Friday, October 1, 2010

The big deal about Conference

It's Conference time again, so I wanted to do something here to celebrate and prepare for the great weekend ahead.  For those unfamiliar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, every six months we have what's called a General Conference, where the leaders of our church give talks on various subjects relating to the unique circumstances of our day.  These talks are broadcast worldwide in many different languages, and can be viewed and heard over television, Internet, and radio.

The goal of this post is to answer the question of why this Conference is such a big deal to members of the Church, and what it could mean for anyone else who takes interest.  I will tell you right now that this will be a somewhat longer post than I usually write here, but because it is so important to me, I'll leave it up top for a few days to make up for its length.

So, what's this General Conference thing all about?  Let's go back a ways, to the very beginning: our relationship with God.  Romans 8:16 states that "we are the children of God."  If we are His children, that makes Him our Father.  He created us.  He loves us, and wants the very best for us.  Take the best, most loving father in the world, and multiply that by infinity, and you've got our Heavenly Father.  He's awesome.

That being said, it only makes sense that He would want His children to be around Him.  But while we're here on earth, away from the physical presence of God, we make mistakes.  We're walking by faith, and not by sight; and sometimes we trip.  I love Romans; in chapter 3, verse 23, we again read, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."  We've all come short.  And because none of us are perfect, none of us can dwell in the presence of a perfect God.  So how are we ever going to make it?

Well, our Father in Heaven gave us a way through His Son Jesus Christ, who took everything we could not do ourselves . . . and did it.  From Isaiah 53:5: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."  And the words of the Savior Himself, in John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."  I cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which makes it possible for me to have joy in this life and return to my Heavenly Father in the next.  I am a weak, imperfect man, but I know there's hope because of my Savior, and that keeps me going. 

To actually apply this Atonement in our lives, we gotta know about it, right?  Even from the time of Adam all the way to the birth of Christ, people knew a Savior was coming, because it was that important--it was what would save them, too, just like it's what saves us.  How did they find out about it?  Amos 3:7: "Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets."


Remember what I said a few paragraphs ago, about walking by faith?  Let's imagine, for a moment, a wall.  God is on one side, and we're on the other.  We can only see what's on our side.

We can communicate with God by sending paper airplanes over the wall.  He'll answer by flying paper planes back to us.  This is prayer.

The great thing about prayer is that it's deeply personal.  We can have a close, individual relationship with our Heavenly Father this way.  But it's important to remember that the returning "paper airplane" is meant for the person it was sent to--meaning, I can't go to my neighbor across the street and say, "Hey, I was praying last night and God told me you need to work on your food storage."  It just doesn't happen that way.  

Allow me to illustrate again with the classic analogy of the cop and the ice cream man.  Let's say we've gotten together on some lovely Saturday afternoon, and we're having a good time.  I'm driving, but I'm enjoying your company so much that I don't realize I'm going over the speed limit.  Then all of a sudden we hear an annoying little jingle behind us.

Diiing-ding-ding ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. . . .

Why, it's the local ice cream man!  And it looks like he really wants our business.  I think we'll stop and buy some ice cream.  

Well, we get talking with him, and it turns out that's not why he chased us down.  Next thing I know, the guy's writing up a big ol' speeding ticket, and . . . wait a minute.

Is this guy giving me a speeding ticket?

. . . But he's . . . the ice cream man. . . .

It's kind of an awkward moment, which I'm glad you break by purchasing a Spongebob popsicle.  Satisfied with the exchange, the ice cream man goes on his merry way, and we're left wondering what just happened.

This guy was an upstanding citizen.  His heart was in the right place, and his intentions were good.  But you know, he was the ice cream man.  He could sell me all sorts of frozen treats, but there was no way he could give me a speeding ticket and expect me to pay it.

So we continue down the road, and I'm being a little more careful but eventually get distracted again.  Finally I see some red and blue lights in the rear-view mirror. 


That's a big fat speeding ticket.

And I have to pay it.

The principle here is authority.  The policeman had it, so he could rightly give me a ticket.  The ice cream man didn't have it, and even though I was breaking the law, there was nothing he could do.

There are some messages God wants the entire world to receive, which are so important that we sometimes cannot all be relied upon to get the mass email in our personal inboxes and read the same thing.  So, He chooses someone Himself and puts that person on top of the wall: He gives him authority.  This is a prophet--a representative, a mouthpiece, a messenger.  Standing on that wall, the prophet can see what's going on on both sides.  God shows him what needs to be said and done, and he in turn declares it to our side of the wall in a voice that all can hear and understand clearly.

One example of this is the Old Testament prophet Moses.  Through him, God gave the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel.  The Lord didn't just whisper the message in everyone's ear and hope they were listening; He sent Moses to deliver it to them.  After that, they knew what the law was, and they were all held accountable to it.

Noah is another well-known example.  In his case, I'm sure the people of the world at that time would have been too wicked to hear or understand any spiritual communication from God, so a prophet was all the more necessary.  The Lord's message through Noah was that the world would be flooded, and the people must repent.  Yet even after hearing such a clear, tangible voice, they still mocked him.  Under God's direction Noah built the ark that would prevent the total extinction of mankind from the earth.  Everyone but a very precious few died.  

We see a pattern throughout the Bible of righteousness and apostasy.  When the people heeded the counsel of the prophet of their time, they prospered.  When they rejected the prophets, they suffered.  There were a lot of times, in fact, where the people would start out really good, but eventually became so comfortable in all their blessings that they forgot where those blessings came from, and finally fell away.  But after such periods, when the people had finally been beaten down and humbled enough so they were ready for it, God always sent another prophet.

The scriptures are the recorded teachings of these prophets.  And you'll notice that in studying those teachings, every prophet testified of the Savior, and pointed to Him always.  Everything a prophet did or taught in his calling was to the credit and glory of God; none sought attention or praise for himself.  His job was to bring people unto Christ--not to build a popular following or to gain wealth.

And Christ came.  His life and ministry were the pivotal mark in the history of mankind.  Salvation was made possible through Him, and His teachings also showed us the way to live happily in this world and prepare for the world to come.

Another important thing the Savior did while He was here was the calling of twelve apostles--men who had the authority to teach the Gospel of Christ, lead the Church He established, and act in the name of God.  "Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases.  And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.  (Luke 9:1-2)"   "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.  (John 15:16)"

Jesus did this because He knew He wasn't going to be on the earth with us forever.  The time would eventually come for Him to return to the Father, so there had to be an organization established so that His Gospel could spread to fill the world.  And, sure enough, once Christ had ascended into Heaven, the Church on earth was left in the care of the Twelve, who received revelation from the Lord to direct it.  Christ never stopped being the Head of His Church; He led it personally, guiding His chosen servants in what they should do.  And, as we read in Acts about the callings of new apostles like Matthias, Paul, and Barnabas as vacancies happened, it's clear that this organization was meant to continue.

And they got off to a good start.  The Church grew, and the Twelve had a lot to do.  But the world was a much bigger place back then.  There were no telephones or email, no satellite broadcast.  The Apostles had to write letters and travel long journeys to keep the Church on the right path.  This was a monumentally difficult task; in addition to the massive persecution that was going on at that time, there were also many new members of the Church who brought their old Jewish and pagan traditions with them.  Others simply just needed help understanding true doctrine, and little falsehoods and contentions began to seep in.  The Apostles did the best they could--they devoted everything to their calling--but they simply could not move quickly enough in that world to keep the whole Church together, and because of a number of factors including death and not being able to meet together often, no new apostles were called after them. 

Without the "foundation of the apostles and prophets" (see Ephesians 2:19-20), the Church fell.  There was no longer anyone who had the authority from God to receive revelation for the Church, and without that guidance, those who were left had only the writings of the prophets and apostles before, and their own ability to interpret them.  Many disagreements arose, resulting in councils where theologians argued and voted on doctrine.  And more often than not, their vote was not in harmony with what the Lord had revealed years before.

Well, this was bad.  When you start changing doctrine, you're asking for trouble.  And it didn't stop there, either.  At length certain selections of the scriptures were compiled into what became the Holy Bible.  I will forever be grateful for the truths contained in the Bible; it is an immeasurable value to me, and truly is the word of God as far as it's translated correctly.  But again, whatever was put in there was chosen by vote, leaving out many other prophetic writings.  And over the years, the Bible passed through many hands in translation and interpretation.  Things would be changed around or removed altogether, and because the general populace could not read or write, preachers could say just about anything they wanted and call it truth, and no one would know the difference.  If someone did contest what was being taught, the majority of the time they were brutally silenced.  This was a time when excommunication from the Church essentially meant execution.  When the scriptures finally did become more available, doctrinal disagreements increased, factions separated, and all of a sudden we had so many different ideas flying around (from people using the same book, too) that an appeal to the Bible and religious leaders alone became unreliable in the search for the whole truth Jesus Christ originally taught.      

This particular period of apostasy had been prophesied.  From Amos 8:11-12: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it."  And 2 Thessalonians 2:3: "Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day [the Second Coming of Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition."

But our loving Heavenly Father could not forget His children; and so a restoration was also promised.  This is sometimes referred to in the Bible by such names as "restitution of all things" and "dispensation of the fullness of times" (Acts 3:19-21; Ephesians1:10)--i.e., every blessing and truth enjoyed by God's children in every age before would be brought back in the days preceding Christ's Second Coming.

After nearly two thousand years of apostasy, the world was finally ready for this Restoration to take place . . . and God called a prophet once more.  Through this prophet the Church of Jesus Christ was brought back as it had been when the Savior walked the earth, complete with twelve apostles and real authority.  Once again, God's children could enjoy the blessings that come from truly knowing what their Heavenly Father wanted them to know, and living it.  And it has grown to fill the earth, never again to be taken away.

Now Jesus warned us that false prophets would arise.  But He never said there would be no true prophets.  So how does one tell the difference?  How do we discern between a true prophet and a false prophet? 

The Savior gives us some guidance on this in Matthew 7:16-17: "Ye shall know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit."

A true prophet will do good.  He will point only to Christ; you won't see his face on a billboard or his name in lights.  He will not accept money for his preaching, nor will he use his message to gain power or influence over any other person.  He's simply doing what the Savior would do if He were here.  And those who heed his words will experience the good fruits promised, which may include peace of mind, a greater presence of the Lord's Spirit, better physical health or financial stability, a happier marriage--the list goes on, and on, and on.

And he will have true authority from God--not some school of theology or a democratic vote or an appearance on Oprah.

But you know, information alone will only take us so far.  "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.  But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man." (1 Corinthians 2:14-15)  What's the best way to know?  The Spirit of God.  As you hear the words of a prophet--truly listen and apply what is learned--then come the fruits of the Spirit as a testimony from our Heavenly Father.

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)

It's life changing.  That's why General Conference is such a big deal.  I have learned for myself, by the Spirit of God and the good fruits of living what I have learned, that God truly has sent a prophet to us in these days to guide us Home.  He loves us.  And Conference is where the prophet speaks the words the Lord would have us know right now, so we can have peace even in the turbulent world around us.

I'm excited to hear what's going to be said this weekend.  And I'm excited to talk about it.  I think we'll do that next post, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite talks from last Conference.

He is Risen! -- Thomas S. Monson
Act in All Diligence -- Henry B. Eyring
Continue in Patience -- Dieter F. Uchtdorf
The Blessing of Scripture -- D. Todd Christofferson

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