I was asked to speak today on a talk that touched me from the last General Conference. I have to admit, I don't remember too much from the April General conference--first, because my memory just isn't that good, and also because last April I had an energetic 20-month-old who was, shall we say, a distraction.
So I went back and re-read the talks and noticed, first, that I actually remembered more than I thought I would, and second, that there was a recurring theme running through many of the talks--the theme of family and the importance of nurturing our children and raising them in the gospel. I realized I didn't need to feel bad because chasing after my daughter, catching snippets of talks here and there, was exactly what I needed to be doing last April, and is probably what I'll be doing next week.
But today I'm not actually going to talk about the family. Instead, I'm going to give you a quick introduction to my family and then try to weave together some of my favorite thoughts, quotes, scriptures, and stories from the last General Conference.
I am a scientist, as is my husband. We both study Geology. He has a PhD from the University of Utah and I am finishing up a PhD at Purdue. We moved here from Indiana a few months ago. Our daughter, Sylvia is two years old. I the past climate of the area around the Great Salt Lake over about the last 8,000 years. I love my science--it's a great job and a great life. But I'm frequently asked the question, how do I balance my science and my faith. Just to head that question off at the pass, I'm going to answer it now. Very simply, I see science and religion as complementary in their goals, but operating in separate and distinct spheres. Both search for explanations, for truth, but science searches for natural truths using skepticism and rigor, and requires that those truths be independently verifiable. Religion seeks to give us spiritual truths that are no less real, but can't be poked and prodded and weighed: a testimony that will help us be better people, to be more resilient when times are bad and more humble when they are good. I don't see the two as generally incompatible, so long as they don't stray into the others' sphere.
The greatest difficulty my scientific background poses for my religious belief, as you might expect, is the skepticism my profession requires. You see, a testimony--my faith--is not an independently verifiable thing. I can not test another's faith any more than anyone else can run an experiment to accurately measure my faith to seventeen decimals as was just done for the passage of time.
Ultimately, I am the only one who can test my own faith. In Alma 32, Alma gives us instructions in this experiment, telling us,
If ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment up on my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if you can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
I have performed this experiment for myself and as you might guess from my attendance today, I do believe. I believe this church is Christ's church, that he died to atone for my sins. I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and that through him the priesthood authority was restored to the Earth. I believe the ordinances of the temple seal me to my family for eternity.
But as a scientist I am aware of the importance of the control experiment, and the control experiment in this case--the people who don't experiment upon the word, who may not live lives according to the gospel principles we know, like the law of chastity and word of wisdom--those people are still good, loving, Christ-like people.
This may not be the most satisfying observation, but I believe it is necessary for life to be this way to preserve our agency. I fall decisions were clear-cut, if good decisions always let to good outcomes and bad to bad, if we couldn't get away with things, and if bad things couldn't happen to good people, our choices would be prescribed and easy.
I see my belief as a choice. It is not knowledge; it can not be in this life, at least not for the vast majority of us. But it is a choice I am glad to make, glad that I have open to me. This gospel resonates in my soul with a beauty I can only describe as truth.
This truth informs me of my duty to my fellow men. Bishop Keith B. McMullin spoke of our duty, which is,
...what we are expected to do and to be. It is a moral imperative summoning forth from communities that which is right, true, and honorable. Duty does not require perfection, but it does require diligence. It is not simply what is legal; it is what is virtuous. It is not reserved to the mighty or high in station but instead rests on a foundation of personal responsibility, integrity, and courage. Doing one's duty is a manifestation of one's faith.
Bishop McMullin, in the same talk, gives the following story as an example of Christians performing their duty.
In Holland during World War II, the Casper ten Boom family used their home as a hiding place for those hunted by the Nazis. This was their way of living out their Christian faith. Four members of the family lost their lives for providing this refuge. Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie spent horrific months in the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Betsie died there—Corrie survived.
In Ravensbrück, Corrie and Betsie learned that God helps us to forgive. Following the war, Corrie was determined to share this message. On one occasion, she had just spoken to a group of people in Germany suffering from the ravages of war. Her message was “God forgives.” It was then that Corrie ten Boom’s faithfulness brought forth its blessing.
A man approached her. She recognized him as one of the cruelest guards in the camp. “You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he said. “I was a guard there. … But since that time, … I have become a Christian.” He explained that he had sought God’s forgiveness for the cruel things he had done. He extended his hand and asked, “Will you forgive me?”
Corrie ten Boom then said:
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“… The message that God forgives has a … condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. …
“… ‘Help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“… Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. As I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. UAdd a Note
“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart.’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”
There are several duties prominent in this story, among them our duty to treat our brothers and sisters with respect and love even when political or societal forces are arrayed against them, and also our duty to forgive those who have wronged us.
To be perfectly candid, forgiveness is hard for me. When I take offense at something, it's hard for me to let that go, especially if I feel justified in my anger. I have to work at forgiveness. Sometimes granting forgiveness takes years of effort--prayer, scripture study, pondering on the other person's perspective. In my own life, in which I have never been wronged to the same degree as Corrie ten Boom, I've extended forgiveness and felt it slip away in moments of weakness. But I believe this is part of my duty--to forgive trespasses, whether minor or major, and I have found granting that forgiveness brings peace.
We have many other duties in our lives, both spiritual and temporal. Navigating and prioritizing our multitude of duties is a great challenge in our lives, but one that can bring us closer to Christ. Pres. Julie Beck said (and I would ask the men in the congregation to substitute men in place of women),
A good woman knows that she does not have enough time, energy, or opportunity to take care of all of the people or do all of the worthy things her heart yearns to do. Life is not calm for most women, and each day seems to require the accomplishment of a million things, most of which are important. A good woman must constantly resist alluring and deceptive messages from many sources telling her that she is entitled to more time away from her responsibilities and that she deserves a life of greater ease and independence. But with personal revelation, she can prioritize correctly and navigate this life confidently.
The ability to qualify for, receive, and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life. Qualifying for the Lord’s Spirit begins with a desire for that Spirit and implies a certain degree of worthiness.
Every week we go to church in part to be reminded of how to be worthy of the Lord's guidance, and every six months we have the opportunity to listen to Prophets testify of Christ and of this gospel. Elder Quentin L. Cook said,
As we listen to the messages of this conference, we will be touched in our hearts and make resolutions and commitments to do better. But on Monday morning we will return to work, school, neighborhoods, and to a world that in many cases is in turmoil. Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree. The Savior taught us to love even our enemies.13 The vast majority of our members heed this counsel. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. I invite each one of us individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements. If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstances, we become more like Christ.
This sentiment is true for all our relationships--marriages, friendships, and with our fellow countrymen. I bring this quote in because not only are we approaching another general conference, we are also approaching another election.
Now, I'm relatively new to California, and perhaps more importantly, I've been in grad school, which is a little like living in a box, but in the few months I've been here I've been appalled a the political rancor exchanged between parties. I know people who fall all along the political spectrum and I can say they are to a person good people who care deeply for their country. They don't come to their beliefs because they are deluded or because they are unpatriotic. They come to their beliefs through different assumptions and a desire to improve very complicated and difficult problems. Our nation is going through hardship at this time. Let us remember that these difficulties are an opportunity to serve and love one another.
I believe one of the greatest gifts and most difficult to achieve goals of the gospel is simply to teach us to see each other as our Father in Heaven sees us, to teach us to love one another as he loves us. I believe that our Father in Heaven and his Son, Jesus Christ are loving, fair, and merciful. I believe that thorugh the atonement of Christ we, imperfect, petty, selfish creatures are redeemed and can be perfected; that we are blessed with living prophets, who testify of Christ and guide us in these Latter days.
I got a lot a positive comments after my talk. The gospel doctrine teacher even said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for your comments today." Then he went on to define anyone who voted against Prop 8 a "Mormon in name only," so I'm not sure he really got what I was trying to say.
Was I too subtle?