This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 368th week, and we’re covering the Saturday morning session of the October 1999 General Conference.

It’s been a long time since I started this General Conference Odyssey way back in 2015. I stuck with it really well through about 2019 and had another good chunk in 2020, but I missed pretty much all of 2021 and 2022. One of my goals is to stick with it again throughout 2023. Eventually I’ll go back and fill in all the gaps, but I don’t know when that will be.

Although I’ve been mostly out of it the past couple of years, Jan Tolman, Marilyn Nielson, and recently Rozy as well have really been keeping the fire burning, and I’m incredibly grateful to them. 

I mentioned that I was reading 1999 to my wife and she mentioned, “Oh yeah, that was about when they talked about earrings.” It cracked me up that she remembered that. I didn’t like the counsel (for women to not wear more than one pair of earrings) because my wife–who I knew at the time and liked–had more than one pair and I thought it was cute. It annoyed me when she took the extra earrings out. I respected her following through on the counsel. I just thought the counsel was kind of dumb.

I’d love to tell you that, with 2 decades of experience since then, I now recognize the wisdom of the counsel. I don’t. It still annoys me. Elder Featherstone, in his talk One Link Still Holds, said: 

Aren’t you proud that the Church teaches us the truth? We don’t have to wonder about earrings for boys and men, tattoos, spiked hair, the four-letter words, and obscene gestures. We have prophets who model the standards. They teach that the Ten Commandments are not outdated.

I am very, very proud that we have a Church that teaches us the truth. But when I think of the truth the Church teaches, I think of our testament to the divinity of Christ and the Restoration. That the Heavens are not closed, and that we have loving Heavenly Parents who are still engaged with us individually and historically. I am not proud of the fact that we got instructions about earrings. I find it vaguely humiliating–like having your parents straighten out your clothes in front of your friends or something–and I’m glad that the most recent For Strength of Youth is moving away from these explicit, detail-oriented rules. The idea that the truths I’d be proud of the Church for standing by would included earrings is, frankly, just weird.

This quibble over earrings is an example of the kind of minor annoyance that I see as a cheap price to pay for all the blessings that come with the Church. If your expectation is that the Church will be an obvious and unmitigated good in your life at all times–always telling you things you wanted to hear anyway–you’ve got some really weird expectations. It’s a community. There are lots of people in it. And that means parts of it are going to annoy you. Sometimes because someone else does something dumb–or because we have to have a rule that is designed to support people who are weak in areas where you are strong–and sometimes because you are the one being dumb or in need of especially strict, obvious counsel because you’re weak. Good luck telling which is which.

The only reason I’m writing about this is to point out that I love the Church anyway. Same goes for this General Conference session. I could pick out more quotes that sort of had me scratching my head or even cringing. But why would I do that? Once–to set up the rest of this post–sure. But more than that? No.

Did my parents ever embarrass me growing up? Yeah, of course. And I’m sure I have embarrassed my kids, too. But I loved and respected my parents. Why would I let the few things they did that embarrassed me be the things I focused on? The feelings I have towards my parents are dominated by gratitude and love for all they sacrificed for and taught to me. Even if they really did get a few trivial things wrong… who cares? That’s not what defines them and I’m not going to let it define my relationship to them either.

So let me talk about what I learned from this session that I do appreciate. The overarching theme, across most of the talks, was the duty of parents to vouchsafe the opportunities and testimonies of the next generation. Elder Ben B. Banks quoted a poem that ended, “when sheep are lost, what a terrible cost / the lambs will have to pay”. Elder Featherstone referenced Elder McConkie’s father, who taught that:

when we violate any commandment, however small, our youth may choose to violate a commandment later on in life perhaps 10 times or 100 times worse and justify it on the basis of the small commandment we broke.

Elder Neil L. Andersen said:

We will at times fall short as parents. I know I do. But we must begin again. The Lord sees our righteous efforts and will open the blessings of heaven as we give our families our highest priority. My brothers and sisters… we must be even more serious in our family stewardship.

I love this emphasis on family, and I am especially proud of our understanding that family relationships on Earth are an echo and a preparation of and for family relationships in Heaven. Elder Maxwell taught that “a loving God will inevitably be a tutoring Father…A tutoring God may require difficult things of His children” and that “if we have a love of God and know His goodness, we will trust Him, even when we are puzzled or perplexed.”

These days it seems that a lot of Latter-day Saints struggle with perfectionism and scrupulosity, which is “pathological guilt/anxiety about moral or religious issues” and “a recognized diagnostic criterion for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder” (Wikipedia). The exacting standards advocated by Elders Featherstong and Andersen could be a real stumbling block for folks with that predisposition. I’m sensitive to that. But–without at all denying the burdens of those who struggle with scrupulosity–I think we can also stress that the General Authorities aren’t preaching some kind of graceless, checklist religion where you earn your way into heaven. They are, rather, emphasizing the importance of caring for our children as much as we can. 

To drive that point home–and to understand the teachings from this session in the way I believe they were intended–I want to wrap up with President Monson’s summary for the reason behind all this emphasis on work and diligence and even exactness. 

Our Heavenly Father gave His Son. The Son of God gave His life. We are asked by Them to give our lives, as it were, in Their divine service. Will you? Will I? Will we? There are lessons to be taught, there are kind deeds to be done, there are souls to be saved.

The exacting standards, the emphasis on obedience–even in seemingly trivial matters like grooming–are in the service of kindness, love, compassion, and concern. That’s the spirit in which these lessons were taught, and its the spirit in which we should hear them.

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