President Russell M. Nelson first praised Latter-day Saints on Sunday for looking outside themselves and helping those in need around the world and then, hours later, urged them to peer inside their souls to ready themselves spiritually for temple worship.
He also encouraged them to prepare for a big celebration next year to mark the 200th anniversary of church founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” in which the then-14-year-old boy said he was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ, giving birth to the Mormon movement.
“The year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year,” Nelson said in Sunday’s concluding sermon of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “General Conference next April will be different from any previous conference.”
To get ready, members should read Smith's account of his experience, Nelson said, and ask themselves, "How have the events that followed the First Vision made a difference for me and my loved ones?”
He urged them to “immerse themselves in the glorious light of the restoration.”
Nelson also read the 15 questions members answer to receive a temple recommend, enabling them to enter the faith’s most sacred edifices. The questions — recently “edited for clarity,” he said — allow Latter-day Saints to attest to their beliefs in the church, attendance at Sunday services and adherence to the faith’s health code (called the Word of Wisdom) and law of chastity. The tweaked questions “clarify, but do not change, worthiness requirements," the church noted in a news release.
“Individual worthiness to enter the Lord’s house requires much individual spiritual preparation. But with the Lord’s help, nothing is impossible,” Nelson said. “In some respects, it is easier to build a temple than it is to build a people prepared for a temple.”
In his morning speech, the 95-year-old leader of the 16.3 million-member church lauded Latter-day Saints for their charitable donations to the organization’s humanitarian efforts, which provide food, clothing, health care and disaster relief throughout the world.
Nelson said contributions have led to more than $2 billion in aid through the recently renamed Latter-day Saint Charities since 1984, as well as 400,000 “food orders” each year through 124 bishops’ storehouses — analogous to food pantries — to help individuals in need. There also have been millions of pounds of donated clothing through Deseret Industries outlets, along with expansive efforts in vision, newborn and disability care.
“This assistance," Nelson noted, “is offered to recipients regardless of their church affiliation, nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender or political persuasion.”
In a nod to the migration crisis gripping the globe, he said the Utah-based church helps refugees — “whether from civil strife, the ravages of nature or religious persecution.”
“More than 70 million people are now displaced from their homes,” Nelson said. Last year, "the church provided emergency supplies to refugees in 56 countries. In addition, many church members volunteer their time to help refugees integrate into new communities. We thank every one of you who reach out to help those who are trying to establish new homes.”
Other speeches Sunday also stressed the importance of helping others while exercising individual faith by fending off Satan’s temptations.
Let the adventure begin
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf compared Latter-day Saint discipleship to the adventure of Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic “The Hobbit.”
In the same way that Baggins was invited to leave the comfort of his home to embark on a dangerous quest, Uchtdorf said, Latter-day Saints left the comfort and security of God’s presence for mortal life with its hills, valleys, detours and “metaphorical spiders, trolls, and even a dragon or two.”
“We knew it would not be easy," the German Latter-day Saint authority said. "But we also knew that we would gain precious treasures, including a physical body and experiencing the intense joys and sorrows of mortality. We would learn to strive, to seek, and to struggle. We would discover truths about God and ourselves.”
Uchtdorf offered suggestions for how to tread this path.
“Choose to incline your heart to God. Strive each day to find him. Learn to love him. And then let that love inspire you to learn, understand, and follow his teachings,” he said. “If you hesitate in this adventure because you doubt your ability, remember that discipleship is not about doing things perfectly, it’s about doing things intentionally."
The popular apostle said the journey of life is not solitary and that the way for people to progress in their gospel adventure is to help others do so as well.
“Through your efforts to help the poor and the needy, to reach out to those in distress, your own character is purified and forged,” he said, "your spirit is enlarged, and you walk a little taller.”
Church members “love and respect all of God’s children," Uchtdorf said, “regardless of their position in life, regardless of their race or religion, regardless of their life’s decisions.”
He invited everyone to join the Latter-day Saints. “You will make us better. And, in the process, you will become better as well,” Uchtdorf said. “Let’s take this adventure together.”
M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said Latter-day Saints should not miss opportunities to look into their family members’ eyes and express their love and appreciation.
He talked about the death of his wife, Barbara, just before last fall’s General Conference, and said individuals may wake up like him to find the time for such moments has passed.
“I am happy that I chose to sit next to her when I came home from the office during the last months of her life,” he recalled, "to hold her hand as we watched the endings of some of her favorite musicals — over and over again because Alzheimer’s would not allow her to remember that she had seen them just the afternoon before. Memories of those special handholding sessions are now very precious to me.”
The most simple, basic certainly of life, said Ballard, who will turn 91 on Tuesday, is that no one escapes death. But there is also a need to “live right,” he said, which is made difficult by the battle between carnal and spiritual natures.
The three D’s
Peter Johnson, the church’s first African American general authority, warned of the dangers of the devil.
Lucifer uses three tactics, Johnson said, to misguide and destroy believers: deception, distraction and discouragement.
“We are created in God’s own image, and he has a work for us to do,” he said. “The adversary attempts to deceive by having us forget who we truly are.”
If believers do not understand they are sons and daughters of God, Johnson said in his first General Conference address, “then it is difficult to recognize who we can become.”
Satan also tries to distract people from their righteous goals by various means, including social media, he said. “Let us be careful and not casual in our use of technology. Continually seek for ways that technology can draw us closer to the Savior and allow us to accomplish his work as we prepare for his Second Coming.”
Cristina B. Franco, second counselor in the faith’s Primary general presidency, encouraged Latter-day Saints to find joy in missionary work.
She described a fellow Argentine woman, Susana, who was converted to the LDS Church by a chance encounter with Franco’s mother. After becoming a Latter-day Saint, Susana became “one of the greatest missionaries I have ever met,” said Franco, the only woman to speak Sunday and the fifth to do so this conference weekend.
Susana’s secret, said Franco, is that she prays each day to be directed to “someone who needs the gospel in their life.”
Franco invited Latter-day Saints to “share with others what brings us joy to our lives” by inviting friends to church and giving out copies of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture.
‘Company of angels’
The world is full of mirage, illusion and sleight of hand, apostle Gerrit W. Gong said, but individuals can follow guideposts and find security and comfort by keeping their covenants with God.
Gong, Sunday’s first speaker, emphasized a sense of “covenant belonging” that comes from making and keeping promises with God to obey commandments, following his prophets, and putting the needs of others first.
“As we honor our covenants, we may sometimes feel we are in the company of angels,” Gong said. “And we will be — those we love and who bless us on this side of the veil, and those who love and bless us from the other side of the veil.”
The Asian American apostle said that before marrying his wife, he felt at peace praying to know if he should get married. But the strongest spiritual confirmation came when he promised in prayer to be the best husband and father he could be.
Fellow apostle Gary E. Stevenson said many young people today are “either unable to see things as they truly are or are unsatisfied with truth, attempting to re-create it.”
There are “forces at play today designed to deliberately lead us away from absolute truth,” he said. “These deceptions and lies go far beyond innocent mistaken identity and often have dire, not minor, consequences.”
The devil, “the father of lies and the great deceiver,” Stevenson said, “would have us question things as they really are and either ignore eternal truths or replace them with something that appears more pleasing.”
The apostle said Satan deploys various weapons in his war on souls.
“For instance, he disguises the destructive consequences of illicit drugs or drinking and instead suggests that it will bring pleasure. He immerses us in the various negative elements that can exist in social media, including debilitating comparisons and idealized reality,” Stevenson said. “In addition, he camouflages other dark, harmful content found online such as pornography, blatant attacks on others through cyberbullying, and sowing misinformation to cause doubt and fear in our hearts and minds.”
The only way to avoid the influence of the “deceiver,” he said, is by “obedience to commandments given to our prophet.”
Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, spoke about the relationship between happiness and holiness.
“Greater happiness comes from greater personal holiness, so that you will act upon that belief,” Eyring said. “ ... Greater holiness will not come simply by asking for it. It will come by doing what is needed for God to change us.”
Latter-day Saint scriptures teach that “we can be sanctified or become more holy when we exercise faith in Christ, demonstrate our obedience, repent, sacrifice for him, receive sacred ordinances, and keep our covenants with him,” he said. “Qualifying for the gift of holiness requires humility, meekness and patience.”
Eyring concluded: “Whatever our personal circumstances, wherever we may be on the covenant path home, may our prayers for greater holiness be answered. I know that as our petition is granted, our happiness will increase. It may come slowly, but it will come.”
When the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performed in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2016, Hans T. Boom of the Seventy said he thought about the effort it took to transport the choir and its accompanying instruments, particularly the large gong.
The gong was struck only a few times compared to the smaller instruments, Boom said, but the sound of the performance would not have been the same without the effort of moving the gong across the ocean.
“Sometimes we might feel that we are, like that gong, only good enough to play a minor part in the performance,” Boom said. “But let me tell you that your sound is making all the difference.”
Those who feel different because they are living contrary to God’s will, apostle Ulisses Soares said, should know they still can rejoin the path of Jesus Christ’s gospel, even in the face of tribulation, weaknesses and social pressures.
Soares said that unmarried or divorced individuals may feel lonely, hopeless or abandoned. But they should continue with faith on the Lord’s path, he said, and not indulge in worldly habits.
“The same principles apply to those of you who are experiencing same-gender attraction and feel discouraged and helpless,” said the native Brazilian. “And maybe for this reason, some of you are feeling that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not for you anymore. If that is the case, I want to assure you that there is always hope in God the Father and in his plan of happiness, in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, and in living their loving commandments.”
Soares encouraged Latter-day Saints never to give up after failures, or to consider themselves incapable of abandoning sins or overcoming addictions. And those who feel bitter, angry, offended or chained to sorrows, he said, should strive to lay aside those feelings and turn to the Lord.
Apostle Neil L. Andersen built his address on an allegory spelled out in the Book of Mormon. In it, there is a beautiful tree, whose fruit is “most sweet,” the “most joyous to the soul,” and more desirable than any other fruit.
The fruit represents “the love of God,” Andersen said. “...Partaking of the fruit of the tree also symbolizes that we embrace the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel — being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and entering the House of the Lord to be endowed with power from on high.”
Savoring this fruit and “staying true and faithful to the Lord, Jesus Christ, is still not easily done,” he said. “We continue to face distractions and deceptions, confusion and commotion, enticements and temptations that attempt to pull our hearts away from the Savior and the joys and beauties we have experienced in following him.”
Walter F. González of the Seventy said the Savior’s touch can bring healing to physical and emotional suffering.
Like the lepers Jesus healed in the New Testament, the native of Uruguay said, “we, too, can feel broken, whether due to our own actions or those of others, due to circumstances we can or cannot control. In such moments, we can place our will in his hands [and] ... be mended."