Stick With It

A couple of years ago I started a group project called the General Conference Odyssey. Along with some friends, I’m reading every General Conference that’s easily accessible on (that means we’re starting with October 1971) and writing up my thoughts. At a rate of one session per week, it will take us about 14-15 years to get through the entire inventory. You can read more about the project, and find a mostly-complete index of every blog post to date, here.

After posting my entries at Difficult Run for the first couple of years, I moved over to Meridian a few months ago. This is a better fit for the posts (since Difficult Run tends to be more about economics and politics) and I’m really happy to have them there, but a few weeks ago they opted not to publish one of my submissions. I’m perfectly fine with their decision–and I’ve continued to submit all my subsequent posts as before–but I liked the post and so I decided I’d publish it here at Times & Seasons. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts in response to the priesthood session of the October 1980 General Conference.

Sometimes I read a session that I don’t love right away, but when I dig a little deeper I find something in it to keep with me. Sometimes I read a session that I don’t love right away, and digging deeper doesn’t help either. This is one of those sessions.

I figure I may as well share that reality with people because I’m a fan of realistic expectations. Of the people I know who have struggled with their relationship to the Church, one of the common themes is unmet expectations. We, as Latter-day Saints, tend to enjoy sharing positive experiences and those kinds of testimony-building stories where everything makes sense in the end. And that’s great. But it’s probably a good idea if, every now and then, someone speaks up and says, “This doesn’t make sense to me.” Because, sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the prayers aren’t answered, sometimes our life experiences leave us feeling broken and unenlightened and sometimes–on a much less dramatic note–we don’t like a General Conference session.

It may or may not be meaningful, but it seems that this happens most often with priesthood sessions for me. I remember the first few sessions I went to as a deacon when the leaders said they wanted to address the Aaronic priesthood. It made me feel special and included. But by the time I was a teacher, it felt patronizing more than anything else. Just like hearing about how special and chosen my generation was, only to hear the exact same message repeated again and again for decades to every fresh batch of teenagers. I’m skeptical about this approach, since at least in my case the end result was a faint, residual cynicism more than anything else. I’m looking forward to taking my son to Priesthood sessions in a couple of years, but I’m not looking forward to these aspects in particular.

I was also bothered by the absolutism of Elder Peterson’s take on vulgarity and purity in Purify Our Minds and Spirits. Speaking of avoiding vulgar entertainment—which he compared to cutting off the flow of pollutants into a reservoir—he emphasized that by “cut off the flow” he didn’t mean “cut it down, but cut it off.”

I don’t even know what to do with a statement like that. As far as I understand the world, you cannot divide art—even the popular entertainment kind—into binary categories of “pure” and “impure”. There’s a huge distance between an episode of Veggie Tales and violent pornography, but good luck finding the precise spot where the line is drawn. The only response to this kind of thinking, as far as I can tell, is a kind of moral paranoia, an attitude of, I don’t know where the line is, but I’m going to stay as far away from it as possible. I’ve met people who adopt this view, and if it works for them, great. But I’ve got the kind of OCD-prone personality that would inevitably take that attitude to weird and unhealthy places. On top of which, I know for a fact that there is a lot of entertainment—especially music—that has strengthened my faith and brightened my spirit that I would never have been willing to listen to if I’d held onto such a fear-based approach to life. (I’m thinking, if you’re curious, specifically of Thrice and Lecrae in particular.)

 Or take Elder Backman’s talk, To the Young Men of the Church, which features a story about a young man leaving on a mission with his drunken father’s declaration that “Son, you will never amount to a hill of beans,” ringing in his ears. The story ends with the man—now a Zone Leader—responding to Elder Backman’s public statement (in a zone conference) that “You wouldn’t believe this, but someone once said of this young man that he would never amount to a hill of beans, with “We sure showed him, didn’t we, President?”

The idea that you can use leadership callings as a route to vindication seems incredibly treacherous. Is that a road we want to go down? Don’t we actually work pretty hard to convince people that leadership callings aren’t some kind of righteousness merit badge? (Full disclosure: I never trained anyone, I never was anything “higher” than district leader, and when I was district leader the senior companion in the other companionship was also the branch president. Maybe I just have an inferiority complex from that. :-) )

That’s not to say I found nothing to like in this session. I especially appreciated what President Kimball had to say in Ministering to the Needs of Members

Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15–17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.

The reason I decided to share the stuff I didn’t like is because, as I mentioned, I want to dispel any potential myth that all experiences with the Church are good. They aren’t always good. Last Sunday a stake leader came and joked about how angry he got when someone else sat in “his” pew and shared a few humorous road-rage anecdotes. Except, I was more horrified than amused. His talk didn’t resonate with me at all. Those aren’t my struggles. But I am sure they are the struggles for other people out there, and maybe someone else really needed to hear the talk.

So all I’m saying is this: it’s OK not to love everything you hear in sacrament talks or General Conference sessions. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore them. Sometimes the things we most need to hear are the things we least want to hear. So we have to be humble and sincere. We have to stay involved and do our best to get something out of the talks we hear and, when we fail in that endeavor, it’s probably best to know that it’s perfectly normal.

And as for me? Already looking forward to next week’s session.

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