What is Zion?
We Mormons like to throw around the word "Zion" quite a bit. It's been a touchstone of our religious belief ever since the early days of the Restoration. Today we use the term in lots of general ways to refer to the Church, the Latter-day Saints, or things that we consider good.
When I visited Utah for the first time, a relative shook my hand and told me, "Welcome to Zion." It was a sincere welcome, without a hint of the irony it should have held, especially considering the fact that I was visiting from Missouri.
But I can't blame my relative. There's been a tendency to call Utah "Zion" ever since the first Mormon pioneers arrived there after multiple failed attempts to establish Zion elsewhere.
The too-commonly held idea that Utah is Zion may be most reflected by business names. A quick search reveals over a thousand Utah businesses registered with Zion in the name, including a bank, brewery, trucking company, carpet cleaner, chiropractor, pawn shop, real estate company, massage parlor, motel, collection agency, book store, spa, counseling office, cactus jelly manufacturer, landscaper, limousine service, and gun shop, just to name a few.
Whatever Zion is, it's well-stocked with every business and service imaginable. It even has a beautiful National Park. There's not yet a Zion casino, but you can legally gamble in stocks and investments through several Zion investment firms. There's apparently no shortage of ways to make money in Zion.
An Old Tale about an Old Ship
Obviously, Zion seems to mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
In October's General Conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard channeled Brigham Young in speaking of the "Old Ship Zion," referring to the LDS Church. The message was that as long as we stay in the ship, we will be carried, through no effort of our own, safely to the waiting harbor.
The reason we need expend no effort of our own is that church leaders will do all that is necessary to steer the ship to safety. In fact, Elder Ballard made a point to remind us to keep our focus squarely on the leaders:
The experienced river guides today can be likened to the Church’s apostles and prophets and inspired local priesthood and auxiliary leaders. They help us arrive safely to our final destination.
Recently, I spoke at the new mission presidents’ seminar and counseled these leaders:
“Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.
“And as you teach your missionaries to focus their eyes on us, teach them to never follow those who think they know more about how to administer the affairs of the Church than … Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ do” through the priesthood leaders who have the keys to preside.And, lest we should think the church leaders are mere fallen mortals, like ourselves, we are reminded:
“I have heard that some people think the Church leaders live in a ‘bubble.’ What they forget is that we are men and women of experience, and we have lived our lives in so many places and worked with many people from different backgrounds. Our current assignments literally take us around the globe, where we meet the political, religious, business, and humanitarian leaders of the world. Although we have visited [leaders in] the White House in Washington, D.C., and leaders of nations [and religions] throughout the world, we have also visited the most humble [families and people] on earth. …
“When you thoughtfully consider our lives and ministry, you will most likely agree that we see and experience the world in ways few others do. You will realize that we live less in a ‘bubble’ than most people. …
“… There is something about the individual and combined wisdom of the [Church leaders] that should provide some comfort. We have experienced it all, including the consequences of different public laws and policies, disappointments, tragedies, and deaths in our own families. We are not out of touch with your lives.”I won't take up the myriad doctrinal and logical issues with the above statements. These statements are appealing to the carnal mind because it's good to know we can take comfort in our wise leaders and be at ease in the "Old Ship Zion."
But scripture disagrees:
Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion! (2 Nephi 28:24)But then, again, scripture never defines Zion as a ship, or any other means of transport for that matter. Nor does scripture define Zion as a church or earthly organization. Rather, Zion is most often defined as either a location, or as a group of people with certain attributes, sometimes inhabiting such a location.
Given that Zion people have certain recognizable attributes defined in scripture, we should expect that the inhabitants of the "Old Ship Zion" have such attributes:
Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn. (D&C 97:21)When we look around the Old Ship, do we find the pure in heart? How would we know them if we saw them? Christ told us:
And blessed are all the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (3 Nephi 12:8)Therefore, the Old Ship should be stocked with people who have seen God, because "all" the pure in heart are privileged to do so. This should not surprise us a bit, because the Lord taught:
Verily, thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am; (D&C 93:1)There is, therefore, a path to becoming pure in heart. But there's no mention of church leaders or organizations on that path or in that list of requirements.
Have those on the ship seen God? Do they speak of it? Can we call ourselves "Zion" people when we are not prepared for God's presence?
The "Old Ship Zion" should also be filled with those who the Lord claims as "His" people because they are united in heart, mind and righteousness. One evidence of this unity will be the complete lack of poor among them.
And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)So where can we find such people? When we look around Zion's limousine service, bank, brewery, or gun shop, do we encounter such unity and righteousness? Does Zion's collection agency lift the poor and administer to their needs? When we look around the ship, who do we see?
Well, chances are, we see a bunch of people just like us. Many of them good and striving to serve God, some even seeking to know Him. Some very rich, some very poor, and some LDS children, literally, starving. Some place all their faith in the ship, some in the river guides, and some in the Lord. Some understand much of the gospel, some very little, and some cannot even tell you what the gospel is. Many think the ship IS the gospel. Few can define the Doctrine of Christ or tell you where to find it. There's a wide variety of good and bad, diversions and distractions, but there's not yet unity with the mind of God. This explains why the Lord does not come to dwell there.
The inhabitants of the "Old Ship Zion" bear more resemblance to Plato's Ship of Fools than to Enoch's city of Faith.
What Ship is This?
So does the Ship you're on meet the Lord's definition of Zion? Does the Lord Himself dwell there? Look at the two verses before the definition of Zion I just quoted:
...but the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness. The fear of the Lord was upon all nations, so great was the glory of the Lord, which was upon his people. And the Lord blessed the land, and they were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish. (Moses 7:16-17)This does not describe any ship, church, or organization with which I'm familiar. Therefore, I'm left to conclude that, just as with a hardware store, barber shop, or bowling alley, painting "Zion" on the side of a ship does not make it so.
It's preposterous for us to delude ourselves that this ship, or the people on it, are Zion when the scriptures so clearly teach otherwise. Only a fool would cling to such a ship as a substitute, when the Master clearly calls us to come to Him.
What's your Vector, Victor?
The next question to consider is where the ship is headed. There are certainly many who realize the ship isn't exactly Zion, but are nonetheless hoping to arrive at a safe harbor by staying aboard, closing their eyes, and holding on for dear life. Therefore, it's important to know where the ship is headed.
Fortunately, we have a wonderful scriptural illustration of how to properly steer a ship toward safe harbor in Nephi's record. As you recall, the Lord prepared a director, called Liahona, to guide Nephi's family to the promised land.
And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day. (Alma 37:40)So they had to walk by faith every single day, and only when faith was present would the Liahona point the way. Proof of their faith also came in the form of daily miracles.
When faith and obedience were not present, the Liahona ceased to function, as did the miracles:
They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions. (Alma 37:41-42)Perhaps the best illustration of this failure was aboard the ship when Laman and Lemuel rebelled against Nephi's leadership:
And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work. Wherefore, they knew not whither they should steer the ship...(1 Nephi 18:12-13)There's a lesson here for us, about steering ships and steering our lives.
For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land. And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise. (Alma 37:44-45)We must pay heed to Christ's word, and His word alone. Remember, the Lord's course is straight (2 Nephi 9:41, D&C 3:2), and we wander at our peril. If the ship is wandering, changing course from time to time, doubling back on itself, telling us to focus on the river guides rather than the Lord, ignoring scripture, altering doctrine, and teaching for commandments the precepts of men, we are in grave peril of being swallowed up in the depths of the sea. (1 Nephi 18:20) Such a ship is not safe, and neither will be whatever harbor it may reach.
So if you find you've placed your faith where it doesn't belong, in a ship that is both old and wandering, tossed with waves in a contrary wind, what do you do? Just jump over the side?
Yes. That's exactly what you do.
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. (Matthew 14:27-29)
And so it is with us.
The point of Peter's story is NOT to show us what a cool guy Peter was, or that his faith failed when he feared. No, I think the point is that Peter was a man just like all of us, and represents each of us. Only by leaving the perceived comfort and safety of the ship was he able to exercise true faith, work miracles, and be lifted up by the Savior. He could NOT have come unto Christ by remaining in the ship. The Master bid him come, and so he came.
We are in precisely, exactly the same situation as Peter.
Now, I'm not suggesting you need to leave the LDS church. But you may need to change your focus away from the ship, no matter what is painted on the side, and away from the river guides, no matter what they claim about themselves. Your focus should be ONLY on the Savior, where it belongs. Anyone and anything else will fail, and cannot save you. Christ bids you come unto him. Will you?
But I can't Walk on Water...I can't even Swim!
That may be so, but it's not particularly relevant. You'll never to do either if you're clinging to the boat. Only by exercising faith will you ever come unto Christ, and that requires taking the first step. Some will step over the side themselves; some will be thrown overboard for rocking the boat. And like Peter, you and I, and all of us will most certainly fail. But remember, Christ, who never fails, is there to lift us:
Nevertheless—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. (Mosiah 23:22)Your trust must be in Christ. Meanwhile, any mortal who teaches you to focus on him, rather than on your Lord, is practicing priestcraft and will damn you if you listen to him.
He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion. (2 Nephi 26:29)Such leaders may, indeed, be concerned about a ship. They may call for your support in money, time and labor. They may require you to consecrate everything for the "establishment of Zion." But after 184 years, that ship is no closer to harbor and we're no closer to Zion. Staying in the ship and holding on will never bring Zion as long as the focus remains on the men who steer the ship in a crooked course.
When such men claim to speak for the Lord, while contradicting scripture, they take the Lord's name in vain. He will not own their words when the words don't originate with Him. In the same talk Elder Ballard lifts a portion of D&C 1:38 to make the point that the leaders speak for Christ. Allow me to quote the whole verse:
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (D&C 1:38)Note that the Lord says it is HIS word that shall all be fulfilled, no matter who speaks it. He does not say that whatever someone in authority says is automatically Christ's word. If it didn't originate with Christ, it is not His word. For a more thorough discussion of this misused scripture, see this blog post.
No Thanks, I'll Walk
And so we come to another early church leader who used ship metaphors. The leader in this case was Joseph Smith, and one of his final dreams featured a steamship. I'll add here that the account was recorded by W. W. Phelps nearly 20 years after the fact, so we can't be certain as to its accuracy. Nevertheless, I find it worth consideration, particularly given the fact that Phelps had no agenda to support and nothing to gain by recounting it.
"I dreamed that myself and my brother Hyrum went on board of a large steamboat, lying in a small bay, near the great ocean. Shortly after we went on board there was an “alarm of fire,” and I discovered that the boat had been anchored some distance from the shore, out in the bay, and that an escape from the fire, in the confusion, appeared hazardous; but, as delay was folly, I and Hyrum jumped overboard, and tried our faith at walking upon the water.
"At first we sank in the water nearly to our knees, but as we proceeded we increased in faith, and were soon able to walk upon the water. On looking towards the burning boat in the east, we saw that it was drifting towards the wharf and the town, with a great flame and clouds of smoke; and, as if by whirlwind, the town was taking fire, too, so that the scene of destruction and horror of the frightened inhabitants was terrible.
"We proceeded on the bosom of the mighty deep and were soon out of sight of land. The ocean was still; the rays of the sun were bright, and we forgot all the troubles of our Mother Earth. Just at that moment I heard the sound of a human voice, and, turning round, saw my brother Samuel H. approaching towards us from the east. We stopped and he came up. After a moment’s conversation he informed me that he had been lonesome back, and had made up his mind to go with me across the mighty deep.
"We all started again, and in a short time were blest with the first sight of a city, whose gold and silver steeples and towers were more beautiful than any I had ever seen or heard of on earth. It stood, as it were, upon the western shore of the mighty deep we were walking on, and its order and glory seemed far beyond the wisdom of man. While we were gazing upon the perfection of the city, a small boat launched off from the port, and, almost as quick as thought, came to us. In an instant they took us on board and saluted us with a welcome, and with music such as is not on earth. The next scene, on landing, was more than I can describe: the greeting of old friends, the music from a thousand towers, and the light of God himself at the return of three of his sons, soothed my soul into a quiet and a joy that I felt as if I was truly in heaven. I gazed upon the splendor; I greeted my friends, I awoke, and lo, it was a dream!"This account is instructive. Joseph and Hyrum found themselves on a ship in danger. They jumped overboard, exercised faith, and walked on the water, while others stayed behind and perished. Joined by their brother Samuel (who died a month after them) Joseph and Hyrum walked to eternal bliss and the glory of God themselves, without need of a ship, a river guide, or any other mortal. They, quite literally, came unto Christ.
And Peter—the one who walked on water—what happened the next time he found himself in a boat and Christ outside it? He didn't even wait for the invitation:
But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus...Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. (John 21:4,7)Whether he walked or swam, he was focused completely on coming unto Christ. Peter was indeed "the Rock."
I testify that you and I are invited by the same Lord to show the same faith and come unto Him. But we'll never walk on water, nor find Christ, nor reach his Holy City as long as we cling to the boat. The Lord doesn't require boats or bars or banks to save us, even if we call them Zion.
Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.