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.