Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Son of Salt Lake Conferencial

(Part 1 is here.)

I also watched both Sunday sessions, not that I'm bragging or anything, but three sessions in a row is probably a post-1987 record for me. Certainly it's my 21st century record. And I stayed awake the whole time.

So, in the Sunday morning session, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings, which of course engenders more choir watching. The first thing I notice -- besides the usual funny faces and so on -- is how unflattering the outfits of the poor female members are. They're cut really wide around their necks -- not low, of course (thank goodness) -- but wide. Now, I dearly love to see a pretty neck, but very few of these women are anywhere near young, and most of them sport various combinations of well-earned wrinkles, fat, flab, and dewlaps. There's nothing wrong with that -- as I say, those features are well-earned -- but is it really necessary to dress these women in outfits that draw extra attention to their necks? I know what you're thinking: What about the men, you sexist? Well, here's the thing, the men's necks no doubt look even worse, but they're all buttoned up to their (double) chins in tuxedos. (At 10:00 in the morning. Hmm.) Pretty much all that's visible is their honest, homely faces. I wish that were true of the women as well.

President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, is the first speaker. His talk is very back-to-basics. He talks about how the Church is a restoration of Christ's original church. In a way, it seems kind of old-fashioned -- it's the same kind of thing I heard 24 years ago when I first joined the Church -- and it certainly predates that time as well. It's comfortably familiar, though. He mentions Roger Williams, founder of the colony of Rhode Island. My 13-year-old daughter T is sitting next to me. I whisper to her, "Roger Williams was our ancestor, you know." "Yes, Daddy, I know." She does a fairly creditable job of not rolling her eyes.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles follows him. I notice that his jowly look gives him a strong resemblance to Huckleberry Hound. I also notice that I spend too much time thinking about what people look like and making fun of their appearance in my mind. It's a bad habit. I want to do better, but it's hard, especially when there's a good choir to watch.

Next up is Elder Earl C. Tingey of the Presidency of the Seventy. My wife used to date a guy named Tingey. I wonder if this is his dad or something. I'm ready to dislike him. But his talk is OK.

He's followed by Anne C. Pingree, Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, today's token woman speaker the sole female speaker today. Something about her speaking style distracts me, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is she reminds me of. Finally, it hits me: she sounds like a teacher reading a story to a classroom of second-graders. She uses a little less "expression" (remember "reading with expression"?), but the way she slowly enunciates each sentence and carefully looks around the room seems just like "story time." Having solved that problem, I can pay attention to her message. It bothers me. She talks about how "experienced" members of the Church mentored new converts from Africa and Latin America in an "inner-city" congregation. That's a good thing to do, but I can't help noticing that, as seems common in talks and articles of this kind, there is not the slightest suggestion that an "experienced" member of the Church could possibly learn anything from an immigrant from a developing country. I struggle not to be judgmental while she speaks. As you can probably tell from this paragraph, my struggle was not entirely successful.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles follows her. During his talk, he also mentions some foreigners, from Nigeria, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia. But his approach is different. These aren't helpless children who need the "experienced" members of the Church to show them what to do. A doctor has an inspired dream and eventually joins the Church. A man follows the Spirit, joins the Church, becomes a missionary and then a bishop. A little girl grows up to act on her feelings of love for God, joins the Church, and serves a mission. A family seeks the truth and joins the Church; the father becomes a counselor in a mission presidency. These aren't stories of weak people who are fortunate enough to receive "our" help; they're stories of faith, guidance, and empowerment, stories of people just like us who happen to live overseas. I'm comforted by Elder Oaks's point of view.

President Gordon B. Hinckley finishes the session. His talk is extraordinary. He almost seems to be delivering his own eulogy. He even jokes about it: "I trust that you will not regard what I have said as an obituary." I hope that it isn't.

That's the end of the morning session.We go home for lunch, then back to church for the afternoon session. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is the first speaker. He talks about missionary work. It's all common-sense stuff, about being real friends with people and letting them naturally see the Church and what it means to us. I hope no one still thinks they're supposed to make "non-member friends" in order to convert them. That kind of stuff just offends people.

Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles follows him. He also talks about missionary work, but from the perspective of becoming a full-time missionary. There's a striking difference in tone from this type of talk only a few years ago. Then, it was "every 19-year-old male should go on a mission." Now, the emphasis is on preparation and choice, on personally making the decision to go on a mission.

Elder David R. Stone of the Seventy speaks next. He talks about how culture influences people, and tells us not to follow the culture of "Babylon," but to have our own "Zion" culture. Of course, the $64,000 question is whether the culture he apparently has in mind as some sort of ideal is really a Zion culture, or a White, American, Inter-mountain West, Mormon culture that shapes him and convinces him that his culture is the proper one in exactly the same way he says everyone else's cultures shape them. Since he doesn't address the obvious point, I mostly just feel confused by his talk.

Next, Elder Robert S. Wood of the Seventy speaks. Earlier, I had explained my theory of Conference watching to my daughter. I find that in each Conference, there are a number of talks that are boring and/or meaningless to me. I let my mind wander during those talks, but I don't completely ignore them, because occasionally something meaningful to me might suddenly catch my attention. I find that usually more than half the talks are like that. Some talks, on the other hand, are interesting, either because the speaker is lively and entertaining, or because the topic seems personally meaningful to me. I find that maybe one-fourth of the talks fall into that category. But the third type of talk, those are the ones that matter. Those are the ones where it seems like the speaker is talking to me personally, like maybe he really is conveying a personal message from God to me. Usually, there's only one or maybe two of those per Conference. This time, it was Elder Wood's talk.

Elder Wood talks about not being rude and hateful to those we disagree with, about raising the level of our discourse. He's talking mainly about politics, of course (read Francis Fukuyama's op-ed in the LA Times for a good summary of current political discourse), but he might just as well be talking about an internet forum I belong to. I've steadily been growing sick of it, sick of the parade of jerks and fools who invade it, sick of verbally bitch-slapping them, sick of it being so easy, sick of being good at it and enjoying it so much, sick of the whole thing. Coming on the heels of President Hinckley's talk on Saturday night telling us to be nicer, this talk pretty much makes up my mind for me. (A few days later, before I can waver, the Danite's decision to leave for his own reasons makes it easy for me to take the step. I quit posting in that forum.)

But the Conference isn't over yet. Elder H. Bruce Stucki of the Seventy gives a talk. He has this heavy countrified Utah (I guess) accent, which confuses me sometimes. He says things like "Heavenly Father answered my prior" and "Heavenly Father hears our prior" and I think "answered your prior what?" and "hears our prior what?" Pretty soon, though, I catch on. "Prior" is just the way he pronounces "prayer." Once I get that out of the way, I can pay attention to what he's talking about. He talks about when he was a little kid and he took his brand-new bow-and-arrow set out to the brush to play with, and he lost an arrow. He would be in trouble for losing it right after he got it, and it was getting dark. So he prayed, and when he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was his arrow. So he knew that God answers his priors prayers. This is a pretty commonplace story among Mormons -- the prayer for the lost keys or whatever. It's even happened to me, in fact. But this phenomenon is completely inexplicable to me. How is it that God answers prayers like that, that He'll answer, "where are my keys, where is my arrow, where are my eyeglasses?" but so often He won't answer prayers like "please make my Mommy better, please make Daddy stop hurting me, please don't let my baby die"? I can't answer that question, and I can only imagine how much it must confuse and probably hurt people whose important prayers go unanswered to hear these stories about how God answered trivial ones.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles follows him. He tells a nice story about a horse no one wanted that became a champion, but mainly what I notice is how badly Elder Wirthlin shows his age. He really seems to be struggling at times. He's obviously reading sometimes, he almost loses his place, he looks at the wrong camera, he constantly licks his lips. Instead of paying attention to what he's saying, mostly I'm cheering him on in my mind. "Come on. You can do it. Just a little more. That's it." Finally, he finishes, with no real mistakes. I feel relieved for him.

President Hinckley concludes the meeting. As is customary, he just takes a couple minutes to say good-bye. It's been a nice Conference. I hope it's not his last.

8 comments:

  1. Hey, I know someone in the Mo Tab and her neck isn't so bad!

    And was it Pingree who said she had an epiphany when she was looking at a poor woman that God loved her the same? That one kinda made me laugh. Maybe it was another sister from Saturday's session.

    I really kinda like Stone's talk. I thought he made it kinda clear that nobody's culture is perfect and when you grow up around stuff it could be screwed up and you don't even know it because it all fits what you're used to. I didn't feel confused, I felt like he was expressing something that's rarely expressed.

    What I liked about Wood's talk was that it didn't discourage discourse, at all - even if we don't agree. It just outlined what is and isn't appropriate in a clearer way so I could say "wow, I don't do good at that, at all"

    Wish I could have gone to Priesthood. I guess I'll just have to catch those in the Ensign.

    It struck me about your big prayers that every single question was about agency and mortality.

    Oh, and my son lost my keys and God didn't help me find them this time. Maybe it's just time to take better care of my next copy of keys.

    I kinda got that feeling when I said another prayer today. "Can you help me find my keys, again?" ... then this feeling like "is that a joke?"

    Yesterday it was the checkbook, the day before it was something else. Time to just start figuring it out, Deleen.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You've made me happy that Sheila's television isn't hooked up to an antenna, so we have to listen to conference on the radio instead. In fact, I like conference on the radio in the same way I like baseball on the radio. I can do whatever I like during that time but still pay attention, so long as I am doing things that are mostly physical in nature.

    I didn't notice how old people looked, except at priesthood conference. For me it's a bit more shocking when they have aged because I have not watched a general conference in about ten years.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Deleen:

    Hey, I know someone in the Mo Tab and her neck isn't so bad!
    Exception that proves the rule? Actually, I did notice one good-looking woman in the choir. And it wasn't just by contrast either.

    And was it Pingree who said she had an epiphany when she was looking at a poor woman that God loved her the same? That one kinda made me laugh. Maybe it was another sister from Saturday's session.
    It was the other one. I read her talk; what she actually said was "we were equals." That was her "powerful realization." Oh dear.

    I really kinda like Stone's talk. I thought he made it kinda clear that nobody's culture is perfect and when you grow up around stuff it could be screwed up and you don't even know it because it all fits what you're used to. I didn't feel confused, I felt like he was expressing something that's rarely expressed.
    I spent a lot of time on that kind of stuff in grad school. One of my exam areas was "political culture." So, of course, it wasn't at all new for me, and I felt like he never addressed the obvious question -- the one I was trained to address first -- "What are my own cultural biases?"

    It struck me about your big prayers that every single question was about agency and mortality.
    God heals some people, kills some people, rescues some people, lets some people suffer, and so on and so forth. And He finds some people's keys. And, as far as I can tell, nobody can figure out why any of that happens.

    Barney:

    I didn't notice how old people looked, except at priesthood conference. For me it's a bit more shocking when they have aged because I have not watched a general conference in about ten years.
    When I really notice their age is not usually when they're speaking, but when they're making their way to the podium. They usually speak vigorously, but on their way there, they shuffle and totter like [insert colorful simile].

    ReplyDelete
  4. Stone: I guess I liked the talk because it's the first question I asked myself. It was an entirely unique topic for a conference talk, first of all. But I think the self examination was built into the talk.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sundays sessions were the only session I watched, but since I watched it in a drug induced state, I appreciate your synopsis on them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. ...since I watched it in a drug induced state

    That might well be the best state to watch it in. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  7. It certainly wasn't a bad state to watch it in.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Of course, the $64,000 question is whether the culture he apparently has in mind as some sort of ideal is really a Zion culture, or a White, American, Inter-mountain West, Mormon culture that shapes him and convinces him that his culture is the proper one in exactly the same way he says everyone else's cultures shape them.

    Well, let me have a shot at that $64,000.

    Elder Stone was born and raised in Argentina, and joined the church after immigrating to the United States when he was 18. So while he may have been shaped by an American, Inter-mountain West, Mormon culture, that's not where he started out.

    ReplyDelete

What do you think?