A chaste gay man can have a fulfilling, even noble life, a Latter-day Saint apostle said Saturday, knowing that “God’s standards are different from those of the world.”
There are some things “that are completely and absolutely true,” Neil L. Andersen said on the first day of the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “These eternal truths are the same for every son and daughter of God.”
The Utah-based church convened its twice-yearly gathering in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center for the faith’s more than 16 million members around the world to hear instructions from their top leaders via television, radio and the internet.
Andersen’s remarks on unchanging truths came in the wake of a flurry of policy, procedural and programmatic shifts under President Russell M. Nelson’s 15 months as the faith’s “prophet, seer and revelator” — including one two days ago reversing an edict that had deemed same-sex married couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms.
“Our mortal quest is to strengthen our faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, to choose good over evil, and to keep his commandments,” Andersen said in the afternoon. “While we celebrate the innovations of science and medicine, the truths of God go far beyond these discoveries.”
Notions of identity and morality have changed over time, he said.
“During my teenage and early married years, many in the world walked away from the Lord’s standard we call the law of chastity, that sexual relations are to occur only between a man and a woman who are lawfully married,” said Andersen, who is 67. “In my 20s and 30s, many walked away from the sacred protection of the unborn, as abortion became more acceptable.”
In recent years, he said, “many have walked away from God’s law that marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman.”
The church teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin but acting on it is. It opposes same-sex marriage and treats LGBTQ marriage as a “serious transgression.”
Andersen told of a gay friend, who has been “true to his temple covenants” that require celibacy outside of heterosexual marriage.
The man has “expanded his creative and professional talents and has served nobly in both the church and the community,” the apostle said, and sympathizes with other gays who choose not to “keep the law of chastity in the world in which we live.”
But the man reiterated that “God’s standards are different from those of the world.”
Some, Andersen conceded, will say that the apostle doesn’t understand their situations.
“I may not, but I testify that there is one who does understand,” he said, “... one who, because of his sacrifice made in the garden and on the cross, knows your burdens.”
Small flock, big heart
Other speakers Saturday addressed the need to live — not just talk about — Christ’s gospel.
“I am asking that you ‘stand as witnesses’ of the power of the gospel at all times,” apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “and when necessary, use words.”
Uchtdorf began his sermon by mentioning his recent participation in the dedication of the church’s Rome Temple and how the Salt Lake City-headquartered faith has become a worldwide religion.
Before members become too self-congratulatory, the charismatic German said, they should remember that there are 7.5 billion people in the world and 16 million Latter-day Saints.
“A very small flock indeed,” Uchtdorf said.
That means that, wherever members are, “there are plenty of opportunities to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ with people you meet, study, and live with, or work and socialize with.”
Uchtdorf, who supervises the faith’s missionary department, said the most effective way for members to spread the gospel is not preaching it but living it — and he offered five “guilt-free methods” to do that for those members who are hesitant to speak up.
• Draw close to God.
• Fill your heart with love for others.
• Strive to walk the path of discipleship.
• Share what is in your heart.
• Trust the Lord to work his miracles.
He suggested that members “see everyone around you as a child of God. ... Laugh with them. Rejoice with them. Weep with them. Respect them. Heal, lift and strengthen them.”
Uchtdorf instructed believers not to give up as they try to follow in Christ’s footsteps, sometimes taking “two steps forward and one step back.”
“Keep trying to get it right,” he said. “You will eventually become better, happier and more authentic.”
Whatever ways “seem natural and normal to you, share with people why Jesus Christ and his church are important to you,” Uchtdorf said. “Understand that it’s not your job to convert people. That is the role of the Holy Ghost. Your role is to share what is in your heart and live consistent with your beliefs.”
The popular apostle reminded members that some people they invite to church will come but may never join.
“That doesn’t change our love for them,” said Uchtdorf, a member of a previous First Presidency. “And it doesn’t change our enthusiastic efforts to continue inviting individuals and families to come and see, come and help, and come and stay.”
Similarly, President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the current governing First Presidency, said, “You will best lead by example. Family members and others must see you growing in your own faith in Jesus Christ and in his gospel” for them to build personal faith in Christ.
He added that such faith is the key to reverse spiritual decline in families and homes.
“Faith is more likely to bring repentance," he said, “than your preaching against each symptom of spiritual decline.”
Eyring said he once told an apostle that he feared his family may not be together in the next world because of poor choices by some. The apostle told him, “You are worrying about the wrong problem. You just live worthy of the Celestial Kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.”
Continuing a similar theme, Ulisses Soares, the most junior apostle, said, “The best teacher is a good role model. Teaching something that we truly live can make a difference in the hearts of those we teach.”
He added, “If we desire people, whether that be family or not, to joyfully treasure up the scriptures and the teachings of living apostles and prophets, they need to see our souls delighting in them.”
Soares, a native of Brazil and the faith’s first Latin American apostle, said while many church members are sad that friends or family have distanced themselves from God, those who have gone astray may be blessed through love and offering a good example.
“For those of you who are right now experiencing these feelings of sadness, agony, and maybe regret, please know that they are not totally lost because the Lord knows where they are and is watching over them. Remember, they are his children, too!”
He added, “The best we can do in these circumstances is to just love and embrace them; pray for their well-being and seek for the Lord’s help to know what to do and say. Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes; be their friends and look for the good in them. We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships. Never reject or misjudge them. Just love them!”
Several authorities alluded in their talks to recent church “adjustments” beyond the reversal on LGBTQ members.
They include lowering the ages that some male youths may be ordained to priesthood offices; campaigning for use of the church’s full name; restructuring “home and visiting teaching” into “ministering”: eliminating local-congregation high priest groups; restructuring bishop youth interviews; adjusting temple ceremonies to include more gender-inclusive language; and reducing the length of Sunday services from three hours to two.
Sacrament and Cheerios
One purpose of the recent shortening of Sunday meetings is to allow better focus on the sacrament and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland taught.
“In addition to making time for more home-centered gospel instruction, our modified Sunday service is also to reduce the complexity of the meeting schedule in a way that properly emphasizes the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as the sacred, acknowledged focal point of our weekly worship experience,” he said.
“We are to remember in as personal a way as possible that Christ died from a heart broken by shouldering entirely alone the sins and sorrows of the whole human family.”
To allow that, Holland urged less tardiness at Sunday meetings, more reverence, dressing up and even reducing announcements from the pulpit.
“As for punctuality, a late pass will always be lovingly granted to those blessed mothers who, with children, Cheerios, and diaper bags trailing in marvelous disarray, are lucky to have made it at all,” he said. “Furthermore, there will be others who unavoidably find their ox in the mire on a Sabbath morning. However, to this latter group we say an occasional tardiness is understandable, but if the ox is in the mire every Sunday, then we strongly recommend that you sell the ox or fill the mire.”
About reducing pulpit announcements, Holland said he “cannot imagine a priest such as Zacharias — there in the ancient temple of the Lord about to participate in the one and only priestly privilege that would come to him in his entire lifetime — I just cannot picture him pausing before the altar to remind us that the pinewood derby is just six weeks away.”
He urged, “As we unite across the globe each week in what we hope is an increasingly sacred acknowledgment of Christ’s majestic atoning gift to all humankind, may we bring to the sacramental altar ‘more tears for his sorrow [and] more pain at his grief.’”
With all the big changes in the church, some of the spiritual purposes behind them “might become lost in the excitement about the changes themselves,” said M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“The best ways for us to see the spiritual purposes of the church,” he said, “is to live the true, pure and simple teachings of Christ and also apply the Savior’s two great commandments: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'”
The 90-year-old apostle, second in line after Dallin H. Oaks to assume the faith’s reins, urged members to “do the best you can do day after day, and before you know it, you will come to realize that your Heavenly Father knows you and that he loves you. And when you know that — really know it — your life will have real purpose and meaning, and you will be filled with joy and peace.”
Ballard also said he is impressed at how [94-year-old] President Russell M. Nelson’s breathtaking pace. “I say ‘breathtaking’ because he’s the only one of the apostles who is older than me, and I am having a difficult time keeping up with him!”
Nelson quipped last fall, “Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
Careful or casual?
Becky Craven, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency, urged members to keep their standards high as an example to others.
“As we consider our commitment to the Savior, are we careful or casual?” she asked. “Being careful in living the gospel does not necessarily mean being formal or stuffy. What is does mean is being appropriate in our thoughts and behavior as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Craven, the only female speaker at Saturday’s general sessions, urged believers not to “lower your standards to fit in or to make someone else feel comfortable. We are disciples of Jesus Christ and as such we are about elevating others, lifting them to a higher, holier place where they, too, can reap greater blessings.”
Latter-day Saints are “not meant to blend in with the rest of the world,” Craven said. “We have been called a peculiar people — what a compliment!”
No one is too far gone for the Savior’s loving reach, taught Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the church’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.
Good and loving examples, Waddell said, along with service may sometimes reach people whose families had little hope of a loved one’s return to the church.
He told how his brother, who had not regularly attended church for almost 50 years, was lovingly cared for by members as he developed pancreatic cancer. Treatment eventually brought him to Utah, where the mission leader of the care facility where the brother lived became his friend.
After invitations, Waddell’s brother listened to gospel messages. Plans were eventually made to ordain him to the church’s all-male Melchizedek Priesthood. On the scheduled day, visitors were told the brother had no pulse, but he awakened to say he was ready to be ordained.
“Five hours later, Mike passed away, crossing the veil to meet our parents as a holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Waddell said. “Like my brother Mike, no one is too far gone, and it’s never too late, for the Savior’s loving reach.”
Waddell noted that a former mission president used to tell his young proselytizers that “if someone is on a list that says ‘not interested’, don’t give up. People change.”
As members seek to serve, they should realize that God sometimes answers prayers in unexpected ways — but for our good, Elder Brook P. Hales of the Seventy taught.
“[Heavenly] Father is aware of us, knows our needs and will help us perfectly,” the general authority said. “Sometimes our most earnest and worthy desires are not answered in the way we hope, but we find that God has greater blessings in store. And, sometimes, our righteous desires are not granted in this life.”
For example, Hales said his youngest son received an overcoat just before he departed for a mission in France and packed it without trying it on. It was far too small for him — but happened to fit another missionary who had been praying to somehow get a new and better coat.
“Heavenly Father knew," Hales said, “that this missionary who was serving in France some 6,200 miles away from home would urgently need a new coat.”
Hales, who serves as secretary to the faith’s governing First Presidency, quoted how Patricia Parkinson, a Latter-day Saint who became blind as a young girl, responded to someone who suggested she could receive her sight again if she prayed for it.
“Well, sometimes Heavenly Father doesn’t work like that. Sometimes he needs you to learn something and so he doesn’t give you everything you want. Sometimes you have to wait.”