There’s a lot of rumbling among the saints today. Buzzing about the role of women. Concern about polygamy. Fretting about various historical issues. Disquiet about the boundary between inclusion and exclusion. These are unsettled times.
Yet there is nothing quite like a little historical excursion to put today’s challenges in perspective. Sylvester Smith battled Joseph all along the journey of Zion’s Camp. And the whole enterprise of marching out to claim Zion appeared ill-conceived when nothing came of it. Many Kirtland saints turned against Joseph when the bank failed and savings were lost. Many scratched their heads and searched their souls—and some quit their places—when Zion was not established. (Being driven from one Missouri county to another did not seem to fulfill the prophecies!)
There are several ways of making sense of this recurring confusion. Maybe the wheels keep falling off because the whole thing is a badly designed human contraption. Or maybe the Good Ship Zion is part inspired and part human and humans don’t always get their part right. While we could argue the potential for humans to mess things up, I favor another possibility.
Maybe all hell breaks loose every time the kingdom is poised to take a giant step forward. Certainly Satan did not want the glorious restoration experiences of Kirtland to be consolidated into a Zion people or Zion gathering place. He did not want Joseph to develop faith and strength in the future leaders of the church through the Zion’s Camp experience so he filled the experience with contention. He rallied all the dark forces to thwart God’s work. And he continues to do so today.
Unfortunately we often cooperate quite gladly with his evil purposes. We fall into contention and fault-finding without realizing the enormous cost. We allow doubts and disappointments to swamp us. We let our feelings of the moment cause us to feel distanced or excluded. And all of us risk getting side-tracked by debates and our own perspectives rather than remaining fixed on heaven’s purpose.
Some things don’t change very much.
It is easy to imagine that we would not have deserted the good ship Zion if we had participated in the Pentecostal outpouring in the Kirtland Temple. We certainly believe that we never would have departed from God’s work if we had been allowed to see the plates and witness the revelations.
But we do. God grants each of us sacred, amazing, soul-filling experiences of the divine. He has done so in our past and is willing to continue doing so in our present. Yet we can allow our testimonies of those experiences to waver when our image of what the church should be is disrupted. We nurse our doubts and complaints. We toss charity aside and engage in contention with fellow disciples. We can allow our questions and pains to turn us away from the very well that could quench our thirst. We wander from the experiences we have had at the hand of the divine and neglect our dialogue with the God who waits for us.
It reminds me of Thomas Clayton Wolfe’s description of the human condition: “Poor, dismal, ugly, sterile, shabby little man…with your scrabble of harsh oaths…Joy, glory, and magnificence were here for you…but you scrabbled along…rattling a few stale words… and would have none of them.”
What’s a saint to do?
- Recognize that “jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes” (D&C 101:6) come from Satan. They are not a revelation of truth, they are creations of evil. “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50:23). God instructs us to chase darkness from among us. We will not find the light by studying the darkness. Rather we should seek, embrace, and cherish that which edifies.
- If we are ever to enter the mind of God, we must recognize that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9). We do not know God’s blueprint or timetable. We do not know how He may turn our human missteps into divine accomplishments. God had a sacred purpose for Zion’s Camp although it was not yet clear to the saints at the time. He has a plan and timetable for establishing Zion in our day. When we presume to impose our wisdom on God’s doings, we are likely to look quite foolish.
I appreciate Glenn Tinder’s insight: “Perhaps discussions of religion would be more fruitful if we could rid ourselves of the assumption, common among Christians and practically universal among non-Christians, that God (if God exists) is simple-minded. We readily grant that a great writer such as Joyce or Proust is infinitely subtle and resourceful in fashioning a novel; but we assume that in fashioning human history God will be heavy-handed and obvious. Accordingly, some believers conclude that they know exactly what God has in mind and, vested with high office, could provide him with some much needed help… In a parallel way unbelievers conclude that they know what God would do if he existed, and that since those things are not being done, he does not exist” (Glenn Tinder, Atlantic editorial reply, Volume 265, No. 3, March 1990, p.12)
Humility is essential. We do not know what God knows and we should never become impatient with His purposes.
- We should let our sacred experiences guide us in the wilderness. Alma taught Helaman:
“It is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.”
We don’t have to become lost in the wilderness. If we follow every hint of the word of Christ, we will march resolutely into the Promised Land. Those words of Christ may be in the form of favorite scriptures that lift our spirits. Those words may be the whisperings of the Spirit when we counsel with heaven. Those words may be the truths we receive as we counsel with Christ during the sacrament.
Recently I was listening to an interview with Terryl Givens. He told about having a sacred experience with the Book of Mormon when he was a young and poorly-informed seminary student. He described that as a defining experience in his life. What he did not say (but was wonderfully obvious) is that the challenging experiences, hard questions, and scholarly study in the many decades since that experience have not caused him to discard or minimize that experience. He continues to chart his course based on that—and additional—experiences.
If we gather, honor, and cherish our sacred experiences, their power will be magnified. They will be a light and a guide in our wilderness.
If we want to get to Zion, there are also some things we should not do. We should not throw rocks at fellow travelers. We keep in mind that we are disciples of Jesus Christ and He instructed His followers to show love one to another. We should not sit at home waiting for someone else to cause us to feel more included or valued. Instead we remember we are invited to come to and participate fully in church by the Savior Himself. We should not drag along the path murmuring about problems. While it is completely appropriate to raise questions and ponder issues in constructive ways, we should not become so preoccupied with human controversies or unsettling issues that we are drawn away from divine truth.
No. We can sing the songs of Zion. We can rejoice in the light and truth God has granted us. We can lift up hands that hang down. We can shout Hosannah!
I appreciate the example of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball who were leaving on their missions in spite of being weak and sick and their families being hardly able to get out of bed. They didn’t want to depart with such bleak spirits. As they drove away from home, they asked the driver of the wagon to stop so they could rise from their sick beds. They stood and shouted “Hurrah, hurrah for Israel.”
May we also trust in and cheer for God’s glorious purposes. Rather than framing today’s controversies as reason to question the soundness of Zion, we can view them as signs that Satan is doing his best to stir up doubt and division in anticipation of the kingdom taking a giant step forward. May we see past whatever is unsettling to our limited human minds and link ourselves to the divine light and truth we have been given.
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