This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session from the April 1974 Conference.
As I was reading President Monson's "The Paths Jesus Walked," I kept thinking fondly, "Oh, good old President Monson. This sounds so like something he would say!" And then after a few more paragraphs…"Wait a minute, this sounds exactly like something he would say." And then, "Hey…I'm sure this is something he DID say!" :) It gave me such a strange sense of deja-vu!
So I went back a few conferences to 2014 and thank goodness for my sanity, there it was: a talk by President Monson titled "Ponder the Path of Thy Feet." It even included the same key points: the importance of walking where Jesus walked. The paths of disappointment, temptation, and pain. The paths of obedience, service, and prayer. The two talks were, in essence, the same talk, given forty years apart!
After I realized how similar these talks were, I started thinking about the possible reasons for it. I'm sure some people would think it was evidence of laziness or tiredness or senility, but I obviously reject those answers. (And it seems kind of silly to be critical of someone repeating himself…every forty years! Ha!) Of course, there could have been purely practical reasons for the reprise. The apostles are so busy and have to speak SO often and to so many audiences, it makes sense that they occasionally repeat a talk or a portion of a talk. No reasonable person would expect otherwise! But, on another and maybe more likely level, the repetition also made me think about the idea of "channels" I wrote about earlier. I like the idea that there are certain things that President Monson returns to again and again. I've noticed it in other prophets too—kind of a theme or refrain that comes back repeatedly throughout their lives. I feel like I have these themes myself, on a smaller scale (at least I haven't noticed them stretching over decades…yet…but perhaps they will). When I was in high school I gave a talk on gratitude, and after that I felt like it was sort of "my own" subject or my life's theme for awhile. I almost felt like an expert on it, because my ears would perk up anytime I heard or read anything about it, and I was keeping gratitude journals and thinking a lot about what gratitude meant and how to have it. That faded after a time as I moved on to new questions and ponderings (and when I gave another talk on gratitude years later, I realized my understanding had matured and there was much MORE to understand; I wasn't as much of an expert as I'd thought!)—but I have felt many such personal "themes" since then. So it makes me happy to think of President Monson experiencing something similar. Finding his thoughts turning over and over to the path Jesus walked. And in his 1974 talk, we even get a clue as to WHY he may have had his thoughts pointed in that direction:
…President Lee inspired in all of us a desire to achieve perfection. He counseled us, “Keep the commandments of God. Follow the pathway of the Lord.”
One day later, in a very sacred room on an upper floor of the Salt Lake Temple, his successor was chosen, sustained, and set apart to his sacred calling. Untiring in his labor, humble in his manner, inspiring in his testimony, President Spencer W. Kimball invited us to continue the course charted by President Lee. He spoke the same penetrating words, “Keep the commandments of God. Follow the pathway of the Lord. Walk in his footsteps.”
It's interesting to think of President Monson, a prophet himself, listening to another prophet with such careful attention. I can imagine him hearing President Lee talk about "the pathway of the Lord," and then when President Kimball used that same phrase, thinking, "Okay. It must be important. So I better figure out what, exactly, that might mean!" And then pondering and praying and thinking it over until he, too, felt "the pathway of the Lord" as one of his life themes.
And of course, as prophet, if HIS thoughts keep going there, it's pretty certain OUR thoughts could benefit from going there too, which I suppose is another reason he may have felt impressed to give a variation on this talk again. It also made me think of the many times in the scriptures when the rising generation fails to grasp something that their fathers and mothers understood. I was just reading about a book called God Has No Grandchildren, which sums up the point nicely. We each have to form our own relationship with God, and learn for ourselves that we are His children. My parents may have heard this talk the first time around. It may have inspired them and motivated them. But none of that does ME any good, unless I too hear and learn those truths. And in this case, President Monson kindly repeated them for us, just to emphasize that they are as relevant for us now as they were forty years ago.
The talks weren't exactly the same, though. President Monson used different illustrations throughout. And I was happy that I read the old one as well as the recent one, because there were a few little phrases from the 1974 talk that caught my attention (probably partly because they fit with some of my own current "themes"---ha ha!). One was this:
[God] commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship; and they shall learn in their own experience who he is.
I love this, because it reminds me that God, to each of us, is just what each of us needs Him to be! That sounds a little like making God in our OWN image, but that's not what I mean. Of course we can try to correct misconceptions and prejudices of our own, to learn the truth of who God is. But I just mean that he leads and teaches us exactly according to our abilities and needs. I've been talking with a friend about this a lot as we try to puzzle through being good parents to our own kids, and we've just noticed how much variation there is in what our own children need. Some of them need more motivation, some need a little less prodding—and it can change from month to month with the same child. It requires so much stretching to meet all those needs! It feels strange sometimes to have to give of yourself in such varied ways as a parent, and you always worry if you are being fair! But this paragraph struck a chord with me, especially those words "they shall learn in their own experience who he is"—because who God is changes with who WE are! Not ultimately, of course. He is all-encompassing; everything just and merciful and good all at once. But who He is TO US changes even from year to year, as we need and seek and learn different things. It makes me excited for someday, when I will be able to see and grasp ALL that God is—but I like knowing that, until then, He knows how to reveal Himself to me as the perfect Father; the exact type of Father I need Him to be at that moment in time and space.
My other favorite moment from the 1974 talk was this:
The passage of time has not altered the capacity of the Redeemer to change men’s lives. As he said to the dead Lazarus, so he says to you and me: “… come forth.” (John 11:43.) Come forth from the despair of doubt. Come forth from the sorrow of sin. Come forth from the death of disbelief. Come forth to a newness of life. Come forth.
I love this so much! It never occurred to me to see the raising of Lazarus as anything but a symbol of our own eventual resurrection, but President Monson expands the symbolism so much further! This is one of my favorite stories anyway, with the "Jesus wept" verse to remind us how Jesus weeps with us in times of sorrow, even with his larger perspective on what joy will follow. And combined with this idea that "Come forth" is a command for all of us, it means even more! It also reminds me of President Nelson's talk in this October's conference. God comes to us, even in our dark places. He weeps with us in love and compassion, but He doesn't want us to stay there in the dark, weeping. He wants us to come forth! He wants us feel joy. Jesus wants us to, with Lazarus, step out of the darkness, trailing the tatters of our fears and sins and failures. He wants us to come toward His voice, leave the tomb, and rise, with Him, into the light! It's such a beautiful symbol!
This week as I've had President Monson's recurring "Path" theme on my mind, I keep thinking of a line from T.S. Eliot (which I've probably quoted before, and a lot less than forty years ago, too!):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I think of President Monson, starting on the path of discipleship so long ago, and staying on that path so faithfully. He has probably pondered every principle of the gospel, written sermons on every aspect of the doctrine of Christ, heard counsel on every facet of God's plan. And yet, he hasn't become bored or complacent or weary. He cares about these truths as if they were new to him. He stays continually amazed (as President Uchtdorf reminded us we ALL should be) at God's goodness, and continually inspired by Christ's example. He gave this same talk after forty years of thinking about Jesus' path—and it still meant something to him. And it should mean something to us, even if it doesn't seem new or surprising! Because as we patiently tread those same furrows he spoke of—the disappointments, the temptations, the pain—we are not actually going in circles. We are moving upward. We are moving forward. And we are gaining a little more knowledge and light with each step, so that someday, we WILL arrive where we started: in the presence of God. And because of our experiences in mortality, we truly will know and appreciate that place fully for the first time!
Other posts in this series:
Other posts in this series: