SALT LAKE CITY — President Thomas S. Monson is missing an entire LDS Church general conference for the first time in 54 years, but the prophet-leader's doctrinal teachings and counsel resonated through Saturday's conference.
Church leaders reaffirmed the faith's doctrine on the divine nature of the family, condemned racism and responded to President Monson's conference talk last April inviting the faithful to study the Book of Mormon daily. They also prayed for him and delivered messages of love and gratitude for the church president (see accompanying story) during the second day of the 187th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Presidents Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the other two members of the First Presidency, spoke about the divinity of church callings, the longing to return to Heavenly Parents and spiritual wellness. Other leaders asked members to follow Christ more completely without becoming discouraged or falling prey to "obsessive perfectionism."
Nearly 60,000 people traveled from all over the world to the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City for Saturday's three sessions, to be followed by two more sessions Sunday, with doctrine, devotion and music. Additional millions in 180 countries watched via broadcasts.
"The gospel plan each family should follow to prepare for eternal life and exaltation is outlined in the church’s 1995 proclamation, The Family: A Proclamation to the World," said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
President Monson and Elder Oaks were among the church leaders who issued the Family Proclamation, which declared that God has commanded that "the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife."
Elder Oaks said the Quorum of the Twelve prayerfully considered what the proclamation would say. He described it as a revelatory process led by inspiration. He called it a statement of eternal truth, the will of the Lord for his children.
"It has been the basis of church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future," he said. "Consider it as such, teach it, live by it and you will be blessed."
He recognized that the proclamation can pose difficult challenges for Latter-day Saints because its "declarations are, of course, visibly different from some current laws, practices and advocacy." Conflict can ensue with families, friends and employers who do not believe gospel principles. He noted specifically, "In our day, the differences most evident are cohabitation without marriage, same-sex marriage, and the raising of children involved in such relationships."
"We must try to balance the competing demands of following the gospel law in our personal lives and teachings even as we seek to show love for all. In doing so we sometimes face but need not fear what Isaiah called 'the reproach of men.'"
Elder Oaks has previously taught that church members should submit to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that authorized same-sex marriage, avoid discrimination of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people and to love others while living with differences.
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve condemned racism, cautioned against pride and arrogance and drew a distinction between humility and a modern use of the term "authentic."
"Anyone who claims superiority under the Father’s plan because of characteristics like race, sex, nationality, language, or economic circumstances," Elder Cook said, "is morally wrong and does not understand the Lord’s true purpose for all of our Father’s children."
He called Christ's example of humility and sacrifice "the most profound event in history," but said, "Unfortunately, in our day in almost every segment of society we see self-importance and arrogance flaunted while humility and accountability to God are denigrated. Much of society has lost its moorings and does not understand why we are on this earth. True humility, which is essential to achieve the Lord’s purpose for us, is seldom evident."
Elder Cook said it is important to remember Christ’s humility, righteousness, character and intelligence and foolish to underestimate the necessity striving for daily.
Humility vs. 'authenticity'
He called humility essential and criticized a modern application of authenticity.
"In today’s world, there is an increased emphasis on pride, self-aggrandizement and so-called 'authenticity' which sometimes leads to a lack of true humility," he said.
The scriptures advocate a different approach, he said. They suggest that discipleship establishes accountability to God and approaching life humbly.
"Some misuse ‘authentic’ as a celebration of the natural man and qualities that are the opposite of humility, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and civility," he said. "We can celebrate our individual uniqueness as children of God without using authenticity as an excuse for un-Christlike behavior."
Follow the prophet
President Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said he has followed President Monson's counsel to study the Book of Mormon each day.
He invited listeners to do the same and to consider three questions — "First, what would your life be like without the Book of Mormon? Second, what would you not know? And third, what would you not have?"
He said the Book of Mormon adds to Christian teachings about life after death and provides the fullest understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
"These and other truths are more powerfully and persuasively taught in the Book of Mormon than in any other book," President Nelson said. "The full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is contained in the Book of Mormon. Period."
He asked members to learn that it "is unequivocally the word of God. We must feel it so deeply that we would never want to live even one day without it."
President Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, asked members to delay judgments about leaders until they can see what the Lord saw in their calling.
"The judgment you need to make, instead," he said, "is that you have the capacity to receive revelation and to act on it fearlessly."
None of the faith's leaders asked for his calling and none is perfect, he said.
"My purpose tonight is to build your faith that God directs you in your service to Him. And even more importantly, my hope is to build your faith that the Lord is inspiring the imperfect persons He has called as your leaders," he told the gathering of men at the evening Priesthood session of conference.
He added, "It takes faith and humility to serve in the place to which we are called, to trust that the Lord called us and those who preside over us, and to sustain them with full faith."
Spiritual sickness, caused by sin or emotional wounds, creates the absence of divine light, said President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency in the Saturday night priesthood session. Spiritual wellness includes finding healing from stagnation and walking a path of vibrant, spiritual health.
"We will find spiritual healing as we step away from the shadows of the world and into the everlasting Light of Christ," he said, adding, "He who humbly follows Jesus Christ will experience and share in his light. And that light will grow until it eventually dispels even the most profound darkness."
Bearers of God’s priesthood, he added, bear his light. Light grows in a priesthood bearer every time he prays humbly, seeks or extends forgiveness, seeks God's word and will in the scriptures, notices a need and sacrifices, rejects temptation and chooses purity and courageously testifies of truth.
"It is our quest to seek the Lord until His light of everlasting life burns brightly within us, and our testimony becomes confident and strong even in the midst of darkness."
Many of the day's 17 speakers encouraged members to seek to follow Christ more completely but counseled them against becoming discouraged or falling prey to "toxic perfectionism."
President Uchtdorf, speaking in the morning, said God's children have a longing to return to Heavenly Parents. Sometimes, he and others said, they struggle with how they are doing.
"Often, when we look at ourselves, we see only our limitations and deficiencies," President Uchtdorf said. "We might think we have to be 'more' of something for God to use us — more intelligent, more wealthy, more charismatic, more talented, more spiritual."
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve said he hears many in the church struggle with thoughts of whether they are good enough or fall short or measure up.
"For some," he said, "(Satan) has turned the ideals and inspiration of the gospel into self-loathing and misery-making. ... As children of God we should not demean and vilify ourselves."
Shortcomings should not lead to despair, added Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve.
"Let us not be content with where we are," he said, "but neither let us be discouraged."
Christ's sinless life suggests the need for "a mighty striving in our life," Elder Christofferson said. His disciples must move constantly toward internalizing Christ's qualities and character.
"As we partake of the sacramental bread and water each week," he said, "we would do well to consider how fully and completely we must incorporate his character and the pattern of his sinless life into our own life and being."
Navigating the difference between personal improvement and falling short need never be done alone, President Uchtdorf said.
"Blessings will come not so much because of your abilities but because of your choices," he said. "And the God of the Universe will work within and through you, magnifying your humble efforts for His purposes."
The church is designed as a fold.
"The Lord has established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help you in this commitment to serve God and fellowmen," he said. "Its purpose is to encourage, teach, lift, and inspire."
Elder Holland cautioned that personal development will continue into eternity where, eventually, "our refinement will be finished and complete."
"Every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living," he added. "If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human."
He and Elder Christofferson said Christ's disciples can find help from the Godhead as well as fellow seekers. They should seek holiness in the temple, in their marriages, families and homes, on the Sabbath and in daily life.
"Let's strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists might call 'toxic perfectionism,'" Elder Holland said.
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, Young Women general president, expressed gratitude for church members who have rallied to help people affected by natural disasters around the world, but she encouraged them not to miss opportunities to serve locally.
"We are touched when we see the suffering and great needs of those halfway around the world, but we may fail to see there is a person who needs our friendship sitting next to us in class," she said. "What good does it do to save the world if we neglect the needs of those closest to us and those whom we love the most? How much value is there in fixing the world, if the people around us are falling apart and we don’t notice? Heavenly Father may have placed those who need us closest to us, knowing that we are best suited to meet their needs."
She encouraged members to begin in their families, wards and local communities.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve likened the priesthood to a rocket.
"The opportunity to benefit from the Savior’s atoning power is creation’s most important payload," he said. "For Heavenly Father’s purposes to be accomplished, Christ’s atoning power needs to be made available to God’s children. The priesthood delivers these opportunities. It is the rocket."
The priesthood enables all to make covenants and receive ordinances, Elder Renlund added.
"The atoning power of Jesus Christ is essential because none of us can return to our heavenly home without help," he said.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve encouraged church members to put on the equivalent of gospel eclipse glasses.
"Don't let life’s distractions eclipse heaven’s light," he said.
Glasses with special filtered lenses allow viewers to avoid eclipse blindness during solar eclipses.
"In the same manner that the very small moon can block the magnificent sun, extinguishing its light and warmth, a spiritual eclipse can occur when we allow minor and troublesome obstructions — those we face in our daily lives — to get so close that they block out the magnitude, brightness, and warmth of the light of Jesus Christ and his gospel."
Pride and social media that distorts reality can cause spiritual eclipses, he said, blocking the brightness and warmth of the gospel. Pride, he added, is the opposite of humility, which he defined as a willingness to submit to the will of the Lord.
Significant events unfold in the gospel, the church and lives that do not happen by accident but by God’s plan, said Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve. Agency fits within this "divine design" because each has "a choice to follow or to not follow our Savior and his chosen leaders."
"When we are righteous, willing and able, when we are striving to be worthy and qualified, we progress to places we never imagined and become part of Heavenly Father’s 'divine design,'" he said.
He asked believers to recognize the divine design in their own lives.
"Think of those times, some daily, when the Lord has acted in your life — and then acted again," he said. "Treasure them as moments the Lord has shown confidence in you and in your choices. But allow Him to make more of you than you can make of yourself on your own. Treasure His involvement. Sometimes we consider changes in our plans as missteps on our journey. Think of them more as first steps to being on 'the Lord’s errand.'"
The conference began Sept. 23 with the Women's Session. It ends tomorrow with two more sessions at the Conference Center.