When Susan and I were in graduate school, we came to appreciate the wisdom embedded in three simple words from the Doctrine and Covenants: “as for years.” We embraced this phrase as we observed others in our situation who never truly unpacked and settled in. There is a strong temptation for young adults to look on their years in school or their first jobs as merely way stations toward a permanent job and home and hence to hold back. It’s easy for any of us to regard ourselves as simply passing through life, without making the effort—or assuming the risk—of putting down roots.John Tanner, “As for years”
I’ve moved a lot in my life. Between 2008 and 2017, I never lived in the same ward for longer than a year. I had the same roommates for a while, and that was great! I got to know them quite well–we were great friends. But I didn’t get to know others very well, or for very long. “Fleeting” was my experience in each place, before moving on to the next apartment building, to the next ward, to the next place.
Until 2017, that is–when I moved into a ward in Utah County. It was my mother-in-law’s ward; my father-in-law had passed away, and we wanted to be close in the aftermath, and we found a great opportunity. We spent two-and-a-half wonderful, wonderful years there. And though my wife and I recently moved from Utah to New York City (in late 2019) for work, I miss that ward quite a lot. And I’ve been thinking about why. And I think, I think, it has to do with two things: a hard-won unity, and living as if for years. Let me explain.
In an interview between Blair Hodges (Maxwell Institute) and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, they had this exchange.
HODGES: So Tom, for the rest of our time together I thought we’d do a little something of a little primer on how different people have reckoned with Paul. We’ll talk about how historical figures understood Paul, and how we can see how their immediate concerns shaped the questions they asked and therefore the results of their studies. Along the way hopefully we’ll get a better sense of who Paul is and why he’s been the source of so much theological disagreement, which is kind of ironic given that one of his major themes was [laughs]—
WRIGHT: Unity, yeah, yeah. But he’s always after a mature unity. It’s not the lowest common denominator unity. It’s about a sense of a hard-won growing up into unity rather than filing everything down into an easy unity. So, [laughs] we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still having that struggle.#38—N.T. WRIGHT ON PAUL AND HIS RECENT INTERPRETERS [MIPODCAST]
Before hearing this, I’d never thought about different kinds of unity. What would an easy unity look like? And what’s the difference between an easy-won unity, and a hard-won, mature unity? There’s a few answers to this, but let me start with the “easy” unity. The first thing I think about here is a hypothetical Church lesson where something controversial or wrong is said, and people stay quiet, not wanting to “steady the ark,” or cause contention, or seem deviant and different because they might be expressing a controversial opinion. In each of these cases, it is fear keeping them at bay–fear of reprisal, fear of contention, fear of shame–fear of the unknown. What would happen if I questioned that view? Or shared my personal experience? Or voiced an opinion I know not everyone shares? I know I’ve definitely refrained from saying something because I knew the comment might not be accepted, or might be easily misunderstood.
But then, some fears are founded. Maybe I know that the teacher would shut me down. Maybe I know my neighbor would think I’m unfaithful. Or maybe I just think that’s would happen. Even the suspicion might be enough to shut us down. What’s required is a feeling of psychological safety, or even a feeling of relational and spiritual safety–the knowledge that candor won’t be punished, that vulnerability won’t be mocked, that we can be open with each other.
My last ward, before moving to Manhattan, was wonderful. I was there for two-and-a-half years, which is just about long enough to form real relationships and feel at home. (I still miss it.) I once shared with a group there that I believe in evolution–it was actually while sharing a testimony, and I was using evolution to illustrate a point. Two reactions ensued: first, several people thanked me for my testimony, joking along with me that I gave the “Dinosaur Testimony.” The second reaction appeared the following Sunday, when I had the assignment to clean the church. I was cleaning the doors with an older lady in the ward. While squee-geeing the glass lobby doors, she asked me if I really believed in evolution? I said that yes, I did. She asked if I’d ever read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny (wherein Joseph Fielding Smith comes down hard against evolution). She said I should really read it. I knew her well enough to be confident she cared about me, and worried about my soul–her shade about evolution notwithstanding. But I knew that, and I knew I wouldn’t convince her here–Joseph Fielding Smith had been an influential prophet in her lifetime, and she had gone to school before DNA had been discovered–so I told her thanks for the recommendation, and that I might check it out. I spoke to her a bit longer about my views. I could tell she was ruffled, but she listened. I ended with my testimony. We then talked about her family, and her long-time in Utah. I asked her how the city had changed. And after all that, she thanked me for helping her clean.
Although we were separated by gender, age, culture, and generational experience, we were serving together in the Church. I had been the Executive Secretary and had set up many appointments for her. We had spoken before during Sacrament. We were cleaning the lobby. And it was refreshing because I knew that we could speak frankly. We didn’t convince each other, but I think she left respecting me, and I respecting her.
In another episode of the Maxwell Institute podcast, Fiona and Terryl Givens gave an interview where Fiona voiced this fascinating thought:
FIONA: My feeling is whenever we moved to a ward, which we haven’t done particularly often, but I have found that in order to gain a voice it is really, really important to immerse oneself in that community. Not to stay at a distance from that community. So helping move, taking dinners. Whatever is required in a service-orientated capacity, we should be busily engaged in. Because that is a huge bridge builder. Because essentially, when you’re serving someone, you’re telling them that you love them. And that gains one an incredible amount of capital to be able to raise something in a gospel doctrine lesson, or a Relief Society lesson that might not otherwise be accepted. But because people recognize that you are a fully collaborating member of the community, you are more than likely to get a bye. So for example, in our Gospel Doctrine class a few weeks ago, the topic being discussed was how do you prepare yourself if you’re going to the temple. And so, you know, I sat for a while and then I thought, well, I’ll offer my contribution. And I said I think it actually might be very helpful to go to Catholic mass three or four times before one goes to the temple. Because Catholics do ritual and symbolism extremely well. And it was very interesting to watch how it played out, you know. Some people woke up and said, “Oh, did Fiona just tell us to become Catholics?” And then others thought, “Well, that is odd. Did I hear her correctly?” So it’s sort of a wake-up moment for most of the class. But actually, there were a lot of people who were entertaining the idea. There was no outright rejection of my suggestion, which I thought was very helpful.
TERRYL: And it was because they trusted you. They’ve seen you—
FIONA: And they did trust me, yeah.
HODGES: You aren’t trying to be a rabble-rouser.
FIONA: I was not trying to be a rabble-rouser. Exactly.
TERRYL: And it had nothing to do with academic credentials or anything else. It’s about being a part of the community and having paid our dues through service to the community.Maxwell institute podcast, episode 30, with fiona and terryl givens
I love this thought. Coming back to my original tale, our most recent Utah ward–the one we spent over two-years in–was the first ward I felt we really gave our all. I’m an introvert at heart, and more at ease in reading a book then carrying on a conversation–but I tried. The fact that everyone in the ward knew my wife (she had grown up there) helped. We did not know how long we would live there, but we put our best foot forward.
In 1831, in Spring, the Saints had started to move to Kirtland, Ohio. A group of saints from Colesville, New York were given permission by a member named Leman Copley to stay on his farm in Thompson, a short distance from Kirtland. In May 1831, Joseph Smith received the following revelation:
I grant unto this People a privelige of organizeing themselves according to my laws & I consecrate unto them this land for a little season untill I the Lord shall provide for them otherwise & command them to go hence & the hour & the day is not given unto them wherefore let them act upon this land as for years & this shall turn unto them for their good…Revelation Book 1, Page 87 (D&C 51:16-17); emphasis my own
“Act upon this land as for years.” What a wonderful phrase! I think I learned how to do this in 2017, in the Utah ward I came to love. Part of it was the time I spent there; part of it was the quality of the time I spent there. We had people over for dinner; we did service projects; we volunteered; we tried to do good. It was the first time I had really, really tried to take Fiona Givens’ advice: “to immerse oneself in that community… Not to stay at a distance from that community.”
We’ve been in Manhattan for five months so far. (Much longer than the Colesville Saints’ six weeks!) We’ve assumed some of the risk of setting down roots. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying–to give our all to the place; not to treat it as a waystation, but as a final destination, regardless of how true that really is; to win that hard-won unity. I’m anxious to report how that goes.