(RNS) Is home teaching about to change? Is caffeinated Diet Coke really okay? And what did Elder Ballard say to people who are thinking of leaving the LDS Church?
These were the questions that preoccupied Mormons through yesterday . . . when all news of General Conference was superseded by the much less routine news of 15 leaked videos of LDS apostles in conversation behind closed doors.
The Church had to do some damage control last night and release a statement trying to put the videos in better context. I haven't had a chance to watch any of those videos yet, but I'm sure I'll be writing about them in the days to come, once I've had more of a chance to reflect.
In the meantime, here are 15 impressions from three of this weekend's General Conference sessions. (I missed Sunday afternoon). There are also really good write-ups here (Salt Lake Tribune) and here (Deseret News).
- The First Presidency seats are now located on the other side of the podium, to make it a shorter distance for them when they come in. I suspect this has a lot to do with trying to help President Monson, who is looking frail at 89.
- Many people’s favorite moment occurred right at the beginning with Pres. Uchtdorf, the opening speaker. Describing his struggles years ago in learning “the strange, mystifying, incomprehensible world” of personal computing, he acknowledged that his struggle was overcome only with hope, faith, and “many liters of a diet soda that shall remain nameless.” The Mormon Internet blew up with the fun (to wit, an awesome Photoshopped image of Dieter Coke) to the serious (“did he just put to rest for all time the idea that Mormons can’t have caffeine?”).
- Here’s what was not said during Saturday’s sessions. Nothing on traditional marriage—not a peep. Nothing explicit on religious liberty, which has been a total watchword recently among church leaders. And not a peep about the upcoming US elections—though I had to wonder about the subtext.
- Helen Keller may be the first (and last) radical Socialist to receive sustained positive play at an LDS General Conference. Elder Chistofferson’s talk went on at great length about Keller’s inspiring story of triumphing over adversity.
- The Book of Mormon figured prominently today. Yes, it’s not like this is earthshattering—but in general, except for Ezra Taft Benson’s drive in the 1980s, the Book of Mormon has actually not featured much in General Conference in recent years. So to hear it referenced so often—and, in the case of Elder Gary E. Stevenson, be the entire focus of a talk—is a little unusual.
- Is “unconditional love” really the best term for God’s love? Elder Christofferson suggested that better terms might be “perfect love” or “redeeming love,” lest we misunderstand and imagine that we can sin without paying a price. The term “unconditional love” appears “nowhere in scripture.” That is true, but I wonder if it would have been more pastoral to frame this in a way that made it clear that God’s love is unconditional but that some of his promises are not. The phrase may not appear in scripture, but the idea certainly does: otherwise, why would we say that Christ saved us while we were yet sinners?
- My favorite reflection from Saturday was a beautiful and vulnerable talk by Elder Kazuhiko Yamashita of the Seventy. It had a memorable story of a missionary serving under his care who wondered aloud why he was there—and a touching, authentic account of his own second son, who “lived much of his youth apart from the church” before having a conversion experience. I’m sure Elder Y will be receiving many, many letters from Mormon parents who appreciated this story.
- More Word of Wisdom wonderings: Elder Cook’s talk taught that “looking beyond the mark is a stumbling block,” and he mentioned some examples of “gospel extremism,” in which “one elevates any gospel principle above other equally important principles and takes a position that is beyond or contrary to the teachings of Church leaders. One example is when one advocates for additions, changes, or primary emphasis to one part of the Word of Wisdom. Another is expensive preparation for ‘end of days scenarios.’” Lots of folks on Twitter speculated about what he meant regarding the WoW: vegans? Anti-vaxers? Practitioners of essential oils?
- Prayer was a major theme on Saturday, including a talk by Pres. Carol F. McConkie of the Young Women presidency, explaining why we pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- In the evening priesthood session, Elder Holland spoke first and seemed to offer a bit of a game changer about home teaching. “Please, in newer, better way, see yourselves as emissaries of the Lord to his children.” No more frantic it’s-the -31st-of-the-month scramble to get over to your assigned families’ homes to read them a lesson they’ve already read themselves in the Rather, he said, home teachers need to love and watch over each member of those families “in any way that helps.” Rather than focusing on “what counts” for home teaching, “EVERYTHING COUNTS!” So, he said, “report it all.”
- President Monson addressed us for just four and a half minutes, which is about a third the length of the usual Conference talk. He looked frail, but the talk was moving . . . and could we all just follow the prophet in this way by making every single church talk from Conference down to sacrament meeting under five minutes long? Thanks.
- Nelson followed this with a talk on joy that didn’t begin in a particularly joyful way—with an apocalyptic reminder that these are the latter days, that “tragedies and travesties” are on the rise, and that ancient prophets foresaw that “perilous times would come . . . and that in our day the whole world would be in commotion. That men would be lovers of their own selves . . . lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, and that many would become servants of Satan.” Elder Nelson highlighted war, terrorism, and corruption as the defining features of our age. What can help us? JOY. Quoting one of my favorite scriptures, Elder Nelson quoted two of my favorite scriptures — “men are that they might have joy” and that Christ “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” — to show that despite all the problems of our age, we too can have joy. While this talk began in a dark place, I appreciated the realism of him pointing to the problems of the world while also insisting that “Saints can . . . feel joy even on a bad day.”
- The hashtag #ldsconf ranked third on Twitter during the weekend’s sessions, according to the Deseret News.
- Elder Ballard’s talk contained a veiled Bloggernacle smackdown. He said we should avoid whatever things that distract us from joy, and held up the example of Korihor. “Anything that opposes Christ or his doctrine will interrupt our joy. That includes the philosophies of men, so abundant and in the blogosphere, which do exactly what Korihor did.” Ouch.
- Speaking of Elder Ballard, there was some pushback to his remarks to Latter-day Saints who are troubled by certain doctrines or policies of the church. “To whom shall you go?” he asked. “If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do? The decision to walk no more with the church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now. There may be some doctrine, some policy, some bit of history that puts you at odds with your faith, and you may feel that the only way to resolve that inner turmoil right now is to walk no more with the Saints. If you live as long as I do, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight, a revelation may shed new light and insight on an issue. But remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.” I hope the subtext of this remark was We’re going to change that hurtful policy about LGBT members and their children. The Restoration is still unfolding. Hang in there a little longer. A girl can dream, right?
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