A sacrament meeting talk given in the Loughborough Ward, Leicester England Stake on 12th June 2011.
I remember the first time I felt the Spirit. I was a young boy watching a recording of the crew of Apollo 8 reading from Genesis 1 as they looked back at the beautiful blue orb we call home. I began to believe then, as I still do now, that God is the creator of this earth. The words, so wonderfully rendered by the King James translators, still resonate:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Joseph Smith taught that God’s creation was not from nothing. Instead it was an organisation of pre-existing matter, an imposition by God of order onto chaos. Ancient Israelites probably understood it similarly: God’s creation assigned function to the world and culminated in the dedication of a temple to his own name, in this case the world itself. On the Sabbath day, God takes possession of his temple, enthroned as Lord over all and “at rest.”
The image of the world as a temple, one called ‘good’ by God, is beautiful to me. I would like to say a few words this morning about this creation and the spirit of Zion it can inspire.
I spent some of last week ‘vacationing’, as they say, in the United States. A little alarmed by the snow that fell on me in the Rocky Mountains early in the week, I was happy to later spend a few days in the desert, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
I lived for four years in the US, but on the East Coast where the landscape is similar to our own. The desert of the American west is utterly different, and although I had been out west before, Canyonlands was an alien world, a strange wilderness of rock. It is wild America at its best, touched only by a few hardy Indians, cowboys, and prospectors.
We camped deep in the park, following coyote trails as we hiked across sand and rock. There was no water available, so we carried everything we needed. The rock is red and as the sun set, the park was lit, as if on fire. It is easy to see why the first white settlers of Utah–our Mormon pioneers–saw in Utah a new Israel.
The margin between life and death in the desert is thin. Turn an ankle and run out of water and you are in trouble. Fall into an empty canyon slot and you will not be found. If you have seen 127 Hours, this is that world.
Writing of the American desert, Terry Tempest Williams has said:
If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.
Perhaps this why Jesus often sought seclusion in the desert (Mark 6:31).
I am a great believer in finding God in nature, in the solitary places. I believe that it is in these places that we walk in his temple. The rock spires of Canyonlands have formed over millions of years, achingly slow. The stars which shine so brightly in the desert sky represent a vastness I can scarcely comprehend. My own epiphany in the desert was of my own insignificance, and therefore of the folly of my own self importance. And yet there is still life there among the immensity: the juniper, the coyote, the prickly pear cactus, the bushes of Mormon Tea, each capable of bringing beauty, no matter how small, to an otherwise barren landscape. So it is with all of us. We are but grains of sand on a massive shore and yet God knows us and loves us. What a miracle!
I have experienced other epiphanies in nature this year. The first was whilst watching birds on the Norfolk coast and observing how their own lives were characterised by a measure of joy and rejoicing. Animal life is exactly that — life — and deserves our respect. (I recently enjoyed a similar experience whilst watching red kites soar above me as I swam in a Welsh mountain pool.) The measure of their creation has intrinsic value.
The second was as the acrid smoke from the Jayplas fire in Loughborough billowed over our home a month or so ago. What ugliness we are capable of creating. By contrast, when the priesthood of the ward commemorate the priesthood restoration every May on Buck Hill overlooking the Outwoods, men and nature experience the harmony which I think God intended.
I am not trying to impress upon you a message of strict environmentalism, although there is probably room in the gospel for such an approach. Rather, I would like to remind all of us that our dominion over this world is as stewards not overlords. Two scriptures come to mind:
All things were created “for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart . . . to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:18-20); and
“For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures” (D&C 104:13).
One of the reasons I love nature and want to protect it is that I think environmental concern can bring us closer together as human beings. A few of us were recently involved in a Mormon Helping Hands Project to dig and renovate Shelthorpe Community Garden, an urban garden here in Loughborough. We had great fun as a group doing the work, but more than that, we helped bring nature to our town whilst at the same time encouraging self-reliance and community partnership. This is Zion and has been the work of our people from the beginning.
A friend of mine recently wrote the following.
The first Mormon pioneers came into the Great Salt Lake valley on July 22, 1847. The third week of July is late in the season to plant a crop, so the pioneers immediately began to plow in preparation for planting, but their wooden plowshares broke on the hardened soil. Consequently, they built a small dam and diverted the water from city creek onto the plot of earth they had selected. When Brigham Young descended Emigration canyon two days later, on July 24, there were already several acres of potatoes and turnips under cultivation. They understood, without having to discuss it, that their success depended on their cooperative effort. They would survive together, or they wouldn’t survive at all . . .
For centuries, the sockeye salmon has been swimming upstream to spawn in Idaho’s Salmon River. As recently as 50 years ago, tens of thousands of sockeye completed the journey upstream and spawned successfully, thus ensuring another generation. In 2003, the Idaho Division of Natural Resources said that only three sockeye made it to the spawning beds . . . the upper Salmon River had been “dewatered”. A landowner who had legal water rights had diverted the entire stream onto his field of grass hay. The landowner got another $500 worth of low quality hay, and in exchange, the wild Idaho sockeye is gone, and it’s gone for good. There was a human impact too. When the farmer dried up the stream where the fish were trying to spawn, he put people downstream out of business. The outfitters and fishing guides, the marinas, the bait and tackle shops, manufacturers of boats, lifejackets, rods and reels, they all suffered a loss of income.
Zion is collaboration. Joseph Smith also added to Genesis an understanding that creation was a collaborative effort, the work of the gods. If we are to learn to be like God, then that our efforts here in creation too must be collaborative. Care of nature, and care of each other (which ultimately demands that we be careful stewards of nature), demand that we work together. This is Zion.
My friend again:
One of the lessons that emerges quite clearly from the Book of Mormon is that we don’t thrive as individuals, but as societies. There is no such thing in the Book of Mormon as a righteous, prosperous individual surrounded by the poor. The blessings of well-being and prosperity are bestowed upon groups and communities, and not upon individuals. Our well-being as individuals depends, more than anything else, upon being part of a society where people recognize their dependence upon one another, esteem their neighbors as themselves and where people try to extend their blessings to others among whom they live . . . Being part of Zion means recognizing the people who live downstream as brothers and sisters, and taking due regard for them as well as nature.
1. Steve Peck refers to Walton’s thesis about Genesis in his introduction to the recent ‘green’ issue of Dialogue.