Last month, I was asked to give a talk in my new ward in New York City. I was given freedom to choose the topic, and so I went with this question: how does one live in a place, when one is uncertain how long they will stay? Can I live superficially, or do I have an obligation to participate deeply? And if the latter is required, just how can I participate? Given how much we’ve moved for the past few years, and our fresh relocation to New York, this question was poignant: and I had found a powerful answer in the Doctrine & Covenants that week. Here is the talk, only lightly modified; I hope it speaks to you.
In December 1830, sixty-seven Latter-day saints in Colesville, New York were commanded to leave their farms and their friends, and gather in Ohio. Gather they did, believing that they were gathering to Zion. Under the leadership of Newel Knight, they left in wagon train. They traveled north to Cayuga Lake, and then west to the canals by Lake Erie. They braved persecution, injuries, and sickness. Only one turned back. For two weeks, they were detained by river ice in Buffalo, New York; but that didn’t stop them. After a “rather disagreeable voyage,” they arrived in Ohio.
But for the Saints already in Ohio, this posed a problem. Edward Partridge, Bishop at the time, had the responsibility to organize and find homes for these immigrants saints; but how? A potential solution arrived, in the form of a recent convert who pledged some of his farm—750 acres—in Thompson, Ohio, just twenty miles outside of Kirtland. The Saints began to settle; in the words of their leader, they “commenced work in all good faith thinking to obtain a living by the sweat of the brow.” But they were unsure how long their stay would be. They had questions: is this where God intended them to stay? Should they spend what money they had to build houses, and take time to learn the land? Should they imagine themselves growing old in Ohio?
And aren’t these questions we’ve asked ourselves, too? Will this place be permanent or a passing-by? Is this new job a long-term thing, or a stepping stone? Can we see ourselves settling in, or will we move on in months or years? It is easy, in times of uncertainty or when we’re certain our stay will be short, to skim the surface of community; to refrain from making an investment without any guarantee of a return; to keep from giving of ourselves. Should I invest myself? Should I give my time or my money to this thing or place? Or do I live provisionally, without giving much to the land or community, ready to move at a moment’s notice?
These are weighty questions for a disciple. And they were weighty for the Colesville saints, who had left so much. In reply to their questions, God gave a revelation. We call it section 51. Nestled in a discussion about consecration, the Lord Jesus Christ said this:
I consecrate unto them this land for a little season, until I, the Lord, shall provide for them otherwise, and command them to go hence; And the hour and the day is not given unto them, wherefore let them act upon this land as for years, and this shall turn unto them for their good.D&C 51:16-17
The first thing to notice is that Lord does not answer with a timeline. “The hour and the day” is not given them. Our first sacrament meeting in this ward, a speaker introduced herself, saying “We’re on year 10 of our 2-year stint in New York.” This is how it goes. We do not know how long our stay will be, or what will occasion our departure.
And in this uncertainty, God gives a principle: he commands them to “go hence” and “act upon this land as for years.” What does this mean? It means to act in the present, in the place where you are, with the future in mind, even when you are uncertain of how long you will stay; and even when you are certain your stay won’t be long. A former teacher of mine called this “a D&C carpe diem. It invites us to seize the day, but with an eye toward the future.”
This would prove to be a pattern for the Lord’s people. In the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young later told them:
Were I residing in a gathering place where I knew I could remain for two years, and had fifty thousand dollars to spare, I would expend it in the best improvements I could, and labor to improve until the last day of my remaining.Brigham young, Journal of Discourses (8:278a)
And on another occasion, he said:
If you had the spirit of your calling, you would be anxious to build the best houses you could, and make the best gardens, fields, and vineyards, though you knew that you would not enjoy them one day after they were completed.Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (8:295b)
Brigham Young had learned this precedent in Kirtland, and Jackson County, and Nauvoo. He knew the pattern, and the potential pain, of giving ourselves to a place they would not stay long. But this was God’s command: to live as his disciples, in every place and land they would be in. If they would, God would provide for them, and “turn unto them for their good.”
This “as for years” principle has an even earlier precedent. Go back with me 2500 years: the monarchy of Judah had been destroyed. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple had been leveled. And many Jewish families had been deported to Babylon, among them Ezekiel and Daniel. As the Psalmist wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” What were they to do now, besides weeping? Should they revolt against Babylon? Make plots? Would God come to save them? And should they have their bags packed and ready? To them, Jeremiah gave the word:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.Jeremiah 29, ESV
For Jeremiah and for the Lord, “as for years” meant this: make homes, settle in. Plant and harvest. Start families. Make an Eden wherever you are. Further, they were to seek the shalom of the Babylon: its peace, safety, security, welfare, and prosperity; “for if it prospers”, they too would prosper. Even in Babylon, they were to be Ahraham’s seed, “blessing the nations.” As with the saints in Colesville, God gave the Israelites a promise: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.”
Can we be any more concrete about what this principle means? One way to think about this is by analogy of the roots that plants set in their soil. In asking the Colesville saints and the exiled Israelites to settle in, he was asking them to set down roots: to tether themselves to a place. Of this, Simone Weil said:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.Simone Weil, cited by LM Sacasas, “Refugeees that never left home”
Weil is saying, in effect, that it is participation that brings about roots: participation in community, in place, in our profession, and social surroundings. Wallace Stegner, the American novelist, gives us another useful distinction: that between boomers and stickers. Boomers, he says, are those who come to a place and only take. Stickers are those who settle, who love the life they have made and the place they made it in. This can help us clarify what it means to act as for years: to be a sticker, not a boomer; to lay down roots by participating in a place, in a community; by being a perennial wherever we are.
How then, can we live “as for years” where we are? How can be stickers, perennials, participants in place? Jeremiah already gave us some advice: seeking the shalom, the peace, of our place. For us, living in the Upper West Side of New York City, this can mean subscribing to the West Side Rag or West Side Spirit. It can mean getting involved politically, patronizing local businesses, saying hello to those who pass us, and even just the simple act of taking a walk. Consider this counsel from Jeffrey Bilbro:
There are any number of practices that help us… belong more faithfully to our places: attend and serve a church, volunteer at community organizations, even hang out in the local McDonald’s. But the simplest way to begin may be walking out your own front door. We live in a time when most trips through our neighborhoods begin by stepping into our cars, and even those trips can often be replaced by an order via Amazon or DoorDash. In this milieu, it can be a radical act to stroll through your neighborhood. More fundamentally, walking can be an antidote to the telescopic morality and disembodied communities forged through our screens. As Wendell Berry has it, “If you want to see where you are, you will have to get . . . out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.” Many people discovered the joys of walking through their neighborhoods in the wake of the Covid-19 shutdowns; perhaps that disruption will serve to revive the art of walking.Jeffrey Bilrbo, “Reading the times: a literary and theological inquiry into the news”
The writer Liam Heneghan calls this heightened attention to a place “allokataplixis”: wonder at the place we live in, “the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveler offers to the places they visit.” Walking in a place can be one practice that can help us attend to a place, a prerequisite to living “as for years” wherever we are.
it is easy, whether our future is uncertain or “certainly short”, to refrain from giving ourselves fully to the place, and time, and role where we are. Whether we are talking about our stay in a home, in a city, in a job, in a calling, in a ward, or in a community, the temptation is always there—and it’s often the default—to rid ourselves of the responsibility to “improve the shining moments”; to be a tourist in our own city. This is especially important because we live in a uniquely transient time. It is no longer as common to be in one place for long. And even in our short stays, our attention is often seized by virtual realities: our phone, the internet, streaming services, and far too much news of “distant dramas”. If we are constantly being uprooted, even uprooting ourselves, we may never give ourselves fully to where we are. The writer Wendell Berry once wrote that “All of us, I think, are in some manner torn between caring and not caring, staying and going.”
Let me end where I began: with the Colesville saints. How long were they in Ohio? it was a mere six weeks before the owner of the land reneged on his promise, and sent them packing. They sought further revelation, and continued their trek as a group all the way to Missouri. Led ably by Newel Knight, they became the nucleus of the Church in Jackson County and gave their lives to build Zion there, and ever after. In every place and time and role they were given, the Lord wanted them to invest themselves. As one Latter-day Saint has written: “The Lord seems to want his people to be prepared, with equal grace, to build and leave temples, to accept both callings and releases, to live in the moment and for eternity. In this life the disciple must learn ‘to love that well which thou must leave ere long’ (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73).”
Let us act “as for years” wherever we are. Let us set down roots. Let us consecrate our time and talents, even when the stay is short. This is how we can show love to God, and participate in His great plan for us and the nations. And let us remember we cannot do so on our own. By God’s grace, we are strengthened. By His hand, we have power. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.