Circle the Wagons
Wagon trains crossing the plains parked their wagons in a tight circle at night for two reasons. The circle was a somewhat defensible, makeshift fort, in case the company came under attack. And it formed a sort of corral, to keep cattle and other livestock from scattering.
The age of wagon trains is long passed, and “circling the wagons” has become a metaphor for the way we sometimes treat outsiders, when we feel threatened by their presence, their choices, or their views. Even in a religious context, we try to keep some people in and shut others out – as if sin were a germ we could catch against our will, and only on the outside.
As if we could fence in our children forever, to protect them, rather than preparing them to live and serve in the world.
As if we weren’t already sinners too.
As if you must agree with me about religion, politics, fashion, sports teams, tattoos, and adult beverages in order to fit the commandment I’ve been given to love my neighbor. (See Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Doctrine and Covenants 59:6.)
As if God didn’t have a higher calling for us.
Don’t Circle the Wagons
Of course we should not seek temptation, let alone yield to it. If visiting the neighbor who likes a beer with a ball game, or even an after-dinner cigarette, poses some irresistible allure for me, perhaps I’m an exception. Perhaps I should step aside and watch others be neighbors to that neighbor. Otherwise, it does me no harm to sit with him on his back porch and chat about how our days went, or to listen to him explain why his votes in the last election were exactly the opposite of mine, or to sample the rainbow trout he caught while I was sitting in church on Sunday morning, and put in the smoker when I was out home teaching that afternoon.
If we don’t circle the wagons, some welcome opportunities come more readily. I might learn something from him. He might learn that my friendship transcends the differences in our views and our choices. We and our families might bless each other’s lives for years to come, in ways none of us can presently imagine.
A Better Metaphor
So there’s a far better metaphor for modern Latter-day Saints and other Christians than circling the wagons. We are leaven, or yeast. We’re to leaven the loaf.
We can’t do that if we keep ourselves separate from the bread dough, in a packet or a container. We can leaven the loaf only if we’re thoroughly mixed into it. Even then we may not see results today. Bread takes time to rise, so we must be patient and faithful, believing in blessings presently unseen, which will someday be revealed.
Jesus gave us this metaphor in a parable, when he described our role in the world: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
Later Paul observed, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9).
The Savior taught the same lesson with a more familiar image in his Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the light of the world,” he said. “. . . Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:14-16). He told the Nephites, “Hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold, I am the light which ye shall hold up – that which ye have seen me do” (3 Nephi 18:24).
If you’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors, circling the wagons is like hiding our light under a bushel. Our role is the opposite.
When We Leaven the Loaf
This is sobering, I know. It can even be frightening. We’re to be – and to send our children – out among the people of the world, living the light we have found, blessing others, and, we earnestly hope, leading some of them to the same light.
Two thoughts may help us.
First, we can stop telling each other how awful the world has become. It’s true that some evils are more prevalent and more accessible than they have ever been. But it’s also true that there is more good in the world than there has ever been. And some of the dire things humanity has commonly suffered are now relatively rare, such as smallpox and slavery.
There has scarcely been a time in human history when there were not evil people in the world, doing evil things. But the world is also filled with good people, with children of God who are trying to live good lives, according to the light they see. This is cause for gratitude, hope, and rejoicing, not fear.
Second, even when we feel outnumbered, when “our dominions . . . [are] small” and all of earth’s evil seems arrayed against us, we can find strength and comfort in Nephi’s vision of us and our time:
“I, Nephi, beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” (1 Nephi 14:12-14, italics added).
What He Did
Our light is Christ. The glory and the power are his. Our work is his. So let’s consider his example.
He didn’t circle the metaphorical wagons. He was famous for eating with publicans and sinners, for blessing the leper and the adulteress in their shame. He even defended such souls against the official wagon-circlers of his day. He told the elders and chief priests, “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31).
By who he is and what he did, Jesus showed us how to hold up our light – how to leaven the loaf.
Then he said, “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).