After back-to-back LDS General Conferences full of major changes and more than a year of revisions, reversals and reforms under President Russell M. Nelson, this weekend’s gathering may be remembered more for the words spoken than the actions taken.
The 94-year-old “prophet, seer and revelator” and other leaders referenced preparing the world for the Second Coming, warning those who have left Mormonism or never seriously considered joining the church that they’re running out of time.
No significant announcements came from the pulpit — outside of naming eight new temples to be built, virtually a conference staple in recent decades for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thousands of church members at the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City — and millions more watching on TV, the internet or in chapels around the globe — were “instructed and edified,” Nelson said in his concluding remarks. They heard sermons on God’s judgment, eternity, family bonds, repentance, seeking the light of Christ, and the importance of making lifelong commitments.
Nelson, who also addressed the faithful Sunday morning, spoke tenderly of his daughter, Wendy, who died three months ago of cancer at age 67.
“We miss our daughter greatly,” he said. “However, because of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, we do not worry about her. As we continue to honor our covenants with God, we live in anticipation of our being with her again.”
Everyone yearns to be with their loved ones after death, he said, and some “erroneously believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a promise that all people will be with their loved ones after death.”
Not true, the Latter-day Saint leader said.
“The Savior himself has made it abundantly clear that while his resurrection assures that every person who ever lived will indeed be resurrected and live forever,” Nelson said, “much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation” and living as families in the afterlife.
He said he weeps for friends and relatives who, despite their contributions to the world, have chosen not to make covenants with God or receive the ordinances that would “bind their families together forever.”
As president of Christ’s church, Nelson said, “I plead with you who have distanced yourselves from the church and with you who have not yet really sought to know that the Savior’s church has been restored. Do the spiritual work to find out for yourselves, and please do it now. Time is running out."
Lighting the darkness
Other sermons focused on the redemptive power of mercy, the importance of love in missionary work and vicarious temple rites, and the ability for the faithful to activate heavenly blessings through faith, repentance and good works.
Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the women’s Relief Society, discussed the ways that Christ is a light to the world.
“One of the fundamental needs we have in order to grow is to stay connected to our source of light — Jesus Christ,” said Eubank, one of only two female speakers during the two-day gathering. “He is the source of our power, the light and life of the world. Without a strong connection to him, we begin to spiritually die.”
Eubank, director of LDS Charities, the faith’s global humanitarian organization, acknowledged that some believers feel overwhelmed by modern life, weighed down by grief, sorrow, obligations or exhaustion. They feel unaccepted, unworthy or outside of traditional society.
In every case, she said, Jesus reaches them and helps them pull their personal yoke. He heals wounds. He provides rest.
“Our mortal brains are made to seek understanding and meaning in tidy bundles,” she said. “I don’t know all the reasons why the veil over mortality is so thick. This is not the stage in our eternal development where we have all answers. It is the stage where we develop our assurance (or sometimes hope) in the evidence of things not seen. Assurance comes in ways that aren’t always easy to analyze, but there is light in our darkness.”
To those who feel their faith faltering, Eubank was reassuring. “Take courage. Keep your promises to God. Ask your questions. ... Turn to Jesus Christ, who loves you still.”
It can be tough to “get the lights back on by yourself,” she said. “We need friends. We need each other.”
Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor to Nelson and a former Utah Supreme Court justice, spoke of the difference between mortal judgments and divine judgments.
His was a message of hope to everyone, including “those who have lost their membership in the church by excommunication or name removal,” Oaks said. “We are all sinners who can be cleansed by repentance.”
In recent years, more and more Latter-day Saints have resigned from the faith, especially since the enactment of a hotly disputed 2015 LGBTQ policy, which the church discarded last week.
As part of the gospel plan, Oaks said, “we are accountable to God and to his chosen servants, and that accountability involves both mortal and divine judgments.”
In the church, leaders seek “divine direction” as to how to judge “members or prospective members,” he said. “It is their responsibility to judge persons who are seeking to come unto Christ to receive the power of his atonement on the covenant path to eternal life.”
They must decide if a person is worthy of a recommend to attend the temple. Has a person whose name has been removed from church records repented to be readmitted by baptism?
“The ultimate accountability, including the final cleansing effect of repentance,” Oaks said, “is between each of us and God.”
The Latter-day Saint apostle, next in line to lead the faith, reassured his listeners that Jesus “opens his arms to receive all men and women, on the loving conditions he has prescribed, to enjoy the greatest blessings God has for his children.”
Bracing for Christ’s return
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson addressed the need to get ready for Christ’s return.
The Utah-based faith is “uniquely empowered and commissioned to accomplish the necessary preparations for the Lord’s Second Coming,” Christofferson said. “Indeed, it was restored for that purpose.”
So what do modern-day Latter-day Saints need to do before the Christian Savior comes?
“We can prepare ourselves as a people; we can gather the Lord’s covenant people; and we can help redeem the promise of salvation ‘made to the fathers,’ our ancestors,” he said. “All of this must occur in some substantial degree before the Lord comes again.”
This last dispensation “is building steadily to its climax — Zion on earth, being joined with Zion from above at the Savior’s glorious return.,” Christofferson said. “The Savior’s return will fulfill all that his resurrection has promised for mankind. It is the ultimate assurance that all will be put right. Let us be about building up Zion to hasten that day.”
Gerrit W. Gong, the first and only Asian American apostle, explored the notion of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” and “Lamb of God.”
Those two titles and symbols “are powerfully complementary,” Gong said. “Who better to succor each precious lamb than the Good Shepherd, and who better to be our Good Shepherd than the Lamb of God?”
As shepherd, Jesus “reaches to the one and to the 90 and nine, often at the same time,” the apostle said. “As we minister, we acknowledge the 90 and nine who are steadfast and immovable, even while we yearn after the one who has strayed.”
Shepherds must not “slumber, nor scatter or cause the sheep to go astray, nor look our own way for our own gain,” Gong said, but instead must “strengthen, heal, bind up that which is broken, bring again that which was driven away, seek that which was lost.”
Apostle David A. Bednar focused his remarks on recent changes to the church’s Sunday School curriculum — intended to supplement home-centered study and family gospel discussions — and the importance of members preparing at home to enter one of the faith’s temples and participate in the faith’s most sacred rites.
“Our personal responsibility is to learn what we should learn, to live as we know we should live, and to become who the Master would have us become,” he said. “And our homes are the ultimate setting for learning, living and becoming.”
Bednar encouraged members to make use of church-produced information on the faith’s temples, while offering guidelines on how, when, and whether information on holy ordinances can be discussed outside the temples.
Symbols or specific promises associated with covenants received in temple ceremonies are too sacred to describe or discuss outside of those edifices, Bednar said, but members can and should talk with family members, including children, about the basic purposes and principles associated with those covenants.
“A rich reservoir of resources exists in print, audio, video and other formats to help us learn about initiatory ordinances, endowments, marriages and other sealing ordinances,” Bednar said. “Information also is available about following the Savior by receiving and honoring covenants to keep the law of obedience, the law of sacrifice, the law of the gospel, the law of chastity, and the law of consecration.”
His comments come barely three months after the church changed its temple rituals to feature women more prominently and use more gender-inclusive language.
“Imagine,” he said, “that your son or daughter asks, ‘Someone at school told me that strange clothing is worn in the temple. Is that right?’ A short video is available on temples.churchofjesuschrist.org titled ‘Sacred Temple Clothing.’ This excellent resource explains how from ancient times men and women have embraced sacred music, different forms of prayer, symbolic religious clothing, gestures, and rituals to express their innermost feelings of devotion to God.”
Apostle Dale G. Renlund compared heavenly blessings to the building of a large fire, with kindling and wood chips covered by progressively larger logs.
The wood pile may be ready to burn, Renlund said, but it still requires a person to strike a match, light the kindling, and a constant supply of oxygen to grow and maintain the blaze.
“I invite you to faithfully activate heavenly power to receive specific blessings from God,” he said. “Exercise the faith to strike the match and light the fire. Supply the needed oxygen while you patiently wait on the Lord.”
He said God’s blessings are not received by collecting “good deed coupons” or by helplessly waiting to win a divine lottery.
“You do not earn a blessing; that notion is false, but you do have to qualify for it,” Renlund said. “Our salvation comes only through the merits and grace of Jesus Christ."
Apostle Quentin L. Cook urged parents to limit the use of distracting media in the home, and to make sure that the content their children encounter is wholesome, age-appropriate and consistent with a loving atmosphere.
“One adjustment that will benefit almost any family is to make the internet, social media, and television a servant instead of a distraction or, even worse, a master,” Cook said. “The war for the souls of all, but particularly children, is often in the home.”
Fellow apostle Ronald A. Rasband also warned that humankind is in a fight with the devil.
“Satan knows his days are numbered and that time is growing shorter,” he said. “As crafty and cunning as he is, he will not win. However, his battle for each one of our souls rages on.”
A testimony of the gospel, as well as family and church membership, Rasband said, can act as a fortress against “the power of the evil one.”
Juan Pablo Villar, a general authority Seventy, talked about his conversion.
When he was a teenager, Villar said, he visited his older brother, who had converted to Mormonism and was serving a mission at the time.
Unfamiliar with such service, Villar expected to spend the day at the beach but instead accompanied his brother and his brother’s missionary companion on their proselytizing lessons for the day.
A teary Villar said he witnessed people change as they were taught and how they “received spiritual light in their lives." He said he, too, learned even though he was never the direct recipient of his brother’s lessons.
“Looking back, I realize that my faith grew that day because my brother gave me the opportunity to put it in action,” Villar said. “I exercised it as we read from the scriptures, looked for people to teach, bore testimony [and] served others.”