General Conference: Feeling Tossed on the Old Ship Zion
For the most part I’m a fan of General Conference. I like to spend Saturdays working on a project, headphones on and hearing counsel and stories about the gospel. Sundays I turn it on in the kitchen and try to listen as I simultaneously instruct the kids on the proper way to make frijoles or corn chowder or whatever yumminess we’ll eat during the break between session. Sunday afternoon is spent in a food coma in the basement, drifting in and out of sleep as I recline on the futon. Some talks I like. Some bug me. But I usually walk away a little more committed and renewed. But this past weekend, I felt pulled in two different directions and I’m a little queasy as a result.
My favorite speaker is always Jeffrey Holland. I love his intelligence. I love his relationship with his wife Pat (she is his equal, not his “sweet companion”) and that comes out in how he talks about and to women. I love that he always has a thesis and sticks with it (English major here). His Saturday afternoon talk focused on how the Savior’s first “messianic call” was to care for the poor. “The great Redeemer has issued no more persistent call than for us to join him in lifting this heavy burden from the people.” He really hit home our duty to “seek opportunities to care for the poor.” Aside from fast offerings, he promised that God “will guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.”
And other talks made reference to serving in our communities and as communities. I delighted in hearing Elder Wong talk (in Cantonese!!) about the absolute need to “Rescue in Unity.” “We can all help one another,” he said. “We should always be anxiously engaged in seeking to rescue those in need. … When we assist (Jesus Christ) in his mission of saving souls, we too will be rescued in the process.” I felt the truth of their admonitions. As I say to my teenage son who no longer identifies as Mormon, “I don’t care as much if you believe in Christ as I do that you act like Christ.”
But there was another theme: the need to put family gospel study first. This was referenced many times, most particularly by Elder Scott who focused on the necessity of making one’s family the center of all our efforts. On Sunday afternoon he spoke of four tools. And here is where I started to feel guilty. And stressed. And confused. But don’t mistake my anxiety as disapproval or dislike because I actually believe in the benefits of his four tools:
1) Family Prayer morning and night is “nonnegotiable priority in daily life, more important than sleep, school, media…”
2) Scripture Study as a family, same as above
3) FHE needs to be every Monday night and nothing, not “employment, sports, homework” should stand in the way.
4) Attend the Temple.
I kinda wanted to cry, because as a SAHM who is actively trying to raise her family in the gospel, I WANT these things in my life. I TRY to do these things but fail. Majorly. Especially if the standard for success is Every. Single. Day. Twice. Whatever happened to the lovely vagueness of the word “regular?” Regular prayer and scripture study are goals I can live with. But nonnegotiable rocks my boat, because I cannot prioritize my family as Scott urges and also serve those around me in the way Holland envisions.
As I listened to Elder Scott, I started to picture two versions of Elder Ballard’s “Old Ship Zion.” One ship is large, filled with many souls. Sometimes I have to leave my kids on the poop deck to go into the galley and wash dishes or play shuffleboard with a widow who desperately needs the company. Scriptures are not always studied because my time and attention are spent elsewhere, mending sails and swabbing decks. But my kids are learning to work and serve as well. Yet when I think of Scott’s focus on shoring up my family, I see me and my kids on a small boat, a dinghy of sorts. The only way I can make those four tools a regular part of our lives is to isolate ourselves. Become the Swiss Family Robinson. If I am going to make it happen, I cannot pull other people onto my boat.
I freely admit that my life is better when I have managed to make prayer and scriptures a regular part of our lives. There is a peace. But there is also a price. Because FHE is not simply 4o minutes on Monday night. It means meals and homework and lessons and projects all have to be dealt with ahead of time, often at great cost. It means preparing a spiritual message that a 17 year old and an 8 year old will listen to. And nobody’s mad, but all those tasks usually fall on the woman’s shoulders. So as Elder Scott talks about the peace brought by these tasks, I feel a little resentful because if any of it is going to happen, the tasks will be mine and mine alone. It ain’t right, but that’s how it is for me and most of the women I know. So we hear this counsel, and we want the benefits but just don’t know if we are capable of paying the price. What (or who) will we have to toss overboard to keep our family afloat?
I am torn because I know I cannot heed both orders. I cannot serve in my ward and community, as I love to, as Holland and Wong urge us to, if my days are filled with nonnegotiable obligations. If I go out in the evening for a lecture, exercise, visiting teachings, service, then family prayers and scriptures will not happen.
And here is where I miss Chieko Okazaki. If she were around she would be tossing me a life vest, and a Diet Coke, telling me that of course I cannot do it all. She might say this: “[Heather], I think that many Mormon women do not have clear boundaries for themselves. They feel a sense of confusion about who they are, because many competing voices lay claim to them and they try to accommodate them all…. Remember, a boundary has ‘yes’ on one side and ‘no’ on the other. A woman who never feels that she can say ‘no’ is lacking an important element of personal identity and, hence, personal safety. A woman who also feels that she can never say ‘yes’ has an equally serious problem in her inability to move beyond her own boundaries.” (https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/…/article/download/391/369)
So I come away from General Conference with lots to think about: my role as a mother, a sister, a friend, a disciple, a part of a community. I know I will have to find my own answers, my own balance. Choices will be made and I will live with the consequences. Ultimately it is Elder Uchtodorf words that provide a lifeline: “We are all pilgrims, seeking God’s light as we journey on the path of discipleship.” And in my quiet moments, I can almost see the sun on the horizon.
How do you reconcile what feel like conflicting admonitions from Church leaders? What talks felt like life preservers? What make you feel like walking the plank?