Let me confess that I’ve become a little suspicious of the deep affection which seems to characterize so many discussions about President Dieter F. Uchtdorf amongst the Intellectual Mormons (use whatever definition your prefer) that I frequently associate with. I have a hard time buying the idea that this man is some kind of Great Liberal Hope for the church; there’s no way any person (even a non-American!) can get to the highest levels of church leadership and not be fundamentally at peace with–and have real faith in the divinity behind–the corporate Mormon institution which we all know and love. He’s a general authority, a man we give the title “apostle” to, and that ought to be more than good enough. There’s no need to look at him as one who has great and unique and needed insights which his fellow general authorities lack.
Except that, well, he keeps giving beautiful, thoughtful, wise talks after which I have to tell myself: “Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the Church Office Building who would have said that.” His sermon in Priesthood session this past Saturday is a case in point.
First, his talk was titled “Four Titles“–and yet, he never actually makes reference to any current priesthood titles. Deacon? Teacher? Priest? Elder? High Priest? Apostle? Nowhere to be seen. He completely side-steps that whole framework–which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that he probably thinks such titles to be unimportant (would that he did, but it’s probably too much to hope for), but it does suggest that he thinks there are more important things to emphasize. Like, specifically, that all the men he was speaking to need to understand themselves as, and treat one another as, sons of God, disciples of Christ, healers of our fellow beings, and heirs of God’s love. None of those have any sort of specific institutional grounding; indeed, the closest he came to making reference to something connected to the institutional church was when he spoke of us man as “fellow-citizens of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). This was a call to love and respect and heal and preach that made reference to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, but was in no specific way tied to their offices. To put on my Protestant hat–I like to wear it sometimes; it’s quite comfortable–it almost had a Lutheran, “priesthood-of-all-believers” tone to it. I, for one, like that very much.
Second, his talk emphasized diversity–quite explicitly. The Atonement exists to enable us all to repent and received God’s grace; it does not exist to make us all the same. Here, he quite directly attacked the implied conformity so often communicated in the church:
Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads us to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold–that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God….It also contradicts the intent and purposes of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency–with all its for-reaching consequences–of each and every one of God’s children. A disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our social, cultural, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.
This is not a unique message to hear at general conference–but it is a rare and needed and welcome one. I could also imagine President Chieko Okazaki (of Blessed Memory) speaking when he said it, and that is never a bad thing.
Third, speaking of Sister Okazaki, President Uchtdorf got stereotypically feminine in this sermon, and showed that it was manly to cry–and not cry over moments and impressions of great spiritual importance (that’s well established in general authority rhetoric), but to cry over the pain felt by other people–and not just over the “tender feelings” of women and children (that’s a well established pattern also), but over the feelings of men. That’s right, President Uchtdof feels the pain of men who feel “overlooked or unwanted,” that feel like they are a “nobody.” Getting teary-eyed, Uchtdorf said with great fervor something which is too often associated solely with the “lifting up” rhetoric of the sisters of the church–that every man in the sound of his voice was “special,” and was “needed,” and had their own their own “particular part to play,” their own “notes to sing” in God’s great symphony. I confess that I’m not big fan of therapeutic language in church….but then, I can’t remember the last time I’d heard it addressed to me. (And by that man! A pilot! With that tan! And that awesome hair!) It was silly….but I was moved by it. Even inspired by it. And that, of course, was President Uchtdorf’s intent. What a good intent it is! And how well he presented it.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the general authority that will save the church? That’s a ridiculous claim. But the general authority who, at this time, is saying the things that some of us really need to hear, so that we will let God save us, and so we can be part of His work in saving our fellows here on earth? That’s a claim I can believe.