This is a talk I delivered in Sacrament Meeting this past Sunday, on the topic “Using General Conference addresses in our personal study.”
At the center of Mormon self-understanding is the idea that God reveals himself in the present day, to prophets and to individuals.What, then, is the character of that continued revelation? We’ve been studying the D&C in Sunday school this year, so we have examples close at hand. I want to look at two passages, chosen for their differences. Listen for the contrast in tone; how would you describe the flavor? Here’s the first, from section 1:
Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men … For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape…. And the rebellious shall be pierced with much sorrow; for their iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and their secret acts shall be revealed… They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god.
And here’s the second, from section 19:
Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me. And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.
Different flavors, right? The first, sour and spicy, a voice of warning; the second, warm and sweet, a voice of comfort. These two flavors of discourse echo the moods and tones of the biblical prophetic tradition. In Isaiah and the great Old Testament prophets, later echoed and amplified in Jesus’s own words, we hear this split voice — voice of warning, voice of comfort. In the present day, this continues to be the mode of the prophets and apostles. In General Conference, some talks make us squirm, some make us melt. Nephi instructs us to feast upon the words of Christ. It seems that this feast is delivered in two nourishing courses: sweet and spicy.
The verses from D&C 19 are especially meaningful to me, because they appear on my brother’s gravestone. Jacob died of cancer when he was five. I bring that up not to introduce a sad story but a funny one. One of side effect of chemotherapy for Jacob was extreme mouth sensitivity to cold and heat, combined with a deadening of the tastebuds that left his food flavorless. During his illness, two of Jacob’s favorite foods were melted ice cream and mustard sandwiches. Ice cream straight from the freezer was too cold for him to tolerate, so we would melt it in the microwave into a warm syrup that he sipped with a straw. But why mustard sandwiches? The flavor of the mustard was pungent and spicy enough to register on his tastebuds. It was one of the few flavors he could actually taste.
The first point I want to make today is that we should seek both mustard sandwiches and melted ice cream in the words of the prophets. Warm, sweet words of comfort and pungent, spicy words of warning are the two-course meal of General Conference.
Let’s start with the melted ice cream. Together with Christmas and Easter, General Conference is the closest we get to a Mormon liturgical feast, a high point in our spiritual landscape and a time of renewal and rededication. It’s characteristic of Mormonism—and I say this with the greatest possible affection—that a pinnacle of our spiritual lives has such a banal name. To outsiders, the prospect of listening to a speech streamed online does not seem particularly transcendent. But for Mormons, the communication of shared spiritual knowledge is sacred, even under a prosaic name like General Conference; the experience of knowing together is a central part of our religious practice.
Our endless meetings are, ideally, not just a coming together of bodies, but a true meeting of minds, both union and communion. General Conference, the meeting of meetings, allows members near and far to reconfirm our spiritual knowledge as one. Here is point number two: the certainty and unity, the warmth and togetherness that envelop us as we watch General Conference in real time with our families— these make it the right time to enjoy the melted ice cream. Reconfirm, rejoice in the comforting doctrines that taste so good.
But Brother N. asked me to focus today particularly on how we should use Conference addresses in our spiritual lives during the off season, between Conferences, in our personal study. My third suggestion today is that the off season is the perfect time to make yourself a mustard sandwich. Let me explain what I mean, and then offer a caveat. The book of Hebrews teaches that the word of the Lord is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Nephi teaches that “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.” All of us are guilty. If some of the talks in General Conference are not hard for us to take, if they do not make us squirm like a dollop of mustard on the tongue, we are not listening carefully enough. It’s easy to deflect the mustard in the direction of other people, people whose views or behavior we disapprove. But if we do that, we miss out on the real power of revelation to break open our own pat, comfortable notions and allow cleansing sunshine into the thoughts and intents of our own hearts.
Let me give you an example of what not to do from my own life. Several years ago an email discussion group of Mormon topics in which I participate erupted into an epic argument. I don’t remember now what the argument was about or which side I took. I do remember that I became invested in proving that early church leaders took a particular view of Eve in Eden. I spent hours that day combing through obscure old conference addresses trying to find the perfect quote to prove that I was right. Scanning, skimming, searching — I was sure that if I kept looking the prophets would say exactly what I wanted them to say.
I see now that I was simply attempting to re-shape revelation into what I already thought I knew — in effect, creating God in my own image. But why have a prophet, if he only amplifies what we already know? (The converse is also true: why have a mind, if we never think for ourselves about what the prophets say?) When we hunker down in what we already know, when we stop seeking, our spiritual senses are deadened like Jacob’s sense of taste. The antidote is plenty of mustard: seek out and study the conference addresses that confused, frustrated, bored, or frightened you. Don’t try to interpret away the conflict, don’t try to resolve everything in a day. Just sit with it, taste it, chew on it. This is spiritual growth.
A caveat: the Lord’s word is a sharp sword, but it is not sandpaper. We nourished Jacob with mustard sandwiches, we did not pour mustard in his wounds. If you are at a place of spiritual poverty, if you are poor in spirit from world events (as in the tragic events of this week) or personal trials — this is the time for some melted ice cream. The voice of warning is never meant to twist the knife of toxic guilt in our hearts. This only drives us farther away from God.
Now, to conclude, Brother N. specifically asked me to share some practical ideas for incorporating General Conference addresses into our personal study. Somebody must have forgotten to tell him that I spent five years of my life studying Renaissance English literature. Practicality is definitely not my strong suit. So take these suggestions, borrowed and slightly adapted from a friend, with a grain of salt. (1)
Get close to the words of the prophets. Do anything you can. God is in there. Moses told his people to put bits of scripture in little boxes and, when praying, to tie one box to their arm and the other to their head. Strap the Bible to your forehead. Wear the Ensign on your sleeve. Sleep with your scriptures under your pillow. Tape Pharisees to your bathroom mirror. Fill your pockets with Nephites. Underline everything. Pack your margins with notes. Read Paul out loud like poetry. Copy the Book of Mormon by hand. Read the Bible backwards one verse at a time. Tally their letters like numbers. Squeeze their verses like oranges. Know Isaiah by heart. Love Matthew like a brother. Sing the Psalms as your prayers. Read them in Hebrew. Read them in Greek. Read them in Russian and Spanish and Japanese. Translate them all into English and then back again. Do like the Lord told Ezekiel: “’Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth” (Ezekiel 3:3). Don’t just read the the words of the prophets, eat them.
(1) Adam Miller, “Letters to a Young Mormon,” forthcoming.