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Tom Smart, Deseret News
The congregation sings during the opening session of the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Salt Lake City.
If you pray with sincere desire to hear your Heavenly Father's voice in the messages of his conference, you will discover that he has spoken to you to help you, to strengthen you and to lead you home to his presence. —Elder Robert D. Hales

SALT LAKE CITY — "We have come here to be instructed and inspired," said President Thomas S. Monson, as he opened the 183rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Those men and women who will speak to you,” he said “have sought heaven's help concerning the messages they will give."

That sense of “heaven’s help” permeated Saturday’s sessions as speakers shared poignant personal reflections that matched timeless truths to present-day challenges. Social media lit up as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency spoke directly to “some of our dear members who struggle” with doubts and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke “to those who suffer from some form of mental illness or emotional disorder.”

Unprecedented growth

During brief opening remarks, President Monson announced that total membership of the LDS Church has surpassed 15 million. Among the reasons for that growth, he said, is the "missionary force" that has increased from 58,500 in October 2012, when he announced new, lower minimum age requirements for full-time missionary service in the church, to more than 80,000 today.

"Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord's vineyard to bring souls unto him," President Monson said.

He urged Latter-day Saints to contribute, as they are able, to the General Missionary Fund of the church to help support "thousands of missionaries whose circumstances do not allow them to support themselves."

“Sleepless nights”

Elder Robert D. Hales set the stage for much of what was to come throughout the conference by emphasizing the deep individual responsibility felt by conference speakers to be in touch with inspired guidance.

"These conferences are always under the direction of the Lord, guided by his spirit," said Elder Hales. "As speakers, we are not assigned specific topics. Over weeks and months, often through sleepless nights, we wait upon the Lord. Through fasting, prayer, study and pondering, we learn the message that he wants us to give."

"This is (the Lord's) general conference," Elder Hales testified. "If you pray with sincere desire to hear your Heavenly Father's voice in the messages of his conference, you will discover that he has spoken to you to help you, to strengthen you and to lead you home to his presence."

“We all need each other”

Also speaking during the session were Elders Ulisses Soares and Edward Dube, of the Seventy, and Sister Carole M. Stephens of the Relief Society General Presidency. Sister Stephens emphasized "there exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate respect for each other as sons and daughters of God and reverence for our Father in Heaven and his priesthood — his power and authority."

"We all need each other," Sister Stephens said. "Sons of God need daughters of God, and daughters of God need sons of God. We have different gifts and strengths. First Corinthians chapter 12 emphasizes the need for sons and daughters of God, each one of us, to fulfill our individual roles and responsibilities according to the Lord's plan 'that all may benefit.'"

Significant but subtle blessings

The other apostle who spoke during the Saturday morning session was Elder David A. Bednar, who shared lessons he has learned about the church’s law of tithing.

He said, "as we live the law of tithing, we often receive significant but subtle blessings that are not always what we expect and easily can be overlooked."

"Sometimes we may ask God for success, and he gives us physical and mental stamina. We might plead for prosperity, and we receive enlarged perspective and increased patience, or we petition for growth and are blessed with the gift of grace.”

Elder Bednar emphasized the concern with which church tithing funds are disbursed. “As I travel the earth I learn about your hopes and dreams, your varied living conditions and circumstances, and your struggles. . . . . . The leaders of the Lord’s restored church feel a tremendous responsibility to care appropriately for the consecrated offerings of church members.”

“Join with us”

Saturday morning’s session concluded with President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency encouraging those who have left the LDS Church to "come back again. Join with us!"

"My dear friends," he said, "there is yet a place for you here. Come, and add your talents, gifts and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result."

President Uchtdorf acknowledged a variety of reasons why people may choose to leave the faith, including struggles with "unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past."

"We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of church history — along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable and divine events — there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question," he said.

"And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes," President Uchtdorf continued. "There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine. I suppose the church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and his doctrine is pure. But he works through us — his imperfect children — and imperfect people make mistakes."

"If you expect to find perfect people here, you will be disappointed," President Uchtdorf said. "But if you seek the pure doctrine of Christ, the word of God 'which healeth the wounded soul' and the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost, then here you will find them. In this age of waning faith — in this age when so many feel distanced from heaven's embrace — here you will find a people who know and draw closer to their Savior by serving God and fellowmen, just like you. Come, join with us!"

Promises of protection

The afternoon session featured remarks from four apostles. President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, offered hope and peace through righteousness for those who may find the challenges and temptations in the world “quite disturbing, even discouraging.” For those who wander from the path, he said “there is a way back.”

“Just as chalk can be removed from a blackboard with an eraser, with sincere repentance the effects of our transgressions can be erased through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” he said, adding that “Peace can be settled in the heart of each who turns to the scriptures and unlocks the promises of protection and redemption that are taught therein.”

Moral force of women

Elder D. Todd Christofferson told women the church relies “on the moral force you bring to the world, to marriage, to family, to the church. We rely on blessings you bring down from heaven by your prayers and faith."

He said, “A woman’s moral influence is nowhere more powerfully felt or more beneficially employed than in the home. There is no better setting for rearing the rising generation than the traditional family where a father and a mother work in harmony to provide for, teach and nurture their children. Where this ideal does not exist, people strive to duplicate its benefits as best they can in their particular circumstances. In all events, a mother can exert an influence unequalled by any other person or in any other relationship.”

“There is no superior career, and no amount of money, authority or public acclaim that can exceed the ultimate rewards of family. Whatever else a woman may accomplish, her moral influence is no more optimally employed than here.”

Striving for peace

Elder Holland’s talk on mental illness centered in part on his own experience with what he called a “psychic blow” that gave him a firsthand look at the abyss of depression. He mentioned others — Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and former LDS Church President George Albert Smith — who have struggled with it.

“However bewildering they may be, these afflictions are some of the realities of mortal life, and there should be no more shame in acknowledging them than acknowledging a battle with high blood pressure or the sudden appearance of a malignant tumor.”

Elder Holland reminded those who struggle with depression that “hope is never lost,” and he urged listeners to, “if things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills and good values.”

And he reminded those without such challenges to “help by being merciful, non-judgmental and kind.”

Reach out with love

Elder M. Russell Ballard encouraged church members to reach “out with love to share the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Elder Ballard challenged every member of the church to reach out to just one person between now and Christmas. If they will do that, he said, “millions will feel the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. What a wonderful gift to the Savior.”

Core beliefs

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve opened the general priesthood meeting — the first broadcast live on television and over the Internet — by outlining how the doctrine of the church is summarized in its Articles of Faith and by urging young men to “use your bright minds to study and learn the Articles of Faith and the doctrines they teach.”

“They are among the most important and certainly the most concise statement of doctrine in the church,” he said. “If you will use them as a guide to direct your studies of the gospel of Jesus Christ, you will find yourself prepared to declare your witness of the restored truth to the world.”

‘You can do it’

President Uchtdorf expressed sadness at having seen “men filled with potential and grace disengage from the challenging work of building the kingdom of God because they had failed a time or two.

“These were men of promise who could have been exceptional priesthood holders and servants of God,” he said. “But because they stumbled and became discouraged they withdrew from their priesthood commitments and pursued easier but less worthy endeavors.”

He reminded his listeners “our destiny is not determined by the number of times we stumble but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward.”

“Even those who set their hearts upon divine goals may still occasionally stumble, but they will not be defeated,” President Uchtdorf said. “They trust and rely upon the promises of God. They will rise up again with a bright hope in a righteous God and the inspiring vision of a great future. They know they can do it now.”

Help the needy

President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency said the parable of the Good Samaritan provides three assurances the Lord gives to priesthood holders. “First,” he said, “the Lord will give you, if you ask, the feelings of the compassion he feels for those in need. Second, he will provide others, like the innkeeper, to join with you in your service. And third, the Lord, like the good Samaritan, will more than recompense all who join in giving help to those in need.”

President Eyring expressed special concern about ministering to the needs of quorum members who have, for whatever reason, suffered spiritual damage in their lives.

“For instance,” he said, “when I have gone to try to help someone wavering in his or her faith about the Prophet Joseph Smith’s divine calling, feelings come back to me. It is not only the words from the Book of Mormon. It is a feeling of assurance of truth that comes whenever I read even a few lines from the Book of Mormon. I cannot promise that it will come to every person infected with doubt about the Prophet Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. I know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God because I have treasured it.”

President Eyring also urged patience and compassion with those who are struggling with their faith. “Our human tendency is to be impatient with the person who cannot see the truth that is so plain to us,” he said. “We must be careful that our impatience is not interpreted as condemnation or rejection.”

Sacred privilege

President Monson closed the priesthood meeting regarding the “sacred privilege to brighten, to touch, and to save those precious souls entrusted to our care,” as he discussed home teaching, the church’s program of individualized stewardship for members organized through local priesthood quorums.

Using tender and humorous stories from his own experience (including one from many years ago of a home teacher showing up unannounced at the late President Gordon B. Hinckley’s home without an appointment only to find himself having to teach not only President Hinckley, but also the late President Spencer W. Kimball as well as Thomas S. Monson), President Monson instructed how home teaching, done well, can transform lives.

Additional addresses are summarized on Page A5.

Also Saturday, church leaders announced the transition of three members of the First Quorum of the Seventy — Elders John B. Dickson, Paul E. Koelliker and F. Michael Watson — to emeritus status and the release of Elder Kent D. Watson of the Second Quorum of the Seventy.