Saturday, April 1, 2017

Notes on the Saturday Morning Session

Okay, with another round of General Conference addresses on the books, here we go again.  The first session started out relatively innocuously, but there was some juicy (by which I mean awful) stuff later on.  As always, these are as reasonably close to direct quotations as I could manage.  If there be any faults in the transcription, they be the faults of a man.

Even those with the best of parents may live faithfully according to the light they have but never hear about Jesus Christ and his atonement or be invited to be baptized in his name.  This has been true for countless millions of our brothers and sisters throughout the world's history.  Now, some may consider this unfair.  They may even take it as evidence that there is no plan, no specific requirements for salvation, feeling that a just, loving god would not create a plan that is available to such a small proportion of his children. 
Henry B. Eyring
I wouldn't say he hit the nail on the head, but there was definite contact between hammer and nail here.  It may have been a glancing blow that kind of bent the head of the nail a bit.  That's always frustrating.

This is unfair.  But my problem isn't that God would not have created a plan that's available to such a small proportion of his children.  Because there is a ridiculous amount of necessary safeguards in place to try and fix this issue.  There's missionary work, there's proxy ordinances for the dead, there's a huge effort on genealogy, and there's also the usual we'll-figure-it-out-in-the-Millennium-and-no-one-will-be-denied-the-opportunity explanation as well.  So clearly God is making an effort to keep people from slipping through the cracks.  My problem is that a perfected being would not have designed a plan with so many cracks for people to slip through.

It's a laughably inefficient system.  That is why I think the plan is fiction.  Not because it's unfair.

Don't be a burden to your parents.  Don't be a burden.  I have called your parents.
—M. Joseph Brough
There was a disturbing theme of sacrificing for the church that seemed to pervade this session, and this is the first instance I noticed.  These are the words that Brough ascribed to divine communication after he prayed about having to give up his beloved childhood dog when his parents were called on a mission.

Making sacrifices for things you believe in is not inherently bad.  Regrettable instances in which your children may be required to make sacrifices because of your own actions are not inherently bad.  Sometimes, parents have to relocate for employment opportunities and drag their children away from their homes and their friends.  It happens.  It sucks, but it happens.

This story doesn't feel like the same thing to me.  Here, a child was told he had to give away his pet because of something his parents decided to do (but easily could have opted not to do) and when he brought his concerns to his parents, they told him to pray about it.  Prayer convinced him that his parents' needs were greater than his and that his emotional attachment to his dog was selfish behavior that burdened his mother and his father.

I mean, I'm not a parent or anything, so maybe I just don't get it,'s my understand that one of the best reasons to sacrifice for what you believe in is when a parent puts his child's needs ahead of his own because he believes in providing for his family, be it physically or emotionally.  It sure doesn't sound like Brough's parents tried very hard to do anything other than teach their son to dedicate himself monomaniacally to the church and to relegate his emotional health to a secondary status.

There is so much more to our existence than what happens between birth and death.
—Weatherford T. Clayton
This guy seemed like that really ambitious, bombastic elder's quorum president from a typical BYU student ward who nobody ever bothered to call out on his histrionic approach to the gospel.  And then he just kept getting away with it until he got promoted up into a quorum of the seventy.

What he said here may very well be true, but remember that not everything true is useful.  People should still care about what happens during their mortal lives. But the more authoritative statements like this assure people that life is just an infinitesimal blip on the celestial radar, the more I fear that people's priorities will skew in favor of the eternal to the point of neglecting pressing present-day matters.

For those who have experienced these truths and for whatever reason have wandered away, I invite you to come back.  Come back today.  Our father and the savior love you.  I testify that Christ has the power to answer your questions, heal your pains and sorrows, and forgive your sins.
—Weatherford T. Clayton
Does Christ have the power to make his church not sexist, not homophobic, not racist, not insular, not closed-minded, not dishonest, not avaricious, and not demonstrably false?

If so, then let's talk.  Otherwise, I'm good all the way over here in the great and spacious building.

Church leaders cannot alter God's commandments or doctrine contrary to his will to be convenient or popular.
—Dale G. Renlund
Ho, boy.  Not this again.

Was it not convenient and popular to disavow polygamy in order to assist Utah in being admitted to the Union as a state?  Was it not convenient and popular to lift the ban on black folks once the civil rights movement had made undeniable progress in the church's home country?  Was it not convenient and popular to lift the ban on black folks once the church had met huge missionary success in the racially complex nation of Brazil?

But, see, Renlund is a clever man.  Did you notice how he slipped the phrase "contrary to his will" in there?  So they can simply claim that yes, the doctrines changed, but it changed because it was God's will to change them.  Therefore, there's no contradiction.  Problem solved.

Later, in various countries across the world, I have had small glimpses into the ugliness of prejudice and discrimination suffered by those who are targeted because of their race or ethnicity.  Persecution comes in many forms—ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, or hatred toward another.  We must guard against bigotry that raises its ugly voice toward those who hold different opinions.  Bigotry manifests itself in part in unwillingness to grant equal freedom of expression.  Everyone, including people of religion, has the right to express his or her opinions in the public square.  But no one has a license to be hateful toward others as those opinions are expressed.  Church history gives ample evidence of our members being treated with hatred and bigotry.  How ironically sad it would be if we were to treat others as we have been treated. 
—Dale G. Renlund
This one is a doozy.  Where to start?

First of all, on its face, this is a good thing to teach.  Hatred is bad.  Persecution is counterproductive.  Bigotry should not be championed.  But what kinds of bigotry are we talking about here?  He mentions race, ethnicity, and later religion.   What about sexual orientation or gender identity?  This is the kind of bigotry that the church has recently helped lead the charge on.

And then, right after he works in the concept that religious people have the right to express opinions, he mentions that no one "has a license to be hateful."  This sounds, to me, like an oblique reference to that #FairnessForAll religious freedom stuff that Oaks was slinging a while back.  But let's be clear here—we absolutely have a legal license to hate each other.  That's part of freedom of thought and freedom of speech.  While there may be no moral license to hate each other, we most certainly have the right to express any hatred we may feel.  We don't have the right to burn down the homes of people we hate, but hatred itself is no secular crime.  Let's not be so hypersensitive to criticism that we think hateful opinions break the law.

And yes, church history does have plentiful examples of hatred and bigotry.  Early members were driven from their homes because people didn't understand them and chose to act with hatred instead of taking the time to learn about them and coexist peacefully.  How ironically sad it is that the church doesn't understand any kind of sexuality other than heterosexuality and it chooses to act with hatred instead of taking the time to learn about other people and coexist with them peacefully.

For us to ask for respect, we must be respectful.
—Dale G. Renlund
That's a good principle to live by.  May I posit a theory here that many gay people don't consider it a sign of respect to proclaim that following their sexual orientation is a sin second only to murder?

As his disciples, let us fully mirror his love and love one another so openly and completely that no one feels abandoned, alone, or hopeless.
—Dale G. Renlund
Again, this a good thing to say, but the church does not apply this philosophy across the board.  If this were the kind of thing the church were really trying to put into practice, perhaps there could be far fewer suicides among gay Mormon youth.

Actions speak louder than words, Dale.  And if you're trying to nudge the church in the right direction, maybe it would help if you actually spoke about the areas in which the church currently falls short.  But I didn't hear a word about the gay community or the transgender community or anything like that.

In this time of need, that faithful missionary renewed his commitment to serve the Lord with faith and with all diligence. 
—Ulisses S. Soares
Ugh.  This is reminiscent of Andersen's even more disgusting example from a year and a half ago.

This missionary's sister just died.  In this time of need, he should be with his family and his family should be with him.  There should be no calling so important to the Lord that he wouldn't understand and encourage giving his servants appropriate time to mourn with their loved ones during a time of family tragedy.

He is all-powerful, after all.  I'm sure he'll find ways to inspire the other missionaries to pick up the temporarily absent elder's slack.  I'd hate to be that missionary a few decades from now, looking back on life and feeling like an idiot for choosing not to attend my own sister's funeral.  Imagine the guilt.  Why would any mission president advise his missionary to inflict that kind of emotional damage on himself?

In these moments of trial, the adversary is always on the lookout, tries to use our logic and reasoning against us.  He tries to convince us that it is useless to live the principles of the gospel.  Please remember that the logic of the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.  
—Ulisses S. Soares
Great, great, let's keep demonizing logic and reasoning.  And let's also keep separating those concepts from the truth of the spirit.  Sure, outsiders will think that means that the whole religion is illogical and unreasonable, but the insiders will increasingly ignore their logical instincts in favor of whatever spiritual nonsense we feed them.

Brothers and sisters, I invite you to place all your trust in God.
—Ulisses S. Soares
No!  Nobody should place all their trust in anything!

Trusting God is all well and good, but not to the exclusion of trusting anyone else.  While God may have the big picture stuff covered and the lost car keys covered, we still need to rely on ourselves and our families and our friends for the day-to-day stuff.  Doesn't God help those who help themselves?  Why should trusting anyone other than God be inherently bad?

We see those who have slipped from activity in the church for a time returning as the rescue envisioned by President Monson brings daily miracles. 
—Mark A. Bragg
Oh, look, I got to dust this one off in the very first session. 

Look...the church will always have its critics.  It has been that way from the beginning and will continue to the end.  But we cannot allow such criticism to dull our sensitivity to the light that is available to us.  Recognizing the light and seeking after it will qualify us for even more light.
—Mark A. Bragg
I agree with the last sentence.  But the rest...ehhh....

We can and should allow criticism to dull our sensitivity to deception.  Criticism should not be rejected or accepted on the basis that it's criticism.  It should be weighed based on its merits.  If it has no merit then we shouldn't let it affect what we believe.  If there's a spark of light in there somewhere, we should investigate it until we find more light of truth, and we should follow that light wherever it leads us.

But we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that any criticism of our beliefs has no light to offer us.

It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord's atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases such as "the atonement," or "the enabling power of the atonement," or "applying the atonement," or "being strengthened by the atonement."  These expressions present a real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ.
—Russell M. Nelson
An apostle of the Lord addresses the world, and one of the central topics of his sermon is basically a semantics lesson.  Was there ever really any risk of the church membership forgetting that the atonement was only possible through Christ's sacrifice according to God's plan?  Surely there's an issue of more gravity that could have been given a thorough treatment during Nelson's fifteen minutes.

I guess for all the comparisons we make between the church and the Party from Nineteen Eighty-Four, it looks like there's no immediate threat of a Mormon equivalent of Newspeak.  We have to make sure we're avoiding shortcut phrases in order to be doctrinally complete, people.  Tell your friends.

When asked about her decision, she replied simply, "Well, the church is more important, isn't it?"
—Russell M. Nelson
This was the happy ending to a story about a girl who was knowingly disqualified from a sporting event because she had to leave early in order to attend a church meeting.  Speaking as someone who made many similar decisions in my youth, I think I may have some rather depressing insight into this.

If that girl was anything like me, she probably didn't think she had much of a choice.  But she'd made similar sacrifices before and she'd learned not to get too broken up about it.  It was expected of her to make the church her first priority, and the only practical option in her eyes may have been to sacrifice her other interests and pursuits no matter how reasonable any postponement of her church obligations would have been.

I think the dead giveaway here is that her quote isn't a statement.  It's a question.  She knows that this attitude is what her parents and leaders desire to see.  She's looking for validation of her unfortunate choice.  She needs someone to say, "Yes, you're right, you made the right decision, and we're proud of you."  I made similar comments to hers as a kid.  Sometimes the only comfort I received from making repeated (if relatively small) personal sacrifices for the church was the positive response from authority figures.

Assuming this is a real quote and a real story, I feel terrible for this girl.  If she's anything like I was, she feels trapped, but she's accepted the reality of it.  This was not a story of faith.  This was a story of captivity.

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