Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Make our garden grow

Several months ago I read about a group of Latter-day Saint bloggers I admire who were starting a project called the General Conference Odyssey. This post tells about the project and how it began, but in short, they plan to read all the easily available talks from conference (starting in Oct. 1971), one session a week, and independently post their (however various or uncoordinated) thoughts. I immediately felt a tug to join this project. I wanted to know what my parents were hearing from the prophets as they raised me. I wanted to hear again the talks I had heard and perhaps absorbed bits of without even meaning to, all through my growing-up years—talks I'd heard Saturdays while we worked in the yard, radio blaring; talks I'd watched Sundays on the big screen at our strangely empty and cavernous stake center because we didn't have our own TV, my brother and I laughing and rolling balls back and forth to each other along the empty pews. And I wanted to have a reason to truly reflect on those things by writing something about them.

Rather than trying to catch up, I'm just starting here, now, on what is week 24 of the group project. This week's session is the Saturday morning session of the October 1972 conference.
There's a famous line from the end of Voltaire's Candide: "Il faut cultiver notre jardin." Candide is a relentlessly idealistic, naïve young man who has been taught that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and therefore everything that happens is for the best. In the course of the narrative he goes through one terrible ordeal after another, and by the end of the story he has been thoroughly beaten down; all his idealism has been stripped from him. The story ends with his conclusion about the only option that remains in a world of such pain and uncertainty: "We must cultivate our own gardens." You can find the same theme in Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation of Candide, where the final number is the stunningly beautiful song called "Make our Garden Grow."

When I studied Voltaire, I learned that this ending was a bitingly cynical commentary on hope and idealism, essentially saying, "No point trying do anything heroic. Leave the world alone, forget your lofty ideals, and just focus on your own self. It's little enough but it's the best you can hope for." But yet—it's ambiguous, and people debate the meaning. I was never sure it was as negative as all that. Maybe it's saying, instead, "The world is dark. But beauty is possible, and even one small person can make it."

Well, who knows what Voltaire and Bernstein truly meant, amongst all the political subtext and world-weariness and sarcasm! But whether intended or not, I think there is a deeper truth in the concept of making our gardens grow. And as I read this conference session, I kept thinking of Bernstein's lines again and again. 
"We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow."

I planned to just write about whichever talk struck me the most, but as I read I felt a theme that seemed to grow more and more prominent with each talk. I felt like I was being hit over the head with it: What is it that will save us? What is it that will help us reach our loftiest goal? And the answer, over and over: Our simple work. Our everyday worship. The day-by-day fight to love our families, our neighbors, our friends. 

I was struck by the recurring phrases in several of the talks. One called their present day "our day of complete frustration," which seemed almost stunningly apt to describe how I feel NOW, forty-four years later! Another mentions "these days of uncertainty and unrest," and there's also "confusion and frustration" (twice), and "disturbed and confused." Harold B. Lee's talk, "Teach the Gospel of Salvation," starts out by presenting some of the reasons for that confusion—the many questions and problems in the world; issues with war, politics, birth control, abortion, crime, widely-accepted immorality. Again I was struck by how relevant it all seemed. 

Elder Lee asks "what shall we do about all this?" and then quotes the Doctrine and Covenants, during another time when the saints "sought earnestly from the Lord as to how they were to meet the threats of their enemies."
[The Lord's answer was], “Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children.” After giving his law to parents to teach and train their children to walk uprightly before the Lord, he indicated his displeasure relative to those among us who, in his language, “are idlers … and [our] children are also growing up in wickedness; they also seek not earnestly the riches of eternity, but their eyes are full of greediness.”
"In plain language, then," (Elder Lee continues):
"the Saints were told that to avoid war with their enemies they must renounce war and proclaim peace and to see that this was to begin within the home where fathers and children would be at peace with each other… 
[God] didn’t leave us with any question as to the prime place in his church and in the world where…the battle against evil…would break out into armed conflict. …If these words are clearly understood, we have been told where the roots of all evil are to be found. Our children have not been properly taught by parents in the home. [And] our communities have adopted policies which encourage idleness instead of work.…"
I love how Elder Lee brings us down into focus—from the huge panoramic scope of the wars and wickedness of the world, down suddenly into the actual battleground, the actual place where the fight against evil takes place: in our homes. Our families. Our communities. The conflict that occurs every time we want to argue, or shirk a responsibility to love. Every time we want to choose idleness over work. THIS is where we must choose God, choose obedience, choose peace. And THIS is where the world will change.

It's simple, but perfect in its simplicity. Come home, and make your garden grow.

Next, Howard W. Hunter takes up the theme with "Spiritual Famine." He starts with the striking metaphor from Amos:
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.”
Then Elder Hunter quotes a minister from another church saying, "We are asked to turn to the church for enlightenment but when we do we find that the voice of the church is not inspired. The voice of the church today is the echo of our own voices. …"

I sat up and took notice of this, as I have been thinking for some time about how the most helpful time to have divine guidance is when the answer is something counterintuitive, something we wouldn't have come up with ourselves. A God that agrees with humans all the time would be no help to us at all! I keep reading criticisms of the church that dwell on the sticking points, when a member's "conscience" or reason or intuition tells him, "Your leaders are wrong on this! You know better." But I can't help feeling that such times are exactly when we MOST need the guidance of a higher being, and should be most willing to obey and trust God. 

Elder Hunter then says, 
"The church of Jesus Christ provides maximum opportunity for involvement of its members. From early youth to the last years of life, satisfying and meaningful activity and responsibility are available to all who are worthy and willing."
I thought about how many times my service in the church has seemed inconvenient, and it's nearly always! Left to myself, I would almost always be sitting home, staying quiet, deciding it's easier not to work on my talents right now, wanting to rest and think of myself. My natural inclination would almost never bring me to a neighbor's door or into a gathering of ladies I don't know very well; it would certainly never cause me to lead a group of youth, or speak in public, or volunteer with Cub Scouts. And yet it is these things, time after time, that bring fullness and satisfaction and meaning to my life. I am so grateful that the church gives me a reason to do them!

Again Elder Hunter reiterates the small, mundane things that bring happiness: learning to lead others righteously, close and cohesive family life, and service of God and man. He gives these as the antidote for the dry barren desert of spiritual famine, and ends with the hopeful observation that even "in what appears to be a spiritual famine, there are many who have found a spiritual abundance" (emphasis added) through following God's word. Of these Saints, he says, "Their lives are made bright and luminous by the gift of the Holy Ghost, and their souls are lifted up by their service to God and man."

Victor L. Brown talked about the welfare program and told several stories about specific things members of the church were doing to serve others. On first reading it seemed like a talk full of anecdotes, like some I've heard given more recently about the church's humanitarian service. I've heard these talks criticized as merely self-congratulatory ("isn't the church great!") but I thought that on the contrary, it carried an important doctrinal message. First of all, I was struck by how many complicated and challenging situations were being dealt with, quite different from the narrative you sometimes hear that the church is just now starting to notice and care for those who don't fit the "Mormon mold." It was clear, reading the stories, that then (as now) the gospel gives us the perfect tools to improve any situation. Elder Brown told of people dealing with poverty, adoption, foster care, drug and alcohol rehab, mental handicaps. And for each of these people in need, there were others supplying exactly the labor or care or knowledge that was required!

Elder Brown's larger point was even more profound, though: the thing each of these "needy" people needed MOST…was to turn around and serve OTHERS! The uneducated mother was taught how to serve her family more nutritious meals; the girl with cerebral palsy was allowed to serve at the bishop's storehouse. They were given the chance to contribute to God's work and this chance may have been the most valuable gift they received. Elder Brown quotes Albert E. Bowen: 
"… from the beginning the real long term objective of the Welfare Plan is the building of character in the members of the Church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest deep down in the inside of them, and bringing to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the spirit which after all is the mission and purpose and reason for being of this Church."
There are the flowers and fruits of the "garden" again, this time within each of us, grown with the help of the spirit as we reach out and serve!

And that brings me to my favorite talk, "Altar, Tent, and Well" by A. Theodore Tuttle. I think this one impressed me because it was so simple and poetic, and because I feel like I can be Isaac in this scenario Elder Tuttle begins with:
And [Isaac] builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there: and there Isaac’s servants digged a well.” (Gen. 26:25.) 
Altar, tent, and well. Isaac did not become an Abraham or a Jacob. He did not reach the heights of Abraham, called the “father of the faithful.” Nor was he as impressive as his son Israel, father of the twelve tribes. Yet Isaac is loved and revered. He worshiped God, cared for his home, and pursued his work. He is remembered simply as a man of peace. The eloquent simplicity of his life and his unique ability to lend importance to the commonplace made him great. 
Altar, tent, and well: his worship, his home, his work. These basic things of life signified his relationship to God, his family, and his fellowmen. Every person on earth is touched by these three.
Elder Tuttle talks beautifully about the different roles of men and women, and how they both center in the home. He brings up the Garden of Eden, but in a different way than I've heard before. It's almost like he's saying Eden, rather than being an almost unreal dreamworld, a place they would soon lose forever—was instead a precursor, a foreshadowing of some real, permanent home to come: 
Adam took [Eve]…into the Garden he had dressed and kept for her, into the bridal home he had built, into the Garden that from then till now has been the symbol of heaven on earth, there to begin together their earthly life, that was finally to bring opportunity to the untold myriads of spirits then waiting for the mortal tabernacles these two were to make it possible for them to possess.
It sounds almost…and these are my thoughts here, not Elder Tuttle's, so I could be wrong…like they left the Garden with the determination to, through their work and sweat and unity, find or build a new garden—a better one. A true paradise. Which is exactly, in my understanding, what our goal is through mortality. The Garden of Eden was a place of innocence, but a god is not merely innocent. The mortal world was a place of experience, but a god is not merely experienced. To reach a true paradise and be like God, it seems like we need a blend of these things. Experience without weariness or cynicism. Purity without ignorance or naiveté. Maybe we could call it "exaltation," but clearly, we need a both a mortal life and a perfect, merciful Savior to enable us to get there.

Back to Elder Tuttle. About Isaac's work away from the home (the "well" of the title), he says, 
"Kneeling at his altar, mindful of his family in his tent, Isaac found most of his working hours consumed in watching over wells he had caused to be digged. His flocks were nourished by them. His simple dependence upon the water and the soil and the forage that grew is little different in our day, for man must work."
I see reflected here one of the current differences between my role and Sam's role in our family. He too finds "most of his working hours consumed" in duties away from home, but through those hours he is still "mindful of his family in his tent." Or in other words, a husband's spiritual focus can remain on "Altar" and "Tent," though his physical and mental exertion are often consumed by "Well." As a stay-at-home mother, my role, on the other hand, allows me to more easily combine the three areas. My work IS my home; my worship IS my family. I get to spend my days at the "altar" teaching my children, or in the "tent" keeping our lives organized—I get to spend my days "tending my garden." I love to think of the rituals of keeping home as a form of worship. I love to think of my nurturing and love for my children as the creation of Eden on earth. But it is my Sam who constantly brings the "water from the well" to make that garden's growth possible. I love this beautiful symbol. And ultimately, I think, when our mortal constraints are removed, we will be able to unite altar, tent, and well into one great work and glory, as God does.

*****
Here is the next verse of the "Make our Garden Grow" song I mentioned above:
Let dreamers dream what worlds they please
Those Edens can't be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

Honestly, I think there is great Truth here. Not because Eden is a fantasy; not because God doesn't exist. But because heaven is rooted in the mundane. Eternity is built from moments. God does his work day by day, and we find him, we KNOW Him, by joining in his work. I don't know the theology of it all, but I have always felt that we Mormons believe in a very real God, a very real salvation. We don't spend much time in metaphysics. We believe in the elevation of the ordinary, and the progression from ordinary to divine.

And that's the message I got from this session. In 1972 there were bad things, big things, serious things going on in the world, as there are now. But the message seemed to be: go home and make your garden grow. Tend your little flock, your little well. Make friends with and love those that are around you. Teach your children, your neighbors, and influence them. That's the answer to (ultimately) solving the big problems—AND to individually feeling less helplessness and more hope as those big, scary things swirl around us.

****
Here are the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week:

- Home is Heaven's Construction Site by Nathaniel Givens
http://difficultrun.nathanielgivens.com/…/home-is-heavens-…/

- Family--Isn't it about Time, and Eternity? by G
http://www.jrganymede.com/…/family-isnt-it-about-time-and-e…

- Preach in Season and Out of Season by Daniel Ortner
https://symphonyofdissent.wordpress.com/…/preach-in-seaso…/…

- What Makes Mormonism Unique? by Michelle Linford
http://mormonwoman.org/20…/…/17/what-makes-mormonism-unique/

- A Love Story by Jan Tolman
http://www.ldswomenofgod.com/a-love-story/

7 comments:

  1. So wonderful!
    "..the building of character in the members of the Church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest deep down in the inside of them, and bringing to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the spirit..."
    Thank you!

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    1. Thanks Katie! I always love hearing from you.

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  2. Oh my goodness! I loved this so much!! And yes, isn't that so much what 'religion' has become. Everyone listening to the echo of their own voice. I loved your thoughts on that. But more I loved the beautiful theme you found and pieced together so perfectly. Funny how applicable to NOW. Your thoughts answered some of my own questions and frustrations about how to process and deal with all of the insanity of the world right now: focus where I've always been meant to focus -- on my own home and family. What a relief I don't have to solve everything. I hope hope you will find the time and energy to keep posting all your thoughts. I loved the idea in this project of noticing recurring themes and warnings and repetitions the prophets and apostles have been speaking for 40 plus years. Maybe at some point, when I get a handle on the many things I'm trying to study right now, I'll join in. In the mean time I'm so excited to hear more of the bits and pieces of wisdom and insight you discover! I hope things will also pop up in our emails and send me any quotes you love as you are reading STAT!

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    1. The whole time I was writing this, I kept thinking, "you know who should do this? Nancy." So I hope you do join, or at least read along sometimes. You have 14 more years to decide (that's when they'll be all caught up, on this schedule). :)

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    2. That's what I saw! Finish date 2029 or something? :) If nothing else I will definitely join in the reading now and then!

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  3. This was wonderful. I particularly loved this paragraph. I've been thinking a lot about the plan and purpose of mortality and the fall, and I feel like you captured it beautifully.

    "It sounds almost…and these are my thoughts here, not Elder Tuttle's, so I could be wrong…like they left the Garden with the determination to, through their work and sweat and unity, find or build a new garden—a better one. A true paradise. Which is exactly, in my understanding, what our goal is through mortality. The Garden of Eden was a place of innocence, but a god is not merely innocent. The mortal world was a place of experience, but a god is not merely experienced. To reach a true paradise and be like God, it seems like we need a blend of these things. Experience without weariness or cynicism. Purity without ignorance or naiveté. Maybe we could call it "exaltation," but clearly, we need a both a mortal life and a perfect, merciful Savior to enable us to get there."

    ~mormonwoman.org Michelle :)

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