Perspective: What general conference does for my yearning heart in a chaotic world
In the din and drumbeat of everyday life, general conference reminds me that old and new traditions knit my heart to God and my neighbor
Congregational hymns are my favorite part of general conference.
Is it a little awkward to stand and sing in your home with only a handful of people around you? Yes, but there’s something deeper there.
At the last conference, as we sang “How Firm a Foundation” together, a thought dawned on me when we hit the line “At home or abroad, on the land or the sea.” In that moment, there were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints halfway around the globe singing this same hymn in their native tongue.
Suddenly, our differences — geographical, linguistic, whatever they were — evaporated, and I felt like I was right beside them. The gathering is, I concluded, as much about the weaving together of hearts as it is about our physical presence together.
The late president of the church Gordon B. Hinckley observed something similar. After musing on how the Tabernacle, where general conference was once held, metaphorically expanded in size to encompass broadcasting stations which sent the words of faith leaders out into the world, he said, “There are no political boundaries separating the hearts of the children of God regardless of where they may live.”
Perhaps the reason I teared up while singing that beloved hymn and envisioning the union with my fellow co-religionists is because, at least in that moment, I realized that the only boundaries to gathering together are artificial ones.
These congregational hymns, however, aren’t the only aspect of conference that knits my heart together with fellow saints. It’s odd to write it, but cinnamon rolls do, too.
Kneading cinnamon roll dough may seem like a trite and mundane task — prima facie, it is. But when the right circumstances swirl around this monotonous activity, it is imbued with symbolism.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, conference was relegated to the seclusion of our homes. Even though that may have prevented physically gathering, the tradition shared by some Latter-day Saints of baking cinnamon rolls expanded in meaning.
Baking cinnamon rolls is hardly unique to Latter-day Saints or to conference weekend. But there’s come to be a type of poetry in it for me. In this, I’m not alone.
I know a woman who was taught how to make cinnamon rolls by her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. The recipe is fairly standard, but when she makes these cinnamon rolls every general conference, she remembers her family and the sacrifices that they made: for example, her great-grandmother always using margarine instead of butter to scrimp and save.
For her, it’s not about the cinnamon rolls themselves, but it’s about the gratitude, industriousness and ancestral connections that comes to the foreground when she kneads the dough as the Tabernacle Choir plays in the background.
Traditions can knit the hearts of both the living and the dead together. But they can also be deeply personal and newly cultivated.
After one Saturday night session of conference, I felt overwhelmed and burdened with personal questions. I retreated to the mountains where the stars adorned the dark sky like jewels and where everything felt remarkably still. For an hour or so, I stared at the mountains and thought, “I glimpsed eternity.” This moment of stillness reframed my perspective and I felt reassured that I was loved by God.
But this moment of stillness has broader implications than just resolving my momentary concerns.
I noticed how general conference then became a sign for me: in the din and drumbeat of my everyday life, my conference experience became an anchor. I now look to each semi-annual general conference as a hinge point for my life. I can live from conference to conference. When my life feels chaotic, general conference symbolizes the interruption in the mundane to turn my heart to the divine.
In the modern world where incessant noise creeps in at every corner, chaos seems pervasive. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured this concept through the green light in “The Great Gatsby.” At the end of the dock, there is a green light that illuminates the bay which separates West Egg from East Egg.
Throughout the novel, the green light evolves from a symbol of naive hope to a symbol of inaccessible hope. The green light of some better future eludes Gatsby and, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The past, my past, may seem inescapable as I forge on, as we all do, to find peace and love in a rough, rugged world. But for me, when the green light eludes me like all mortal inventions ultimately do, I know there is an illumination more expansive and perfect than I can conceive.
And in my quiet moments, in my little traditions that make general conference sacred for me personally, that light shines from God, to those around me and to myself.