Understanding General Authorities’ ThemesBy: Stephen Marsh
If you ever pay attention to the body of talks given by General Authorities over time, you will note that General Authorities tend to have themes. Some themes are shared between multiple authorities, while others are associated with (and come to define) specific General Authorities.
For example, Thomas S. Monson had his personal theme set by caring for widows and being assigned to write a monthly letter to more than a score of military men serving in the Korean War from his ward. Not only was he called to serve in a bishopric in his early twenties (for which he sacrificed a military commission to serve), but he was then called as a bishop at age 22 and called as a General Authority (an apostle) at 36, even though he had not served a mission.
…and thus, that created a secondary theme for him. It is no surprise, given all of these experiences, that he dwells often on small miracles, small kindnesses, constant enduring and care.
While many people often focus on Boyd K. Packer’s seeming harsh positions, Packer’s talks often detail experiences in which he was wrong. Nevertheless, as he obeyed what those with more knowledge told him to do (rather than doing what he thought was better), he would look back later and realize that he was wrong and they were right. From his Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council:
One of the early lessons was also my first lesson in correlation. The seminaries were sponsoring speech contests. They were very successful — much better than similar contests sponsored by the Mutual Improvement Association. It was an ideal gospel-centered activity for seminaries. They were succeeding beautifully under able teachers who could assist even the shy students. We were instructed to discontinue them!
There was something of an uprising among the teachers. They accused Superintendent Curtis of the Young Men and President Reeder of the Young Women of being responsible. Perhaps they were. The teachers wanted Brother Tuttle and me to plead their cause before the Brethren. The logic was all on our side. Nevertheless we remembered the counsel of Brother Lee, and really, just out of obedience, we declined.
Later I could see that the seminaries served then only a very small part of our youth; the MIA, all of them. A B-minus program reaching most of the youth would, in the aggregate, bring better results than an A-plus program which reached relatively few. It wasn’t until many years later, when some other problems arose, that I could see that those contests, even though they were gospel centered, pulled the teachers into an activity-oriented mind-set and away from the less exciting responsibility of teaching the Old and New Testaments to teenagers. Finally I could see that the very success of the program was an enemy.
Other lessons followed, some of them hard ones. I was asked to write an article for the Improvement Era. It was returned with the request that I change some words. I smarted! The replacement words didn’t convey exactly what I was trying to say. I balked a bit, and was told that Richard L. Evans, then of the Seventy and magazine editor, had asked that the changes be made. I remembered Brother Lee’s counsel. I had to submit. Now, though that article is piled under thirty-five years of paper, I’m glad, very glad, that if someone digs it out, I was “invited” to change it.
After one of my first general conference talks, I received a call from Joseph Anderson. In a very polite way he said that President McKay and his counselors suggested that I add one word to the text of my talk. Would I mind doing that? Actually the word was in my text, I just failed to read it at the pulpit. A most embarrassing lesson — the First Presidency! It was easier when Elder Evans corrected my work; even easier when one of my associates was kind enough to do it.
Only last Friday while putting together some things for a presentation, I read part of it to some brethren from BYU. I noticed they looked at one another at one place in my reading, and I stopped and asked if there was a problem. Finally one of them suggested that I not use a certain scripture that I had included even though it said exactly what I wanted to convey. How dare they suppose that a member of the Twelve didn’t know his scriptures! I simply said, “What do you suggest?” He said, “Better find another scripture,” and he pointed out that if I put that verse back in context, it was really talking about another subject. Others had used it as I proposed to use it, but it was not really correct. I was very glad to make a change.
That obviously colors the predominant message we see from him of listening to authority.
These are just a couple of themes specific to particular General Authorities, but for shared themes, consider the theme “do not inhale.” As I wrote on this theme and others in my Understanding General Authorities series, you can pull the general message of do not inhale from any talk from President Uchtdorf, but the fact is that other church leaders have stressed the importance of not inhaling the respect and attention that came with prestigious positions.
Today, I’d like to address two themes that seem to be building in the number of times they are mentioned.
The first, I hope everyone has noticed: it was addressed most recently by President Uchtdorf: “just stop it.”
The other theme is more interesting, since I think of it as the Carol Lynn Pearson theme. The one from “My Turn on Earth.”
The world turns ’round like a merry go round
It lets some off and it takes some on
Some horses are high and some horses are low
Some turns are short and some turns are long
That is, there is more to do than you can ever do.
It is interesting to hear, over and over again, General Authorities talking about how they discovered the limits of what they could do. How there were always more good things than they had time, money or attention to take care of or be involved in.
It is true. Consider, would it not be a blessing to have the national debt of the United States reduced? Assume the largest estimate you have heard of the Church’s net assets and its income and savings. Now multiply it by ten. How much could you reduce the national debt of the United States by? Enough to justify completely consuming the Church? Probably not.
The problem is that there are lots of good things out there. Humane Societies, Cancer Prevention Drives, Blood Banks, and more. All of them deserve some attention (the world would be a poorer place if we cancelled all the art galleries and museums to spend the money on HIV prevention and cures — and vice versa, if we cancelled all the efforts to eradicate AIDS to spend it on the arts).
Life consists of limits. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges of life. It is one that requires and deserves a great deal of consideration.
So, how do you deal with limits? With limits to your time, your attention, your interest and your assets? If you have children what do you teach them? What do you show them? How much do you show them?
What have you chosen to make important, a lot or a little?
Who do you make important? What do you give up for them? How much of your anger are you willing to sacrifice (how much of the “just stop it”) to make life around you a little more joyous for everyone you meet? How do random acts of kindness fit in your life?
I’d love your thoughts on when you first discovered limits (for me, it was realizing that even at five books a day, I would not make much of a dent in a library of several million books. If I did nothing else it would take me a hundred years to read them all), and how it has affected your perspectives and your thoughts.
What did you learn from conference that is still with you now that it is July and we are about half way to the next conference?
[My thanks to Andrew for help in editing and revising. All the mistakes are mine, all the clarity is his].