Being Bold Amidst the Storms

The Priesthood Session of the October 1976 conference had two talks that really made me feel a greater sense of urgency in my missionary efforts and in my dedication to the Gospel.

First, Elder Rex D. Pinegar shared a story from the life of President Spencer W. Kimball that made me reflect on how much more bold I need to be in my efforts:

Our beloved prophet not only calls us to be better missionaries, to lengthen our stride, he shows us how. In 1975 my wife and I were with President and Sister Kimball in Bogota, Colombia. As we were in the airport for his departure, an airlines representative met with us. Upon being introduced to this fine young man, the prophet extended his hand with these words, “Young man, I hope the next time I shake your hand you’re a member of this church.” Without any hesitation, and with his eyes fixed firmly on those of the prophet, the man replied, “Sir, so do I!” The President turned to the mission president and obtained a commitment from him to teach the man the gospel. Words President Kimball had spoken to missionaries in Bogota had been exemplified in deed: “Give full energy and thought to the Lord’s work–your lives will be rich because of it.” That day I saw how the prophet’s full thought was centered on living the spirit of the calling, as well as carrying out the physical duties that are his.

I was so impressed by the effectiveness of this missionary approach by the prophet that I tried it myself in Puerto Rico. Just a few weeks later I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a district conference. Following the morning session a Brother Martinez brought his nonmember mother and sisters up so I could meet them. As I leaned down over the railing of the stand I could hear the words of President Kimball ringing in my mind. Out they came: “Ma’am, the next time I shake your hand, I hope you are a member of this Church.” To my amazement and joy, her reply came quickly and sincerely, “And sir, so do I.” Five weeks following the conference the Martinez family was baptized. The father followed the rest of the family into the waters of baptism by three weeks. This experience has been repeated at least six times. My life has become rich by following the example set by President Kimball.

When I was a full-time missionary I had that kind of boldness. It's easier to be bold with people in far away countries, but so much credit harder to be bold with our neighbors. I talk about the church with people all the time. I'm rarely silent about my beliefs. And yet, this story makes me realize that I have been far too timid.

A story shared by Elder Marion G. Romney had a similar impact:

In any event, the charge came to my mind recently as I listened to the report of a returned missionary.

He told us that the wife in the family in whose home he and his companion were living was interested in the gospel; her husband was not interested, however. But finally he warmed up a little and said that when the missionaries had nothing else to do he would listen to them. Sometime thereafter when a wet and windy storm drove them in from tracting, finding him alone, they gave him the first missionary lesson. He didn’t exhibit much interest at first, but when they had concluded, he stood up and said, in effect:

“Do you know what you have just told me?”

They thought they did.

“Do you believe it?” he asked.

“Yes,” they replied, “we believe it.”

“Well then,” he declared, “you don’t understand what you’re saying. If you really believed that God and His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ, actually came to this earth in 1820 and personally appeared to a boy and gave him the message you say they gave him, no storm could drive you in from doing your work. With a message like that you would have to stay out there knocking on doors and delivering your message.”

As I have thought about this incident, I have asked myself the question which I now put to you: How much of a storm does it take to drive you in? How much of a storm does it take to drive me in?

How easily dissuaded or distracted are we from sharing the Gospel because we worry about being uncomfortable? If we truly understand how precious and incredible the Gospel is, we will be bold in sharing and willing to take on whatever inconvenience needed to share our witness.

A Personal Relationship with God and Christ

One persistent criticism that I have heard Evangelicals level at Mormons is that we do not believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That argument is based on a BYU devotional given by Bruce R. McConkie where he denounced a then prevalent philosophy among the BYU faculty focused on developing special closeness to the savior at the expense of other members of the Godhead. Some have taken this talk to mean that Mormon's cannot draw close to Christ. That is of course utter nonsense. As Elder McConkie himself said during his devotional:

Now I sincerely hope that no one will imagine that I have in the slightest degree downgraded the Lord Jesus in the scheme of things. I have not done so. As far as I know there is not a man on earth who thinks more highly of him than I do. It just may be that I have preached more sermons, taught more doctrine, and written more words about the Lord Jesus Christ than any other man now living. I have ten large volumes in print, seven of which deal almost entirely with Christ, and the other three with him and his doctrines.

In October 1976, a few years before Elder McConkie's devotional, Elder James Faust, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy spoke about developing a personal relationship with the savior in moving and powerful terms. Some might see his remarks as contrary to Elder McConkie's speech, but I see them as wholly compatible.

There is a great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to speak about coming to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Recently in South America, a seasoned group of outstanding missionaries was asked, “What is the greatest need in the world?” One wisely responded: “Is not the greatest need in all of the world for every person to have a personal, ongoing, daily, continuing relationship with the Savior?” Having such a relationship can unchain the divinity within us, and nothing can make a greater difference in our lives as we come to know and understand our divine relationship with God.

We should earnestly seek not just to know about the Master, but to strive, as He invited, to be one with Him (see John 17:21), to “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16). We may not feel a closeness with Him because we think of Him as being far away, or our relationship may not be sanctifying because we do not think of Him as a real person.

President Faust spoke of the need to truly come to know Christ because knowing him will "unchain the divinity within us. And as we come to know about Christ, and feel of his love we also come to know our father in Heaven. This is the pattern of the Gospel. We learn of him and are then transformed by him.

Interestingly, President Faust's message was reprinted in the Ensign in 1999 with a slightly different focus on coming to know Jesus Christ AND Heavenly Father.

There is great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to discuss coming to a personal knowledge of God, the Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Critics might suggest that this was a white wash of President Faust's talk in light of Elder McConkie's criticism. But I rather see that President Faust's decades of service made it even more clear to him that our relationship with God and our relationship with Christ are inexorably intertwined.

Or perhaps it is true that Elder McConkie's words influenced others to avoid using the "personal relationship with Christ" language. Nevertheless, the message is the same and in complete harmony. Come to know God and know the Savior because your eternal life depends on it.

True Beauty

Elder Sterling W. Sill spoke about the somewhat unusual topic of death and dying well. But what I really enjoyed in his talk was his discussion of true beauty.

I am going to quote at length because it allows Elder Sill’s unusual insight to shine:

We sometimes imagine that Jesus is different than we are, but the Prophet Joseph Smith tried to describe his some fifteen or sixteen visits with the angel Moroni. Moroni was a soldier who lived upon our continent. For the last thirty-seven years of his life he lived alone. He said, “My father hath been slain [as well as] all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go. “Wherefore,” said he, “I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.” (Morm. 8:5, Moro. 1:3)

He didn’t have a warm bathroom to go into every morning or someone to get him a good breakfast or provide him with clean clothing. We might imagine that during these many long and lonely years he had allowed his personality to run down a little bit. And then we see him for the last time as he stood there on the edge of his grave, writing us his last paragraph. In closing his great book he said, “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” (Moro. 10:34.)

And then there followed a long silence of fourteen centuries. For 1,403 years we heard nothing more, until on the night of September 21, 1823, this same old man, now resurrected and glorified, stood by the bedside of Joseph Smith. And the Prophet tried to describe him as he then appeared. And while he said that was impossible, yet he tried. And here are some of the phrases he used. He said, “His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.” (JS–H 1:32) Not only was his person glorious, but even his clothing was brilliant. “Beyond anything earthly I had ever seen,” said he, “nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant.” (JS–H 1:31)

We all know the things that we do to make this body a pleasant habitation. We bathe it and keep it clean; we dress it in the most appropriate clothing. Sometimes we ornament it with jewelry. If we’re very wealthy we buy necklaces and bracelets and diamond rings and other things to make this body sparkle and shine and make it a pleasant place. Sometimes we work on it a little bit with cosmetics and eyebrow tweezers. Sometimes we don’t help it very much, but we keep working at it all the time.

Now if you think it would be pleasant to be dressed in expensive clothing, what do you think it would be like sometime to be dressed in an expensive body–one that shines like the sun, one that is beautiful beyond all comprehension, with quickened senses, amplified powers of perception, and vastly increased capacity for love, understanding, and happiness. And we might just keep in mind that God runs the most effective beauty parlor ever known in the world.

As Elder Sills describes, true beauty is more than skin deep. True beauty comes from the soul. 

One of the most radiant spirits I’ve ever known was a 90+ year old member of the church living in Krasnoyarsk Russia named Taisia. Taisia was one of the first and strongest members of the Church in the area. When she spoke of the gospel and the savior, her face glowed and her countenance shone. Each week, we went to her and blessed the sacrament for her, and as we did so her radiat expression lit the whole room. I loved basking in her light. It was one of the most edifying and powerful experiences of my life. 

Taisia was not beautiful by earthly standards valuing youth and physical beauty. But she had truly internalized what it meant to be a beautiful soul. She had met the measure of her creation. May we do likewise.

Now I don’t know what it would be like if we sometime discovered that we had missed the goal of life and had allowed ourselves to become only telestial souls. I do know that it would be as far below the celestial as the twinkle of a tiny star is below the blaze of the noonday sun.

In a Single Bound

One thing I love about General Conference is being able to read excerpts of inspired poems written by non-member authors who nevertheless were moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

In the October 1976 conference, Elder William H. Bennett quoted from the poet Josiah Gilbert Holland to speak about the need to press forward unto perfection by our daily efforts. Holland was a favored poet around this period, as this poem called Gradatim and another poem entitled God, Give us Men, were frequently quoted by General Authorities.  (According to the Corpus of LDS General Conferences, God, give us men was quoted 17 times from 1912-1974, while Gradatim was quoted at least 6 times in addition to this talk).

I was really moved by the full text:

GRADATIM

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit round by round.

I count this thing to be grandly true:
That a noble deed is a step toward God,
Lifting the soul from the common clod
To a purer air and a broader view.

We rise by the things that are under feet;
By what we have mastered of good and gain;
By the pride deposed and the passion slain,
And the vanquished ills that we hourly meet.

We hope, we aspire, we resolve, we trust,
When the morning calls us to life and light,
But our hearts grow weary, and, ere the night,
Our lives are trailing the sordid dust.

We hope, we resolve, we aspire, we pray,
And we think that we mount the air on wings
Beyond the recall of sensual things,
While our feet still cling to the heavy clay.

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit, round by round.
Josiah Gilbert Holland

 

I especially loved a portion of the poem that was not quoted by Elder Bennett but that really fit his theme well:

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

I love the poetic usage of the theme of wings as a metaphor for our natural desire to soar above our mortal and frail imperfections. I love the image of ladders drawn from Jacob’s ladder, suggesting a smooth and eternal climb.

In our moments of spiritual uplift, we feel like we have angels wings. And through revelation, dreams, or temple worship, we feel like we ascend up a smooth ladder up to heaven. And then, we leave the temple or step back to reality.  Our weak and carnal nature reasserts ourselves.  We wake up on an uncomfortable pillar of stone.  And then we have to go to work and build our own imperfect path through small and simple steps.

This poem sirs up for me a desire to do better at achieving angelic lift more frequently. I know that I need to be lifted on angel wings and climb up the celestial ladder more frequently in order to be more fully guided as I attempt to build my own ladder.

The challenge of having a living prophet

Reading older general conference addresses is a rewarding mix of challenging and comforting messages. 

The first session of the October 1976 conference offered lots of both, but I’m going to focus on some of the parts that were personally challenging. 

President Kimball spoke of the evil’s of pornography and urged members to join the fight against obscenity:

And so we say to you: Teach your children to avoid smut as the plague it is. As citizens, join in the fight against obscenity in your communities. Do not be lulled into inaction by the pornographic profiteers who say that to remove obscenity is to deny people the rights of free choice. Do not let them masquerade licentiousness as liberty.

Precious souls are at stake–souls that are near and dear to each of us.

As someone who has long been just about a free speech absolutist, this is a very challenging message that feels directed right at me. As I read such thoughts, I reflect deeply on how I can do better to align my professional and intellectual vocations with the demands of God through a living Prophet. I find such challenges to be one of the greatest things about having a living prophet on the earth.

Another point from President Kimball likewise challenged me as a conservative who usually wants to see limited or smaller government. President Kimball spoke of the importance of family life, and held up a social program in France as an example:

Family life is gaining ground. Some countries are coming to an appreciation for children and family life.

We note that France has now repudiated that program which would limit life. It is said that if a couple’s combined ages in France do not exceed fifty-two and one of them is employed, the couple can borrow $1,350 from the government on demand. This is for the payment of rent, payment on a home, or for household equipment, with fifteen months to pay.

If a French couple has a baby before the loan payment is due, their debt is reduced by 15 percent for the first child, 25 percent for the second child, 25 percent for the third, and complete debt forgiveness for the fourth. In France the expectant mother is said to receive $150 for prenatal care. This is a step in the right direction.

President Kimball’s remarks suggest that government can and should play a role in supporting and promoting the family and family values. This pushback on more traditional anti-government conservatives views is extremely valuable for all who listen. This is exactly how it should be.

The Unifying Spirit of the Lord

At the conclusion of the April 1976 conference President (then Elder) Howard B. Hunter shared a powerful message about the vital importance of unity – in society but especially in the Church. Strikingly, he connected the future growth of the Church to the degree that members would be able to maintain unity.

As we think of the great growth of the Church, the diversities of tongues and cultures, and the monumental tasks that yet lie before us, we wonder if there is any more important objective before us than to so live that we may enjoy the unifying spirit of the Lord. As Jesus prayed, we must be united if the world is ever to be convinced that he was sent by God his Father to redeem us from our sins.

It is unity and oneness that has thus far enabled us to bear our testimony around the globe, bringing forward tens of thousands of missionaries to do their part. More must be done. It is unity that has thus far enabled the Church, its wards and stakes, branches and districts, and members, to construct temples and chapels, undertake welfare projects, seek after the dead, watch over the Church, and build faith. More must be done. These great purposes of the Lord could not have been achieved with dissension or jealousy or selfishness. Our ideas may not always be quite like those who preside in authority over us, but this is the Lord’s church and he will bless each of us as we cast off pride, pray for strength, and contribute to the good of the whole.

I wonder if some of the slowing growth we see in recent years is as a result of growing disunity in the Church. We are divided over a myriad of political, social, and cultural issues. We are encompassed by a large number of “ites” such as Snufferites (or more controversially, followers of groups such as Ordain Women). Therefore, we appear to the world as a church in conflict rather than a united one.

One thing that I truly value about my membership in the Church is the degree to which there is doctrinal unity in the Church. I love having a source of authority to look to for definitive answers from the Lord about perplexing moral and spiritual problems. I love that we need not be children tossed to and fro by the deceptions of the world. There’s a reason why primary children across the world sing “follow the prophet.” Doing so is the key to a united membership and to the spiritual power that comes as a result.

It brings me great sorrow to see so much division and disunity. If we could simply, as President Hunter suggested, “cast off pride” and put on the mantle of love and charity, we would see conditions improve I the Church and in the world.

Elder George P. Lee in the same session echoed similar thoughts about unity:

To me you’re all equal in the sense that you are all Latter-day Saints and that you are all rich spiritually. What I see in the audience today are people from all walks of life. I see doctors and lawyers sitting next to common men. I see a farmer next to a professional person. I see professional people, educators, and teachers side by side. I see composers, musicians, and artists–all kinds of people from all walks of life, sitting together side by side. And this is as it should be, because if you want to know what the celestial kingdom looks like, you are witnessing today a glimpse of the celestial kingdom and heaven.

One of the miracles of the church is how it brings people of diverse backgrounds together to serve together as one. That is the celestial kingdom in action. We need to put off our differences and put our shoulders to the wheel in valiant service.

The Mighty Prophet

Elder Bruce R. McConkie is particularly known for his forceful testimony of Jesus Christ. However, his witness of the prophet Joseph Smith was also especially powerful.

In April 1976, he put the question of whether Joseph truly was a prophet into stark relief:

All men may well ask themselves where they stand with reference to Joseph Smith and his divine mission. Do they inquire after his name and seek that salvation found only in the gospel of Christ as revealed to his latter-day prophet, or do they deride and despise the Lord’s living oracles and say that God no longer speaks to men in the way he did anciently? The great question which all men in our day must answer–and that at the peril of their own salvation–is: Was Joseph Smith called of God?

Ultimately, all seekers of Christ must decide for themselves whether Joseph was a prophet of God. For our day, Joseph Smith was the prophet of the restoration and restored fundamental truth necessary to help us truly know Christ. Even though salvation only comes through Christ, without his servants we would not truly be able to understand Christ. This is truly the great question, because if answered in the affirmative, everything else follows.

Or at least it did for me. My testimony of Joseph Smith was a foundational building block in developing faith in the modern prophets and in the Church. I’m grateful for the powerful witness I received that Joseph was a prophet and for the countless reassurances I have experienced since then.