Gordon Monson: General Conference sometimes brings shade, not sunshine, to the LDS soul

Love is spoken here, but that message can be lost when revered leaders focus on mortal danger and eternal doom.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson delivers a recorded sermon at the close of General Conference on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.

What do you do if you tune in to General Conference, seeking to be inspired, but, in the end, you walk away, at least in part, feeling something else — frustrated or flawed or threatened or left out or not enough or placed in a box of spiritual limitation that falls short of what God wants for you and your loved ones?

What then? What if you feel not drawn into the restored gospel’s glory, but shoved in a fit of concern or shame or fear or sadness toward the door?

And, by you, I don’t mean people who want to hate on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have already either turned away from the entire affair or who have lost complete faith in the endeavor and the endeavor’s leadership. I’m talking about fervent and faithful folks who want in all their human imperfection to believe, who want themselves, their family members and friends to be safe, to be loved, to be welcomed and embraced and accepted and congratulated for all the good things they do and the goodness they represent, not condemned for what they do or don’t do. You want to be loved and them to be loved because … “all you need is love.”

In spiritual matters, as much respect and appreciation as I had and still have for John Lennon, I wasn’t sure I’d ever prefer a quotation from the Beatles over what another man I respect, a man of God, church President Russell Nelson, said at the end of General Conference about the prospect of “thinking celestial” or else facing dire consequences for failing to do so, or what the prophet-in-waiting, Dallin Oaks, said in the opening session, each stressing those celestial rewards promised, but only to the spiritually elite, only to the heterosexual righteous, but not to billions of others who haven’t walked those leaders’ exact definition of the covenant path, haven’t married in a Latter-day Saint temple.


(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks at General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

They said those multitudes of poor souls have a diminished fate in the eternities — unless they accept the Latter-day Saint gospel in this life or through post-mortal proselytizing after death — that will disallow them from being with members of their families forever in the hereafter. I always hoped and heard that because of the love and grace and atonement of Christ that human imperfection could be worked out beyond this earthly existence, through the eternities, through eternal progression, even for those who struggle with their faith here.

We’re all sinners, after all. Even those who check the boxes to qualify to enter Latter-day Saint temples.

Another general authority, Carlos Godoy, said that “lukewarm members,” even active ones, could lose the chance to be with their kids not just in this life but also eternally on account of their lukewarmness.

I want to twist and shout.

On the positive side

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostle David A. Bednar sits at the rostrum before General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

To be fair, there were other talks given during the two-day conference that seemed more hopeful, more benevolent. Even apostle David Bednar, normally somewhat pedantic in his approach, expressed appreciation for Latter-day Saints and others out there who do so much good in the world, from helping those in need to setting up and taking down chairs before and after church meetings, often without recognition. That was nice, inspiring even.

And there were others, addresses given by Dieter Uchtdorf, who makes a habit of wrapping his arms around the faithful and, often, the spiritually beleaguered, whatever temperature they’re at, appealing to the spirit of Christ within them. Uchtdorf recounted the biblical account of the prodigal son, a scriptural story of healing and forgiveness. “This is a story about you and me today,” the apostle said. “Our Heavenly Father will run to [those who return].” But even Uchtdorf has to be careful. His representation of those who have left the modern church as prodigals, as rogues who are out engaging in wild, riotous, wasted and wasteful living, can correctly be seen as off target.

Alan Phillips, a Seventy from England, offered a stirring and stellar talk centered on “the divine identity and importance of God’s children, and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.”

Tamara Runia, a counselor in the Young Women general presidency, advised people to be “hopeful,” that “missteps and miscalculations are not just possible but probable,” and to “look through a lens of love. … People need our love, not our judgment. … Love is the thing that changes hearts.”

Love, not fear.

Amen, sister.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Tamara W. Runia, first counselor in the global Young Women presidency, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

Apostle Quentin Cook reminded everyone that bad things happen to good people, and for those who suffer to have hope in this life and the next, to be peaceable followers of Christ.

French Seventy Christophe Giraud-Carrier emphasized the importance for all to love one another and to be inclusive of and with all of God’s children, regardless of the color of their skin, their nationality, their sexual orientation, their economic or cultural background, their you-name-it.

Lennon and Paul McCartney might’ve written the lyrics to his talk.

Enjoyable also were the little things, like watching Mack Wilberg conduct a song sung not just by the mighty Tabernacle Choir but also by thousands of worshippers in attendance. That’s cool.

(Apple Corps. Ltd.) Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison perform their final concert together.

What helps and what hurts

Often, at conference, travelers in this world are seen and categorized in extremes, in black and white. They’re either “in” or they’re “out.” They’re “on the covenant path” or “off it.” They’ll be with their families forever or they’ll be alone.

Life is more complex than that.

It would have been warm and worthwhile for Nelson, for instance, to acknowledge that there are many Latter-day Saint parents who have done or are doing what they can to live good, though imperfect, lives themselves and to help their children, adult or youngsters, also live celestial lives, but they are sometimes troubled by decisions their kids make. Same with flawed individuals who hold out hope to be with their loved ones in heaven.

The last thing the heartbroken, parents or children, sisters or brothers, need is for their prophet to bust them with the idea that they won’t be able to be with family members in the great beyond, that they will be sorted, isolated, separated by an unbending God. That’s a sorrowful threat, not sweet encouragement.

There isn’t anything wrong with a little nudging, a call for repentance. Correction isn’t always a destructive thing or at least it doesn’t have to be. Spiritual hugs can be accompanied by encouragement to do better. The guess here is that most Latter-day Saints welcome that.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees listen to talks during General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

Additional talks were, indeed, helpful, encouraging people to … hang in and hang on.

My experience is that most church members, or many of them, anyway — those who would take the time during a wonderful fall weekend, away from the mountains, the fairways, the great outdoors and the great indoors, watching college and pro football games, to dial in to conference — want to draw closer to God and feel good hope for personal improvement.

They do not need — Is there an echo in here? — to be thumped over the head with a religious tire iron by a prominent leader, even if those words are spoken in a calm, quiet voice. They don’t want to be further burdened by worry over things, in some cases, outside their control. The last thing they yearn for are speeches that bring them down, not lift them up.

I prefer the first part of a quote attributed to founding church prophet Joseph Smith, who was lauded several times during this conference, when he long ago prefaced eventual punishments for the seriously wicked with this bit of encouragement: “Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views and boundless in his mercies and blessings than we are ready to believe or receive.”

Encourage rather than discourage

Current leaders may see themselves as teachers, and that’s all good. Teach at conference. Enlighten. Expand understanding. Instruct. Inspire the faithful to believe in and follow Christ. It wouldn’t hurt if leaders spoke more directly to matters of the day, the way Nelson did at the spring conference, calling on Latter-day Saints to treat those around them, including those they disagree with politically or socially or academically or medically, with more decency, to be peacemakers. That hit the mark. Moreover, bring God’s overwhelming love into people’s lives. That’s the main thing, what they’re there for. That could make the world a better place.

And it would draw more people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Better to get those folks, even in their supposedly flawed condition, into the tent, rather than to drive them away with bucketfuls of fear, guilt and shame.

To reiterate, conference can still have elements of straight truth, it doesn’t all have to be couched in namby-pamby, snuggy-buggy language, but how about teaching and leading the way Christ did? Love God and love your neighbor. As the Brit Alan Phillips taught so wisely and warmly: “Religion is not only about our relationship with God, it is also about our relationship with each other.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Alan T. Phillips speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

If there’s a woman — or a man — caught in adultery out there, or caught in some other misbehavior, like — horrors — lukewarm membership, encourage rather than threaten or condemn or attempt to scare family members, parents and children alike, by hitting them with their worst nightmare.

What comes next, after this life, has always been used by religion to control the masses. But it can also be used to give believers and nonbelievers, as well, hope for good comfort to come in this life and the next. Emphasizing that comfort would help the faith — and those within it — to grow.

Maybe then, more people would flock to conference, embracing the grace and good news of the gospel, looking forward to feeling inspired by what they hear, looking forward to bettering themselves and receiving spiritual nourishment from respected ecclesiastical leaders rather than walking away with heavier hearts than they had previously, back before that attempt at nourishment soured their souls.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Columnist Gordon Monson.

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