Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Notes on the Sunday Sessions

As we dive into the Sunday sessions of conference, let me offer an advanced warning and a preemptive apology—some of these quotes are pretty long.  For some reason I had more trouble than usual today trying to select shorter quotes that encapsulated the concepts I wanted to address.  But I guess you wouldn't be here if you weren't willing to do a bit of reading anyway, right?

Well.  You've been warned.  Here we go:

Who can keep up with the schedule of our dear prophet, President Nelson? 
—Ronald A. Rasband, Sunday morning session
There were at least two instances in this talk in which Rasband referred to Nelson as "our dear prophet."  I think a lot of outsiders are going to find that phrasing to have a distinctly North Korean flavor to it, but maybe that's none of my business.
 It was Brigham Young who spoke the prophetic words, "This is the right place." 
—Ronald A. Rasband, Sunday morning session
How is this prophetic?

How do we know that if the Mormon pioneers had continued west and set up their base of operations in the Sierra Nevadas, things wouldn't have worked out even better?  Brigham Young basically walked into the Salt Lake valley and said, "We're gonna build here."  Since he was the leader, of course, everybody started to build there.  Rasband is looking back and gasping, "How could Brigham Young have known they were going to build there?!"

...ambassadors from Cuba, the Philippines, Argentina, Romania, Sudan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. 
—Ronald A. Rasband, Sunday morning session
He's framing his laundry list of super-important people who have met with Mormon leaders as the fulfillment of another prophecy, but he's spending an inordinate amount of time on the fulfillment of this particular prophecy.  This kind of makes it look like he's bragging about all the bigwigs his buddies have rubbed shoulders with in an effort to legitimize the church as a serious player on the world stage.

I remember when Jesus did that.  The Gospel of Matthew, chapter three hundred forty-seven, if I recall correctly.  Jesus was, as we all know, widely known for his inferiority complex.  That's why he was always saying stuff like this so the disciples would think he was cool enough to invite to their weekend poker games.

The Lord's invitation to let our light so shine is not just about randomly waving a beam of light and making the world generally brighter.  It is about focusing our light so others may see the way to Christ.  
—Bonnie H. Cordon, Sunday morning session
Except for the bits about the Lord and Christ, I actually really like this idea.  It's a concept that I've been struggling to take to heart over the last several years.  See, even though I feel like my opinions can have a positive moral impact on a world that still can't agree that sometimes we're assholes to people of certain races, genders, sexual identities, economic strata, personal histories, or [insert useful catch-all category here], I don't often do anything about it.  I like to think I have some light to share, but for the most part I just sit there hoping people notice.  I may be passionate about it in my blogging and my writing, but in real life I almost never call people out on their unjust judgments and I almost never try to help people see why maybe there are kinder ideas to be adopted.  Which is sort of good, because that way I don't have a reputation for being a condescending dickbag, but it's sort of bad, because I'm hesitant to let my light shine, so to speak, even when I'm among friends.

Letting your light shine is admirable, but focusing it so that others can see it is better.  I agree with Cordon that we should all try to focus our light more.

Jesus was compassionately aware of her [the woman at the well] and her needs.  He met the woman where she was and started by talking about something familiar and common. 
—Bonnie H. Cordon, Sunday morning session
Jesus met the woman where she was.  Interesting.  Someone should tell Lehi and Elder McCune.

What did McCune say yesterday?  "Please note that Lehi did not leave the Tree of Life. He stayed spiritually with the Lord and invited his family to come where he was to partake of the fruit."  Sure sounds to me like Lehi was stationary, waving his beam of light around, and hoping his family would see.  Lehi did not follow the Savior's example.

Ask yourself who needs the light you have to find the path they need but cannot see? 
—Bonnie H. Cordon, Sunday morning session
Despite a generally agreeable tone throughout her talk, this is the kind of thing that can get into some trouble.  Much like my aforementioned feared infamy for being a condescending dickbag, this kind of mindset can give people a reputation for being pushy and presumptuous.  By extension, their religion may get slapped with the same reputation.

Should we try to exemplify our best characteristics actively instead of passively to try to make a positive impact on our world?  Yes.  Focusing our light is good, but targeting it might be going too far.  I'm not sure that's really what Cordon is suggesting, but considering the church culture of love-bombing and discussing who we should try to reactivate in our presidency meetings, I have a hunch.

One last thing before we move on to the next talk—Cordon spoke Saturday too.  A woman has spoken twice in the same general conference.  Bednar is only going to speak once.  Ballard and Rasband and Holland and Uchtdorf too.  A woman got twice as many opportunities to address the worldwide church than most of the apostles.

Actions speak louder than words.  I think this is a far, far more encouraging step than all that potemkin pablum about women having access to priesthood power and all that putrid pussyfooting around the misogynistic version of "separate but equal."  Oddly, nobody made a big deal out of it, which would normally be what I'd hope to see from an organization that honestly cares about gender equality.  But with the church's track record, maybe this was a clerical error.  Maybe Nelson was rearranging the planned order of the speakers in his Excel document months ago and accidentally did a copy-and-paste instead of a cut-and-paste.

[edit:  The reason they didn't make a big deal out of this is because it didn't happen.  I had Joy D. Jones mislabeled as Bonnie H. Cordon in my notes.  Cordon spoke only once in this conference.  Oh well.  It was nice to think this actually happened.  Nelson spoke 3,467 times this conference and four different women spoke exactly one time each.]

I would have looked anywhere and everywhere to find someone authorized to say to me and to my beloved Patricia that our marriage in such a setting was sealed for time and all eternity, never to hear or have imposed on us the haunting curse, "until death do you part." 
—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday morning session
Okay, so it's a haunting curse that civil marriages indicate that spouses are separated when one of them dies, but it's not a haunting curse that the Mormon church teaches that you'll be separated from the eternal family it's so proud to offer you if you—or your spouse or your sibling or your child or your parent or your cousin—make poor choices regarding loyalty to the church organization?

That's the pot calling the kettle blacker than the emptiness of Outer Darkness.

When we have conquered this [COVID-19]—and we will—may we be equally committed to freeing the world of the virus of hunger and freeing neighborhoods and nations from the virus of poverty.  May we hope for schools where students are taught, not terrified they will be shot, and for the gift of personal dignity for every child of God, unmarred by any form of racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice. 
—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday morning session
Oh, absolutely.  I mean, my resources are somewhat limited, but it would be great if there were someone who could throw like a hundred billion dollars at the problem and actually make a discernible dent in world hunger.  The sad fact is that I'm probably doing more to combat world hunger by paying my taxes to an obviously flawed and self-absorbed government than I would be by giving ten percent of my income to the church.

This is like...I don't know, the adulterous pot calling the covetous kettle to repentance or something.

But I don't want to let this slide by without putting a big neon sign over Holland's inclusion of religion in his list of reprehensible prejudices.  Sure, China's not really friendly to Christianity, there are still Palestinian and Israeli religious conflicts, the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar isn't exactly in the rear view mirror, there are plenty of other concerns around the world for people who are persecuted, banished, or killed for their religious beliefs.  But the facts that Holland refers to prejudice as opposed to cleansing or violence and that he also just referenced a distinctly American problem of schoolchildren terrified they'll be shot makes me think he's not really talking globally.  He's looking at the good old US of A and equating religious discrimination with racial disparities and ethnic injustices. Which is shitty.

I can see how Americans of faith—and especially their leaders—can have some legitimate concerns about their religious freedoms, especially as they interpret their freedoms in ways that will discriminate against other groups.  But don't compare it to racism.  You just look like an asshole.  When's the last time a cop got so nervous because the suspect he was apprehending was Mormon that he wound up shooting him?  When's the last time people were being beaten back with high-pressure fire hoses simply because they were religious?

At least put your whining about religious prejudice in a different paragraph or something so it doesn't sound like you think you're the new Martin Luther King Jr.

We also know, as one frustrated writer wrote, that many religious leaders of the day seem clueless in addressing this kind of decline, offering in response a thin gruel of therapeutic deism, cheap symbolic activism, carefully couched heresy, or sometimes, just uninspiring nonsense."  And all at a time when the world needs so much more, when the rising generation deserves so much more, and when in Jesus's day he offered so much more.  As disciples of Christ, we can in our day, rise above those ancient Israelites who moaned, "our bones are dried, and our hope is lost."  Indeed, if we finally lose hope, we lose our last sustaining possession.  It was over the very gate of Hell that Dante wrote a warning to all those traveling through his Divina Commedia:  "Abandon all hope," he said, "ye who enter here."  Truly, when hope is gone, what we have left is the flame of the infernal raging on every side.  So when our backs are to the wall, and as the hymn says, "other helpers fail and comforts flee," among our most indispensable virtues will be this precious gift of hope, linked inextricably to our faith in God and our charity to others. 
—Jeffrey R. Holland, Sunday morning session
I fail to see how Holland's talk rises above the standard of uninspiring nonsense.  He quotes R.J. Snell, the book of Ezekiel, Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Lyte, and later, Robert Frost.  He uses the Snell quote to set up a series of flaws with modern ecclesiastical leadership, and then he does nothing to demonstrate if Mormon leadership is exempt from those flaws.  This string of secondhand advice is basically used to make the point that if hope is lost, then everything is lost.  So it's a good thing we have our faith so that doesn't happen.

I dunno about you, but using recycled material instead of revelation to preach that God doesn't intervene to solve our problems and merely allows us access to hope sure indicates to me that Mormonism has slid significantly closer to deism since the days when Joseph Smith was writing down the words God literally spoke and healing malaria sufferers in the marshes of Nauvoo.

Wow, I'm so inspired.  Truly this man is an apostle of Christ.

As we become anxiously engaged in this sacred work [proxy temple ordinances], we are obeying the commandments to love and serve God and our neighbors, and such selfless service truly helps us to hear him and come unto the Savior. 
—David A. Bednar, Sunday morning session
I really am not comfortable with Bednar's characterization of temple work as "selfless service."  For most of the people performing the ordinances, it's probably pretty selfless.  They don't know it's all made up. 

But what they do know is that we're going to spend the Millennium doing nonstop temple ordinances for all the people who have fallen through the cracks.  It's not like God is going to set a deadline in the Millennium when he have to get all these proxy sealings completed.  No one will be denied saving ordinances because we ran out of time and they were too far down the list.  So it seems like it might be a good idea to focus on service in more urgent areas right now.  Your great-great-grandparents will be sealed in the thirtieth year of the Millennium, relax.  In the meantime, that battered women's shelter could use some volunteers.

Not that Mormons have time to sit down and think about those kinds of things while Bednar and his friends are hammering into their brains that their character and value are demonstrated by how devoted they are to the endless busywork the church thrusts at them.

So while the people doing the service are probably often acting with selfless motives, that doesn't mean Bednar gets to call it that.  He's just trying to make them feel good about what they're doing so that they keep doing it for his purposes, not for selfless ones.

Today in 2020, we have 168 operating temples.  49 additional temples are under construction or have been announced.  Houses of the Lord are being constructed on the isles of the sea and in countries and locations previously considered by many unlikely to warrant a temple. 
—David A. Bednar, Sunday morning session
This is a multinational corporation with billions in assets.  This is one of the easiest "prophecies" they can force to come to fruition.  It's not that impressive that you were able to throw a few million dollars at some remote island to build a temple.  Anybody with a few million dollars could have done that.  It doesn't actually mean that the temple is warranted, especially when the definition of where a temple is and isn't warranted is kind of up to the church anyway.

Also, I think we're padding the numbers to sound impressive.  Of the 49 additional temples under construction or announced, 35 of them are merely announced (which is now up to 43 out of 57 after Nelson's latest spree in the final session).  Some of these were announced several years ago, going back to the Harare Zimbabwe temple, which has been in development Hell since about this time in 2016.

By the way, just so my social media followers know I'm living the high life, today I'm pleased to announce that I'm building a summer home in the Hamptons.  Location is not yet available.

Revelation continues to flow from the Lord during this ongoing process of restoration. 
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session

Does it really flow, though?  At best it's a trickle, right?  Maybe some drips, if we're being honest?

The flow of revelation didn't predict the viral pandemic.  It didn't help prevent having to clarify the November 2015 policy shortly after it came out or having to rescind it in 2019.  It still hasn't done much to prevent sexual abuse in the church.  Even the proclamation Nelson is about to read is specifically presented as having been "authored" by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve.  It doesn't even tell church members anything we haven't heard before. 

What new doctrines have we lapped up from this rush of living waters in the modern day?  Weird semantic arguments about whether women do or do not have or have access to the priesthood or the priesthood power?  Policy and procedural changes like the new youth program and the Come Follow Me curriculum?  Joseph Smith was dropping hot new doctrine like diss tracks pretty much up right up until his murder.  Why are prophets now reduced to releasing corporate memos and newly formatted training materials instead of blowing our minds with substantive new theological treasures?

The adversary is clever—for millennia, he has been making good look evil and evil look good.  His messages tend to be loud, bold, and boastful.  However, messages from our Heavenly Father are strikingly different. 
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
So it's Satan whose messages are loud, bold and boastful?  Okay, sure.

I suppose I'll concede the point on loudness.  I've never seen Spencer W. Kimball whooping "Let's make some fuckin' noise for Jesus" into the microphone in an arena full of screaming metalheads.

Boldness, however, is a different story.  Perhaps it's a matter of interpretation, but it's pretty easy to make the argument that messages purportedly from our Heavenly Father have commonly displayed a bold disregard for basic human decency when it comes to people of color, people who are not cisgendered or heterosexual, women, victims of abuse, and dissenters.

But the slam dunk is the boastfulness angle.  In this conference alone, we've already seen leaders boast about the church's worldwide growth, the church's efforts to alleviate human suffering, the church's temple-building, and the number of foreign leaders and dignitaries that have made visits to Utah.  You could also make the argument that we've also seen boasting about how our marriage ceremony is better than everybody else's and boasting about how much revelation we're getting these days.

Is this more evidence that the church, by its own admission, does not speak for our Father in Heaven?

He communicates simply, quietly, and with such stunning plainness that we cannot misunderstand him.  For example, whenever he has introduced his only begotten son to mortals upon the earth, he has done so with remarkably few words.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, to Peter, James, and John, God said, "This is my beloved son.  Hear him."  His words to the Nephites in ancient Bountiful were, "Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him."  And to Joseph Smith in that profound declaration that opened this dispensation, God simply said,  "This is my beloved son.  Hear him." 
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday morning session
This is just stupid.

How is "Behold my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him" an example of simple communication?  That's an example of needlessly florid and self-indulgently grandiloquent prose that squanders precious space on the golden plates for purposeless ornamental verbosity. 

But seriously, it's the exact opposite of what Nelson is talking about.  And regardless of any simplicity in the way God introduces Jesus, his communications aren't so simple, so quiet, and so stunningly plain as to avoid misunderstanding.  That assertion is completely absurd.

Abinadi talks in circles about the nature of the godhead, and his speeches in the Book of Mormon have been tweaked over the years to sound less Trinitarian—but it's still an impenetrable thicket of nonsense.  When Oliver Cowdery wanted to translate some of the Book of Mormon, God chastised him after his failure because he hadn't followed instructions he hadn't been given.  The Book of Jacob condemns the polygamy of David and Solomon but the Doctrine and Covenants says that David and Solomon were acting under God's orders.  The church's first Official Declaration insisted that polygamy was not being practiced, but apparently there was some mixed messaging because the church's own essay on polygamy talks about apostles authorizing some polygamous marriages after the proclamation was issued.  After Official Declaration 2, we know that we don't discriminate based on race when allowing people into the temple, but we don't know why we did before or precisely when it started, except that it was from God.  Jeffrey R. Holland perhaps infamously explained that God once gave him revelation that was incorrect so that Holland would be even more confident of the correct answer when he got it. When the November 2015 policy was leaked, God's messengers had to clarify a few things about it and then have another revelation a few years later to change it.  When the flagship university operated by God's church removed restrictions on gay dating from the Honor Code, it prevaricated on it for a few days before essentially walking it back.  And even up to this conference, we keep talking about women holding the priesthood—only not really—because for some reason we're not getting the simple kind of communication that precludes misunderstanding.

Either Nelson is lying, he's not paying attention, or he doesn't actually receive communication from God.  And that's not an exclusive "or," for you Boolean logicians following along.  I'm fully willing to believe that all three of those conditions may be true.

[Note:  I must have taken the above quote down incorrectly in my notes, because in Matthew 17, God says, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him."  I'm pretty sure Nelson wouldn't have made the mistake of omitting the middle of it.]

We declare that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, organized on April 6, 1830, is Christ's New Testament church restored.  This church is anchored in the perfect life of its chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, and in his infinite atonement and literal resurrection.  Jesus Christ has once again called apostles and has given them priesthood authority.  He invites all of us to come unto him and his church to receive the Holy Ghost, the ordinances of salvation, and to gain enduring joy. 
—The Solemn Proclamation of Most Solemn Solemnity
This was kind of embarrassing.  I felt bad for this self-important old man in his desperation for this Proclamation to make some kind of noble international impact.  It didn't help that, for some reason, the sound quality got really muddy when the feed cut to his pre-recorded recitation of the document from the Sacred Grove.  It made it seem like it was a bit of a passion project whose technical requirements were exceeded by his vision for it.

Also, the paper was a prop.  Either he committed it to memory or he was reading off a prompter like normal.  Each time he looked down at the page was a little more awkward than the last.

I really think this is just the result of a man who's near the end of a long life and whose last great hope is for his legacy.  He's done some impressive things.  He had a successful medical career and he rose to the highest position of power in a notable, if relatively small, religion.  And I think now he just wants to be remembered.  I wish he'd do something different than proclaim things Mormons have heard a thousand times in his quest for metaphorical immortality, though.  If he fixed the sexual abuse problems in the church, or ordained women, or actually apologized for the church's racism or something like that, there would be a lot of people who might remember him fondly.  But I suppose he's got a captive audience and maybe he's going for the safe play.  After all, with so little time left, it's not wise to take risks.

Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  To God and the Lamb.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  To God and the Lamb.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  To God and the Lamb.  Amen, amen, and amen. 
—The Robotic Entity Manipulating the Controls to the Nelson Drone
This was just as rousing as every other flatly intoned iteration of the Hosanna Shout I've had the pleasure to witness.

Since the Hosanna Shout is a relatively unusual affair, they always have to explain how it's done before starting the real deal.  And in this case, Nelson requested that "our colleagues in the media" respect the sacredness of what they were about to observe.  So the prophet, apparently, fully understands how nutty and cultlike this is all going to look to outsiders.

Nelson, then, is essentially the pimple-faced kid in middle school who gets mocked relentlessly by his classmates for his anime obsession but who nonetheless chooses to do his history project on Japanese cultural exports even though he knows he's going to have to present it in front of the whole class and he'll be snickered at through the entirety of his speech. 

The Hosanna Shout doesn't do anything.  It's not an ordinance.  It doesn't call down the powers of heaven the way prayers or fasting or priesthood blessings are supposed to.  It has no function other than as a celebratory chant thingy.  I don't see what the downside is for not doing it, but for some reason Nelson feels impelled to do it anyway even though he knows all the bigger, meaner religions in the class are going to point and laugh.

The restored gospel assures us that the resurrection CAN include the opportunity to be with our family members—husband, wife, children, and parents.  This is a powerful encouragement for us to fulfill our family responsibilities in mortality.  It helps us live together in love in this life in anticipation of joyful reunions and associations in the next. 
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
This guy really doesn't like his family, does he?

Yesterday he repeated his advice that fathers need to cultivate positive relationships with family members so that those family members will want to ask the fathers for blessings.  Now he's saying that it's a good thing that we can be stuck with our families for eternity, because that provides some much-needed motivation to "fulfill our family responsibilities."  If not for the gospel, Oaks would ignore his children and not lift a finger for his wife's emotional and physical wellbeing, I guess?

I also like how he double-qualifies family unity in the afterlife.  It's not that the afterlife will include being with our families.  It's not that the afterlife will include the opportunity to be with our families.  It's that the afterlife can include the opportunity to be with our families.  Just in case anybody was thinking they had a real shot at this, he's using two extra words to deemphasize its likelihood.

Unless he's doing that to make it sound better for people who, say, don't want to be stuck forever in the Celestial Kingdom with the father who molested them.  I don't think that's what he's doing because I don't get the sense that he's overly concerned with validating the more complicated questions of postmortal existence (we all remember him using a question like this as the butt of a joke last conference, right?), but I think that interpretation is valid.

Fourth and finally, modern revelation teaches us that our progress need not be concluded with the end of mortality.  Little has been revealed about this important assurance.  We are told that this life is the time to prepare to meet God and that we should not procrastinate our repentance.  Still, we are taught that in the Spirit World, the gospel is preached, even to the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth and that those taught there are capable of repentance in advance of the final judgment. 
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
Little has been revealed about this important assurance, huh?  Bummer, I guess we'll just have to stay in the dark then.

Or!  Wait!  Now, bear with me here, but what if a prophet or an apostle were to fulfill the very role we've been celebrating all weekend and pray for revelation on the subject?  Then maybe God would, y'know, tell us more about this important assurance.

But since we all know that's not going to happen, let me focus on the arbitrary stoppage point in God's plan.  We had free agency in the premortal life, which we used to vote for God's plan.  That allowed us to progress into mortal life, where we still have free agency.  We can use that free agency to progress into a better postmortal life, where, if we qualified, we can continue to progress by making spirit babies and creating worlds.   Even if we don't qualify for that postmortal bliss, we will have free agency in the spirit world to accept the gospel and qualify for it a bit behind schedule.

But, for some reason, there's an impediment in place.  An impediment on an eternal spectrum.  In all the eternity that will stretch out before us, we have what will work out to be an infinitesimally small portion of our interminable lifetimes to exercise our free agency in a way that will make us progress.  Great decisions in the first split-second of existence will mean we have eternal happiness and continuous progression but poor decisions in the first split-second of existence will mean we have our progression permanently halted.  That's stupid and completely unjust.  You don't tell a first-grader that they no longer qualify to graduate from high school because they flunked their first spelling test. 

Just as the doctrine of eternal families brings with it the concomitant implication that many people's families will be separated for eternity, the doctrine of eternal progression brings its own implication that many people's progression will be halted and they will live out eternity in stagnation.

This is the plan of a just god?

This judgment will cause all of the children of God to proceed to a kingdom of glory for which their obedience has qualified them and where they will be comfortable. 
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
This is shitty, too.

When you wind up in a state of lesser happiness than some of your peers after we die, it's because you didn't qualify for something better and you wouldn't like it there anyway, because the Celestial Kingdom is for winners.  It's best for you to stay where you belong.

This reminds me of a short story by Stephen Crane that lampoons on-the-nose didactic moralizing in fiction.  After a strange string of events leads a belligerent man to his death, Crane writes:
The corpse of the Swede, alone in the saloon, had its eyes fixed upon a dreadful legend that dwelt a-top of the cash-machine.  "This registers the amount of your purchase."
Crane's cash-machine from The Blue Hotel is going to be unironically posted outside the doors to the Telestial and Terrestrial Kingdoms.

In conclusion, I share the conviction that has come to me from many letters and by reviewing many requests to return to the church after name removal or apostasy.  Many of our members do not fully understand this Plan of Salvation, which answers most questions about the doctrine and inspired policies of the restored church. 
—Dallin H. Oaks, Sunday afternoon session
I find it interesting that he doesn't say how he responds to these letters.  The fact that he doesn't makes me think the comment immediately following is supposed to be a threat—if you break your covenants, that will be very difficult to come back from.  But he doesn't really explain how the first sentence in the above quote is related to the second sentence.  That means I can't really be sure that this is his intent, but maybe he did it that way to conceal his threat in the subtext.  It's hard to tell.

This would have been a great opportunity to talk about the Lord's mercy in welcoming back those who contritely request to have their ordinances reinstated.  Oaks's decision not to take that opportunity is curious.  Instead, he talks about how...most people don't fully understand the Plan of Salvation.  That's a weird thing to say with the implication that it's most people's fault, considering Oaks just got done telling us that "little has been revealed" about an "important assurance" within God's plan.  If we don't fully understand it but it hasn't been fully revealed by God or by the prophets, then whose fault is the misunderstanding?

It reminds me of an old church commercial (that I'm having trouble finding) in which a worried mother hurries down the sidewalk to grab her small child who's about to wander into the street and she berates him for ignoring her instructions to stay away from the corner.  His innocent reply is, "Mommy, what's a corner?"  The mother in the video immediately hugs the child because she realizes that if she hasn't properly explained the rules to him, it's not his fault if he doesn't understand them because the child depends on the adult for knowledge.  This fictional mother from the "Family:  Isn't it about...time?" campaign is, apparently, smarter than God.

We are incredibly grateful to the revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the church on June 8th, 1978. 
—Quentin L. Cook, Sunday afternoon session
I just love the way he frames this.  What a sleazeball.

His wording is very careful not to specify which male members may not have been extended priesthood blessings previously.  It's also very careful to present this as a wonderful extension of blessings as opposed to the end of an abhorrent restriction of blessings.  So he doesn't have to say the words "We didn't let black men into the priesthood until 42 years ago."

And since he doesn't mention women at all, it almost makes it sound like it was just a priesthood ban and wouldn't have affected any women—but if someone calls him on it, he did refer to a restriction on temple blessings.  So it sort of acknowledges the problem in case the church is accused of not mentioning these unsavory historical policies.  But he doesn't get specific so that he can, in large part, not mention this unsavory historical policy while he's mentioning this unsavory historical policy.  He's oversimplifying what happened so that it doesn't sound too bad to anyone who's not concerned with—or not aware of—the details.

The way he expresses gratitude heavily implies that the prior policy excluding black people from the priesthood, from the temples, and from the Celestial Kingdom (except as servants, depending on which bigoted apostle you talked to way back when) was completely out of the hands of the church leadership.  We're grateful to God for allowing us to do this, because we're not racist, God is racist, but he's perfect, so he can't be racist, but the point is the church has never been racist.

Also, if one of your best examples of continuing divine revelation is something that ended an immoral church policy your divinely led organization instituted in the first place, then you need a better form of divinity.

President Russell M. Nelson has been a commissioned agent of the Lord, especially with respect to revelations to help families build sanctuaries of faith in their homes, gather scattered Israel on both sides of the veil, and bless endowed members in sacred temple ordinance matters. 
—Quentin L. Cook, Sunday afternoon session

At two points in his talk, Cook uses the word "especially" inappropriately.  Here he's saying Nelson is acting as the prophet, especially in specific areas.  So...the natural extension of that thought, since we used the word "especially," is that there are other areas of Nelson's prophetic administration in which he's less of a commissioned agent of the Lord.  You'd that, as the prophet, he's a commissioned agent of the Lord, period.  It makes sense to cite some examples of areas in which he has done the most work, but that's not what Cook says.  Cook says that Nelson is an agent of the Lord especially with respect to certain areas.

The next time he does this, he says that the Holy Ghost is the testifier and revealer of all truth, especially that of the Savior.  So...the natural extension of that thought, since we used the word "especially," is that there are some truths regarding which the Holy Ghost is less of a testifier and less of a revealer.

I don't think Cook is actually intending to say the things that it sounds like he's saying.  I do think he's trying really hard to emphasize certain things because he's desperate to be believed, and that has led him to some questionable word choice as he tries to make everything sound grander and nobler and better and bigger and more powerful.

I testify the new proclamation President Nelson delivered this morning is a revelation to bless all people. 
—Quentin L. Cook, Sunday afternoon session
In order for it to be classified as a revelation, doesn't it have to be new?  Previously unknown knowledge?  Heretofore guarded secrets of God?  Erstwhile deep mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven that the Lord has now determined it's time to share through his chosen mouthpiece?  Wouldn't it also need to be something that isn't announced as having been authored by fifteen men?

Joseph Smith didn't need a committee of fourteen others to help him create the scores of revelations that became the Doctrine and Covenants.

We also declare our heartfelt desire to be reunited with those who have been struggling with their testimonies, been less active, or have had their names removed from church records.  We desire to feast with you upon the words of Christ at the Lord's table, to learn the things we all should do.  We need you, the church needs you, the Lord needs you.  Our heartfelt prayer is that you will join with us in worshiping the Savior of the world.  We know that some of you may have received unkindness or other conduct that is not Christlike.  We also know that some have had challenges to their faith that may not be fully appreciated, understood, or resolved.  Some of our most stalwart and faithful members have suffered a challenge to their faith for a season.  I love the true account of W. W. Phelps, who had forsaken the church and testified against the prophet Joseph Smith in a Missouri court.  After repenting, he wrote to Joseph, "I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me."  Joseph did forgive him, put him back to work and lovingly wrote, "Friends at first are friends again at last."  Brothers and sisters, regardless of your situation, please know that the church and its members will welcome you back. 
—Quentin L. Cook, Sunday afternoon session
Okay, wow.

On the surface, this is nice.  An earnest invitation to return.  It would be good if the first possible reason for disaffection you shared hadn't been the old chestnut of being offended.  It would be nice if the acknowledgement of unkind behavior hadn't been so passive, because a lot of times this behavior comes from the leadership structure of the church.  I like the admission that faith struggles may not have been appreciated, understood, or resolved—but again, that should be something that the leadership, from the bishops all the way on up to Cook should take some ownership for.  But so far it seems like an honest effort to bridge a gap between—oh shit, never mind.

Okay, so testifying against Joseph Smith in court would have been a personal offense against the prophet, not just a philosophical difference with the church.  So I hope the personal offense is what Joseph was saying when he indicated that their friendship had been interrupted.  But maybe we should have parsed this situation a little more carefully for the present-day members so they don't think we're saying that it's totally okay to stop being friends with people who leave the church?  Also, I'm not thrilled about how you just had to say that Phelps had to repent before he came back.  You just had to say it.  You couldn't help yourself.

The best example you can offer is W. W. Phelps?  We couldn't find a nice story about someone who hadn't expressed personal opposition to the prophet?  Can you not see how something like that muddies the waters and draws a parallel between apostasy and personal betrayal, between disaffection and public persecution, and between ex-Mormons and enemies? 

There is no righteous reason why anyone might leave the church.  Returning to the church will always require repentance.  People who left have always done something wrong.  It's not us, it's them.  They're the ones who are wrong.  Every time.  Good luck convincing people to come back with that attitude. 

We'd love to see you back in church on Sunday, Brother Johnson!  I'm so glad to hear you're repenting of whatever evil belief or sinful activity made you stop attending in the first place!  What do you mean you've changed your mind and I can go screw myself?

We invite you to come and help.  Come and serve with us, ministering to God's children, following in the footsteps of the Savior and making this world a better place.  Come and belong.  You will make us stronger and you will become better, kinder, and happier as well.  
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday afternoon session
Uchtdorf started out so strong.  The kind of Mormonism he was trying to present in the first few minutes of his talk was a kind of Mormonism I could get behind.  This quote, on its own, removed from the words that would follow it, is a lovely sentiment.

There's no threshold of perfection you must attain in order to qualify for God's grace.  Your prayers do not have to be loud or eloquent or grammatically correct in order to reach Heaven.  In truth, God does not show favoritism. 
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday afternoon session
This is where it starts to begin breaking down a bit.  It's becoming more obvious here that he's saying nice things that are clearly not true.

If God does not show favoritism, why does he make numerous references to his chosen people?  Why did he preserve Noah's family and drown everyone else?  Why did he rescue only Jared's family from the confounding of languages?  Why did he favor the Nephites over the Lamanites?  Why was it necessary on multiple occasions in the scriptures for the wicked to be marked so that they were clearly distinguishable from the righteous?  Why is he totally obsessed with Jesus in comparison to the rest of his children?  Why did he allow his apostles to teach that black people could not enter the Celestial Kingdom, or could only enter it as servants, or could not enter the temple?  Why do we believe God will bless us for our signs of devotion to him and not necessarily for the good we accomplish for our fellow human beings?

Of course God has favorites. Basically our whole goal in life is to make sure we and our loved ones are counted among his favorites.

We are his beloved children.  Even those who rejected him.  Even those who, like a headstrong, unruly child, become angry with God and his church, pack their bags, and storm out the door, proclaiming that they are running away and never coming back.  When a child runs away from home, he or she may not notice the concerned parents looking out the window.  With tender hearts, they watch their son or daughter go, hoping their precious child will learn something from this heartrending experience and perhaps see life with new eyes and eventually return home.  So it is with our loving Heavenly Father.  He is waiting for our return. 
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday afternoon session
Thank you for reducing the most agonizing, gut-wrenching personal decision of my life to a childish temper tantrum.  That really demonstrates your level of empathy for people who don't see things your way.  I thought you were supposed to be the cool apostle!

I think it's very telling how long Uchtdorf lingers over a description of the emotional state of the parents after his brief dismissal of the child's emotional state.  

Would you honestly want everything spelled out in every detail?  Would you honestly want every question answered?  Every destination mapped out?  I believe most of us would tire very quickly of this sort of heavenly micromanagement. 
—Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Sunday afternoon session
That's not micromanagement, that's explaining the rules of the game.  The Plan of Salvation should not be a cosmic version of Calvinball.
Surely Uchtdorf has had some kind of professional experience with a project manager or a leader who refuses to clearly spell out the parameters of a task?  It's not micromanaging to make your expectations clear.  It is however, micromanaging to tell your employees whether they're allowed to drink tea or wear earrings while they're working on your project.  And it's definitely micromanaging to require them to do an entire presentation over again from the beginning if a single word is out of place.

But the real issue at stake here is whether questions are valid.  He's not going to come out and say, "you can't have questions," but he's sure shaming people who are bothered by the unanswered ones they have.  I mean, let's put this in perspective, here, Dieter—if the gospel is true, then everyone's eternal happiness is at stake.  It's entirely fair to want to know the ins and outs of the very system you're telling them can grant them that happiness.  It's cruel for someone to imply that wanting all your questions answered is silly when you're just trying to make sure you know how you can avoid everlasting regret and obtain everlasting happiness.

...a thought came into my mind.  "Elder Clayton, ask them this question:  Presidents, of the members in your stakes who pay a full tithing, pay a generous fast offering, magnify their callings in the church, actually visit their families as home teachers or visiting teachers every month, hold family home evening, study the scriptures and hold family prayer each day, how many have problems they cannot address on their own without the church having to step in and solve their problems for them?"  Responsive to the question I had received, I asked the stake presidents that question.  They looked at me in surprised silence and then said, "Pues, ninguno." 
—L. Whitney Clayton, Sunday afternoon session
So, every family who is doing the things the church tells them to do can solve their own problems, therefore absolving the poor, overburdened, multi-billion-dollar church of having to help?  And, following this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, every family who can't solve their own problems, then, is to blame for them?

Why do the very first requirements for keeping your head above water in troubling economic times involve giving money to the church?  Surely that's not more important than studying the scriptures and praying?  Especially when these are money problems in the first place?  The only way to make money is to first pay the church money!  Yeah, that checks out.

How dare you ask a church that's so proud of how well it takes care of its members to take care of its members!  If you were as righteous as you're supposed to be you wouldn't be asking us for help!  You should feel bad for requesting an insignificantly tiny amount of our billions of dollars to help make sure your children have a roof over their heads for another month!

I think it's even worse that Clayton begins the story by explaining that these were extraordinary circumstances.  This country was in the midst of economic turmoil.  It's not like a bunch of members of the church all quit their jobs and wanted to live on the church's dime because they were so lazy.  When the leaders of the church assured us that they were stockpiling money for a rainy day when they'd need the funds to continue the Lord's work, was caring for the basic welfare of its members during a national recession not the kind of rainy day and the kind of work they were referring to?

One night, with a lighter in one hand and the Book of Mormon in the other, he was about to set fire to the book when he heard a voice in his mind that said, "Do not burn my book." 
—D. Todd Christofferson, Sunday afternoon session
Isn't interesting that heavenly voices only appear in these miraculous stories when the miracle is connected to something unverifiable?  Jason was alone when he experienced this.  Where are the stories about people hearing the voice of God saying, "Your cancer is now gone" or "You will now grow your amputated leg back" or the old classic of "Take up thy bed and walk"?  In cases where other people can attest to the fact that someone was previously cancer-ridden but is now cancer-free or that someone once had one leg but now has two or that someone was formerly paraplegic but now runs marathons, we don't hear stories of voices like this.

God cares more about whether one copy of the Book of Mormon among millions is burned than whether someone suffering from an excruciating terminal disease gets cured?  Reducing the copies of the scriptures by exactly one merits hearing a distinct divine command in one's mind, but suffering and disease do not?

Please use this time when temples are closed to continue to live a temple-worthy life. 
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday afternoon session
"Please use this time when temples are closed to continue paying tithing while we tell people who are struggling to solve their own financial problems because they wouldn't be struggling if they were righteous." 

I bless you with peace and increasing faith in the Lord.  I bless you with a desire to repent and become a little more like him each day.  I bless you to know that the prophet Joseph Smith is the prophet of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness.  Should there be illness among you or your loved ones, I leave a blessing of healing, consistent with the will of the Lord.  I so bless you, adding once more my expression of love for each of you in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen. 
—Russell M. Nelson, Sunday afternoon session
Let's review the specific things we're promised in Nelson's apostolic blessing:
  • peace
  • increasing faith
  • a desire to repent and become like the Lord
  • knowledge of the restoration
  • healing
So, give or take, five blessings were pronounced on the members of the church.  Only one of those blessings had to be qualified by yielding to the will of the Lord.  Did you catch which one that was?  That's right—healing.  Can you guess the key difference between healing and the other promises?  That's right—it is much easier to judge the success of this particular blessing based on observable data.  You can say that you feel a 34% increase in your desire to repent and become like the Lord and no one can really challenge you on it, but if you still have a fever, it's a medical fact that you still have a fever because someone can empirically measure it.

Of course I don't wish illness on anyone, but if any members of the church struggle to recover from COVID-19, could it be because President Nelson didn't have enough faith?  When he tried to bless us, his convictions wavered to the point where he felt the need to install a trapdoor in his blessing, a fail-safe to protect his apostolic reputation in the event that his promise was not fulfilled?

In closing, let me go back to my own comments from last October's conference:
Honestly, the special conference he's hinting at will probably just involve more musical numbers, maybe a bit more supplemental multimedia, perhaps with a Donny Osmond or Gladys Knight type of character, and more thematic cohesion when it comes to the speakers' topics. I guess we'll see how prophetic I am six months from now.
So how did I do?  Well, the number of musical numbers felt about the same, so that one was wrong.  There was a bit more supplemental multimedia, considering those two little interview clips from church historical sites and the on-location proclamation.   There was no celebrity appearance like Donny Osmond or Gladys Knight.  But there was definitely a concerted effort to keep thematic cohesion from one speaker to the next.  By my count, I went two for four, which isn't bad, especially considering fifty percent success rate is better than Joseph Smith did when prophesying of the American Civil War.

Notably, I was exactly as successful as the prophet of God in predicting the global pandemic, though.  Nelson, his fourteen friends, and I were all zero for one on that one. 

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