Here’s a talk I gave at church.

A few years ago I was at an Air Force base in Honduras with the National Guard. Lovely place, up in the highlands. Pine forests and temperate. The group of us had a day off and decided to go exploring. We poked around in the little town and ended up on the outskirts at a gorgeous waterfall. Since we were not in the United States, there were no guard rails and we were free to get down in the waterfall and compete to see how much of the pounding force we could take, or to climb up top and compete to see how close to the edge we could get. We were young men and full of blood, so being free to do those things, we did those things. It was a beautiful experience. The water was clear and gorgeous. It sparkled like crystals in the sunshine. When we got back to base, the regulars there were appalled. “Don’t you know,” they said, “that the town discharges its untreated sewage a few miles upstream?” We didn’t know, of course. The water looked pure. But the most important thing about our waterfall experience turned out to be something we could not see, something we had no control over, that had already happened miles upstream. The vomiting and the diarrhea started a few hours later. It continued the rest of our tour.

We Mormons talk a lot about agency and making decisions. But sometimes our decisions are already deeply shaped by unseen influences that have happened elsewhere and subtly been imported into our lives. Sometimes we don’t even realize we face a decision, because these upstream influences have already shaped who we are and made the decision unthinkable.

We follow the prophets. Most of the world has not decided to reject the prophets. They have not made a decision at all, because the whole idea of following a religious authority with obedience is to far outside their experience. Their mental tools just cannot grasp it. Their culture does not have room for such a decision to even make sense.

Of course, their culture is the one we are in too. And the culture’s basic assumptions permeate what we are exposed to. We cannot fully control it, or even know it.

Everyone got sick in our group except me. I had been downing about a bottle of Tabasco sauce each day, for no particular reason. But the result was that I stayed well.

We cannot exclude the unseen influences of the world. We can only counteract them. Church attendance, General Conference, home teaching, service, family, scripture study, all have important obvious reasons for being. But the most important reason is the way they shape us, downstream. Their biggest effects are the hidden ones. Subtly, unseen, they make us into who we are.

I like the metaphors in Conference talks. They hae obvious uses—they make teaching points easier to understand. But I believe they have a use that is less than obvious. I believe they shape our imagination and unconscious, so that gospel principles that are alien to the world can still be homely and sensible to us.

Here are two that I recently read. One is from a conference a long time ago. It’s about Karl. G Maeser, the German convert to the church in the early days who founded BYU and led missions back to Europe.

Karl G. Maeser was taking a group of missionaries across the Alps. As they reached a summit, he stopped. Gesturing back down the trail to some poles set in the snow to mark the way across the glacier, he said, “Brethren, there stands the Priesthood. They are just common sticks like the rest of us … but the position they hold makes them what they are to us. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost.”

And just from last General Conference, Elder Ballard talked about staying on the good ship Zion, where God is at the helm. We are safer on the ship even if we think it would be better steered a few points to one side or the other. It is never faster to jump overboard and swim. As we have seen, the ones who jump overboard in the conviction that there is a better destination soon lose thought of any destination at all, and flounder in meaningless, like sailors drowning in the water.

We are needed on the ship. This is where our duty lies.

What I did not add was that imagination is a powerful tool to get outside the platitudes of our secular world, but it too must be disciplined and trained with upstream inputs and daily habits.


Continue reading at the original source →