Originally published May 2016.
A little late, but here are my reflections on the recent LDS General Conference.
For members of the LDS Church, General Conference is typically an enjoyable weekend of receiving counsel from the highest levels of Church government. Because members believe that the current president of the church, his counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are truly prophets, seers, and revelators, church members approach the conference sessions having spiritually prepared themselves to hear the word of God (ideally). Members are encouraged to prayerfully consider questions they have about the Gospel or concerns they have been incubating, with the promise that God will provide answers through one of the sermons, the music, or by the whisperings of the Holy Ghost as a person listens to the conference. I have experienced this process of seeking and receiving divine guidance during General Conference which has only strengthened my conviction that the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are indeed anointed servants of God.
Sometimes a theme emerges among the talks during General Conference. As far as I am aware, topics are not necessarily assigned by the prophet/president. Instead, speaking assignments are issued by leaders under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and the speakers must choose their topics in the same way. This April 2016 conference proved no different with the topic of repentance threading its way through the Sunday morning and afternoon sessions. But under the more overt references to repentance, forgiveness, and mercy, I found a powerful subtext uniting the talks more thoroughly: the value of the individual.
I first noted this theme during Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s talk on fathers and fatherhood (Christofferson, Fathers). His description of God as the perfect father struck me. God has “perfect love,” “He is abundantly good,” He exemplifies love and patience. Rather than a sharp censure of fathers today, Elder Christofferson’s talk instead made a loving plea to society to reconsider the importance of fatherhood and to look to God as the exemplar for that noble role. In doing so, Elder Christofferson’s talk points out and seeks to restore the inherent nobility of the individual. What would it matter how good a father is if children don’t really matter? What good would it do fathers to spend a lifetime in self-sacrifice and selflessness if there is no ultimate post-life goal in which noble characteristics are accrued toward an end reward? But children do matter, each child with his/her own divine destiny matters. And there is an end reward toward which all humans work, “eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). Fatherhood helps fathers refine their character to become more like God. In the process, fathers shape the character of their children and help them prepare for future mortal independence and eventual eternal life. Elder Christofferson’s elegant prose mirrored the divine role of fathers and re-ennobled the sacred calling of fatherhood.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke later in the Sunday morning session on the favorite topic of repentance, but again I was struck by the rhetoric emphasizing the value of the individual (Uchtdorf, He Will Place You On His Shoulders). As part of his promise that “there is no life so shattered that it cannot be repaired,” President Uchtdorf invoked the familiar image of the Savior leaving the ninety and nine sheep to seek for the one lost member of the flock. But why go after one sheep if you still have ninety-nine? “Love qualifies the sheep for saving,” President Uchtdorf taught. God loves the individual so completely, so perfectly, that He will risk any obstacle to save the one. An even more powerful indicator of the worth of a soul came as President Uchtdorf clarified that God will not force a person to be saved. It is nigh unbelievable to me that the creator of heaven and earth, who loves His children so much, would not force a rescue on one of them but will instead honor that person’s right to choose. Paramount to all other concerns, God respects individual agency. Agency and the exercise thereof is essential to exaltation (Mormons believe that people must choose to follow God, choose to participate in saving ordinances, choose to have faith, choose to be good), and is therefore part and parcel of an individual’s identity (see my post on Agency and Identity, forthcoming). God values the individual so much that He absolutely will not infringe upon a person’s agency.
Perhaps the most poignant expression of the value of the individual came in Elder Patrick Kearon’s talk on refugees (Kearon, Refuge from the Storm). He described meeting refugees in different countries over the last several months, and the impact that had on him. He pleaded with all listening to not turn away the needy but to find ways to serve. His unifying reference to Matthew 25:40 (NT) carries the current of the conference subtext: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Here, the Savior equates the lowliest human with Himself, inviting us to treat our fellow man as we would the Savior, to see our fellow man as being as important as the Savior. Elder Kearon described looking into a refugee’s eyes, eyes full of fear, concern, heartache, loss. He made a profound connection with the people he visited, recognizing in each of them a human being of infinite worth.
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).