The summer I turned seventeen, my mom and dad borrowed a pop-up trailer and orchestrated a study of Mormon pioneer history for our little family of 7. In our occasionally trusty, bright blue 12 passenger van, they carted us across the country to wander through the sacred grove, tour visitors centers and listen to kindly guides. We traversed trails and hiked rocky mountains, visited jails and blacksmith shops, walked around temple sites, and forded rivers. Our mother, always big on vacation preparation, had some stories at the ready for each of the sites we stopped at. She would engage her 5 girls in conversation about the people, what it must have been like for them and what they might’ve learned. Though the details of the stories are a bit foggy and the exact images of the locations we toured are sometimes hard to recall, the feelings of humble faith and community that I felt during those three weeks have never left me.
This past week I was asked to share some thoughts with our congregation about the pioneers and their humility. As Ritchie helped me think through my ideas, we both humorously realized that I am not necessarily speaking from a fortress of strength as I address the topic of humility. I’d like to think I’m not the only one of us who sometimes struggles to bend my will to leader’s direction or ideas or revelation. My agency is a treasured gift and I appreciate direct communication from heaven as I try to understand why things are the way they are but there are times when the “why” of a commandment or invitation is not readily accessible and my thirsty faith has to continue on with only the hope of a drink on the horizon. It is in those stubborn moments when it is my task to choose humility. With that in mind, I decided to re-visit the stories of the pioneers with the hope of nestling into a more comfortable arrangement with humility. I was intrigued as I contemplated ideas of personal humility, parental humility and community humility.
I believe that one of the things each of the pioneers lay on the altar were some of their ideas about how their lives would turn out. Like all of us with a determination to follow the Savior, oftentimes we face moments where we are asked to let go of the lives or jobs or finances or health that we’ve dreamed of or worked for and we’re asked to be open to new things. I believe that in response to these mental, emotional and physical challenges we can either hold staunchly to our former plans and cry foul (which I have been known to do on many occasions), or set off on our own journeys of faith where unknown paths coupled with some humble seeking can lead to surprising beauty. But the beauty is often detected after struggling through heartache, pain, and seemingly impossible stretching. Though we speak of the pioneers collectively, assuredly the men and women who crossed the continent in mid to late 1800s were as varied as all of us in this room. I imagine they had dreams and ideas about how their lives would go and they worked hard to make those dreams reality. Some of them were establishing farms, working year after year to clear away trees and create more land for farming. Some of them had gone to school, learning professions or trades that would enable them to provide for their families and thrive in society. Some of them were overseas, deeply entrenched with people and a culture they held dear. Some of them were just getting established, barely making ends meet and working every daylight hour to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life. Regardless of their background or station, when the call came to move, again and again, there were so many of these very strong folks who responded with obedience born of humility.
As I’ve made my way through a bit more life, it’s easier for me to imagine the process they perhaps went through to become those faithful men and women, for surely, they didn’t begin the journey in the same way they ended it. With the benefit of hindsight, I have contemplated the blessings they received and the beauty they witnessed as a result of their decision to obey. A decision, that I imagine for many of them, was fraught with doubt, uncertainty, full-fledged fear and maybe even a little resentment. The beauty of our perspective is that we get to see all of them on the other side. We see the accomplishment dressed in all it’s historical glory and we rejoice in their experience. However, if we had caught them in their moments of decision, moments I’m confident came again and again, I imagine we would’ve seen them experiencing the kind of conflict, turmoil and frustration that comes in “the middle” of a challenging circumstance. The outset, filled with excitement and the promise of adventure, quickly faded into blistered feet, broken wagons and tired children. The faithful fortitude we cherish was probably something they really did muster up, step, by precious step. During those long hours of walking with the threat of Indian attacks, with cattle slogging through mud and torrential rain, I wonder if any of them echoed the thought I find myself thinking so frequently, “Is it really supposed to be this hard?” I used to think that the decision to venture out on the trek was a decision that was made once. But now, like any act of submission or obedience, I imagine it had to be re-made at each stopping point along the way. The decision to keep moving had to be made again each time the oxen needed to be hooked up to the wagon and each morning when the bedding needed to be folded and gathered and carefully tucked into the handcart. And then again when it was time for sunburned arms to heave the weight of the handcart. The decision had to be made when slipping worn and half-soled shoes onto the feet of a worn and tired-souled child without any answers as to when the walk would be over or what the day would bring. Surely there were mothers who looked at their babies and wept at the monumental task that obedience was requiring of them. And yet, each morning, so many rose, prayed and worked, just trying to move forward, day after sweltering day. In the words of a dear friend, they just kept trying. It’s hard for me to believe that there weren’t moments of grumbling or times of disagreement and when those times came, on a starry night in the middle of a prairie or at a tricky river-crossing, there was a decision, yet again, to submit ones will and the well-being of one’s family in order to follow the inspiration of a prophet and those he had called to lead. And when that obedience meant frozen toes, crushed limbs, lost children and trailside graves, I can’t help but think the decision to obey felt like a weighty one. And like Joseph’s prayer, I imagine sometimes they were left wondering where the Lord was. Where was His help and why were they being asked to struggle so hard and for so long? Much like us, I think of them tired, devastated or discouraged, unsure of how to pick themselves up and move away from the crude grave of a small son, or an aged mother. I believe those moments they put one foot in front of the other, really represent the most beautiful and accurate testimony of humility that there is.
My seventeen year old self considered those pioneer stories with a focus on the initial decision to go and the glorious arrival in the valley. My 33 year old self realizes that those stories are mostly full of “the grueling middle” and it probably bears a close spiritual resemblance to the middle that most of us experience. The peace that comes with understanding, may not have graced their souls in the immediate way we attribute it to them. It’s likely that they experienced their revelation piece by piece as they chose to seek it. I believe many kept trudging forward based on faith in the promise of a prophet that what they were doing would lead to something beautiful and good and so often, that beauty and goodness ends up being manna for a starving soul, rather than a change in circumstance.
I think about what a gift it was to those children who walked alongside their parents. And maybe, on the mornings when weary bones could barely handle another step, an exhausted mother or father might look up to see a tow headed boy, kicking a rock as he walked beside the wagon. And like so many things, the thought of someone else may have kept them going because if nothing else, this trek was an undeniable testimony of humble obedience for the children who watched their parents muscle on through untamed lands and angry rivers. And for so many, whose tired bodies gave out before the trail did, the effort was the important thing. The process of faithfully moving as far and as long as possible, regardless of the outcome, that was the testimony. And now, all these years later, humbly wearing my own parenting mantle, I want nothing more than to guide my sweet Jessica’s steps to the Savior and it is likely that any humble actions I can accrue will speak louder than any sermon I offer.
On the culminating day of our trip, we stood atop This Is the Place Monument in Utah feeling such a profound respect for the trek that these faithful men and women endured together. The understanding that they had with each other as a result of the shared experience was beautiful to contemplate. Feeling buoyed up by being part of such a beautiful collective faith, I remember purchasing a t-shirt, emblazoned with the “Faith In Every Footstep” logo. A short time later, our family came across a pioneer scene depicted on canvas and the emotions I felt then are still poignant, half a life later. In the foreground there’s a steep muddy hill on the bank of a swollen river with treacherous rain clouds above. There are wagons, with torn canvases flapping, men and women, straining to heave them from the river’s water up onto the meadow grass. The steepness of the bank is evident in the faces and muscles of the pioneers. There are several wagons struggling to make the ascent, cattle slipping with each step, and several wagons in the distance that have already begun to work their way forward in the prairie grass. Towards the back of the scene, the sky lightens and inside the brilliant setting sun you can make out a blurred outline of the Salt Lake Temple with her majestic spires. Hinted at, in the evening clouds above is an image of Joseph Smith, clasping a Book of Mormon to his chest with one arm and holding out the other hand in a guiding gesture indicating in the direction the wagon train is traveling. By that time, Joseph was but a memory for these faithful saints who were spurred on by his love for them and the testimony He was asked to share with them. And the temple was a distant hope on the horizon. With the benefit of hindsight, I knew that those strong men and women, depicted in a moment of desperation, were on their way, through an arduous trek, to a beautiful place where they would continue to face challenges but where they would build temples, thrive and enjoy many blessings. I felt the beauties of the stories and poignancy of the losses and the gift of faith that these men and women offered by simply continuing to move forward. That faith, and the belief in the prophet they loved so dearly was what spurred them on during a journey filled with many hard things. They went because he told them that it was what the Lord wanted and they chose to believe Him, and then to believe his successor. They had followed the prophet, time and again, because of the conviction they had that he would lead them to good things. And when they had moments of doubt or fear, or even rebellion they figured out that obedience was just a simple step away. They knew that their conviction didn’t excuse them from facing hard things along the way, but their continued effort was a testimony they offered in humility as they worked to be part of something larger than themselves.
Ultimately, that is what humility affords us right? The opportunity to slowly and carefully make our way through mortality with the promise of a steadying connection to heaven. We do this as individuals, in families and as a community of Saints led by inspired leaders one faithful footstep at a time.
Thank you pioneers.