Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jeffrey R Holland on Envy and Hope

I had the opportunity this past weekend to watch a full day (Saturday) of the sessions from the April 2012 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was really the first time I've ever watched General Conference (save an older talk here or there), let alone doing so with a group of Latter-day Saints in the chapel. I'm still processing some of the talks, but one that stuck out at me for its value was the talk delivered by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Holland's talk was anchored in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16):

Now, contrary to the surprisingly negative coverage the talk got in conference reviews like, say, the recent Saturday Conference review episode of the Mormon Expression (ME) podcast, I loved this talk. For our setting, it encapsulated the underlying message of the parable itself, namely, a warning against envy - and I loved Elder Holland's vivid depiction of envy in terms of "downing another quart of pickle juice any time anyone around you has another good moment". I think the ME reviewers were simply off-base when they charged, in essence, that Elder Holland's spin on envy and blessings was simply another way to pass off all blame on the oppressed individual found unworthy of good callings. That seems like a really jaded approach. Rather, I think what Elder Holland was saying here was largely a very healthy approach. When others experience good in their lives, there's no ground for envy because these things belong to God to distribute as he will, and he breaks faith with no one in giving some more than they bargained for; the underlying point is that the excess given to others does not diminish the goodness of what we in fact are given.

While I do somewhat agree with the ME reviewers about the unhelpfulness of Elder Holland's allusion to 'grievances' like "an incident in church history that proves no more or less than that mortals will always struggle to live up to the hope placed before them", I again have to dissent rom them when it comes to the thrust of what Elder Holland said about the expansive reach and indefatigable perseverance of "divine love". There was an undercurrent through a number of the talks about the need to continue pursuing those who've left the LDS Church (or, at least, activity therein), in hopes of winning them back; for instance, Richard C. Edgley spoke during the General Priesthood Session a story about an inactive member who had prayed for the courage to return. The ME reviewers seemed to mostly focus on how none of this discussion really grasped their perspective on their condition. Little attention was given to the value of Elder Holland's approach, which stressed that God's love for the 'apostate' is not diminished - with the clear underlying implication that perhaps this is a love that faithful Latter-day Saints should model. Given what the LDS Church is, this seems like precisely the loving stance it ought to take without sacrificing its truth claims, and so I don't think that ME reviewers are being quite fair to the Church in demanding further progress in their direction, as they seemed to be doing. On the plus side, the ME reviewers did appreciate - in the midst of a bit of understandable snark - Elder Holland's beautiful comment that perhaps God's favorite part of being God is "the thrill of being merciful".

While there are some things that can legitimately be critiqued in Elder Holland's talk, I don't shy away from saying that I found it to be the best talk out of the entire day of General Conference sessions. (I haven't yet listened to Sunday's talks.) If I may interject a bit of mild snark myself, it's the one I heard that actually reached the standard of quality that I'd expect from a Christian pastor elsewhere. I suspect that there may be a connection between this and the fact that Elder Holland has a doctorate in American Studies, with a dissertation on the 'religious sense' of Mark Twain.

At any rate, for those of my readers who didn't see anything from General Conference and don't have the time to wade through all of the talks, this is one I'd recommend as perhaps being most edifying, not just for Latter-day Saints but in general.

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