Saturday, April 30, 2016

Faith Does Not Necessarily Precede the Miracle

A few weeks ago, I came to the sudden realization that I hadn't filed my local income tax return.

Because I'd recently moved, I had to spend some time digging through boxes to try and find my W-2, but it seemed that I'd misplaced it.  I found W-2s going back to 2010, but nothing for 2015.  I thought maybe I'd left it at my old apartment, but that theory turned out to be a bust.  Somewhere along the line, I must have accidentally thrown it out.

I considered calling up my company's payroll department and asking them to mail me another one, but there was no way it would arrive in time for me to do my taxes before the deadline.  I couldn't believe that I had been stupid enough to put my W-2 in the trash, but it didn't seem to be anywhere.  I had no idea what to do.

And then, in the middle of the night, it came to me—I'd used my W-2 as proof of income when I'd submitted my renter's application.  I had a scan of it on my computer somewhere.  The next morning, I searched my hard drive, found my W-2, and submitted my tax return on its due date.  Happy ending.

It felt exactly like a miraculously answered prayer would have felt ten years ago, but I hadn't prayed.  And I doubt God would be interested in helping a stubborn apostate like me out of such a minor predicament.  But the relief I felt was intensely similar to the relief I felt when I climbed into bed at night as a teenager, knelt under the covers, and expressed my gratitude to my Heavenly Father for making that day at school not so miserable.  Only this time, my gratitude was aimless.

I eventually settled on being grateful that my memory kicked in when I needed it the most, even though it had taken its sweet time and completely struck out on remembering where the physical copy of the W-2 had gone.

Ten years ago, this would have been a testimony-affirming miracle for me.  But it took place in a godless religious vacuum.  From beginning to end, everything felt the same except that there was no prayer involved.  The emotional journey, so to speak, was nearly identical.

If it can happen without prayer, maybe it was happening before despite prayer.  If it happens despite prayer, what's the point of praying?

Monday, April 25, 2016

3 Nephi 10: The Fog is Lifted

After that first lengthy speech from the disembodied voice of Jesus, God allows the stunned and traumatized people of ancient America to mull things over for a few hours before hitting them with another lecture.

Messing with the Timeline
Verse 9 retroactively nails down the chronology of events:
And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away. And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away. was dark the whole time?  3 Nephi 8:23 explains that, following the destruction of numerous Nephite cities, everything went dark for three days.  The next few verses discuss the mourning of the people.  Then chapter 9 does its thing without ever mentioning the fog of darkness.

And now we're suddenly informed that the last chapter and a half have taken place during the three days of blackouts?  I mean, this is hardly an important doctrinal distinction, but this is sure a shoddy job of explaining the situation.  If it weren't for the words "in the darkness" in chapter 9's header (which, of course, wasn't in the original text), I would have assumed that the narrative had moved past the three days of darkness since it had been so long since its brief mention.

Just seems to me like something you'd find in the work of a bad writer instead of in divinely inspired scripture.

Stockholm Syndrome
Jesus has just given a little speech about how he gathers his people like a chicken gathers her chicks under her wings.  And before that, he was talking about all the cities that he'd caused to be destroyed.  But now that he's removed the darkness, the people respond...oddly (verse 10):
And the earth did cleave together again, that it stood; and the mourning, and the weeping, and the wailing of the people who were spared alive did cease; and their mourning was turned into joy, and their lamentations into the praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord Jesus Christ, their Redeemer.
What?  Really?  I mean, it's great that you can see again, but did you forget that the guy who's talking to you killed all those loved ones you were just mourning?  Did you forget that he caused the pall of blackness that held you captive for seventy-two hours?  Why are you praising this unstable, homicidal madman?

When is a Prophecy Not a Prophecy?
Verse 14 begins a peculiar line of reasoning:
And now, whoso readeth, let him understand; he that hath the scriptures, let him search them, and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them, and all these things are not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophets.
Jesus goes on to cite his sources:  Zenos, Zenock, and Jacob.

Zenos and Zenock seem to be the Book of Mormon's go-to guys for implied outside corroboration.  Their teachings aren't in the Bible.  Their records weren't preserved (at least not firsthand) for our day.  So they don't carry a lot of weight because we have to take the Book of Mormon's word for it not only that they prophesied of this stuff, but also that they even existed in the first place.

And then there's Jacob.  As best as I can determine (using resources, I might add), this is a reference to the Biblical Jacob—who was renamed Israel—and a blessing he gave to his son Joseph in Genesis chapter 49.  It's interesting to note that this prophetic blessing contains no mention of the destruction among Joseph's transplanted descendant's following the Messiah's death.  Nor does it mention fire, smoke, tempests, whirlwinds, or the opening of the earth.  Although I suppose the reference to archers shooting at him could be interpreted as an allusion to the conflict that has plagued the seed of Joseph during their stay in the New World.  But the bottom line is that neither Zenos nor Zenock nor Jacob lends any verifiable credibility to the claim that many of the holy prophets predicted the calamitous events of the preceding chapters.

The omission of Samuel the Lamanite is perplexing to me.  Samuel directly predicted the destruction and upheaval as a sign of Jesus's death, but for some reason Jesus doesn't refer to him.  Although Samuel didn't get all the details exactly right (he called for "many hours" of darkness when it turned out to be only three hours), he's a very recent and very public example of prophecy.  Although this wouldn't be external corroboration, it would at least be internal continuity in the same vein as Abinadi's sly foretelling of King Noah's demise.  Plus, you'd think it would be a more memorable and relatable example for Jesus's audience to understand.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

3 Nephi 9: A Voice in the Darkness, a Knock at the Door

In the midst of the blanket of blackness that seems to have befallen this post-apocalyptic ancient world, the survivors hear a mysterious voice.  This voice seems to be extremely long-winded.

The Sliding Scale of Righteousness
The disembodied speaker makes an interesting point that only serves to confuse some issues (verse 2):
Wo, wo, wo unto this people; wo unto the inhabitants of the whole earth except they shall repent; for the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen!
Here I thought it was God that caused all that destruction as both a punishment for the wicked and a sign of the crucifixion for the righteous.  But if the devil is laughing, it sounds like the universe's supreme personification of evil is pretty jazzed about things.  Did God do something that Satan likes?  Doesn't that mean that one of those two beings is not as absolute on the spectrum of good and evil as we thought?

Where Does God Draw the Line?
During its long explanation of all the destruction, the speaker repeats this reasoning three times:
...that the blood of the prophets and the saints...should not come up unto me any more against them.
Well, why now? What was the tipping point?  After many of his fellow believers were murdered, the prophet Nephi finally got motivated to act, but the loving creator of the universe lags behind even that lazy reactive guy.

Contrast this with Alma's reassurance to Amulek that God permitted the deaths of the converted citizens of Ammonihah so that their blood may testify against the sinners who burned them.  This time, God decides he doesn't require any more sanguine testimonials, and he just wipes out a whole bunch of people in one three-hour killing spree.  Is God just making this stuff up as he goes?  Where's the divinely consistent policy?
This town deserves a better class of deity.  And I'm gonna give it to 'em.

Too Soon, God, Too Soon
Verse 14 deserves a quick mention:
Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life.  Behold, my arm of mercy is extended toward you...
Mercy?  That's rich, coming from the guy who just bragged about killing thousands of people by scrambling the topography like a Boggle board.  I don't know how any of those survivors believe his claim of mercy after the ordeal they'd just endured.

Interesting Wording
In the fifteenth verse, the voice finally identifies itself as Jesus Christ.  Then, while sharing his resume, the Savior of mankind makes a problematic statement (verse 17):
And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God;
Of course, the first bit that my skeptical-of-all-things-Mormon mind latches onto here is...why not daughters? Wouldn't a more inclusive neutral word like "children" be better?

But the second—and possibly more troubling—thing is...weren't we children of God already? Isn't that the most central and significant aspect of our eternal identities?  I'm guessing the apologetic response to a charge like this is probably about "sons of God" meaning something slightly different in this context.  But you'd think that, when it came to a concept so simple and so essential as our status as his children, he'd want the godhead to remain consistently clear about things.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A Quick Thought on Jeremy Runnells

Well, congratulations, guys, you made Runnells a martyr.

It's baffling to me sometimes the way the church operates.  Though the CES Letter is still discussed frequently in apologist and ex-Mormon circles, it's my understanding that its initial buzz has died down considerably—until this business about a possible excommunication.  I did a little messing around with Google Trends, and I may be wrong about this.  Apparently searches for "CES Letter" have been generally trending upward over the last couple of years, but searches for "Jeremy Runnells" just hit their highest spike ever, so I'm declaring my limited research to be inconclusive.

But regardless of whether or not the CES Letter's circulation is rising, why would the church keep Runnells in their news cycle by holding a disciplinary council so long after the fact?  Wouldn't more of the same "be careful what you read on the internet" and "some truths are not useful" help members avoid a letter they might not know about?  Isn't threatening its author with discipline and keeping him in the news raising the CES Letter's public profile?  As glad as I am that the church continues to make awful PR moves, it bothers me that the possible rationales behind them are unfathomable.

I have a ton of respect for Jeremy.  I think he handled himself with poise and I wish all the best for him and his family during what must be a strange and troubling time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Black Clouds and Silver Linings

My girlfriend and I recently split up.  We were together for almost six years.  It's been amicable—she helped me move into my new place and I provided a little financial assistance to her during the transition.  But the fact remains that a few years ago we fully expected to be married someday and now we're reduced to communicating mostly through the occasional text message.

It's weird, but I'm not that sad about it.  I mean, I'm not really thrilled about it, either.  But I've waited two months to see if the crushing misery will set in...and it hasn't.  As strange as it may sound, I'm pretty sure that learning the truth about Mormonism helped prepare me to cope with stuff like this.

It's tough to close the door to a bright future you once looked forward to.  All that fantastic stuff promised to me in my patriarchal blessing became a non-starter once I realized that the patriarch didn't actually have divine inspiration.  Similarly, my ex-girlfriend and I will never be married, we won't have kids, and we aren't going to grow old together or any of that stuff.  But as tightly as I clung to those notions during our relationship, a lot of that was external, separate from my identity.  When I left the church, by contrast, there were a lot of internal ramifications.

Who was I without the church?  What did I believe without the church?  What did I want without the church?  How would I choose to approach life and its challenges without the church?

I may have to start over in some respects.  There are obviously a lot of drawbacks to the situation and certain aspects of my life will require some significant adjustments.  But it's so much less debilitating to face a big setback when that setback doesn't threaten your identity.  I still know who I am, what I believe, what I want, and how I choose to approach life.  I don't have to start from scratch.  And that makes this comparatively easier to deal with than confronting the fraudulent reality of Mormonism.

It's an interesting thing to reflect on.  My transition away from belief in the church was easily the worst time of my life, but it's worth noting that it produced some positive results.  Each struggle can harden us against future struggles and each unpleasantness can have a silver lining, so long as we're able to learn from our hardships.

God, this is starting to sound like a testimony meeting.  At least I've stayed away from the phrase "trials and tribulations" thus far.

I guess there's not a whole lot of point to this post beyond gee willikers, isn't life just a funny ol' thing.  But it's what I've been thinking about lately.  And, to be fair, life kind of is a funny old thing.  It's fascinating to consider the many convoluted paths it can take and, for example, how losing my faith prepared me for losing my most cherished personal relationship.

I never would have predicted that.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Notes on General Conference, Part II

We don’t have to go searching through the philosophies of the world for truth that will give us comfort, help, and direction that will get us safely through the trials of life. We already have it.
—Bonnie L. Oscarson, Sunday morning session
This kind of closed-off thinking is not helpful.

Assuming you already know everything you need to know will not help you discover truth.  It will not help you grow intellectually.  It will, however, when practiced over the course of a lifetime and encouraged by trusted leaders, intensify your personal biases until it becomes nearly impossible for you to change your mind even when confronted with the most legitimate, undeniable refutations of your beliefs.

Our commitment to the Lord and his servants cannot be a part-time commitment.
 —W. Christopher Waddell, Sunday morning session
The inclusion of the words "and his servants" bothers me.  At what point during the ordinance of baptism does anybody make a covenant with the prophet or the local bishop?

Commitment to the Lord is all well and good, but when an ecclesiastical leader equates commitment to God with commitment to himself, that leader's motives should be called into question.  Does he want to help people or control people?  Waddell is demanding that his followers lead lives of full-time obligation to him and his general authority friends.  That sounds to me like a grab for power.  And honestly, considering the way he conflates himself with God, this should be seen as a form of blasphemy.

We call on media and entertainment outlets more often to portray motivated and capable fathers who truly love their wives and intelligently guide their children instead of the bumblers or buffoons or the guys who cause problems, as fathers are all too frequently depicted. 
—D. Todd Christofferson, Sunday morning session
This is just silly.  The Lord's anointed have nothing better to do than complain about unfair characterizations of fatherhood on television?  Where are the poignant insights into topical struggles?  Where are the calls to action to fight poverty and hunger and injustice? [In case you're aware of Kearon's talk, I should point out that I wrote this part between sessions, before I realized one of them was actually going to say something awesome.] Where are the honest-to-God prophecies?

One of my favorite shows when I was a kid was Home Improvement.  It centered on Tim Taylor, a husband and father who would be very aptly described with the titles "bumbler," "buffoon," or "guy who causes problems."  But he desperately loved his wife and, despite his many imperfections, he always did his best to express love and support for his children.  Did his many over-the-top pratfalls, his frequent conflicts with his wife, or his numerous missteps in the raising of his three boys make him a bad father?
In fact, I'd argue that, even with all Tim Taylor's absurdly disastrous blunders, he probably helped me build a positive but realistic concept of fatherhood.  Rather than being a one-dimensional paragon of paternal perfection to which my own dad's efforts could never measure up, Tim was a flawed but intensely human father figure whose deepest strength was found in his good intentions.  Tim screwed up time and time again, but to his sons he was a provider, a support system, an entertainer, a role model (in some ways if not all), and when things got serious, Tim was even a pretty damn good teacher.  Home Improvement made it very clear that Tim wanted great things for his kids, even though he usually made a mess in his attempts to provide them.  His good intentions helped me recognize my dad's good intentions when we disagreed.

Was Tim Taylor a perfect father?  Of course not, but no father is.  Instead, he helps to illustrate that buffoonery and honorable fatherhood are not mutually exclusive.  

Obviously, there are plenty of other depictions of fathers on television that are even less flattering. But none of this should be under Christofferson's purview anyway.  And from Tim Taylor to Walter White to Dexter Morgan to John Winchester to Jack Bristow to Cliff Huxtable to Raymond Barone and beyond, the variety of TV dads' strengths and weaknesses represents a full spectrum from which can be gleaned many useful insights into what makes someone a good father.

Most men don't watch Married...with Children and decide that spending the rest of his life sitting on a couch being rude to his wife is the best approach to raising a family, Todd.

...I'm a little surprised that this comment is what elicited my longest rant, too.

If you cannot say you know God is there, you can hope that he is. You can desire to believe. That is enough to start.
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday morning session 
No.  It's not.  I can tell you that from experience.

When the time came for me to start working on my mission papers and I decided I needed to gain a real testimony of the church, I desired to believe.  I'm not sure I've ever desired anything more intensely.  I prayed over the Book of Mormon day after day, begging for that confirmation so that I could know of a surety that the church was true, that God was real, and that the Book of Mormon was his word.  I desperately hoped for all of those things because facing the alternative was too terrifying and too painful.

But you know what?  Wanting to believe wasn't enough.  I mean, I took that desire and ran with it for weeks, studying the scriptures and praying during every quiet moment I had.  If simply desiring to believe were enough to start building a lasting testimony of the gospel, I would be a returned missionary.

If the church isn't true, wanting to believe isn't enough.  If there's nobody answering your prayers, hoping that God is real isn't enough.

Satan’s proposal would have ensured perfect equality. It would redeem all mankind that not one soul would be lost. There would be no agency or choice by anyone, and therefore no need for opposition. There would be no test, no failure, and no success. There would be no growth to attain the purpose the father desired for his children.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
Oaks's talk was a veritable gold mine of hardline asshattery, and the above paragraph is a prime example.  Here, he links the term "equality" very closely with the word "Satan."   And he also explains that Satan's plan wouldn't have accomplished anything because without opposition we are incapable of improvement.

I was pretty terrible the first time I played RollerCoaster Tycoon back in the day, but as I practiced, I got used the the patterns and the cause-and-effect relationships.  With time, I learned how to adeptly provide the best possible experience for my guests.  The same kind of philosophy could apply if I had my own planet, right?  So why didn't God just go with Satan's plan, bring to pass his work and his glory with a one hundred percent success rate, and then let us start creating our own universes and progressing as we learned on the job?

If you ask me (and nobody is), there's way too much about the narrative to our premortal existence that basically comes down to trusting the storyteller.  Oaks doesn't really explain in detail the mechanics that may or may not exist behind why Satan's plan was so awful.  He kind of says "it wouldn't attain God's purposes because I said so" and moves on.

Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies: the loyal opposition. However appropriate for a democracy, there’s no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
Oh, look!  An indirect little pot-shot at the Any Opposed movement!

This policy of "questions are okay but opposition isn't" doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  If you have a question about something, it's generally because you're seeking a truthful answer.  If it turns out that a truthful answer is in opposition to what your church teaches, then you might wind up in opposition to your church. "Questions are honored but opposition is not" is essentially scribbling out half of the truth table—the half in which the church's claims are false.  It's disingenuous to welcome questions in one breath and stigmatize anyone who arrives at an answer you disagree with in the next.

Translation:  You're allowed to ask questions, just make sure the answer you choose to accept involves the church being true.

Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like the vote to sustain church leaders—why pretend it's a vote if you're expected to vote a specific way?

God rarely infringes on the agency of any of his children by intervening against some for the relief of others.... He does not prevent all disasters...he does blunt their effects, as he did with the terrorist bombing that took so many lives in the Brussels airport but only injured our four missionaries. Through all mortal opposition we have God’s assurance that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain.
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session 

Really, Dallin?  Brussels?  You're going out of your way to mention that God thought it was cool to protect missionaries against terrorists but not to protect the poor people who actually died? might be too soon.  Couldn't you have found a nice Holocaust story or something that wasn't quite so fresh and horrifying in people's memories?

Moving on, what's the deal with "infringing" on agency?  You're telling me it was more important to infringe on Joseph Smith's agency by forcing him into polygamy at angelic swordpoint than it was to infringe on a terrorist's agency by forcing him not to set off a bomb?  I think maybe you should go into a little more detail about God's decision-making tree, because this is starting to sound pretty out of perspective and hugely disrespectful to the value of human life.

But it's good to know that our afflictions will benefit us in some unspecified way at some unspecified point in time.  I mean, that statement can be very easily mimicked by the philosophies of men ("whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger"), so it's great to see that your God can provide us with such eloquent, useless platitudes.  I'm sure it means a lot to people who suffer from intense physical and emotional pain on a daily basis.

Some things can only be learned by faith.
Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session

Faith is the antithesis of learning.  Faith is putting your trust in something without being able to see or analyze the movements behind the curtain.  If you have a detailed understanding of something, it's knowledge, not faith.  Telling people they can learn by faith is merely a ploy to string them along a little further.

And telling them that there are some things that can only be learned by faith makes it even worse.  Oaks is trying to convince his followers to leave their "personal reasoning or wisdom" out of the equation because it has no power here.
In this analogy, Théoden is Oaks and Gandalf is Personal Reasoning.  Try to keep up.

President Monson recently reminded us that the blessings of the temple are precious. No sacrifice is too great.
Kent F. Richards, Sunday afternoon session
Of course there are sacrifices that are too great!  Are you crazy?

My parents attend the temple almost obsessively, regardless of the season and often regardless of the weather.  Every time I read an email from my mother relating a dangerous situation on wintry roads while traveling to or from the temple (which, to be fair, has only happened a handful of times), I want to steal one of those wrecking ball trucks and see if I can put the house of the Lord out of commission for a while.

The people waiting in the Spirit World for their ordinances to be performed have plenty of time, especially considering the mad rush of temple work that's slated for the Millennium.  There's no harm in waiting a week to make the three-hour trip once the snow is cleared off the Interstate.

There are plenty of sacrifices that are too great to risk, even for the temple.

Though I usually comment on General Conference excerpts in chronological order, I saved one quote for last, because I found it unique and special:

Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Father in Heaven.
—Patrick Kearon, Sunday afternoon session 
Standing ovation.

Seriously, this is what I wish Mormonism could be expected to produce on a regular basis.  Love, compassion, charity, bridging gaps, mending fences, uniting as a species instead of dividing ourselves along cultural, ideological, or dogmatic lines...these are the kinds of things everybody should want.

It was a little disheartening that Kearon began his talk with an exhaustive disclaimer about how he was not commenting on any legislation or policy, though.  Representatives of the LDS church can weigh in on hot-button political issues like gay marriage and religious freedom all they want, but they have to tiptoe across eggshells to discuss an ongoing global refugee crisis?

But disclaimer or no disclaimer, the substance of Kearon's speech was refreshing and touching.  Once the full text is released, it'll probably be worth popping over to to review it.

And with that less-than-bitter closer, that concludes my notes.  It was pretty uneventful, I thought, other than Oaks doing his usual awful Oaksy stuff.  Monson had about eight minutes of screen time, and he looked pretty rough, but he sounded chipper on Sunday morning.  But for those of you unwilling to torture yourself through a ten-hour weekend, you didn't miss much.

Not unexpectedly.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Notes on General Conference, Part I

This General Conference has turned out to be pretty tame so far.  While the speakers have unleashed the occasional absurd claim or offensive doctrine upon their audience, I've seen very little so far to whip opponents of the church in too much of a lather.

In fact, the big discussion topic from Saturday's sessions is the church's smallest numerical growth since 1987—which is also its smallest percentage increase since 1937.  I'm sure there will be plenty of statistical analysis on all that stuff in the next few days.

But, anyway, on to the highlights.  As always, these are probably direct quotes that I transcribed myself from a live broadcast.  For that reason, they're perfectly prone to error.  Please feel free to point out any false quotes so I can fix them.

Satan is clever.  He tells those he wishes to be miserable that the joy they once felt was childish self-delusion.
—Henry B. Eyring, Saturday morning session 
Well...I don't know how childish it was.  And there were certainly more people involved in my delusions beyond myself.  But mostly I'm annoyed by how flippantly the church leadership routinely characterizes those who no longer put stock in their swill.

Look, the church is clever.  It tells those who wish to have their preconceptions confirmed that the beliefs they've centered their lives on are still worthy of their unflinching devotion.  It's not about misery or joy, it's about control.

And I'm perfectly aware that I sound like a conspiracy nut when I say stuff like that, but whaddaya gonna do?

...[God] allows some earthly suffering because he knows it will bless us, like a refiner’s fire, to become like him and to gain our eternal inheritance.
—Donald L. Hallstrom, Saturday morning session
Mere minutes after saying this, Hallstrom discussed the time he's spent in Africa and how the people there confront daunting problems like civil war and Ebola.  What Hallstrom didn't discuss is how, exactly, a young child's gruesome death from a horrible disease prepares that child to become like God.

I think his quotation sounds nice and might even be accurate if you only take first world problems into account.  You have to work 80 hours a week and deny yourself regular sleep to support your family?  Well, I suppose an argument can be made that this will build character and teach you to prioritize your life.  I can see how that form of suffering can benefit someone bound for godhood.

But I can't see how an emaciated child spending every waking hour yearning for an adequate amount of nourishment helps anyone.  Hallstrom's anecdote about a spiritually uplifting church meeting in Africa seemed to ignore the real suffering in the continent by focusing on comparatively minor sacrifices that members were influenced to make for the church.

It is never too early to prepare yourself for missionary service.
—Gary E. Stevenson, Saturday morning session 
Of course it is!  That's a huge part of the problem in the first place!  If we stopped drilling the expectation to serve a mission into children's heads and instead tried to instill more useful values and skills, we'd be a lot better off.  A kid who grows up with strong critical thinking skills and a desire to help his fellow human beings is going to be a lot more useful to society than a missionary unwittingly attempting to foist his erroneous religion on the world.

God looketh not upon the color of the jersey or the political party.
—Kevin R. Duncan, Saturday morning session
This was probably my favorite talk of the morning.  Duncan passionately warned us about the ways that that society is falling into a dangerous habit of pitting itself against another faction of itself.  It would have been nice if he'd gone so far as to point out that Mormons and those who disagree with Mormonism can also hold different opinions without despising each other, but I guess you can't win 'em all.    

The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.
—Dale G. Renlund, Saturday morning session
I'm not sure I accept the premise here.  It may be true in a lot of cases, I suppose.  But I, for one, feel a lot more entitled to assistance from my friends and family than I do to assistance from, say, the government.

But even if I concede the premise of this statement, I completely disagree with Renlund's approach to it.  He spent his address talking about all the ways that we need to shrink the distance between God and ourselves.  He never once mentioned anything that God is going to do to bridge the gap.  If God is our loving, all-powerful Father in Heaven, why does he leave all the legwork up to us?  Especially considering he's exiled us from his presence and blanked our memories of our time with him, you'd think he'd at least try to meet us halfway.

...if you truly want more Priesthood power, you will cherish and care for your wife, embracing both her and her counsel.
Russell M. Nelson, Priesthood session
This just seems like the most idiotic advice.  Listen, if the reason men are bothering to cherish their wives and listen to their wives' counsel is to increase their Priesthood power, maybe Nelson should be giving an address about how to be a good husband and an all-around decent human being before worrying about amping up the magical power levels.

If I were to ask you, “Who is the greatest leader who ever lived?”—what would you say? The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ. He sets the perfect example of every imaginable leadership quality.
Stephen W. Owen, Priesthood session
Um...not so much.  I mean, assuming that Jesus ever actually existed in any capacity similar to that depicted in the New Testament, it seems like he was a pretty stand-up guy.  And it seems that he quite successfully amassed a loyal following.  But has he maxed out all his stats for every leadership attribute?  I'd say no.

I mean, there was that one time he failed so horribly at keeping his followers in line that one of them betrayed him and got him killed.  And he clearly hadn't taught leadership qualities to his apostles very well, because everything fell apart once Jesus himself wasn't around to oversee his operation personally.  A perfect leader should inspire good leadership and engender strong loyalty, right?  That makes at least two imaginable areas in which Jesus was imperfect.
In God’s eyes, the greatest leaders have always been the greatest followers.
—Stephen W. Owen, Priesthood session
Sound familiar?  I mean, I hate to reuse this picture, but...
I'm lying.  I love to reuse this picture.
Look, it's not the first time the church has tried to turn logic on its head to sell a lie.  I mean, I grew up learning about how the commandments were freeing rather than restrictive and I bought it hook, line and sinker.  When I saw other kids at school doing whatever they wanted with no regard for God's commandments, I was convinced that they were choking off their own ability to choose.  And while I'm sure they had to live with the consequences of whatever they were doing, the fact that I refused to see was that they still had their agency and they allowed themselves to pick from a much broader smorgasbord of behavioral avenues than I did.

Here, Owen is equating leadership with the antithesis of leadership.  He's telling people that holding onto the tail of whoever's in front of you is the same thing as leading by example.  He's telling people that the highest form of leadership is unquestioning obedience.

That makes no sense.  To be fair, I'm doing a lot of reading between the lines here.  He makes his point much less insidiously than I'm implying, but the core concept is the same—he's inspiring people to follow by convincing them it's the same thing as leadership.