I loved President Packer’s talk.
I loved his little joke about his opening poem.
“Not Wordsworth, but classic poetry nonetheless.”
(My grandmother was his high school English teacher–I imagine she’s relieved he can tell the difference!)
I loved his invocation of his own uncertainty and confusion on the cusp of adulthood. I loved his unabashed admission that his own testimony was not strong then, and his naming of those whose testimonies he leaned on:
I did not then have a firm testimony that the gospel was true, but I knew that my seminary teachers, Abel S. Rich and John P. Lillywhite, knew that it was true. I had heard them testify, and I believed them. I thought to myself, ‘I will lean on their testimonies until I gain one of my own.’ And so it was.
I loved the vulnerability he revealed in dwelling on the word “if” in his patriarchal blessing:
While patriarchal blessings are very private, I will share a short quote from mine: ‘You shall be guided through the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and you shall be warned of dangers. If you heed those warnings, our Heavenly Father will bless you so that you might again be united with your loved ones.’
That word if, though small in print, loomed as big as the page. I would be blessed to return from the war if I kept the commandments and if I heeded the Holy Ghost. Although that gift had been conferred on me at baptism, I did not yet know what the Holy Ghost was or how promptings work.
I loved that while (predictably :)) asserting the authority of the governing bodies of the Church, he also said to the youth “Because we depend so much on you, you will be remarkably blessed” (emphasis mine). Indeed, he articulated the weight of his own calling–“We trust the Lord to guide the way and seek only to do his will. We know that He has placed a great deal of trust in us, individually and collectively”–but concluded by charging his audience to be trustworthy and to receive their own guidance by direct revelation:
“You must learn to “trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” You must be trustworthy and surround yourself with friends that desire to do likewise”.
Of course there were things I did not love in this talk, and, even more, in some of its echoes of past talks. President Packer might very well consider me one of the enemies that make the world such a hostile place–I embody two of what he once said were the three major dangers to the Church in the last days, and I am deeply sympathetic to the cause of the third. There are talks Elder Packer has given in the past, notably “To the One,” that make me quite literally weep with rage every. single. time. I. read. them. His sense of the world (and most of the non-Mormons and many of the liberal Mormons in it) as dangerous and hostile, what seems to me the narrow brittleness of his ideals of gender roles and family life, the implacable sternness of the God he loves and serves, all seem so alien to me sometimes that I wonder how it is possible that his religion and mine are the same, that, in fact, he grew up in the same valley as my grandmother, eating the Brigham City peaches whose sweetness is my earliest memory of this world.
And perhaps this is as it should be, as it must be. One cannot read the words of the prophets of the past without sensing their profound alienation from the world, the calling that consigns them to ultimate otherness. They are drawn to high mountains, “caught up” in visions, obliged to view the world and its people–their own neighbors and children and loved ones–from a distance unimaginable to those of us happily cocooned in an earth that feels like home most of the time.
Those prophets, it seems to me, had it easier in some ways than leaders of this dispensation–prophetic visions must necessarily convey truths that won’t fit into ordinary language, and whose scope is anything but quotidian. It’s no wonder that prophets were so often loners, appearing occasionally to speak incomprehensible and unpleasant truths, then returning to the wilderness to share God’s mute sorrow. The prophetic visions of which we have scriptural accounts seem awfully short on practical tips and aphoristic soundbites. Asked to sum up what they’ve seen, prophets are reduced to saying things like “I do not know the meaning of all things.” Translating divine vision into advice for people that one has to keep living with seems a daunting task indeed (to say nothing of the difficulty of deriving a management strategy for a multinational institution from them). Moses tried for a while to offer practical advice, to “judge between one and another, and…make them know the statutes of God, and his laws,” but Jethro saw quickly that Moses would “surely wear away” along with the children of Israel who were with him, because “this thing is too heavy.” Too heavy for Moses, too heavy, perhaps, for anyone.
We want impossible things from our prophets, seers, and revelators. We want them up in the watchtower, warning us what is coming. We want them to go to the mountains, to experience the consuming fire of God’s love and come back to tell us about it at regular intervals (preferably arriving punctually ;), with metaphors we can appreciate. We want them to shatter idols and call down fire from heaven. And after the fire, rain (er, “moisture”), please.
And we want them at the same time to be down on the ground with us, to take account of the particularities of our lives. We want them to read our minds and our hearts, to speak God’s word to the one and to the ninety-nine, to take our idols down gently and acknowledge that they’re so much prettier than the others. We want them to be wise about politics, about homemaking, about the economy and world affairs. I insist that they read good poetry over the pulpit and speak accurately about archaic English pronoun forms. Stapley wants them to mention nearly-forgotten temple rituals, Sam wants them to talk more about (dead) bodies, all the female permabloggers would like them to say something slightly different about modesty, and radically different things about gender, Steve wants social media savvy (a petition for President Uchtdorf to get a Twitter account, anyone?), Brad wants them to–oh, hell, nobody knows what Brad wants because anthropologists are harder to understand than God, and Tracy and I would just like them to babysit our kids for a couple of hours.
So this is why I loved President Packer’s talk: I see in it the wrestle of a prophet with God, and with God’s people. I hear a man speaking as a man, about what it is like to be human, to grow up, to sense the fragility and terror of human life and learn to seek and receive direction. I hear him articulating what he has glimpsed of God’s plan: that there are rules to help keep us safe, that love between a man and a woman is holy, that children thrive when they are beloved and secure, that elders have wisdom to offer–“you young crows need not fly aimlessly to and fro”, that God is a loving father, whose gaze is tender as well as searching–“you are never far from the sight of your loving Heavenly Father.” I hear him trying to tell us how heavy it feels to see these things and try to shape them into practical counsel, how much work it is for prophets who all see from a different place on the mountain to agree on the path–“The scriptures require that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve work in councils, and that the decisions of those councils be unanimous. And so it is.” Is there any doubt that there are years’ worth of compromise and frustration and passionate discussion and love and resignation in those four little words “And so it is”?.
I hear an old man, realizing that he won’t have time to tell these young people all of the rules, trying to summarize the important truths and teach them to hear the Truthteller:
…As a servant of the Lord, I promise that you will be protected and shielded from the attacks of the adversary if you will heed the promptings that come from the Holy Spirit.
Dress modestly; talk reverently; listen to uplifting music. Avoid all immorality and personally degrading practices. Take hold of your life and order yourself to be valiant.
…If you will follow these principles, you will be watched over and protected, and you yourself will know by the promptings of the Holy Ghost which way to go, “for by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” I promise that it will be so.
And finally I hear him say what it is prophets must always ultimately tell God’s people: you must work out your salvation with fear and trembling. You can look forward to growing up, to standing on your own instead of leaning on others’ convictions, to seeing your own vision “through a glass darkly”, to making mistakes and being wounded and healed and made stronger:
You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! (emphasis in original) Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is.
This is the very stuff of prophecy: a warning from one who sees from both divine distance and towards the horizon of his own human life (and ours) and the endless call to repentance.
And if, sometimes, President Packer’s prophetic vision is long on alienation and pessimism about the world, maybe it’s just because he’s doing his job. And maybe that’s why we also have President Eyring to show us God’s tears, and President Uchtdorf to tell us His jokes.