For a very brief period of time, I was called to provide Relief Society lesson recaps. When I was initially given the calling, I was told that my insights were wanted. “Are you sure about that?” I asked the Relief Society President, incredulous. “Have you spoken with the bishop?”
She assured me that she had (I'd had a meeting with the bishop about my faith situation, and he was supportive), and she still wanted my thoughts.
The first recap went pretty well since it was straightforward. Everyone loved it and it went up on the Facebook group page immediately. I warned her that the next couple would be hard for me because the lessons were lessons I struggle with. She assured me that my thoughts would be welcome.
After turning in a recap that included two lessons, we all realized that my thoughts are probably best left inside my head (or on this blog, which no one actually reads). The Relief Society President and her counselors came up with some guidelines for the calling. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I'm unable to remain and complete the calling, so it's out of my hands.
However, as I told the Relief Society President, who expressed regret that my work should be wasted, a blogger lets nothing go to waste. So here is the lesson recap that never was.
Two Relief Society Lesson Recaps
This recap includes the last two lessons, both of which were — to be honest — difficult for me. Unlike the previous recap, which was easy to manage because the message was so hopeful, I’ve spent some time (with conference week to add to my thoughts) reviewing these lessons and trying to organize my thoughts.
We are in an interesting time in the development of the Church. From a sociological standpoint, everything that is happening right now is so fascinating. Leadership is trying to be more open about the messy aspects of the past, while at the same time not being too open (as Elder Packer once said, “Some things that are true are not very useful”). There is interest in retaining doubters as members, but without getting to the point where questions overwhelm the contented faithful. The ongoing release of the Gospel Topics essays on LDS.org has been one way to attempt to navigate these choppy waters.
Other attempts at this precarious balancing act are made through conference talks, like those we examine in Relief Society. Unfortunately, I feel discouraged by some of these talks. Neither of the talks discussed at the end of March provided an uplift for me when they were delivered, and it wasn’t much better in round two. However, I understand that many others love these talks and draw inspiration from them. This is only natural since we are all individuals with varying responses to what we encounter in life. But, since I’m doing the recap, you get my view of things which is more of a critique. Aren’t you lucky?
The Struggle with Faith
Rarely do we think about legitimate, complex reasons that people struggle with their faith. A talk I enjoyed more than the one we discussed about just staying on “the old ship of Zion” was Elder Uchtdorf’s from the October 2013 conference titled “Come Join With Us.” It was an invitation for us to empathize with those who are struggling, and an encouragement for those struggling to look for the good. I also enjoyed Sister Wixom’s address during the most recent conference, “Returning to Faith,” since it was an invitation to engage with our faith, no matter where we feel we are at. Too often we view faith as something that we have, or we don’t, rather than a journey that we are on — and that changes for us with the passage of time and experience.
My faith is heavily nuanced, and talks like Uchtdorf’s and Wixom’s acknowledge and validate the struggle in a way that resonates with me more than “Stay in the Boat.” I suspect that’s why conference talks sometimes seem to have widely different feels to them, and why God chooses leaders with such different personalities. Many sisters in our ward doubtless draw strength and edification from talks like those we discussed a couple weeks ago, and that’s great. For the rest of us, there are other talks and other speakers to draw inspiration from. When we listen to conference there’s something for everyone.
I did enjoy our discussion about entitlement versus getting help during Relief Society. It’s an important distinction. However, I often struggle with these discussions because they tend to focus on the extreme end of the spectrum. The story from the talk elicited chuckles, but the reality, when you look at the numbers, is that very few people feel that level of entitlement. In fact, what is often missed as we begin skewering government programs, is the fact that most people are on welfare for less than five years, and that the food stamp program has a relatively low level of fraud. The other item we often overlook is to do with the sad reality that the majority of those benefiting from public assistance (welfare, SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) are the elderly, veterans, and children — and that many of the households receiving public assistance are the households of the working poor. Of course there are people who game the system and commit fraud. We don’t live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the relatively few bad apples and assume that the few cases of fraud we hear about are somehow representative of the majority.
A conference talk that resonated much more with me was Elder Holland’s from the October 2014 conference. “Are We Not All Beggars?” encourages us to look at all the advantages we have in life, and then apply our energies toward the Christlike effort to relieve those in need. It’s easy for us to to take things for granted while railing against the “entitlement” attitude of others; it’s harder for us to realize that we have particular advantages and that where much has been given us, our Heavenly Father requires us to give to others. Sometimes without worrying about whether or not we think they “deserve” it.
Hail to the Man
President Benson’s testimony of Joseph Smith is powerful. He points out that the Prophet Joseph restored the gospel to the earth, along with the authority to act in God’s name. This is significant because it allows the work of salvation and exaltation to move forward. One of the things that strikes me about this lesson, however, is that it dwells a great deal on Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, as well as his virtues.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. I sometimes think that we would benefit, though, from a discussion of the fact that he was also human and possessed human foibles. Sometimes we get caught up in hero worship and forget that even prophets make mistakes; after all, the only perfect person was Jesus Christ. To me, understanding that Joseph Smith had human failings offers a greater testimony. After all, if God could work with an imperfect vessel like Joseph Smith, he can work through any of us!
The good news is that we don’t need to think that Joseph Smith was perfect in order to believe that he restored the Church of Jesus Christ and started a great work. The truthfulness of the gospel doesn’t rely on whether or not Joseph Smith was a perfect man. However, your testimony of the gospel depends on whether or not you believe God could work through him.