"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
March 23, 2015
The Gifts of Conference
by Orson Scott Card

For many Latter-day Saints, each General Conference means a one-Sunday holiday from normal church callings. No Primary, no Sunday school, no Young Women, no Relief Society, no priesthood quorum lessons; no ward council or PEC, no bishopric meeting. No talks to prepare or give.

And, now that the internet and BYU TV make conference meetings almost universally accessible at home, no need to put on Sunday attire. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the conference audience consists of people in pajamas.

But some people are working especially hard during General Conference. The Tabernacle Choir and organists are giving their semi-annual concert, and whatever guest choruses take part have worked themselves hard to prepare for their performance.

Broadcasters work intensely to shape the experience of us who watch on television. The ushers, security agents, teleprompter operators, and building cleaners won't be getting a day off.

Many of the interpreters no longer give simultaneous translations -- a couple of good friends who translate into African languages now go to Salt Lake City the week after General Conference, because the broadcast in their languages is on a one-week delay. But other interpreters are there in force during General Conference, working far more intensely than the speakers themselves: Interpretation takes astonishing levels of concentration and mental gymnastics.

And then there's the Ensign staff. When I worked at the Ensign back in 1976 and 1977, nobody got time off during the Saturday and Sunday of General Conference. We had already spent the week before doing the initial edit of the advance copies of the talks. When editing General Authority speeches, we used a very light hand -- really, we only looked for typographical errors. And because the General Authorities have excellent secretaries, such mistakes were exceedingly rare.

But during the talks themselves, we maintained near silence throughout the Ensign offices, because we had to hear every word that each speaker said, and, when they varied from the prepared manuscript, we had to note what was actually said.

Sometimes, the speaker merely misread the words on the teleprompter; sometimes, though, the change was, or might be, deliberate. Our job wasn't to guess which was which. We noted every difference.

And remember, when I worked at the Ensign, nobody had VCRs, let alone computers that could allow us to back up and hear something again, to make sure. We had to function in real time and miss nothing.

After Conference, we then submitted a copy of the amended speech to the speaker, who decided which changes to accept. They helped us get the Conference issues out on time by giving us very quick turnaround.

There were two exceptions to this pattern. Elder LeGrand Richards, who had first begun to give Conference talks before they had to adhere to the strict timetables of broadcasters, did not like writing his talks in advance. He would come to the pulpit and simply talk to the members of the Church. Sometimes this meant that he went over his time -- I remember his commenting that the light was blinking and so they must want him to stop talking.

But because we didn't have a pre-written manuscript in front of us, we couldn't very well edit the text. All his words were new! So his secretary would transcribe his talk from a recording immediately after Conference, and we would then do an edit looking for typos.

Elder Richards was the only one who didn't write down his talk -- seniority has its benefits. But there was someone else who differed from the normal pattern: Elder Thomas S. Monson.

Elder Monson submitted his talk in advance, and we did our normal edit. But when he stood up to speak, it was as if the teleprompter didn't exist.

He paraphrased everything. The meaning was still there, and his talks followed exactly the pattern of what he had written in advance. But almost no sentence was delivered as written. We speculated that either he was looking at the teleprompter and then changing the words, or he had memorized the talk and was now speaking freely, so it sounded natural.

And it always did sound natural -- he clearly wasn't reading the words he said, and they didn't sound memorized, either. It was undoubtedly part of the reason that his talks always sounded so warm and friendly, as if he were speaking with us rather than at us.

But the nightmare of editing his talks was something that I think they foisted on whoever was the newest editor on the staff. Certainly I got my turn early on, and wow, did I have to write fast, because his changes proceeded faster than any human could write.

By then, however, the other editors already knew the secret: No matter how many changes he made while giving his talk, Elder Monson always returned the heavily amended manuscript with the notation: Print it as originally written.

That's right. The talk that appeared in the Ensign was the one that was on the teleprompters, not the wordings he actually used when speaking.

And then, realizing how much work the Ensign editors were doing every Conference, he send a memo to the effect that we could skip the heroics and plan on printing the text as written.

I have no idea whether he still works that way. I suspect not -- because nowadays, anybody can record conference and then compare the Ensign text to the talk as it was given. You know there are people who would lose their testimony -- or cancel their Ensign subscription -- if the printed text did not match the talk as given.

A lot can change in three decades, so my experience in the late 1970s may be nothing like the procedures used today. One side effect of my work as an editor on Conference talks, though, lingers to this day: I learned to pay minute attention to every word spoken by the General Authorities.

Not that I hadn't already been a regular Conference listener. I grew up in a family that treated General Conference like the high holidays. Whenever possible, my parents used Conference as an excuse to make the long drive, with six kids in the car, from Santa Clara, California, to Salt Lake City, where we would fill up our grandparents' house. When our cousins from Benton City, Washington, came to Conference at the same time, that house was full.

Since every daytime session of Conference was broadcast in Salt Lake City, we kids were expected to gather in the living room and watch. Silently. Because, as was occasionally pointed out to us, we attended Conference in order to listen.

Not that the adults obeyed the same rule -- but when they spoke to each other, it was to comment on the topic of the speech, or on the apparent health of the speaker. This was not a moot point in my grandparents' house -- my father's mother was Elder LeGrand Richards's sister, and my father's father was the brother of President Hugh B. Brown's wife. This meant that to my parents, the General Authorities were of the "uncle-and-aunt" generation, and everyone kept close watch on their health.

Since my mother had sung with the Tabernacle Choir when she lived in Salt Lake City, it meant a lot to her to get up early on Conference Sunday in order to attend Music and the Spoken Word in the Tabernacle, after which she would stay in her seat and watch the Sunday morning session. Whenever she went, she took one or more of the children with her. I remember how much I loved the Choir broadcast, and how much I hated the horrible benches in the Tabernacle. Surely it should count as martyrdom to sit there for every session.

But Church members used to have to attend Conference and sit for however many hours each session lasted. Not that anyone forced them! But when you knew President Brigham Young might announce the formation of a new mission and then name those called to serve on that mission from the pulpit, you pretty much had to be there in order to find out whether you were going to pack up and leave with your family to raise cotton or grapes in Southern Utah, or whatever other mission the President of the Church might have in mind.

In the 19th century, the Brethren weren't yet as cautious about what they said from the pulpit in General Conference. They felt free to speak whatever speculations about the gospel were on their mind, even if they later came to a better understanding. Some of them remembered the free-wheeling discussions that took place in the School of the Prophets, and that spirit of exploration was still very much alive among the Brethren; inevitably it sometimes spilled over into what they said in Conference.

Since then, however, the General Authorities have had many opportunities to learn that if something they said could be misconstrued, it would be. During my lifetime, Conference talks have been far more cautious. In fact, when I was young, the talks were often cautious to the point of dullness. During my lifetime, General Authorities have tended to become much more creative in the way they approach their topics -- and in the topics they choose to speak about.

It's rare to hear a talk now that seems to have had the working title "Ruminations on Faith" or "Thoughts about Repentance." The Sunday morning sessions (the ones you had to sit through in the Tabernacle if you attended the Choir broadcast) seemed to have been written with a keen awareness of the fact that the Sunday morning session was the one most frequently broadcast in areas outside of Utah.

This is no surprise. Sunday morning was not a remunerative time for local television stations, and since the Mormons only asked for two Sundays a year, they could often be talked into offering the time for free. But Saturday and Sunday afternoons were for sports, which paid well, and Saturday morning was devoted to kiddy shows and cartoons -- which were sacred to the parents who wanted to sleep in while the TV tended the kids.

And the Friday sessions -- yes, in the ancient days when I was young, General Conference lasted three days -- were never broadcast outside Utah, because they would have cut into the soap operas. In fact, I wonder if they were broadcast inside Utah. Oh, of course they were -- the Church owned the CBS station KSL (before it switched to NBC) and if people missed the Friday soaps twice a year, it would be good for their souls.

Because Sunday sessions were the ones most likely to be watched by non-members, somebody always gave a talk about Christ's atonement and resurrection -- whether it was the Easter season or October. As a kid, it seemed to me that this was always the same talk, as if they handed it around, saying, "This year it's your turn to give the atonement talk." (This was never true; I'm just telling you how it seemed to me as a lad.)

Today, topics are usually narrowed down and sharpened, and some speakers are noted for tackling sensitive and unusual topics. Elder Packer seemed to lead the way on this thirty years ago, which in some years made his talks the most useful, interesting, and, of course, controversial. But soon enough, apostles like Elder Oaks and Elder Scott picked up that tradition, and now any General Authority might surprise us with his topic or the way he chooses to handle it.

Contrary to what many members suppose, topics for General Authority talks are not assigned. I don't believe they ever were, though I might be wrong; I believe that each apostle and other General Authority was trusted to receive inspiration. Indeed, one reason why we might be getting more talks on finely narrowed topics is because the speakers must live in dread of writing a talk, only to hear someone else speak on the same topic, using the same scriptures!

The only defense against that is to fill your talk with stories. President Monson has long led the way with this. Even if you give a talk on exactly the same topic as President Monson's talk, you won't have any of his stories! So it makes perfect sense for everyone to tell personal stories, either from their own experiences or those of others.

And that is all to the good. Long quotations from scripture are both boring and unnecessary. Regular Conference watchers are likely to have read those scriptures -- and recently, too. While those who rarely watch Conference will be quickly put off by long passages of King James language.

In fact, when I give sacrament meeting talk assignments in our ward, I make it a point to ask speakers to tell stories from the scriptures in their own words, but not to use quotations longer than a verse or two. Stories! That's what makes a talk fascinating and effective, whether the stories come from the speaker's own life or from the scriptures or Church history.

Since I have memories of Conference talks from the 1950s to today, I think I can speak with some authority in saying that the talks are better than ever -- by orders of magnitude. Not everyone called to be an Apostle or other General Authority is a born speaker, but they all work hard and learn to be better.

I remember one Apostle whose speaking style was a sonorous, sweet-sounding drone that made it difficult for anyone to stay awake, let alone alert enough to hear what he was saying. But within a few years, that same Apostle was giving such sharply conceived, hard-hitting talks that what he is saying now keeps us on our toes, and his talks are always among the most effective and memorable.

He's not the only one who has gotten better and better over time; even those who began as impressive speakers grow deeper and more probing in the way they speak and the things they choose to say, as time goes by.

My love of Conference wasn't born in the trips to Utah to see family at Conference time, however. Where we lived in California, the Sunday sessions were usually broadcast, and in my parents' house, that was the only occasion when our television was allowed to watched on Sunday. (That's right, we did not watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Though somehow I have memories of watching Bonanza, which was only broadcast on Sunday....)

We would gather in our own living room and watch and listen. My parents are both perceptive gospel students and teachers -- our home was filled with books by prophets and other General Authorities, as well as gospel scholars and defenders of the faith. I read them, and always found that my father, at least, had read them first, so that we could always talk about the ideas that came up.

The same was true with Conference. At home, we kids could speak and make comments and ask questions, and if sometimes we missed part of a talk because we were conversing about a question that one of us had raised, or listening to one of our parents comment on a particular point, it was all to the good. We didn't just passively receive Conference -- we took part, at least in the little congregation in our living room.

And then there were the General Priesthood meetings, which for many years were transmitted to meetinghouses as sound only. We would gather in our Sunday clothes on Saturday night and listen closely. We hadn't yet been spoiled by television; in fact, most of the adults had grown up in the heyday of radio, and the idea of sitting still and listening to words without pictures didn't frighten any of us.

So when I worked at the Ensign, I was merely continuing a lifelong custom of paying close attention to the words spoken in General Conference. Only now the attention I paid was even more intense, and has continued that way to the present.

Fortunately, I married someone even more obsessive about Conference attendance than I was, and so our children grew up in a house where we looked forward to General Conference and made it a point to be home watching every session. For the past ten years or so, we have also invited my home teaching families to watch with us, so that on Sunday, at least, it's a convivial time -- akin to Superbowl Sunday, except that the "game" is played twice on the same day, and we have all the food during the two hours between.

As a seminary teacher, my wife also encourages all her students to attend, listening closely to every session. She gives them forms with spaces for the name of each speaker, the topic, and important points they want to note down from that talk.

Then, on the Monday morning after General Conference, they spend the whole seminary class period talking about the speeches that they valued the most, and the questions that might have come up. Once they've listened to General Conference with that level of attention and concentration, we hope that they will continue watching as a lifelong habit.

The truth is, however, that we don't actually watch "General Conference" -- not the way we watch the Superbowl or the Oscars. That's because General Conference is a series of individual talks, and each one is its own event.

Between talks there are lovely shots of the Conference Center interior, and we get to listen to some very good music. But what matters are the words spoken to us by prophets, seers, and revelators, and others whom they invite to speak. And the other part of the equation is the spirit and wisdom we bring to the conversation: How do these teachings make sense within our lives?

Because General Conference is not a place where we receive radical new doctrines. No, let me clarify: If we were to receive radical new doctrines, they would be expounded in General Conference, certainly; but the Lord rarely gives us "new" doctrine, for the simple reason that we have all the information about eternal verities that we actually need.

The prophets do not use General Conference to teach us what to think; they teach us what to do. The Lord is less interested in our having correct opinions than in our living correct lives.

It is an article of faith that the Lord will yet reveal many great and wonderful things, but look at how these ideas have come to us in the past. We were not taught an elaborate construct about the afterlife; we were told that we should perform baptisms for the dead.

Thus we were reassured that those who died without having heard the gospel of Christ were not damned or abandoned by their Father in heaven, and a large amount of error was swept away. But this knowledge came to us as an action we were expected to perform.

Temples are not built for us to admire; they are built for us to attend, and within their walls we receive ordinances for ourselves and perform them for others. The temple is a place of action -- even if the action sometimes takes the form of symbolic teaching. When we stand in the presence of God, we do not contemplate or ponder, we have a conversation and perform actions.

Likewise, when the General Authorities speak to us in Conference, they do not stand before us for our admiration. They are not celebrities. They are human beings who have reached a certain level of obedience and spirituality, and while we might do well to emulate them, their purpose is to tell us how to live in order to be happy and to share happiness with others.

Who are these apostles and prophets who speak to us? Remember that these offices were conferred on them by prophecy and by the laying on of hands by those having authority. They weren't born as prophets. There were no childhood miracles.

This was the main blessing I received from growing up thinking and speaking of two of the Apostles as "Uncle LeGrand" and "Uncle Hugh." Being related to a General Authority gives you no special insignia or backstage pass. But it does teach you that these men are, in fact, men. They have families; they live lives.

My mother went to the same high school as Elder Marion D. Hanks; she spoke of him sometimes as "Duff Hanks," and so we children learned that General Authorities of today were high school and college students in the past. They may serve the Church now as their fulltime job, but they had careers, and, not knowing how the service of the Lord would interrupt their plans, they had to prepare for and conduct ordinary careers.

Anyone who becomes an Apostle does so with dozens or hundreds of friends and acquaintances who knew them before their ordination. Whether they were teaching Institute classes, practicing law, selling cars, or running a railroad, they went to work and earned money to support their families.

One of the things we loved about President Gordon B. Hinckley was Sheri Dew's account, in her biography of him, of the way he was constantly remodeling his home, sometimes right up to the moment of an important family event. Somebody knows which of the Brethren grow gardens and share tomatoes, cucumbers, or zucchini with friends and neighbors. Somebody knows which of them enjoy baking cookies, or watching old movies with the grandkids, or fishing, or long hikes in the mountains.

More importantly, they have married and raised children with exactly the same process the rest of us use: muddling through. Nobody is a perfect spouse from the first moment of marriage; nobody is a perfect father or mother. In fact, it is from their mistakes as much as their achievements that they learned much of the wisdom they share with us at Conference. We aren't impressed with the stories of triumph; we are impressed with the stories of error, learning, and change.

When I worked at the Ensign, I once sat in on a meeting with an elderly member of the First Presidency who was prone to falling asleep without warning. Three times during the meeting (at which I said nothing, if you can believe it), the Counselor dozed off. We all sat in silence for the couple of minutes it took for him to wake up by himself; only once did one of the people present give him a nudge, when it seemed his nap might last longer than was prudent. When he was awake, he was lucid and quick-minded. But service in the apostleship had not made him immune to the frailties of the flesh.

In his years of Church administration before acceding to the Presidency, meetings with Elder Gordon B. Hinckley were sometimes looked forward to with foreboding. This was because, having himself done nearly every job in the Church bureaucracy, he had little patience with those who were lazy, unresourceful, careless, or timid. Rumor had it that Elder Hinckley never left you in doubt about the mistakes you had made, and certainly in my one meeting with him, at the debut of my script of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, he was surprisingly brusque.

Were some people offended? Were others left in bafflement over why he seemed to dislike or disapprove of them? Absolutely. Could he have handled things better? Quite possibly. But he governed the Church for many years, and he did so with clarity and vision. The lesson was not that we should treat others exactly as he did; the lesson was, This is the man whom the Lord has given the authority to decide and act.

It's the constant lesson of Church history: This happened, and the Church is true. There are errors and misjudgments in Church government; mistakes are made. But we learn from the mistakes and move on. We strive to do better. And yes, those mistakes are made by those in a position to make decisions, which shows us, not that the Lord is not guiding the Church, but that the Lord has respect for the free agency of every one of his children -- even, or especially, the ones who are charged with guiding the kingdom of God on earth.

We sustain them in their imperfections, as we sustain each other in our wards and stakes. We sometimes blow it -- but we are not immediately released from our callings because we made mistakes. Instead, we are taught or we learn, and gradually we become better at serving in each position we hold.

This process does not stop because someone has reached the lofty position of General Authority. Remember that the real model of Church government is not a hierarchy, but a building of which Christ is not the capstone but the cornerstone; a community in which the greatest of us is the servant of all.

We can't apply the world's ideas of "greatness" to the Brethren called to lead us -- that is unfair to them and to us. If we attribute perfection to them, then when they are not perfect we can be disillusioned or damaged. But if instead we see them as dedicated servants, doing their best to do good to all who are placed within their charge, then we can absorb their mistakes -- or actions that seem like mistakes to us -- without even a moment of disillusionment.

For instance, when President Hinckley was brusque with me at our only meeting, I didn't take umbrage and go off in a huff; I didn't stay home because I was not treated with warmth and affection. Maybe he hadn't liked my script; maybe he had heard something about me that displeased him; or maybe he was in a hurry and I was standing in his way. What did it matter? He was performing his stewardship with vigor and excellence, and I was doing my best to do the same. Each of us sustained the other in his calling. So what if we weren't going to get together to play a round of golf or a game of charades? We weren't there to be buddies; we were there to serve Christ to the best of our ability.

So we should listen to the General Authorities' talks without any expectation that they will be perfect. Instead, we should receive all that we can, and act upon the ideas that sound right and important to us. In other words, we should receive their best gifts, and then give to others the best gifts we can.

I once was called upon to drive one of the Brethren to the airport after a regional conference was held in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I live. It happened that it was Elder Boyd K. Packer who rode in my car. He recognized my name, not because of my professional writing, but because of some of my writings for various Mormon-oriented publications.

He immediately began to ask me about a young intellectual whose testimony was hanging in the balance at the time. He spoke of him with affection and concern; he listened to my very positive assessment of my friend without contradiction. Indeed, he seemed to be genuinely happy to hear the good things I had to say, and I realized then, as I have had occasion to rediscover many times over, that the Apostles are not leading the Church as a huge faceless mob. Rather, they experience the Church one believer at a time. Every soul has individual worth, and they care about every one.

So even though most of the Apostles are not personally acquainted with most of the Saints who listen to their Conference talks, they are still speaking to us, and we are hearing them, one at a time.

Conference is to the First Presidency what sacrament meeting is to bishoprics -- a chance to speak to the whole congregation all at once. And yet the success of sacrament meeting is measured, not by crowd reactions (which always include sleepers, fussy babies, note-passers, and other distracted people), but by individuals who are given insights and experiences that help them sustain and guide their lives.

Even if Conference talks provide no more new doctrines than sacrament meeting talks, when you hear the talk and decide to change your life, that doctrine is new in its ability to affect your life.

Of course, it can only affect your life if you listen, as Moroni suggests, with "real intent, having faith in Christ." Then the Lord can manifest the truth of the Conference talks by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Please don't suppose that I think there will never be new revelation -- that is a foolish idea that puts needless limitations on God's power to influence us. On the contrary, it is a core doctrine that the Lord is expanding the Saints' understanding.

However, such revelations often take the form of sweeping away foolish false doctrines that have taken hold among us. Take, for instance, the nonsense that grew up around and in support of the policy that kept African blacks from receiving the blessings of the priesthood. All the "doctrines" that were cited to support the policy already existed in America before 1830.

I once saw a book from 1820 that contained the idea of blacks as descendants of Cain and Ham -- these ideas were dreamed up to help Christian slaveowners feel better about having such an evil degree of dominion over the souls of other children of God. It was absurd and offensive that the folk doctrines of slaveowners should have persisted among the Saints, but they did.

So the 1978 revelation on blacks and the priesthood expanded the Saints' understanding by getting rid of those old racist "doctrines." As Elder McConkie said, when asked about all the old teachings that had supported the restrictions on black Saints, "We were wrong."

We need to listen to Conference with the kind of humility and meekness that will allow us to recognize true teachings that sweep away foolish notions that we have absorbed from family members, missionary companions, speculating seminary teachers, worldly professors, and other sources of foolish traditions that limit our ability to live the gospel.

The Brethren don't just tell us to read and ponder the scriptures: They read and study the Lord's past teachings, too. In the process, they receive inspiration just as we do, but because, unlike us, they actually have responsibility and authority over the whole Church, they can discern when such discoveries and insights will be a blessing to all the Saints. That's what we hear in General Conference.

The different Conference speakers are all individuals, with their own style, their own thoughts, their own experiences and insights. It makes a difference who is speaking. The Spirit does not dictate Conference talks to those assigned to give them; instead, they have to study things out in their minds, remaining open to revelation if it comes.

But if the speaker is able to come up with strong and memorable stories, clear language to explain true ideas, and ringing calls to right action, why would the Spirit interfere? The Lord intervenes in our lives, but does so minimally, in order to allow us free agency and the chance to magnify our callings.

"It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant" (D&C 58:26). In light of that statement from God, it should not be a surprise to think that the Brethren are often, perhaps usually, left to write their talks from their own wisdom and experience. They are not slothful and they are not unwise; therefore the Lord trusts them to fulfil their stewardship, and intervenes only when he needs to say something to the Saints that would otherwise go unsaid.

So we attend General Conference to hear the words of the Lord -- whether those words came directly from the Lord by revelation, or came from the heart and mind of a wise, prepared servant of the Savior. With Peter, they say, "Such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and" be about our Father's business (Acts 3:6).

Testimony comes not just from spiritual intervention, but also from experience and reason. We have minds in order to think for ourselves. This does not mean that we refuse to think the same thing that other people think -- that would be foolish, to refuse to believe a true thing just because people we don't think highly of share the same opinion. Rather, thinking for ourselves means that we ask hard questions, search for useful answers, and then test them in the crucible of experience and the light of the Spirit.

Sometimes I still hear people saying that the Conference issues of the Ensign are like another book of scripture. As long as you take it as an analogy -- the Conference talks resemble scripture -- you're fine. But if you take it literally -- that every single conference talk should have the same authority as the Standard Works of the Church, you are simply wrong.

We know how revelations are added to the scriptures. They are presented to the membership of the Church assembled in Conference, and the Saints sustain the act of including them in one of the books of scripture.

The hymnbook also consists of heartfelt words set to singable, often beloved music, and authorized by the leaders of the Church. We all recite these words together at our church meetings, in the form of congregational song; yet we do not suppose that the words of the hymns have the same authority as scripture.

Likewise, then, we must hear and read the Conference talks as sources of wisdom and insight particularly applicable to our own time, and offered to us as representing the will of God as understood by some of his most trusted servants. It has great value and authority.

But it is scripture only if it has been made scripture openly and directly, by action of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve, sustained by the general membership of the Church.

Sometimes people seem to think that there are only two kinds of utterance in the world: scripture, and worthless writing. Instead, there are many, many sources of wisdom and useful ideas. Our lives are blessed by many kinds of writing and speaking, and General Conference talks are among the best sources of wisdom in living our lives.

The real blessing of having Conference talks available in print and online is that there is now no excuse for citations like this, "I can't remember who said it, but I know a General Authority once said ..." May of the most false, useless, and misleading folk doctrines that circulate in the Church are attached to that kind of "citation" -- which is, of course, no citation at all.

Instead of vague memories that a General Authority -- somewhere, sometime -- said the quote in question, we can look up the ideas and see who, if anyone, said them. What we usually find is that there is no source at all, or the quotation, in context, means nothing at all like the twisted interpretations that have been imposed on it.

Why does it matter that Conference talks are not scripture? Because there are different kinds and layers of authority. Scripture is canonized in order to stand as a witness to all people in all times. Conference talks also have great authority -- but most especially for this time and these people who now hear them.

Also, Conference talks are written and spoken in contemporary language -- they have not been filtered through many translators and interpreters, long after the original speaker is dead and can no longer defend his words against misinterpretation.

And the words of the Traveling High Council -- the Apostles -- whether in General Conference or in other meetings throughout the world serve to correct the errors into which the Church inevitably strays. I have personally seen the transformative power that an Apostle can wield as he weeds out excesses and errors, whether they arose from innocent misunderstanding or pride and ambition.

It is not always pleasurable to be on the receiving end of such corrections, yet it is the responsibility of the Twelve to act with authority to make sure the Church remains true in every place and at every level. Many times, words that are said from the pulpit by General Authorities are responding to misconception or misbehavior that most of us are unaware of.

"Why is he talking about that?" we might wonder; but the answer invariably is: "Because somebody has gotten this wrong. Somebody needs to hear it and correct their own words and actions in order to conform with the Apostles' understanding of the gospel."

And I must say that in my own experience, whenever I find myself tempted to reject something a Conference speaker says, what I really need to do is repent of my pride in my own understanding, and bend my mind and heart to include truth that I had been ignoring.

Remember that for General Conference to have its full value, we must "receive these things" by asking "God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true." We have the promise that "if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4).

The Apostles would not have become Apostles if they had not proven themselves able and willing to exercise their priesthood with "persuasion," patience, "gentleness and meekness" and "love unfeigned," by "kindness, and pure knowledge ... without hypocrisy, and without guile" (D&C 121-41-44)

They are themselves meek and teachable; if we approach their teaching the same way -- even if they are reproving us "with sharpness" -- we will see that they are also showing forth an increase of love toward us whom they reprove.

Some Saints become hungry for gospel "secrets," and so they become the prey of those who offer a special, elevated, private version of the gospel. But I tell you now that there is no secret gospel, only the ignorant obfucations of gnostics -- those who pretend to know, but seek only to elevate themselves.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is openly taught and available to all. The Brethren do not dribble out to us crumbs from a secret feast from which we are excluded. On the contrary, the banquet table of the gospel of Christ is spread before us all, and we are invited to partake freely.

What the Brethren do in Conference is to pick out this or that particularly delicious morsel from that banquet, and serve it to us with the invitation, "Have you tried this?"

Ultimately, they affirm with Lehi and Nephi that what the Lord gives us to "eat" is "most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted," and it "filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also" (1 Ne 8:11-12).

They offer it to us so that we can be happy, and no matter what words are used, what they urge us to partake of is this: "It is the love of God ... wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things ... and the most joyous to the soul" (1 Ne 11:22-23).

The talks in General Conference are gifts being offered to us, and we should pay attention to Moroni when he said, "I exhort you, my brethren, that ye deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them.

"For behold, to one is given by the Spirit of God, that he may teach the word of wisdom;

"And to another, that he may teach the word of knowledge by the same Spirit....

"Remember that every good gift cometh of Christ" (Moro 10:8-10, 18).

That is what we are offered twice a year in General Conference. All we need to do is attend, pay attention, and offer our lives to be remade in ways that will bring us to taste more of the love of God.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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