Monday, March 14, 2016

Skip My Commentary and Read President Benson's Talk

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.  The talks for this week were given during the Thursday Afternoon Session of the April 1972 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Enjoy.

The talks:
"As we listened to the prophet this morning and as we listened to the other brethren who have responded, I was also struck by the great scripture that we hear so often: 'What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; … whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.' (D&C 1:38.) Indeed, it is the same, and as a prophet of God talks to us, we are hearing the will of the Lord without question."

As soon as I read this part of Elder Simpson's talk, I could imagine the sound of proof-text, prophetic infallibility police whistles blowing.  But it also reminded me of another verse in the Doctrine and Covenants:

"And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation." (D&C 68:4)

When Joseph Smith was called to be a seer, translator, prophet, apostle and elder, the Lord gave the following commandment:

"Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith." (D&C 21:4-5)

There are some clever folks who seem to think that verses like these, when taken out of context, create false expectations of prophetic inerrancy, and that greater emphasis ought to be given to the foibles, imperfections, errors, mistakes, inadequacies, weaknesses and sins of the Lord's anointed.  But the red herring of prophetic infallibility, like the red herring of hero worship, distracts from the purpose for which these revelations were given.  (For a more in depth exploration of the red herring of prophetic infallibility, see here, and here)

Thus there appear to be two opposite extremes in matters of prophecy.  On one extreme there is the attempt to sniff out nonexistent prophetic infallibility doctrines in every corner of the church, and to magnify the imperfections of church leaders by emphasizing prophetic fallibility.  On the opposite extreme there is complacent acquiescence to the teachings of living prophets without the proper asking, seeking, and knocking that precedes personal revelation.  In order to inoculate members against this latter vice, President Benson cites Brigham Young at this end of this same session of general conference:

"Said Brigham Young: 'I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. … Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.'" (JD, vol. 9, p. 150.)

I was also struck by the contrast between the merciful proceedings of church disciplinary action that Elder Simpson describes, which are the rule rather than the exception, and certain contemporary attitudes toward excommunication.  "Priesthood courts of the Church," Elder Simpson declares, "are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Oh, that members of the Church could understand this fact."

In Elder Simpson's account, a church court inspires a young man to develop the courage necessary for repentance: 

"After several minutes, a weary face looked up, and the young man’s voice broke the silence as he said, 'I have just lost the most precious thing in my life, and nothing will stand in my way until I have regained it.'"
Elder Simpson reminds us that there are no shortcuts on the path of discipleship, and that there is no better, or easier, time to repent than now:

"Be not disillusioned by doctrine of the adversary that there will likely be a magic point in eternity when all of a sudden selfish and improper actions are automatically eliminated from our being. Holy writ has confirmed time and time again that such is not the case, and prophets through the ages have assured us that now is the time to repent, right here in this mortal sphere. It will never be easier than now; and returning to Brother Talmage’s thought, he who procrastinates the day or hopes for an alternate method that might require less courage waits in vain, and in the meantime, the possibilities grow dimmer. He is playing the game as Satan would have him play it, and exaltation in the presence of God grows more remote with each passing day."

Elder Simpson also emphasizes the importance of compassion in church discipline, which reminded me of the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith on charity: 
  • "Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind" (History of the Church, 5:23–24).
  • "The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs... if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another." - (HC 5:24)
  • "Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last." 
Elder Simpson concludes his talk by encouraging members to sustain bishops and other leaders, to accept and live by eternal law upon which all blessings are predicated.

"In my opinion," Elder Hunter declares, "one of the great miracles in our generation is the miracle of missionary work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

At this time there were 98 missions and 15,400 missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among which numbers would soon be my father, who was called to serve in the France, Paris mission just prior to this conference.  The most recent statistical report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lists 406 missions and 85,147 missionaries, and the next report will be given in the upcoming April 2016 General Conference.

Elder Hunter recounts several miracles that occurred in the lives of missionaries, investigators, and families as a result of missionary work.  One young man even sacrificed an opportunity to play professional baseball for what was then considered to be the high salary of $30,000 in order to serve a mission.  

"The plan for a useful and successful life is contained in the gospel of Jesus Christ, given to us by the Redeemer of mankind, whose atoning sacrifice augments the plan and makes it possible for us to return to the presence of God our Heavenly Father."

Elder Dyer describes the cycles of history that have brought oscillating periods of darkness and light, apostasy and enlightenment.  "These periods of enlightenment," Elder Dyer explains, "are known as dispensations of the gospel of Jesus Christ, times when God dispenses the wisdom of the eternities unto mankind for their benefit and blessing."

How does God bring about these dispensations?  Elder Dyer continues:

"Pure knowledge, meaning revelation from God, is greater than the limited reasoning of men. The method that God has chosen to convey this knowledge unto mankind is through his chosen prophets, unto whom he sends his messengers with divine instructions and upon occasion by the majesty of his own appearance."

The gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed from the beginning, and in different dispensations, such as that of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ in the meridian of time.  But isn't there something different about the dispensation in which we now live?

"The characteristics of this dispensation, as compared with other dispensations, are unique in that it is the last of all dispensations, concerning which the Prophet Joseph Smith received this divine information as contained in a revelation:

'That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.' (Eph. 1:10.)"

And what does this last dispensation anticipate?

"A dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is now established with prophets, seers, and revelators. The church and kingdom of God has been established, and the inhabitants of the earth 'may receive it, and be prepared for the days to come, in the which the Son of Man shall come down in heaven, clothed in the brightness of his glory, to meet the kingdom of God which is set up on the earth.' (D&C 65:5.)"

As Elder Dyer demonstrates, liberty was a necessary precondition to the growth of the gospel in the last dispensation:

"The question might well be asked, Why does freedom need to be restored as a forerunner to a new dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? The answer is a simple one, for well the Lord knows that without the spirit of freedom in the souls of men, there could be no willing response to the gospel plan. For it is in the culture of freedom and the use of agency in that freedom that men come to know the difference between good and evil. This progress leads to yearnings in the hearts of good men, and eventually to gospel dispensations. This is the pattern to be noted down through the era of the historical writings."

Elder Dyer traces the history of freedom from the Renaissance and the Reformation to the founding of America and the framing of the Constitution, concerning which the Lord has said:

“According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.” (D&C 101:77.)"

And what is the significant feature that inaugurated this last dispensation?

"The significant feature of the present dispensation was the inauguration of the same by the personal visitation of God the Father and his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, referred to in the sacred historical writings of this church as the Sacred Grove appearance, which occurred in the spring of 1820 near Palmyra, New York, 152 years ago."

Elder Holland's 1976 talk A Promised Land elaborates on a similar theme.

"Now, this is a world in difficulty and trouble, but we shouldn’t merely bemoan the fact. We should, as far as our powers can help us, be anxiously engaged in rectifying it. Just before we sang, I wrote this down: If you and I are to help restore this sick world to its spiritual health, we must begin at the proper place—that is, with ourselves and with our families. This we can do!"

Elder Christiansen focuses on the home and on the family.  "One of the most rewarding of all human undertakings," he declares, "is that of making a success of marriage and of rearing children in a manner acceptable to the Lord. It calls for the best in all of us."

Elder Christiansen reproves negligent parents for attempting to delegate the responsibility to love and care for their children.  Secondary institutions may be helpful, he declares, but the home itself is the best institution for improving the home.  He urges parents to teach their children "through their example the attributes of character that lead them unhesitatingly to appreciate and accept the good, the decent, the beautiful," and "to help them to develop the desire and the courage to turn from that which is coarse or crude or wrong."

Elder Christiansen also speaks in praise of the family home evening program, and he counsels parents to avoid disputations. In many ways, his talk foreshadows The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and he punctuates his prose with poetry:

"The sermon for a teenage child
That proves to be most ample
Is still the one that parents teach
By setting an example." —Hal Chadwick

Elder Christiansen then makes the following crucial point:

"It is important also to keep the avenues of communication open. It is wonderful when a father or a mother will sit down with a son or a daughter and discuss a personal problem (and they have their problems, which, if we are wise, we will not minimize). There are pressures, and enticements, and even unjust accusations against which our sons and daughters need to be fortified. It is even more wonderful when, because of the love and closeness that exists, children feel no hesitancy in taking their problems to their parents."  

Why shouldn't parents minimize the problems of their children?  This is a rhetorical question, the answer to which ought to be obvious.  In case it is not, I recently came across an interesting statement that has been circulating on social media that might provide some food for thought:

Elder Christiansen shows that there is no greater security than that of a Christ-centered home.  As the family proclamation would later reveal, the disintegration of the family has drastic consequences on individuals, communities and nations.  This is a fact that was recognized even in academic settings:

"Historians almost without exception point out that one of the greatest contributing factors in the downfall of nations is the disintegration of the home and family life."

Elder Christiansen calls for the complete rebirth of homes, assuring us that there is always hope:

"So long as there are homes to which men turn at close of day;
So long as there are homes where children are, where women stay—
If love and loyalty and faith be found across those sills—
A stricken nation can recover from its gravest ills.
"So long as there are homes where fires burn and there is bread [I think that means homemade bread];
So long as there are homes where lamps are lit and prayers are said;
Although a people falter through the dark—and nations grope,
With God Himself back of these little homes, we have sure hope." (The Scouter’s Minute [YMMIA, 1969])
"A testimony of the gospel is one of the most valued possessions of a member of the Church. The strength and unity of the Church depend upon each member so living that he comes to know for himself that the gospel is true."

Is there a secret to the growth and stability of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

President McKay answered this question: "The secret lies in the testimony, possessed by each individual who is faithful in the Church, that the Gospel consists of correct principles. …

"This testimony has been revealed to every sincere man and woman who has conformed to the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who has obeyed the ordinances, and has become entitled to and has received the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, to guide him.” (Pathways to Happiness [Bookcraft, 1957], pp. 314–15.)"

How does this testimony come?

"In the words of Brigham Young, 'the eloquence of angels never can convince any person that God lives, and makes truth the habitation of his throne, independent of that eloquence being clothed with the power of the Holy Ghost; in the absence of this, it would be a combination of useless sounds. What is it that convinces man? It is the influence of the Almighty, enlightening his mind, giving instruction to the understanding.'" (Impact, Spring 1970, p. 2.)

The testimony of the Holy Ghost, as Elder Cullimore teaches, leaves an indelible impression on the soul - imprints that are more lasting and powerful than that which we experience with our senses:

"President Harold B. Lee said to a group of young people, 'Not many have seen the Savior face to face here in mortality, but there is no one of you who has been blessed to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost after baptism but that may have a perfect assurance of his existence as though you had seen.'" (Youth and the Church [Deseret Book, 1970], p. 51.)

What must we do to obtain such a testimony of the Savior and His gospel?  We must do all we can.
This talk is phenomenal, and there is no way to do it justice in a blog post.  It is so good, in fact, that rather than comment on it, I'm going to read it again.

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