An Unfinished Work
By GA Many
They were just like you and me. The small group of people who met together to break bread in 1830. It was April, on a farm. Flies were probably buzzing in the windows as the spring sun was doing what it does in bringing things back to life. This energetic group of unfinished Christians was self-selected from a few local families in the surrounding counties.
Some were there because they had witnessed amazing things in their life and this group represented the only people with whom they felt like they could share their stories with.
Some had been cold-shouldered out of other congregations for being more fluid in their interpretation of the “canon”.
Some had come looking for a community that provided a safe place to explore ideas that were still swirling in their hearts and minds. They hadn’t actually shared these thoughts with anyone – yet. However, certain novel and spontaneous thoughts had over time seemingly and independently bubbled up inside them. And although these ideas were hard to express, when listening to Joseph speak, there was something like a flicker of a candle in their hearts that connected what had previously begun to surface in their own consciousness with his experience.
Still others in the group were on hand to see what money could be made from a group of people naïve enough to be honest.
Some were nervous about what it would mean for their families if their involvement in these meetings was made public.
Some were just curious and were willing to hitch their wagons to anything that looked to have some momentum.
These unpolished saints’ imaginations were active. Their hearts were connected in an inexplicable and unseen counter-culturalism. Where most humans were (and still are) wont to fight over access to resources, for this group the Universe was alive and generous. Church and Religion and Spirituality and Life were about exploring our connection to the universal source and creating ways to share that bounty with others.
The series of events around 1830 were the beginning of a new adventure. I’d like to think that these saints understood the possibility that things could get messy. And that they were ok with rolling up their sleeves.
They were just like you and me.
Many of these proto Mormons would certainly have been struggling with the emotional baggage and personal costs often associated with the growing pains of expanding your faith. The religious environment was intense and any shift away from the established norms would be seen by others as weakness. When in fact just the opposite was taking place. To exert one’s will opposite to the trends of the establishment is to call attention to oneself. That can be extremely challenging. There is a certain easy path of anonymity when you are affiliated with the critical mass of a “legitimate” organization. Anonymity can offer a break from reasoning. The agency associated with reasoning can often be paralyzing. It would have been far easier to ignore those impulses to change the way one sees the world. Being a proto Mormon would have been messy.
Really, to be a proto-anything is a messy undertaking. To exist in this unproven liminal space between the now and the foreseen is uncomfortable. It’s like trying to grow tomatoes in zero gravity. The universe is suddenly a chaos of swirling soil, seeds, some good – some bad, worms, and growing media – no up and no down. The seeds are only catching glimpses of a potential light source shining through the disaster. The world you used to know is spinning out of control. This spiritual vertigo is beyond nauseating. Being an untethered single point in the cosmos is to be alone. Having at least one other fixed point to triangulate from is sometimes all one needs to establish a bearing. Moving from lost to found can be as simple as identifying a stationary point in the cosmos. Ancient sailors, lost on the high seas could instantly get their bearings if the clouds were to part just long enough to get a glimpse of Polaris in the northern skies. Who/What will be that fixture for us? Who/What will be that source of light?
Finding your way to something authentic is messy. In a fake-it-till-you-make-it world, the questions seem to far outnumber good answers. Sometimes it feels like we don’t even know what questions to ask. It must have been the same back in 1830. It’s likely that they weren’t sure what direction to take things, until they ran across ideas in the Book of Mormon that rocked their paradigm. Today, we too face issues that are capable of upending our personal tables. The ultimate outcome of this disorder really depends on what we make of it. When our world is spinning apart, from what points will we get our bearings? Should we trust people who are vested in keeping an institution in tact? Or someone who has nothing to lose? Will we arranged the overturned tables of our faith exactly the way they were before? Or walk away and start all over again. There are no easy answers. The black and white of yesterday makes room for a spectrum of colors and viewpoints and ways to see this mortal experience. Every one of us is entirely unique. And we yearn to contribute to this creation without being required to ask permission.
The evidence would suggest that religious institutions in any era don’t do well with outliers. Within a group that values homogeneity, to have an alternative viewpoint, is to create separation. The natural impulse to categorize other humans is strong. You and them. Them and you. A gap between our hearts and minds is opened up. That gap between the hearts and minds of humans is what we’ve been asked to go back into the chaos and bridge. In previous generations this gap was referred to as enmity. Think about that for a minute. What would a society look like where human beings supported each other, while they worked out their demons with their own God? As compared to a society where it’s my god vs your god. My stuff vs your stuff. Cheap answers offered in response to heavy questions. What if things were different? What if we started to use our imaginations again? What if we rolled up our sleeves and supported each other while each created something unique? It wouldn’t be like raising barns or clearing farm land for each other like our predecessors. This would be far different from any evangelizing efforts we may have been a part of in the past. This would not look anything like multilevel marketing. We would not to be personally invested in the results of our outreach efforts.
Each of our efforts to connect with the Divine could potentially take every single one of us on an individual and unique path. Are we ok with that? These efforts will certainly not funnel everyone into an identical two-pant suit. With the understanding that we are all just people in transition, working diligently to get our bearings, any advice offered to each other would be carefully considered and deliberately weighed against the golden rule. Each of us would need to work to find unique ways of making ourselves available. I have a dear friend who dyes his hair blue for church. He does this so that anyone frustrated with homogeneity and simplistic answers, can take one look at him and see that he could be someone they could sit by and possibly get some straight talk. We’ll have to be more comfortable with straight talk. When you are seemingly lost, to have one other human extend their hand, bridge that gap and tell you that “you are not crazy and you are not alone” can be the difference maker. That’s straight talk. To eliminate the enmity that exists between us humans is the work of healing, even salvation – whatever that means. To know and connect with and empathize with others along the full spectrum of humanity is to know and connect with The Divine. It was Eve, the mother of all living, who in her Wisdom, was the first in the primal partnership to recognize that to support her children she needed to break an existing pattern. She needed to take that brave step back into the disorder.
Could it be that we don’t need to go off to exotic places in the world to make a distinctive contribution? What if we worked to make ourselves available right where we are? For so many of us the internet has provided that chance to open ourselves up to unique connections. I would submit that Joseph was on to something when he talked about the keys to the ministering of angels being associated with a preparatory priesthood. To participate in this cosmic effort to connect with other untethered souls, is to take up company with the angels. I have no idea what this even means, but I still believe in the concept of angels. 1830 has come and gone.
What if that group was stirred to action by the very same angels who are stirring our hearts today? The proto-Mormons saw something was off and felt a calling to engage in the work – to “go and do”. What if this group of humans, who were just like you and me, happened to be self-selected from a community that idolized itinerant preachers? That’s what people did back then. They cleared land, planted farms and in their free time they stood on street corners and preached. And it seems like these particular proto-Mormons were perfectly selected for and got really good at preaching and baptizing. 14 million is a heckuva down line. Well, what if those same angels are again stirring in the hearts of humans. Humans with imaginations who are looking for something more. This time the group isn’t really keen on preaching. And we happen to see most institutions as essentially self-serving.
What if those same timeless angels are again stirring us to action? Encouraging us to stop pretending and to work towards something authentic. What if we took a break from idealizing the painfully pious, puritanical, starched-collar types? And instead we take a page from JD Salinger’s ever-questioning gadfly protagonist Holden Caulfield. It might look a little crazy, but anything is going to look asymmetric when compared to the empire of sameness of the current model. What if we gave each other some space to explore? To create? What would that look like? What if being a member of this order of priesthood means that we empower each other to be difference makers in the lives of other humans. Wherever that takes us. Helping each other make sense of our unique experience.
Our own personal callings could manifest as social activism, or as an impulse to work to restore dignity for other humans who are down on their luck, or to create art or literature that serves to bind our human spirits together. What if the cosmic model is flat rather than vertical? In this current era of global connectedness, exclusivity would make way for a borderless inclusive outreach. And the thing is, this is already happening. There are so many people who are difference makers. Let us tie in to that, wherever it takes us. Then let us reach out and find each other again and share those stories. Let us make safe places where we can share the amazing stories of our own transformations. Let us make room for each to determine our own canon and write our own stories. Whatever that looks like. It will never be a world dominating institution. It will be small and nimble and portable. Successful in spite of the institution. Let us spend some time as small groups of unfinished humans, enjoying the energy of the sun doing what it does in bringing things back to life. There’s a lot to live for.