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President Thomas S. Monson kicked off the LDS Church's 180th Annual General Conference on Saturday with a light touch, offering witty yet tender insights about his wife of 61 years and their early courtship.
But the conference, which concludes Sunday, quickly turned heavy as speaker after speaker detailed the dangers facing marriages and family life today, including pornography, the Internet and a culture of gratification.
Monson, the day's leadoff speaker, spoke off the cuff and affectionately about his wife, Frances, who attended the opening session after spending months recovering from a broken hip and shoulder.
"You can't keep a good girl down," Monson said, adding, "especially if she's Swedish."
The leader of the nearly 14 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went on to describe the couple's courtship as first-year students at the University of Utah. It was the beginning of World War II and Frances told the future Mormon leader,"You are tall and skinny, and I think you'd look better in a Navy uniform."
So Monson joined the Navy, he quipped, to delighted laughter from thousands of Mormons seated in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and many millions watching via satellite across the globe.
Then it was on to the serious sermons.
LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard advised mothers to counter society's "confusion and distortion of womanhood" for their daughters.
"Popular culture today," he said, "often makes women look silly, inconsequential, mindless and powerless."
Too often they are portrayed as women and girls who gossip or are "mean," he added. The culture embraces "early, casual and thoughtless promiscuity" and women as sex objects.
Mormon mothers should talk openly about sexual matters, Ballard said. "Your daughters cannot avoid the blatant sexual messages and enticements that surround them. You need to have frequent, open discussions during which you teach your daughters the truth about these issues."
The only way for women to face the "lengthy and sobering challenges" that besiege them is through "personal revelation," said Julie Beck, General Relief Society president, who met thousands of Mormon women during her travels across the world the past six months.
"A good woman knows that she does not have enough energy, time or opportunity to take care of all of the people or do all of the worthy things her heart yearns to do," Beck said. "… The ability to qualify for, receive and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life. … This Spirit will enlighten our minds, fill our souls with joy, and help us know all things we should do."
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was even more blunt about the evils of pornography: "Tragically, the same computer and Internet services that allow me to do my family history … allow my children or grandchildren access to a global cesspool of perceptions that could blast a crater in their brains forever."
The difference between lust and love is clear, he said. Love endures, while lust changes as quickly as a pornographic page. Love makes people reach for God and other people, while lust celebrates self-indulgence.
Some need help beyond themselves for addictions, Holland said, and should turn to the church's addiction-recovery program or other professional aid.
"Most people in trouble end up crying, 'What was I thinking?' " Holland said. "Well, whatever they were thinking, they weren't thinking of Christ."
Attacking the home and family is a key part of Satan's plan, warned Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For the second straight conference, the 85-year-old Packer remained seated during his speech because of his frail health.
"The ultimate end of all activity in the church is that a man and his wife and their children might be happy at home, protected by the principles and laws of the gospel, sealed safely in the covenants of the everlasting priesthood," Packer said. "Every law and principle and power, every belief, every ordinance and ordination, every covenant, every sermon and every sacrament, every counsel and correction, the sealings, the calls, the releases, the service all of these have as their ultimate purpose the perfection of the individual and the family."
On the positive side, Monson also mentioned the church's ongoing humanitarian efforts.
During the past three months alone, the church has provided humanitarian assistance to French Polynesia, Mongolia, Bolivia, Peru, Arizona, Mexico, Portugal and Uganda, as well as focused efforts in Haiti and Chile.
This year marks 25 years since the LDS Church created its Humanitarian Department, aimed at helping people outside the faith, Monson said. "The number of individuals assisted by the program could never adequately be measured."
In the evening's priesthood session, Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, urged the audience of men and boys to use Jesus Christ as an example of how to fulfill their religious obligations.
"This is the Lord's church," Eyring said. "He called us and trusted us even in the weakness he knew we had. … By faithful service and through his atonement we can come to want what he wants and be what we must be to bless those we serve for him. As we serve him long enough and with diligence, we will be changed."
Dieter Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, preached on patience.
"Patience is not passive resignation, nor is it failing to act because of our fears," Uchtdorf said. "Patience means active waiting and enduring … staying with something and doing all we can working, hoping and exercising faith."
Beyond that, he said, patience is a "godly attribute that can heal souls, unlock treasures of knowledge and understanding and transform ordinary men and women into Saints and angels."
LDS Church apostle Dallin H. Oaks also addressed the topic of healing by medical science, by prayers of faith and by priesthood blessings.
Starting with Brigham Young, Mormons have had no problem turning to medicine when they were sick, Oaks said. They don't wait until all other methods are exhausted, though, before uttering a prayer or priesthood blessing but rather do them simultaneously.
Many people, including those of other faiths, have witnessed divine healing through prayer, he said. "But faith and the healing power of the priesthood cannot produce a result contrary to the will of him whose priesthood it is. … We do all that we can for the healing of a loved one, and then we trust in the Lord for the outcome."
Monson closed the conference's first day with the admonition for Mormons to live their religion, not just preach it.
"A Latter-day Saint man … is honest with others. He is honest with himself. He is honest by habit and as a matter of course," Monson said. "He is honest with God."
The Number LDS Church stats (at end of 2009)
28,424 wards and branches
280,106 new converts
51,736 full-time missionaries
130 temples in operation