I recently read a striking blog post written by a member of the Church who wrote about her experiences with same-gender attraction. I thought the content of the article itself was notable in part because I think that the discussion of same-gender attraction in the Church is often dominated by the male perspective and it was great to hear from a female member. Ultimately, this individual married someone of the opposite sex and is now happily married to her husband. Although this is absolutely not the course for everyone, I really appreciated her perspective. I’d recommend reading her article in full.
However, I don’t really want this article to be about same-gender attraction or same-sex marriage or anything else of the sort. What stood out for me more than anything else while reading the article was that the author pointed to specific conference talks that really helped her on her journey and gave her the strength and courage to preserve when she felt down and dejected. Lo and Behold, both of the talks that she mentioned came from President Boyd K. Packer and were talks that have been widely criticized by bloggers and others. One talk from the early 1970s spoke about Worthy Music and Worthy Thoughts and urged individuals to drown out bad thoughts with the power of good hymns and has faced ongoing criticism. The second talk is President Packer’s well known talk from 2010 which drew intense criticism even from outside gay rights groups. The author of the blog post discussed her reaction to President Packer’s talk thus: “Oh, the peace and encouragement that teaching brought to me! I was not struggling in vain, and I was not betraying myself, and I was on the right path!.”
Reading this article helped me think about how inspiration works and the process of inspiration. I too have experienced the feeling while listening a conference talk that a particular talk was specifically written and delivered for me. I have also at times felt that particular talks were simply not speaking my language or connecting with my needs. This is a natural part of conference.
Elder Holland spoke about this phenomenon a few years ago:
“In the wide variety of sermons given is the assumption that there will be something for everyone . . . So if you are trying to do the best you can—if, for example, you keep trying to hold family home evening in spite of the bedlam that sometimes reigns in a houseful of little bedlamites—then give yourself high marks and, when we come to that subject, listen for another which addresses a topic where you may be lacking. If we teach by the Spirit and you listen by the Spirit, some one of us will touch on your circumstance, sending a personal prophetic epistle just to you.”
I love the idea of conference talks as “personal prophetic epistles.” As we begin to read the letters of Paul as part of our study of the New Testament in Sunday School, I hope that we will reflect on this marvelous concept. These letters were written for large numbers of people in a congregation scattered across the world and yet these letters were also deeply personal. They were the inspired word of God for the people hearing the letter. General Conference talks likewise are addressed to audiences of millions and yet through the power of the Holy Ghost can become deeply “personal prophetic epistles.”
From my personal experience I have found that certain things help me receive more from these “epistles.” I get more when I yearn for answers, write down questions, and prayerfully listen for the promptings of the spirit. Indeed, I have found that when I am listening with the proper spirit, even those talks that are not formally “for me” will teach me things. It might come in a brief phrase incidental to the main talk. It may simply come from a feeling or a confirmation by the spirit. But I do know that those revelations do come.
I have also heard countless stories in my time as a member of the Church of the process of revelation that goes into designing a conference talk. Sometimes, there will be a prompting to speak about something different than anticipated or to add a phrase or reference that does not at first make sense. When preparing lessons as a missionary or talks for sacrament meeting, I too have felt that pull to share certain scriptures or stories. The blog post reminded me that often it is the very parts of the talks that are most controversial to some that are most helpful to others. Often, the ones speaking critically about a particular talk are those who are least predisposed to listen and most predisposed to react negatively. But I think ultimately the Lord’s servants design their talks to reach the one listener down on her knees begging for insight and revelation. Something may not sound wise or pleasing to the ears, but it will resonate and come as an answer to urgent and fervent prayer.
As Elder Hales emphasized in a recent conference talk, “[w]e may not know all the reasons why the prophets and conference speakers address us with certain topics in conference, but the Lord does.”