This is a guest post from SMB. Who turns out to be my brother Sam. He and his wife Kate are moving from Cambridge MA to Salt Lake City UT in a couple of weeks and this is his sacrament meeting talk in farewell to Cambridge. I really liked it and am sharing it with y’all. Sam is very busy but writes me letters when I feel depressed. He makes his little daughters laugh for hours by making voices for inanimate objects: dolls, figurines, utensils. He’s a doctor and he’s very good at it. He also really likes Mormon History and he Loves his wife. –Amri
This feels a bit like a missionary farewell. For the last couple months I’ve felt a need to joke that Kate and I have been called to the mission field. We hear there aren’t a lot of Social Gospel liberals out there and the converts will be few, but we have faith that God is on our side. These mischievous (and misguided) misgivings about our move have focused my attention on Zion, which will be the theme for my comments today.
Zion for Latter-day Saints conjures many lasting images. There is the city of Enoch which was drawn to heaven for its righteousness. There are the Edenic settlements around Independence, Missouri grouped under the colorful name of Adam-ondi-Ahman. There is the temporary Zion at Nauvoo the Beautiful on the banks of the Mississippi. There is the more permanent settlement in the Great Basin of a once vast sea which has become perhaps the predominant image, represented by the neo-Gothic contours of the Salt Lake Temple. This image is multiplied further in the temples that connect the earth like innumerable stakes holding the tent of the Tabernacle aloft.
For the Biblical Hebrews, Zion was a holy mountain, a spot where the very contours of the earth were drawn heavenward. It was also the sacred city of Jerusalem, standing to the northwest of the eternal Mount Zion. There is considerable speculation about the meaning of the Hebrew word. It may refer to the barren summit of Mount Zion or the fortress built in its shadow at Jerusalem by which Israel and Judah were united. Another view maintains that Zion refers to a banner or ensign or standard, the emblem of the Davidic kingdom. For many early Hebrews it was difficult to distinguish Mount Zion from Solomon’s temple, Jehovah’s mighty palace in the spiritual center of ancient Palestine. Whatever the actual etymology, Zion in all its instances has historically signified the center of the universe, the dwelling place of God. Zion has provided order in place of chaos, meaning in place of senselessness, direction in place of perdition. In words passed through Joseph Smith it is “the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all” (D&C 76: 66). From anxious exile, Isaiah expresses this point in words of hope and triumph.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
More than anything, though, Zion is an act of great and fervent imagination. The mountain in question is old and weather-worn, a balding, arid hillock. Jerusalem was a minor settlement with relatively few strategic advantages at the time David created Zion there. Independence, Missouri was unremarkable pasture land on the American frontier, and Commerce, on which Nauvoo was built, was a malarious fraud created by land speculators of dubious morals. These places were sanctified by the exercise of faith and righteous imagination, a shared vision of heavenly society. Zion is truly in the eye of the beholder. But the fact that Zion is imagined does not diminish its power. Wherever it exists, however it is made, Zion is our co-creation with God.
Though I once saw Zion primarily in these terms, in my research on community, death, and immortality, I have come to see another vital aspect of Zion. I now also see Zion as a family, a unity of love which can overcome death. The Book of Moses confirms this emphasis on unity: “the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness” (Moses 7: 18).
Enoch’s sacred city was the explicit model for Joseph Smith’s Zion in the Latter-days, and for both societies unity, the coherence of the community, was the paramount virtue. In a time of war and strife, Enoch’s city drew together in righteousness. Moses pauses to state that “there was no poor among them.” While I am ever eager to hear in scripture an indictment of the current sociopolitical regime, perhaps this statement intends primarily to clarify for us the nature of the community ties established within Zion. When we define ourselves as a family, we would no more tolerate unnecessary suffering through poverty in our neighbors than we would in our own children. In Enoch’s society there was no rich or poor, just family.
Just as the early Hebrews believed that their earthly Zion was the reflex of a heavenly original, Joseph Smith taught that their Zion society on the American frontier was the model of heaven, though the specific details would not be available until the full revelation of the temple endowment in Nauvoo.
Through the temple and its rites, Joseph Smith revealed an enriched heaven ordered by ties of love and kinship. While the family is the basic unit of this heavenly society, it is not the only one. The Prophet often proclaimed that he would see his friends and followers and recognize their “sociality” in the celestial kingdom. Heaven was almost by definition the immortality of our loving relationships. In a letter of reproach to his unreliable brother William, the Prophet Joseph wrote his plea that God would grant them “a crown to enjoy the society of Father, Mother, Alvin, Hyrum, Sophrona, Samuel, Catharine, Carloss, Lucy, the Saints and all the sanctified in peace forever.” Families are located in heaven within the community of the Saints and all the sanctified. They do not float like domestic nuclei in an atomic soup.
I believe that the institution of temple relationships, sealings, marriages, adoptions, and anointings allowed the early Saints to overcome death, to enter heaven while they lived, in a process not far removed from translation. I believe that this is the meaning of the completion of the Nauvoo Temple after the Martyrdom, of the frenetic work that kept Brigham Young and his colleagues in the House of the Lord twenty to twenty-four hours a day for long, cold weeks of near continuous ordinances. They were creating heaven in the ashes of the City of Joseph on the frozen Mississippi River. They were sealing Zion, so that they could move it intact across the Great Plains. At that fragile moment Zion both occupied and superseded the sacred spot.
I should speak more clearly: if heaven is the celestial coherence of temple-sealed family and friends, then we have the capacity to create heaven on earth. I firmly believe this is what Joseph Smith meant with the temple endowment and the final anointings of the priesthood. Zion is heaven on earth. The legendary translation of the first Zion only acknowledged the fact that Enoch’s people had created a celestial society.
These issues are on my mind because I feel that I am preparing to abandon Zion. I still remember arriving in Cambridge almost sixteen years ago. The month before I arrived I had experienced a sacred communion with God that had restored my faith, catapulting me from self-satisfied agnosticism to ardent belief. Some days my very arms seemed to twitch with the energy of the testimony that had overcome me in August of 1990. Still, this testimony came in a strange package. I wore blond hair past my shoulders and dressed so shabbily that I was mistaken for a homeless person on several occasions. I suspect this will not surprise you as much as my wife would hope.
At this critical period in my journey of faith, I was alive with a sense of community and the encompassing love of God. I smuggled fruit from the college cafeteria in a pillowcase to distribute to the homeless in Harvard Square and welcomed them to our after-church dinners, which were a simultaneous church social and soup kitchen at that time. There weren’t so many of us then, Mormons or homeless, but we cared deeply for each other. I stayed in the wards that met on Longfellow Park, excepting a brief stint as a missionary in Louisiana, for the next six years. The wards changed and I changed, but they remained my home.
I graduated from college in 1996 and met Kate shortly thereafter. Two years later, after a whirlwind courtship, we married each other in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. Despite ongoing struggles with my lack of custodial skills, we have created a microcosm of Zion in our family. We spent a year in Cambridge 1 then a year in a branch in St. Petersburg, Russia called The Merry Settlement, then returned to Cambridge. We have been in Cambridge 1 since, moving from Longfellow Park to the Rindge and Latin School, to our current boiler factory. We were hypnotized by the shimmering shadows of leaves through the circular window in the Longfellow Chapel. We leaned against tables in the high school cafeteria, watching sports scores on the LED strip suspended from the ceiling, while we heard testimony and hymns that touched our hearts. We attended Sunday School in municipal classrooms, slumping out of one-piece desk chairs. We stare some days at the motors and pulleys in the rafters of this open-ceilinged factory while the late-rising sun floods us with light. In two of these buildings we have bid mortal farewell to some of our number. In two of them, we officially welcomed our daughters into our lives and into the church. These buildings are filled with spirits and memories.
We have shared our time with a delightful assortment of devoted Saints, and though I have not always carried my weight, pleading that I am over-extended with career and family, I have appreciated the consistent and tender kindnesses of the ward community. Kate and I confront our unexpected move West with heavy hearts and exhausting ambivalence.
It is tempting, as we face the possibility that we will soon be Utahns, to believe that theirs is a false Zion of McMansions with cultured stone veneers and plastic surgeons giving priesthood blessings to recipients of various augmentations and renovations. To believe that their Zion is contaminated by a pharisaic confusion of material wealth and hierarchical status with religious merit.
I suspect that some members of our new ward will find our nostalgiac reminiscences of Cambridge sure evidence of Babylon’s victory: straight-speaking bishop-scientists, a clowder of cats impossible to herd into orthodoxy, a near pantheon of unusually shaped families and faith walks. They may complain about our thinly veiled religious socialism, our seemingly boundless diversitarianism, our pompously self-righteous Social Gospel agenda.
But we would be wrong. And they would be wrong. Such cultural stereotypes are unworthy of us as Latter-day Saints. They are not just factually incorrect, they are malignant in their creation and implication.
There are cultural differences to be sure. Utah will never be Boston and vice versa. In Utah, traffic is life-threatening by accident, while in Boston it is driven by malice. Jello will never go far in Boston, while Boston will forever struggle to recognize the weekend as time away from work. Salt Lake City will never elect a Democratic mayor, and Massachusetts will never elect a Mormon governor. Stereotypes are less secure than we think.
Cultural distinctions are part of the texture of life. In some cases they represent tasks for us to undertake together. But it is the fact of our community, our devotion to each other, our commitment to the temple-mediated union of humanity that determines Zion. Here is Zion and there is Zion.
All will never be well in Zion–the scriptures assure us of that truth and deride those who would claim otherwise. Every instance of Zion will be deeply problematic. But Zion does not require that all be well. Zion is the active pursuit of devoted love in the presence of God, and this universal truth will be found in many different habitats, locales, and souls.
Kate and I, Northeastern post-colonialists, move now to a ward named for the discarded empires of the past in a stake whose name explicitly elevates it above the valley floor. And yet there will be Zion. We leave a ward named for secular institutions of higher learning, and yet here was Zion. In Zion we are building relationships that will last eternity, and it is my prayer that I and we may remember that fact. Look around you today: loving these people, committing to them in the presence of God is the shape and character of heaven. Zion is the prelude to our sanctified life beyond death. We love you and we love this place. May we ever see you in Zion.