It's time, once again, to reflect on an event that because of my updating schedule mostly happened an entire week ago. For those who don't know, General Conference is an event held twice a year during which all righteous Mormons, and I as well, gather to watch and/or listen to inspiration and instruction from our leaders. This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of everything said there because I'm far too busy for that and there would be little point in going to so much effort when you'd get far more out of just reviewing it all yourself.
Usually I watch General Conference alone at the institute. On those rare occasions when I watch it at someone's house with a group, I have found the groups to be irreverent and obnoxious. But not this time. This time I accompanied Debbie's little ward clique that I have recently found to be a bunch of attractive, intelligent, funny, kind and now, as it turns out, spiritual people. Here is me on Saturday morning, blissfully unaware that someone is photographing me without my consent. The people on the floor all chose to sit there before I even arrived, so nobody judge me for not being a proper gentleman. I would have sat on the floor too if there had been room.
Here are some of us between sessions on Sunday. Left to right: oh, whatever, either you know them or you don't care. Hiding in the back, keen-eyed readers may notice a beautiful and very special building.
Marriage and Family
Later, a smaller group of guys plus Mackenzie and Brooke gathered to watch the priesthood session. "'Chasten,'" Brooke said after the prayer. "Interesting word choice." I said, "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth." She said, "He loves the boys a lot." A little later she also said, "Stop reading my notes. That's weird." I had merely been skimming them. We enjoyed pointing out the fine young men we recognized in the choir from right here at our fine institute. You know, the choir that I wanted to be in but couldn't because I can't sing, even though they said we just had to sign up and only implemented the audition after getting too many applicants due to not putting an enrollment cap on it like literally every other class... but that's life.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke about marriages and families. In lamenting the current state of society, he said, "Somehow, as the days multiply and the color of romantic love changes, there are some who slowly stop thinking of each other’s happiness and start noticing the little faults. In such an environment, some are enticed by the tragic conclusion that their spouse isn’t smart enough, fun enough, or young enough. And somehow they get the idea that this gives them justification to start looking elsewhere." I felt pricked with just a bit of guilt as I thought of my own life. When I first arrived in my current ward, I loved it, and was happy and enthusiastic. But as the years wore on, the magic somehow faded. Perhaps I should have tried harder to keep it alive. Perhaps I should have taken more initiative to reach out to the newcomers in the ward, plan events, participate in Sunday school, and so forth. Instead, I started hanging out with Debbie's ward and it rekindled those feelings and I fell madly and hopelessly in love with it.
President Uchtdorf continued, "Now, just one word to those of our single brethren who follow the deception that they first have to find the 'perfect woman' before they can enter into serious courting or marriage. My beloved brethren, may I remind you, if there were a perfect woman, do you really think she would be that interested in you? In God's plan of happiness, we are not so much looking for someone perfect but for a person with whom, throughout a lifetime, we can join efforts to create a loving, lasting, and more perfect relationship. That is the goal." This is obviously a paraphrase of Elder Richard G. Scott in the April 1999 General Conference: "I suggest that you not ignore many possible candidates who are still developing these attributes, seeking the one who is perfected in them. You will likely not find that perfect person, and if you did, there would certainly be no interest in you. These attributes are best polished together as husband and wife."
Those single brethren who seek for perfect women have probably just been slightly confused by the teachings of Mormon culture. Yes, you are supposed to "marry up" so that you can tell everyone your wife is your "better half". But better does not mean perfect. And she doesn't even need to be a lot better than you. Just a little will suffice. Okay? Okay.
"Every family has moments of awkwardness. Like when your parents ask you to take a 'selfie' of them..."
It's funny because a "selfie" is supposed to be a picture of yourself.
"...or when your great-aunt insists that you are still single because you are just too picky..."
But... isn't that what you just said?
"...or when your opinionated brother-in-law thinks his political view is the gospel view..."
You know who you are. Stop it.
"...or when your dad arranges a family portrait with everyone dressed like characters in his favorite movie. And you get the Chewbacca costume."
Once again, someone shouted out their opposition during the sustaining of General Authorities. I wonder if this will be a regular thing from now on or if people will knock it off when they realize it isn't going to accomplish what they want it to accomplish. As I already shared last week, everyone in the room was talking derisively about them, when Mackenzie spoke up, so quietly that maybe no one else heard her, and said "We can be nice to them even though we disagree. We don't need to call them fools. They just don't understand." When it came up again later, Brooke explained that they were just feeling defensive of the men we love so dearly, and that makes sense and I'm not condemning any of them. I was just stunned and highly impressed at Mackenzie's humble, thoughtful, kind words.
Personally, I often flip-flop between being respectful and contemptuous, and these people provide a case study of why. I read up on them before their opposition last year and I empathize with the sincerity of their concerns, as I do with anyone who has faith challenges. Many of us have been there. However, I sometimes lose patience with inappropriate behavior such as, in this case, seeking out tickets to General Conference for the sole purpose of expressing opposition. They were disappointed at being directed to speak with their stake presidents. They wanted to speak to an Apostle, which is what used to happen on these heretofore rare occasions, but that would be totally unfair to members in the DRC or Thailand who may have the same concerns but be unable to travel to Salt Lake City.
On Sunday morning, for the first time in three years, having missed it last year, I got the thrill of listening to President Monson announce new temples. They will be located in Quito, Ecuador; Harare, Zimbabwe; Belém, Brazil; and Lima, Peru. The former three of these are nearly three hundred, seven hundred, and one thousand miles from their assigned temples, respectively. The latter will make Lima the only city outside of Utah with two temples, which despite being unprecedented makes perfect sense because it's the third largest city in the Americas and home to 42 stakes, yet its current temple is the second smallest in the world. These announcements made me so giddy that I clapped like a child.
During Elder D. Todd Christofferson's talk, Debbie went into the kitchen and started pouring glasses of water and taking them out to us two at a time. I went to help her but she wouldn't let me. "I don't want you to miss this talk," she said. "It's about fatherhood. You should hear it." I couldn't argue with that logic, and I marveled at her simple Christlike service. This is exactly what Jesus would have done if He were there. Except that He probably would have just said, "It's all right if I miss some; I already know what they're going to say. I told them what to say. You liked the Chewbacca joke? I gave him the Chewbacca joke."
I dreamed just recently about the prospect of being a father. Specifically, I was married and telling my wife, "Wouldn't it be awesome if we had quintuplets? I mean, obviously it would be really really difficult, but also awesome. How many people have quintuplets? And we could set up the diaper changing table to be like an assembly line where we just change diapers all day, and put it on a postcard and show all our friends and say 'Look, aren't we funny?'" I woke up feeling very strange. The prospect of having children is daunting because it seems like waving my arms and yelling, "Here I am, karma! Come and get me!" And with my luck, they'll be totally normal so I won't understand them or know how to deal with them at all.
I also liked this line: "While these considerations are certainly true and important, we know that fatherhood is much more than a social construct or the product of evolution." I'm too lazy to check, but I think this is the first time the e-word in its biological sense has been uttered in General Conference in over thirty years, and almost certainly the first time it's been used in such a level-headed and neutral context, evidently placed (as it should be) on the same level of non-controversy as social constructs.
This is not faultfinding - I begrudge nobody their innocent quirks - but have you noticed that Elder Quentin L. Cook likes to use the word "literally"? I'm glad he used it correctly this time. I probably only notice because that one time was quite jarring for me:
"Then she literally dissolved -"
"- in tears."
President Uchtdorf Redux
My eyes don't water for non-yawning related reasons very often, but the story of Dresden and others like it are one of the things that triggers me. Human suffering is bad enough when it isn't completely unnecessary and caused by other humans, and one of the worst parts of war is when innocent people are slaughtered by the "good guys" because they live in the wrong country. So I cried a little at this talk, both with sadness and hope. I quote a representative excerpt to summarize:
"As I pondered the history of Dresden and marveled at the ingenuity and resolve of those who restored what had been so completely destroyed, I felt the sweet influence of the Holy Spirit. Surely, I thought, if man can take the ruins, rubble, and remains of a broken city and rebuild an awe-inspiring structure that rises toward the heavens, how much more capable is our Almighty Father to restore His children who have fallen, struggled, or become lost? It matters not how completely ruined our lives may seem. It matters not how scarlet our sins, how deep our bitterness, how lonely, abandoned, or broken our hearts may be. Even those who are without hope, who live in despair, who have betrayed trust, surrendered their integrity, or turned away from God can be rebuilt. Save those rare sons of perdition, there is no life so shattered that it cannot be restored." That's kind of like what I said last week about Bionicle. I should be an Apostle someday. Just kidding.
The Refugee Crisis
On that note... Not far into Elder Patrick Kearon's talk, he said, "There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today, which means that '1 in every 122 humans… has been forced to flee their homes,' and half of these are children." At that point I silently began to cry more profusely and didn't stop for the remainder of it. President Uchtdorf was also visibly choked up afterward to the point that he could hardly speak. While Elder Kearon's talk was not "to comment on immigration policy", still it astounds me that some American Mormons attempt to parse words and say in essence, "Just because the Church is telling us to help the refugees adjust to new homes and learn our language and find jobs and stuff, and has issued a statement against barring immigration on religious grounds that was a not-so-veiled response to Donald Trump, doesn't mean that Jesus wants us to actually let them into our country." Obviously "I was a stranger, and ye took me in" is too archaic English for some people. Here's a more modern translation: "I was a stranger, and you took me in."
I think I've pointed out before that when liberal members disagree with the Church (and whatever their own faults, they're obviously not the ones saying this), they at least own up to it and say the Church is wrong. When conservative members disagree, they often play stupid and try to pretend they're still following its positions to the letter so they can continue looking down their noses at the liberals. Maybe it would benefit them to someday be forced from their homes and lose everything and see how they like it. "Sorry," Europe would say, "we're sure most of you Americans are perfectly nice people, but a teeny tiny handful of you have committed mass shootings, so any of you could do it and we can't foolishly put ourselves and our families in danger. Remember the saying - 'You knew I was a snake when you put me in your pocket.'"
The leaders of the Church are merely asking us to have compassion and to put it into action, which is meant to be the essence of our religion and more important than any other outward observances of it. If we snub our brothers and sisters in their most desperate hours, then no amount of tithe paying or temple attendance will make us true Christians. Individually, most of us are powerless to do much about it; but cumulatively we can bless millions.
As conference wore on I was far more disappointed than usual that it was nearing its end, wishing that I could keep hanging out with these people and watching it all week, or all month, or forever, instead of returning to the horrors of real life. Further, I had started to feel less like a basically good person with myriad flaws than a basically flawed person with a few good qualities. Somehow, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland read my mind on both counts. "Please remember tomorrow," he said, "and all the days after that, that the Lord blesses those who want to improve, who accept the need for commandments and try to keep them, who cherish Christlike virtues and strive to the best of their ability to acquire them. If you stumble in that pursuit, so does everyone; the Savior is there to help you keep going. If you fall, summon His strength. Call out like Alma, 'O Jesus,… have mercy on me.' He will help you get back up. He will help you repent, repair, fix whatever you have to fix, and keep going. Soon enough you will have the success you seek."
Applying What We Learned
After conference ended there was some discussion about the refugee situation, with Brooke expressing a determination to do something. Then she switched tacks and said something to the effect of, "I'm going to go visit the elderly. Will you guys come with me?" So most of us did and that was great. I like visiting the elderly but I can't go by myself. I feel awkward about potentially not understanding them or not being understood, particularly when my voice is so quiet that my peers in their twenties already have to ask me to repeat things. Though maybe that's just because they've played their music too loud for too long. Anyway, we split up a little but stayed in the same general vicinity. Me and three other guys and Debbie talked to a hundred year old lady and I marveled at this age we live in where being a hundred years old isn't even hugely unusual. For the most part, her mind still seemed really sharp. She asked Debbie, "What are you doing with all these boys?" and Debbie got embarrassed and I'm never going to let her forget about it.
Somebody asked if we were there to sing, because that's what their visitors usually do. I thought that was a brilliant idea because either they would like it or they would realize there are worse things than being lonely, so it would be a win-win. We took a request and sang "Come Come Ye Saints", and then we visited a young eighty year old in a wheelchair and she gave us a song written by her great-grandfather. Charlie accidentally caused a mild uproar as he looked over it and said, "I can play-ish it." We asked for five minutes to practice, she generously gave us six, and then we sang again and this time it was truly mediocre but she said we were better than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Only near the end of our visit did I notice she was missing a leg. She said, "I'm getting a prosthetic tomorrow." Someone said, "Cool." She said, "Well, it's not 'cool', but it beats not being able to walk."
The greatest miracle, apparently, was that we had a Russian RM on hand and they had a lady who only spoke Russian and couldn't talk to anyone except her daughter. He said he would probably go back every week, and I was very touched to hear that.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir - Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir happened to sing my favorite hymn ever and this, too, made me tear up a little. I wasn't the only one.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.