general authorities he has recently called (many of them converts) to speak. I loved this because it not only demonstrated the growth and internationalization of the Church, but furnished very compelling accounts of personal conversion. This is a very strong First Presidency. President Eyring understands the structures and inner workings of the Church — he’s been in the presiding bishopric, headed CES, been president of BYU — perhaps better than any person alive. President Uchtdorf is possibly the most charismatic leader the Church has seen since President Brown. The dude is being magnified. And signs of President Monson’s influence and vision are omnipresent.

This conference was outstanding in part because I heard three of the absolute best talks I’ve ever heard (Elder Christofferson’s and both of President Uchtdorf’s). But more than that, when conference was over I had the profound sense that, beneath the heavy hand of correlated phraseology and eyes-glazing-over general authority cadence, I heard the voice of God:

I get that you live in an unstable, often frightening world. Believe me, I understand. But get over yourself. You have at your disposal sacred and powerful tools and there are people to lift and Zions to build.

Get to work.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the summary! With 3 kids it’s hard to really pay attention to all of conference and although it seemed fine to me, I wasn’t able to put the messages together with the themes you have. Very well done.
    I’m not sure what you mean here, though,

    And signs of President Monson’s influence and vision are omnipresent.

    Perhaps I’m not as tuned in as I should be, but if you could elaborate, I’d appreciate it.
    Also, speaking of P. Monson, I didn’t see you refer specifically to his address, which I thought was very universal, “Change happens, make it good.” and not very Mormon, if you will.
    What are your thoughts on P. Monson’s message(s) and how they played into the themes you noticed?

  2. Wonderful overview! Thank you for threading it together.

  3. I had a similar response to Brad so not to speak for him and as only a tangential response to Jessawhy, here’s what I said over at AMV:

    Perhaps it was just me but I thought that his blend of anecdotes (personal, scriptural, historical and literary), scriptural phrases, homilies and testimony was more cohesive and elegantly structured than it ever has been. I haven’t been a huge fan of his style over the years (although loving his personality and service and enjoying many of his stories), but the way he moved from carpe diem to gratitude really touched me and taught me just now.

  4. #1 — Pres Monson always has a universalizing impulse that tends to make his addresses not peculiarly Mormon. That said, part of the universal appeal is the ethical-Christianity/social-gospel emphasis of his ministry. This is not to criticize different leaders of the past, but I’m getting a sense of three large concerns in his vision: 1) The Christian and Mormon imperative to serve, to uplift, and to focus those efforts on the socially marginal — the poor, the elderly, the sick, widows, and even inactive members; 2) less emphasis on acceptance in the broader world and more on distinctiveness and separateness as a holy community and people (not a night-and-day thing, just a subtle shift in framing key questions of Mormon duty); 3) more emphasis on looking inward and to our own personal contact with God and His spirit as a source for direction. That doesn’t mean we don’t still look to leaders, but there seems to be an important distinction here — some believe that we have access to God’s spirit to tell us to obey leaders, others that our leaders tell us to listen to the spirit, to on a personal level cultivate the ability to discern right and wrong action under the direction of unmediated inspiration. We all believe in both approaches to varying extent, but the follow-the-prophet rhetoric seems to have been dialed down a bit lately. We do listen to and obey our leaders, but they are telling us more and more to follow the dictates of the holy spirit, to take a more active role in seeking and discerning God’s will for us and not just simply look to the pulpit for answers.

  5. I definitely noticed the same threads, but hadn’t weaved some of the talks you mentioned into my own sense of the whole, so nicely done. This conference really got my attention more than in past years as well. Präsident Uchtdorf, in particular, was electrifying for me (and in my wife’s case, for more than what he just said…”Dream Boat Uchtdorf,” ladies?)

  6. Well put, Brad. I need to mull a better response over, but you have express my feelings regarding conference nicely. Particularly the message to not care so much about the world, but to be sober in the gospel.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    Thanks Brad. You noticed many of the same things I did, but said them better.

    So now the only thing left for me to say is that aphorism about great minds…

  8. The critical message I saw running through everything was personal consecration and commitment to work God’s will, not one’s own; this ties in nicely with your observations.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Also, I don’t know who else saw it, but on the BYU channel available on satellite dish, they showed a production about Pres. monson’s life between sessions on Sunday. I found his testimony about hearing the voice of Christ admonish him to “Suffer the children” to be very compelling.

  10. I dont’ know that many messages from this conference really stuck with me, but I remember in the Saturday morning session I finally got a witness of President Monson as a prophet of God. Not because he’s the head of a church which is “true”, or because he was set apart by men I believe to be apostles; but because he is a prophet of God in his own right.

    Does that make any sense whatsoever?

  11. Excellent summary, Brad. I loved Pres. Hinckley, and I never thought I would have another FP like Hinckley/Monson/Faust, but this one . . .

    I was struck particularly by the emphasis on the poor and needy.

  12. Does that make any sense whatsoever?

    Yes. I remember specific moments — two of them to be precise (I blogged about one here) — when I experienced something profound that witnessed to me that President Hinckley was a true prophet, specifically God’s chosen servant to lead His church. It’s not that I didn’t believe that before, or that I only kind of believed it between the two major witnesses, but those experiences did change something. I’m not sure I’ve had it yet with President Monson. In spite of having a really profound sense that he has assumed control of things and is moving the Church forward according to his inspired vision, I still haven’t had that earth-shaking, major witness of his calling. I expect to.

  13. Excellent summary. I have to admit I nodded off more than once and will certainly have to go review many talks. This provides me with added motivation/inspiration to do so. Thanks!

  14. This conference also struck me with more impact, but that seems to be happening with each of the last couple of conferences as well.

    I came away with one of your themes, Brad, which is to be more Christ-like and charitable in all that we do. I appreciated Pres. Uchtdorf’s and Pres. Eyring’s talks especially, and my personal takeaway is “Stand together, and lift where you stand.”

    The special on Pres. Monson between sessions just highlighted for me what an exceptional, yet utterly common, individual he is.

  15. Brad,
    Thanks for your explanation. I hadn’t noticed the subtle changes you mention, but I will certainly look for them when I get my Ensign next month.
    I, for one, am grateful to see the “Follow the Prophet” rhetoric dialed down a little bit.
    I’m also glad to hear more focus on the poor and the needy. Good timing when most people are feeling poor and needy.

  16. What a nice summary, Brad. Thank you for writing down these thoughts tying it all together.

  17. merrybits says:

    Thanks Brad! Well done. I too enjoyed the show about Monson’s life – especially the part where he recounts (with a wrinkling forehead) being a 12 year old boy and not wanting to be hugged and kissed by strangers (he had just saved their daughter from drowning). It was a very human, real, and touching moment. I love him.

  18. Very nice, Brad. I only got to watch in snippets while juggling kids, so your wrap-up makes me eager for the Ensign next month. Thanks!

  19. More thanks…

    I had to giggle and nod in agreement as a I read your description of “GA cadence” and “Mormon style delivery”.

    As the writer of an environment/LDS blog, I am curious about the “environmental degradation” that you mention hearing about in conference. Was it the passing comment about sustainable energy, or did I miss a more direct statement?

  20. Jim Donaldson says:

    Speaking of cadence and delivery, someone should do a study of vocabulary used during GC, I bet it is a very limited subset of the huge English vocabulary. Especially without Neal Maxwell.

    Having said that, I pretty much enjoyed it myself. Any conference that does more than just quote a one-liner from Thoreau is terrific in my mind.

    And anytime somebody encourages us not to take ourselves too seriously, I jump up and start dancing and waving my arms.

    Off to buy a few more white shirts…

  21. I had a similar experience, one that I wanted to post on. (Maybe I still will.) I really like the way you tied this all together.

  22. Speaking of the vocabulary and delivery of the GAs, does anyone know where the idiom “even Jesus Christ” comes from? I always saw President Hinckley do it most often (it was sort of the corollary to the infamous “Hinckley Genitive”), but did it originate with someone before him? It is an interesting figure of speech and I have never heard it anywhere outside an LDS meeting.

  23. Interesting question. It appears to be an appositional marker. It’s used this way in the KJV a few times, such as Acts 9:17, Romans 15:6, 2Co 1:3 and 19, 1Th 1:10, 1Ti 6:3, Heb 6:20, 1Jo 5:6, 20.

    I don’t have access to the OED at home, but one of the uses/definitions is that “even” is “used as an intensive for stressing the identity or truth of something.” See #19 here.

    President Monson seems to have internalized the phrase.

  24. Token Average Member says:

    Thank you, thank you for this post.

    I decided to watch conference on my computer this time and it was a mistake. Mundane things kept getting in my way and I missed bits and pieces of several talks. In April it will be back to the Branch to watch even if it means I have to get dressed!

    #4 -I have noticed that we seem to be moving toward more ‘spiritual self-sufficiency’ and away from being commanded in all things. I am glad to hear that one of the things we are still being told to do is care for the poor.

  25. I thought that Elder Lawrence Corbridge of the Seventy gave one of the finest talks that I’ve heard in General Conference in many a year. I hope that those who haven’t seen it will get an opportunity because I don’t think that reading it will have the same effect.

  26. I thought President Monson’s talk about making the most of TODAY helped to round out some of the “be prepared” hysteria. Reminds me of that hymn “Today, While the Sun Shines.” The last line of the chorus currently reads:

    “Prepare for tomorrow by working today.”

    The line used to say:

    “There is no tomorrow but only today.”

    A totally different meaning. President Monson advocates preparation, but he wanted us to not let tomorrow steal from today.

  27. Razorfish says:

    Brad,

    Circle the bases, because you hit this one out of the park. A very thoughtful synopsis of General Conference that summarized some of the key themes and messages that were shared. The “voice of God” was certainly felt by many.

    Razorfish

  28. Geraldine says:

    Thank you, Brad. I agree with #25 by Elder Corbridge. I loved all of the talks but this was one of the most powerful talks I have ever heard. Thank you all for such inspirational thoughts!

  29. Geraldine says:

    I was talking to a fairly recent convert this morning. She was telling me how much she had loved President Hinckley and knew he was a prophet. She was not prepared in any way for his passing, and she had difficulty with accepting Pres. Monson’s new role. In April when she heard his talk she was reassured that he is indeed the prophet. But still, this time she needed further reassurance. And she got it. She is so thrilled with our new prophet. It is interesting to me to see how the mantle of the prophet has indeed fallen on him.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,669 other followers