(RNS) — For the second time this year, Latter-day Saint leaders delivered their semiannual General Conference remarks in a near-empty room, devoid of the thousands of faithful attenders and absent the live music from the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (formerly called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir).
But otherwise, it was a completely normal Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, devoid of any edge-of-your-seat announcements and focused instead on cleaving to the spiritual basics during an uncertain time.
Whereas some recent Conferences have been (over)hyped beforehand as historic or game-changing, there was very little lead-up to this weekend. The Church’s statement about it was simply that “As the world grapples with a global pandemic, economic hardship, social issues, political turmoil, and uncertainty” the church’s leaders would “focus on the Savior’s messages of love, understanding, acceptance, hope, connection, and inclusion.”
And that’s exactly what they did on Day One. Today’s Conference was like Corn Flakes—nutritious, fortified, and blissfully predictable. I am a fan of Corn Flakes. For me, watching from home via YouTube after a tumultuous week in our nation, boring was good. Boring was helpful. Boring gave me time to think.
This year has been insane, to put it mildly. I complained in April that General Conference was a missed opportunity: the world was in the early throes of a terrible pandemic with accompanying economic and social uncertainty, but our church chose to stick with its original plan to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the gospel. I felt like we were throwing ourselves a birthday party while the world burned. Only one talk, from Elder Holland, seemed directly (and beautifully) addressed to the moment. Otherwise, the talks came across like the choir’s prerecorded standards from prior years: timeless but largely forgettable.
I didn’t feel that way today, because most of the talks did reference the pandemic and even the political and social unrest that have been attendant in America and elsewhere in the world. From the opening prayer, when Elder Patrick Kearon sought the Lord’s blessing on all those who are sick, grieving, or marginalized—and also added a pointed appeal for a return to grace, dignity, and civility in public life (ahem!)—the theme of the day was set.
Elder David Bednar started things off by acknowledging the elephant in the room—“a global pandemic that has proved, examined, and tried us in many ways”—and then focused the talk in classic Mormon fashion on how we can learn lessons from difficult times. As 2 Nephi 2:2 puts it, God “shall consecrate our afflictions for our gain.” What can we learn from this unprecedented experience?
A couple of the talks focused on political and social divisions, which have certainly caused anxiety this year for millions. Elder Quentin Cook noted that “we live in a moment of particularly strong divisions” while Michelle Craig of the Young Women general presidency drew upon columnist David Brooks’s wisdom in noting how many of society’s problems are caused by our failure (or refusal) to see each other deeply. I have definitely fallen prey to that this year.
If there was a moment of controversy, it came in Pres. Dallin Oaks’s remarks when he initially focused on the problems caused by individuals who go beyond the boundaries of peaceful protest and destroy property, without discussing the severity of the racial oppression that could drive that behavior. He did get there in the end, quoting NAACP leader Rev. Theresa Dear about the way racism thrives on hatred, passivity, indifference and silence. Oaks condemned racism and said we must do better to root it out, but did not name the Church’s own history as contributing to that racism, or apologize for it. Someday soon, I hope, that much-needed apology is coming.
Oaks also issued a pointed statement that members of the church “must forgo the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.” To be even more specific, we’re expected to “peacefully accept the results of elections,” which seemed a direct reference to President Trump’s refusal to promise to do exactly that, though he never mentioned the president by name.
It was a brilliant decision to have Elder Uchtdorf, the most reliably pastoral and least political of the Twelve, bring it all home with the final talk of the day. He addressed the virus head-on: “To those who mourn the loss of family and friends, we mourn with you. We plead with Heavenly Father to comfort and console you.” He acknowledged the prevalent uncertainty, loss of income, and pain many are experiencing, and said he feels humbled by the heroic actions of first responders and other helpers.
There are still a lot of unknowns about this virus, he said, but it “did not catch Heavenly Father by surprise.” It’s not what we wanted or expected, but “God has prepared his children and his church for this time.”
Elder Uchtdorf promised we will endure this. And not just where we’re gritting our teeth and holding on for dear life, but where we actually come out better on the other side. God will watch over us; God will keep his promises. Things will get worse before they get better . . . but we get to choose how we prepare and how we react.
That was the message I needed to hear today. I think it’s the message a lot of us need.