My Stake Conference Talk and Other Sundries

Warning. Today’s post is a long one. I bit my tongue last week, and this post more than makes up for it. I’m going to write a bit about how my stake conference talk came about, then include the full talk, and then finish off with some additional comments.

As is always the case on posts covering sensitive issues, you’re welcome to respond, but I ask that people treat each other with respect. I already had to wrangle one Facebook conversation thread on this subject. I don’t relish the thought of doing it again already. (Especially when (with a post this length) many people will likely come to read the post long enough to find something to complain about, and then ignore the rest and move right onto the comments. Don’t be that person.)

I came pretty close to not giving this talk, to be honest. After the church’s policy change on Friday, I was quite upset. It wasn’t just because of the policy change, but also the response to that change that many Mormons were posting. While I don’t generally give talks off the cuff, I’m certainly capable of it, and I’ve gone “off script” before. On Friday, I couldn’t really guarantee that I wasn’t going to say something that would upset people if given the right platform. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t really post at all on Friday. (Interestingly enough, a ton of people still came to the blog to see what I’d posted.)

A public talk to over 600 people? That’s a fairly big platform. (For those of you who don’t know, Stake Conference is a Mormon meeting that happens twice a year, drawing together members from multiple congregations in an area.) So I was hesitant. I even contacted the leaders running the meeting to say they might not want me to be the one speaking. They reassured me that they were confident I’d do a good job and that it would work out for the best.

After thinking and praying about it, I decided to go through with it, but I wanted to tweak my topic. (No problem there. I hadn’t been given a topic to begin with. I could talk about anything.) The main reason I decided to go through with the talk is that I wanted to give the talk I’d want to hear if I were in the audience two days after that church policy announcement. Interestingly, that idea fit nicely with the content I’d already written for the talk, and bringing it all together didn’t take too much effort.

Enough preamble. Here’s the talk:

The Plan of Happiness

God has given us the Gospel for one basic purpose: to make us happy. We refer to it as the Plan of Happiness. “Men are that they might have joy.” And while the church has brought me a lot of happiness in my life, I’m certainly not happy all the time, sometimes because of things that happen in church. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Church members can say upsetting or insulting things. We can be judgmental and opinionated despite our best efforts not to. Responsibilities, activities, and callings can be burdensome or feel overwhelming. We can feel unworthy or unwanted. Church polices and decisions on a local, state, or national level can take us by surprise or disappoint us. For a Plan of Happiness, it’s not always happy.

So maybe the Gospel isn’t here to make us immediately happy. Maybe it’s a promise of happiness to come. After all, when we talk about what happens after we’re baptized, we refer to it as “enduring to the end.”

Let’s think about that word choice for a moment. “Endure to the end.”

We don’t endure things we enjoy. If you ask a friend how a movie was, and they say they endured it, you don’t picture them smiling and laughing throughout the whole experience. Enduring implies pain or discomfort. Trial and tribulation. We endure sorrow, struggles, and overly long testimony meetings. But we don’t endure happiness. At times, I wonder if when we say “endure to the end,” we take a look at all the fun other people seem to be having, sigh, and resign ourselves to following all these rules until we die and can stop at last.

And that leads me to a second issue with the phrase. It implies there’s a finish line. That there will come a time when we no longer need to endure. But the rules and laws of the Gospel aren’t here to throw us for a loop. They’re not designed to be difficult to follow and a pain to always have to remember. They’re here to help us return to live with God. To become more like Him and live our lives the way He would have us live them. In other words, if the laws we follow in this church seem burdensome, I’ve got bad news for you.

They’re eternal. They’re not going anywhere.

And the basic truth is that our feelings, thoughts, and experiences carry over into the life after this one. In Mormon 9:14, we read that “And then cometh the judgment of the Holy One upon them; and then cometh the time that he that is filthy shall be filthy still; and he that is righteous shall be righteous still; he that is happy shall be happy still; and he that is unhappy shall be unhappy still.”

The Gospel isn’t designed as a sort of carrot on a stick. Something to be endured so that we can be happy after we die. It’s here to make us happy right now. Today. Tomorrow.

But clearly life isn’t a bunch of sunshine and puppies every day. There are plenty of things to worry about, struggles to overcome, and temptations to deal with. So if we’re not chuck full of happiness every day of the week (or each time we come home from church), does it mean we’re living the gospel wrong?

It can be tempting to believe that sometimes.

There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the impostor syndrome. It’s the inability for people to process their own accomplishments and competence. We can continually feel like we’re a sham. Like we’re one wrong question away from everyone discovering just what a bunch of phonies we are.

I see the impostor syndrome around me quite often. We might see so many other people having a great time in the church while we’re struggling just to keep our heads above water. We might feel guilty and ashamed that we aren’t able to live the Gospel’s precepts to the same level we see so many other people living them.

Whenever I’m tempted to think that, I remember my third semester in an American Sign Language class. I showed up the first day, and everyone in the class seemed to have a good handle on the language. Hands were flying, and people were laughing and following along with the teacher with ease. Everyone but me, that was. I had only half a clue what was being said. I struggled to keep up with the lecture, and I ended up feeling confused and bewildered by the end of the second week. I was tempted to just drop the class. Sign Language clearly wasn’t for me.

But then I had a study group with some of the other class members, and I gathered enough courage to mention I was feeling lost in class. I was amazed to see how many other people chimed in to agree with me. Never underestimate the desire of people to seem like they get it, even when they don’t.

This past General Conference, President Uchtdorf said, “Sometimes we feel discouraged because we are not “more” of something—more spiritual, respected, intelligent, healthy, rich, friendly, or capable. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve. God created us to grow and progress. But remember, our weaknesses can help us to be humble and turn us to Christ, who will “make weak things become strong.”

It is okay to feel upset. It is okay to be less than perfect. To have doubts. To question. The Gospel is great, but it’s deep. There are so many different aspects to focus on that we can easily become depressed just trying to think about tackling it. God never asked us to be perfect today. He clearly states he expects us to grow line upon line, precept upon precept. But I’ve found it’s one thing to know that principle, but it’s much harder to actually remember it and believe it.

After all, we go and make even the simple things complicated. We have entire talks focused on keeping the Sabbath Day holy, but the basic fact is that one family might follow that commandment one way, and another might follow it another way, and they might both be right. Just because we grow line upon line doesn’t mean that all the lines come in the same order for everyone.

In his talk “What Lack I Yet?”, Elder Larry R. Lawrence outlines a way to grow in the Gospel step by step. “The Holy Ghost doesn’t tell us to improve everything at once. If He did, we would become discouraged and give up. The Spirit works with us at our own speed, one step at a time, or as the Lord has taught, “line upon line, precept upon precept, … and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, … for unto him that receiveth I will give more.” For example, if the Holy Ghost has been prompting you to say “thank you” more often, and you respond to that prompting, then He may feel it’s time for you to move on to something more challenging—like learning to say, “I’m sorry; that was my fault.””

What we need to remember is that this tailor-made path to grow in the Gospel doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s just for us. So when we see other people doing things or making decisions that contrast with our own path, we need to remember not to judge them. They could just as easily look at our life and offer their own critique.

In my spare time, I write books. I’ve been to quite a few writing conferences and done numerous peer reviews on other people’s work. When I’m reading someone else’s story, it’s relatively easy for me to see what’s wrong with it. The pacing is too slow, or the characters aren’t developed enough. The plot breaks down in the middle or the blocking is confusing. I can blaze through someone else’s book with a red pen, confident that I know how to make it better.

But when I look at my own novels, it’s a much harder task. I have a difficult time telling what’s working and what’s broken. There have been numerous times that I’ve thought a book was great, only to get feedback from my readers that it’s not working at all.

Why is this? I think it’s easy to cherry pick, focusing on our strengths and ignoring our weaknesses. When I read someone else’s material, I’m drawn to analyze how well they match up with the things I’m already good at. If you took the world’s fastest man and critiqued his chess game, chances are he wouldn’t be at quite the same level.

So we focus hard on improving something in our lives, and then we have the urge to prove just how good we are by looking around at others and confirming we’re doing better at that one thing than they are. Obviously this is a mistake, but there are a few other ways I think we can live the Gospel in a way that will both make us happier and make things easier on those around us.

First of all, let us be compassionate. There will come times in everyone’s lives when they struggle. It might be because of trials in their personal lives. It might be because they don’t understand a church policy or decision. They might be depressed or feel inadequate. When this happens, they need friends who will listen and understand their point of view. They do not need to be told that if they had a real understanding of doctrine, they wouldn’t have these doubts, or that if their testimony were stronger, they would be fine. When a person is on the edge of a cliff, help them. Meet their needs, regardless of your personal beliefs or opinions. Don’t sit back, fold your arms, and start talking about how people really ought to stay away from cliffs in the first place.

Second, let’s try to avoid questioning other people’s faith and commitment. President Uchtdorf spoke about how wonderful the Gospel can be, and how well it works for so many people. But he also noted that “there are some who have a less-than-fulfilling experience—who feel that their membership in the Church sometimes isn’t quite what they had hoped for.”

He suggested that one reason for this is that we have a tendency to overcomplicate things. We take the essentials of the Gospel and add on a slew of good ideas, programs, and expectations. On their own, they might seem like good ideas, but when they’re all lumped together, they can quickly overwhelm us. “If you ever think that the gospel isn’t working so well for you, I invite you to step back, look at your life from a higher plane, and simplify your approach to discipleship. Focus on the basic doctrines, principles, and applications of the gospel. I promise that God will guide and bless you on your path to a fulfilling life, and the gospel will definitely work better for you.”

Members who are following that advice might make decisions you personally wouldn’t make. They might not attend an activity, or their approach to a calling might be different than yours would be. Don’t criticize them for those choices. Have faith in the ability of other people to follow the promptings of the Spirit in their lives.

To those of you who might currently be struggling or will struggle in the future, a thought that has helped me was mentioned in an interview I read this morning with Elder Christofferson’s brother. Remember John 6. Christ had been teaching, and many of his disciples said, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” and they turned and stopped following him. When Christ asked the twelve if they would leave as well, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

I have a personal testimony that this church is true. I believe it’s led by a prophet of God. I don’t believe our church leaders are infallible. In fact, they’ve repeatedly stated that they aren’t. But I believe they are doing the same thing each of us strives to do: make good decisions and follow the promptings of the Spirit to accomplish God’s will on this earth. Mistakes will be made. We are all human.

But as I have followed this Gospel, I have found comfort, peace, and security. It’s not always easy, and it’s not a blissful experience from beginning to end, but as I have applied its teachings in my life, marriage, and family, I have found guidance, direction and yes, happiness.

A Few More Things

The talk seemed to be very well received. It helped me personally work through some of these issues, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to give it.

I’m still not 100% at ease with this new policy. I’ve seen the interview with Elder Christofferson, and I appreciate the intent of the policy now, but I’m not convinced the policy is working to accomplish that intent. Additionally, while intentions are all fine and good, we can’t always use them as an excuse for our actions. Someone might not have intended to miss a stop sign, but if they hit a pedestrian, those intentions don’t make much of a difference. Manslaughter vs. murder all comes down to intentions, but neither are great options, you know?

Because of this, I’m beginning to bristle at all the articles popping up everywhere that keep saying this is all about love and concern for the gay couples and their children. If we’re really loving and concerned about them, maybe listening to how they’re receiving this policy would be a good idea? I’m fairly confident church leaders are, but many of the rank and file members seem content to just repeat “I support the brethren” over and over, as if that might make this all better.

Policies can be rewritten. Policies are not doctrine. You make a policy to accomplish a purpose. If that purpose isn’t being accomplished, you change the policy.

Please don’t be too quick to dismiss members’ concerns in this area. I have a number of close friends who have either left the church or are thinking of leaving the church around this issue. They’re not doing it because they lack a testimony. In many cases, they’re upset because the teachings of the church have taught them to be upset. To feel compassion and love for everyone, and to be particularly concerned about children. These are good people trying to make good decisions.

Then again, so are the ones who are defending the church.

Some questioned why I had to be so public about my concerns. Why not just sit back and give this time? Why potentially paint the church in a negative light? A couple of answers to that. Much of this debate (that I’ve seen) has happened on Facebook in a public forum. Church policy changes made the headlines in national news sources. That was going to happen regardless of what I posted, and people are going to draw their own conclusions about that. But all that other debate going on? All the callous remarks or dismissive tones? It’s not just Mormons reading it, people. If you want “to put the church in a good light,” maybe think about not being cold or brusque about things online.

And finally, I don’t think the church needs any help defending itself. It’s either true or it isn’t. Truth doesn’t need people to frame it properly. It’s there, waiting to be scrutinized and investigated. I’m never afraid to be public with my thoughts when it comes to this church, because I have yet to have something happen that additional light hasn’t helped illuminate.

Anyway. I’ve broken the 3,000 word mark, so that means I’ve talked this into the ground by now. Not much more to add, I suppose. Though I’m sure much more will occur to me as soon as I hit publish. Such is life. If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me this far, and please treat each other respectfully in the comments. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “My Stake Conference Talk and Other Sundries”

  1. Hi Bryce. I am the woman who asked you yesterday (at the end of conference) for the source of the interview with Elder Christofferson’s brother. I sent you a FB request last night. I’m glad you posted this talk. I want to share it with a few people. Yes, I’ll subscribe to your blog. Hope I can figure out how to do this! Libby Casas (Rockland Branch)

  2. Thanks so much, Libby. Glad the talk could be useful. It helped me a lot to compose it and get my thoughts on the matter in order.

  3. Good talk. I especially like the imposter syndrome thing. I have found this to be especially true for women. We’ve been taught not to be prideful, and confuse that with being “satisfied with our accomplishments”. The gospel isn’t always a party, but I think about what life, for me, would have been (and was) without it.
    The gay thing. Had two uncles and one aunt that were. Nature or lack of nurture? I don’t know. Not qualified. I do trust our general authorities to make sound decisions, based on both learning and guidance from the Holy Ghost. No more to say.

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