Updated: Oct 6, 2020
I approached General Conference this weekend with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. A little more anxiety than is usual for me, because lately, I've been more concerned about the health of my Church community than I can remember ever being in my life. It's not about COVID-19, or at least, not much. It's more about the simmering contention in our political lives that has started boiling over into our gospel conversations. It's been worrying me, a lot. So has the state of our politics and of the world.
Then Conference came around, as it does every 6 months. General Conference is the opportunity that every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has to gather together for two days and to listen to our Prophet, Apostles and other world-wide church leaders. We believe that the messages we are given then are the messages the Lord most wants us to heed for the coming six months. We're encouraged to prepare ourselves so that we can discern answers to our personal concerns and questions, to receive personal direction, and to be open to course correction.
Normally, thousands flock to the Conference Centre in Salt Lake City, with messages being simultaneously broadcast to the rest of the Church membership via satellite and the internet. This year, because of COVID-19, the gathering was entirely spiritual, with everyone but the few speakers for each session participating from our homes.
And Conference was just what I needed. I'm not worried anymore.
First there were some powerful discourses, a great number of them, about the importance of unity and reaching out across our differences, with love. There were so many that addressed a multitude of ways in which we need to follow Jesus Christ by being generous with mercy, seeking to serve instead of to judge, becoming unified in spite of our differences. We were strongly counselled to lead out on combatting racism and to embrace all of God's children who may be marginalized on any number of grounds, including religious differences, sexual orientation and so forth.
I loved President Dallin H. Oaks' discussion about the spiritual perils of contention and anger. I was touched by his reminder that we might even learn from those with whom we disagree. It reminded me of how Ammon and his brethren learned from the extraordinary faith and steadiness of the Lamanites, who had been popularly regarded as worthless and irredeemable.
I loved Elder Ballard's invitation to all people everywhere to unite in prayer for our world. I loved his sense that, even though all healing comes through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, yet there is power in uniting our prayers with children of God who may not even believe in Jesus Christ. I loved his promise that even the "souls of countries" can be healed.
And I am at peace, even though I don't know what's coming. What I heard again and again is that God is at the helm and His purposes will not be frustrated. He knows the end from the beginning, and His work will go forward.
President Russell M. Nelson brought this home particularly strongly when he identified the name "Israel" with its literal meaning, "Let God prevail." Part of why this is so powerful is because of the special significance of the name Israel in our theology. We believe that we are of the House of Israel, as are all who make covenants with God. It's our identity. And so, Jacob's experience of learning to "let God prevail" and thereby receiving the name "Israel" says something about what the Lord wants from us.
President Nelson briefly mentioned Jacob's struggle to earn that name. It's a powerful story that has taken on great significance for me over the years, so I'd like to review it.
Jacob yearned after the birthright that his twin, Esau, didn't know how to value. His mother, Rebecca, had been told by an angel that he was to be the birthright son. But his father, Isaac, hadn't received the same instruction and favoured Esau. So it seems that Jacob and his mother felt they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
First, Jacob extorted from Esau that he would give up all claim to the birthright. But years later, when his father determined it was time to give the birthright blessing, it appears that the promise had been forgotten. So Rebecca helped Jacob disguise himself and obtain the blessing from his father under false pretences. When Esau later arrived, he was enraged and swore to kill the brother he saw as a usurper. Then Jacob learned the price of trying to pursue what was right by questionable means. He had to flee for his life, never to see his father again. He had to abandon his entire inheritance. It appeared that, by deceptively obtaining the birthright blessing, he had lost the birthright in fact.
But, at that low point in his life, Jacob made covenants with God. And when he arrived in Haran, he kept them. He behaved honourably when Laban deceived his eyes and tricked him into marrying the sister of the woman he loved. And when he had worked another 7 years to earn Rachel's hand, as well as Leah's, his father-in-law tried to cheat him again. He told Jacob that he could have all the spotted cattle as wages, and suddenly, the best of the flock were spotted. When Laban changed his mind and said Jacob could have the striped (ringstraked) cattle, then suddenly the more part of the cattle were born with stripes. Ten times, Laban changed his mind in an effort to reduce Jacob's wages, and ten times, the Lord blessed Jacob with abundance. Jacob learned that God had his back. His job was just to keep his covenants.
And so it was that, when Jacob was finally called by God to return home, where Esau still held a grudge and wanted to kill him, Jacob obeyed. He sent gifts with messengers to Esau, making it clear that he wasn't coming back to take anything away from his brother. But Esau was approaching with a band of 400, which was probably not a welcoming party. Jacob and his household encamped for the night, knowing there would be a showdown in the morning. While the others sought sleep, Jacob wrestled with an angel, seeking and ultimately obtaining the Lord's protection for his family. Then, the Lord renamed him Israel or, "Let God prevail."
The next morning, Esau raced into camp with a softened heart, embraced Jacob, and welcomed him home. In the end, Jacob obtained both the birthright and his brother's love by trusting in God instead of the arm of flesh.
The message I take away is that we have no need to fear, so long as we keep our covenants and follow Jesus Christ. We need to personally walk in holiness and to plead with the Lord to fill us with His love and patience toward others. He will show us our next steps. He will move His purposes forward "boldly, nobly and independent" and He work with all the instruments at His disposal (even the difficult ones like natural disasters and pandemics) to prepare a people who can build up Zion.
Our job is to trust Him, serve Him and to reach out with courage. We can do that because He is the God of the Universe...and He has our back.