Belonging: A View of Membership


Belonging:

I am not much of a joiner. I don’t remember belonging to many clubs or social units at school, and more recently I have been about as cautious in my professional affiliations. I give civic service to my community and country, and I try very hard to be a good neighbor, but in many other ways I am a private person. My sentiments are not quite those of Robert Frost, but they are close. To a group of young people he once said: “Don’t join too many gangs. Join your family and join the United States and drop off at a college on the way if you have time, but don’t join a lot of gangs.” 1

In addition to joining my family and the United States and dropping by a college because I had time, I have made one other commitment more important than all the rest. Indeed, it is the commitment that gives meaning to all of my other associations, personal or professional, public or private. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter—day Saints-baptized, confirmed, ordained, endowed. A veritable pacifist when it comes to social guilds or luncheon clubs, I turn into something of a militant on the subject of the only true and living Church on the face of the earth. As an ancient prophet declared, I have wanted above any other fraternal relationship “to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people” (Mosiah 18:8).

On this 150th anniversary of the Restoration, what does it mean to belong, to be a member of Christ’s church and be “called unto the fellowship of … Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Obviously, much of the joy and most of the meaning is yet to be fully realized. Surely it will be after death and beyond the veil that, more mature and enlightened, we will see—because we will be shown—the eternal, saving implications of our earthly covenants. But what of our experience now? What does membership mean to us today, while we yet live and exert our faith and confront our problems in this world? What do we find while we wait, looking toward a celestial reward that does not come in mortality? Let me share a personal response to those questions with two caveats: First, no single statement can do justice to what any of us feel about our Church membership; a barrel of books could not do it, and certainly the little cup I am offering will not contain it. Secondly, the most personal of responses—and consequently the most persuasive ones—cannot be shared. Some are too sacred and others simply ineffable. In either case all that can be put in the briefest of print is, as Ammon said, “the smallest part” of what we feel (see Alma 26:16).

Obviously, part of the meaning of being a “member” is in that choice of language itself, coined originally by the apostle Paul, who knew so much about coming to Christ:

“For as the body is one, and hath many members. … so also is Christ.

“For the body is not one member but many.

“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

“Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:12, 14, 21, 27).

It is an immensely satisfying thing to be needed in the body of Christ. Whether I function as an eye or arm is irrelevant; the fact is I am needed in this most majestic organism, and the body is imperfect without me. A popular singer made a small fortune reminding us that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the restored ecclesiastical body of Christ—people do need people and everyone is welcomed. This includes (in Paul’s assertion) not only the attractive, talented, “comely” members, but those of us who seem to have fewer gifts and face greater challenges, those who receive less honor and attention. In the Church of Jesus Christ “more abundant honor” is given to these. Every member matters, and the less favored member most of all (see 1 Cor. 12:23–24).

For most of the first two decades of my life I attended one ward of the Church—the old St. George, Utah, Fifth Ward. Now, two decades later, it is a moving memory for me to sit all alone in that darkened red sandstone tabernacle so artistically crafted by loving pioneer hands. That is the meetinghouse of the “members” where I was confirmed into the “body of Christ.” That is where I went to junior Sunday School and first passed the sacrament as a nervous and uncertain deacon. That is the pulpit where I gave my first talk and the podium where I shook the hand of President George Albert Smith the year I was baptized. It was there I sat spellbound in that ornate balcony as Elder Matthew Cowley of the Council of the Twelve brought the audience to both laughter and tears on a visit to our stake conference. I was hardly an eye or an ear then; more like a lash or a lobe, I suppose. But I was an irreplaceable member of the body of Christ.

Since then I have lived and loved and been loved in a dozen other wards of the Church, and the blessings of Church assignments have taken me to many dozen more. But always and everywhere it is the same, whether in an open-air, hand-hewn South Pacific fale or a striking Hyde Park Chapel on Exhibition Road in London. Wherever I have attended Church at home or abroad, it has evoked the same meaning of that beautiful old tabernacle where I was first part of the congregation. Latter-day Saints love and welcome and reach out in a way that Christians are commanded to do. Indeed, there are “no more strangers and foreigners” in the household of God (Eph. 2:19). For we have been commanded to “meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of [our] souls” (Moro. 6:5). This is something more than boys’ clubs or civic associations or political affiliations offer, worthy as those may be. It is more than house parties and welcome wagons provide, as kind as such expressions are. This fellowship is ultimately of the Spirit, and comes because Christ is our eternal head.

In the aftermath of the recent Teton Dam disaster that swept floodwaters through the Upper Snake River Valley in southeastern Idaho, one of our friends reported this personal experience:

“I didn’t cry when we saw our home ripped away from its foundation,” he said. “I didn’t cry when we thought of the photo albums and ordination certificates and irreplaceable personal treasures that would be gone forever. I didn’t cry as we fought for everything we could save and repeatedly counted heads through the neighborhood to make sure lives were safe.

“But later on, when I looked up and saw out of the night those buses and vans and jeeps and pickups rumbling toward us like an armored division of a heavenly army, I sat down and sobbed. Old people and young people and artisans and laborers—45,000 of them. They came from everywhere for hundreds of miles—over some roads still uncleared and unsafe. They tumbled out of those buses with shovels and buckets and hammers and food. ‘It looks like you could use a hand,’ they would say, laughing to keep back the tears at what they saw before them. Then shoulder to shoulder with friends I’ve never seen before and may never see again, we cleaned and sang and held each other up.

“I cried then, and then only—not about the flood, but about what happened after it. I can’t discuss it now without a lump in my throat and the memory of a hymn ringing in my ears:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

(Hymns, no. 66).”

It is a soul-stirring reassurance to belong, to be part of the most cohesive, extended-family association in all eternity. We speak of sealing ourselves to one another and well we should. The Prophet Joseph Smith said we might more plainly refer to it as welding (see D&C 128:18). The bonding and brotherhood is unmistaken. Setting aside for a time the heavenly host we hope one day to enjoy, I still choose the church of Jesus Christ to fill my need to be needed—here and now, as well as there and then. When public problems or private heartaches come—as surely they do come—I will be most fortunate if in that hour I find myself in the company of Latter-day Saints.

What emerges from that special association—from feelings of safety and peace, of belonging and happiness and heavenly help—is an inexorable sense of purpose and direction. Some have felt the fears and frustrations of life more than others, but all of us feel them a little, and in such times we need the gospel compass to remind us who we are and where we must go. Blaise Pascal, probably France’s most notable child prodigy of the last three centuries, reflects in an extreme way what many men have felt when unaided by gospel truths. He wrote (of his very gifted life), “When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe and man without light, left to himself and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island and should awake without knowing where he is and without means of escape.” 2

Contrast that psychic turbulence with the serenity we saw just weeks ago while standing with our childhood playmates as they laid their firstborn child in the grave. This beautiful little thirteen-year-old girl, born just ninety days after our own first child, had fallen victim to Cockayne’s syndrome a half dozen years earlier. There is no way to adequately describe the deterioration of that little body now gone. Nor is there any way to tell the patience and pain of those parents as they carried legs that could not walk and finally fed with an eye-dropper a mouth that could not swallow.

But there was no existential anguish rending the air. Standing quietly—no, peacefully—at the casket with this little family now temporarily lessened by Patti’s leaving were her Beehive class, her Sunday School teacher, and a favorite teenage home teacher. There also were the two with whom her father had served in the bishopric. Her mother’s Relief Society associates dried their tears and slipped away to prepare a family luncheon. Fellow members in the body of Christ remembering, “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

In that circle, these were the graveside lyrics of a loving neighbor, lines sung in this setting not for their sentiment but for their theology:

Do you know who you are, little child of mine,
So precious and dear to me?
Do you know you are a part of a great design
That is vast as eternity? …
Do you know you’re a child of God?
Do you know where you’re going, child of mine?
Are your eyes on the road ahead?
Do the spires of his castle gleam and shine
Where the sun grows golden red? …
You will make it, my child, I know.

(Ora Pate Stewart, “To a Child”.)

That hopeful, trusting facing of the future is part of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. It is part of knowing by divine revelation the answers (even in our childhood) to life’s greatest questions. One writer, speaking for almost all others, declared that “the whole interest of [philosophy]. … is centered in the three following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” 3 Think of those fundamental and ancient issues, think of Pascalean terror, and then stand again at that little child’s grave.

We have no way to measure a conviction, but I am confident that tiny girl knew more of the eternal meaning of her experience than most of the adult population on this planet would have known in similar circumstances. And why not? Why shouldn’t it intensify our sense of identity and self-respect and hope for the future to know that we are the spiritual offspring of God, that he is literally our Father in Heaven and we are by lineal descent his sons and daughters, created in his own image? What encouragement should it give us to know that we lived with him before memory was revoked and that we will be with him again when all things—including memory—are fully restored? That one abiding and ineluctable truth does more to answer the philosophical questions of six millennia than any other single assertion under heaven. Indeed, man is only slightly under heaven, “a little lower than the angels” (Ps. 8:5) and never out of divine reach. In the midst of a brutal Civil War Abraham Lincoln fought off depression and asked the nation to fight it too. “It is difficult to make a man miserable,” he said, “while [that man] feels worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him.” 4 When times are difficult or the unknown confronts us, there is no adequate comfort except the peaceful reassurance of those undeniable promises given to us from “cloven tongues like as of fire” (Acts 2:3).

The Savior asked, “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

“Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:9–11).

To my beloved Pat and me, our children are more precious possessions than any crown or kingdom this world could offer. There is literally not anything in righteousness we would not do for them; there is no stream so deep nor mountain so high nor desert so wide that we could be kept from calming their fears or holding them close to us. And if we “being evil” can love so much and try so hard, what does that say of a more godly love that differs from our own as the stars differ from the sun? On a particularly difficult day—or sometimes a series of difficult days—what would this world’s inhabitants not pay to know that heavenly parents are reaching across those same streams and mountains and deserts, anxious to hold them close? That manifest reassurance comes in its fullest form only in the covenants and doctrine and attending spirit of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What a soothing strength that gives in a world—even a religious word—spoken of as being full of otherwise “cold Christs and tangled trinities.” 5

President Harold B. Lee, in the keynote address of the last general conference he ever addressed, said this understanding of who we are was “of first importance” and without it we lacked the basis “of a solid foundation upon which to build [our] lives” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1973, p. 5). That solid foundation is the same one the Savior himself declared to be crucial in the day when rains descend and floods come and winds blow. Part of that gospel strength is simply and magnificently the knowledge of who we are. However, so much that we find in our daily experience is in opposition to that knowledge and would blind us to our strength. One man wrote that to be what we really are “in a word which is doing its best, night and day, to make you something else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” 6 What we “really are” is embryonic Gods, and surely this world is trying to make us forget that, make us pursue something else. It does not take a theologian to recognize that anything else will be a tragic disappointment in the strictest prophetic as well as Aristotelian sense.

We must remember, in a world where some still go hungry, that men, women, and children can starve from a lack of self-knowledge as much as they can from a lack of bread. That is why, when Jesus invited his disciples to partake of the emblems of his body and blood (3 Ne. 18:3–5), they were “filled”—filled with the spirit of heaven, filled with the spirit of hope, filled with more certain knowledge of who they really were—“heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” That same spirit bears witness to us yet that we are the “children of God” (Rom. 8:17, 16). Indeed, as President Lee (and every other prophetic voice) has declared, “The first thing to be done to help a man to moral regeneration is to restore, if possible, his self-respect.” (Quoted in Conference Report, Oct. 1973, p. 5). The gospel of Jesus Christ does that for its members in a unique and inimitable way. When asked “What can I know?” a Latter-day Saint answers, “All that God knows.” When asked “What ought I to do?” his disciples answer, “Follow the Master.” When asked “What may I hope?” an entire dispensation declares, “Peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23), indeed ultimately for “all that [the] Father hath” (D&C 84:38). Depressions and identity crises have a hard time holding up under that response.

Latter-day Saints also enjoy the privilege of special reminders to these truths. Every baptized and confirmed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received the sacred gift of the Holy Ghost. Its full and unlimited power to teach, guide, comfort, and witness is unknown and unavailable outside the true Church. No personal counsel from any other source compares with it in degree of constancy or conviction. It will show us “all things” that we should do, (see 2 Ne. 32:5). Perhaps that is why, when asked by the President of the United States how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differed from other religions of the day, the Prophet Joseph Smith noted baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, believing that “all other considerations were contained in the gift of the Holy Ghost” (History of the Church, 4:42). The Holy Ghost is a revelator and no other sin is so great as the sin against its promise.

In addition, we are blessed with both ancient and modern scripture. All men and women have access to the Old and New Testaments, but to that the restored gospel adds hundreds and hundreds of pages of additional revealed testimony. Furthermore, there are the uncanonized but equally prophetic statements of twelve (equalling the entire number of so-called “minor prophets” in the Old Testament!) successive, living prophets covering these 150 years of our own dispensation. We cannot but wonder what frenzy the world would experience if a chapter of the Book of Mormon or a section of the Doctrine and Covenants or a conference address by President Spencer W. Kimball were to be discovered by some playful shepherd boy in an earthen jar near the Dead Sea caves of Qumran. The beneficiaries would probably build a special shrine in Jerusalem to house it, being very careful to regulate temperatures and restrict visitors. They would undoubtedly protect against earthquakes and war. Surely the edifice would be as beautiful as the contents would be valuable; its cost would be enormous, but its worth would be incalculable. Yet for the most part we have difficulty giving away copies of sacred scripture much more startling in their origin. Worse yet, some of us, knowing of the scriptures, have not even tried to share them, as if an angel were an every-day visitor and a prophet just another man in the street. We forget that our fathers lived for many centuries without priesthood power or prophetic leadership, and “dark ages” they were indeed.

Occasionally in our own time we are given a sharp reminder of how precious that prophetic privilege is. In the past several months, we have as a church wanted to pray in a special way for the health of President Kimball. Anyone who has felt his touch or lingered in his embrace knows why we care so much. During one of President Kimball’s recent hospitalizations, our children decided with us to fast for him. I wept with pride as I watched those children endure silently and bravely this unexpected sacrifice. Even our youngest at five saw it through and made his widow’s mite count toward the health of the prophet. Our oldest at thirteen said it all in his own manly way: “The younger children probably couldn’t do it, dad, if it were for anyone else but President Kimball.” We feel about having a prophet’s leadership as someone felt of the rising sun—that if it came but once a year instead of every day, oh, what would be the anticipation! We thank thee, O God, for a prophet.

Even beyond the saving of our souls, there are a thousand reasons for and ten thousand joys in belonging to the true church. Surely no one can fully say—perhaps not even begin to say—what that conventional relationship means to him or her. Suffice it to say that those who believe with me that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indeed the restoration of pure Christianity in the fullness of time will understand the meaning of membership expressed by an early seeker of the truth who fell during the Roman persecutions of the third century. Before he died, Cyprian wrote to his friend Donatus:

“This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see—brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians and I am one of them.” 7

On this one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Restoration that follows such a long night of darkness, “these people” are now the Latter-day Saints—and I am one of them. The meaning of my life is inextricably linked with my membership in that body. There my family find friends have found life, and found it “more abundantly.”

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Jeffrey R. Holland, commissioner of Church Education, is a high councilor in the Bountiful Utah Central Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Quoted by Elder Marion D. Hanks in Freedom and Responsibility, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year, (Provo, 28 May 1964), p. 9.

  2.   2.

    Pensees, XL, 301, in Great Books of the Western World. vol. 33.

  3.   3.

    Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason. (See Joe J. Christensen’s “Religious Education: A Latter-day Saint Point of View” for the application of this position to LDS thought.)

  4.   4.

    Abraham Lincoln, “Address on Colonization.” Washington, D.C., 14 Aug. 1862.

  5.   5.

    C. S. Lewis’s phrase chiding traditional Christian views of the godhead.

  6.   6.

    E. E. Cummings, quoted in Charles Norman’s The Magic-Maker, New York: MacMillan, 1958).

  7.   7.

    Quoted by Marion D. Hanks in Freedom and Responsibility, p. 11.