Back in the Last Wagon

Image from Bureau of Land Management.

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 246th week, and we’re covering the Sunday morning session of the October 1989 General Conference

One of my favorite themes in the Gospel (and life in general) is the celebration of the ordinary. A lot of the times the phrase I use is “finding the sacred in the mundane”, which is something that weaves a vibrant strain through Latter-day Saint thought. So I couldn’t help but notice that several of the talks from this session touched on this particular favorite of mine.

In An Ensign to the Nations, (then) Elder Hinckley cited President Lee quoting someone unknown that we should “Survey large fields and cultivate small ones.” President Hinckley explained:

My interpretation of that statement is that we ought to recognize something of the breadth and depth and height—grand and wonderful, large and all-encompassing—of the program of the Lord, and then work with diligence to meet our responsibility for our assigned portion of that program.

Each of us has a small field to cultivate. While so doing, we must never lose sight of the greater picture, the large composite of the divine destiny of this work. It was given us by God our Eternal Father, and each of us has a part to play in the weaving of its magnificent tapestry. Our individual contribution may be small, but it is not unimportant.

I have spent too many years of my life fretting about the scale of my contribution and who would notice it and congratulate me for it. The scriptures warn us not to lay up treasure on Earth, and I think most of the time we recognize this as a warning against materialism. (Things that thieves can steal or moths can destroy are physical things, after all.) That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. Status and recognition aren’t material, but they’re still worldly. They’re treasures of the Earth. And we need to give them up, too.

For as long as we refuse to let go we’ve basically got an IV dripping poison straight into our veins. Status-seeking is toxic. The only way to get more is to take it away from someone else. You’ll never have enough. What you do have, you’ll be afraid of losing. What you don’t have will fuel fires of jealousy and festering resentment. 

It’s not enough to just renounce the things of the world and say you don’t care about them anymore. Practically speaking, I don’t think it’s possible to abandon one desire or care or concern without replacing it with something else. We can’t just stop caring about worldly status. We need something to replace it with.

For me, anyway, that’s what it means to cultivate a small field (my own, little mission here on Earth) while also keeping my eye on the large ones. The largest field is the Plan of Salvation, the whole big operation that started before the Sun started shining and will continue long after our star burns out. The small and mundane things I have to do from day to day–change diapers, show up for my day job, get the kids to do their chores–can all be seen as little tiny parts of the one, true big and sacred thing.

President Hinckley also stated that part of the whole big/little, sacred/mundane dichotomy is that the big project is communal.

If each of us does not do well that which is his or hers to do, then there is a flaw in the entire pattern. The whole tapestry is injured. But if each of us does well his or her part, then there is strength and beauty.

I liked another one of his quotes so much, that I shared it on Facebook when I first read it, and here it is:

While grubbing the sagebrush of these western valleys to lay the foundations for a commonwealth, while doing all of the many mundane things they were required to do to stay alive and grow, our forebears ever kept before them the grandeur of the great cause in which they were engaged. It is a work which we must do with the same vision they held. It is a work which will go on after we have left this scene. God help us to do our very best as servants, called under His divine will, to carry forward and build the kingdom with imperfect hands, united together to execute a perfect pattern.

This project of renouncing worldly status to play our part in the big plan reminds me of a lyric from one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs, “Wish You Were Here.” 

So, so you think you can tell

Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain?
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a leading role in a cage?

When we cultivate a small field, we’re taking on “a walk-on part”. But if we see the larger field that it’s a part of, then we realize that our walk-on part is in the real war. Contrasted, of course, with the passing worldly acclaim that is really nothing but a lead role in a cage.

Elder Oaks talk from the same session, Modern Pioneers, had a really similar vibe to President Hinckley’s, and it’s where I got the title for this post:

In every great cause there are leaders and followers. In the wagon trains, the leaders were “out in front where the air was clear and clean and where they had unbroken vision of the blue vault of heaven.” (J. Reuben Clark: Selected Papers, p. 69.) But, as President Clark observed, “Back in the last wagon, not always could they see the brethren way out in front and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of the dust of the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, sometimes almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the Restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.” (Ibid.)

Elder Oaks again:

There are hidden heroines and heroes among the Latter-day Saints—“those of the last wagon” whose fidelity to duty and devotion to righteousness go unnoticed by anyone except the One whose notice really matters.

I know that as long as I’m preoccupied with which wagon I’m in–closer to the front or closer to the back–my ego has not been fully subjugated. I think that’s one way of looking at the teaching that you have to lose your life to save it. Most of us most of the time feel like our ego is who we are. And letting that go–renouncing the go–feels like a kind of dying.

I know I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m living up to that commandment.

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