I think it’s fascinating to look at the stories that General Conference speakers choose to tell. The subtexts, or the messages they convey without stating them explicitly, are particularly interesting. A couple of years ago, I blogged about a couple of stories Conference speakers told where the subtexts provoked particularly strong reactions in me. In this most recent Conference, two more stories stood out to me again in the strong reactions I had to their subtexts.
The first was told by President Monson in his talk “True Shepherds,” which he gave in the priesthood session:
A home teaching visit is also more likely to be successful if an appointment is made in advance. To illustrate this point, let me share with you an experience I had some years ago. At that time the Missionary Executive Committee was comprised of Spencer W. Kimball, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. One evening Brother and Sister Hinckley hosted a dinner in their home for the committee members and our wives. We had just finished a lovely meal when there was a knock at the door. President Hinckley opened the door and found one of his home teachers standing there. The home teacher said, “I know I didn’t make an appointment to come, and I don’t have with me my companion, but I felt I should come tonight. I didn’t know you would be entertaining company.”
President Hinckley graciously invited the home teacher to come in and sit down and to instruct three Apostles [pause for laughter] and our wives concerning our duty as members. With a bit of trepidation, the home teacher did his best. President Hinckley thanked him for coming, after which he made a hurried exit.
I get his explicit point here: It’s better to make an appointment first if you’re going to home teach. This definitely makes sense, although I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of faith-promoting stories out there (many in Church publications) that tell of home or visiting teachers being inspired to visit without an appointment. But that’s just an aside. Let’s talk about the subtext.
What I find most interesting in this story is where President Monson paused for laughter (and people did indeed laugh). He wasn’t saying that it was laughable that a home teacher would come without an appointment, or that he would come alone (issues raised earlier in the story), he was saying that it was laughable that a home teacher would instruct three apostles. The subtext is loud and clear here: no mere home teacher is going to have anything useful to say to an apostle.
Certainly I can see where President Monson would think this. After all, apostles are supposed to be special witnesses of Christ and to be prophets, seers, and revelators and all, and the rest of us aren’t. But it seems impolitic for him to emphasize that point so baldly. It also seems to me to be revealing of how President Monson likely views attempts from the grass roots to affect Church policy. He is an apostle, and ordinary members are not, and we therefore really don’t have anything useful to say to him or to other Church leaders.
I’m not a fan of this view. I think Church leaders are far from infallible, and I wish there were more formal routes to giving feedback to GAs. (I blogged about this once years ago.) I also find it frustrating that President Monson doesn’t acknowledge the catch-22 that home teachers of the GAs face based on this story. These men are called, based on policies made by GAs, to home teach GAs, but then at least some of the GAs (or President Monson at least) appear to view their efforts with disdain.
In the very same session, President Uchtdorf told a story that I really like, largely because its subtext runs counter to the subtext of President Monson’s story. President Uchtdorf’s story comes from his talk titled “You Can Do It Now!“:
Not long ago I was skiing with my 12-year-old grandson. We were enjoying our time together when I hit an icy spot and ended up making a glorious crash landing on a steep slope.
I tried every trick to stand up, but I couldn’t—I had fallen, and I couldn’t get up. [pause for laughter]
I felt fine physically, but my ego was a bit bruised. So I made sure that my helmet and goggles were in place, since I much preferred that other skiers not recognize me. [pause for laughter] I could imagine myself sitting there helplessly as they skied by elegantly, shouting a cheery, “Hello, Brother Uchtdorf!” [pause for laughter]
I began to wonder what it would take to rescue me. That was when my grandson came to my side. I told him what had happened, but he didn’t seem very interested in my explanations of why I couldn’t get up. He looked me in the eyes, reached out, took my hand, and in a firm tone said, “Opa, you can do it now!”
Instantly, I stood.
Like with the previous story, I think it’s telling where he paused and got laughs. Unlike President Monson’s story, where he got laughs at the expense of the home teacher, in President Uchtdorf’s, he pauses–repeatedly–so people can laugh at him for falling down while skiing. The subtext here seems to me to be that he’s putting himself on the same level as the rest of us. He even uses a less formal name for himself (“Brother Uchtdorf,” rather than “Elder” or “President”) when imagining what people might call him as they skied past him, reinforcing the point made by his pauses for laughter that he is just an ordinary person. Again, this is in contrast to President Monson’s story, where he was emphasizing the difference between apostles like him and ordinary old members like us.
As you can probably guess, I like the subtext of President Uchtdorf’s story a lot more than the subtext of President Monson’s. I suspect that President Uchtdorf might be more open to hearing the ideas of ordinary members than President Monson would be.
That’s enough from me. I am interested to hear of any stories told in Conference that stood out to you.