I’m not very good at this, at least not usually. I can think of times in my life when something really profound is happening, accidentally, and usually I don’t recognize it, at least not at the moment, and maybe not ever. I know this because there have been many experiences I’ve recognized after it happened, perhaps someone else pointed it out to me. Or in the sacred memories of memory, I’m able to find God working in my life.
I can think of three experiences:
During my twenties I volunteered in the Big Brother/Big Sister program. I was with the same boy for about five years. I believe he was ten when we started and we drifted apart as he was getting to be around 15. I was getting married, having a baby and getting busy, he was growing up and finding his own path apart from me. During that first year, though, we were hanging out in my apartment and he talked about having two brothers and a sister and one of those brothers was me. It was a moment, a significant one, but one I didn’t really appreciate at the time. I wanted him to like me, I wanted to succeed in the program, I was far too anxious in the relationship to appreciate these small moments. I was swinging for the fences planning gigantic events with him, but he just wanted someone to look up to, someone to connect to. He wanted a brother.
On my mission, in my first area, fresh out of the Missionary Training Center, feeling that if I worked hard and had faith, I could perform miracles, and by miracles, big, momentous life changing experiences that led sinners into baptism and life-long Mormon covenant making all by the power of my words and testimony. I was in my first area for three and a half months and in my mind had zero baptisms. We actually had one. It was a lady who had been coming and thought she had been baptized, but it was discovered that there was no record of it, so we did it. It was a real, sacred experience. The lady was committed to the church. She wanted baptism, we participated in this event in her life. My mission companion soaked up the experience. I didn’t feel like it counted as my baptism. In retrospect, none of them were mine. I was out there having experiences in other people’s lives. This was one of them. It was a moment.
Finally, I’ve always wanted to do big things in my life. My dream ambitious far exceed my actual real-life ambition. But part of that ambition included global experiences. In my late twenties, still unmarried, I felt like I needed to do something big. Around that time, I read an article in the Arizona Republic about going on “volunteer vacations”. It triggered something in me. I wanted to do this. I waffled on it for a while, I bought a book, I waffled some more, I started to date someone seriously who would later become my wife. I pulled the trigger. I was off to India for three and a half weeks to teach computers to poor people in New Dehli. The experience was difficult. I was with an organization which made it easier. But really, I co-taught with another Indian who knew computers. None of the students spoke English. I was teaching them how to use Word, Excel, Access which was difficult to do with a language barrier. The full time teacher did the heavy lifting, I helped where I could, but mostly I felt useless. I thought perhaps I could have a better experience if I went with another of the volunteers who were assisting patients in a Tuberculosis ward. I at least wanted to help for a day. So, toward the end of my stay, I ended my assigned work a day early and went with the other volunteers. The last day with my students, they threw a party for me, offered me gifts, they were gracious and generous, they took me on a tour of their Hindu temples and shared their culture with me. I felt their sincere gratitude. It was a moment. Sound familiar?
I’m reading Rough Stone Rolling right now, a biography of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, the church of my heritage, the church I belong to. On page 478, in chapter 26, I encountered this:
Even after all the tension, fear and melancholy of the summer, his unbounded enthusiasm for his revelation could not be suppressed.
“Now what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness- a voice of mercy from heaven- a voice of truth out of the earth-lad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy!… What do we hear? Glad tiding from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets – the book to be reveal’d! A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette, Seneca County, declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the Book. The voice of Michael on the banks of Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light. The voice of Peter, James & John, in the wilderness, between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broom County, on the Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broom County, on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times. And again, the voice of God in the chamber o fold father Whitmer in Fayette, Seneca County, and at sundry times, and in diverse places, through all the travels and tribulations, of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And the voice of Michael the archangel – the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam, down to the present time; all declaring, each one their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty & glory, and the power of their Priesthood; giving line upon line; precept upon precept; here a little and there a little: giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come confirming our hope.”
No passage better captures Joseph Smith’s restoration than this one, mingling the names of ‘divers angels’ – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael – with specific mundane places that one could locate on a map – Fayette, Seneca County, Colesville, Broome County, and the banks of the Susquehanna River. That mixing of the mystical with the plain was pure Joseph Smith. This very concreteness gave him his highest pleasure. After the doleful days in exile, the memory of angels delivering their keys to places where he had stood cheered his heart.
This may or may not follow from the experiences in my life. I have no idea what exactly transpired in Joseph Smith’s life. We have the historical record. We have Joseph Smith’s own writings. These are big events, much bigger than my more subtle, more humble interactions with others. Joseph Smith’s heavenly encounters are filled with visions, dreams, visitations, angels, and encounters with God directly. But Mormonism at its core is the mixing of the “mystical with the plain”, but it’s also making these experiences available to everyone. And the scriptures are clear that the mystical is often subtle, still, and small and if we’re not careful, we’ll miss it. It could be the many of Joseph Smith’s experiences were equally as subtle as mine, but he was just more in tune and able to recognize them either in the moment or later in recollections. Either way, his legacy endures and is remarkable.
I’m also reading, slowly, The Book of Mormon Made Harder. Today, reading 1 Nephi 19:6:
6 Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself.
“Nephi tells us that he has written only sacred things on the plates. How can that be? How can the material of 16:11-13, where we learn that they took seeds with them and that they went south-southeast and called one of their stopping points “Shazer”, be sacred? What makes a narrative sacred?
Here’s the secret I think. Our lives are sacred. They matter. They are filled with relationships and experiences and beauty and ugliness and difficulty and pain. These experiences, all of them matter, they are important, they are special, they are sacred.
And that I have encountered both of these quotes in the two books I’m currently reading within a day or two of each other is not just a happy accident. It’s a moment. It’s sacred. And now I’m sharing this moment with you.