Saturday, October 4, 2014

General Conference: Text and Subtext

My ward has a long-standing tradition of watching General Conference together at our chapel, and then having a potluck luncheon in between the morning and afternoon sessions, Saturday and Sunday. So this year I decided to watch the morning sessions at the chapel with my ward, hang out for the potluck, and then head home to watch the afternoon sessions via the Internet.

Today I'm so glad I did. I have the most excellent ward. While waiting in line for food, a group of us had a stimulating conversation about why School of Rock is a most excellent film. (Highly recommended by a former ward choir director!) Lunch-time conversation began with a discussion of what each of us considered the spiritual highlights of the first session of conference. (I liked Boyd K. Packer's statement that "the success of the Gospel is measured by the spiritual strength of individual members"; D. Todd Christofferson's reflections on the relationship between individual agency and divine grace; and Chi Hong Wong's incredible use of the story of the man afflicted with palsy as an analogy of how the Church works at its best. More about Elder Wong's talk later.) But it progressed from that to light-hearted banter about the merits of certain caffeinated soft-drinks (say, Cherry Coke vs. Dr. Pepper; neither of which anyone seemed to think violate the Word of Wisdom), and whether the Jamaican jerk chicken served at Marla's Caribbean Cuisine qualifies as genuine Jamaican jerk chicken. But I digress... Except to say that even being out in my ward as gay and in a committed same-sex relationship, I feel genuinely loved, included, and respected by every member of my ward, and I actually began to weep as I was walking home, thinking about the marvelous qualities of these people who are so guileless, faithful, and Christ-like. They love me and I love them.

If there was a talk I wrestled with, it was the one delivered by Lynn G. Robbins, not because of the explicit content of the talk itself, all of which I agreed with, but because of a possible subtext of the talk. Since President Robbins' talk remained confined to generalities and never gave any specific examples of where in present-day society these general principles would specifically be put into practice, it's hard to comment other than to say that I agree, peer pressure is a terrible reason to change your opinion of anything, much less your deeply held religious convictions. But if, perchance, growing social acceptance of same-sex marriage is what he was referring to by the term "society's inappropriate behavior," and for which members and leaders of the LDS Church risk being accused of "not living in the 20th century" or being "bigoted," I would like to point out that few if any of the people I know who have changed their views on this particular subject have done so because they are being subjected to peer pressure. Rather, they are changing their views because of what they are coming to learn about gay and lesbian family members and friends, and about the powerful, positive impact that marriage equality has on these individuals. They are changing their views because they have come to understand that legally recognizing the marriages of gay couples may in fact be the right, compassionate, moral thing to do.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk on the subject of love and civil discourse courteously and directly addressed the subject of same-sex marriage. Clearly the talk was given from the perspective of someone who believes same-sex marriage is wrong. But that was not the central point of his talk. "Love is the very essence of the Gospel," he affirmed. And love is challenging to practice because people disagree about things -- like same-sex marriage. The Devil is "the father of contention." "Wise men turn away from wrath." "The wrath of men worketh not the righteousness of God." Elder Oaks correctly advised Latter-day Saints not to allow themselves to be cowed by pejoratives like "bigot." (Nor, presumably, ought they to use such pejoratives.) But what I found most interesting in his talk was a particular turn of phrase. The Saints ought to "hold out for right and wrong as they understand it." Is it possible that those four words are an acknowledgment of the fundamental humility that ought to undergird any social engagement?

Oughtn't love and respect for the truth, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf emphasized in his talk, be our ultimate quest, wherever we stand in relation to such painful issues? "It seems to be a trait of humanity," Pres. Uchtdorf stated, "to assume we are right, even when we are wrong." He warned of the way we tend to construct for ourselves "raft[s] poorly pieced together from our own biases."

The talk I most loved in today's general sessions was that by Chi Hong Wong. The story of the man with palsy became a powerful metaphor of how the Church is supposed to work, a metaphor he expanded by placing it in a modern day Church context, involving a member of the Relief Society, a member of an Elders Quorum, a youthful Aaronic Priesthood holder, and a full time missionary. Making the Church accessible to those most in need of help required creative solutions (taking out the roof and lowering the man down rather than bringing him through the front door), it required each individual using his or her unique skills, and working in a harmony achieved by practice and listening! He emphasized Church leaders listening to those to whom and with they minister, in order to serve more effectively! And he concluded that the faith described in this story was a story not merely of individual faith (not just the faith of the man seeking healing!), but collective faith. He spoke of Jesus seeing their faith. He spoke of the reward of our combined faith.

The Spirit certainly gave me a subtext for understanding that particular talk, and what it might say about making the Church more accessible to LGBT people. Maybe faithful Saints need to find creative ways to tear out some roofs, if the doorways are being blocked.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland hit it when he said, "I may not be my brother's keeper, but I am my brother's brother." A call for us to view each other not through the lens of "other" but as sister/brother.

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