This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session from the October 1973 Conference.
I remember when I was young, seeing my mom work in the kitchen after the rest of us had finished a meal. There was a family rule that we should all stay and help clean up, and we did, but after the dishes were washed and the table wiped and the floor swept, we would drift off, and my mom would remain, always doing more: wiping the cupboards, scrubbing the stove, sponging out the oven. I felt, as I watched her, a little bit of guilt that she was still working alone, but I always consoled myself with the fact that she liked doing it. At least, I assumed she liked it. Why else would she be doing it?
Now, it's possible my mom is a special case because I think she really DOES like to clean, or at least dislikes being in places that aren't clean, enough to drive herself to always be working at it more than most people. But those scenes of her working at a task alone, of continuing long beyond everyone else's self-satisfied feelings of "I've done enough!"—have come back to me many times as I've spent my own lonely hours cleaning under stove burners or mending clothes or wiping out drawers. (Or, as I've sat on the couch thinking about how I SHOULD be cleaning under stove burners and wiping out drawers.) I think, "Why should I have to do this? I don't want to do it anymore than anyone else does! But if I don't do it, it won't get done." It can feel like a heavy burden. (I'm not advocating that mothers do, or should do, all the work, of course. The load is lightened considerably when everyone helps—though as every parent knows, getting everyone to help with the work is, itself, lots of work! But here I'm mostly talking about the inevitable times when, for whatever reason, the work isn't shared and I feel the entire responsibility for it.) And I have come to the realization many times over that my parents worked—not because they wouldn't prefer to do something else— but because they just knew what had to be done, and that someone had to do it.
I was telling my friend about this the other day and she said her kids were the same. Her husband always stays in the kitchen doing dishes after dinner, and my friend will say, "Aren't you going to help Dad?"
"But he likes doing dishes!" the children will protest. "He WANTS to do it! That's why he does it!" It's like they have no inkling that there might be another reason.
I was thinking about all this as I read this week's Conference session, which was all about the church Welfare program, and therefore all about work. And I thought about it even more as I helped clean the temple late one night last week. It was strange to be in the temple, not praying and pondering, but dusting and scrubbing, wearing white. Though I know doing ordinances for our ancestors pleases God, for some reason—maybe just because it was different—cleaning the Lord's house felt like an even more personal way to show my love for Him. I felt actually—holy—there, doing these menial, mundane tasks for God.
What is it that is so sanctifying about work—actual, physical work? Elder Featherstone quotes President J. Reuben Clark saying "We must purge our hearts of the love of ease; we must put from our lives the curse of idleness." Hmmm. We aren't supposed to love "ease"—even a little bit? Does that mean my secret desire to just sleep for the first 200 years of eternity won't come to pass? :) Elder Featherstone goes so far as to say,
There is no substitute for work. You cannot be lazy. Businesses who say, “Come with us and work for us; the wages are high and the labor is easy; the work week has been reduced considerably,”—
And here I thought he was going to say "Such businesses are lying. It's impossible to get something for nothing." But actually, he continues:
have only shame to offer. You are destroying your soul and character when you accept such an offer. The Lord expects us to be industrious; he expects us to be mentally and physically ambitious with all our hearts and souls. And I promise you this—that this compromise work attitude never was what the Lord intended.
Elder Featherstone seems to be implying that even if we COULD get something for nothing—we shouldn't take it. We shouldn't WANT it. We should want to work hard because that's what God intended for us!
I'm not sure exactly how to apply this counsel. Obviously work is not the only purpose of life. And obviously the labor-saving devices of our age are wonderful blessings, allowing us more time to think and develop talents, to ponder and serve. But I think of my mom and dad working in our home. Getting up early to make breakfast. Staying up late helping with homework. Putting in the work to help their kids learn work, even when it meant redoing that work later because it was badly done. And I think in all my self-centeredness and cluelessness about what my parents were thinking, maybe I actually did have it right after all.
They were doing it because they wanted to.
But they didn't want to because it was "fun." Not because they were bored and had nothing else to fill their time. Not because they enjoyed the act of scrubbing pots. Not because they were parents and parents somehow aren't "real people." Not because they didn't, on some level, also NOT want to do that work.
But—they had covenanted with God that they would serve Him. And that meant serving His children: serving us. That meant doing the little things someone has to do, if a home is to run smoothly. And in that way, in God's service, they DID want to work. And they did even love the work.
Elder Robert L. Simpson said of keeping our covenants,
I testify with all the sobriety of my heart and soul that we are committed, that we are depended upon. All things are possible in the Lord…As we unite in our faith and determination, His work will be accomplished. May this obligation burn within us. May it never be dimmed. May we be excited about the opportunity that is ours as we move forward deliberately, in humility, and with constant preparation, and do what we have to do.
I do feel this obligation and determination, though it wavers from time to time. But deep down, I truly do want to work in God's service, to assist Him in His work. What I need more practice with is remembering that the ordinary work in my home or ward is, or can be, that work. The constant cooking and cleaning and washing and scheduling are an "opportunity," if I "move forward deliberately," for ME to be someone the Lord can depend on to carry out His work.
So I'm trying, if I'm the one left doing a task, and I'm feeling resentful because my kids are probably assuming I just WANT to do it, or because no one else ever thinks of doing it, or because I'd rather be doing something else—I'm trying to say to myself, "But I DO want to do this. Not ALL of me does. But the part that is learning to work does. And the only way I'm going to become like God is by letting that part of me have lots of practice!"
Elder Featherstone told a story which I won't retell here (you can read it in his talk), and even though it was from Reader's Digest and felt very…Reader's Digest-y, I liked it. The culmination of the story—about a boy who rises to do better, more complete work than he thought possible—has his mentor saying this:
"I know how you felt, because the same thing happens to almost everyone. They feel this sudden burst in them of wanting to do some great thing. They feel a wonderful happiness, but then it passes because they have said, 'No, I can’t do that. It’s impossible.' Whenever something in you says, 'It’s impossible,' remember to take a careful look and see if it isn’t really God asking you to grow an inch, or a foot, or a mile, that you may come to a fuller life."
Since that time, some 25 years ago, [the boy concludes] when I have felt myself at an end with nothing before me, suddenly, with the appearance of that word, ‘impossible,’ I have experienced the unexpected lift, the leap inside me, and known that the only possible way lay through the very middle of impossible.
And as oversentimentalized as it may sound, I have felt that burst of wanting some great thing. I felt it when I was in grade school wanting to be a famous writer, or when I was in high school wanting to win races and piano competitions, or when I was in college wanting to be a Rhodes Scholar. I still feel it, secretly, sometimes. But soon afterwards, inevitably, I look at my actual abilities and feel embarrassed for that burst of desire to do great things. And as I've been living through the joys and challenges of family life for the past fifteen years, I've reminded myself that even the simple, unnoticed sacrifices and victories are acceptable to God.
But as I read this, I realized the urge for doing "some great thing" isn't wrong—just misplaced. The daily work IS the great thing. The keeping of covenants IS the great thing. The taking of one more step, and then another, IS the path to the "fuller life." And I should feel a leap inside myself as I think of doing this "impossible" thing: of working because I want to. Of having such fierce love of God and family in my heart that the most mundane of tasks, the most tiring of labors, the most menial and exhausting work, becomes a joy because of my love.
Other posts in this series:
Other posts in this series: