General Conference and Looking for “New Wording”

I’m really excited for General Conference. Come Saturday morning, I’ll be in my super comfy Nautica PJ’s (or maybe sporting my PhillyD monkey shirt), probably setting the oven timer for the amazing French toast casserole we make biannually at conference time.

This French toast recipe is as true as the Church.

Making this breakfast is a family affair. It’s tons of fun.

We don’t dress up for conference in our family, unlike some folks, I guess (the Trib runs pieces like this during the two times a year time it tries to be nice to the LDS Church, the weeks before the spring and fall conferences). That definitely helps me be excited.

When my wife and I were dating, though, I did have her convinced for a moment that in my house, we stayed in church clothes all Sunday long.

(I could see it in her eyes, the way she considered breaking up with me right then and there.)

The way we approach conference – more in terms of what we listen for rather than our dress or food quirks – is very important when it comes to getting the most out of it. Let me show you what I mean.

In 2005, then President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a talk entitled, simply, “Gambling.” I’ve always found the structure of this talk far more interesting than the content.

He sets up the subject like this:

“Now, to go on to the subject that I wish to discuss tonight. I do so in response to a number of requests that have come to me concerning the position of the Church on a practice that is becoming more common among us, and particularly among our youth. That is the matter of gambling in various forms.”

It feels like President Hinckley is basically saying, “Many of you are writing me to ask what the Church teaches about gambling. Fine. Let me lay it out.”

And he does, but in a most interesting way. After a charming anecdote about US President Calvin Coolidge, and plainly stating that, as a church, “we are against [gambling],” he quotes from a number of past church leaders of the subject, including himself. Each time, the format follows a pattern – he names some past leader of ecclesiastic import, and then he provides a quote from them saying, in one way or another, that gambling is bad.

  • “Some 20 years ago, speaking in conference, I said….”
  • “As far back as 1842, Joseph Smith described….”
  • Brigham Young, in October of 1844, said….”
  • “Presidents of the Church and counselors in the Presidency have repeatedly spoken concerning this evil. George Q. Cannon, counselor to three Presidents of the Church, said…”
  • “President Joseph F. Smith stated….”
  • “President Heber J. Grant counseled….”
  • “President Spencer W. Kimball said….”
  • “Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who is with us tonight, in 1987 delivered a masterful discourse….”
  • “To these statements of the position of the Church I add my own….”

I feel like this talk – structured in this way – is a (justified) reproof to the person who is seriously writing President Hinckley in 2005 to ask what the Church teaches about gambling. We don’t even have to extrapolate some kind of general principle based on what gambling is and what the Church teaches about work and provident living and personal accountability. It’s right there – in the 1840s. And again, in the late 1800s. And again, in the early 1900s. And again, in the mid 1900s. And again, in the late 1900s. (And these are just the quotes he included.)

And just in case there is any confusion, here it is again in 2005.

Goodness.

I feel like it must be intensely frustrating to be an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First, many people will ignore large swaths of prophetic counsel, reiterated not only in scripture but over the almost 200 year history of the modern Church, and wait for a new answer that’s more comfortable or aligned with their perspectives. Then, many of these same folks will read funny things into the tiniest phrases, like they did with Elder Ballard recently, and like they’re doing with President Uchtdorf (HuffPo even published an article entitled “Mormon Feminists Surprised By New Wording Referring to Women as ‘Blessed Disciples of Jesus'”).

I don’t have the skills to do an academic deep-dive into the use of the word “disciple” (and its derivatives) in General Conference over the past 50 years, but I’m pretty sure about one thing. If you can look at something like this and still consider President Uchtdorf’s comment about discipleship, which was made in passing anyway, “new wording” in response to feminist agitation or other progressive drivers, then… you’re nuts.

Goodness.

This behavior, I think, is a manifestation of the way we sometimes reject the living prophet by following future prophets. Perhaps, as President Uchtdorf described just last Saturday,

“there may be some [commandments] that seem harder or less appealing—commandments that we approach with the enthusiasm of a child sitting before a plate of healthy but hated vegetables. We grit our teeth and force ourselves to comply so that we can move on to more desirable activities…. (and) find ourselves asking, “Do we really need to obey all of God’s commandments?””

Faced with these kinds of commandments and admonitions, we may decide to ignore the things we hear and wait it out, hoping for change. Or we may “see” politically strides or back steps where there aren’t any by isolating tiny phrases. In doing these two things, we mandate that God speak to us in the way we want Him to speak to us, that He be like the

[gods] who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.”

That’s not how it works. Like those who missed 200 years of counsel on gambling, we can miss the message if we’re looking for “new wording” or advocating for a position contrary to gospel principles.

But if we face the right way, we’ll hear from the prophets and apostles this weekend those things that God wants to tell us, the things that will help us see the world as it really is. That makes me excited for General Conference.

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