Monday, October 6, 2014

The 184th Semi-Annual General Conference

Once again, I was able to enjoy every session of General Conference during conference weekend. (Some years I have had to miss sessions and then watch them later in the week.) There is something particularly powerful for me about gathering for conference when the Saints are gathering. 

The Saturday morning session and the Sunday morning session I gathered with other members of my ward at our ward meeting house in south Minneapolis, and participated in the potluck luncheons our ward traditionally holds in between the morning and afternoon sessions. After the potlucks, the introvert in me drove me home where I watched the remaining sessions on my computer. But I was incredibly grateful for interactions with other members of my ward that were sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted, always genuine and loving. My former Bishop R. Chris Barden (who now lives in a different ward) surprised me with a handshake and a hug. His wife had been an angel of mercy to me on several occasions, including during a very meaningful visit at the hospital after my brain surgery. Tears came to his eyes as I asked him to send my love to his wife, and as he shared with me what it had meant to her to get to know me better.

For good or for ill, more than ever before I also experienced this conference in and through social media. Affirmation leaders committed to monitor social media during conference, so that if there were painful issues Affirmation members were dealing with, we could be there to help process. In general it seems that Affirmation members had a largely positive conference experience. We will be sponsoring a post-conference discussion on line this Wednesday (my birthday!), something that is becoming an Affirmation tradition.

I actually tweeted some of my conference highlights, including:
BKP: the true success of the Gospel will be measured by the spiritual strength of individual members 
Uchtdorf: nourish and encourage all light no matter how bright  
Christofferson: God neither compels nor abandons us 
Neil Andersen: opposition sends seekers of truth to their knees for answers 
Jörg Klebingat: make repentance your lifestyle of choice... and become really good at forgiving! 
Eduardo Gavarret: "I always knew it would be easier to follow the Savior with [my spouse] at my side" 
Holland: Jesus loved the impoverished in an extraordinary way. He was born to two of them. As an adult Jesus was homeless. 
Holland: Don't withhold because you think the poor brought their plight upon themselves 
Holland: The Kingdom of God is coming to deliver the poor. May we be the fulfillment of that prophecy. 
Craig Christensen: a testimony is more like a tree than a light switch  
Dean Davies: caring for the poor and needy is an essential gospel doctrine  
The Law of the Fast: if we want our cries for help to be answered, we must answer the cries of others  
Monson: "Wherever we go, our priesthood goes with us." 
Ballard: Latter-day Saints are always free to ask difficult questions. After all, that's what Joseph Smith did. 
Kacher: "Importance of acting for myself, and not forsaking my agency to others" 
Kacher: "No room for honest inquiry? Ask the young boy (Joseph Smith)." 
A fair amount of commentary on LGBT social media naturally focused on Dallin H. Oaks' talk in the Saturday afternoon session about the First Commandment, and its implication for social engagement on contentious social issues, specifically the issue of same-sex marriage. Many gratefully noted his statement that "we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution… based on…differences in sexual orientation," though some also expressed concern that his continuing denunciation of same-sex marriage might have the opposite effect intended by this statement on many members of the Church. What I found most noteworthy about Elder Oaks' talk were the four words he used to qualify the injunction to "hold out for right and wrong": "as they understand it." A call for humility to accompany any stand based on religious or moral conviction?

Dieter F. Uchtdorf's talk, significantly delivered during the Priesthoood Session, on the human tendency to project faults and flaws on others while failing to look inward was one of the most profound. Our ability to look inward, he taught, is the "key to personal wisdom and lasting change." No one is exempt from the need to daily engage in scripture study, prayer, service and sacrifice. He noted examples in the Church of "outward righteousness" accompanied by distressing signs of inward corruption. "Those who do not want to grow and change," he warned, "may find the Church increasingly irrelevant to their lives." "If our weaknesses remain obscured in the shadows, Christ cannot heal them." He urged members of the Church to use the scriptures and General Conference talks not to condemn others, but as a "mirror" to examine the state of our own soul.

Henry B. Eyring's talk in the third general session was my favorite, because of his nuanced discussion of one of the core doctrines of the Restoration: personal revelation. "Revelation begins, ends and continues," he said, "as we receive personal revelation." Never before have I seen in a conference talk such a strong statement about the right and responsibility of every Church member to seek and receive a personal, "confirming witness" of any and every Church  injunction and teaching. He described seeking personal confirmation as something "we all must [do]." A personal search for and concrete efforts to achieve holiness must also accompany any such search. Charity toward others, letting virtue garnish our thoughts, a personal commitment to studying the word of God and praying daily, were all prerequisites to any successful search for personal revelation. And patience. His talk ended with the blessing, "I pray that you will receive the confirming revelation you need."

Something Pres. Eyring said in his talk came back to me with force at the end of conference. As Pres. Monson said, "I invoke the blessings of Heaven on each of you," the Spirit descended on me with a force that overcame me. I was grateful to be at home, observing conference in private, I was so overcome. I fell to my knees in prayer, sobbing.

"Don't take lightly  the love you feel for the prophet," Pres. Eyring had said. "It is more than just hero worship." I had in that moment an undeniable testimony of God's concrete presence in the world today, represented in this mortal man, subject to all of the frailties and infirmities every human being is subject to.

That testimony, more than any specific words spoken in conference, was and is and will be what matters most to me here and in Eternity.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

General Conference: Text and Subtext

My ward has a long-standing tradition of watching General Conference together at our chapel, and then having a potluck luncheon in between the morning and afternoon sessions, Saturday and Sunday. So this year I decided to watch the morning sessions at the chapel with my ward, hang out for the potluck, and then head home to watch the afternoon sessions via the Internet.

Today I'm so glad I did. I have the most excellent ward. While waiting in line for food, a group of us had a stimulating conversation about why School of Rock is a most excellent film. (Highly recommended by a former ward choir director!) Lunch-time conversation began with a discussion of what each of us considered the spiritual highlights of the first session of conference. (I liked Boyd K. Packer's statement that "the success of the Gospel is measured by the spiritual strength of individual members"; D. Todd Christofferson's reflections on the relationship between individual agency and divine grace; and Chi Hong Wong's incredible use of the story of the man afflicted with palsy as an analogy of how the Church works at its best. More about Elder Wong's talk later.) But it progressed from that to light-hearted banter about the merits of certain caffeinated soft-drinks (say, Cherry Coke vs. Dr. Pepper; neither of which anyone seemed to think violate the Word of Wisdom), and whether the Jamaican jerk chicken served at Marla's Caribbean Cuisine qualifies as genuine Jamaican jerk chicken. But I digress... Except to say that even being out in my ward as gay and in a committed same-sex relationship, I feel genuinely loved, included, and respected by every member of my ward, and I actually began to weep as I was walking home, thinking about the marvelous qualities of these people who are so guileless, faithful, and Christ-like. They love me and I love them.

If there was a talk I wrestled with, it was the one delivered by Lynn G. Robbins, not because of the explicit content of the talk itself, all of which I agreed with, but because of a possible subtext of the talk. Since President Robbins' talk remained confined to generalities and never gave any specific examples of where in present-day society these general principles would specifically be put into practice, it's hard to comment other than to say that I agree, peer pressure is a terrible reason to change your opinion of anything, much less your deeply held religious convictions. But if, perchance, growing social acceptance of same-sex marriage is what he was referring to by the term "society's inappropriate behavior," and for which members and leaders of the LDS Church risk being accused of "not living in the 20th century" or being "bigoted," I would like to point out that few if any of the people I know who have changed their views on this particular subject have done so because they are being subjected to peer pressure. Rather, they are changing their views because of what they are coming to learn about gay and lesbian family members and friends, and about the powerful, positive impact that marriage equality has on these individuals. They are changing their views because they have come to understand that legally recognizing the marriages of gay couples may in fact be the right, compassionate, moral thing to do.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk on the subject of love and civil discourse courteously and directly addressed the subject of same-sex marriage. Clearly the talk was given from the perspective of someone who believes same-sex marriage is wrong. But that was not the central point of his talk. "Love is the very essence of the Gospel," he affirmed. And love is challenging to practice because people disagree about things -- like same-sex marriage. The Devil is "the father of contention." "Wise men turn away from wrath." "The wrath of men worketh not the righteousness of God." Elder Oaks correctly advised Latter-day Saints not to allow themselves to be cowed by pejoratives like "bigot." (Nor, presumably, ought they to use such pejoratives.) But what I found most interesting in his talk was a particular turn of phrase. The Saints ought to "hold out for right and wrong as they understand it." Is it possible that those four words are an acknowledgment of the fundamental humility that ought to undergird any social engagement?

Oughtn't love and respect for the truth, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf emphasized in his talk, be our ultimate quest, wherever we stand in relation to such painful issues? "It seems to be a trait of humanity," Pres. Uchtdorf stated, "to assume we are right, even when we are wrong." He warned of the way we tend to construct for ourselves "raft[s] poorly pieced together from our own biases."

The talk I most loved in today's general sessions was that by Chi Hong Wong. The story of the man with palsy became a powerful metaphor of how the Church is supposed to work, a metaphor he expanded by placing it in a modern day Church context, involving a member of the Relief Society, a member of an Elders Quorum, a youthful Aaronic Priesthood holder, and a full time missionary. Making the Church accessible to those most in need of help required creative solutions (taking out the roof and lowering the man down rather than bringing him through the front door), it required each individual using his or her unique skills, and working in a harmony achieved by practice and listening! He emphasized Church leaders listening to those to whom and with they minister, in order to serve more effectively! And he concluded that the faith described in this story was a story not merely of individual faith (not just the faith of the man seeking healing!), but collective faith. He spoke of Jesus seeing their faith. He spoke of the reward of our combined faith.

The Spirit certainly gave me a subtext for understanding that particular talk, and what it might say about making the Church more accessible to LGBT people. Maybe faithful Saints need to find creative ways to tear out some roofs, if the doorways are being blocked.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland hit it when he said, "I may not be my brother's keeper, but I am my brother's brother." A call for us to view each other not through the lens of "other" but as sister/brother.