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Jay Evensen: What the 'biggest' news from October 2018 general conference really was

Several weeks ago, after writing about the persistent drought in the Western United States, I got an email from a reader who said he had a solution: Keep the Sabbath holy.

He quoted Leviticus 26:2-5, which promises, among other things, “rain in due season” to those who, the Lord said, “keep my Sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary.”

Well, of course. It’s hard to find a scripture with a more direct cause and effect to a problem vexing much of the nation.

We had a cordial exchange of thoughts, ending with the mutual feeling that the idea of making the Sabbath a day of spiritual devotion was going the way of Kodak film and rotary phones, and that this probably is true even among many active Church members.

Shows what little vision I have.

Many Church members might believe the biggest news to come out of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last weekend was that, beginning in January, church will be only two hours each Sunday.

But as momentous a lifestyle changer as that is, the biggest news to me is that the leaders not only honor the agency of Church members, they have faith that people will use that agency to strengthen themselves and their families.

Elder David A, Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Elder David A, Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Or, as Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The Sunday meeting schedule was not simply shortened. Rather, we now have increased opportunities and responsibilities as individuals and families to use our time for enhancing the Sabbath as a delight at home and at Church.”

Those “increased opportunities and responsibilities” mean we have the chance to exercise our agency. It’s up to us. We can go to two hours of Church and turn the rest of the day into something that resembles the other six days of the week, or we can make it something that evokes the promises in Leviticus, which also include plentiful harvests and dwelling “in your land safely” — not a small thing in this age of terrorism and cyberattacks.

To help us, the Church has released a study guide called “Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families,” which arrived on my telephone recently.

This follows the change six months ago, in which home and visiting teaching programs were transformed from a set pattern of visits into something that requires members to look for inspiration and to undergo a measure of growth themselves.

Clearly, the brethren have faith that Church members will use their agency wisely. As President Russell M. Nelson put it, “The new home-centered, Church-supported integrated curriculum has the potential to unleash the power of families, as each family follows through conscientiously and carefully to transform their home into a sanctuary of faith."

That’s a powerful vision, which he followed up with an even more powerful promise:

“I promise that as you diligently work to remodel your home into a center of gospel learning, over time your Sabbath days will be a delight. Your children will be excited to learn and to live the Savior’s teachings, and the influence of the adversary in your life and home will decrease. Changes in your family will be dramatic and sustaining.”

The "Come, Follow Me" curriculum will play a key role in the new Sunday church schedule.
The "Come, Follow Me" curriculum will play a key role in the new Sunday church schedule. Photo: Deseret News

Any family trying to live right in a world where the internet and a prime-time family hour that has morphed into something from the Las Vegas Strip make parenting a daunting challenge ought to long for those blessings.

As I think about it, this follows a pattern that has been evident through much of my lifetime. We’ve always had the agency to make the Sabbath what it ought to be, but the Church used to fill almost every waking moment of the day with something official in a meetinghouse. When I was a kid, we drove to Church and back several times each Sunday, beginning early in the morning. Then came the three-hour block in 1980.

I was on my mission at the time, reciting official lessons word-for-word in another language while trying to keep investigators awake. That has changed, too. Now, missionaries are given a book called “Preach My Gospel,” which says, “the lessons do not tell you everything to say — or how to say it. Instead, you are responsible to thoroughly understand the lessons and teach by the Spirit in your own words.”

All this freedom can seem a little scary. But it’s necessary. As President Joseph Fielding Smith once said, “What would salvation mean to you if you were compelled?”

It seems counterintuitive in some ways for the Church to approach an increasingly hostile world with a strategy that puts more of the solution into the hands of individuals. But when you view it in the light of a gospel that makes individuals accountable for their salvation, it isn’t counterintuitive at all.

My email friend and I lacked that vision when it came to the drought. Church members will honor the Sabbath. For their own sakes, they must.

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