My first foray into "the deep end" as a bonafide member of the fan club for Zion came as an undergraduate student at BYU reading Hugh Nibley's masterpiece Approaching Zion.
My roommates and I were like French Revolutionaries in our zeal for Zion. But it's been a long time since those hard-rocked, consecration-fueled, halcyon days at University, and my views about Zion have matured the way fruit left on the counter continues to ripen.
Leave it too long and it will spoil.
Zion, like the Second Coming and so many other parts of our religion, has a way of turning over time, going from a real and vibrant part of our faith to something theoretical and tangental to it.
I suppose Zion has been sitting on our spiritual countertop for so long it's like a banana getting gray spots on its peel.
No one wants to eat it anymore.
For centuries we've dreamed about Zion; but after so long looking forward to it, speaking about it ad nauseum without any meaningful movement towards it . . . one begins to wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place.
A New Refreshing Perspective on Zion
We generally think of Zion as a gathering:
a gathering of people (physically) who are pure in heart (spiritually)
I want to suggest another way to view Zion: Zion as a gathering of God's promises. Instead of focusing on a place or a people, I want us to focus on the promises made to Zion.
What does it mean if Zion is a gathering of God’s promises?
The Restoration, after all, began with God fulfilling a promise He made to the Nephites and Lamanites. God promised to preserve their record and restore them in the latter-days to a knowledge of the gospel (see, D&C Section 3 and Section 10).
And for this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records-- that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people.
When I was young and ill-informed (some call me so still) I believed Zion would arise from the crème de la crème of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; that our best and brightest would be "called up" to gather to the New Jersusalem in consequence of their faithfulness, and if I was good enough, and smart enough, and if the Prophet liked me, I might be numbered among the lucky few ― as if going to Zion was like getting accepted into Harvard.
So let's briefly walk-back the notion that Zion is stuffed with holy saints who are dwelling in Shangri-La or in some mystical place we're going to settle sometime in the future, as if Zion were merely waiting for the Church to get its act together and for us to shape up and act like saints should.
Because, guess what? I think we have demonstrated over the past 200 years (from Joseph Smith) or 2000 years (if you count from Christ) that it's not going to happen.
Not in the way we think, at least.
A New Definition of Zion
What if we viewed Zion as a stitching together of all the floating threads the Lord has been stretching out over millennia during His dealings with humanity, sprinkling covenants here and promises there?
Imagine Zion as Him at last gathering all of those loose ends together.
I think it will help our imagination if we stop thinking concretely about Zion being a particular place (Jackson County) or being established at a specific time (in the future) or from a single people (members of the Church).
Instead, pretend Zion were here already. What if we already have "one fold with one Shepherd?"
Nephi reminded us:
And Christ gathereth his children from the four quarters of the earth; and he numbereth his sheep, and they know him; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd; and he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture.
(1 Nephi 22:25)
Doesn't this verse describe Zion? Then see if you can name one thing in that verse that hasn't happened already.
1. Has Christ gathered us into His arms, from whatever place of sin and darkness we were stumbling through?
2. Has Christ numbered us as His children?
3. Do we know Him?
4. Can we be part of the "one fold" that is His eternal, unchanging Church (which the scriptures describe as the Church of the Lamb)?
5. Can we choose, today, to make Christ our one, and only, Shepherd?
6. Have we been fed by Christ's word and grace and love?
7. Isn't it true we have already found "pasture" (i.e. "rest") in Christ?
If you answered "Yes" to those questions, then I think you will agree that we have, in fact, entered Zion already (or, as the New Testament puts it, into the invisible Kingdom of God that doesn't come with observation).
Zion is already here for those who have eyes to see it.
So before we start digging sewer trenches in Independence Missouri for our cottages near a garden of cucumbers, perhaps we should step back and ask what God is up to.
What does God intend to accomplish in his "strange work?"
Batteries ARE included
When we think about it, aren't the people in Zion going to all be . . . sinners?
Hold on! I thought they were "pure in heart."
Well, to be fair, they will be repentant saint-sinners whose hearts were cleansed by Christ. But that is just putting lipstick on the fact that everyone who is a citizen of the City will only be there, not because of their goodness, but Christ's.
And all those kings and queens we talk about in Zion? Perhaps they're a par above Marie Antoinette, but let's not brag about that, believing ourselves to be any better.
After all, our necks face the guillotine every bit as much as hers. And but for Christ's salvation, heads would roll.
(And don't we all have our own "let them eat cake" moments at times, when we've complained we're out of bread when the Bread of Life stands before us?)
So we see, then, that the princes of Zion were but paupers if not for Christ.
But all is not lost!
Many Hands Make Light Work
By way of analogy, I have five children. Like most parents, my wife and I give them chores to do (like taking out the trash and doing the laundry).
But my wife and I do not assign all of the household chores to just a single child. That would be cruel (unless of course you were an only child, as Christ was the Only Begotten, who had to shoulder the entire load for the rest of us).
But with our five children, imagine us saying to one, "Little Cinderella, you're going to do all the manual labor around here while the rest of the children watch Saturday morning cartoons and eat blueberry cobbler. A la mode, dear. Now hurray along, there's scrubbing to do."
What kind of parent would do that? As parents we are interested in teaching ALL of our children responsibility. So we divide up the chores equally. One vacuums, one dusts, one mops the floor, another cleans the toilet, etc. You get the idea.
Similarly, God is not going to have just one people or kindred or tongue shoulder all the responsibility for bringing forth Zion. He's going to bring them all together and they'll all pitch in.
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
(2 Nephi 29:7)
The chores will more-or-less be evenly distributed among us. We each get assigned different tasks. The remnant of Jacob gets to sweep out the garage, for example, as a lion among the flocks of sheep.
So members of the LDS Church can relax a bit because we don't have to bear this burden alone. We were never meant to clean the whole house top-to-bottom by ourselves.
Put another way, we need to stop thinking of the LDS Church as the parent who is in charge, ordering everyone about (why is Ephraim so bossy?). We already have a Father who's going to arrange everything in His way.
So what role do we play, then, if we're not the ones doling out all the blessings upon Mount Zion? Well, the LDS people (just like all the others) will have a wonderful and unique purpose and role to fulfill.
Our destiny is to bring the unique gifts that God has bestowed upon us to the family table in order to combine them with the offerings of all the others.
Think of Zion as a kind of first Thanksgiving, if by Thanksgiving we mean it includes every people, nation, kindred, people and tongue who bring their potluck dish to share with the rest at a family dinner.
So what are our unique LDS "potluck dishes?" What has God given us that we can contribute to the feast, to bless the whole body, at this wedding feast of the Bridegroom to His bride, Zion?
1. The Book of Mormon;
2. The teachings of Joseph Smith and the J.S.T. and his revelations in the D&C and the Book of Abraham; and
3. Money (someone has to leave a gratuity for the attendant angels).
These are good threads! But they are a lot fewer and humbler than we supposed. Are there other threads you can think of that I have forgotten?
These threads will join many other threads as God weaves together his Children into a grand, unified tapestry.
But did you notice which threads I left off the list? Why did I ignore all those things we think are so important to our religion?
Well, there's a reason.
Those threads don't fit with the rest; they are the things that prevent us currently from becoming "one."
During the past 25 years I've come a long way from that pimpled, fool-hardy undergrad at BYU who stayed up late researching the scriptures.
But one thing hasn't changed: I still have a bright hope for Zion that has not dimmed over all the years.
Recently I have struggled to put into words my feelings and my hope for Zion.
I finally found a way by thinking about the prophet Daniel who was an outcast in captivity, serving in Babylon, and who longed to return to the Holy City after Israel's long dispersion.
The Lord said to Jeremiah: If they say unto thee, Whither shall we go? then thou shalt tell them: Thus saith the Lord, Such as are for death, to death; and such as are for the sword, to the sword; and such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as are for the captivity, to the captivity. ― Jeremiah 15:2
>>> 70 Years Later <<< Daniel Prayed
(( Lord )) ss:: ::ss (( Giver of love’s covenant )) See Our sin Sprouted and full-grown Wrench us from wrongness Put fire to the seedling of this harvest That rebellion halt In grace's pinion Amen. We listened not to them Who balanced your word On hematite tongues In whose belly churned The chastisement of our stretched-out necks Wo, wo, unto us For you have seen Our abominations! Amen. This day we are covered with shame A people naked of your holiness Our crown a scab of unfaithfulness Israel’s hope both near and far Scattered as seafoam upon the rocks We and our prophets and ancestors Lie bruised beside Sheol Because we sinned against you Who shall declare The Lord’s mercy? Even those who disobeyed And kept not your laws Shall follow your Condescension And wash the stain of judgment From their hearts in the Fuller’s soap Now Lord our God bring us forward Turn not away those who would serve upon your holy hill Lord, look with favor On your desolate sanctuary A people sorrowing for your namesake We request this not because we are righteous But because of your great mercy Lord, listen Lord, forgive Lord, hear and act My God, do not delay Amen.
[This modern retelling was inspired by Daniel's intercessory prayer for Israel recorded in Daniel Chapter 9.]