Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to go listen to an Apostle speak. Elder David Bednar, to be exact. (For those of you who don’t know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon) is organized around the same leadership structure that existed in the church Christ originally set up. So there are Apostles at the head of it. Fifteen, to be exact. Three of them constitute the “First Presidency” (the leader of the church (Prophet) and his two counselors) and the other twelve make up the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)
In a church with something like 16 million members, the chance for Apostles to make personal visits to any one area are becoming more and more remote. If you live in Utah, it’s more commonplace (or at least it used to be), but this meeting this past Sunday was the first time I’ve ever been to hear an Apostle speak on the east coast, in my entire life. (They’ve visited, but never where I was living, when I was living there.)
That isn’t to say I haven’t heard them speak. Every six months, we have what’s called General Conference. It’s a series of six, two hour meetings over the course of a week (a women’s conference on Saturday, and then the rest of the meetings the next Saturday and Sunday). All of the Apostles and the First Presidency speak at each General Conference. But, as I discovered on Sunday, there is a big difference between sitting and watching a talk given remotely, thousands of miles away from you, and sitting in the same room as the actual person giving the talk, especially when the crowd size is smaller. (I’d guess there were around . . . 600-800 people in attendance? Not sure on that one.)
Elder Bednar spoke for a full hour. No written remarks. No notes except for the ones he made to himself to remark on things said during the hour of the meeting before he spoke. (It was a two hour meeting. His wife spoke, another general church leader and his wife spoke, and some local leaders spoke, as well.)
I was completely blown away by how excellent his remarks were. Inspiring, immediately applicable to my life, relatable, and profound. He spoke about a few topics: the importance of the message of the church to those who have not heard it, the importance of listening to local leaders and their inspiration, and then the bulk of his remarks were on rising above ourselves and our tendencies to want to satisfy our immediate wants. There’s no possible way for me to capture everything he said and do it justice. I have neither the time nor the ability. In essence, he used his personal life and examples from the scriptures to illustrate how the natural man is Cookie Monster. (Not making this up.) It’s an excellent analogy. Cookie Monster wants one thing: cookies. He wants them all, and he wants them now. It’s all about himself. He doesn’t want to share them. He wants to devour them. Likewise, the natural man (our natural inclinations) are to want things for ourselves. To do things that satisfy our immediate wants. It’s a drive we need to rise above if we’re to hope to become more Christlike and Godlike.
But like I said: you needed to be there.
And I’m very glad I was. Denisa and I had driven up to Bangor the night before, and we stayed the night in the city so we could attend the meeting bright and early the next day. A friend was preparing lunch for Elder Bednar and others immediately after the meeting, so I was over there at 7am to help her put the finishing touches on preparations. I was in my seat at 7:30, and the meeting started at 9. I told Denisa afterward that, having now been to it, it felt to me like an Event. A thing people should have prepped for. Cleared their calendars for as far ahead as they could have. The most recent Event that I could compare it to was the eclipse. You had to be there firsthand to experience it, and people traveled hundreds of miles to have that experience.
I will say this: I have written many articles on my church over the years. Some of them have been critical at times, as I find events and decisions made by local, regional, or even church headquarters disturbing or confusing. But when you sit through a meeting like that, it’s a perfect example of why I keep going, and why I still truly believe it. Elder Bednar was open about the struggles he feels in his role in the church. Many members, he said, believe (mistakenly) that an angel appears to the Apostles each night or once a week and goes over what they need to do. In actuality, they are led by the same personal inspiration and prayer that the rest of us use.
Church leaders will make mistakes. Sometimes that’s on them. Sometimes they do things we don’t understand, because that’s what God asks them to do. It’s hard to tell which is which. But they truly do want to do what’s best for the church and humanity in general. No part of that meeting was about how we had to all start paying money to the church. Nothing about hellfire and damnation waiting for sinners who resist church direction. It was 100% about lifting up the listeners and inspiring them to do better. It was a truly sacred experience, and I’ll never forget it.