Thoughts on General Conference April 2014

I knew that Conference was off to a good start when in the Sunday morning session, Linda Reeves said:

It is OK if the house is a mess and the children are still in their pajamas and some responsibilities are left undone. The only things that really need to be accomplished in the home are daily scripture study and prayer and weekly family home evening.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not quite on the ball with weekly family home evening (we do find regular family time, but we need to accommodate my husband’s unusual work schedule, which means FHE every Monday night at 6:30 pm just is not going to happen), but I can comfortably say that I’ve totally got daily family scripture study and family prayer under control. My house is also a mess. As in, imagine the messiest house you’ve ever seen, imagine a bit messier than that, and then maybe even a bit more messy than that, multiply what you come up with by 5, and then you may have an idea of the situation we’ve got going on here. I really do make an effort to keep that under control too, but frankly, people who take care of kids all day and have tidy homes are just at a level that’s light years ahead of me. I have in my capability to do exactly one of two things on a regular basis – keep house or take care of kids. Between semesters when I don’t have schoolwork to worry about, I can actually get stuff done around the house after the kids are in bed though. Anyways, let’s just say that I appreciate a reminder that I’m not a failure as a parent just because the carpet of my living room is barely visible beneath all the scattered toys, and cheerios that are ground into it – because today, I read the Book of Mormon with my kids and said family prayer. I feel like I should even get bonus points for the fact that my 4 year old son loves to read the scriptures so much that, given the choice, he has, on many occasions, actually chosen to read the Book of Mormon over reading another bedtime story. I’m just kidding about the bonus points part. Sort of.

There was lots more awesomeness to come in Conference though, so I thought I’d record some of the things that stuck out to me the most.

A couple of thoughts here and there on stuff I thought was just kind of cool include:

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman take on the topic of pornography in such a direct, focused way in General Conference before, and I appreciated the way Sister Reeve’s presented it, as I’ll talk a bit more about further on. Among the things she mentioned with reference to pornography, I thought that she first talked about physical intimacy within the bonds of marriage in a fairly sex-positive manner, and I also found it significant that she acknowledged that both men and women consume pornography. In not being another talk that felt primarily geared to men as consumers, and women as the wives that suffer when their husbands consume pornography, I felt it acknowledged that women are sexual/have sexual urges/express sexuality, just as men do.
  2. While President Uchtdorf was reading the names of the newly called individuals for sustaining, my husband (who loves Pres. Uchtdorf, and had missed the intro to what was going on) listened in and asked, “How does this guy know this language?!” The reason that he thought President Uchtdorf was speaking a foreign language was because of all the non-English names of individuals being called! This was not only funny, but also to me was a cool indication that diversity in church leadership is increasing, which I find very exciting and promising for the future.

Now, as might be expected at a General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I heard a lot about our Saviour’s Atonement, and it was beautiful. Really, it was everywhere. I heard about it in Sister Reeves’ (aforementioned) talk about the dangers of pornography. I loved how her talk wasn’t just about how “this is bad, bad, bad.” It was, to me, about having a Christ-centered home, Christ-centered lives, and about the power of the Atonement. General Conference this time really illustrated to me that the Atonement is so much wider reaching than I think I fully realize much of the time. Sister Reeves talked about how the power of the Atonement applied to helping her daughter relieve herself of feelings and thoughts that were in her mind after having innocently stumbled on something graphic. She talked about how the Atonement cleanses, heals, removes sorrow and pain. She talked about how an abiding testimony of the Atonement can protect us. She talked about how the Atonement makes it possible for us to access a remission of our sins.

Elder Hallstrom reminded us that “if men come unto [Jesus, He] will show unto them their weakness. … Then will [He] make weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27), meaning that we are not left alone to make the changes required to progress and become more perfect; relying on the Atonement, we can make those changes with help.

D. Todd Christofferson similarly provided a simple, beautiful testimony of our Saviour’s Atonement for us.

Using the story of Alma and his people found in Mosiah 24, Elder Bednar pointed out that the power of the Atonement means that even without changing any external circumstances, the Lord can change the way that we experience it. Lightening our burdens doesn’t always mean taking away our problems, but can mean making us stronger. He stressed that the Atonement isn’t just for those that are struggling to be cleansed and healed from serious sin, but that it is for “faithful men and women who are obedient, worthy, and conscientious and who are striving to become better and serve more faithfully.”

As I considered this talk, I found myself again reminded of the question from the April 2014 Visiting Teaching Message, “How can we show gratitude to the Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ?” If one of the answers to this question is that we show gratitude by partaking of the gift He offers, and one of the many gifts He offered with his Atonement is the gift of helping to carry our loads, I found myself wondering: How will I let the Saviour share my burdens with me? I don’t want to “mistakenly believe [I] must carry [my] load all alone—through sheer grit, willpower, and discipline and with [my] obviously limited [capacity],” but how will I let Him share my load? I will ask, and expect that in doing so I can be given that change within myself, if not of external circumstances, that can make all the difference. But I still intend to keep this question in mind, as I wonder if maybe there’s more to partaking of the offer the help carry my load than asking alone; if there’s some way I can partake more deeply of this gift than I have before. Perhaps an unexpected answer was present in President Uchtdorf’s message on gratitude:

There is one thing we can do to make life sweeter, more joyful, even glorious. – We can be grateful!…. those who set aside the bottle of bitterness and lift instead the goblet of gratitude can find a purifying drink of healing, peace, and understanding.

In his talk, Elder Bednar further expounds on the huge scope of the Atonement when he states:

Thus, the Savior has suffered not just for our sins and iniquities—but also for our physical pains and anguish, our weaknesses and shortcomings, our fears and frustrations, our disappointments and discouragement, our regrets and remorse, our despair and desperation, the injustices and inequities we experience, and the emotional distresses that beset us.

There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, “No one knows what it is like. No one understands.” But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens. And because of His infinite and eternal sacrifice (see Alma 34:14), He has perfect empathy and can extend to us His arm of mercy. He can reach out, touch, succor, heal, and strengthen us to be more than we could ever be and help us to do that which we could never do relying only upon our own power.

I also felt like this conference reminded me of some very important things about my Saviour, His life and His attributes. I was touched to think of how, as Elder Amado said, “His preaching was simple, and even though multitudes followed after Him, His ministry always consisted of blessing people one by one.” I took this to mean firstly, that the Saviour can minister to me personally, but also to know that no service I give is too small. If the Lord blessed and taught one by one, that type of contribution is certainly good enough for me.

As one who strives to become like Christ, I also found President Uchtdorf’s message particularly insightful:

Gratitude to our Father in Heaven broadens our perception and clears our vision. It inspires humility and fosters empathy toward our fellowmen and all of God’s creation. Gratitude is a catalyst to all Christlike attributes!

If before Conference I had been asked to make a list of Christ-like attributes, gratitude honestly might not have been on the list, so this statement really stuck out to me. I similarly found great insight in President Uchtdorf’s distinction between being grateful for things, and being grateful in our circumstances.

Elder Teh told us that developing Christ-like attributes (he specifically mentions faith, hope, humility, and charity) should be the eternal treasure we strive to acquire in this life, and also mentions how serving others is a hallmark of Christ-like-ness. First, it always seems so amazing to me that Jesus had any need to be humble (I mean, He was the Saviour and Lord of the earth!), but since He was humble, then wow, should I ever be humble. And second, I think the idea that becoming like the Saviour is a treasure is really powerful and touching. Thinking along the lines of the powerful and humbling nature of this message, I am reminded of the lyrics to an old EFY song, “Treasure the Truth,” the lyrics of which state:

Now truly we see what we are, 
For treasure will govern the heart.
And if His heart moved Him to die, so we could live, 
Then His treasure is you and I.

How powerful and humbling it is to think that I am His treasure

Another message I really got from Conference this year was obedience, though that’s sometimes a hard message to separate from the Saviour, who is our ultimate example of obedience, and who said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”

President Uchtdorf reminded me that being obedient really also requires giving generously of ourselves to the work of the Lord, and also making sure we have enough time and energy for the highest priorities. Similarly, President Eyring’s address, in which he points out that we copy what we most admire in our heroes, made me want to serve more faithfully, and with more energy and dedication, and particularly reminded me that copying the Saviour’s example of obedience should be of prime importance. Altogether, the Priesthood Session really carried an “oomph” that got me thinking of all the ways I can fulfill my callings more fully, and of how I can raise the standard of my service.

I found it really interesting that President Uchtdorf framed gratitude as a commandment, as I don’t think I’ve as directly heard it phrased that way before. In the same talk, President Uchtdorf also reminded us of why obedience is so important, and why our Heavenly Father wants us to be obedient:

All of His commandments are given to make blessings available to us. Commandments are opportunities to exercise our agency and to receive blessings.

It was truly awe inspiring to hear Elder Teh talk of the woman who exemplified a wonderful attitude of gratitude, as well as obedience when she said, “Elder, I accept everything that the Lord has asked me to pass through. I have no hard feelings,” and then went on to talk about how she pays a full tithe on her meager income.

Thinking again of the ultimate exemplar of obedience, in spite of His being perfectly obedient, I thought it was interesting that Elder Hales pointed out that “He prayed three times to His Father in Heaven, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”” The Saviour must have known there was no other way, yet He still asked. And He not only asked once, but three times. Why? I’ve never considered this question before, but now I really wonder. Also, if Christ was perfect, doesn’t that mean that asking and pleading, no matter what the answer will be, is not a disobedient action?

Another message I was touched by, and that again, is so hard to separate from the Saviour (which is a good thing – this is His church, after all!), was a message of empathy and love. As President Monson stated in a talk almost entirely focused on love, “…love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar. His life was a legacy of love.”

President Monson also spoke of empathy when he said, “I would hope that we would strive always to be considerate and to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings and circumstances of those around us. Let us not demean or belittle. Rather, let us be compassionate and encouraging.” This message also seemed to be the entire focus of Elder Zwick’s (awesome!) talk. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but [only] that which is good [and] edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). Now that’s something to live up to. As Elder Zwick said, “All of us, though covenant children of a loving Heavenly Father, have regretted jumping headlong from the high seat of self-righteous judgment and have spoken with abrasive words before we understood a situation from another’s perspective.”

For me personally, this went really well with Elder Hallstrom’s talk, in which he reminded us that “the purpose of general conference and of this priesthood session is fulfilled only if we are willing to act—if we are willing to change.” When I heard that talk, I thought to myself, “hmm…aside from having wonderful insights into truth, generally feeling good, and having things I already sort of knew before confirmed to me, what can I get out of Conference that will actually push me to change? Change the way I think? Change the way I act?” As I considered Elder Zwick’s talk, I realized one thing I could change was my thoughts.

Leading up to when I got a chance to listen to all the conference talks, I remember reading a few things, that, though not directed at me personally, popped up on my social media feeds (having been shared or “liked” by my own friends) about people that think, say and do some of the things that I do:

  1. Those silly women have been deceived by the wildly successful feminist movement.” (in response to a bizarre call for those raising questions about women and the priesthood to either get swallowed up in the earth, or perhaps just get leprosy)
  2. Seriously, if they don’t like it, why don’t they just leave the church?!? They obviously don’t believe in the gospel. You can’t have a testimony of the restored gospel then turn around and say “but God was wrong about the priesthood”. These activists are nothing but bored human beings that need to cause contention to feel fulfilled.”
  3. These people are actively fighting against God but want to keep their good standing in the church. Any members currently in good standing that are involved in this absolute farce should be disciplined and given the opportunity to repent but past that…”

I already felt, going into Conference, that the people spouting these sentiments had clearly not taken any time or effort to consider the perspective of others that didn’t feel the same as them about things – as if their feelings, thoughts and perspectives were the only ones that could possibly matter, and I already found it incredibly hurtful. How could I not? People I associate with were basically (seemingly flippantly, if not gleefully) calling for me not only to lose the opportunity to partake of the sacrament and the blessings of attending the temple, but for me to leave the church altogether. So of course, when I heard Elder Zwick’s talk, one of the first things I thought was, “Here’s some counsel that those people could really do with hearing!”

But then another lovely tidbit, from the same people I had been thinking of, also popped up in my newsfeed: “That’s one talk liberal Mormons ought to take to heart.” This was with reference to Elder Holland’s talk. Reading that hit me like a ton of bricks. In harbouring the thoughts I had been as I listened to General Conference (which should have been a wonderful opportunity for my growth and enlightenment) I had not only become just like those people I found so disappointing, but was allowing myself to be distracted from what I was supposed to get out of General Conference.

Even though I already do feel I take great effort to be empathetic, as Elder Hallstrom stated, “The invitation to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moroni 10:32) both requires and expects change.” I’m not perfect, so if I am truly doing what I’m supposed to be doing, then even Elder Zwick’s talk should prompt me to change, to become better. I was selling myself short by thinking more about what other people should change, instead of what I should change. I might not have been stating, “That’s just the way I am,” but I was “[giving] up [my] ability to change” in another way. 

Not only that, but as I pondered Elder Zwick’s  and President Monson’s talks, I realize that it is specifically with respect to these people that I have the greatest need to follow their counsel. Perhaps in particular this little tidbit from President Monson, “Blame keeps wounds open. Only forgiveness heals.”

Elder Zwick gives the example of Lehi talking to his wife Sariah after she voiced her anger. “Lehi listened to the fear that underpinned his wife’s anger. Then he made a disciplined response in the language of compassion. First, he owned the truth of what things looked like from her perspective…Then her husband addressed her fears concerning the welfare of their sons, as the Holy Ghost undoubtedly testified to him…” And then, he comforted her. How powerful a suggestion – how often do I truly listen, and listen to understand, instead of to reply? Do I ensure my language is language of compassion? Do I own the truth of what things look like from another perspective? Do I address people’s concerns? Do I comfort them when they are angry?

Elder Zwick “plead[s] with [me] to practice asking this question, with tender regard for another’s experience: “What are you thinking?”” Would I be able to better act as Lehi did if I truly took this plea to heart? I hope to be better able to in future, particularly because I realize that practicing empathy is yet another way to be more Christ-like. After all, “…the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).If “a loving Savior… “looketh on [other’s] heart[s]” and cares what [they] are thinking,” then I ought to, as well, even if my initial perception is that others are failing on that count themselves.

I felt President Uchtdorf, who always radiates love and empathy, expressed it beautifully when he said, “I have listened to my beloved brothers and sisters and grieved with them over their burdens. I have pondered what to say to them, and I have struggled to know how to comfort and support them in their trials.” I loved his advice for how we could increase “our capacity to love” by “[taking] advantage of the unlimited opportunities to love and serve our fellowmen, including our spouse and family.” He was talking about how serving others also increases our capacity to love God, which I thought was also referred to by President Monson when he said, “We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey. Likewise, we cannot fully love our fellowmen if we do not love God, the Father of us all.” Love for God and others is so interconnected, which I don’t think I always think about enough.

Also talking about serving and loving others, President Monson reminded us that, “Usually our love will be shown in our day-to-day interactions one with another. All important will be our ability to recognize someone’s need and then to respond.” He specifically called to our attention that the “one anothers” are “those mortals we meet in parking lots, offices, elevators, and elsewhere,” and that, “some of our greatest opportunities to demonstrate our love will be within the walls of our own homes.” This talk felt like a challenge personally extended to me – not only to be loving, but in particular to develop my ability to recognize and respond to the needs of others, which I find challenging. Knowing what other people need, unless they just outright tell me, seems hard. But perhaps that’s where the Spirit comes in.

Another call to action for me seemed to be in the recurring idea of what we show the world. President Monson asked, “are we reluctant to declare our faith in some circumstances?” For me, the answer to that question is, “yes.” I think in large part it relates to a bit of what Elder Holland spoke about. He quoted Abinadi, who said, “Because I have spoken the word of God ye have judged me that I am mad” and then Elder Holland said, “or, we might add, provincial, patriarchal, bigoted, unkind, narrow, outmoded, and elderly.” Now those aren’t particular things I’ve had anyone call me, and in fact when I hear things like this in General Conference, I become concerned that other Mormons that are bigoted and unkind will use these words as justification for behaviour that leads to terrible outcomes – see here and here. However, I have been told that I am brainwashed, and asked how someone who seems so smart can fall for such a fraud. I’ve been asked in incredulity why I would even want to be a part of a church that is so obviously racist, sexist and homophobic. I’ve been in a room where people start talking about all the things they can’t stand about Mormons. And even though I am empathetic to where these people are coming from, that stuff has hurt me, and made me hesitant to declare my faith in some circumstances. 

But after this conference, particularly after M. Russel Ballard and Russel M. Nelson’s talks, I thought to myself, “no more!” I really feel strongly that I need to do missionary work, and not be afraid to let my faith show. I know I have something of value to share, and I feel like I have a unique perspective to share that can reach people in a way that prompts them to give the Spirit a fair chance.

I also got really pumped about being part of a living church, and having a prophet who receives revelation, during this Conference. I realized that I don’t really think about this much; during Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk he read excerpts from Vilate Kimball’s letter:

We had the largest and most interesting conference that ever has been since the Church was organized. … President [Joseph] Smith has opened a new and glorious subject. … That is, being baptized for the dead. Paul speaks of it, in First Corinthians 15th chapter 29th verse. Joseph has received a more full explanation of it by revelation. He says it is the privilege of [members of] this Church to be baptized for all their kinsfolk that have died before this gospel came forth. … By so doing, we act as agents for them, and give them the privilege of coming forth in the First Resurrection. He says they will have the gospel preached to them in prison…I want to be baptized for my mother. … Is not this a glorious doctrine?

When he read that, I thought, “Wow. That must have been amazing. Imagine living in a day when new revelation on things as glorious as this, things that you’d never even considered before, was announced by a prophet!” Of course, then I realized, we actually do live in a day like that! Sure, the Church is well established, and maybe we don’t get revelation as groundbreaking as this on as regular a basis, but fundamentally, I still believe we do live in a day where, just as in Joseph Smith’s day, questions can be raised, and counsel sought, and the prophet will inquire of the Lord for further light and knowledge – not just for the individuals that asked in the first place, but for the whole church. Also, as Elder Marcos Aidukaitis told us, relating to revelation on a personal level, “we are taught that revelation can be obtained by asking in faith, with an honest heart, and believing we will receive.” That’s so amazing and wonderful. Later in his talk, Elder Cook also expressed joy at living in this glorious time:

What a great time to be alive. This is the last dispensation, and we can feel the hastening of the work of salvation in every area where a saving ordinance is involved

And President Uchtdorf reiterated that we live in a time of ongoing revelation when he said:

Sometimes we think of the Restoration of the gospel as something that is complete, already behind us—Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he received priesthood keys, the Church was organized. In reality, the Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now. It includes “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal,” and the “many great and important things” that “He will yet reveal.” Brethren, the exciting developments of today are part of that long-foretold period of preparation that will culminate in the glorious Second Coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Wow! Not only do we live in a time in which wonderful things will continue to be revealed, but it was so powerful to be reminded that we are actually in the midst of the preparation for the return of our Saviour! Of course, President Uchtdorf also issued a challenge in the form of question we may have to answer in future: did “we [roll] up our sleeves and [labour in this preparation] with all our heart, might, mind, and strength…Or will we have to admit that our role was mostly that of an observer?” He goes on to talk about how selfishness, addiction and competing priorities might cause us to “sleep though the restoration” instead of being an active part of it, but this talk really got me thinking about how I can actively build the kingdom of God, and make sure I don’t sleep through this exciting time. 

Remembering that we live in a time of revelation also makes it easier to cultivate the type of gratitude President Uchtdorf also talked about, “True gratitude is an expression of hope and testimony. It comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life but trusting that one day we will.” Now obviously, even with what has already been given, I have lots to study, and so much to learn. But it’s lovely to remind myself that in practicing gratitude, my testimony of what I do know, as well as the hope of what is to come, can sustain me through the things I currently don’t understand. Because I can “trust God and hope for things [I] may not see but which are true.”

 

Furthermore, as Elder Hallstrom pointed out, we have amazing technology today that also makes this a wonderful time to live. We have unbelievably easy access to the voices of the servants of the Lord (though, as Elder Hallstrom also pointed out, this availability is only truly of value to us if we are willing to receive the word and follow it). Case in point: I couldn’t watch all of Conference during actual Conference weekend, but a few weeks later, when I had some time, I relaxed on my couch with some snacks and my iPad to watch all the talks.

Lastly, what I loved about this Conference was the chance to hear so many beautiful testimonies. Of all of them, perhaps the most simple, and the most basic was the most touching to me. I thought that was Boyd K. Packer’s witness. Perhaps the reason his recounting of the moment when he “knew” was so touching to me because it calls to my mind the moment when I knew. I can also remember it with clarity, though aside from the feelings I had, it wasn’t particularly remarkable in any other way. The knowledge I received was “of eternal value,” and it did come “through personal prayer and pondering.” This was, and continues to be a labour well worth it; as Elder Teh said, “Understanding the doctrine of Christ and strengthening our testimony is a labor that will bring real joy and satisfaction.” I can add my testimony that it has brought me real joy and satisfaction to know that Jesus Christ lived, that He died and was resurrected. It has brought me wonderful peace to know that in Him, there is someone I can turn to that understands me perfectly.

As I continue to study, ponder and pray, there is one last item from Conference that pertains to the receipt of knowledge I plan to keep in mind. Elder Aidukaitis quoted the scripture:

And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word.” But, Alma added, “he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

What a beautiful and potent promise. We can receive progressively greater portions of the word, until we know the mysteries of God in full; if we don’t harden our hearts. What does it mean to have a soft heart? The closest thing that comes to mind is the many scriptural references to having a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and also to the Saviour having a lowly heart. I think these ideas probably all relate. Maybe having a soft heart means having an open heart, one that’s not hardened against the truths that God would reveal to us. A heart that is soft in that sense of course, must also be lowly and humble. And when are we better in a position to be that way than when we are broken-hearted, and bringing the sacrifice of our broken heart to the Lord? So I guess that’s what I’ll be keeping in mind: how can I continually cultivate a soft heart? If I want to be able to receive progressively more and more knowledge, then it matters. Particularly when I consider Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s perspective that the “joy [of knowing the Saviour had been resurrected] came only as the disciples became eyewitnesses of the Resurrection, for even the declaration of angels that He had risen was at first incomprehensible—it was something so totally unprecedented.” The closest followers of Christ were not able to believe this miraculous truth until they literally came face to face with it in the flesh. Is it possible there are truths, ready to be given to us, that we are not ready to receive, simply because they are a departure from what we have seen before and what we are used to? May we all strive to keep a soft heart.

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