On the telephone, Brother Gearhart sounds to me like Jim Layton. And that's who I thought was calling on Pioneer Day. Jim Layton. Midday phone calls to your home number usually involve some kind of marketing effort, so I usually don't focus on them very well. And I'm old, poor of hearing, etc. Anyway, Jim Layton, I thought, was calling, perhaps to ask if Kiele and I'd like some corn. It's been commonplace for a very generous farmer Jim to do that throughout all the years that we've lived here about this time of year. But no, it wasn't a kind-hearted Jim calling; it was Brother Gearhart, not asking if we'd like corn but asking if I'd . . . if I'd feed you corn.
Or did he say, don't be corny?
He said that his arranged-for speaker had had a conflict, so he needed to ask if I'd be 1 able to speak. "Me?" I wanted to say, but I didn't. I thought it. I was surprised. Perhaps, more shocked. Once I recovered, I said, "In sacrament meeting?"
"Yes," he said. He admitted that it was short notice and proceeded to say that the topic assigned to the person who'd had a conflict was "Redemption" based upon the April Conference talk of Elder Christofferson of the Qof12.
Hurry, now, you device users; hustle, get that talk up. Read it instead of listening. After all, Christofferson's an apostle; I've just been an aspiring apostate these past few days thinking about giving this talk.
Brother Gearhart said, "Since it's short notice, it'd be okay if you just wanted to pick a topic from your past week's scripture studies."
My past week's scripture studies? Seriously? I've been reading Holy Misogyny. I wanted to ask if I could just read a chapter from one 2 of my self-published novels. But I didn't. They weren't sacrament meeting material or from last week's scripture studies.
"Okay," I said, still in shock, not thinking straight. A bumper sticker says, "I don't suffer from insanity --- I enjoy every minute of it." Didn't the Brother realize that I hadn't written my four pages that I write weekly to take to a critiquing group. How could I prepare a talk, too? One I had to come up here to deliver? Anyway, once Brother Gearhart had my commitment, he mentioned I'd probably speak last, with a youth speaker and another speaker before me. That gave me hope. [look at the clock] [That's turned out bad/well.]
Immediately before Brother Michael called, I'd been contemplating Ursula Le Guin's introduction in a 1976 rerelease of her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. That introduction is a kind of essay, premised on her protagonist's having 3 told her that truth is matter of the imagination. Not truth is imagination, but is a matter of the imagination. My dear wife, Shelley, and I, after reading that, whenever people talked of the truth of this or that, we'd look at each other knowingly, thinking truth is a matter of the imagination.
I'd also been reading and thinking about former Area Authority Hans Mattsson, the Seventy who'd apparently had heart surgery in 2005 and been released. He had begun learning about puzzling and problematic episodes in Church history on the internet. The NY Times had published an article. Elder Mattsson, who had devoted his life to Church leadership and service, hadn't known about some tough Church histories and a few creases in particular doctrines and teachings. He felt let down when he'd learned them, leading to a "crisis of faith" despite his prior spiritual experiences in serving the Church. 4
So in that context, on Pioneer Day, I committed to speak. It'd been a long time since I last had. . but not long enough. Given my travails, I couldn't help but think of handcart pioneers.
I looked up the word "redemption". The dictionary said it was the act of redeeming. So I looked up "redeem". Redeem is to compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something). It gave an example. "A disappointing debate was redeemed by an outstanding speech." I saw irony in that "speech" part. Over against the Elder Mattsson matter, an outstanding talk on redemption would be nice. Now, I thought, if I could just find somebody to write and deliver it.
When I grew up, they broadcast TV in black and white. Telephones were black too --- big, hulking, ugly devices, with wires, sometimes attached to a wall. No touch screens, no downloadable apps, no 5 texting. No internet. Operators helped make some connections. Back then, in ancient history, boys in our neighborhood gathered and redeemed used bottles, pop, beer, whatever. Glass bottles, not plastic or metal, as now. The amount you could redeem them for was a few pennies. Of course, then for two cents you could buy a small box of licorice Snaps and chew on them while old guys blathered in sacrament meeting. In gathering up bottles to redeem, the boys also saved the bottles from ending up broken and wasting away, cluttering the neighborhood or landfill. Those bottles could be washed reused, recycled.
Now a comedy . . . a fiction. Remember, it's an imaginary tale.
In fall at harvest time, a bishop visits a less active elder to invite him to sacrament meeting. The bishop finds Blaze at home busily bottling a new batch of fine peach brandy. They talk and visit and 6 even laugh together. Ultimately, Blaze says, "I'll come to block meetings, Bishop, if you'll taste some brandy and admit that you did so before the congregation in sacrament meeting." They converse more and the bishop finally agrees and sips the peach brandy.
In sacrament services the next Sunday, Blaze is, as promised, in attendance, sitting in the back, off to one side. Brother Blaze is awaiting the bishop's confession to the congregation of what the bishop had done. Once Blaze caught the bishop's eye at the podium, the bishop said, "I'm delighted that Brother Blaze is here with us this afternoon. I want to show my appreciation for him being here. I also want to say thanks to him for his warmth earlier this week, especially for the peaches he gave me and the spirit in which they were given.
Truth is a matter of the imagination.
So, 7 Pioneer Day was Wednesday. I think of the heartbreaking ordeal of the Martin handcart company. It was devastating because it was human. The people were raring to go, so trusting that they put themselves into avoidable peril. They were real, struggling to cling to faith through doubts and hardships. There were heroes and scapegoats, good decisions and organization as well as poor planning and mistakes. From Crossing to Safety we read:
"There in a mass meeting they discussed the question raised by some of the more cautious elders: whether to push on through or go only so far as some good camping site along the Platte, perhaps Wood River just beyond Grand Island, and there hole up until spring. Taking part in the debate were several of the Iowa City agents, including W. H. Kimball and G. D. Grant, who had hurried on to the Missouri as soon as Iowa 8 City was cleaned out. Like many others present, they knew the trail and the uncertain fall weather of the mountains; like many others, they were intoxicated with zeal to prove the handcart plan sound…
"One voice, that of Levi Savage, was raised strongly on the other side. He said that such a mixed company would surely suffer greatly if it tried to cross the plains and mountains so late. With the best of luck it would be nearly the end of October before they could arrive, and the trailwise knew it could snow in the mountains a good two months before that. He would not risk it. But when they took a vote, he voted alone. The Lord, the others thought, would temper the wind to His lambs. Savage's response did him honor both as a Saint and as a man. He said, "Brethren and sisters, what I have said 9 I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you." It would not prove necessary that Savage die with them, not quite. But some of them would owe him their lives before they reached the valley, for he was one of the hardy and experienced who kept them going" (239-240).
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, "A pioneer is not someone who makes her own soap. She is one who takes up her burdens and walks toward the future." My dear wife, Shelley, always said we needed to go around the bend to see what's up the trail.
The typical focus among us doesn't want opposition or criticism. It supports a conclusion that none who survived that handcart journey 10 left the church. It neglects the very real suffering of those optimistic saints and refuses us a chance to learn good sense from their unquestioning lack of vigilance. We also lose thereby the individual, superlative faith of Levi Savage. And most disconcerting, a blemish-free account puts those pioneers, uniformly, in a category of super-heroes, depicting them as assured, sacred saints whose level of faith is eternally out of ordinary reach.
We need pioneers in vibrant shades of color, not all bleached white. Some petty, critical, not faithful. Not ideal, but fallible. They sincerely believed they were following a prophet of God and struggling to fulfill his commandments. Because of their failings, they're heroic, and we can relate and aspire to imitate them.
Crossing to Safety reads, "At a meeting of 107 missionaries about to go abroad in August, 1852 [4 years before Willie & Martin handcarts], Brigham Young decided to 10 announce publicly the doctrine of spiritual wives, and the announcement, together with the doctrinal justifications by Orson Pratt, was published in the Deseret News. Not even after this would missionaries discuss polygamy freely; they were instructed to say as little about it as possible, and it is likely that many a convert arrived in Salt Lake City in the later 1850s still persuaded that it was an ugly rumor perpetuated by the enemies of the Church. Nevertheless the admission was public, and could be corroborated in the newspapers, and it must have had something to do with the decline in number of conversions and the large number of apostasies during the '50's. And yet not so many apostasies and not such a decline in conversions as one might have expected" [Close quote.] (211-212).
Humankind is a family. We often bring that down to just the Church or the ward, but 11 we don't get to choose who's in the family of Heavenly Mother and Father. We all are, black and white, tall and short, sour and sweet. We could jolly well get along without some who make us uncomfortable, whose views turn our stomach, whose actions make our eyes flame. Such doesn't alter a bedrock relationship that exists: we are brothers and sisters. Family. I like to play the role of a bleeding heart where's-my-Mother-in-Heaven liberal pacifist while you might have snuck into sacrament a-pistol-packing I'd-follow-Abraham-and-sacrifice-my-boy-too hawk. Nonetheless, we are family, brothers, sisters, children of our Heavenly Parents. You don't have to listen to me. But you don't get to kick me out of the family, no matter what I do. That's what the redemption of my big brother, our big brother, Jesus Christ, is all about. We're related. We all need to be ransomed, to be set free.
Brokenness 12 is a part of the system. " The scripture says, "Even so, when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good." We're not whole; we need each other. Zion is an ideal community of one heart and one mind, with no poor. Zion is a matter of the imagination.
Myriad stories exist of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of repentance, of humility, and of redemption. A brother or a sister, a man or a woman whom we've pinned as a neighborhood tramp, a ward gossip, a patronizing bishop, a community muckety-muck, a shallow relief society president, or a disparaging brother sometimes reaches down to pick us up. They lift us up, old, empty, dirty glass bottles, which we resemble, to redeem us, to recognize our worth, to recycle us.
Does such come too infrequently? Almost certainly. We 13 often act and think cruelly, not kindly. But when redemption comes, it brings replenishing water to cleanse us inside and out so that we can be filled again. There's value in it, too, for the person who picks us up to recycle, just like those pennies to buy licorice Snaps. Such help sustains us for a while, but a degree of brokenness is a permanent feature of us and of our institutions, including the Church.
We are to redeem and to be redeemed. Both roles.
We are told that we can be cast down, thrown out, soiled and spoiled, and still get picked up and cleansed and filled.
We are also told to be picker-uppers, to reach down to brothers and sisters who've been figuratively emptied and cast away and to lift them up, to turn them in for recycling. It's hard work. If we do so, we then receive small 14 rewards.
[I think its the following part I had to leave out for time.] It's never enough, because it's the ongoing nature of mortality, immortality and eternal life. We know whose work and whose glory that is.
Every now and then, we all experience a grace visited upon us when we've been emptied out, someone reaching to us and helping us to go on a while longer.
Sometimes it's an act of God. I've heard others relate so. Tamara told how her father relied upon a garden to help feed his family. At the time of approaching storms, with hailstorms all around, her father gathered his family, including young Tamara, to bless the garden, which he did. Tamara said when the storm came, hail fell all around, everywhere but on their garden. Doug Cornaby said that he gave a blessing to a young boy and then heard, afterward, the boy tell his parent that the voice giving the blessing was not that of 15 Brother Cornaby.
More often, though, it's the astonishing love of others, acting often out of character, enlarging themselves in their weakness, inspired by something beyond yet within. That's when we see and experience the beauty and dignity of God.
Redemption and reconciliation are our responsibilities in the family of Heavenly Parents. As Elder Christofferson said, as Christ's disciples, we ought to do all we can to redeem others from suffering and burden, but our greatest service is to lead them to Christ.
Now, go home. Read Elder Christofferson's talk if you haven't done so while I've spoken. Go watch or read Les Misérables, especially up until Valjean completes his encounter with the Priest.
Have you seen the bumper sticker? Don't take my signals literally. Truth is a matter of the imagination. Imagine how wonderful it might be if we all helped with the work of redemption.
In Christ's name. Amen.