Gordon Monson: For Latter-day Saints, Dieter Uchtdorf is a man of God whose words soothe the soul

Pilot-turned-apostle lifts listeners higher and higher with kind, helpful, hopeful encouragement.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024.

Dieter Uchtdorf. Er ist ein guter Mensch.

I ran into the good man once in a small restroom on the lowest level of the Delta Center at a Jazz game. I had done my business and washed my hands and as I started to exit the room, Uchtdorf walked in. He looked like a movie star, dressed in a well-turned-out jacket, with the bronzed, chiseled face, the silver-white hair swept back like the airfoil on, yeah, a jet aircraft. Perfect for the aficionado of aviation.

He looked directly at me and I at him, but following the unwritten rules of demeanor in a men’s room, there was no idle chitchat or introduction between strangers. I even speak German, but … no. Just a nod at him and a friendly nod back.

If I had said something, I would have told him what he’s likely heard a thousand times, maybe by now a hundred thousand: Thanks, Dieter. Thanks for the talks you’ve given at three decades of General Conferences, talks that have hit the proper mark, spoken with just the right tone, in the spirit of charity and understanding and Christlike love, filled with hope for and generosity toward those on the receiving end, whatever their condition.

Apostle Uchtdorf is a high-level leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who teaches his truths, gives powerful testimony while avoiding censure and denunciation, rarely using tired church-speak that overly congratulates the faithful in an elitist and exclusionary fashion and strongly condemns those on the outside who might think differently, wearing out individuals who are not squarely on the “covenant path.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a former airline pilot and executive, greets the Eurowings Discover flight crew after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport in 2022, the first nonstop flight from Frankfurt, Germany.

So, I watched every minute of every session of General Conference on Saturday. There’s no brag in that declaration. It’s a miracle, in fact, that I never fell asleep, not once, while taking in what were often familiar, standard presentations.

Initially, I found myself counting and marking down the times any general authority said anything even marginally outside the norm, anything that drew laughter from the congregation. It was spotty. Apostle Jeffrey Holland got a laugh when he said it had been since 2022 since he had spoken at conference and that he thought there might be an unseen trapdoor with a delicate lever on the spot, under the lectern from where he spoke that could open the second he said anything out of hand. General authority Seventy Massimo De Feo drew laughter when he recalled asking his wife why they didn’t have any major problems in their life, and she responded: “That’s because you have a very short memory.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland speaks while seated at General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024.

There were a couple of mild chuckles during other sermons that dealt primarily with serious topics having to do with faith, integrity, obedience, sin, repentance, forgiveness, with sprinkles of threats aimed at those who fall short of strictly following the prescribed road toward heaven. On the plus side, Jesus Christ was emphasized a whole lot.

But one talk stood out, at least to me, not simply because it stirred a handful of chortles, but because it wrapped big arms around all those who could hear it. That speech dodged the not uncommon mistakes of other speakers who pointed a finger at or pushed aside those who may not be zealous enough in their approach to their religion, teetering on the edge of hellfire damnation, on the brink of not being able to exist in the great beyond with family members because of wayward attitudes and behaviors.

Yeah, a talk given by You-Know-Who, the silver fox himself, during the Saturday evening session. As usual, Uchtdorf’s talk was a fresh breeze blowing through a building that needed freshening.

He opened the tent door by cracking that he had been approached by more than a few Latter-day Saints of late who wondered why he hadn’t made any mention at recent conferences of his pet subject: aviation. The longtime Lufthansa pilot and executive pleaded guilty and proceeded to offer up an anecdote about the Wright brothers. The Wrights, his story went, eventually took their 82-year-old father, Milton, a person who had a fear of heights, up in their rudimentary plane. And when they did, Milton was so thrilled, he yelled, “Higher, Orville, higher!”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 6, 2024.

Uchtdorf continued to make an analogy, comparing Milton’s joy in that moment to the joy humans can find in their earthly existence. He said everyone wants to be happy, but not everyone is happy. He didn’t indicate that non-Latter-day Saints couldn’t be happy in this life outside the Latter-day Saint faith. He said the opposite, that people could find great happiness by way of pursuits of varying kinds, through nature, music, art, learning and many other pursuits. He reprimanded no one. He scolded no one. He threatened no one. He jokingly rephrased an old country song that claimed that maybe sometimes we look for happiness in all the wrong places. That drew another laugh.

He wisely noted that “depression and other difficult mental and emotional challenges are real, and the answer is not simply, ‘Try to be happier’” — adding that, thankfully, therapists, counselors and other professionals can be summoned to help.

He said joy is God’s plan for all his children. And he mentioned the additional peace that comes to folks through belief in Jesus, that while happiness is available in a number of ways, faith in the King of Kings can bring even more of it, a kind of eternal joy. Seek that everlasting joy, he said, and ye shall find it, often via bringing happiness into the lives of others.

Go back and listen to the talk if you can, whatever your beliefs are. Chances are Uchtdorf’s words will do what they typically do — lift your spirit with encouragement, extend good hope to your soul. It’s not just what the guter Mensch says, it’s how he says it. He does not — and did not — swing a hammer, instead he offered a dream worth pursuing, an endeavor worth achieving.

Classic Dieter Uchtdorf. He’ll make a great prophet one day, God willing. Meantime, his talk alone made this General Conference worthwhile and memorable.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, flash a heart to the audience during the Patriotic Service of America’s Freedom Festival in the Marriott Center in Provo in 2022.