Gordon Monson: If you’re LDS and yearn for an inspired but less-stuffy, more-inclusive church conference, I found one

The Restore gathering lived up to its name, restoring hope, restoring faith, restoring love.

(Faith Matters) The Millennial Choirs and Orchestras perform at the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center in October 2023.

What is love? What is faith? What do you make of love and faith? What’s the best way to form, nurture and express them?

Hold it right there. I broke a personal journalistic rule with the paragraph above by starting this column with a question. Not just one, but four of them. And here’s why: This piece is about asking questions and seeking answers, finding a place, a sanctuary where believers or nonbelievers can do exactly that.

Even heavy questions like the aforementioned with a thousand interpretations, a thousand answers, a thousand guesses, from every corner of humankind, from Socrates to C.S. Lewis, from deep thinkers to ordinary schmucks like you and me. None would be much better, though, than NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young’s version of them, based on what he presented to 3,500 attendees at the “Restore” gathering, a recent event put on by the folks at Faith Matters.

Faith Matters is a foundation that, according to its website, “aims to create a space in which an expansive, radiant approach to the restored gospel can be considered and discussed.”

Bent on attending the annual gathering, for some inexplicable reason (the urging of my wife), smack-dab in the middle of a football weekend, I walked into Sandy’s exposition center with an open mind, but a skeptical one. From what I’d heard, faith meetings such as this one — featuring a range of presenters, from Gov. Spencer Cox and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers to college professor Patrick Mason and sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife — can be a crapshoot, with speakers who either ignite the spirit within or turn it off with too much motivational jibber-jabber and over-the-top can-I-get-an-amen-on-that-brothers-and-sisters enthusiasm.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Candid conversations

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector, shown at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City in 2019, participated in the Restore gathering.

Most of the lecturers were inclusive, thoughtful, measured, intelligent, insightful, entertaining, spiritual and, yeah, that about covers it. Questions were addressed, asked and answered, rather candidly.

Most of it was aimed at Latter-day Saints, but much of what was discussed was useful for anyone of faith or anyone looking for a few bits of it. A rousing choir sang a song with lyrics that encouraged all in attendance that everything was going to be all right. And it sure felt like it really would be.

Even Rabbi Samuel Spector, who took time out from a most difficult week for him and his community to leave a blessing on the gathering, managed to lift the spirits of those fully aware — none more than him — that the world has mountains of problems.

But there’s still room to look inward and heavenward for the bright promise of a better day.

Speakers tackled topics that addressed in specific ways complicated issues that sometimes clutter the view of faith-seeking individuals who have to turn and stretch their necks to get a glimpse of God and hope.

Young’s love

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Young, shown speaking at the Silicon Slopes Summit in 2022, spoke about God's higher love at the Restore gathering.

Topics like the one spoken of by Young, the former Brigham Young University and San Francisco 49ers star, who demonstrated that the concussions he suffered in football hampered neither his cognitive abilities nor his spiritual capacities.

He wrote a book, titled “The Law of Love,” and his talk proved that his words are worth reading.

Young denounced transactional love, the second-level sort that is generated by contract, by offering up emotional connection built on the principle that if you give, you get, you get when you give.

Love like that, scratching the back that scratches yours, he said, does not endure.

Doing and doing, while it has its place, lacks the staying power of being.

“God is love,” Young said, with the emphasis on is.

He said Moses went up the mountain twice, the first time coming back with a law of love far beyond, far out of the reach of the ill-prepared dummies in his camp, so he went up again, returning with laws that were three stories down from God’s original intent for his children. OK, he didn’t exactly say it like that, but you get the idea.

What motivates you — in your relationships, the ones with your spouse, your kids, your kin, your friends, your God? Is it following a commandment so you’ll receive an attendant blessing? Is it sacrificing something for a loved one so you get something in return? Or is it just plain, unadulterated love, God’s kind of love?

Never did Young throw a better pass than the one he tossed at the expo center. Everyone in the audience made like Jerry Rice.

Other highlights

(Jed Wells | LDS Living) Tom Christofferson praised his Arizona Latter-day Saint congregation in his speech at the Restore gathering.

Tom Christofferson spoke about his accepting and eccentric congregation in Arizona, its diversity and comedic nature, comparing it to the Schitt’s Creek Ward (off the TV show). He said he had a hard time telling one of Jesus’ disciples from the others in the popular biblical series “The Chosen,” except that he took special note of Simon’s muscles and his short skirts. The openly gay brother of a Latter-day Saint apostle talked in such a personal manner that listeners could relate to him in a way that likely helped them regardless of their state of belief or nonbelief, comfort or discomfort.

Flowers discussed having one foot in the world of rock music and one foot in a high-demand religion. He referenced growing up in central Utah’s Nephi, hanging out at a golf course, where the golfers were hard-swearing and hard-living. It was compelling and rewarding to witness an internationally known singer, who has performed in front of tens of thousands of cheering and dancing music festival fans, get a bit nervous while conversing about his faith in front of a few thousand conferencegoers.

Cox never got political in his time on the stage but eloquently and forcefully called for people of all political persuasions to go ahead and hold on to their positions as they pertain to public policy, but to treat those who agree and those who disagree with equal decency and civility. That has become a familiar theme for Utah’s guv, because he sees it to be in the best interests of saving a polarized nation.

(Faith Matters) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center in October 2023.

He also called for basic decency among those who, like him, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those of other faiths or no faith at all, stirring a positive vibe in the room. It was the best presentation on that topic, from an ecumenical and nonecumenical standpoint, that I’ve heard. Progressives and conservatives would have been and, in fact, were fortunate to hear what he said.

Daryl Davis, a black musician who played with Chuck Berry over the latter parts of the rock legend’s career, stressed the importance of people of all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all races, all genders talking with one another to bridge whatever gaps exist between them. He said he’s visited with many Ku Klux Klan members, asking them what they believe and why they believe it, creating a conversation in which he’s been able to influence some to find new perspectives regarding race and hate and to leave the Klan behind, even sending him their old robes and hoods.

(Faith Matters) Daryl Davis speaks at the Restore gathering at Sandy's Mountain America Exposition Center in October 2023.

Terryl and Fiona Givens spoke eloquently; Thomas McConkie rang bells and meditated; Jared Halverson encouraged people to ask questions and to provide a comfortable environment in which those questions could be asked by others; the Lux Singers performed; George Handley appreciated Earth’s natural wonders; McArthur Krishna reminded Latter-day Saints that Mother in Heaven matters; Adam Miller blew everyone away by proclaiming that love is nobody’s reward, it’s a law, and that too often people make that law all about whether they are loved rather than making sure to love others. There was a whole lot more. Good stuff, all around.

“Restore hope. Restore curiosity. Restore connection. Restore you.” That was part of the promotion for an event that pretty much achieved all of those things for people on hand. Let’s put it this way: The four main sessions drew in thousands on a beautiful mid-October Friday and Saturday.

What does that say? It says Latter-day Saints and some of their friends of other religions, at varying stages of their individual faith journeys, some strong, some slipping away, are eager on intellectual and spiritual levels to have their questions candidly addressed and discussed without guilt and/or shame, hungry to better understand their faith and to feed it.

Mine was fed. And having recorded three football games, and having watched them later, I didn’t miss a thing.

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