Monday, September 13, 2010

The Pioneers Had It Rough

My family and I left for church Sunday morning earlier than usual.  It was regional conference, which meant that pretty much no matter which of the bajillion LDS churches we chose to attend from anywhere across the entire county, we would see the same broadcast as anyone else as relayed from the Marriott Center at BYU.  So we joined my father- and sister-in-law (which I’m always in favor of, because it generally means that I’ll actually get to pay attention to the meeting rather than spend all my faculties keeping the kids occupied and quiet—and they’re quality company, besides), and went to their building. 

It was an excellent meeting, of course (and I’m not just saying so because it was church and Apostles and whatnot), and I particularly enjoyed the comments from Julie Beck, General Relief Society President for the Church, and from Elder Holland of the Twelve.  But I didn’t take notes.  I never do, and I can’t say that any of their words are still hanging out with me.  Elder Packer, however, whom I don’t usually find particularly compelling (sorry), said something that gave me pause—something like this:  Should the pioneers look down and comment on the difficulty of living in the modern age, they would confess how much harder we’ve got it than they had.  So, simplifying: my life is harder than the life of a pioneer—one of those poor people who trekked across the Great Plains from Ohio, Missouri, Illinois all the way to Utah and beyond in the name of religious freedom, and did so under some of the most harrowing circumstances you might ever come across.  If you doubt me, find a Mormon church and attend Sunday services anywhere around the 24th of July.  And if you are a Mormon, you know exactly the crazy, amazing, and inspiring experiences these people underwent.  Holy cow, and here’s an apostle of the Lord claiming my life’s tougher!?  Sure, he’s drawing a metaphor to living as a “spiritual pioneer” in the Last Days, and is trying to build us up that, hey, our challenges are BIGGER, REALLY, but come on....

Again, I’m not the kind to just take their word for it.  This is what I think and the process I took to get there (nowhere definitive, I’m afraid), and it starts with that modifier, “spiritual,” against that big noun above, “pioneer.”

So, “In the beginning,” we understand that God created all things spiritually before he created them physically.  That makes sense.  He did/does have a plan, after all.  We see a bigger version of this, turned cyclic, in the advent and absolution of the Law of Moses.  Before Moses, there was the higher law, which the children of Israel were deemed too slow to cope with; so the higher law from before was replaced with the Law of Sacrifice, which, of course—for Christians—means that those couple thousand years or so were preparatory, particularly metaphorically, for the ultimate and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  So spiritual versus physical, right?  The higher law is a spiritual law; the law of Moses very physical, and now, we’re back to the higher law.  So what’s this got to do with the Mormon pioneers?

I see it that the pioneers’ trials—and I think this should be pretty clear—underwent ostensibly and dominantly physical trials.  I’m sure that they had their spiritual trials too, but as far as the collective generations of the pioneers are concerned, theirs were physical—and they were freaking tremendous.  On the other hand, physically speaking, we’ve got it pretty easy.  (And what Elder Packer is talking about when he says our trials will make the pioneers happy they didn’t have our lot—what exactly the modern TRIALS are, generally, for an entire population—well, I think they’re abundant, but feel free to comment!)

But is our situation really harder?  Really?

When I gauge the distance across the epochs of humanity (ugh, that sounds ridiculous!) and note how far we’ve come—in whatever sense, though we can probably add, “or how low we’ve sunk” —I can’t say that I think anyone’s got it any harder than anyone else, ever.  We’ve all heard the stereotypical fatherly or grandfatherly when-I-was-your-age boloney (bologna?).  No.  They didn’t have it harder.  No.  I don’t think we’ve got it harder.  Here’s why:

Christ’s temptations.  Let’s look at those first (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4).  (I’m going to try and keep this concise.)  So the Bible uses the word “tempt” for what Satan does—not tries to do, but does—to Jesus out in the wilderness among the beasts.  And, yes, I know we have to take the actual wording of the Bible (thank you, Bart Ehrman) with a grain of salt, or several handfuls.  And if you think you can take this literally, which you can’t (though, in this case, literal interpretation works just as well, as it turns out), you’re firstly warded off not by any potential misquotation (which, actually, Bart, isn’t an issue as we Mormons—who believe—got the JST) but by the etymology of the word itself.  (I confess, I was disappointed; I wanted it to be literal and say, “Yes, see, Satan didn’t attempt to tempt Jesus—he DID tempt him!”)  The word “tempt” means to “attempt to influence,” not “to influence.”  Sorry.  Regardless, could any of these little trivialities really be anything for Jesus as are the temptations wily adversary puts before me—us?


Now before you call lightning down upon me, think about it (and really, the difference between Jesus and us is perfect here (and, yes, I’m speaking for all of us—and you), that is Jesus didn’t give in!):  Satan knows us.  He knows us well enough that he picks (or maybe it’s just process of elimination and he doesn’t know anything, but I don’t think so—he’s got no veil over his eyes depriving him of the knowledge of all our time and development in the preexistence) only the most likely-to-make-us-fall temptations he can find.  Now, as Jesus is so much greater a potential prize for him than any one or even all of us, wouldn’t he have been all the more careful to most meticulously select the Master’s temptations.  (And besides—and this is just speculation—if Jesus has to really know/understand everything about our experience in order to truly advocate for us, wouldn’t he have to truly know/understand temptation?)  Anyway, I trust it wasn’t so simple as, “Hey, little brother, turning that rock to bread is pretty stupid, so just go away.”  I think he felt tempted.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?  After all, I can look at all kinds of people—alcoholics, for an extreme example—and scoff, “What the heck’s wrong with them; I’d never do that.”  And I probably won’t.  I can’t say that I’ve got a problem with gossip, or with dishonoring my parents.  Are there people who do?  Well, duh, or there wouldn’t have been commandments set forth to countermand the actions pursuant of such weaknesses in the first place!  I’ve got problems of my own.  And, really, if I’d been fasting for weeks in the wilderness and I had the power to turn a freaking rock into a loaf of bread, well....

Take a step beyond temptations.  Trials.  There are all kinds.  For example, there are trials that we bring upon ourselves, because we’ve succumbed to temptation or made a stupid decision or whatever else. There are also the trials that God simply puts before us, not because we’re weak, but because he wants to make us stronger.  With trials, similar to temptations—but without the examples, as this is going on forever—something that is an obstacle for me would not necessarily be an obstacle for another.

And why not?  Didn’t God create us equal?

Again, here’s how I see it:  We’re all different—little snowflakes, right?  Infinite possibilities.  But for each of us God has the same mission, that is to return to Him.  That’s what he wants.  And for us to be happy.  He wants us back!  He didn’t put us here to fail, no matter how much it might at time seem otherwise and so often.  But he also wants us to be the best we can be.  That’s another thing entirely, and what would make the pioneers the best they could be is not necessarily the same stuff that will make me or you or anyone else of our generations the best we can be.  How do I know?  Well, how many of us are pushing a handcart across the Rocky-freaking-Mountains?

When Elder Packer says the pioneers will look on us and say, “Holy crap, I’m glad that’s not us,” all it tells me is that the pioneers were different people, perfectly suited—eternally speaking—for the trials they were given; and holy crap, I’m glad I don’t have to do what they did.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make my life any easier.  Interestingly enough, despite the difference in trial types—physical versus spiritual—God provided exactly the same means for overcoming them.  To be happy in the face of trials, to overcome the trials and gain what the Maker wants us to gain from them, what do we need? 

Faith, man.  That’s the answer.  And it’s the bleeding answer for every problem we’re confronted with, self-induced, Godly, or otherwise. Faith.  In Jesus Christ.  He, who underwent everything—condescended, to use the King James scribblers’ vernacular—so that he could pull us through or carry us over anything.

So back to the beginning: So, did the pioneers REALLY NOT get it as rough as we got it?  Nope.  It’s true.  Low and behold, old Packer is right.  It’s harder for us, because it is us, not them.  And knowing—or hearing from one of God’s mouthpieces on Earth—that my life, at least for me, is harder than anything the pioneers went through, well, it helps me remember to really put my best foot forward and remember that if it’s what the Lord’s given me, it must also be what’s best for me, and that (as well as being another clause in a ridiculous run-on sentence) is really comforting right now.


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