Every six months we have a marvelous general conference at which we are blessed to hear messages from our leaders, including and especially God's oracle on earth, our living prophet, seer, and revelator. May I suggest three things these twice-yearly gatherings declare to all the world.
First, they declare eagerly and unequivocally that there is again a living prophet on the earth speaking in the name of the Lord. And how we need such guidance! Our times are turbulent and difficult. We see wars internationally and distress domestically. Neighbors all around us face personal heartaches and family sorrows. Legions know fear and troubles of a hundred kinds. This reminds us that when those mists of darkness enveloped the travelers in Lehi's vision of the tree of life, it enveloped all of the participants—the righteous as well as the unrighteous, the young along with the elderly, the new convert and seasoned member alike. In that allegory all face opposition and travail, and only the rod of iron—the declared word of God—can bring them safely through. We all need that rod. We all need that word. No one is safe without it, for in its absence any can "[fall] away into forbidden paths and [be] lost," as the record says (1 Nephi 8:28; see also vv. 23–24). How grateful we are to have heard God's voice and felt the strength of that iron rod in our general conferences.
Not often but over the years some sources have suggested that the Brethren are out of touch in their declarations, that they don't know the issues, that some of their policies and practices are out-of-date, not relevant to our times.
As the least of those who have been sustained by you to witness the guidance of this Church firsthand, I say with all the fervor of my soul that never in my personal or professional life have I ever associated with any group who are so in touch, who know so profoundly the issues facing us, who look so deeply into the old, stay so open to the new, and weigh so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully everything in between. I testify that the grasp this body of men and women have of moral and societal issues exceeds that of any think tank or brain trust of comparable endeavor of which I know anywhere on the earth. I bear personal witness of how thoroughly good they are, of how hard they work, and how humbly they live. It is no trivial matter for this Church to declare to the world prophecy, seership, and revelation, but we do declare it. It is true light shining in a dark world, and it shines from these proceedings.
Second, each of these conferences marks a call to action not only in our own lives but also on behalf of others around us, those who are of our own family and faith and those who are not. For example, as general conference was convening in October of 1856 here in the Salt Lake Valley, handcart companies staggering through the last freezing miles of Nebraska were soon to be stranded in the impassable snows of the high country of Wyoming. President Brigham Young's inspiring general conference message to the Saints was simply to "go and bring in those people now on the Plains."
As surely as the rescue of those in need was the general conference theme of October 1856, so too is it the theme of every general conference of this Church. It may not be blizzards and frozen-earth burials that we face, but the needy are still out there—the poor and the weary, the discouraged and downhearted, those "[falling] away into [the] forbidden paths" we mentioned earlier, and multitudes who are "kept from the truth because they know not where to find it" (D&C 123:12). They are all out there with feeble knees, hands that hang down (see D&C 81:5), and bad weather setting in. They can be rescued only by those who have more and know more and can help more. And don't worry about asking, "Where are they?" They are everywhere, on our right hand and on our left, in our neighborhoods and in the workplace, in every community and county and nation of this world. Take your team and wagon; load it with your love, your testimony, and a spiritual sack of flour; then drive in any direction. The Lord will lead you to those in need if you will but embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is taught in general conference. Open your heart and your hand to those trapped in the twenty-first century's equivalent of Martin's Cove and Devil's Gate. In doing so we honor the Master's repeated plea on behalf of lost sheep and lost coins and lost souls (see Luke 15).
Finally, a general conference of the Church is a declaration to all the world that Jesus is the Christ, that He and His Father, the God and Father of us all, appeared to the boy prophet Joseph Smith in fulfillment of that ancient promise that the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth would again restore His Church on earth and again "come in like manner as [those Judean Saints had] seen him [ascend] into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Every general conference is a declaration that He condescended to come to earth in poverty and humility, to face sorrow and rejection, disappointment and death in order that we might be saved from those very fates as our eternity unfolds, that "with his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). Here prophets proclaim to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people the loving Messianic promise that "his mercy endureth for ever" (Psalm 136:1).
To you who think you are lost or without hope, or who think you have done too much that was too wrong for too long, to every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, we call out Jehovah's unrelenting refrain, "[My] hand is stretched out still" (Isaiah 5:25; 9:17, 21). "I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them," He said, "[and even if they] deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, . . . if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long, saith the Lord God of Hosts" (2 Nephi 28:32). His mercy endureth forever, and His hand is stretched out still. His is the pure love of Christ, the charity that never faileth, that compassion which endures even when all other strength disappears (see Moroni 7:46–47).
I testify of this reaching, rescuing, merciful Jesus, that this is His redeeming Church based on His redeeming love, and that, as those in the Book of Mormon declared, "there came prophets among the people, who were sent from the Lord [to speak it]. . . . [Yea] there came prophets in the land again" (Ether 7:23; 9:28).