This is a fun week for the General Conference Odyssey because we get to come back to our own time for a week! I haven't had as much time to digest the talks and their messages (we don't even have transcripts yet, so I'm working from my very imperfect notes), and as always after Conference, I'm overwhelmed with the volume and depth of information to absorb. But here are a few thoughts from this most recent meeting, the October 2016 General Conference!
When I was in High School Seminary, one of my teachers gave us the challenge of preparing for General Conference by thinking of and writing down three questions we were wondering about. He promised us that at some point during Conference, our questions would be answered. I remember thinking how amazing such a claim was, and how miraculous it would be if each person could truly get an answer to an individual question in such a general setting! And yet—that's exactly what happened. My questions, simple as they were, were answered.
Since that time, I have only occasionally used the "come with a question" technique for Conference. A few times I've come with a question and NOT felt I found the answer, but I've never felt too bad about it: I've attributed it to my lack of attention or knowledge, or perhaps to God's intention to make me wait and seek longer for understanding. And then, sometimes I haven't felt like I HAD any significant questions, sometimes I've just been too busy to think of anything, and other times my worries and questions have been so vague and overwhelming that I don't feel like they are distillable into words. (I did once have a significant experience with this last situation, which maybe I'll write about some other time.) I love Conference, but I think over the years I also lost a little confidence in "coming with a question."
This October, since I have been in a sort of state of constant questions about various issues for a few months now, it felt like a natural time to try again to pray and seek guidance specifically on these things during Conference. I made a list of several things I'd been thinking about, ranging in seriousness from vague curiosity to anxious fretting, and tried to go into Conference with the appropriate balance of confidence that they would be answered, and equanimity if they weren't.
As I said, I'm still sorting through the doctrine in the talks, and the feelings I felt while listening, but I was surprised how many "question-relevant" insights went through my head—even during seemingly-unrelated talks! I think that's one thing I underestimated in my previous "come with a question" experiences. I would notice that there was no talk specifically addressing my topic of concern, and think, "Oh no, no one answered my question!" But I may not have been taking into account the spiritual promptings that could come during other talks, or the insight that would come later as previously-unnoticed sections stuck out to me.
Another problem I've struggled with repeatedly is that of discerning which, exactly, are the spiritual promptings I'm feeling, and which are not. During the past few years, however, I've made a commitment to, when in doubt, err on the side of believing that God IS speaking to me and intervening in my life. I decided that the sin of NOT acknowledging His blessings and revelation was a greater risk than the possible sin of OVERestimating His involvement. And, in fact, one of the talks (Elder Rasband's) addressed that very thing when he said something like, "Never forget, question or ignore personal sacred experiences." I'm trying to follow that counsel even though my natural inclination is often to assume that I'm not deserving or important enough to receive direct divine help.
Perhaps the most meaningful line in Conference to me was K. Brett Nattress' mother's promise to her difficult boy that "I will not lose you," and Elder Nattress' assertion that "the gospel is about one little boy who might claim he's not listening." Along the same lines, I loved Lynn G. Robbins' speculation that perhaps when Christ opened the "mouths of babes" in the Book of Mormon, it was actually the eyes and ears of the parents that were opened, to see who their children really were. These were all insights I needed and desired to have.
Two other talks that I loved were President Uchtdorf's and President Nelson's twin sermons on Amazement and Joy. This was one of the themes running through Conference for me (which must mean it's something I particularly need to hear: I've also written about it recently here and here), and I found elements of it in President Eyring's talk on gratitude for the Sabbath Day, Elder Cook's talk on avoiding stumbling blocks, Elder Ballard's direction to focus on the blessings of being a church member, Elder Davies' talk on seeking profound experiences of worship, and Elder Cornish's reassurance that "we are good enough."
Basically, the common thread running through all these talks seemed to be that amazement, joy, gratitude, closeness to God, and transcendent spiritual experiences are there for us constantly, if we desire and seek them! It's the same idea I was reaching toward when I wrote this, and I feel its truth even more now. Usually when people say something is "realistic," they mean it includes all the drudgery and dirtiness and sadness of life. But hearing these talks, I felt like that kind of "realism" is the true illusion. When we live the kind of lives President Nelson and President Uchtdorf described, where we are constantly noticing and thanking God for His goodness, we break through the illusion Satan has set for us, and see the glorious reality that God has seen all along.
And, to anticipate an argument, I don't think there is anything in this view that disparages a person who currently feels immersed in the evils or hardships around him. People seem sensitive about having "their realities" acknowledged these days, and it's an understandable impulse. We don't like to have our very personal worries and struggles dismissed as mere imagination! But for me, it's actually helpful to have my worldview challenged a bit. In the book of Revelation, one of the recurring symbols is smoke pouring forth from a bottomless pit, and the smoke fills the air and darkens the sun. So yes, to those feeling their way through the smoke of sin and pain and disappointment, the darkness is "real," in a way. But it's local. It's not universally, fundamentally Real the way the sun is. That sun is there no matter what is happening below as the smoke ebbs and billows and flows. And yet those inside the smoke might vehemently defend "their reality" that there IS no sun, no clear air, only darkness and heaviness.
It seemed like what President Nelson and President Uchtdorf were trying to do with their talks was to wave away the smoke a bit, or lift us above the obscuring smoky clouds (for an airplane's view—I bet President Uchtdorf wishes he'd thought of that, ha ha) so we can see the actual, universal reality of God's goodness and our blessings. The Savior's atonement makes good news of everything: of beauty, because through Him it can be lasting; of ugliness, because through Him it is temporary; of happy families, because through Him they are eternal; of broken families, because through Him they can be healed—of sin, because through Him we can repent; of trial, because through Him we can grow from it; of political turmoil, because through Him we can learn the principles that bring peace; of hatred, because through Him it can be changed to love. I felt, listening to these apostles talk, that there is really nothing about which we can reasonably make the case for despair!
And I particularly loved how both President Uchtdorf and President Nelson ended with almost identical stirring calls to immediate action! This commandment to be grateful and see through eyes of joy and amazement isn't one that needs to be eased into (though I'm sure it's something that can get easier and more automatic with time). We can start doing it whenever we choose! Why not now? Elder Nelson said something like, "Joy is a gift that comes from intentionally living a righteous life. Every day can be 'a day of joy and gladness'!" And Elder Uchtdorf, similarly, said, "The day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess the glory of God. For us, let that day be today!"
Other posts in this series:
Other posts in this series: