Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Notes on the Sunday Sessions

Welcome to round two, where the point values are doubled.  Which really doesn't make a mathematical difference when I'm routinely awarding zero points.

During the past few months, I have had the impression come to me that the best way to help the current world situation is for all people to rely more fully upon God and turn their hearts to him through sincere prayer.

—M. Russell Ballard, Sunday morning session

How strange to see Ballard tackling a subject as innocuous as prayer.

Ballard's impression here strikes me as being rather defeatist.  If you hold a personal belief in the power of prayer, absolutely use that among your approaches to fixing the world.  But I don't think anyone should hold prayer up as the best way to solve our problems.  That means we're pushing our political puzzles out to an external consultant for solutions.  We're less committed to rolling up our sleeves and utilizing our agency if we're expecting that our secular saving grace will be beamed down from an heavenly source.

The scriptures are full of examples of people of faith who combined prayer with action to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.

—M. Russell Ballard, Sunday morning session

Oh, are they, Melvin?  Are they really?  Why don't you give us some examples?

He comes up with one example:  Enos. This is a terrible example.  Enos prayed and God revealed to him that, eventually, his descendants would be wiped out by the wicked and bloodthirsty Lamanites.  So Enos got to work preaching to the Nephites about what he'd learned, the Nephites in turn invested a lot of effort in converting the Lamanites back to the gospel, and they failed.  800 years later, the Lamanites killed all the Nephites anyway.

Even if Enos had succeeded in making the Lamanites of his day righteous, it wouldn't have mattered.  Anyone who's read the Book of Mormon knows that after Jesus's appearance in the Americas, there was a little utopian period during which there was no matter of -ites.  Two hundred years after Jesus, things deteriorated, tribal differences returned, and the wicked Lamanites started up with the killing and whatnot all over again.  If Enos had converted 100% of the Lamanites to the gospel, we still would have hit the narrative bottleneck of Jesus's coming and the Lamanites still would have been wicked two centuries later and the Lamanites still would have kicked Mormon's armies all over the map two centuries after that.

So Ballard says the scriptures teach us how powerful combining prayer with action can be, and to support his argument, he cites an example of someone whose actions failed and whose actions wouldn't have brought about his desired results even if they hadn't failed.  This is the best example he can come up with?

To be fair, he does arguably have a second scriptural example—Joseph Smith.  The story of Joseph Smith's First Vision is part of Mormon scripture.  But combining prayer with action is a lot easier and a lot more obvious when God physically arrives to answer your prayer and provides you with instructions and follow-up angelic visitations.  And it's also worth mentioning that if Joseph hadn't prayed or hadn't taken God's prescribed actions, he probably would have lived past his forties.

Prayer will influence scientists and help them toward discoveries of vaccines and medications that will end this pandemic.

—M. Russell Ballard, Sunday morning session

We're already co-opting credit for a vaccine that hasn't been produced yet, I see.  Never mind those scientists' hard work.  It's good to know that God is the one who's really in our corner while those insignificant humans are trying to save lives around the world.


Our faith increases as we choose to believe, rather than doubt, forgive rather than judge, repent rather than rebel.

—Lisa L. Harkness, Sunday morning session

We talk about the pride cycle in Mormonism, but why do we not discuss the faith cycle?

Saying that our faith increases as we choose to believe is cyclical.  Not doubting requires faith.  So she's saying our faith increases when we have faith.  How does that help?  You need money to make money, right?  You need five years of experience to get an entry level position to gain experience that will make you eligible for the position?  The only way this works is if you're already not doubting—if you're choosing to believe because you haven't really been exposed to any alternatives.


I recently heard two four-year-old children share their faith in Jesus Christ when they responded to the question, "How does Jesus Christ help you?" The first child said, "I know Jesus loves me because he died for me because he died for me.  And he also loves grown-ups."  The second child said, "He helps me when I'm sad or grumpy.  He also helps me when I'm sinking."

—Lisa L. Harkness, Sunday morning session


Children also say some completely ridiculous, off-the-wall things that would never be quoted from the Conference Center pulpit.  But we're not quoting those, just the moments of clarity where they correctly parrot the things we've taught them.  Does anyone honestly think that a four-year-old can grasp the breadth or the macrocosmic significance of the atonement?

When I went to my nephew's baptism, a girl twice the age of the ones in Harkness's story wanted to be baptized with her My Little Pony toy.  She also said that she didn't want to live with Heavenly Father because she'd be separated from her stuffed animal.  But she did want to be baptized.  So she may not have really grasped what baptism was for.

Every kid is different, sure, but they're still learning and they have a long way to go when they're that young.  Children don't have faith when they talk about Jesus.  They don't have enough knowledge about the subject to have faith yet.  An infant who's just learned to say the word "mommy" should not be confused with an orator.

He had been a dedicated Christian and had been richly blessed by the Lord.  However, he had let a single improper thought invade his mind, which then led to others.  As he steadily became more and more permissive to these thoughts, soon they took root in his mind and began to grow deep in his heart.  He eventually acted upon these unworthy desires, which led him to make decisions against everything that was most precious in his life. He told me that if he had not given place to that foolish thought to begin with, he would not have become vulnerable and susceptible to the temptations of the enemy—temptations that brought so much sadness in his life, at least for a period of time. 

—Ulisses Soares, Sunday morning session

I wonder if Soares is a Pink Floyd fan.  

One slip, and down the hole we fall/It seems to take no time at all/A momentary lapse of reason/That binds a life for life.

Listen, this shit doesn't help anyone.  It's good to keep an eye on our thoughts and our actions, and it's true that one bad decision can lead us to other bad decisions.  But filling people with fear that a single improper thought can lead to their destruction is just going to spread misery.  No one can prevent a bad thought from coming to mind here and there.  It's not the end of the world.

What Soares seems to downplay is that at no point during this experience did the person in the story lose his agency.  We can go down bad paths, find ourselves where we don't want to be, and choose to change course.  It may become more and more difficult to do this the further down the wrong path we go, but the option to choose differently doesn't disappear.  I don't say that to blame people for their own suffering, I say that because I think it's crucial to remind people that you're not already losing the battle when the initial improper thought comes in.

The number of people who will be paralyzed with fear based on these kinds of teachings is unforgivable.

In his historic and touching message from April this year, our dear prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, made a promise that all those who are willing to hear him—hear Jesus Christ—and obey his commandments will be blessed with additional power to deal with temptations, struggles, and weakness.

—Ulisses Soares, Sunday morning session

Another cyclical comment.  If you obey the commandments, you'll be blessed with additional power to deal with temptations.  Of course, since you've kept the commandments, you've already dealt correctly with temptations, but now you'll be able to the same thing again with additional power.  If you haven't kept the commandments, then you won't get additional power to do the thing you so desperately need the power to do.

Who really needs this additional power?  The people who keep the commandments or the people who don't?  Why are we giving more spiritual resources to the people who already have their own?


The Lord is always looking for willing volunteers to be angels in others' lives.

—Carlos A. Godoy, Sunday morning session

It's interesting to me that Godoy prefers to speak about angels figuratively—we can be an angel in another person's eyes.  I say this because in a few minutes, Andersen will mention the literal, Biblical angels that will accompany Christ at his coming.

Godoy's speech was well-meaning, I think.  It's a good message, overall, but it was clumsily delivered.


If you look around carefully, you will find many in need of an angel's help.  These people may not be wearing white shirts, dresses, or any standard Sunday attire.  They may be sitting alone towards the back of the chapel or classroom, sometimes feeling as if they are invisible.  Maybe their hairstyle is a little extreme or their vocabulary is different.  But they are there and they are trying.

—Carlos A. Godoy, Sunday morning session

He's saying we should seek out people who look like they don't belong.  People who don't belong need our help.  People with crazy hair are probably struggling spiritually.  If they don't speak the Mormon lingo, they're probably going through some stuff and we need to help them.

Sure, I agree that we should try to help people who feel invisible, but I don't think we need to give Mormons more suggestions for how to identify people who don't belong in their homogenized culture.  Let's not validate the brethren who look down on men who wear blue dress shirts in priesthood meeting or the sisters who look down on women whose hemlines are an inch above the knee in Relief Society.


While we endure a season of physically distancing ourselves from others, we need never endure a season of spiritually distancing ourselves from him who lovingly calls to us, "Come unto me."

—Neil L. Andersen, Sunday morning session

We don't have to endure being spiritually distanced from Jesus?  Has Andersen ever heard of a little thing called the Plan of Salvation?  It was Jesus's idea to send us through the veil to forget our premortal lives so that we could be born on Earth and learn to find our way back to him.  Physical and spiritual separation from God is kind of built in to the process.  Sure, God really hopes the spiritual separation won't last long and we'll reconnect with him early in life by gaining a testimony of the gospel.

But pretending like Jesus is being so loving by welcoming us back after he voted to kick us out in the first place is so weird.

President Nelson taught us that consistently using the correct name of the church, something that might seem like a small thing, is not small at all and will shape the world's future.

—Neil L. Andersen, Sunday morning session

Not calling Mormons Mormons will shape the world's future.



I feel like we need to expand on this.  How will the trajectory of the world be changed by calling it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?  I get that we're trying to focus on Jesus and all, but "Mormon" isn't a nickname that really threatens our Jesusness.  You can make an argument that Mormonism worships Joseph Smith sometimes instead of a member of the godhead, but I've never met anyone who honestly thinks Mormons worship Mormon.  Mormon isn't even the guy on top of the temple spires.


Thinking more about the savior, speaking of him more frequently and with less hesitation as you come to know and love him even more deeply, your words will flow more comfortably—as they do when you speak of one of your children or of a dear friend.  Those listening to you will feel less like debating and dismissing you and more like learning from you.

—Neil L. Andersen, Sunday morning session

Talking about Jesus even more will make people want to listen to you?  I'm not sure it's exactly the right moment, but this seems applicable:


If someone shares a problem he or she has in their personal life, we might say, "John/Mary, you know that I believe in Jesus Christ.  I have been thinking about something he said that might help you."

—Neil L. Andersen, Sunday morning session

If someone shares a problem he or she has in their personal life and you use that as an opportunity to try to influence them to align their worldview with yours under the guise of giving advice, then you're a bad friend.


As a companion to the New Testament, the Book of Mormon helps us better understand why the savior came to rescue us and how we can more profoundly come unto him.

—Neil L. Andersen, Sunday morning session

You know what teaches us a lot about the Plan of Salvation?  The temple endowment, which is not even mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

There are also some problematic teachings in the Book of Mormon that shouldn't help us come nearer to any benevolent god.  Are we really supposed to follow Nephi's example and kill when we're convinced God told us to?  Should we follow Ammon's example and use violence as our primary method of resolving non-violent disputes?  Should we follow Captain Moroni's example and execute political prisoners who disagree with our chosen form of government?  Should we follow Helaman's teaching and perform good deeds out of self-interest and not necessarily out of altruism? 

If that's the kind of savior we're coming unto more profoundly by using the Book of Mormon, I'm not interested.

With the help of two Hebrew scholars, I learned that one of the Hebraic meanings of the word "Israel" is "let God prevail."  Thus, the very name "Israel" refers to a person who is willing to let God prevail in his or her life.  That concept stirs my soul.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Just before this, Nelson mentioned that he's so fascinated by the gathering of Israel that he had prayed for more understanding on the subject.  The answer didn't come to him by divine revelation and it didn't come to him through any Joseph-Smith-esque supernatural translation ability, the answer came to him by way of two academics.  The answer came the same way it would have if he hadn't prayed at all and had merely contacted the BYU linguistics department to ask some questions.

So what he's really saying is that we can learn soul-stirring concepts through secular study.  Good to know.

As reported by Isaiah, "For a small moment have I forsaken thee, Israel, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

So how does this jive with what Uchtdorf tried to tell us last night?  To review, what Dieter said was, "Our Heavenly Father knows that we suffer and because we are his children, he will not abandon us."  What's the difference between "forsake" and "abandon"?  If you ask me, the only difference is the century in which the speaker was born.  If you ask Google, they're direct synonyms.

So who do we believe?  Uchtdorf, who says God will not abandon us?  Or Nelson, who points to a scriptural example of when God admits he abandoned his children for a hot minute?

If we believe Nelson and realize we're at risk of divine abandonment, we may want to know how long we can expect being forsaken by God to last.  "A small moment" in God's eyes isn't necessarily a short period of time in ours.  In Isaiah, God is referring to generations and centuries during which Israel was scattered.  The phrase "a small moment" is also echoed in Doctrine and Covenants 121, when God comforts Joseph in Liberty Jail.  "Thine afflictions shall be but a small moment," God says of Joseph's four-month-long imprisonment.

Even with the most positive scriptural scenario in mind, if we feel forsaken by God, it could be another four months until he reaches out to us again.

Nelson really has a knack for a feel-good conference talk.  Not like President Hinckley, who was always so gosh-darn gloomy.

For centuries, prophets have foretold this gathering [of Israel] and it is happening right now.  As an essential prelude to the Second Coming of the Lord, it is the most important work in the world.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Get some perspective, man!

The most important work in the world isn't peaceful international relations?  It's not ending hunger and poverty?  It's not ending refugee crises or human trafficking?  It's not even something relevant to a certain frequently-acknowledged ongoing world health crisis?  Like a vaccine?

No, of course not, it's missionary work.  And it's missionary work on both sides of the veil, he makes sure to mention.  Because the work for the other side of the veil requires temple ordinances, and temple ordinances require tithing payments.

Now, brace yourself.  I'm about to quote several consecutive snippets of Nelson's story about his grandson's wife, whom he calls Jill for anonymity's sake.  It's...not great.

Jill's father was dying.  She was gripped with fear that she would lose both her dad and her testimony.  Late one evening, my wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, told me of Jill's situation.  The next morning, Wendy felt impressed to share with Jill that my response to her spiritual wrestle was one word.  The word was:  "myopic." 

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

You are a terrible grandfather-in-law, sir. This is not a story about how inspiring you are.  This is a story about how you're a dick. 

Also, isn't it great that Wendy was impressed by the spirit to share her husband's response?  As a woman who merely has access to the power of the priesthood but cannot actually hold the authority of the priesthood, perhaps she was incapable of providing advice and guidance to a family member all by herself.

Jill later admitted to Wendy that initially she was devastated by my response.  She said, "I was hoping for Grandfather to promise me a miracle for my dad.  I kept wondering why the word 'myopic' was the one he felt compelled to say."  After Jill's father passed on, the word "myopic" kept coming to her mind.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Devastated?  By a callous one-word response from a trusted family member and authority figure who's commenting on a personal crisis?  Why on earth would she be devastated?

Unsurprisingly, Jill's father still died.  While it would be absurd for apostles to mention some kind of miraculous healing every time they told a story in which someone was on the brink of death, you'd think they could at least throw in a few with a proper happy ending.  But, come on...if the prophet doesn't offer miracles to save his first wife or his extended family members, why do we think miracles are actually on the table for the rest of us in the modern era?

She opened her heart to understand even more deeply that "myopic" meant "near-sighted" and her thinking began to shift.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Did she really open her heart, though?  Or did she just open a fucking dictionary?


Jill then said, "'Myopic' caused me to stop, think, and heal.  That word now fills me with peace and reminds me to expand my perspective and seek the eternal.  It reminds me that there is a divine plan and that my dad still lives, and loves, and looks out for me.  'Myopic' has led me to God."  

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Jill now knows that grieving over the imminent loss of a beloved family member is just being shortsighted and that her emotional response was completely wrong and that her feelings are invalid.

Even if there's a divine plan and she'll be reunited with her father again, she doesn't know when that will be and there are variables at play that could mean she might not be reunited.  What if one of them doesn't qualify for the Celestial Kingdom?  If they both get there, great, but she will still be separated from her father for the rest of her mortal life.  That's still a reason to grieve.  That's still a valid opportunity for her to reexamine her beliefs.  That's not a good time to tell her she's being myopic.


I'm very proud of our precious granddaughter-in-law during this heart-wrenching time in her life.  Dear Jill is learning to embrace God's will for her dad with an eternal perspective for her own life.  By choosing to let God prevail, she is finding peace.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Wait a minute, who is God prevailing over?  When this theme was originally introduced in Nelson's talk I—perhaps naively—assumed we were celebrating God's triumph over Satan in our lives.  But the point he's making is that God should prevail over us.  Or, to phrase it a little more kindly, God's will should prevail over ours.

But that shouldn't mean that God's will should stifle our emotions.  We should still get to feel our feelings even if we ultimately trust in the divine plan.  There's still no justification for curtly dismissing a woman fearful of her father's death as reacting myopically.

Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I'm about to say:  God does not love one race more than another.  His doctrine on this matter is clear.  He invites all to come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female.  I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin.  Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and his commandments and not to the color of your skin.  I grieve that our black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.  Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning the attitudes and actions of prejudice.  I plead with you to promote respect for all of God's children.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

I'm glad Nelson said this, but this motherfucker needs to learn to lead by example.  He needs to own up to the failings of his institution—both past and present—issue a public apology, and take substantive steps to atone.  And by "substantive steps," I'm not referring to another little speech at the NAACP.  That's a head nod.  I mean becoming an outspoken voice on specific racial concerns.  I mean spending large sums of money to establish a relevant charitable organization.  I mean sensitivity training for local leadership.  I mean adding white supremacism to the handbook's list of offenses requiring church disciplinary hearings.  And I definitely mean excising repugnant passages from scripture.  

And there are several problems with the statement itself.

First of all, no, God's doctrine on this matter is not clear.  Yes, the Book of Mormon says that God invites all to come unto him, but the Book of Mormon also says that God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin because of their wickedness so they wouldn't be enticing to the righteous Lamanites and intermarrying would be prevented.  The Book of Mormon also says God hated the Lamanites because of their wickedness (Helaman 15:4).  So he may not have hated them because of their skin color, but he assigned them their skin color because he hated them, which really isn't any better.  And it doesn't exactly clear up the issue for any modern readers.

Secondly, Nelson idiotically uses the same phrasing from 2 Nephi 26, including the words "bond and free."  While responding to racial unrest in his home country, he quotes a passage of scripture in which God mentions but does not condemn slavery—which is the historical genesis of the current racial unrest in Nelson's home country.  God casually mentions that all kinds of people are welcome, including slaves, as though being a slave instead of a free person were as normal of a difference between two people as being male instead of female.  Find a different scripture to quote or at least omit the part about people in bondage, moron.

Thirdly, why is a prophet responding to racial unrest?  Why is he not ahead of the curve?  Why wasn't he preparing us to stand up for racial equality and racial justice in April's General Conference before the murder of George Floyd lit the fuse on all of this?

And fourthly, did I mention that he needs to lead by example by fixing his own institution?  Because that shouldn't be optional.  He should not be able to get away with pretending like his organization has clean hands while he rallies his followers to solve the problem in society at large.

If you are married to a companion who has broken his or her covenants, your willingness to let God prevail in your life will allow your covenants with God to remain intact.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session


Let's say you're a woman whose husband has apostatized.  He's removed his name from the records of the church and his ordinances have been nullified.  Nelson is telling you that your covenants are intact.  Which means your sealing is still intact.  Which means you still  have an eternal marriage.  Without a spouse.

How does that work, exactly?  When you arrive in the Celestial Kingdom as a woman who is both sealed and unsealed, how will your afterlife play out?

This is one of the things I find infuriating about Mormon doctrine—that our happiness in the hereafter is inextricably linked with the eternal destinations of our family members.  How happy will you be in the Celestial Kingdom if  you're by yourself because the rest of your family didn't make the cut?  Wondering about these kinds of things is part of what makes familial relationships in Mormonism so difficult sometimes, especially when a family is mixed-faith or has varying levels of gospel devotion within it.

But if your spouse can destroy his own covenants without torpedoing yours, that's the kind of thing that needs further explanation.  It's not the kind of reassurance you can drop in casually without any follow-up.  There are people who desperately need to be comforted by the specifics that aren't being offered.

If you have sincere questions about the gospel or the church, as you choose to let God prevail, you will be led to find and understand the absolute eternal truths that will guide your life and help you to stay firmly on the covenant path.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

I love the way he throws the word "sincere" in there.  It's important to draw that distinction because only those with insincere questions will fail to find the desired eternal truths, right?

And, as usual, the way to resolve your questions is to keep doing what you're doing.  Choose to let God prevail, behave as if the questions don't exist, and you will find your answers.  That's manipulative, but I suppose in his eyes it's better than telling people to look for answers he knows they're not going to like.

When your greatest desire is to let God prevail, to be part of Israel, so many decisions become easier.  So many issues become non-issues.  You know how best to groom yourself.  You know what to watch and read, where to spend your time, and with whom to associate.  You know what you want to accomplish and you know the kind of person you really want to become.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Grooming yourself is the first issue he comes up with?  

And I have to assume that when he says we know with whom to associate he means that we know to associate with the sick and the downtrodden and the sinners, just like Jesus.  He would never tell us to stop associating with people whose beliefs or lifestyles might challenge ours.


Emboldened evil abounds.  Therefore, the only way to survive spiritually is to be determined to let God prevail in our lives, to learn to hear his voice, and to use our energy to help gather Israel.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

I don't think I've used this word yet so far this conference, and it seems overdue.  But this is, plain and simple, fearmongering.  Emboldened evil abounds.  I can provide you with the only method for survival.

(Also the method involves money.) 

You and I accepted that invitation to be tested and to prove that we would choose to keep the commandments of God when we would no longer be in the presence of our Heavenly Father.

—Henry B. Eyring, Sunday afternoon session


God invited us to follow Jesus's plan.  But if we didn't, we would get cast out of his presence forever with Lucifer.  The word "invitation" does not adequately encapsulate the underlying threat and the level of coercion involved. 

"Be of good cheer" is the commandment of the Lord, not "be of good fear."

—Jeremy R. Jaggi, Sunday afternoon session

Don't shame people for being scared.

Also, how is saying "you're commanded to be happy instead of afraid" going to help anyone?  Fear isn't an emotion you can switch off simply because you're instructed to.   

It was miraculous that while we were living in southern California, of all the 417 missions we could have been assigned to in the year 2015, we were assigned to northern Utah.  The mission home was a 30-minute drive from Chad's home.  Chad's cancer was diagnosed after we received our mission assignment.  Even in our most trying circumstance, we knew that our Heavenly Father was mindful of us and helping us find joy.

—Jeremy R. Jaggi, Sunday afternoon session

Another story about someone with a terminal disease.  Another example of a miraculous event being something other than the cure for the disease.

I have to wonder what would be required for this not to be interpreted as a sign of a mindful Heavenly Father.  Obviously if Chad's cancer had disappeared, this would have been seen as a miracle from God.  In this case, Jaggi being close enough to visit his brother during his final days is seen as a miracle from God.  If Jaggi had been called to somewhere other than Utah, would he be telling a story about the miracle of technology allowing him to Skype with his brother and say their goodbyes?  If Chad's family had died in a house fire while he was in the hospital, would we be talking about how God miraculously spared Chad's wife and children the agony of watching their beloved patriarch wither away? 

How low can we set the bar for miracles before we wind up burying it?

We too can draw parallels as individual members and as a church in the way in which we have been highly favored of the Lord during the challenging times we have encountered during the past several months.  As I cite these examples, let them also strengthen your testimony of the seership of our living prophet, who prepared us with adjustments before any hint of a pandemic, enabling us to endure the challenges that have come.

—Gary E. Stevenson, Sunday afternoon session

He cites two examples.  And then maybe a third?  He mentions the home-centered, church-supported Come, Follow Me curriculum as well as the ministering program.

The move to two-hour church and the directives for families to study the gospel at home together with the new Come, Follow Me manuals has been cited as evidence that the prophet foresaw the pandemic before.  I mean, Nelson admitted he didn't see it coming, but this is still used as an indication that God inspired him to implement policies that would prepare us.  

Those assertions are silly.  What have we lost by spending zero hours in church every week instead of two?  Is there really no way that families can study the gospel together at home unless the church has previously provided them with a manual?  How many Mormons don't have a copy of the scriptures at home and are unable to read and study them without institutional guidance?  The leadership is proud that they established this program prior to the pandemic because it lets them feel like they still have control over people during a time when it's difficult to exert as much control.  The membership still would have had access to the gospel during the pandemic even if Come, Follow Me had not been produced.

Ministering is an even sillier assertion.  Ministering is just a less intrusive, more open-ended version of home teaching and visiting teaching.  If the church had not developed the ministering program prior to Covid, nobody actually thinks the leadership would have responded to pandemic restrictions by throwing up their hands and saying, "Well, I guess we can't do home teaching anymore!"  They would have just urged that visiting teaching be conducted by text message, phone call, FaceTime, or Zoom.  They would have urged that teachers check in with their assigned families however they can.  All the ministering program did to prepare us for the pandemic was normalize the concept that your home teachers don't have to physically visit you in specific 30-day time frames.  And depending on who your home teachers have been, that concept may have been normal for years before the ministering program was ever dreamed up.

If God really were preparing the church for the pandemic, getting missionaries out of foreign countries wouldn't have been bungled.  Wards and stakes would have had contingency plans in place to make sure members had safe access to the sacrament.  Temple presidencies would have been prepared for massive sanitizing efforts. 

After offering those two weak examples, Stevenson tells a story about a sister missionary who was able to get her endowment at two in the morning on the first day a temple reopened, which was just in time for her to make her outgoing flight.  I guess that's also somehow evidence that we're all favored of the Lord?

The Lord said that everyone that asketh receiveth.  Asking seems simple and yet it is powerful because it reveals our desires and our faith.

—Milton da Rocha Camargo, Sunday afternoon session

Asking reveals our desires and faith...to whom?

To God?  God already knows everything.  Why should anything ever need to be "revealed" to an omniscient being?

I don't see how he can be talking about someone other than God.  Asking God for something reveals our desires and faith to the woman who lives next door?  To the bishop?  To the stake activities director?   

He may not answer all of our questions or solve all of our problems right away, rather, he encourages us to keep trying.  If we then speedily align our plan with his plan, he will open the way for us as he did for Alma.

—Milton da Rocha Camargo, Sunday afternoon session

Okay, I get that he won't solve all our problems immediately, but how are we supposed to align our plan with his plan if he doesn't answer the prayer to tell us what his plan is?  Also, why are we assuming that our plan is out of alignment with God's?

And no one should expect that God will open the way for us just as he did for Alma.  An angel appeared to Alma.  According to Oaks, that's not the kind of thing that's going to happen.

God delights in mercy and does not begrudge its use.

—Dale G. Renlund, Sunday afternoon session

If that were true, Lucifer and a third of the host of heaven would not have been cast out forever after a single disagreement.

If that were true, the Book of Mormon would not have listed Captain Moroni among the supremely righteous men of God.

If that were true, excommunication would not exist within Mormonism.


But at the same time, our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ do not want us to be paralyzed by continual uncertainty during our mortal journey, wondering whether we've done enough to be saved and exalted.  They certainly do not want us to be tormented by mistakes from which we've repented, thinking of them as wounds that never heal, or be excessively apprehensive that we might stumble again. 

—Dale G. Renlund, Sunday afternoon session

First of all, if God doesn't want us to wonder where we stand, he needs to man up and learn to communicate or he should have designed a better Plan of Salvation.  Because we all have that uncertainty, at least sometimes.  Anyone who doesn't is probably a narcissist. 

But Renlund has some odd word choice throughout this talk, and this quote is a good example.  God doesn't want us to be tormented by mistakes from which we've repented.  Does this mean God wants us to be tormented by mistakes we haven't repented of?  Tormented?  Really?  He doesn't want us to be excessively apprehensive that we might make more mistakes.  Does that mean he wants us to be moderately apprehensive instead?  So God is kind of toying with our emotions a bit, but not to the degree we thought?

These are probably misinterpretations of what Renlund meant, but considering that these misinterpretations are valid and that Renlund's followers are going to pore over the text of these speeches to look for previously unnoticed insights, I really wish these guys would choose their words more carefully.

We can assess our own progress.  We can know that the course of life that we're pursuing is according to God's will when we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. 

—Dale G. Renlund, Sunday afternoon session

Wow, that's useless. 

Knowing that we're on the right course doesn't tell us whether we're guaranteed to arrive at the right destination.  If I'm trying to alleviate the paralyzing uncertainty about my postmortal prospects, I'm gonna need numbers.  I need to know that this number represents the minimum threshold for admittance into the Celestial Kingdom and that number represents my score.  Or at least give me a Boolean value if we're doing this with a sort of pass/fail approach.

We can't assess our progress.  Not accurately.  That's the whole problem.  We may feel like we're doing the right things, but since the method of judgement God will employ to determine our worthiness to enter the Celestial Kingdom isn't open-source, we can't see what's going on behind the user interface.  We won't know for sure until the whole thing is over—barring any unique opportunities to receive a second anointing, of course.  So when Renlund says we can assess our own progress, he's correct that we can subjectively review where we are now and where we've come from, but he's wrong to imply that this will represent an accurate evaluation of our progress according to God's metrics.

In reviewing the teachings of our dear prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, I found a word that he has frequently used in many talks.  This word is "power."  In the first General Conference after he was sustained as an apostle, President Nelson talked about power.  He has continued teaching about power over the years.

—Kelly R. Johnson, Sunday afternoon session

I'm sorry...that observation feels kind of like it's admitting something, right?

One of Nelson's pet issues is power?  Really?  The guy who obviously enjoys being the object of adoration and relishes being regarded as the supreme authority on "the mind and the will of the Lord" and who gets his rocks off detailing "the covenant path"...that guy is obsessed with power?

Let me just pick my jaw up off the floor here and we'll move on. 

Please know that we do pray constantly for those who've been affected in any way, especially for any who have lost loved ones.

—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday afternoon session

Seriously, if the best you and your buddies can do is pray for us, why are apostles even a thing?  We probably have billions of people around the world praying to various gods for all this to finally end.  If you can't do anything special, what's the point of having you?


So while we work and wait together for the answers to some of our prayers, I offer you my apostolic promise that they are heard and they are answered, though perhaps not at the time or in the way that we wanted.  But they are always answered at the time and in the way that an omniscient and eternally compassionate parent should answer them.

—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday afternoon session

So our prayers are always answered, but they may be answered in ways that are indistinguishable from not being answered at all.  Got it.  Thanks for the empty promise.


Well if this is the case, you might say, shouldn't his love and mercy simply part our personal Red Seas and allow us to walk through our troubles on dry ground?  Shouldn't he send 21st-century seagulls, winging in from somewhere to gobble up our pesky 21st-century crickets?  Well, the answer to such questions is yes.  God can provide miracles instantaneously.  But sooner or later, we learn that the times and seasons of our mortal journey are his and they are his alone to direct.  He administers that calendar to every one of us individually.

—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday afternoon session

He's not asking couldn't God fix our problems.  He's asking shouldn't.

When the answer to shouldn't God do these things is yes, Holland is saying that God is obligated to save us from our suffering by miraculous means.  That's a dumb thing to say because it's obviously not true.  If it were true, then each one of those stories we've been hearing about people who are stricken with terrible illnesses and still die even after receiving priesthood blessings would represent a time when God dropped the ball.

Some trials are time-bound and some miracles have specific deadlines.  When your loved one dies, your trial is no longer the disease.  It's the grief.  It's the struggle to move on with your life.  So when Lund's son or Jaggi's brother passed away, that meant that God didn't administer miraculous solutions to those trials according to any calendar.  He totally missed his window.

Obviously, trying to reconcile an omnipotent God with both benevolence and passivity is not a new philosophical endeavor, but Holland's sleek phraseology is trying to obscure the fact that he's taking a crack at this like a sixth grader who hasn't read the book he's writing a report on.

For every infirm man healed instantly as he waits to enter the pool at Bethesda, someone else will spend forty years in the desert, waiting to enter the promised land.  For every Nephi and Lehi divinely protected by an encircling flame of fire for their faith, we have an Abinadi, burned at a stake of flaming fire for his.  And we remember that the same Elijah who in an instant called down fire from heaven to bear witness against the priests of Baal is the same Elijah who endured a period when there was no rain for years and who for a time was fed only by the skimpy sustenance that could be carried in a raven's claw.

—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday afternoon session

Okay, good examples.  Doesn't this mean that the previous passage is wrong? If God should alleviate our suffering through miraculous means—albeit on his own timeline—then why did Abinadi die?  At least the children of Israel eventually found the promised land (although individual Israelites died without reaching it).  At least Elijah eventually returned to civilization and ate a normal meal.  But Abinadi burned to death.  Where was his metaphorical parting of the Red Sea?  Where was his metaphorical flock of seagulls?

God dropped the ball again, apparently. 

Also it's very interesting that all the examples of miracles that he chooses are scriptural.  Nothing modern.  Nephi and Lehi are the most recent example and their prison break was roughly 2050 years ago.  Even Holland's examples of those who endured hardships are from ancient scripture.  It's almost like he's subtly implying that the whole conversation of when miracles do and do not happen should be shifted into the past because it's completely irrelevant to the present.

And as one last criticism of this paragraph, Holland is pretending like the ratio between miraculous rescues and grueling struggles is one to one.  It's not.  Otherwise we'd all know a guy who was protected by an encircling flame of fire.  Probably more than one.

The point is that faith means trusting God in good times and bad.  Even if that includes some suffering until we see his arm revealed in our behalf.  That can be difficult in our modern world, when many have come to believe that the highest good in life is to avoid all suffering, that no one should ever anguish over anything.  But that belief will never lead us to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday afternoon session

Okay, so suffering can build character, absolutely.  But that doesn't excuse God's penchant for gratuitous suffering.  Why give an innocent child leukemia?  Because even if the kid won't live to develop Christlike attributes from this experience, his family members will grow stronger because of it, right?

That's not a good enough reason to torture someone—especially an innocent child.  Imagine getting to the Celestial Kingdom and learning that your life, which was cut way shorter than it should have been and was marked by intense physical anguish, was basically just supposed to be a learning experience for others.  Sorry you never got to kiss a girl or pursue a passion or travel the world or raise a family, kid, but I couldn't come up with a better way to teach your mom and your brother some important lessons about character.

There's also another cyclical aspect to this as well.  We have to suffer so that we can become more like Jesus.  That makes a certain amount of sense to me, since Jesus suffered in Gethsemane more than anyone has ever suffered anywhere.  But what he suffered in Gethsemane was all of our sins and all of our afflictions.  So we're suffering to become more like someone who already suffered what we suffered.  But, of course, Jesus wouldn't have suffered those things if all of us weren't going to suffer them in the first place, so it seems to me that we could remove a lot of suffering from the equation by removing a lot of suffering from the equation.

Besides, suffering didn't make Jesus who he was.  He was preternaturally perfect.  In the story of salvation, he has impenetrable moral plot armor.

I'm not really a Holland fan, so I'm sure I have no ability to make an unbiased judgement about his sincerity, here.  But even if he is completely genuine in his attempts to offer comfort to his followers, the fact that he has to spend ten minutes explaining why it's important that we suffer and that God is actually helping us by letting us suffer and that all this suffering is actually more evidence that God is really good at his job and that we should continue trusting in the one who isn't rescuing us from our misery because reasons should tell him something.  It should tell him Mormonism doesn't have answers.  It doesn't have solutions.  I don't think that problem is unique to Mormonism, but I do think that Mormonism is uniquely unequipped to cope with the phenomenon.

I bless you with an increased desire and ability to obey the laws of God.  I promise that as you do, you will be showered with blessings, including greater courage, increased personal revelation, sweeter harmony in your homes, and joy, even amid uncertainty.

—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday afternoon session

An increased desire to obey God.  Seriously, dude?

No blessings of health or safety.  What's the point of having prophets if the best they can do to prepare us for a worldwide crisis is give us manuals to assist us in studying the gospel from home?  What's the point of having divine mouthpieces if they can't provide specific prophetic warnings like Noah or Samuel the Lamanite, if they can't lead like Enoch, if they can't move mountains like the brother of Jared, and if they can't provide solutions like Moses or heal the sick like Joseph Smith?  How useless are prophets who tell us in the midst of a global pandemic that they're praying for us, that we need to make sure we keep going to the temple, and that suffering isn't necessarily bad?

I'm honestly really disappointed with this General Conference.  Of course I wasn't expecting Nelson to tell the church they'd be safe from Covid-19.  Of course I wasn't expecting that the Big 15 would have any particularly useful words of wisdom for their anxious audience.  I kind of figured there would be a few mentions of enduring trials and that the overwhelming majority of the time would be dedicated to other subjects.  I thought the leadership would be smart enough to know they couldn't ignore an issue so obvious but also smart enough to know they didn't have much of substance to offer.

They weren't smart enough for the second part.

Salient among the prevailing themes of this conference were coping with suffering, unanswered prayers, divine abandonment, fear for the future, and maintaining faith in the face of adversity.  And the takeaway from all of this is that the apostles have no power to affect the outcome of this crisis but they still want you to trust in a god whose apparent inaction they struggle to justify.

It was depressing to listen to as someone who doesn't believe a word they say.  I wonder how many Mormons desperate for real answers came away from this conference with similar feelings of disappointment and gloom.

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